Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.37

Lillian Larsen, Samuel Rubenson (ed.), Monastic Education in Late Antiquity: The Transformation of Classical 'Paideia'.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. x, 399.  ISBN 9781107194953.  £90.00​.  

Reviewed by Jan R. Stenger, University of Glasgow (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The relationship between Christian monasticism and formal education has intrigued scholars of late antiquity for some time, as the ancient texts often put questions of paideia centre stage and make no secret of their authors’ rejection of classical culture. Thanks to recent studies, it is no longer possible to see the Christian monks as uncouth and illiterate outsiders. It is in this context that the volume under review aims to explore the role of monastic traditions in preserving and transmitting classical models of pedagogy to the broader Christian culture (1). The overall argument is directed against the older view, promoted by the monastic sources, that the monks abhorred rhetorical training and philosophical speculation in favour of ascetic virtue and Christian simplicity. Against the image of a complete separation of school and monastery, drawn by Henri Marrou and others, the contributors argue for a strong continuity of monastic instruction with classical paideia, both in theory and practice.

The volume’s focus is geographically on Egypt and thematically on Greek paideia, while monasticism in the West receives very little attention; largely absent are also some prominent promoters of monasticism who extensively addressed educational matters, the Cappadocian Fathers and John Chrysostom. To reflect the idea of a kinship of monastic education with classical models, the chapters have been divided into five sections which follow the curriculum of Graeco-Roman schooling. After a section on overlapping pedagogic terminology and parlance, the second part deals with elementary education; then follow two sections on grammar and rhetoric, and philosophy respectively, before the final part turns to manuscript production and transmission. The volume as a whole represents the state of the art and is of high quality; most chapters are intellectually stimulating and will be of interest for anyone working on Christianity, monasticism and education in late antiquity.

As to the approach, the contributions analyse a wide range of documents related to monastic contexts, including literary and documentary texts, papyri and ostraca, and ancient translations. Several authors have chosen to examine texts that show individual representatives of monastic learning, such as St Antony and Didymus the Blind (Gemeinhardt, Westergren, Stefaniw, Sheridan, Rydell Johnsén), while others discuss exercises that were used in instruction. For the latter kind, it is often hard to establish precisely their functions and Sitz im Leben, given the lack of contextual information. The analysis focuses on parallels and continuity with classical learning, in particular the education provided by ancient grammarians and rhetors. Such parallels range from the adaptation of grammatical practices (Stefaniw) to the use of the Sentences of Menander (Maravela), and from the adoption of classical school terminology to the use of rhetorical devices in Evagrius of Pontus (Muehlberger) and Rufus of Shotep (Sheridan).

The volume as a whole has two major strengths: first, it provides ample evidence for the ubiquity of pedagogic theory and practice in monastic settings, at least for Egypt; thus, teaching and learning can be seen as a key aspect of monastic life. Second, it shows that the monastic debate on education was not separated from but took part in the wider cultural discourse as dominated by the Graeco-Roman intellectuals. For example, it becomes apparent that the early ascetics were as interested in the Pythagorean tradition as their Neoplatonic contemporaries (Pevarello). With these two points, the contributions fit in the current trend that revises the traditional image of ancient Christianity and paideia and investigates the notion of religious education.1 A further feature for which the volume deserves praise is coherence: the editors have taken care that all papers make cross-references and complement one another, which is helped by the shared focus on Egyptian monasticism.

However, the collection cannot totally convince because its subject matter is insufficiently defined. In a number of contributions, the notion of ‘monastic education’ is taken for granted rather than explicitly discussed. This leads the authors to extrapolate from evidence for educated individuals in monasteries the existence of monastic instruction and even an institutionalised monastic curriculum. Yet this conclusion is not as straightforward as it may seem because it is not always possible to infer from the existence of literate monks how and where they acquired their knowledge and skills, and whether these competences were imparted as a formal element of monastic formation. What sources reflecting or discussing the training of individual monastics do document is only that a (probably small) portion of Christian ascetics shared in the rhetorical and philosophical culture of their non-Christian surroundings.

Moreover, the guiding hypothesis that Christian monasticism retained obvious Graeco-Roman parallels seems to create a bias, insofar as it runs the risk of downplaying significant differences between monastic formation and the classical schools. To be sure, intellectual and ethical training in the monasteries adopted, adapted and thus transmitted classical models. Nonetheless, there were important differences that made the monastic education system distinctive: the well-known social mechanisms of traditional schooling; educated monks never were exclusively teachers but also had other functions; literacy in the monastery was very much functional, i.e. acquired for specific practical needs; monastic paideia was not limited to childhood and youth but aimed at lifelong learning or rather formation; every educational practice in the monasteries was subordinated to ascetic values and objectives; in contrast to schools, monasteries comprised learned and illiterate people alike, they were more heterogeneous (also socially).

Finally, the specifics and practicalities of monastic instruction are somewhat underrepresented, whereas the familiar ideology of monastic illiteracy and anti-intellectualism is covered perhaps too generously. More studies on materials like syllabaries, the use of verse collections and rhetorical devices in monastic texts (Larsen, Maravela, Muehlberger and Sheridan) will be needed to establish more firmly what education in the coenobia looked like.

Since the space of this review does not allow detailed discussion of all contributions, I confine myself to highlighting chapters that exemplify the volume’s main features.

Samuel Rubenson starts, as several chapters do, from the outdated image of the monastic school drawn by Marrou, to explore with the help of classical pedagogic vocabulary whether monasteries were in essence schools and whether monasticism in itself was an educational movement rooted in previous traditions. Taking the classical education system as an analytical framework he shows that Eastern monasticism shared key features with the traditional schools. The argument thus becomes somewhat circular so that it overemphasises the parallels and does not sufficiently take into account the considerable divergences in terms of aims, accessibility, methods and outcomes. It is certainly worth asking what the label ‘monastic school’ might mean, but the analysis of shared language must be complemented by a closer look at the transformations in the new context.2

Roger Bagnall takes a fruitful approach by looking for ‘covert’ signs of paideia in Christian documentary papyri of the fourth century, among other things the style of writing, diction and the correct use of nomina sacra. His thoroughgoing analysis reveals that there was considerable variation in the level of education among monks, in parallel to the fact that monasticism shared generally in the stratification and differentiation of society at large (79). Illuminating as Bagnall’s discussion is, it begs the methodological question of whether we are really dealing with institutionalised monastic education or just with literate individuals, however they might have acquired their skills.

Methodological issues are centre stage in Lillian Larsen’s contribution on the identification, collection and categorisation of source material. She argues with three case studies that interpretive choices shape the way evidence is collected, classified, presented and viewed, with consequences for further scholarship. Her reassessment aims to overcome problematic binaries that are often generated through interpretive presuppositions, such as education versus monasticism and Greek versus Coptic. As regards the content of the three documents examined, Larsen hypothesises a veritable monastic curriculum including a clear student progression (122‒123). That seems over-confident, given the extremely small sample. Furthermore, it is problematic that, for each case study, she takes Jerome’s study programme for Paula (epist. 107) as the norm for comparison (105‒106). That attributes to Jerome’s letter a status that it does not merit because the curriculum devised by him was certainly not representative of monastic education in general, as Larsen suggests.

The chapter by Anastasia Maravela is one of the volume’s strongest. Addressing the uses of Homeric verses and the Sentences of Menander on ostraca in monasteries in Upper Egypt, it combines lucid analysis of the source material with methodological reflection. Maravela’s approach is refreshingly cautious: on the basis of the evidence she argues that demonstrable links between classical paideia and monastic settings in Egypt are few and that classical literature was not in wide circulation in monastic libraries. The study of the probable purposes of pieces documenting writing practice leads her to conclude that the analysis needs to consider not only the multifunctional nature of texts but also the multifunctionality of persons because educated monks took on different roles, among them that of the teacher (148).

Blossom Stefaniw aims to demonstrate that Didymus the Blind was teaching in the same way as the grammarians did and running his school as a school of grammar. While she convincingly shows that Didymus employed the same methods and principles as the secular grammarians, her claim that he had a kind of hidden curriculum, namely attaching Christians to the socially central and dominant classes is not persuasive. In addition, her conclusion that Didymus ‘should be diagnosed as a grammarian’ (178) is not warranted by her analysis as the texts only show that he adopted grammatical practices but not that his teaching pursued grammatical training as its main objective. Stefaniw’s claim that he aimed to impart a new sense of Romanitas (156, 158) is far-fetched and not properly argued for. The link of this essay to monasticism is rather tenuous.

In a well-argued contribution Ellen Muehlberger investigates the adaptation of the classical ethopoeia in Evagrius of Pontus’ ascetic programme. Her examination of two cases demonstrates that these rhetorical exercises in a monastic context not only trained skills but also had a broader pedagogic aim: to cultivate in the monastic students a useful emotional disposition. Muehlberger’s argument would be even stronger if she drew on the ancient concept of medico-philosophical therapy and did more to contextualise Evagrius’ pedagogy. What limits the significance of her findings is the fact that so far only two instances of ethopoeia have been identified in Evagrius.

The essays grouped in the final section shed light on revisions of the works of John Cassian and Palladius (Dahlman), on the production of the Nag Hammadi Codices (Lundhaug and Jenott), and on the Arabic translation of the Greek Apophthegmata Patrum (Zaborowski). Interesting as the questions of production and transmission of manuscripts are, they contribute very little to the overarching theme of the volume.

Overall, the collection is a valuable addition to the growing output on education in monastic contexts. It maps the considerable common ground between Christian monasticism and classical paideia and at the same time sheds light on the great variety of pedagogic ideas, contents, methods and materials in the monastic settlements of Egypt. It also invites necessary further research on the topic, in particular on Western monasticism and other regions, as well as a wider range of monastic texts. Future studies will be advised to set out clearly what they mean by ‘monastic education’: is any pedagogic activity that is related to monasticism automatically ‘monastic paideia’? We need to differentiate between educated monastics and monastic education. And for all the overlap between school and monastery, we must not overlook the crucial differences.

Table of Contents

Lillian I. Larsen, Samuel Rubenson, ‘Introduction’, pp. 1–10

Part I – The Language of Education pp. 11–72
1. Samuel Rubenson, ‘Early Monasticism and the Concept of a “School”’, pp. 13–32
2. Peter Gemeinhardt, ‘Translating Paideia: Education in the Greek and Latin Versions of the Life of Antony’, pp. 33–52
3. Andreas Westergren, ‘Paideia, Piety, and Power: Emperors and Monks in Socrates’ Church History’, pp. 53–72

Part II – Elementary Education and Literacy pp. 73–150
4. Roger Bagnall, ‘The Educational and Cultural Background of Egyptian Monks’, pp. 75–100
5 Lillian I. Larsen, ‘“Excavating the Excavations” of Early Monastic Education’, pp. 101–124
6. Anastasia Maravela, Homer and Menandri Sententiae in Upper Egyptian Monastic Settings, pp. 125–150

Part III – Grammar and Rhetoric, pp. 151–216
7. Blossom Stefaniw, ‘The School of Didymus the Blind in Light of the Tura Find’, pp. 153–181
8. Ellen Muehlberger, ‘Affecting Rhetoric: The Adoption of Ethopoeia in Evagrius of Pontus’ Ascetic Program’, pp. 182–194
9. Mark Sheridan, ‘Classical Education in Sixth-Century Coptic Monasticism: The Example of Rufus of Shotep’, pp. 195–216

Part IV – Philosophy, pp. 217–278
10. Henrik Rydell Johnsén, ‘The Virtue of Being Uneducated: Attitudes towards Classical Paideia in Early Monasticism and Ancient Philosophy’, pp. 219–235
11. Arthur Urbano, ‘Plato Between School and Cell: Biography and Competition in the Fifth-Century Philosophical Field’, pp. 236–255
12. Daniele Pevarello, ‘Pythagorean Traditions in Early Christian Asceticism’, pp. 256–278

Part V – Manuscript and Literary Production pp. 279–342
13. Britt Dahlman, ‘Textual Fluidity and Authorial Revision: The Case of Cassian and Palladius’, pp. 281–305
14. Hugo Lundhaug, Lance Jenott, ‘Production, Distribution and Ownership of Books in the Monasteries of Upper Egypt: the Evidence of the Nag Hammadi Colophons’, pp. 306–325
15. Jason Zaborowski, ‘Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: Approaching Arabic Recensions of the Apophthegmata Patrum’, pp. 326–342

Bibliography, pp. 343–379
Index, pp. 380–388
Index locorum, pp. 389–399


1.   See, for example, the Sonderforschungsbereich ‘Bildung und Religion’ at the University of Göttingen (SFB 1136) and the research group ‘Modes of Knowing and the Ordering of Knowledge in Early Christianity’ based at the Catholic University of Australia (Modes of Knowing).
2.   See e.g. Jan R. Stenger, ‘What does it mean to call the monasteries of Gaza a ‘school’? A reassessment of Dorotheus’ intellectual identity’, Vigiliae Christianae 71(1) 2017, 59–84. ​

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