A custom of giving a child up to a monastery for one of two reasons: having the child become a monk or making the child a serf of the monastery.
Instances of donating children who were intended to become monks are known from literary and especially hagiographic sources. The absence of sources other than literary ones limits our information. We do not know whether the donations were accompanied by a formal act that defined the duties of the parties involved and the question of the private belongings of the future monk. This could have been quite possible, taking into consideration the customs of the period. It is not possible to tell what happened if, upon growing up, the child did not accept the decision made by his parents. The church must have had unfortunate experiences with donations of small children, since during the Council in Trullo (691) it introduced a prohibition of monastic vows taken by children less than ten years old (canon 40).
The presence of children in monasteries is well proven as regards Pachomian congregations; it is mentioned in “Rules and Lives.” The education of children was the object of special concern on the part of the founders of the congregation, who were also disturbed by the eventual homosexuality among the brothers. We also come across children in the monastery of Shenute. The Coptic inscriptions in the DAYR APA JEREMIAH at Saqqara mention a certain “Victor, he that belongs to the cell of children.” This cell could have been the living quarters of children or, as the editor suggests, a school room (Thompson, 1912, no. 314).
Children were also present in other monasteries, although practically nothing is known about the circumstances in which they arrived. Perhaps there were among them orphans whom the monasteries were entrusted to rear, when there were no rightful guardians or when designated guardians were unable to fulfill their obligations. We also do not know whether those children who were to become serfs were separated in everyday life from those who were to become monks.
A group of documents from DAYR ANBA PHOIBAMMON, of which the oldest dates back to the beginning of the eighth century and the latest one is dated at 781-791, was published in Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts aus Djeme (Crum and Steindorff, 1912, nos. 78-103). It shows the existence of donations of another nature. Parents donated their children—as a rule boys— so that they would serve the monasteries. The acts inform us in detail about the circumstances in which such decisions were made, most frequently during a serious illness of the child, when the parents turned to Saint Phoibammon for help. Only one text makes no mention of an illness. In some texts the donors give an additional motivation for their decision. They say that they want to make a prosphora, offering, for the sake of their souls. According to the customs of the period, one was morally obliged to make an offering to a church or monastery; after the donor’s death, mass was said on certain days in his behalf.
Some texts also mention punishment in the form of illnesses brought by the saint if the parents neglected to fulfill their duty. There is no reason to distrust the sincerity of those declarations, although the possibility exists of other economic and social motives on the part of the parents. The very poor could have wanted to ensure for their children a modest but, in their eyes, secure existence. They could also have hoped that the monastery would protect its own people against violence committed by officials. After all, throughout the eighth century the Saint Phoibammon monastery remained influential and prosperous.
The parents claimed that their children became slaves similar to “those purchased,” but this was obviously inexact. Certain documents state that after attaining maturity they were able to decide whether they wanted to remain in the monastery or to work outside, and then pay a certain sum (see Crum and Steindorff, no. 96). In one instance, the parents even fixed the amount of this payment (no. 78). Evidently the children offered to the monastery became its serfs.
The age of the children differed. In one instance the child was three years old, but it is uncertain whether he was handed over to the monastery immediately. It is far more likely that this took place some years after, when he could be useful as a servant. In one case the boy grew up and confirmed his parents’ decision.
The deeds of donations defined the nature of the work to be performed by the children. They were to keep the monastery clean, to carry water, take care of lamps in the church, administer bread for guests, and in general do everything that the oikonomos told them to. No mention is made of their tasks outside the monastery.
One question might be whether the offered children became monks in the community which they previously served. The sources offer no direct answer to this question. The unmarried state was not tantamount to taking monastic vows. There may have existed a separate category of lower-ranking brothers in monasteries of the Arabian period, who were recruited from among the serfs of the monastery. This is a possible explanation of a group from DAYR ANBA HADRA in Aswan whose members were known as “the Faithful” (Munier,1938). Unfortunately, the modest source materials at our disposal are not easy to interpret.
Besides donations of children there are instances of self- donations of adult men to monasteries. Such a donation is attested by Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts aus Djeme, no. 104, where the reason adduced is the recovery from a serious disease. Evidence of similar donations occurs in literary texts concerning the saints George and Claudius. Sinners, who had been punished by the saints, offered themselves as soon as they obtained forgiveness (Till, p. 105; Godron, pp. 655, 663).
A separate category about which there is practically no information is composed of the children donated to priests, or the bishops, to be brought up as clerics (Till, p. 66, mentions Moses, the future famous monk).
- Amélineau, E. “Vie arabe de Schnoudi.” Mémoires publiés par les membres de la mission archéologique française au Caire 4 (1888):331.
- Bacht, H. Das Vermächtnis des Ursprungs, p. 231. Würzburg, 1972. Crum, W. E., and G. Steindorff, eds. Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts aus Djeme. Leipzig, 1912.
- Godron, G., ed. Second panégyrique de St. Claude par Constantin, évêque d’Assiout. PO/35, pp. 655, 663.
- Munier, H. “Le christianisme à Philae,” Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 4 (1938):46.
- Steinwenter, A. “Kinderschenkungen an Koptische Klöster.” Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Kanonistische Abteilung 42 (1921):175-207.
- Thompson, H., ed. The Coptic Inscriptions. Excavations at Saqqara 1908-1909, 1909-1910, no. 314. Annales du Service des antiquités d’Egypte. (1912).
- Till, W. C. Koptische Heiligen- und Märtyrerlegenden, Vol. 2, Rome, 1936.