Ewa Wipszycka’s first contribution to the study of Egyptian monasticism appeared in 1986, and for the past twenty-five years a steady stream of articles from her pen has left its significant imprint on the field and firmly established her reputation as one of the world’s preeminent specialists of the institutional and social history of late antique Egyptian Christianity. The book everywhere bears the mark of a specialist intimately acquainted with an enormous range of source material: Wipszycka skilfully combines the skills of historian, papyrologist and archaeologist, a rare feat. The result is a volume that presents an incredibly detailed description and analysis of Egyptian monastic institutions and communities in which the social conditions and lived realities of late antique monastic centres flanking the Nile are presented in all their fascinating diversity and complexity. Only one previously published essay appears unchanged within this book marking the culmination of a quarter century’s research, while more than fifteen previous studies have been revised, updated and incorporated into the volume, much of which presents new material.
The volume opens with a lengthy introduction to and consideration of the literary sources undergirding Wipszycka’s study. As the volume is not so much concerned with monastic spirituality or theological controversy as with the social circumstances of Egyptian monastic centres, certain texts appear rarely, if at all (such as the writings of Evagrius of Pontus). The texts treated here include the Historia monaschorum in Aegypto, Palladius’ Historia Lausiaca, the Instituta and Conlationes partum of John Cassian, the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates and Sozomen, the Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, the various documents found in the dossiers of Pachomius, Shenoute and their disciples, the Synaxaria of Coptic, Ethiopian and other anti-Chalcedonian churches, and the numerous monastic vitae extant in Greek and Coptic. In her presentation of each text Wipszycka outlines the state of research while also clearly delineating her own sense of the critical issues involved in the study of each text and its value. A subsequent chapter provides a synthesis of Wipszycka’s previous research on Athanasius’ Life of Antony.
The second chapter moves from literary sources to papyri and inscriptions. Wipszycka begins by clarifying technical terminology for historians with no papyrological experience before providing an overview and analysis of the rich and diverse fund of testimonies preserved by the arid Egyptian sands. Here again the relevant material is presented and considered with a specialist’s touch: the monastic archives and dossiers of Nepheros, Paphnoute, Labla, Naqlun, Deir el-Balaizah (among many others) are presented in concise detail with an eye not only to the questions of neophytes, but also difficulties debated among specialists. Subsequent chapters present a rather technical analysis of the monastic terminology attested in Greek and Coptic as well as an expansive overview of the geography of Egyptian monasticism, an overview which introduces more than twenty-five specific monastic centres as only someone who has indeed ‘walked the ground’ could do.
Further chapters deal more directly with monks and monastic communities. Wipszycka devotes two chapter to the monks and their superiors, taking up issues such as a monk’s entrance into the community, the mobility and hierarchy of Egyptian monks, and contested issues such as the degree of literacy and the social class of Egyptian monks, defending and advancing her thesis that Egyptian monastic centres were characterized by a higher and more diverse level of literacy and social class than is normally allowed in contemporary scholarship. Wipszycka’s treatment of authority and hierarchy within monastic centres includes a fascinating discussion of traditions and procedures related to the succession of monastery superiors, contrasting the norms with the concrete instances of the election and succession of monastic leaders. A subsequent chapter is devoted to the clergy of Egyptian monastic communities in which she discusses not so much the relationship of Egyptian monastic centres to the hierarchical structures of the Egyptian church as the position of monastic clergy-members within the Egyptian monastic communities themselves. The chapter concludes with a nuanced analysis of the ‘charismatic’ character of Egyptian monasticism as well as the question of the Egyptian monk’s desire for or rejection of ordination, both live issues in contemporary scholarship.
The chapter devoted to economic questions includes Wipszycka’s now classic study first published in 1986.1 The penultimate chapter collects all the available information regarding the structure and social conditions of female asceticism in Egypt, concluding with a useful list of papyri in which female ascetics or female monasteries are mentioned. The final chapter describes the sort of dangers and difficulties monastic centres faced, both from the desert itself as well as from the various nomadic groups that would periodically threaten Egyptian monasteries.
The book is well indexed, containing a register of all literary sources, papyri, personal names, ethnic groups, places, and modern scholars. The book is well bound and is printed on glossy paper. A bibliography would have been appreciated, but when presented with such a dense tome of more than six hundred richly documented pages it is difficult to quibble. This is a volume that will prove indispensable to the studies of apprentice and expert alike, and will no doubt serve as the standard point of departure for subsequent research into the social history of late antique Egyptian monasticism. Wipszycka’s Moines et communautés monastiques en Égypte is warmly recommended to all with an interest in the subject as required and indispensable reading.
1. ‘Aspects économiques de la vie de la communauté des Kellia’, Le site monastique copte des Kellia. Sources historiques et explorations archéologiques. Actes du Colloque de Genève 13 au 15 août 1984: Mission suisse d’archéologie copte de l’Université de Genève, Genève 1986, 117-144.