BMCR 2021.10.45

Children and family in late antique Egyptian monasticism

, Children and family in late antique Egyptian monasticism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xiii, 255. ISBN 9781107156876 $99.99.

Caroline Schroeder writes on a topic that some might think challenging, if not quixotic: an examination of the place of children in the monasteries of late antique Egypt. The breadth of her study, running from the fourth to eighth centuries, would seem to complicate the matter further—these were eventful years for both Egypt and the Mediterranean more broadly. Yet despite these practical and conceptual hurdles, Schroeder is reasonably successful in her pursuit. The first two chapters assemble and assess the evidence for their presence both within and in close proximity to these religious communities. The next three chapters analyze the representation of children in monastic literature, focusing on them as objects of both wanted and unwanted adult attentions and mostly as a means to more fully articulating the religious and cultural roles of ascetics in the broader society. The last three chapters are an exercise in social history, trying to reconstruct the experience of childhood in late antique Egypt and the mechanisms for maintaining and recreating the structures of family. A concluding chapter argues for the monastic house serving as both an analogue and a challenge to the private household’s social and cultural place in the ancient Mediterranean world.

The first section of the book, “Finding Children”, while an excellent examination of the wide variety of materials surviving over such an extended period, is regularly supplemented by the conditional: may, might, could and other qualifiers accompany the evidence more often than not. To be blunt, a 400-year time span is a long time to be this equivocal. Thus, while Schroeder has certainly demonstrated the presence (if not importance) of children in or near monastic houses—something perhaps not all that controversial in itself—the prevalence of the phenomenon seems far from clear. To some degree, Schroeder does address these concerns in her second chapter by examining the deployment of vocabulary related to childhood in the surviving sources, with particular attention paid to the extensive writings of the fifth century archmandrite, Shenoute of Atripe. An ambiguous terminology of youth is a common and challenging feature of monastic literature, but of course not limited to the genre. In that sense, what survives is a reflection of broader, if not necessarily identical usages in late antique society. Despite a careful investigation, however, this reviewer remained an agnostic throughout much of this first part.

When we get to the analysis of this material, Schroeder is on firmer footing. In the second section, “Representations”, she offers three chapters focusing on the underaged under stress. Chapter three focuses on children, especially boys, as the focus of sexual attentions. She explores nudity, homoerotic activity and voyeurism in the communal setting, articulating how youth served as a marker of temptation and sin for monastics. Children in such discussions are often reduced to literary mechanisms, even when they are represented as having some agency (as in the case of one adolescent, Zacharias). While Schroeder’s discussion is enlightening, she only offers two specific anecdotes in the entire chapter, underscoring the concerns of the first section.

Chapter four treats the killing of children and widens her source material considerably, bringing into the discussion Biblical exempla and artistic representations of such events. The ambiguity of what constitutes righteous killing does not, in Schroeder’s words, become “unproblematized” (p. 111) in cases where ascetics have committed or assessed these so-called sacrifices. Circumstances of how such homicides are received and interpreted reveal the tensions between the ascetic aspiration of familial renunciation and the monastic community as a preserver and recreator of familial and household paradigms. It is a complex treatment, arguably the most interesting in the book.

Chapter five turns towards more positive interactions between adults and minors, considering the healing of children by monks and the place of the monastic house as a source for such aid. By curing the young of both physical and spiritual maladies, Schroeder rightly observes that the monastic community not only supported children and the family by performing these functions, but in many instances replaced traditional family by carrying out activities normally performed within the household. This discourse of replacement was perhaps most explicit with tales of children being pledged to monasteries in thanks for these cures.

In Schroeder’s third section, “A Social History,” the title is fairly self-explanatory and is the most cohesive part of the work. Chapters six and seven attempt to reconstruct the lives of children within the monastery. One of its key attractions was the relative security a child might receive within such an environment. Food, shelter, physical protection and healthcare were all afforded to those under its figurative and literal roof. Boys and probably girls, particularly those who were pledged to be become full members of their communities, also received formal schooling, a “monastic paideia” (p. 131)—although one certainly different from the traditional Greek curriculum. On the other hand, children were also required to carry out manual labor for the economic benefit of the communities housing them. Discipline through corporal punishment reflected broader social norms with regards to modifying behavior. Still, the overall childhood experience seemed in many ways to have mirrored that found outside the monastery and may have often been qualitatively better.

At the same time, children represented challenges to a religious community. As Schroeder noted in her third chapter, juveniles as potential sexual prey was a reality. The situation required both regulatory responses in many religious communities—both in Egypt and beyond—but also the willingness of heads of houses to punish such transgressions. Minors were seen as generally worthy of protection from molestation, but there was also an additional and frankly greater concern that they were a potential distraction to monks and thus to the order of the house. Those who were deemed a disruption in such instances or generated scandal might well be expelled, although should they have family members within a community or be too young (as opposed to adolescent), removal might be less likely. These were of course practical concerns, but they also suggest that minors were in some essential sense interlopers in a religious house—an idea that undercuts the notion of it serving as a reimagined oikos.

The eighth chapter, exploring the emotional dimensions of a child’s presence, underscores this point. As Schroeder demonstrates, feelings between parents and their offspring were highly contested in these communities, but also in their infringement outside of them. Redirecting the emotional component between parent and child to create a fictive kin group within a monastic house remained a point of friction, especially should an entire family enter one together. Usurping paternal authority was both aided by the model of the family and hindered by it. Matters were complicated when issues of property and other financial assets became involved. Emotional expressions reinforcing familial bonds, particularly grief, were thus understandably discouraged by ascetic authors as hindrances to forming these new spiritual families and households.

There is a sense, at the end, that Schroeder has produced a set of thematically connected papers rather than a monograph per se. Given the nature of the evidence, this is perhaps not surprising. But that raises other topics that one would wish had been explored. For example, given child mortality rates in the ancient world, that topic is certainly worthy of more than its brief mention in chapter seven. That said, her conclusion does an estimable job in drawing these topics together. The final chapter not only emphasizes the ambiguities and complexities of children in monastic settings, but builds on the recent work of April Pudsey, Ville Vuolanto and others who have delved into the topic of late antique childhood and surrogate households (especially in Egypt). In that sense, this is a nuanced and genuinely interesting discussion of an original and still largely unexplored topic.