In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Byzantine Monasticism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Key Texts: Late Antiquity
  • General Overviews and Key Texts: Post-Antiquity
  • Reference Works & General Collections
  • Journals
  • Asceticism
  • Monastic Archaeology and Topography
  • Byzantine Monasticism in Latin Border Zones
  • Monasticism and the Authorities
  • Monasticism and the Economy
  • Monasticism and Health
  • Monasticism and Society
  • Monasticism and Women

Medieval Studies Byzantine Monasticism
Hannah Ewing
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0322


Monasticism was practiced widely across the Byzantine Empire and took multiple forms. The major models were: coenobitic, based on communal living; lavriotic, where monks lived separately but came together for religious celebrations; and eremitic, focused on ascetic isolation. Irregular paradigms included wandering monks and stylites who lived atop pillars. Variety, therefore, is a key characteristic of Byzantine monasticism. While both Byzantine and Western monasticism draw from the authority of the desert fathers and share certain general characteristics (such as monastic rules, use of habits to distinguish the monk from the layperson, ascetic practices, and female monasteries having smaller financial endowments than male ones), Byzantine monks were very different from their Western peers. The authority and rule of Basil of Caesarea held considerably more weight within the Byzantine tradition. Byzantine monasteries traditionally did not raise oblates from childhood, instead accepting adult novices only. Monastic orders did not exist in Byzantium, although certain influential monasteries (e.g., Stoudios) did share ideas and practices with other monasteries. The monastic evidence base is less well preserved than in the West, with many monasteries destroyed or disbanded during early Islamic conquests, crusades, the Ottoman conquest, and subsequent rule by non-Orthodox powers. Between this and the variety factor, the field of Byzantine monastic studies has lacked the broad, comprehensive historical overviews so prevalent within Western monastic studies. The general historical arc of Byzantine monasticism falls into three phases. The first, from the fourth to the eighth centuries, usually highlights the development of monasticism across Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine, with heterogeneous heroes and practices. While Western medieval scholarship pulls most heavily on the Egyptian traditions as roots for Western monasticism, Byzantine monasticism owes debts to all those regions. The second phase usually dates from the end of iconoclasm (843) to the fall of Constantinople in 1204 (in short, after recovery from the 7th-century crises and before the crisis of the Fourth Crusade) and emphasizes explosive growth in the number of monasteries and influence of monks. Challenges for monastic values and outside authorities accompanied the monastic expansion, leading to both reform efforts and new monastic traditions. After the restoration of the Byzantine Empire in 1261, many monasteries had to be refounded, and monks struggled with both the question of Church Union with the West and whether to seek direct communion with God via hesychasm. In all time periods, monasticism acts as a microcosm for broader Byzantine society, debates, and values.

General Overviews and Key Texts: Late Antiquity

The first centuries of monasticism were enormously formative to the institution. The key primary sources are many and varied. Athanassakis and Vivian 2003 highlight Anthony of Egypt as the monastic ideal. Palladius’s Lausiac History (Meyer 1965) and the Apophthegmata Patrum (Wortley 2013) each highlight the received wisdom of early Egyptian monastic leaders and remained popular within monastic settings for centuries. The works of Pachomius (Veilleux 1980–1989) spread into many forms of coenobitic monasticism beyond Egypt. For late antique ideas about monasticism in Asia Minor, as well as the institution’s still controversial status, see John Chrysostom’s treatises (Hunter 1989). Modern research abounds highlighting early monastic developments across geographical regions; the following are a small sample illustrating different approaches. Traditionally, scholarship highlighted a roughly linear progression from Egyptian monasticism through later developments (e.g., Chitty 1966 and Dunn 2000). Guillaumont 1979 focuses on the intellectual roots of early monasticism. More recently, scholars including Rubenson 2007 and Rapp 2016 have increasingly emphasized the messiness and variety of early monasticism.

  • Athanassakis, Apostolos N., and Tim Vivian, trans. The Life of Anthony by Athanasius of Alexandria: The Coptic Life and the Greek Life. Cistercian Studies 202. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2003.

    The field of monastic studies remembers Anthony the Great as the classic proto-monk. His vita sets the stage for monastic ideals. This translation also includes additional texts related to Anthony.

  • Chitty, Derwas James. The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire. Oxford: Blackwell, 1966.

    Older but useful and accessible introduction to monasticism in the Christian East from its inception through the sixth century. Covers key ideas, developments, and characteristics.

  • Dunn, Marilyn. The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000.

    Comprehensive yet well-distilled overview of early developments in monasticism, within their intellectual contexts. While beginning with Eastern monastic traditions, this work mostly highlights monasticism in the West, including Ireland and the British Isles.

  • Guillaumont, Antoine. Aux origines du monachisme chrétien: Pour une phénoménologie du monachisme. Spiritualité Orientale 30. Bégrolles en Mauge, France: Éditions de l’Abbaye de Bellefontaine, 1979.

    Collection of fourteen essays, each previously published elsewhere, relating to the development of early monasticism in Egypt. Emphasizes the connections between monasticism and earlier Christian and Jewish thought. The collection draws on both Guillaumont’s archaeological expertise and literary analysis.

  • Hunter, David G., ed. and trans. A Comparison between a King and a Monk; Against the Opponents of the Monastic Life: Two Treatises by John Chrysostom. Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 13. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1989.

    These two texts by John Chrysostom, translated here into English, highlight the Church’s arguments c. 400 CE about the role and value of monasticism—especially in comparison with lay and political life.

  • Meyer, Robert T., trans. Palladius: The Lausiac History. Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1965.

    An influential text documenting the monastic world of the early fifth century. Importantly, this text, while written by a monk and about other monks, was intended for a lay audience, translating monasticism’s value to a larger population.

  • Rapp, Claudia. Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195389333.001.0001

    Emphasizes the importance of spiritual brotherhood in Byzantium and the practice’s monastic roots. The third chapter, and heart of the book, examines the practice in late antique texts and highlights its role in providing a level of community somewhere between formal coenobitism and eremitism. This is an important concept for complicating modern understandings of monastic development.

  • Rubenson, Samuel. “Asceticism and Monasticism, I: Varieties of Eastern Monasticism.” In Cambridge History of Christianity. Vol. 2: Constantine to c. 600. Edited by Augustine Casiday and Frederick W. Norris, 637–668. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Overview of early monasticism that emphasizes both heterogeneity of forms and developments across multiple geographic areas. Emphasizes the multilayered complexity of early monasticism.

  • Veilleux, Armand, trans. Pachomian Koinonia. 3 vols. Cistercian Studies 45–47. Kalamazoo, MI: Liturgical Press, 1980–1989.

    While perhaps not the first coenobitic monk in Egypt, Pachomius and his writings (including his monastic rule) influenced early monasticism in both Egypt and other regions, including the West via Jerome and John Cassian.

  • Wortley, John, trans. The “Anonymous” Sayings of the Desert Fathers: A Select Edition and Complete English Translation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    Some of the earliest monastic tales, originating from oral tradition and emphasizing spiritual direction and ascetic practice. An illustrative text for emphasizing monastic ideals and highlighting key monastic individuals and monasteries in Egypt. Would be translated into multiple languages and spread widely in monastic settings.

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