Skip to main content Accessibility help

Women in Anchoritic and Semi-Anchoritic Monasticism in Egypt: Rethinking the Landscape

  • Caroline T. Schroeder


Outside of hagiography, the evidence for female anchorites in early Christian Egypt remains scarce. House ascetics in cities survive for us in documentary and other sources, but women monks in non-coenobitic, nonurban environments are more difficult to locate, to the point at which some scholars have begun to question their very existence. This essay seeks to change the parameters of the scholarly debate over the nature of non-coenobitic female monastic experience. It examines hagiography, monastic rules and letters, and documentary papyri to reassess the state of the field and to produce a fuller portrait of anchoritic and semi-anchoritic female asceticism. Non-coenobitic women's monasticism existed, and it crossed boundaries of geography and social status, as well as the traditional categories of lavra, eremitic, coenobitic, and house asceticism. This interdisciplinary approach provides insights not only into women ascetics’ physical locations but also into their class, education, and levels of autonomy. An intervention into the historiography of women's asceticism in late antique Egypt, this study ultimately questions the advisability of using traditional categorizations of “anchoritic,” “lavra,” and “coenobitic” to classify female monasticism, because they obscure the particularities and diversity of female ascetic history.



Hide All

1 Vita Syncleticae 11 in PG 28: 1488–1557; trans. Castelli, Elizabeth A., “Pseudo-Athanasius: The Life and Activity of the Holy and Blessed Teacher Syncletica,” in Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook, ed. Wimbush, Vincent, Studies in Christianity and Antiquity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 271 of 265–311. The ascetic reuse of tombs and funerary architecture in the Christian era is well documented, but thus far, I know of no evidence for female occupancy. See O'Connell, Elisabeth R., “Transforming Monumental Landscapes in Late Antique Egypt: Monastic Dwellings in Legal Documents From Western Thebes,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 15 (2007): 239273.

2 AP Alphabetical, Bessarion 4 in PG 65: cols. 140–141; trans. Ward, Benedicta, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, Cistercian Studies 59, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Studies, 1975), 41.

3 Verba Seniorum 4.62 in PL 73: col. 872; trans. Ward, Benedicta, The Desert Fathers Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 30.

4 This article examines women who exist in the overlapping categories of asceticism and monasticism of the early Christian era. By asceticism, I mean the discipline of the body and mind in pursuit of a “realized eschatology” to embody the “angelic life.” As Susan Ashbrook Harvey explains, “asceticism was the remaking of the human person in the image of its maker.” (See Asceticism” in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, eds. Bowersock, G. W., Brown, Peter, and Grabar, Oleg, Harvard University Press Reference Library [Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999], 317318.) Monasticism, derived from the Greek term monachoi (the “single ones”), indicates people who have differentiated themselves, typically through a separation from the family or through asceticism. (See Conrad Leyser, “Monasticism,” in Late Antiquity, 583–584.) As William Harmless has observed, many early Christians identified as both monastics and ascetics: “Early monks typically joined ascetical disciplines—fasting, vigils, poverty, and lifelong celibacy—with a life of manual labor” (Monasticism” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, eds. Harvey, Susan Ashbrook and Hunter, David G. [New York: Oxford University Press, 2010], 493).

5 Vita Syncleticae 11 in PG 28: 1488–1557; trans. Castelli, 271. Many of the quotes in the vita overlap with sayings attributed to the Apophthegmata Patrum, raising questions about the historicity of both sources. See Wipszycka, Ewa, “L'ascéticism féminin dans l’Égypte de l'antiquité tardive: Topoi littéraires et formes d'ascèse,” in Le rôle et le statut de la femme en Égypte hellénistique, romaine et byzantine: actes du colloque international, Bruxelles—Leuven 27–29 novembre 1997, Studia Hellenistica 37, eds. Melaerts, Henri and Mooren, Leon (Paris: Peeters, 2002), 384386 of 355–396, repr. in Wipszycka, Moines et communautés monastiques en Égypte (IV e–VIII esiècles), Journal of Juristic Papyrology Supplements 11 (Warsaw: Warsaw University and the Raphael Taubenschlag Foundation, 2009), 598–601 of 567–611.

6 Harmless, William, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (New York: Oxford, 2004), 440442.

7 Harmless, Desert Christians, 445.

8 Wipszycka, Moines et communautés monastiques, 596–606 (“L'ascéticism féminin,” 382–392).

9 Elm, Susanna, “Virgins of God”: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity, Oxford Classical Monographs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 234251.

10 Elm, “Virgins of God,” 253–282.

11 In addition to Wipszycka's assessment, see David Brakke's analysis of the gender dynamics in the Vita Syncleticae in his Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 188193. See also the theoretical analysis of the larger phenomenon in Clark, Elizabeth A., “The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the ‘Linguistic Turn,’Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 67 (1998): 131.

12 Goehring, James E., “The Encroaching Desert: Literary Production and Ascetic Space in Early Christian Egypt,” in Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999), 7388 (originally published in Journal of Early Christian Studies 1 [1993]: 281–96); The Dark Side of Landscape: Ideology and Power in the Christian Myth of the Desert,” in The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography, eds. Martin, Dale B. and Miller, Patricia Cox (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005).

13 Although Palladius's Historia Lausiaca describes a variety of forms of women's asceticism, from house asceticism to coenobitism, only one example may deal with nonurban, female anchoriticism. It may be describing the founding of formative coenobia or lavrae. In chapter 11, a sibling group of men and women establish monastic settlements. (Palladius, Historia Lausiaca in The Lausiac History of Palladius: A Critical Discussion, together with Notes on Early Monachism, ed. Butler, Cuthbert, Texts and Studies 6, parts 1–2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898–1904; repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 1967), 32; trans. and ed. Meyer, Robert T., Palladius: The Lausiac History, Ancient Christian Writers 34 (New York: Newman Press, 1964), 46. See the discussion in Harmless, Desert Christians, 444, and Wipszycka's treatment of Palladius and women's asceticism in Moines et communautés monastiques, 573–575 (“L'ascéticism féminin,” 376, 378–379.) Evagrius's Letter to a Virgin also addresses female monasticism, but both Evagrius and Palladius have been well plumbed in recent scholarship and need not be examined here.

14 Shenoute, Canon 3, YA 309–311 in Sinuthii Archimandritae: Vita et Opera Omnia, ed. Leipoldt, Johannes, 3 volumes (numbered 1, 3, 4), CSCO 41, 42, 43, SC 1, 2, 5, (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1906–1913), 4: 120121. I have found no other mention of female hermits affiliated with Shenoute's monastery. Perhaps additional references will be discovered when the Canons of Shenoute are published and translated, a currently ongoing project spearheaded by Stephen Emmel. Krawiec's, Rebecca book, Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pertains to women living in the coenobitic residence.

15 This reference has passed under the radar of much scholarship, even on Shenoute, perhaps due to the fragmented nature of the corpus. See Layton, Bentley, “Rules, Patterns, and the Exercise of Power in Shenoute's Monastery,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 15 (2007), 47, where female hermits are mentioned but not documented. See also the description of Shenoute's federation, which includes the three coenobia but no hermits, in Coptic Christology in Practice: Incarnation and Divine Participation in Late Antique and Medieval Egypt, Davis, Stephen J., Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 59.

16 See Krawiec, Shenoute and the Women, 27, 86–87, on surveillance in Shenoute's monastery. On the seclusion of women in the Pachomian koinonia, see especially Pachomius, Precepts 52 and 143 in Pachomiana Latina: Règle et épîtres de s. Pachôme, épître de s. Théodore et ‘liber’ de s. Orsiesius. Texte latin de s. Jérôme, ed. Boon, Amand, Bibliothèque de la Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 7 (Louvain: Bureaux de la Revue, 1932) 2728, 51–52; trans. Veilleux, Armand, Pachomian Chronicles and Rules, vol. 2 of Pachomian Koinonia, Cistercian Studies Series 46 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981), 154, 166167. See also Elm, “Virgins of God,” 294–296.

17 Emmel, Stephen, “Shenoute the Monk: The Early Monastic Career of Shenoute the Archimandrite,” in Il monachesimo tra eredità e aperture: atti del simposio “Testi e temi nella tradizione del monachesimo cristiano” per il 50 anniversario dell'Istituto monastico di Sant'Anselmo, Roma, 28 maggio-1o giugno 2002, eds. Bielawski, Maciej and Hombergen, Daniël, Studia Anselmiana 140 (Rome: Pontificio Ateneo di S. Anselmo, 2004), 151174; Schroeder, Caroline T., Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 2453.

18 The Pachomian rule material can be found in Boon, Pachomiana Latina; trans. Veilleux, Pachomian Koinonia 2. A French translation of the Naqlun rule, and an investigation of the relevant manuscripts, is in Michel Breydy, “La version des Règles et préceptes de St. Antoine vérifiée sur les manuscrits arabes,” Appendix to “Le monachisme Êgyptien,” chapter 3 in Wipszycka, Ewa, Études sur le christianisme dans l’Égypte de l'antiquité tardive, Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum 52 (Rome: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 1996), 395403. A Latin translation of the Naqlun Rule can be found in PG 40:1065–1074.

19 Regarding the communities of women, in surveying both archaeological remains (which do not provide clear evidence for specific women's communities or cells) and documentary sources (which provide more persuasive evidence), Wilfong writes: “in spite of this uncertainty [in archaeological evidence], there are fairly clear indications in the sources that there were women's monastic organizations of some sort in the western Theban area.” None of these communities are “named” (as in the case of the men's settlements known as the Monastery of Epiphanius and the Monastery of Apa Phoibammon) in the surviving sources, but the sources indicate such communities existed, possibly affiliated with known named or as yet unidentified men's communities. See Wilfong, Terry G., Women of Jeme: Lives in a Coptic Town in Late Antique Egypt, New Texts from Ancient Cultures (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 107108.

20 Wilfong, Women of Jeme, 108.

21 P.Mon.Epiph. 646 in The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes, Part II: Coptic Ostraca and Papyri, Greek Ostraca and Papyri, trans. and eds. Crum, Walter E. and White, H. G. Evelyn (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1926), 327. Papyri, ostraca, and inscriptions are cited according to the “Checklist of Editions of Greek, Latin, Demotic, and Coptic Papyri, Ostraca and Tablets,”; additional publication information is provided only for texts examined in depth.

22 SB V 7550 in Sammelbuch griechischer Urkunden aus Ägypten vol. 5, ed. Kiessling (Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1955), 32. No known women's community existed at Edfu. One of the Pachomian monasteries (Phnoum) was established outside of Esna, about fifty kilometers north of Edfu, but it was a men's community. Under the direction of Elisabeth O'Connell, the British Museum is conducting an ongoing excavation of Hagr Edfu, a fifth- to ninth-century monastic settlement in rock-cut tombs outside of the town of Edfu. Perhaps more information about the gender composition at Hagr Edfu will emerge as a result of these investigations (Davies, W. Vivian and O'Connell, Elisabeth R., “British Museum Expedition to Elkab and Hagr Edfu, 2011,” British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and the Sudan 17 [2011]: 129; Davies and O'Connell, “British Museum Expedition to Elkab and Hagr Edfu, 2012,” British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and the Sudan 19 [2012]: 5185.) One reference to an “amma” that cannot be interpreted as a female ascetic is Amma Chrystina of SB V 8714 (pace Elm, “Virgins of God,” 246). Chrystina is a martyr. (Papaconstantinou, Arietta, Le culte des saints en Égypte des Byzantins aux Abbassides: l'apport des inscriptions et des papyrus grecs et coptes [Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2001], 216.) For SB V 8714 see Kiessling, ed., Sammelbuch griechischer vol. 5, 311.

23 Elm, “Virgins of God,” 266–267.

24 Horn, Maarten, “Two Coptic Inscriptions from the Monastery of Jeremiah at Saqqara,” Journal of Juristic Papyrology 34 (2004): 7179.

25 Wipszycka, Moines et communautés monastiques, 586–87 (“L'ascétisime féminin,” 372–373). See also Wietheger, Cäcilia, Das Jeremias-Kloster zu Saqqara unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Inschriften, Arbeiten zum spätantiken und koptischen Ägypten 1 (Altenberge: Oros, 1992).

26 The most famous, of course, are elite, literate women such as Egeria, Paula, Melania the Younger, and Melania the Elder, who traveled the entire Mediterranean region as well as Egypt. (On these ascetic women pilgrims, see Frank, Georgia, The Memory of the Eyes: Pilgrims to Living Saints in Christian Late Antiquity, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 30 [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000], 67.) An ascetic woman of more modest means could certainly have traveled up and down the Nile.

27 P.Oxy. XLIV 3203 in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume XLIV, eds. Bowman, A. K. et al. (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1976), 182184. See also Elm, “Virgins of God,” 235, and Goehring, James E., “Through a Glass Darkly: Images of the “Apotaktikoi/(ai/) in Early Egyptian Monasticism,” in Discursive Formations, Ascetic Piety, and the Interpretation of early Christian Literature, Part 2 = Semeia 58, ed. Wimbush, Vincent L. (1992): 2545, repr. in Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism, Studies in Antiquity and Christianity (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press, 1999), 5372.

28 P.Princ. II 84, P.Prag. I 42; P.Lond. III 994 & 1020; PSI VI 698; CPR IV 152. For CPR IV 152 as evidence for property-owning monastic women who gain income from leasing their building(s), see also Wilfong, Women of Jeme, 107. On PSI VI 698, see also Elm, “Virgins of God,” 234–235. See also the list of papyri concerning female ascetics in Wipszycka, Moines et communautés monastiques, 609–611 (“L'ascétisime féminin,” 395–396). Some, but not all, of the papyri and ostraca used in this paper are listed in Wipszycka's article; her tally is not exhaustive. Elm examines papyri, as well, in her monograph, “Virgins of God,” and some of Wipszycka's analysis seeks to counter Elm's conclusions. Wipszycka's list of papyri concerning ascetic women contains a few errors, most notably categorizing SB I 5567 (in Sammelbuch griechischer Urkunden aus Ägypten vol. 1, ed. Preisigke, Friedrich [Strassburg: Karl J. Trübner, 1915; repr. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1927], 592) as concerning a female ascetic; the “Abes(sa)” of the document is the name of a lay Christian, not an ascetic. (See the review of eadem, Moines et communautés monastiques in the Journal of Early Christian Studies 19 [2011]: 307310.) I have not included some of Elm's sources in this article, because either they likely do not refer to female asceticism, or the references are too vague to be certain. Among these, the most significant are: P.Laur. II 42 about a woman who may or may not be a renunciant (see Elm, “Virgins of God,” 236, 240–241); P.Iand. 100 about women who seem to live at a male monastery (Elm, “Virgins of God,” 237, 244–245); P.Lond. VI 1926 concerning a woman who writes to Apa Paphnutius and greets her daughters (Elm, “Virgins of God,” 237, 244–245); the third-century SB VIII 9882 from “Ammas Thaubarin and Appas Dios,” who could be a married couple or ascetics (Elm, “Virgins of God,” 237, 246); a collection of letters concerning Didyme and “the sisters” (see the competing analyses in Elm, “Virgins of God,” 236–237 on the one hand and Wipszycka, Del buon uso delle lettere private. Commento a SB III 7243 e P.Oxy. XIV 1774,” in Humana sapit. Mélanges en l'honneur de Lellia Cracco Ruggini, eds. Carrieé, Jean-Michel and Testa, Rita Lizzi, Bibliothèque d l'Antiquité tardive 3 [Turnhout: Brepols, 2002], 469473, and eadem, “L'ascéticisme féminin,” 396, on the other hand; n.b.: the note in the last article regarding these letters was deleted when the article and its list of papyri was reprinted in Moines et communautés monastiques, 609–611).

29 P.Cair.Masp 67139 in Maspero, M. Jean, Papyrus grecs d’époque byzantine: Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire vol. 2 (Cairo: Service des antiquités de l’Égypte, 1913; repr. Osnabrück: Otto Zeller Verlag; Milan: Cisalpino—La Goliardica, 1973), 51 of 42–58.

30 BGU II 551 in Aegyptische Urkunden aus den Königlichen (later Staatlichen) Museen zu Berlin, Griechische Urkunden, vol. 2 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1898; repr. Milan: Cisalpino Goliardica, 1973), 192.

31 PSI 8 953 col II, line 8 in Papiri greci e latini (Società Italiana par la ricerca dei papiri greci e latini in Egitto) 8 (1927): 136. Mentioned briefly in Elm, “Virgins of God,” 246n64.

32 Wilfong, Women of Jeme, 106–109.

33 On tsōnē and tsōne as names, see Preisigke, Friedrich, Namenbuch enthaltend alle griechischen, lateinischen, ägyptischen, hebräischen, arabischen und sonstigen semitischen und nichtsemitischen Menschennamen, soweit sie in griechischen Urkunden (Papyri, Ostraka, Inschriften, Mumienschildern, u.s.w.) Ägyptens sich vorfinden (Heidelberg, 1922), 449.

34 P.Lond. V 1731 in Greek Papyri in the British Museum, Catalogue with Texts vol. 5, ed. Bell, H. I. (London: British Museum, 1917), 188191.

35 Literally “Aurelia Tsone, daughter of Menas whose mother is Tapia, a monk (monachē) anchored (ormōmenē) from Syene” (Bell, 189).

36 Brakke, David, Athanasius and Asceticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 2526.

37 On women's legal and financial authority in Egypt, see Bagnall, Roger S., Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), esp. p. 98. As Bagnall notes, documentary evidence about women that does not mention husbands, fathers, and so forth, indicates women acting without the presence of husbands, fathers, and so on.

38 P.Lips. 60 in Griechische Urkunden der Papyrussammlung zu Leipzig vol. 1, Mitteis, Ludwig, (Leipzig: Teubner, 1906), 188; see also Elm, “Virgins of God,” 236; on the identity of Didyme's sibling, see the introductory remarks in Mitteis, Griechische Urkunden, 188, and P.Lips. 59. On the term aeiparthenos denoting an ascetic woman, see Elm, “Virgins of God,” 239–40 and Rowlandson, Women and Society, 77. For another instance of the term, see also SB XVI 12620/P.Mich.Inv. 431, a letter fragment that contains greetings sent to a woman named Nona (or Nonna) and her unnamed virgin daughter. No other information about this aeiparthenos is provided, so this fourth-century document only provides evidence for asceticism in a most generic sense, and most likely house asceticism.

39 P.Lips. 43 in Griechische Urkunden, Mitteis, 146–149. See also Elm, “Virgins of God,” 235–236 and eadem, An Alleged Book-Theft in Fourth-Century Egypt: P.Lips. 43,” Studia Patristica 18/2 (1989): 209215; trans. Rowlandson, Women and Society, 77–78.

40 O.Brit.Mus.Copt. I. 53,6 in Coptic and Greek Texts of the Christian Period From Ostraka, Stelae, etc. in the British Museum, ed. Hall, H. R. (London: British Museum, 1905), 72. (See also Wilfong, 107).

41 O.Brit.Mus.Copt. I add. 23 in Coptic and Greek Texts, Hall, 146–147; trans. and eds. Bagnall, Roger S. and Cribiore, Raffaella, Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC–AD 800 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 200. Bagnall and Cribiore believe the Maria mentioned in both ostraca is one and the same; Wilfong makes no such determination (Cf. Wilfong, 107).

42 O.Mon.Epiph. 386, in Women's Letters, 252. See also Wilfong, Women of Jeme, 76, 108. Wilfong agrees that the women are probably ascetics.

43 Aegyptus 66 (1986): 190–91 (a.k.a. P.Alex.inv. 675), O.Mon.Epiph. 170, O.Mon.Epiph. 199, and O.Mon.Epiph. 300 in Women's Letters, 205, 245–246, 248–249. These women are not ascetics, however.

44 For example, O.CrumST 233, in which “This humblest Sarah” writes to a monk or priest named Ezekiel. Sarah is not an ascetic. These nineteen letters from women to monks and clergy appear in Women's Letters, 198–214, 245–254.

45 “An unlikely epithet for an addressee, but the gender forbids its being applied to the writers. Women seem apt to misuse such epithets” (O.Mon.Epiph. 386 in The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes, Part II, Crum and White, 93); translation and editorial comments in ibid., 255. (The translation used here, however, is Bagnall and Cribiore, Women's Letters, 252.) Although Crum and White cite one more example of a woman “misusing” an epithet, Bagnall and Cribiore's more recent collection of women's letters does not bear out this earlier accusation of a tendency for women to pen mistakes in their epistolary formulae.

46 I put “anchorite” in quotations, because as “anchorite” as a technical term or title appears in sources of Egyptian authorship, but with varied usages. I use the term in the general sense of a monk who has chosen a renunciatory life, but one not in a coenobitic monastery. See Wipszycka, Ewa, “‘Ἀναχωρητής, ἐρημίτης, ἔγκλειστος, ἀποτακτικός.’ Sur la terminologie monastique en Egypte,” Journal of Juristic Papyrology 31 (2001): 148155, repr., revised, and expanded in Moines et communautés monastiques, 281–323. See also Choat, Malcolm, “The Development and Usage of Terms for ‘Monk’ in Late Antique Egypt,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 45 (2002): 1012; Förster, Hans, ed., Wörterbuch der griechischen Wörter in den koptischen dokumentarischen Texten, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 148 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2002), 5455.

47 Harmless, “Monasticism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, 507.

48 See especially Clark, Elizabeth A., “The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the ‘Linguistic Turn,’Church History 67, no. 1 (1998): 131; and David Brakke's consideration of Clark's argument in “The Lady Appears: Materializations of ‘Woman’ in Early Monastic Literature,” in The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography, 25–39.

I thank the Church History readers for their dedicated and detailed comments on this piece.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed