Ascetics and monks were always ambiguous figures in early Christianity, usually revered for their uncompromising imitation of biblical commands about obedience and poverty but frequently also feared for their use of violence and as rivals to bishops and other churchmen. Daniel Caner now provides an excellent study of the problem of monasticism in the eastern empire during the later fourth and early fifth centuries. His book highlights the issue of ascetic poverty, and in particular of the wandering monks who survived by begging. Their behavior challenged the authority of bishops, who increasingly identified themselves with cities and who expected to be supported through the resources of their congregations. Caner’s meticulously learned discussion focuses first on itinerant monks in Egypt and Syria and then on the tension between monks and bishops at Constantinople.
In his first chapter Caner discusses the phenomenon of ascetic wanderers in Egypt. In some respects the drifting of these “ships on the open sea” was an extension of older traditions about the benefits of voluntary alienation and solitary withdrawal into the desert. These early ascetic pioneers had been living out Jesus’ recommendation in the Sermon on the Mount to prefer the pursuit of God’s kingdom over daily concerns like food and clothing. Then the practical difficulies of surviving in the harsh desert intruded to challenge the feasability of these ideals, and monastic leaders began to stress instead the benefits of manual labor and living in a cell or a community. Stability was the new ideal, certainly by the early fifth century: “manual labor was being specifically prescribed as an antidote for the impulse to wander around in a spiritual malaise” (p. 40). “Communal necessity and material needs recommended a spiritual life of physical stillness supported by manual labor” (p. 47).
The next chapter surveys the background of asceticism in Syria during the third century. Even though wandering ascetics in Syria would acquire a reputation for their extreme behavior as “grazers” who survived on wild plants in the mountains, later historians still classified them as imitators of Egyptian ascetics. Caner argues instead that already in the third century Syrian Christian communities had admired “covenanters”, who adopted celibacy and poverty but who remained engaged with cities. He then associates, and sometimes identifies, these covenanters with itinerant wanderers. The Acts of Thomas and the pseudo-Clementine Letters to Virgins, both texts from third- century Syria, endorsed “the ministries provided by itinerant ascetics to scattered Christian communities” (p. 66). By respecting the proper norms of ascetic conduct in cities, these wanderers could present themselves as the true heirs of the apostles.
But in Syria too ascetics withdrew from cities, and wandering ascetics became suspect. In his third chapter Caner discusses the controversy over so-called Messalians or Euchites. The ideals and behavior of these “People Who Pray” were clearly rooted in the apostolic model of proper Christian asceticism, and they certainly continued to flourish. Various texts from Syria pointedly recommended “that ascetics who devoted themselves to the spiritual work of prayer and edification merited support from other members of the Christian community” (p. 114). But according to Caner, such wanderers were soon the victims of “the Eastern crystallization of a conflict that arose between church officials and ascetic laymen all around the Mediterranean in the late fourth and early fifth centuries” (p. 86). The notorious heresy-hunter Epiphanius criticized “Massalians” for their wandering, their idleness, their rejection of manual labor, and their reliance instead on begging. Church councils then reinforced this image by associating Messalians with heretical doctrines. As a result, Messalians became the prototypical Others, to “be understood as a polemical construction rather than a historical reality” (p. 101).
Alexander the Sleepless, the subject of the next chapter, was one such itinerant ascetic who suffered from this new taxonomy of orthodoxy and heresy. His career is known primarily through a marvelous Life, which Caner translates in an appendix. Alexander and his supporters were so devoted to absolute poverty and nonstop praying (in shifts), that his biographer characterized him as an “apostolic man.” After roaming for decades in the steppes of eastern Syria he moved to Constantinople. In the mid-420s magistrates expelled him for what they considered to be his Messalian leanings. Bishops also condemned him, in part because he was a competitor for the limited resources of their ecclesiastical communities: “rival claims to apostolic identity, privilege, and authority were at stake in this contention over material support” (p. 154).
The fifth chapter discusses the wider issue of wandering, begging monks as “a threat to the reputation of monasticism itself” (p. 159). Churchmen were encouraging people to show their generosity to the crowds of ordinary vagrants and beggars. But because ascetics competed with these “involuntary poor” for alms, at Ancyra Nilus fretted about idle monks as parasites who were abusing their spiritual vocation. At Constantinople John Chrysostom finally confronted monks for what he called their grasping greediness. They in turn supported his deposition from the episcopacy. “Chrysostom’s sermons indicate that the real problem lay in rival claims for the city’s spiritual leadership: who had a legitimate claim to the laity’s support through alms, and for what reason?” (p. 195).
In the final chapter Caner discusses one attempt at resolution. In the decades following John Chrysostom’s exile monks remained so influential at the capital that Dalmatius supported the deposition of bishop Nestorius, and Eutyches was able to line up the patronage of the emperor Theodosius II for the deposition of bishop Flavianus. Flushed with his success, Eutyches was even hailed as “bishop of bishops.” Then his patron Theodosius died in an accident. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 hundreds of bishops met to define both correct doctrine and a proper ecclesiastical hierarchy. One of their canons specifically put monks under bishops’ control and condemned rogue monks who wandered indiscriminately in cities: “the measures taken at Chalcedon seem to have inaugurated a new era of unity in church and monastic relations in the imperial city” (p. 241).
Caner’s discussion of these developments is sometimes a bit too compact and dense for ready comprehension, but always very sensible and intelligent. One sign of a book’s excellence is its capacity to raise more issues. One concerns wider attitudes toward manual labor and the relationship between begging and wealth. An underdeveloped agrarian economy produced only a comparatively small surplus, and much of that went to the state. Most people were born to a poverty in which only constant labor ensured survival. Wealthy notables, in contrast, had developed a lifestyle of leisured retirement and intellectual pursuits which certainly did not include manual labor. The necessity of manual labor therefore represented not so much the imposition of hard work, as the absence of power, and monks who depended on alms, either through begging or through the regular generosity of patrons, had found a new way of acquiring power. Begging had the same result as great wealth: no need for manual labor. A life of begging was the poor man’s version of a wealthy aristocrat’s life of otiose retirement.
A second issue concerns the obsession with stability. Once bishops exerted their authority, they redefined proper monasticism in terms of enclosure and isolation. At the same time in the later fourth and early fifth centuries the imperial court and its generals were trying to cope with the arrival of new barbarian groups. They too worried about invasions and wanderings, and they too hoped to settle these wandering barbarians in permanent reservations. Movement, whether by itinerant monks or marauding barbarians, was a threat to institutionalized authority, as the emperors struggled to retain their influence and the bishops to enhance theirs. Emperors thought of the Goths as “wild animals who had broken their cages,” while the ascetics who grazed in mountain pastures were seen as “animals, no longer human in the way they thought” (p. 52). The presence of both wandering monks and wandering barbarians forced a redefinition of the exact meaning of civilization.
A final issue is the notion of orthodoxy. As Caner notes, in many respects these itinerant monks were fanatically loyal to Jesus’ command to forget about food, clothing, and family. Their opponents may have cited the apostle Paul’s injunction about the important of manual labor, but this life of wandering could clearly claim equally powerful biblical support. The resolution of this conflict thus represented the confluence of social and cultural concerns and was not simply a consequence of biblical exegesis or spiritual preferences. Caner’s book is a wonderfully effective demonstration that defining orthodox monasticism, like defining orthodox theology, is an aspect not of narrowly focused theological studies, but of more expansive cultural studies.