A term of Greek origin (archein, to rule, and mandra, fold, byre) denoting the superior of a monastery. Although its precise application is the subject of controversy, one thing is certain: it was a higher-ranking term than others such as father, PROESTOS, and HEGUMENOS. The title “archimandrite” emerged in the Syrian and Mesopotamian regions during the course of the fourth century and subsequently became part of the terminology employed by Eastern Christianity as a whole. Undoubtedly, its precise application changed from one country or period to another.
The oldest examples of the use of the title in texts referring to Egypt are to be found in the Historia Lausiaca of PALLADIUS and the letters of ISIDORUS OF PELUSIUM (c. 360-440).
The Historia lausiaca, written around 410, contains the recollections of the author’s stay in Egypt at the end of the fourth century. PACHOMIUS (7.6) and an anonymous superior of a monastic community from which the young Cronius escaped (21.1) are described as archimandrites. The second example could prove that the word was universally used in reference to “ordinary” superiors, and not only to such personalities as Pachomius, if we could only be certain that Palladius really heard it from his collocutor. This cannot be ascertained.
Isidorus, the author of numerous letters, among which are some addressed to an archimandrite (Epistles I, 49, 117, 258, 283, 298, 318, 392), also uses the term hegumenos; this clearly proves that these words were differentiated.
In later literary texts, both Coptic and Greek, the title archimandrite is applied to Pachomius and later superiors of the whole Pachomian congregation, as also to SHENUTE and his successors. Famous monks known from hagiographic sources, such as MOSES OF ABYDOS and Apollo, the abbot of the Monastery of Isaac, are also described as archimandrites. The same title was held by Apa Jeremiah, the founder of the monastery at Saqqara (DAYR APA JEREMIAH) and by his successors. No evidence is presently available as to whether it was applied in reference to the superiors of NITRIA.
Both in the Pachomian congregation and in the monastery at Saqqara, the term “archimandrite” denoted the superior of the entire community while the superiors of its components were described as proestos. Apart from the above-mentioned cases, the title of archimandrite was used by monastic superiors of less well- known and certainly smaller communities in various parts of Egypt.
It is not possible to determine exactly the criteria for using the title, since there are not enough texts to indicate the principles according to which one superior was known as archimandrite while another one was given a different title. The title was not exclusively reserved for superiors of congregations or groups of monasteries. The example of Shenute, whose great monastery was not divided into smaller units, proves that. Moses of Abydos also did not lead a congregation. The title was not even reserved for superiors of the cenobite monasteries, as W. E. Crum (1926) believed, since it appears in documents referring to lauras in al-Balayzah (Kahle, 1954, p. 33) and in Wadi Sarjah (Thompson, 1922), which leave no doubt as to the type of monastic community existing there.
Moreover, Apa Paulos, the superior of a group of anchorites, was titled archimandrite (Crum and Steindorff, 1912, no. 106), while his successors held only the title of proestos. W. Hengstenberg tried to explain this, assuming that Apa Paulos not only directed his own group but also supervised the ascetics of the entire region. This hypothesis is worthy of careful consideration, since it presumes the existence of a sort of superstructure over various forms of ascetic communities in a given area, which could have been established by bishops and sometimes by the patriarch.
The existence of certain forms of supervision is sometimes actually attested. As early as 330, Pachomius refused the offer of such a function from the bishop of Dandarah (Vita Prima 29, Halkin, 1932, p. 19). Another famous but much later example concerns JOHN OF NIKIOU, who was granted by the patriarch SIMON I “the management of the affairs of the monasteries because he was conversant with the life of monks and he knew their rules, and he gave him the authority over them” (Sawirus, 1910, pp. 32-33).
However, if we were to prove the universal existence of such superstructures—and this is a difficult task—it would by no means signify that the title of archimandrite was always applied to that person who supervised all the monks of a given region.
An explanation of the use of this title must come from elsewhere. It was probably an honorific term that was due to the superiors of famous and great monasteries because of their rank in the monastic world. It was also given to the superiors of smaller centers if they happened to be famous for their piety, literary activity, influence upon local brothers, or the like (Lampe, 1961- 1968, under “archimandrites”). The honorific nature of the title is the reason it appears in some literary texts if someone addresses a superior, while in the story told in the third person other expressions are employed, as in A. Alcock’s life of SAMU’IL OF QALAMUN (1984, p. 41).
This use of the term corresponded to the mentality of a milieu that carefully observed the application of titles that reflected hierarchy but at the same time recognized informal authority which was the consequence of personal merits and a charismatic personality rather than an official post. It is difficult to say who had the right to grant this title—bishops in their dioceses, the patriarch, or public opinion as a result of use.
Papyri published by Crum (1909, no. 124) and by P. V. Jernstedt (1959, no. 3) show that the term “archimandrite” was sometimes replaced by the Coptic noh nrome.
- Alcock, A. The Life of Samuel of Kalamoun. London, 1984.
- Crum, W. E. Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the Collection of the John Rylands Library. Manchester, 1909.
- . The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes, Vol. 1, p. 130; Vol. 2, commentary to text no. 133. New York, 1926.
- Crum, W. E, and G. Steindorff, eds. Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts aus Djeime. Leipzig, 1912.
- Halkin, F. Vitae Graeca. Brussels, 1932.
- Hengstenberg, W. “Review of Ten Coptic Legal Texts by A. A. Schiller.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 34 (1934):90.
- Isidorus of Pelusium. Epistulae. PG 78. Turnhout, n.d. Jernstedt, P. V. Koptskie teksty Ermitazha. Moscow, 1959.
- Kahle, P. Bala’izah: Coptic Texts from Deir el-Bala’izah. London, 1954.
- Lampe, G. W. H. A Patristic Greek Lexicon. Oxford, 1961-1968.
- Pargoire, J. “Archimandrites.” In Dictionnaire d’a rchéologie chrétienne et de liturgie. Paris, 1903.
- Thompson, C. R. Introduction to Wadi Sarga. Coptic and Greek Texts. Copenhagen, 1922.