Writing and Communication in Early Egyptian Monasticism, edited by M. Choat and M. Giorda, 2017

in Scrinium

This volume contains ten contributions from specialists in the fields of religious studies, early Christian studies, Church history, and papyrology.* The authors explore the textuality and written culture of Egyptian monks throughout the 4th – 8th centuries as fundamental for the organisation of monastic life. Writing is approached in its different types and from diverse perspectives: epistolary, juridical, epigraphical, and the social perspective of transmitting memory and authority. Above all these, the incentive behind the presented essays is to reveal the role of writing in the spiritual life of a monk.

Two introductory chapters outline the controversial dichotomy of the hagiographical topos of monastic illiteracy versus monks’ actual engagement with the written word of the Scriptures, didactic literature, and the authoritative letters of monastic leaders. Lillian Larsen in Chapter 1, “Avant-propos,” observes that the volume contributes to dismantling this opposition as a myth and instead discusses “writing and communication that lies ‘between’ these extremes” (p.3). This is achieved partly by introducing material aspects of writing into discussion and recontextualising texts in the physical and ritual space within which these texts were produced and used. Coeditors of the volume Maria Chiara Giorda and Malcolm Choat explain in Chapter 2, “Communicating Monasticism: Reading and Writing Monastic Texts in Late Antique Egypt,” that writing is seen in the volume mainly as communication, and under communication mainly written communication is understood (p. 9-10). They admit that the shortfall of the discussion of oral communication partly is a deliberate choice and partly is due to the better accessibility of evidence on written communication. Material evidence for written communication is, therefore, crucial for the editors’ objectives to revisit monastic involvement in literacy. Inscriptions on the walls, exercises on ostraca, private letters and legal testamentary documents on papyri are brought into discussion as unique sources for reconstructing the network of communication of monks with each other as well as between monastic communities and the secular world. Choat and Giorda suggest that examining the latter is a way to study the relationship between the ideals of renunciation and separation from the world on the one hand and their expression in the everyday life of monks, on the other hand.

One of the most impressive contributions in the volume, Chapter 3, “Monastic Letters on Papyrus from Late Antique Egypt,” by Choat, examines papyrological evidence of private communication in papyrus letters sent to and from monks. The argument is based mainly on letters from monastic archives of the 4th century as being more reliable in terms of dating and more infor­mative in terms of network communication than separate individual letters. Choat begins with a survey of the archives of Paieous, Nepheros, Paphnouthios, Sansnos, Johannes, discussing the monastic environment in which these groups of texts emerged and providing a concise critical analysis of scholarly debates over each archive. This first part of the article will be of much use for anyone who wishes to find up-to-date bibliography on, and introduction into monastic archives in late antique Egypt. Choat acknowledges the problem of authorship when dealing with letters on papyri which in many cases is hardly possible to establish and which, therefore, makes monk-writers invisible and indistinguishable among other Christian letter-writers. This causes an admittedly wrong perception that the majority of letters in monastic contexts are letters to monks. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to the language and script of the letters. Choat discusses the prominence of Coptic letters which include the earliest examples of Coptic documentary texts and warns against the hypothesis – too simplistic in Choat’s view – which links the emergence of Coptic script with monasticism. He argues that although monastic letters present interesting cases of bilingualism which must reflect the general bilingual environment of early Egyptian monasticism, the deliberate choice of language for each individual text remains obscure to us.

This and other essays in the volume equally demonstrate that the level of written culture was relatively high in the monastic milieu and that the illiteracy of monks is a literary construct rather than historical reality. Fabrizio Vecoli in Chapter 8, “Writing and Monastic Doctrine,” explores the role of literacy in monastic life looking at the evidence of books in monks’ possession and particular texts that would be read and perused in order to remodel the mind of the monk. The written word, the Scriptures in the first place, had the power to stabilise the mind, which was ascetically important, and texts were, therefore, used for meditation (μελέτη) as a spiritual exercise. This line of argument is developed by Ewa Wypszycka, who in the concluding Chapter 10, “Biblical Recitations and Their Function in the Piety of Monastic Egypt,” addresses the practice of memorising and reciting biblical passages as fundamental for the phenomenon of monasticism and turns to ostraca excavated in monastic archaeological sites in order to search for material used for such recitation. Jacques van der Vliet approaches the subject of writing and reading as a way to shape and discipline oneself from the perspective of epigraphical evidence. In Chapter 7, “The Wisdom of the Wall: Innovation in Monastic Epigraphy,” he considers the phenomenon of inscriptions on the walls of a cell and explores how monastic habitat physically and symbolically builds his spiritual life. Vliet discusses the paradigmatic example of the text about Jesus prayer in Kellia and the so-called Anchorite’s grotto in Faras in Nubia through the lens of “ritual-centered visuality”, i.e. of the daily ritual and spiritual monastic activities performed in the space of the cell, and shows how doctrinal texts symbolising orthodoxy become ascetic lessons full of didactic meaning. It is highly useful that written texts are not separated in the discussion from the ensemble of visual and architectural features. A further instance of what can be called “monastic epigraphy” is presented by Jennifer Westerfield in Chapter 9, “Monastic Graffiti in Context: The Temple of Seti I at Abydos,” where she reconsiders the space of the sanctuary. According to her reading, the content of inscriptions might suggest that it was a pilgrimage destination rather than a space where a female monastic community resided, contrary to the general assumption. The cult of a local saint, Apa Moses, which was established in the temple might have been related to inundation, which could present a rationale behind annual visits of nuns from a nearby village to the temple. Their desire to perpetuate prayerful requests and acquired blessings in the written word was expressed in the inscriptions. If this hypothesis is correct, we are dealing with an interesting instance of epigraphic evidence for collective pilgrimage, which would complement the literary evidence of female ascetics traveling to sacred destinations in late antiquity.

Another type of monastic written practice explored in the volume is transmission of authority, monastic rules, and discipline through letters and testaments. Dilley in Chapter 4, “From Textual to Ritual Practice: Written Media and Authority in Shenoute’s Canons,” offers a reconstruction of various media through which such letters could be circulated and used in ritual and spiritual practices within Shenoute’s community. Such letters were essential for the concept of obedience and repentance in Egyptian monasticism, beginning with Pachomius’ and Anthony’s letters. Monastic testaments are treated in two essays: in Chapter 5, “Monastic Wills: The Continuation of Late Roman Legal Tradition?”, Maria Nowak and Esther Garel discuss the juridical aspect of such texts in the context of secular legal documents surviving in papyri and the changes in the testamentary practice in 7th – 8th century Theban region. Giorda, on the contrary, looks at testaments as transmitting “monastic identity from generation to generation” (p.129) with regard both to literary spiritual testaments and legal testaments on papyri and ostraca. She demonstrates a notable overlap of spiritual legacy with economic and social features in this type of written communication. One key text for both discussions is the testament of Abraham, the first leader of the monastery Deir el-Bahri in Thebes.

Although the editors acknowledge the limitations of the volume and do not claim to have offered a comprehensive treatment of the topic, we are presented with a fascinating collection of essays, well-balanced in terms of coverage of various types of texts and approaches to them, which will certainly be of great help for students of literacy and education in early monasticism and Egyptian Christianity and for anyone interested in the broader subject of late antiquity.


Journal of Patrology and Critical Hagiography


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