Oxford history of the christian church



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9. Monks and monasteries.


In its origins in the late third and early fourth centuries Christian monasticism was concentrated in Egypt closely followed by settlements in Palestine. This withdrawal from the everyday world was motivated by a desire to pursue a disciplined life of extreme asceticism almost amounting to a form of voluntary martyrdom. It was believed that the purging of unworthy thoughts and actions and unceasing prayer would lead to a knowledge of God. The movement spread throughout Christendom though eventually its development in the Latin world differed in some respects from that of the East Mediterranean. In Egypt and in the Judaean wilderness from the start there was every shade of ascetic dedication. The solitary isolation of the desert hermit Antony contrasted with the large cenobitic establishments of the converted soldier Pachomius at Tabennisi near the Nile. Likewise the way of life of the solitary cave-dwellers, sometimes living in groups called Lauras and meeting only on Saturdays and Sundays, differed greatly from a community such as was found in the Palestinian house of St Sabas. The Egyptian movement has had a rather better press than that of Palestine. This was partly because of the popularity, in the West as well as in the East, of the various collections of the sayings or precepts of the Egyptian desert fathers. But it is in fact possible that Palestinian monasticism may have had a greater influence on the eastern movement, situated as it was in a land which had special associations for Christians and was constantly visited by pilgrims. 69

One of the formative figures of the early movement had been the fourth-century Basil of Caesarea, himself a bishop and aware of the problems which monasticism could cause in a diocese. He realized that a disciplined way of life within a community was best suited to meet the needs of most monks certainly during the early stages of their new life. The way of the solitary was not excluded by St Basil but it was for the disciplined and more experienced monk. But St Basil left no rule and founded no order. He did however provide answers to questions about problems likely to arise in a cenobitic house, some comparatively slight, some quite basic such as the framework of daily worship or the position of the abbot and the obligation of unquestioning obedience. His advice was frequently referred to by later monastic leaders. But the contrast between St Basil Ascetica (consisting of questions and answers) and the Regula attributed to St Benedict of Nursia is striking. Though it was some time before the Regula became widespread and authoritative in the West, it did provide a concise and ordered statement on the conduct of a monastic community, at the same time clearly setting out its ideals and goal, a rule which was to afford guidance through the centuries to the present day. St Basil covered only a rather random presentation of problems of widely differing importance, though he was in agreement with the Regula as to the monk's goal and the aims of cenobitic life.

The rapid and widespread adoption of monastic life throughout the Empire from the fourth century onwards posed problems for both ecclesiastical and secular authorities. The movement took many forms and though this may have been a source of strength to those dedicated to this life it often proved to be a trial to the secular Church since it made effective supervision of monks difficult. The state was concerned with the withdrawal of manpower and the reduction of productivity on monastic lands. The Church saw the need to regulate the conduct of both institutions and individuals within each diocese. Then cutting across such policies were two complicating and very different factors — the widely venerated charismatic monk who was often a law unto himself (though not necessarily a solitary), and on the other hand the widespread desire of the laity both high and low to invest in a monastic foundation.

Churchmen like Basil of Caesarea and his successors realized the need to control the movement and up to a point the Church got its way. In the early middle ages when there was acute theological controversy the general councils were also aware of the danger of uncontrolled roving monastic partisans. By the seventh century it had been made clear that monks, though they might refuse ordination, were nevertheless under the bishop of the diocese. Conciliar decisions, patriarchal and episcopal rulings, imperial legislation, all upheld diocesan control while approving and emphasizing the life of prayer, individual poverty, and obedience. 70

Throughout its history in the East Mediterranean the monastic movement was marked by great flexibility. It is not possible here to do more than mention the main types of monastic life, with the more important developments which grew up at different times and in different regions, often with ensuing problems. As in the early days of the movement, throughout the middle ages monasticism expresses itself in various ways. There were cenobitic houses of all sizes varying from the large imperial foundations such as the twelfth-century Pantocrator of John II Comnenus to the very small house set up by villagers. The minimum number of monks required to constitute a house was three and it has been suggested that ten to twenty was an average number 71 but this can only be a tentative estimate owing to incomplete evidence, and it may well have been much less. Then there were groups of monks living for most of the week independently in their own separate cells, meeting together on Saturdays and Sundays, and accepting the guidance of a more experienced monk. Such groups were like the original lauras and were known as kellia. A number of these kellia might accept a common spiritual director and form a skete directly linked to a cenobitic house. In addition there were completely solitary hermits living entirely on their own, a life considered suitable only for the more experienced. All forms might be found in the vicinity of a cenobitic house, even within its surrounding walls. In the late middle ages a further monastic association developed in which several monks were grouped into families, living together and owning private property. They were under a superior and normally the different groups met only for services in the chapel. This system was called idiorhythmic, that is, it was based on a private individual routine.

Rather more evidence has survived for monasticism than for the diocesan life of the secular clergy. In the East there were never orders or congregations in the western sense. Despite wide differences in the kind of life adopted which might range from the eremitic to the large cenobitic house, Byzantine monasticism might be said to form a single 'ordo' in that it had a common purpose of leading an ascetic and celibate life of prayer and individual poverty withdrawn from the secular world. Many solitaries adopted this isolation only for part of their monastic life. As they became more experienced they would withdraw from the common life of their house, perhaps to a cell in the grounds, or to some distant island, or mountain cave such as abounded on Mount Athos. This was a recurrent feature of Orthodox monasticism. For every grand foundation described in a surviving charter, or from the extensive records preserved on Mount Athos, there were hundreds of smaller houses, perhaps known only from a saint's life or from some passing reference in other sources. Such was the little house founded in Asia Minor in the eleventh century known only from the writings of John Mauropous. Some houses have survived to the present day, such as the monastery of Hosios Meletios (†1105) situated on a spur of Mount Cithaeron in Boeotia. This last is a good example of what a fairly well-off house might once have been. It still stands with its encircling outside wall and imposing gateway, its stables, refectory, kitchen, and bakehouse, its rows of little cells along two walls with their arcading, and its kellia outside the walls, remains of which can still just be discerned, its free-standing church with its side chapel in the centre of the courtyard. When Leake visited the house in 1805 its lands grazed 3,000 sheep and goats, so the abbot told him as he called out to the shepherd to bring in the best beast for Leake's meal. In 1978 the house was being cared for by about six nuns and it was still the objective of pious pilgrimage. 72

Normally in the case of a cenobitic house the rights of the diocesan bishop were recognized. His consent was necessary when making a new foundation. Conditions of entry for postulants, the length of the noviciate, the solemn frocking of the novice, were all set out in one of the liturgical books, the Euchologion. The method of electing the hegumenus, or superior, might vary in accordance with the founder's wishes, but the choice when made had normally to be confirmed by the bishop. The superior was supreme within the house and was responsible for the spiritual well-being of his monks and for the ordering of the daily round. Prayer both in community and in private was the most important part of the monk's life. Corporate worship took place in the monastic church (the catholicon) 73 where the main offices and the liturgy were said. The lesser offices, terce, sext, and none, might be said while performing household or agrarian duties, or even excused for those working in the scriptorium as being likely to hinder their concentration on their allotted tasks. Administrative details might vary from house to house but certain duties were essential in any foundation. The daily routine of manual work in the house and on the estate provided for the needs of the community and this was controlled by the various officers appointed by the superior. The writings of Theodore Studites and his followers laid down wise guidance in the many problems of internal administration in a cenobitic house. Theodore even wrote short poems in classical metre on some of the officers in his house and their duties, as the cellarer, the choirmaster, the doorkeeper, the general overseer. He also addressed a poem to a passing visitor who was enjoined to refrain from imparting frivolous gossip from the secular world to the monks while enjoying their hospitality. 74

In a large house, such as the Studite monastery in Constantinople, 75 the library and scriptorium were specially important. This was not for any intellectual purpose but for liturgical and devotional use in the community. The complicated service books were needed. Monks had to read suitable works, homilies, and aids to progress in the contemplative life, such as the early fathers or the much valued Ladder of John of Mount Sinai or later the addresses and meditations of Symeon the New Theologian and many of the saints' lives. Reading was obligatory and was strictly controlled by the librarian with provision made for getting books back on time. Theodore himself was said to have been an excellent calligrapher and he well understood the problems and temptations of the copyist ranging from gross inaccuracy to making off with other scribes' pens. 76 From such inventories as have survived it would appear that few secular works were to be found in a monastic library, and those perhaps only by chance. In the fourteenth century Theodore Metochites, the lay patron of the monastery of the Chora in Constantinople, wrote anxious letters from exile about the care of the books which he had placed in its library, which presumably would not all have been religious, but he was something of an exception. All houses had to have some liturgical books and wealthy founders provided splendidly decorated and illustrated copies. The larger important houses, as on Mount Athos or the monastery of St John the Divine on Patmos, had fairly extensive collections, if somewhat limited in scope. By 1201 Christodoulos's house on Patmos, founded towards the end of the eleventh century, had built up a library of 330 books of which the catalogue survives. Of these 168 at least were biblical or liturgical and little more than a dozen were secular in content. Fourteen volumes, mainly lectionaries, had superbly ornamented covers enriched with gold and silver decoration. Some items of this fine collection still survive but about 200 manuscripts have disappeared. 77

During the course of the middle ages certain centres or houses attained considerable prestige and influence. In the eighth century Mount Olympus rising up behind Brusa in Bithyma had a vigorous monastic colony. It was here that Theodore Studites began his early career. He was well known as the consistent opponent of the iconoclasts and as the fierce denouncer of imperial intervention in church affairs. But more important still was his outstanding work as a monastic leader. After the disturbances of the iconoclast movement there was widespread need to restore order in the disrupted daily life of monastic houses. Theodore was a wise spiritual director as was shown by his much used addresses to monks known as the “Greater and Lesser Catecheses.” He was a firm and humane abbot and an able administrator. The Studite Constitution based on his work laid down detailed instructions for a temperate regime exacting obedience but avoiding 'both extremes and inadequacy'. As the Constitution admitted, the way of life which he advocated was only one of many rules for monasteries, but it could justly claim to be the most widely used and approved way, 'the royal rule'. In basic principles it was very like the Benedictine rule. One of the best descriptions of daily routine in a Studite house is to be found in an address given by Symeon the New Theologian (†1022). 78 He began his stormy monastic life in the Studite house in Constantinople and then left under the cloud of insubordination to become abbot of St Mamas, another house in Constantinople. Here standards had evidently slipped. Like Theodore, Symeon gave addresses to his monks and these homilies continued to be used by later generations; in fact a special edition of them was prepared for general use and with this in mind certain personal touches were cut out. They offered practical guidance in the spiritual life and they dealt with the many small trials of everyday relationships and conduct in a community. They were in fact so painfully penetrating that Symeon's monks evidently found it hard to sit through them and on at least one occasion there was a riot in protest at his regime.

Theodore Studites, who was liturgist and hymnographer as well as abbot and administrator, continued to exercise far-reaching influence. His character though forceful was more balanced than that of the fiery and passionate Symeon, 'the most enthusiastic zealot', who went to such extreme lengths in urging on his monks. Theodore was used and quoted from San Salvatore of Messina in Sicily and Patir di Rossano in South Italy to the Pec+̆ersky house in Kiev. For instance Sicilian and Calabrian typica stipulated that at certain appointed times all monks had to leave their work and assemble in church to hear the Catecheses of Theodore Studites being read. 79 The Studite St John Baptist monastery in Constantinople remained a leading house during the middle ages and in the early fifteenth century was described as richly decorated with mosaics with its seven altars and its chapels to the Theotokos, but thereafter the church was converted to Muslim use and the monastery left to fall into ruins and disappear. 80 The foundations on Bithyman Mount Olympus which had come under the control of the Studite house in Constantinople, together with many other monasteries in the region, were still flourishing in the eleventh and later centuries. But eventually Muslim inroads and the unsettled state of Asia Minor took their toll. 81

Another source of strength to monastic life was found in northern Greece on the peninsula of Mount Athos, a spectacular setting with its stark cliffs and well-wooded hills rising to the high peak at the southern end. Even before the tenth century there were monks and a foundation on the Holy Mountain and from Basil I onwards there had been imperial interest in the Athonites. It was in 963 under imperial auspices that the Great Lavra, the most important of the cenobitic houses, was founded by Athanasius, the confessor of the Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas. Settlements with their dependencies grew and were international in character including not only Greek foundations but those of other races — Serbian, Georgian, Russian, and for a time Italian. The tenth-century settlements found it expedient to have a common council which provided a useful representative committee. Their meeting place was at Karyes on the central western side of the peninsula where the hegumem sat under a protos. 82 Thus a kind of federal system was set up and in course of time the Great Lavra became the dominating house. Surviving libraries and archives of these houses contain priceless printed books and manuscripts, often liturgical, and much valuable material dealing with internal administration or with relations between the different houses, sometimes disputes over their land boundaries. Many of the documents also inevitably concern involvement with outside authorities, problems arising over donated property, mostly in northern Greece and the islands, or appeals to the Emperor on questions of fiscal immunities. 83

Despite many complications over property and disputes over financial exactions, all of which are so often detailed in its archival material, Athos was intended to offer a life dedicated to prayer and contemplation and as far as possible disturbing factors were excluded. Besides banning every form of female life it did strive to exclude lay intruders, such as villagers seeking to graze their herds on the land of the peninsula. Though fully recognizing the obligation of hospitality, its charters did not make specific provision for services to the laity such as occur in some typica.

The monastic federation of Athos was particularly well known but there were many other establishments. Another group which, like Athos, has survived if precariously, was that of the Meteora. These houses were founded in the fourteenth century on inaccessible peaks rising up near Kalambaka in Thessaly. For long the only approach was by means of a net winched up the sheer cliff. But with unfortunate 'modernization' of access the houses have become show pieces and monastic life was, and is, threatened by tourist inroads, so that after enduring the rigours of the Second World War and after 84 some of the few monks left have been driven to take refuge on the Holy Mountain, though even here made-up roads and timber lorries have penetrated, displacing the age-long tracks. Many other houses have long since disappeared, or, like the Cappadocian rock monasteries in Asia Minor hollowed out of the vast peaks, remain uninhabited, virtually in ruins and sometimes mutilated with only fading frescoes or even a refectory table and benches carved out of the limestone, to point to their life before the Turks came. Some monasteries are known only from surviving charters (typica), or from isolated references in saints' lives, or from imperial and patriarchal registers. At its best, to make a foundation was an edifying deed pleasing to God and might also provide for specified services to the sick or old or poor, 85 but this was not the primary aim and sometimes did not figure at all, as in the charter which the monk Christodoulos of Patmos obtained in 1081 from the Emperor Alexius I, though there was usually the customary alms-giving. Charters drawn up by laity would ensure a burial place for the founder and his family and their perpetual commemoration in the prayers of the community. Attempts were made to ensure the independence of the house including freedom from molestation by various fiscal agents. Christodoulos tried to safeguard his island from tax-collectors and requisitioners by laying down an amazingly detailed list of protected items, in fact everything on the island ranging from brood mares and mules to rabbits and 'anything on four feet', from peacocks to ducks and any kind of egg. He also specified that no exiles were to be planted on the island. Charters gave instructions for the administration of the house, the election of future abbots, the permitted number of monks, the role of the founder and his descendants, and the endowments were carefully listed. Foundations could be a means of investing capital in an inalienable property and often of ensuring a home for the founder in old age. Alexius I's wife, Irene Ducaena, arranged quarters for herself in her foundation in Constantinople. The fourteenth-century minister Theodore Metochites had the same in mind for himself when he built up the library in the monastery of the Chora for use in his old age.

Houses were founded by various classes and races. The eleventhcentury Michael Attaliates (originally having some link with Attalia on the southern Asia Minor coast) was a Constantinopolitan lawyer of means who used his property to found an almshouse in Raidestus and a small church in Constantinople. Christodoulos, a refugee monk (also originally from Asia Minor), gained a grant of the island of Patmos and became head of the now famous and still flourishing monastery of St John the Divine. Gregory Pacurianus, a wealthy Georgian, provided for monks who spoke and wrote Georgian though his foundation was in northern Greece near Philippopolis.

What is striking about these charters is their attempt to ensure protection from outside authority (and the almost certain rapacity of tax officials) and to prevent alienation of endowments, stressing the authority of the founder and his descendants in the case of laity. 86 For lay founders it was a kind of family insurance policy motivated by the very human desire to provide security in this world as well as the next. The foundation was not necessarily on any site connected with some special event or miracle but on property owned by the founder. It was often only a small family affair enjoying none of the publicity of the grand foundations whose typica have survived. Nevertheless these many lesser houses were of supreme importance in Byzantine social and economic life, particularly in the town. Financial resources donated to a monastery could not be drawn on by the fisc and they could prove economically productive if well handled thus providing a kind of annuity for the founder and his family. 87

The coveted independence of a monastic foundation was always a vexed question. It cut across diocesan and often patriarchal authority and it had financial implications, such as the payment of the usual canonicontax to the bishop. There was moreover no guarantee that standards would be maintained, and it might not always be possible to carry out the arrangements in the charter, perhaps through lack of descendants, though a resourceful founder like Gregory Pacurianus appointed the Studite house to act in the last resort in the election of the abbot. From time to time particularly from the eleventh century onwards efforts were made by the Church to exercise control through the supervision of patriarchal officials.

The continued proliferation of monastic houses brought other problems. Deeply rooted in Byzantine society as it was, the monastic way of life itself was not challenged, but attempts at a high level were made to regulate it. The tenth-century Emperor Nicephorus II was certainly not anti-monastic. But while specifically praising the more eremitic monks living in cells and lauras he tried to prevent new cenobitic foundations at a time when houses already founded were falling into ruins. In the long run he was unsuccessful. Not only did Basil II repeal his legislation but the urge to make a new foundation remained strong. Saints' lives sometimes relate how their hero came across a monastery in ruins which he then built up. This tendency was never eradicated in the middle ages and even as late as the twentieth century the abandonment of buildings left to decay seemed endemic in Asia Minor.

Troubles also arose in the reverse direction. In the legislation of the same Nicephorus II it was emphasized that the unseemly accumulation of property by some foundations ran counter to the tenets of genuine monastic life. It is true that this accumulation was partly due to pious donations or to the 'dowry' brought by those entering monastic life but there is also evidence that there was sometimes a deliberate policy of land acquisition. 88 This frequently resulted in under-productivity which affected the finances of the state. To remedy this a practice was evolved whereby a monastery was given into the charge of another authority, lay or ecclesiastical. If lay this was originally for one or two lifetimes. The translation was called a 'gift' (δωςεà) and the beneficiary was the charisticarius. 89 The procedure may have been of long-standing practice but surviving evidence is mainly from the tenth century onwards. The tirade directed against this practice by John Oxites, Patriarch of Antioch during Alexius I's reign, as also that of the twelfth-century Eustathius of Thessalonica, are both well known. John Oxites had many grievances and this was one of them, no doubt well founded in certain cases where the monastery was starved of essential means to the benefit of the charisticarius. Worse still, said Oxites and secular establishment. The charisticarius might intrude laymen or even go to live in the house himself with his family. Any development of this kind which turned a monastery into a secular dwelling was forbidden by canon law (Chalc. can. 24; Quinisextum, can. 19). Presumably the Empress Irene's separate quarters in her foundation did not count as secularization of the house as such.

Abuse of the system affected not only the inmates of the monastery but the ecclesiastical authorities. Legislation during Alexius I's reign shows the difficulty of keeping track of the possessions of a house granted out. Patriarch Nicholas III with the support of Alexius I made an evidently not very successful attempt to get possessions registered in the patriarchal chancery in a detailed inventory in order to prevent charisticarii from selling or otherwise disposing of them at will. 90 From the late eleventh century onwards there was an increasing need to conserve all financial resources of the patriarchate. These were in any case being diminished by enemy inroads and at the same time there was the added burden of providing for the refugee clergy flooding into Constantinople.

Authorities (including Balsamon) did not condemn the practice of the charisticium though aware of its abuses. Its faults were an obvious target for critics, but little publicity was given to any who cared for the welfare of the houses entrusted to them, as Psellus sometimes did. 91 At its best the system afforded protection to the house and provided estate management which was beyond the resources of the monks. How burdensome monastic property could become is well illustrated by the surviving archives of the Athos houses. Athos itself was somewhat outside normal practice and had to cope with its own problems. But particularly during the latter middle ages the advantages of protection for an ordinary house were recognized and a system of ephoreia was practised. An ephor or guardian of some eminence would be nominated by the Emperor, or the house would be put in the care of a larger and well-known establishment, such as John II's house of the Pantocrator. Not that this last was anything new. The Bithynian houses were connected with the family of Theodore Studites and were closely linked with his house in Constantinople; Michael Attaliates did something of the same with his foundations; and in her charter of 1115 the Empress Irene expressly rejected anything of the kind and forbade that her house should ever be given as 'dorea or epidosis or ephoreia', thus showing that arrangements of this sort were then being practised. 92

It may be asked what monastic 'withdrawal from the world' really meant in the life of East Rome. Many surviving sources seem to point to an almost restless quality like that of the urge to the peregrinatio of the Celtic monks. This comes out in the extensive travelling which occupied the lives of many monks and which gave the lie to suggestions of any inevitable barrier between East and West. The late ninth-century St Blaise (†c.910) went from Constantinople to a house on the Aventine in Rome for eighteen years, then back to the Studite house for another four years before setting off for Athos where he founded a community. Pirates, brigands, and warfare deterred Byzantine monks no more than they did nineteenth-century British travellers in the Aegean. Palestine, Mount Sinai, Cyprus, the monasteries on the western side of Asia Minor, were all visited by the fourteenth-century St Sabas. 93

This was not tourism but a quest. In some cases such as the missions to the Slavs (like the English St Boniface to the Germans) the results were tangible. Though often not. But 'withdrawal', as spiritual directors pointed out, was a withdrawal of the mind, an interior process. In a monastic house where conditions might be thought to favour a spiritual life there were still contacts with fellow humans with all the attendant annoyances and problems, as Symeon the New Theologian knew only too well. Even withdrawal to a cell or cave might not ensure complete isolation. Symeon the New Theologian is regarded as one of the greatest of Orthodox contemplatives, but it should be added that although he did have a period of isolation he was for the most part a man with an active public life. As a young man he was engaged in violent altercation with the abbot of his house, then he became the vigorous head of his own monastery, embroiled in public debate with the churchman Stephen of Nicomedia, condemned by the synod for insisting on publicly pursuing the unauthorized cult of his own spiritual director, exiled but still in touch with many families in Constantinople, persistent in his refusal of the synod's peace overtures (understandably as he had no wish to become an archbishop as was suggested to him). His life was no exception though perhaps more stormy than most. Monks were closely knit into the fabric of Byzantine life. They did not always live up to their ideals and like other members of Byzantine society were satirized. But they cannot be judged simply by the prohibitions of conciliar, synodal, or imperial rulings. The defects which these reveal are more than balanced by positive achievement, the pursuit of a Christian way of life which included major contributions to Orthodox spirituality and to the development of one significant aspect of that spirituality, the liturgy.





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