Women in Anchoritic and Semi-Anchoritic Monasticism in Egypt

Caroline T. Schroeder “Women in Anchoritic and Semi-Anchoritic Monasticism in Egypt: Rethinking the Landscape” “Church History” Volume 83 Issue 01 March 2014, pp 1-17
Church History cover
“Outside of hagiography, the evidence for female anchorites in early Christian Egypt remains scarce. House ascetics in cities survive for us in documentary and other sources, but women monks in non-coenobitic, nonurban environments are more difficult to locate, to the point at which some scholars have begun to question their very existence. This essay seeks to change the parameters of the scholarly debate over the nature of non-coenobitic female monastic experience. It examines hagiography, monastic rules and letters, and documentary papyri to reassess the state of the field and to produce a fuller portrait of anchoritic and semi-anchoritic female asceticism. Non-coenobitic women’s monasticism existed, and it crossed boundaries of geography and social status, as well as the traditional categories of lavra, eremitic, coenobitic, and house asceticism. This interdisciplinary approach provides insights not only into women ascetics’ physical locations but also into their class, education, and levels of autonomy. An intervention into the historiography of women’s asceticism in late antique Egypt, this study ultimately questions the advisability of using traditional categorizations of “anchoritic,” “lavra,” and “coenobitic” to classify female monasticism, because they obscure the particularities and diversity of female ascetic history.”
http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9196292

“As the author pointedly notes, “Outside of hagiography, the evidence for female anchorites in early Christian Egypt remains scarce.” This fact has polarized scholarly opinion, ranging from some who maintain that there were no women hermits or anchorites and that literary references are projections of men’s concepts of how women hermits might be, to — on the other hand — others who accept the genuineness of tradition and the inevitability of women hermits who are simply unheralded.
Schroeder’s interdisciplinary approach identifies not only documentary sources but reveals the fuller social and historical context of the complexities of female asceticism in Christian antiquity. Her observations are constructive and realistic.
Other assessments of the “landscape of desert asceticism” variously viewed assert that women not named were hagiograpahical, or that women described as hermits were probably “house virgins.” Schroeder makes a key point. She identifies Shenoute’s Canons, which summarize regulations of his monastery’s hermits, probably monks advancing in status and now dwelling just outside monastic grounds, in the “desert.” Shenoute emphasizes that regulations apply specifically to both men and women hermits under his authority, thus confirming the existence of women hermits. Besides his stature as ecclesiastical authority and writer, Shenoute himself had spent years in a cave as a hermt, such that there can be no ambiguity about his awareness of what a hermit is. Another connotation to this example suggests the degree of autonomy of hermits about whom Schroeder will write versus those under a centralizing authority of a monastery such as Shenoute’s.
Material evidence from Thebes (Egypt) clearly points to the existence of female anchorites. As Schroeder demonstrates, women anchorites lived in different parts of Egypt, sometimes proximate to monasteries or villages, but not under specific authority. The author notes, “Shenoute’s Canons, combined with the documentary evidence, require us to expand our understanding of the possibilities of women’s ‘desert’ asceticism and solitary asceticism.” Among possible scenarios are “hermits affiliated with coenbitic communities, women living alone or in groups, and house ascetics in smaller villages instead of large cities.”
Schroeder’s section on “the economics and autonomy of women monastics” presents documentary evidence of committed renunciate women in urban areas. In one example, two women rent a portion of their house for income. In another, two women, apparently sisters, and in another case a woman called Amma Theodora, are named as purchasers of bulk foods in receipts, but not as affiliated with specific communities. Another woman ascetic specifically described as a monk is named in a lawsuit to recover familial funds. Another woman, described as a “virgin,” disputes transfer of books by estate heirs.
Correspondence is also revelatory documentation. A woman named Maria writes to a male anchorite, noting that she is his charge but referring to her house and to no other residents, suggesting only a symbolic authority — as well as property ownership on her part. Other women write to male monks soliciting their spiritual blessing but also reminding them of their responsibilities in other spiritual matters, thus suggesting from their tone an eremetic status they do not (or in some instance do) deprecate while not acknowledging a submissive status.
The urban monastic women appear to have owned their homes and lived in areas of Thebes, versus the wealthier women known by name in standard literary sources, who resided in Alexandria — and are better known, therefore, to Athanasius and his successors. The former do not fit the conventional definitions of anchoritic or coenobitic monasticism, nor that of the desert mother or amma. The house asceticism of urban monasticism is a more appropriate descriptor. These women’s income, wealth, and education vary as much as their anchoritic expression. The author concludes: “Bringing together hagiography, documentary sources, and monastic roles illuminates otherwise obscure female ascetic experiences.” It also forecasts the varied models of later centuries, and even the potentials for ascetically-minded women today.”
http://www.hermitary.com/articlereviews/schroeder.html
Faculty Portrait
Caroline Schroeder is also the author of a number of other significant studies of early Desert Monasticism, including:

“Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe” Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
The first monograph on the asceticism practiced by both men and women at the important early Egyptian monastery led by Shenoute. It examines Shenoute’s letters, sermons, and rules.
Monastic bodies
“‘A Suitable Abode for Christ’: The Church Building as Symbol of Ascetic Renunciation in Early Monasticism,” “Church History” 73:3 (2004)
A handful of early ascetic authors wrote about the theological significance they found in the building of churches. These include the wealthy Latin patron Paulinus of Nola (Italy), two anonymous members of the Pachomian monasteries in Egypt, and the Egyptian archimandrite Shenoute. The churches built for each of these late antique communities held deep theological significance. They symbolized the ascetic endeavors undertaken at those communities. Since for each writer, the ascetic struggle was constituted in slightly different terms, with different goals, practices, and interpretations of those practices, so were the church buildings imbued with different meanings. Yet, in each case, the church held meaning beyond its mere walls. Each was constructed as much by a theology and a discourse of ascetic discipline as it was by wood, brick, and stone. Shenoute’s texts on the construction of the church at the monastery he directed are the most extensive treatment of this topic, and yet Shenoute is the least well known of the surviving authors. This essay explores the ascetic significance of Shenoute’s church building in the fifth century and concludes by comparing his church as a symbol of renunciation to other late antique authors.

“Queer Eye for the Ascetic Guy? Homoeroticism, Children, and the Making of Monks in Late Antique Egypt” “Journal of the American Academy of Religion” 77(2009)
A famous instruction about children in monasteries reads: “Do not bring young boys here. Four churches in Scetis are deserted because of boys.” Taken from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, this apophthegm exposes the presence of homoeroticism and anxieties about the homoerotic, especially erotic encounters with children, in early Christian ascetic communities. This essay examines the construction of male sexuality in early Egyptian monasticism, focusing on the Sayings and the rules of the monastic leader Shenoute of Atripe It argues that the masculine ascetic ideal builds upon certain classical ideals of masculinity, especially the control of the passions, but purports to eschew classical models of eroticism in which the adolescent male represents the ideal sexual partner. However, these sources are designed to be recited or retold as edifying texts; despite their overt disavowal of sexual contact between men and boys, their retelling and rereading keeps homoeroticism and the representation of boys as sexually desirable objects alive in the ascetic imagination.

“The Erotic Asceticism of the Passion of Andrew: the Apocryphal Acts of Andrew, the Greek Novel, and Platonic Philosophy,” in the New Testament Apocrypha volume of the Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Literature Series, ed. Amy-Jill Levine (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield University Press; New York: Continuum)
The Apocryphal “Passion of Andrew” reworks generic elements from the Hellenistic novels using elements of Platonic philosophy to present a radically different consummation of love and desire. The erotic love of the novels is consummated in sexual passion, marriage, and procreation. Love in the Passion of Andrew culminates in union with the beloved, but the beloved is the figure of the divine, to whom the characters are introduced by their teacher Andrew. True love and properly oriented desire result in Platonic objectives: an understanding of the inner self, unification with the divine, and a sense of peace and rest. This text presents one of the earliest links between Platonism and strong, Christian asceticism outside of the Nag Hammadi writings and predates the Platonizing asceticism of Origenist monasticism in Egypt by centuries.

“Prophecy and Porneia in Shenoute’s Letters” “Journal of Near Eastern Studies”, 65 (2006): 81-97
In his letters to the men and women of his monastery, Shenoute frequently draws on prophetic rhetoric taken from the Christian Old Testament to enhance his authority as an ascetic leader. In these same letters, Shenoute uses gendered and sexualized language to discuss and condemn sins he believes are being committed in the monastery. This paper will examine the relationship between Shenoute’s use of prophetic discourse and his frequent condemnation of the sin of porneia in select texts. It will argue that Shenoute’s references to sexual sin should not be interpreted simply as an account of the activities of the monks under his supervision. Rather, Shenoute’s rhetoric reflects his vision of the monastery as a feminine space or figure comparable to Israel or Jerusalem in the Christian Old Testament, an entity whose sins are construed as faithlessness to God as the true object of Israel’s, and now the monastery’s, devotion.

“‘A Suitable Abode for Christ’: The Church Building as Symbol of Ascetic Renunciation in Early Monasticism,” “Church History” 73:3 (2004)
A handful of early ascetic authors wrote about the theological significance they found in the building of churches. These include the wealthy Latin patron Paulinus of Nola (Italy), two anonymous members of the Pachomian monasteries in Egypt, and the Egyptian archimandrite Shenoute. The churches built for each of these late antique communities held deep theological significance. They symbolized the ascetic endeavors undertaken at those communities. Since for each writer, the ascetic struggle was constituted in slightly different terms, with different goals, practices, and interpretations of those practices, so were the church buildings imbued with different meanings. Yet, in each case, the church held meaning beyond its mere walls. Each was constructed as much by a theology and a discourse of ascetic discipline as it was by wood, brick, and stone. Shenoute’s texts on the construction of the church at the monastery he directed are the most extensive treatment of this topic, and yet Shenoute is the least well known of the surviving authors. This essay explores the ascetic significance of Shenoute’s church building in the fifth century and concludes by comparing his church as a symbol of renunciation to other late antique authors.

“Purity and Pollution in the Asceticism of Shenute of Atripe,” in vol. 35 of “Studia Patristica”, eds. M. F. Wiles and E. J. Yarnold (Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 142-47
In his earliest letters, the fourth-century Egyptian monk Shenoute (or Shenute) of Atripe outlines a purity code in which the sins of any one monk can pollute the entire monastery, thus threatening the salvation of other members of the community. Shenoute uses this understanding of sin as pollution to critique the current leadership of the monastery.

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