The Ancient Rules of Shenoute’s Monastic Federation

WORK IS NOW well under way to produce a critical edition of Shenoute’s vast work entitled . My own editorial task is volumes 4 and 5 of the Canons. Now, this title—Canons—is a bit odd. In Christian usage of the language, ‘canons’—kanones—meant ‘rules’ or ‘laws,’ and so it is no surprise to find that volumes 4 and 5 do contain a large number of monastic rules.[1] However, as you read these volumes, and indeed all nine volumes of the Canons, two very peculiar problems immediately catch the eye.

First, for the most part, these nine books do not consist of monastic rules or laws. Instead, they consist mainly of monastic diatribe, filled with reproach and warning, directed to fellow monks and nuns. Why, then, were these diatribes entitled Canons?

Second, interspersed throughout the Canons we do find a certain number of monastic rules floating here and there. However, Shenoute usually quotes these rules without making any obvious connection to the theme or argu­ment of the work in which they occur. What is the function of the rules that occur haphazardly in the midst of diatribe? Why are they there, and not collected together in one book? How do they belong to the text? Or, to put the question more , what is the Canons, why does it exist, who gave it this name, what was its intended function, and in what environment was it used? So far, we have no answer to these questions, and I am not going to answer them all in this paper.

In order to edit and translate Volumes 4 and 5 as accurately as possible, I decided to collect and study all the rules and policy statements that occur in all books of Shenoute’s Canons. My corpus now amounts to more than five hundred rules, that is, short passages that seem to be, or to cite, or to reflect, a monastic rule. Since many, many parts of the Canons have not survived down to the twenty-first century, the original, complete text of the Canons must have contained even many more rules than I have collected—let us imagine, a thousand or more. The quantity of the surviving rules is nothing short of sensational.

Now, the genre of Christian monastic rule had already been invented by Pachomius two generations before Shenoute. However, only one hundred or so Pachomian rules now survive, and mostly in a Latin version, whereas, in the Shenoute corpus, we have over five hundred , a really exten­sive set of commands and policies in the original Coptic. This enables us to understand the administration of an early coenobitic monastic federation, both in detail and in its overall structure. As readers may know, much of my recent research has been devoted to analyzing the structure of Shenoute’s monastic world on the basis of these rules.[2]

Let us return to the rules. What is the source of authority for these rules? Who was their reputed author? In seeking to answer these questions, it is very important to remember that Shenoute was not the founder of the White Monastery federation: this was apparently Apa Pcol. As Professor Emmel has demonstrated,[3] Shenoute was the third leader of the federa­tion, the successor of a certain Apa Ebonh. Thus: Pcol, Ebonh, Shenoute. During Shenoute’s leadership as third of the federation, the time of experimentation and surprise had passed. Patterns of daily life had become well established, taken for granted, and typified.[4]

Now, in quoting monastic rules, Shenoute speaks of “us,” thus includ­ing himself, as having inherited the rules from predecessors. He refers to the “canons” or “traditions” or “commands” or “commandments” or “laws” that a group called “our fathers” either “established” or “laid down” or “wrote” or “commanded to us” or “that we have,” or something similar.[5] It is clear that Shenoute is not the author of the five hundred or so monastic rules in my corpus—at least, certainly not all of them.

Furthermore, Shenoute’s federation possessed and used distinct books of ancient rules, which Shenoute mentions in several places. These books do not survive. But we know how they were used. In fact, many of the rules quoted by Shenoute probably came from these books. According to statements made by Shenoute, these ancient books were used in several dif­ferent institutional contexts by the leaders of the federation.[6] In order to describe the uses of these lost rule books, I must first describe the organiza­tional structure of the White Monastery federation.[7]

Figure 1. The Organizational Structure of the Federation.
Figure 1. The Organizational Structure of the Federation.

As fig. 1 indicates, Shenoute’s monastic federation consisted of three congregations, comprising two monasteries for men (located at the White Monastery and the Red Monastery); and a nunnery for women, located in the of (probably the archaeological site of Atripe); as well as a cluster of male and female hermits living along the base of the Gebel or valley wall. A supreme leader (Shenoute, for example) headed the federation as a whole. Under him, each of the three congregations was headed by an called the Eldest; and each congregation had its of elders who served as advisors. The monastic population of each congregation was enclosed by a wall and was divided into units called houses. Each house was headed by a housemaster or housemistress.

The daily schedule[8] of the monks or nuns consisted of six events, which were obligatory for all healthy monks or nuns. As fig. 2 indicates, just before dawn a great assembly was held in each of the three individual con­gregations for prayer, instruction, and communal handiwork. At 6 a.m., a smaller meeting for prayer and handiwork was held in each of the houses of each congregation; and the same repeated at (probably) 9 a.m. At 12 noon there was a communal meal in each individual congregation. At 3 . was another meeting in each of the houses for prayer and handiwork, and in the evening, another great assembly for each entire congregation.

  1. Just before dawn, a great assembly, that is, a collective meeting for prayer and handiwork in each entire congregation (in the building?)
  2. 1st hour (6 a.m.), prayer and handiwork in the houses
  3. [. . ] hour (9 a.m.?), prayer and handiwork in the houses
  4. 6th hour (12 noon), the daily meal
  5. 9th hour (3 p.m), prayer and handiwork in the houses
  6. Evening, a great assembly

Fig. 2. The Daily Schedule of Monastic Life.

Twice a week, we are told, on Wednesdays and Fridays, one of the smaller meetings included a catechesis—an instruction. And three times a week, on Wednesdays, Fridays, and nights, one of the great assem­blies also included an instruction.[9]

I will now return to the ancient rule books that Shenoute mentions. How were these books used in the federation?

The answer to this question comes from Shenoute’s own statements,[10] which tell us the following. At the most intimate organizational level, pas­sages from these rule books were sometimes read aloud or interpreted in or instructions that were given twice a week in each house by the housemaster or mistress. This would have taken place at a smaller meet­ing held, at either 6 a.m., 9 a.m., or 3 p.m., in each House. Here, personal spiritual intimacy was the tone. The housemaster or mistress was the most significant spiritual advisor to the individual monk and , and indeed, these officers were also called “Congregational Parents.”[11] These officers monitored the spiritual state of each monk and nun, and their twice-a-week catecheses were an occasion for learning, participation, group response, and bonding—moments of great emotional significance. Here the rules were translated into patterns of daily life at the most personal level, under some­thing like parental guidance.

Second, higher leaders also used or interpreted the ancient rule books to instruct a large audience. Such plenary instructions were given in one of the great assemblies consisting of all the monks or nuns in a given congregation.

Third, the rule books were required to be publicly read out in their entirety during each of the four weeks of annual plenary meeting,[12] in which all the members of a given congregation were told to scrutinize their words and deeds in the light of the written rules. Possibly these weeks were the first week of Lent, Easter week, and two other weeks of the year.

Fourth, and finally, when any newcomer came to the gate of the monas­tery and announced his desire to become a monk,[13] he was first scrutinized by the gatekeeper and then examined by the supreme leader (Shenoute, in this case). Finally, he was led into the church, and before the he had to swear a solemn oath that he would agree to the way that the monks live and comply with any and all rules on pain of expulsion. This was a vague and insubstantial promise to keep all existing rules, even though he did not know what they were. For, there would have been far too many rules to learn at once—a thousand or more, probably—and anyway, most of them would make absolutely no sense without a prior knowledge of the termi­nology, roles, and organization of the monastery, which the newcomer had not yet internalized. Yet, in making his monastic vow, he learned that for­mal rules existed and that they would somehow be used in the future. Here we see the use of rule books as an idea or mental icon without yet, as it were, opening their covers.

In summary, there were at least four ways that rule books were used in the White Monastery federation. First, in some of the small-scale instruc­tional meetings in the individual houses. Second, in some of the large-scale great assembly meetings of the individual congregations. Third, to be ritually read aloud in their entirely before each individual congregation, during each of the four weeks of annual scrutiny. And fourth, as an object of unknow­ing obedience, to which reference was made whenever a new monk or nun took their oath of submission.

There is no indication that low-level, ordinary monks ever possessed, borrowed, or even touched a rule book, and it is most unlikely that they would have done so. Such books were instructional, disciplinary, and ritual tools, meant to be used, interpreted, or altered by authorized leaders of the federation. They were material for the use of teachers and supervisors.

So, what did these rule books look like? Exactly what did they contain? Unfortunately, I cannot find any way to reconstruct their exact contents. Nor do I know how they were arranged. However, it is possible to make a few observations based on the forms of the surviving rules that are quoted by Shenoute in the Canons.

I have studied the formal style of the White Monastery rules collected in my database[14] and discovered that about 40 percent—nearly half—have the same form as the Coptic rules of Pachomius, as published by . These rules are practical and casuistic. They are both and negative. Affirmatives usually express the main command by Coptic efna- (sometimes efe-), and negatives by nnef-. Casuistic conditions are expressed by formal conditional (if . . . then . . .) or by adverbial elements such as at any given time, anyone in this congregation, anyone in this congregation whether male or female, except with permission of such-and-such an officer, except in case of emergency or of sickness, etc.—in other words, practical administrative rules geared to daily application. In my current research on the White Monastery rules, I am in the process of comparing these rules with the somewhat ear­lier rules of Pachomius. Shenoute, of course, knew about Pachomius, who had died[15] one year before Shenoute was born.

Shenoute mentions Pachomius by name in the Canons and knows about the story that Pachomius received his rules from an angel.[16] Occasionally Shenoute speaks of his own monastic federation as a “Koinonia[17]—favorite jargon of the Pachomian monks. And the two surviving Coptic manuscript fragments of Pachomius’s rules, which were copied in the early , once belonged to the White Monastery library, according to Orlandi.[18] So the Pachomian connections are unmistakably there. Yet, Shenoute does not claim the authority of Pachomius when citing any of the White Monastery rules. For example, once he quotes what we can recognize as an actual rule of Pachomius (Praecepta 95, about the distance that two monks must leave between them­ selves when they walk or sit).[19] But he attributes this rule only vaguely to “those who have said.” It appears that Pachomius was not considered to be the patron of the Pachomian type of rules that were used in Shenoute’s fed­eration, however much they may owe historically to Pachomius.

A second important formal group of ancient rules—accounting for about 15 percent of the surviving rules—are curses.[20] Half of these begin with the phrase “Cursed be anyone who (does so-and-so)” (fshouort nci- . . .). Another third have the curse at the end: “Anyone who (does so-and-so) shall be under a curse” (. . . efesope efshouort). This form is unique in early monastic rules. It has a biblical basis in Deuteronomy 17.

It is extremely interesting that in three of the of Shenoute’s Canons, curse rules are accompanied by numbers written in the margin.[21] Only a few numbered curses have survived. They include curses numbered 5-11, 56-60, 116-119, 128-139, 192-195, and 204. Though only a few have survived, we can see from the numbering that originally there were more than two hundred of them. This suggests (although it does not prove) that Shenoute had access to an ancient rule book in the form of numbered curse rules.

There is more that can be said about the structure and origins of the ancient rule books used in Shenoute’s monastic federation. For the moment, however, I would like to conclude by referring to the problem with which this paper began: namely, the question of the literary con- text—Shenoute’s work entitled Canons—in which these rules are quoted. Earlier in this chapter I cited Shenoute’s own statement about various insti­tutional settings in which the ancient rules were used.[22] One of these was the large assembly of all monks or nuns, held twice a day in each of the three congregations of the federation. Three times a week (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday night) one of these great assemblies included a catechesis or instruction given by a senior leader of the congregation.[23] Here, the rule tells us, excerpts from the rules might optionally be read out by the instruc­tor, as the instructor exhorted the assembled persons to scrutinize their words and their deeds in the light of the ancient rules. Might it be that Shenoute’s Canons gives us some examples of the kind of urgent rhetoric that was delivered in the great assembly meetings, before an entire congre­gation, where instructors occasionally made use of the ancient rule books, just as Shenoute does in his Canons? If so, this would provide a partial answer to the question I raised at the beginning of this chapter—namely, what are Shenoute’s Canons?


[1] By my count of surviving leaves, Canons vol. 1 contains 27 rules; vol. 2 contains 3 rules; vol. 3 contains 97 rules; vol. 4 contains 46 rules; vol. 5 contains 120 rules; vol. 6 contains 36 rules; vol. 7 contains no rules; vol. 8 contains 6 rules; vol. 9 contains 207 rules.

[2] Layton 2002; Layton 2006; Layton 2007; Layton (forthcoming). A few passages of the present paper reproduce the wording of one or another of these essays.

[3] Emmel 2004b: 9-10.

[4] Layton 2007: 45-46.

[5] Layton (forthcoming).

[6] Shenoute writes (or perhaps quotes), “If they happen to read them (the rule books) in the Houses, nothing stands in the way. And also if they happen to read from them, whenever they want to, on days when all are gathered in the assembly, scrutinizing their words and their deeds according to our rules (canons), nothing stands in the way. However—on these four yearly occasions (the four annual weeks of scrutiny, cf. note 12) they shall all be read without fail, even if there is someone who hates to hear them because he hates his very soul”: Canons, vol. 1, YW210, based on text as by Stephen Emmel; an imperfect transcription of the same text is given by 1916: 117.

[7] For further details, consult Layton 2002: passim, and Layton 2007: 53-54.

[8] Layton 2007: 51-53 (“The Hierarchy of Time”).

[9] “Just as the housemasters give catechesis each fast day, also the heads of these abodes shall give catechesis in the assembly three times per week: the two fasts and the of Sunday” (Canons, vol. 9).

[10] Shenoute, quoted above in note 6; Layton 2007: 65-69.

[11] Layton 2002: 29, table 1.

[12] “Four weeks per year . . . everyone who dwells in the desert in our territory shall assemble with the monks or nuns and come together” (Canons, vol. 3); “We scrutinize our words and deeds during the four weeks when we assemble” (Canons, vol. 9).

[13] Layton 2007: 58-64.

[14] In Layton (forthcoming): passim.

[15] 9 May 346.

[16] Canons, vol. 4, BZ10=Leipoldt 1908: 120.

[17] Canons, vol. 1, YW78=Paris, BN copte 1302 f.78 verso; vol. 3, YA 31 3=Leipoldt 1913: 122; vol. 9, FM96=Leipoldt 1913: 89 and BV283=Leipoldt 1913: 172.

[18] Orlandi 2004: “Pacomio.” (Consulted on 29.12.2004.) The manuscript sigla are MONB.BC and MONB.BF.

[19] Canons, vol. 9, DF145-46 = Leipoldt 1913: 95, speaking of “those [that is, Pachomius] who have said, You shall leave a cubit between yourselves and them.”

[20] Studied in Layton (forthcoming).

[21]  Codexes GI, YA, and YD. For the marginalia of GI, cf. Emmel 2004: 162; for YA, Emmel 2004b: 147—48; and for YD (fragment 2 verso), Cairo, Institut fran^ais d’archeologie du Caire, ms. inv. 2349A (Emmel per litt. 26.08.2004; not mentioned in Emmel 2004b).

[22] Text in note 6, above.

[23] See note 9, above.

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