Caroline T. Schroeder on Bentley Layton’s The Canons of Our Fathers
Every year in the month of July over ten thousand pilgrims flock to the White Monastery outside of the city of Sohag, Egypt, to celebrate the feast day of a Coptic saint named Shenoute. This festival (or moulid as it is known in Egypt) is one of the largest Christian celebrations in the country. Yet most Christians outside of Egypt probably have no awareness of this saint’s identity or legacy. Indeed, even most academics and librarians possess little more than a cursory understanding (if any) of his significance.
Bentley Layton’s new book, The Canons of Our Fathers, seems poised to change this situation. This work presents a tremendous advance in the history of monasticism and the history of Christianity by one of the most learned scholars of Shenoute. Its publication, however, also lays bare the enduring obstacles to a wider understanding and appreciation of Shenoute’s relevance.
Shenoute of Atripe, known in the Coptic Orthodox Church as St. Shenoute the Archimandrite, directed a federation of monasteries for men and women in Egypt from the mid 380s until his death in 465. The corpus of literature surviving from Shenoute and his successors Besa and Zenobios arguably constitutes the largest and most illuminating body of evidence for earliest Christian monasticism, especially when one considers that the majority of these documents are neither hagiographical nor legendary, but rather letters, sermons, treatises, and monastic rules written contemporaneously (or in very close temporal proximity) with the events and phenomena they describe. Every student of Christianity or monasticism should study these sources.
Why don’t we? Because they are largely inaccessible, something Canons of Our Fathers seeks to change. Shenoute and his successors wrote in Coptic, the last phase of the Egyptian language family. When Arabic overtook Coptic as the primary language of Egypt, local Christians no longer read Coptic fluently, and the manuscripts were no longer used and copied. When the White Monastery was “discovered” by Europeans, these manuscripts were taken or purchased by antiquities traders, scholars, and perhaps others and then dispersed page by page (not even codex by codex) across the globe, primarily in Western libraries, museums, and private collections. (Fig. 4) As a result, the pages of one letter or sermon might be in two, three, or more locations. Even fragments that have been published may not have been translated into a modern language.
Canons of Our Fathers publishes selections of early monastic writings from what is now known as the White Monastery Federation. Layton has culled material from Shenoute’s works (primarily his nine volumes of Canons, which contain letters, sermons, and other documents for monks), and from letters by his successor, Besa. In contrast to later medieval and Byzantine monasteries, which followed authoritative sets of rules (sometimes known collectively as a Rule or regula), no self-contained, independent Rule of Shenoute’s monastery has survived. (A medieval example would be the Rule of Benedict.) Layton has categorized selections from longer writings for monks as “rule material” and compiled them into a numbered list of regulations. In Part II of the book, he presents these passages in the original Coptic with an English translation. In Part I, Layton provides an overview of life in the monasteries and the Federation’s early history based on his analysis of the regulations in Part II and select other sources.
The published excerpts from these larger documents function in Layton’s judgment as monastic rules. His criteria for determining what constitutes a rule is “broad and inclusive, without a single generic definition.” The rules exist in various forms and styles, including curse pronouncements resembling Deuteronomy 27:11-26 (e.g., “Cursed be any male or female among us who shows favoritism to relatives of theirs according to the flesh.”) to injunctions similar to the rules of the Pachomian monasteries (e.g., “If it is winter, they shall rise three hours before light.”). Only a few enumerate punishments for forbidden behavior. Much of the material in Part II is published or translated into English for the first time, a remarkable feat.
This book makes accessible a wealth of material that is carefully edited, translated, and interpreted. At times the interpretations overreach the evidence or need to be leavened by relevant previously published scholarship. The format of the book also poses challenges to understanding the rules as they were read, enforced, and transmitted in these monasteries. Scholars should be wary of treating Canons of Our Fathers as a list of monastic rules in the genre of other Rules. The book contains a White Monastery Federation Rule curated by Layton, not a Rule drafted by Shenoute, Besa, Zenobius, nor any other Coptic monk. The volume’s very structure, therefore, may mislead readers unfamiliar with the sources. (In fact, arguably the full nine volumes of Shenoute’s Canons— not simply the regulations excerpted here—functioned as the rules or Rule for the Federation.) Layton carefully documents his process and does not himself misrepresent the nature of the book. The danger is that in the absence of full editions of Shenoute’s texts, Canons of Our Fathers (despite Layton’s own caveats about the book’s scope) will be received as the authoritative account of the White Monastery rules for a generation to come. The remainder of this review will explore specific examples of the book’s important contributions as well as aspects that require some additional awareness on the part of the reader.
The history of this remarkable community’s founding has heretofore been shrouded in a hagiographical haze. Part I presents a construction of the early history of the Federation based on Shenoute’s writings, a lesser-known medieval Coptic chronicle (called the “Naples Fragment” since it is now in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples), and other medieval Coptic references to Shenoute and the Federation’s founders. Layton provides a translation of the Naples Fragment and carefully works through the text’s insights as well as its limits as a source. The resulting hypothesis at its core seems persuasive, although elements deserve further scrutiny.
According to Canons of Our Fathers, the monk named Pcol who is traditionally identified as the founder of the community now known as the “White Monastery” indeed established the community. Pcol had been a member of the monastic federation of Pachomius. (Pachomius lived from 292 to 348 CE and led a federation of men’s and women’s monasteries in Upper Egypt. He is often considered the founder of coenobitic, or structured communal, monasticism.) Pcol then “expanded” the Pachomian rules for his own congregation. Pshoi, a solitary monk to the north, founded what is now known as the “Red Monastery” a few kilometers away. The Red Monastery evolved from a loose group of solitary (or eremitic) monks into a coenobitic monastery. Finally, the women’s community in the village of Atripe was established at some point during Pcol’s and Pshoi’s lifetime, since both men visited the women. The women’s precise relationship to them (and whether they were subject to either man’s authority or rules) is unclear. When Pshoi and Pcol decided to unite their communities into one federation, Pcol emerged as the overall leader. Upon his death, a monk named Ebonh led the Federation, but his tenure was controversial and openly critiqued by a monk named Shenoute. Shenoute then succeeded Ebonh as the third leader and father of the entire Federation, which Shenoute at least understood to include the women’s monastery in Atripe.
In the north apse of the Red Monastery church, the figures appear right to left in chronological order of their significance for the history of the Red Monastery, beginning with its founder Pshoi. Pshoi’s portrait sits next to the east or main apse. Credits: Schroeder.
The extent of Pcol’s ties to the monasteries founded by the more famous Pachomius requires additional investigation. A link between Shenoute and Pachomius is deeply embedded in Coptic tradition and historiography, with Shenoute’s monasticism even described as “Pachomian” monasticism in some scholarship. For example, at the 2015 St. Mark’s Foundation conference at the Coptic monastery of Mar Mena, one of the papers that caused the most controversy among the attending monks was a talk by James Goehring. When Goehring outlined a few differences in the monasticism practiced in the Pachomian Federation compared to Shenoute’s, the contemporary monks in the audience responded to explain that for them, Shenoute was indeed a Pachomian monk, and that Shenoute and Pachomius were alike.
Indeed, some of the Pachomian rules appear in Shenoute’s writings, sometimes with similar wording but sometimes framed differently. Some of the Pachomian regulations do not appear in Shenoute’s surviving works, and most of rules in Canons of Our Fathers do not derive from Pachomius’s writings. We currently have no good historical evidence beyond the Naples Fragment that “Pcol started as a Pachomian monk,” and even this document likely dates to centuries after Pcol’s death. In fact, the Naples Fragment takes great pains to smooth over obvious differences between the two Federations, stating at one point, “certainly it is no shame and no divergence that our holy father (Pcol) has built something more upon the foundation of his fathers. For he did not reject those (rules) that belonged to them…” The fragment also pointedly asserts that any changes Pcol made to Pachomius’ rules were neither “innovative” nor a “new road.”
In other words, part of the project of the Naples Fragment seems to be to construct a neat genealogy of Coptic monasticism beginning with Pachomius and predicated on a uniformity that the fragment itself admits does not exist. This potential ideological bent in the source needs to be acknowledged and addressed.
Second, the account of Pshoi deserves scrutiny, specifically the narrative that he began as an eremitic monk and then progressed to coenobitism as his followers increased. This evolution from anchoritic to coenobitic monasticism is a literary and historiographical trope, beginning with the Life of Antony, and continuing with the Life of Pachomius. While it is possible that the Naples Fragment gives us an accurate account of Pshoi’s early days as a monk, we should also ask whether it is narrating a familiar story based on other monastic hagiographies. James Goehring’s and William Harmless’s work on Egyptian monasticism’s origins deconstructs evolutionary narratives about both the roots of coenobitism and the figure of Pachomius as founder. Their insights can inform our study of this Federation as well.
Layton also constructs a theory of monastic identity in which the rules of the Shenoutean Federation shape the subjectivity of new monks to such a degree that their other identities must be forsaken. The rules, he posits, function to create “a total reality” for monks (emphasis Layton’s). They socialize participants to a “monastic world” that is “set apart by the semblance of a non-porous boundary” between the monastery and the “civilian world.” Layton admits that “complaints” Shenoute records in his own writings “indicate moments when the monastic identity may begin to rub thin and tear, allowing the old world to flow back into the gaps and begin eroding monastic reality.” Nonetheless, despite acknowledging that “[t]here cannot be such a thing as total world replacement,” Monastic life in Shenoute’s Federation is presented as a separate world in which the resident ideally no longer has any connection — physically or psychically — to the outside world.
Yet we know this to be fundamentally untrue. The outside world’s infiltration into the monastery was pervasive. Local officials regularly visited and met with Shenoute and even attended the church services at the monastery. During one period, the monastery sheltered refugees, local people from the region who were displaced during periods of military conflict; the number may have risen as high as 20,000 people, with 52 births and 54 deaths (who were buried in the monastery’s cemetery), according to Shenoute himself in Continuing to Glorify the Lord. Detailed prohibitions on interactions between monk and “civilian” invite speculation that exchanges occurred repeatedly. Shenoute forbade monks from secretly making books, garments, or shoes to sell outside the monastery. Likewise, he condemned anyone who covertly ate food he or she received from outside the monastery. It seems these regulations were not entirely effective. During his successor Besa’s term, a woman named Aphthonia sent a letter to her family complaining about her mistreatment in the monastery. She seems to have received a care package from them as well.
The permeability of the monastic Federation thus went beyond an occasional tear that allowed two separate worlds to collide. Rather, we should use this material to rethink our view of early Christian monasteries as world-renouncing alternative societies. As the work of James Goehring on the Pachomian monasteries and the publication of documents from the fourth century Monastery of Hathor have demonstrated, a paradigm shift is necessary.
Layton’s analysis of the Federation’s early history, gender roles, and the offices of the “Mother and Father Superior” also would have benefitted from integrating prior research by other scholars on gender. Rebecca S. Krawiec (author of Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery and “The Role of the Female Elder in Shenoute’s White Monastery”) has documented the authority of the woman who directed the womens’ monastery in Atripe, the ways the man below Shenoute in the monastic hierarchy, encroached on it over time, and how she resisted this intrusion on her power. Likewise Krawiec’s conclusion that Shenoute promoted a form of monasticism in which both men and women were bound for the most part by the same rules needs to be addressed and accounted for in Layton’s treatment of gender conventions. The book also needs to engage and acknowledge more substantively Susanna Elm’s research on Pachomius and Shenoute in her 1994 book Virgins of God, which makes claims about the institutionalization and routinization of coenobitic monasticism similar to ones that appear in Canons of Our Fathers.
The longer Part II that publishes the sections of Shenoute’s and Besa’s writings is structured somewhat like a Loeb volume, with the Coptic on the left hand page and the corresponding English translation facing it. Each snippet includes ample documentation about the manuscript that is its textual witness, the library or museum housing the manuscript, and publication information if the text has appeared in print. Layton publishes a list of abbreviations used for all of the museums and libraries referenced and for his editorial sigla. The reader therefore can understand most of his editorial choices and will be able to find the larger text from which Layton filtered the “rules.”
These regulations provide a fascinating view into the daily life and asceticism of the monks. We learn of the impropriety of long fringes or borders hanging from the cord on the hood of the monk’s cloak; they were associated with heresy. The federation owned only two camels and ten donkeys as domestic animals at one point. At another moment, however, it owned horses, since monks are urged to use donkeys for quotidian tasks requiring riding; they may only “mount a horse” under “dire necessity.” Monastics partook of the Eucharist twice a week, Saturday evening and Sunday morning. At a general assembly, all the men gathered to pray and weave reeds; at their assembly, the women lit lamps and worked with wool. Aside from the Lenten fast, monastics typically ate one meal a day and were allowed to keep some bread in their cells. The women, alas, were forbidden from brewing beer. Talking (even a “single word”) was forbidden during the time for sleeping. We also learn about accommodations for children, the sick, and disabled.
The English translations are impeccable; Layton literally wrote the book on Sahidic Coptic grammar. He has masterfully rendered often complicated, opaque Coptic into readable, understandable English. Anyone who has tried to translate Shenoute will admire his skill. Two translation choices merit some discussion, not because they are right or wrong, but because the choices may affect English readers’ interpretation of the material.
Layton refers to the women monks as “nuns” and their residence as a “nunnery,” especially in Part I. There is no Coptic term equivalent to “nun,” which in English has a form and valence different from the male equivalent “monk”; it implies a distinctly feminine monastic experience. Coptic texts refer to virgins (parthenos/parthenoi) and female monks (monakhē). Shenoute most frequently calls the women of the Federation “women,” “brethren,” or “siblings” (as he also does the men), and “monks” (monakhē, parallel to the male monakhos). The women’s residence is no “nunnery” but typically another domain. In Part II, the Coptic always sits across the page from the translation, and Layton often transliterates terms such as monakhē parenthetically within the English, which is helpful. Nonetheless, the use of “nun” and “nunnery” could leave readers with a skewed impression of the gender dynamics at the Federation, especially during Shenoute’s tenure, when women lived in a separate domain but did not practice a wholly and distinctly feminine monasticism.
Layton translates the Coptic terms for “little son” and “little daughter” (šēre šēm and šeere šēm) as “boy” and “girl,” which are common English translations generally in Coptic Studies. Layton diverges, however, from scholars who prefer “novice” (Dwight Young) or “junior monk” (Krawiec) as translations in Shenoute’s writings. Young’s and Krawiec’s choices consider that other titles for rank and status in the Federation were based on words for age or familial relationships: “father,” “mother,” “old man,” etc. In their translations, the category of people called “little sons and daughters” might consist of minor children or new monks who are adults (novices as “children” to asceticism), or both. Layton’s translation implies this group consists of young children.
On the whole, the rules material may be regarded as a kind of roadmap or guidebook to heretofore inaccessible sources. Anyone, however, who seeks to utilize the book in this way must consider that not all the relevant material appears in Canons of Our Fathers. Layton’s choices for filtering rules from their larger ancient documents are (as he himself admits) subjective, and also leave out intervening text. For example, on p. 161, Layton publishes regulations pertaining to food preparation and consumption. The following quote contains his rules 182 and 183, plus the intervening text (which is not in the book) in italics:
And if a little bit (of food) is left over to the next day, none of it shall be taken to the gatehouse. Rather, they shall eat it alone — in any case not dishonestly striving to cook enough for two days at once — so that God is angry with them and casts them (out), with (their) lawless deeds, according to the scriptures, because they think that they are doing a good thing, but in fact they are doing something wicked, and they do not know it.
In all of Lent they shall not be permitted to cook under any circumstances, in accordance with the ordinances of our fathers, except in an emergency for a sick person.
Johannes Leipoldt, editor of many Shenoutean texts, considered the italicized portion of this passage so integral to what comes before, that he put no punctuation between them (pp. 54-55). Arguably, this missing section contains part of the rule about cooking abundant leftovers — namely, the punishment. Are these monks subject to expulsion? More interpretive questions also arise, such as, how does Shenoute use God to authorize or justify his regulations?
Anyone who wants to understand the primary sources must go to the original documents from whence they are excerpted. Valuable historical information resides there. (And I believe Layton would agree.) Many hurdles, however, remain for the reader who might seek to move from the selections in this volume to the texts in their larger context, perhaps to explore an interesting topic made more visible by this publication. An excellent grasp of the Coptic language being the first, since even published documents often have not been translated into a modern language.
Shenoute’s writings have the power to transform our understanding of both early Christian monasticism and Christianity in fourth and fifth century Egypt outside of the metropolis of Alexandria. The daily life of both male and female ascetics, the reading and interpretation of the Bible in Upper Egypt, the rhetoric of preaching and correspondence by a charismatic orator who was neither priest nor bishop, the economy of an early monastery — all of these insights and more await our exploration. Canons of Our Fathers is indeed a monumental study of this material, greatly expanding our knowledge of early monasticism. Yet readers should proceed cautiously, resisting the temptation to welcome it either as a definitive account of the monasticism of the White Monastery Federation or as a map charting the expanse of literature that comprises this community’s corpus.
The stakes of academic work on Coptic history and religion lie well beyond the academy. Today, the Coptic Orthodox Church appears in the press often in the context of marginality and victimhood. The writings of Shenoute and his successors stand as a forceful reminder that the Coptic community cannot be defined primarily by its recent victimizations, that like most religious traditions it has a complex history. And for the reasons I provided at the beginning of this review, many aspects of that history have been inaccessible both to Western readers and to the Egyptian Christians at Shenoute’s moulid. Thus, the impact of a book such as this is overdetermined. I fear that research over the next decade or two will use this book as the foundation for understanding Shenoute’s monasticism, and that its appearance may prolong the difficult task of publishing the critical editions of the larger works. I hope that instead, Canons of Our Fathers will contribute to a reconfiguration of the historiography of early Christianity and will invigorate additional interest in Coptic literature.