The Role of the Female Elder in Shenoute’s White Monastery
THE WHITE MONASTERY in the fourth and fifth centuries consisted of different communities, or congregations. They were separated physically but united under one set of monastic rules and one main monastic leader, at least during the tenure of its third head, Shenoute. One of these communities was female and was located in a neighboring village; the others were male, and Shenoute began his monastic career living in one of these until a crisis drove him into the desert. Even after taking control of the monastery, Shenoute continued to spend much of his time in the nearby desert, exercising his authority through letters, sermons, and the codification of monastic rules. He also constructed a system of command where various monks, male and female, were entrusted to carry out his orders.
Shenoute had what appears to have been at times a contentious and tense relationship with at least some, if not most, of the women who lived in this monastic system. Although his works survive only in fragments, it has been possible to reconstruct, or re-imagine, these women’s monastic experiences and to understand the basis of the disputes that occurred between Shenoute and the women under his care.
Despite the recent flurry of scholarly interest in the White Monastery, the role of the female elder is still poorly understood. Three views of the female elder in the White Monastery predominate in scholarship:
(1) Susanna Elm presents a thwarted leader who was not given full control over her own community but is instead subordinate both to Shenoute and a male elder who acted as overseer for the female community;
(2) Bentley Layton claims she was the equivalent of the male elder, the head of the female congregation second only to Shenoute, just as the male elder in the male congregation was second only to Shenoute;
(3) I have argued that she was a figure whose role changed during Shenoute’s takeover of the monastery, such that her former independence became subordination, at least during times when she (and other female monks) met with Shenoute, or his agent, the male elder.
In order to investigate the tensions among these descriptions, this article examines some of the duties and obligations of the female elder as laid out in the rules that Shenoute both inherited from previous leaders of the monastery and adapts and expanded during his own leadership.
Those rules that regulated interaction between the female elder and the male community receive particular attention in order to compare the role of the female elder and the male elder, that is, the man who served as a ‘second in command’ to Shenoute in the male community of the monastery.
I conclude by suggesting that the tensions and contradictions in the female elder’s position in the White Monastery’s hierarchy illustrate how gender paradoxically contributed to both egalitarianism and inequality in Shenoute’s monasticism.
Shenoutean Rule Material
Any analysis of Shenoute’s Canons requires a clarification of their contents, which contain letters, sermons, and rules, of which the last includes various instructions for behavior and the lists of what behavior leads to a person being “cursed.” These rules are not limited to any one of the nine Canons, but rather are dispersed throughout, mostly in Canons 3, 5, 6, and 9, as Stephen Emmel’s codicological reconstruction shows. Moreover, as Caroline Schroeder describes, “The rules also contain lengthy narrative descriptions of the ways in which the monks should follow and enforce the rules as well as substantial interpretative, homilectic, and hortatory passages similar in style to Shenoute’s letter and sermons.”
Thus, the rules are not presented in a systematic way to the community but as part of a larger set of complicated literature. Moreover, Shenoute instructs that these Canons be read to the monastic community four times a year. Since this instruction follows specific rule material in Canon 5 (and since Shenoute uses the word kanon, along with entolh, “commandment,” to refer to the rules themselves), it is unclear whether simply rule material was to be read, or all the literature of the nine Canons. This study examines those passages that might most obviously be regarded as rules, passages which are instructions and are meant to set parameters which could then receive further explanation and interpretation in a variety of settings and situations. Information from such rule material, however, cannot be understood independently from the rest of the Canon literature.
The rules do not mention the female elder very often. Her absence is especially notable, given the repeated assertions that the female community was included under the rule. Shenoute constantly reminds his audience that the rules are meant for all monks (see below), thus placing the female monks and community under the authority of the rules, yet he does not mention the female elder as often as the male within the application of the rules. The resulting impression, like reading through the rules themselves, is less of a systematic creation of a hierarchy of authority positions for the monastery and more of a running commentary on those positions as they were evolving.
The female elder is presented in three ways in the rule material: (1) rules that establish the male and female elders as parallel authorities for their separate communities; (2) rules that depict the female elder as the authoritative equivalent of the “father of these places,” namely, Shenoute; and (3) rules that subordinate the female elder to the male elder. An understanding of the context for these various presentations will explain their inconsistencies. Further, these discrepancies may preserve a record of power negotiations that took place over time between the female community and Shenoute. The rule material therefore is less a synchronic monument of Shenoutean regulation and more a diachronic expression of the changing nature of the authority structures.
The female elder appears in the rule material in much the same way as the female community itself appears: as an addition, or even afterthought, to clarify that how things are done among the men is also how things are to be done among the women. The male and female elders tend to be mentioned in these descriptions when Shenoute needs to set up surveillance (to make sure monks were adhering to the rules) and to allow dispensations. The reciprocity of the rules, alike for men and women, is thus echoed: permission to deviate from the rules comes from the male elder among the men and from the female elder among the women.
For example: “Further, the one who will give anything to his companion secretly through fraud among us ourselves or you yourselves, either anything to eat, or clothing, or linen, or a strap, or anything at all secretly, and they did not inform the male elder first among us or they did not inform the female elder first among you, they shall be cursed, because they have transgressed our laws which our fathers have handed down to us.” Here Shenoute creates a clear equivalency between the two communities.
At times, rules begin as if simply addressing a male community, only to have the female elder and/or female community appear abruptly: “He who will pluck hair which is growing from his armpit or who shaves any place belonging to him in the limbs of his body, unless their head alone, stealthily without the male elder among us [knowing] or without the female elder among you yourselves [knowing]” is cursed. Once again, these rules position the male elder and female elder in parallel roles: each is the main, or final, authority for the respective community. Additionally, the absence of a requirement for the male or female elder to consult with Shenoute underscores the control each elder has over his or her immediate community.
The existence of these parallel legislative constructions raises questions about the times that the rule material mentions only the male elder, despite the inclusion of both male and female monks in that very instruction. For example, both male and female monks can make vows to increase their fasting but only the male elder is explicitly authorized to force a monk to eat, despite this vow, if he judges the hardship too great: “And whenever a person among us, or a woman among you, vows not to eat, or not to drink, two days, or three, or four, or more than these, because of God—and others adjure them, misleading them violently to eat, they sin . . . . Whenever the [male] elder sees someone who suffered in asceticism [politia] or rather in another thing because of God, and he compels him to eat, he is responsible for his deeds.”
What are we to make of the lack of an additional “and so also the female elder” or “and in this way also it is to done among you”? It seems unreasonable, and indeed impractical, to assume the male elder somehow would have this authority in the female community; conversely, it seems reasonable to assume the female elder would do so. Yet the rule is silent on the role of the female elder even though it applies to the female community as a whole.
Moreover, the relationship between Shenoute, the male elder, and the female elder is not set but can be fluid, even within one ‘rule.’ One example, although dependent on a reconstruction since the text breaks off at a crucial point, shows how the female elder could be simultaneously equivalent and subordinate to the male elder. This passage also questions whether her subordination is due to gender or merely to separation from the ‘main’ community. Shenoute is discussing the monthly searches of the monks’ cells for purloined food; the male elder “will go into all the houses of the community.”
This formulation could suggest that the women’s houses are included as well as the men’s. However, Shenoute also orders similar searches “in our other small community which is north of this, so that the father of that place acts also in the same way” along with “the ones who are appointed with him.” This “other small community” then has a leader who has the same authority over his community as the male elder has; but he is a “father” and he acts in concert with others. Shenoute continues by instructing that any violations this ‘father’ finds must be reported to the male elder (“he shall inform the male elder about them, and he shall not hide any wicked deed at all”). Finally, Shenoute says, “And the female elder, she shall also act . . . ,” at which point the manuscript breaks off. The parallel construction with the earlier orders to the father of small community, however, suggests that the female elder shall also search the houses in the women’s community and that she also reports any transgressions to the male elder.
This example illustrates the tension that exists throughout the rule material, in terms of the role and authority of the female elder and of the overall inclusion of women in the monastic rule. On the one hand, the female elder has authority over her community as a separate entity within the monastery since she is in charge of searching it. On the other, all matters are to be vetted through the male elder, who presumably then reports to Shenoute. In addition, the female elder’s subordination to the male elder in this case is not due to gender; the other father is just as subordinate. What remains uncertain is the relationship between the male elder and the overall head of the monastery, the “father of the congregations.”
Other rules that describe the female elder are less clear on the question of equivalency with the male elder. Instead, they suggest that she is equal in authority to Shenoute. First, on at least one occasion, the wording of a rule equates her with the “father of these places.” Both male and female monks were cautioned that they would pay a penalty if they went to work without praying “it not yet having been appointed to them through the father of these places, and without the female elder for her part also who is in the village.” Here the final authority for the female community “in the village” is still the female elder, but the comparative authority is not, apparently, the male elder (who is not mentioned) but Shenoute or his successors.
Second, the female elder is at times defined as “the mother” of the female community, a title parallel to the “father of these places.” When Shenoute stipulated how those in the female community should communicate with the men, he designated who should deliver messages: “whenever a need exists, the female elder herself of the gathering, the mother of the ones in that place, will go with two other senior women with her.” The term, “mother,” however, is itself complicated because soon afterward Shenoute uses its singular and plural forms in reference to those who should communicate their needs to the male community: “We already have said many times and we have written it, that the mother or mothers of the ones in the village will write to us here (about) everything which they need in their place.”
Here it appears that Shenoute is referring to the female elder as “the mother” and then including the mothers, who serve as the head of various houses. Yet the lack of any mention of “elders” (or “senior women”) seems odd. These aberrations thwart any attempts to make a specific reconstruction of the monastery’s authority structures. In addition, because the total number of references to the female elder is relatively few, any variations in Shenoute’s references to the woman (or women) in charge are not easily dismissed. Despite this confusion, these different descriptions do not alter the main impression created by the material presented thus far: that of a relatively autonomous female community with an authoritative (and largely independent) leader.
There is also the question of who appoints the female leaders. Once again, Shenoute’s description of this process uses fluid terminology but conveys a clear overall message: God has chosen who should serve as leaders (presumably including Shenoute). Shenoute writes, “For after the father of these congregations is his second . . . . Just as God will send this second-person . . . so also he will send every house-person and their seconds on behalf of the ones who dwell with them.
And just as God will send these two people and the ones in agreement with them, so also he will send the mother of the congregation and the one who comes after her, her second, and all the others who are in agreement with them.” That Shenoute uses “mother of the congregation” indicates a parallel authority system where each community has a head (father/mother), a second, and their supporters. Since the male community most likely chose Shenoute as its head, one could expect the female community selected its “mother,” although this process could have changed during the course of Shenoute’s leadership.
The rule material thus depicts the female community, and its leadership, as a separate yet linked community. This dual status, however, also exposes a tension in the monastic rules: at times, the female elder is her own authority. Yet at other times Shenoute requires the oversight of the male elder, a decision that subordinates the female elder. The clearest example of this subordination is the requirement that female monks need the permission of the male elder to leave their community: “Nor shall any woman among you escape the gate of the community, or go for any reason, without being ordered by the male elder to go.”
Besides this rule, most examples of such subordination seem to stem from the letters, which describe actual meetings, more so than from rule material, which remains inconsistent in its depiction of authority positions. For example, the rules for funerals of female monks indicate that the male elder had control over their burial: male monks are sent to the female community to receive the body, singing Psalms chosen by the male. No women are allowed to attend the funeral, except for the female elder and “another who is an old woman of many years.”
Given that monks were most probably buried in the desert, at some distance from the female community in the village, this description is not unexpected. What stands out is less the absence of women, and more Shenoute’s careful regulation of the necessary contact between the two communities. Shenoute then segues from funerals to general religious gatherings, saying that “none among us” can skip gatherings for prayer and none can skip “the hour when we lift up the offering . . . unless they are ordered by the male elder among us or the female elder among you.”
This contrast—between the subordinate female elder of the funeral and the female elder in charge of the gathering in her own community—emphasizes the distinction in place. The male elder leads religious gatherings of both communities, male and female. In those situations when the two communities can remain separate, the female elder has the authority to act independently. Thus, the two communities exist in tension: when separate, they are equal; when together, a male/female hierarchy emerges.
Moreover, Shenoute’s ideal is for the communities to remain separate since he prefers communication through letters rather than meetings. It is contact between male and female monks that creates anxiety for Shenoute and consequently tension in the rules.
These authority structures are even more complicated by the presence of gatekeepers (literally, “people appointed to the place of the door”) for the female community. The plural in the Coptic is gender neutral and the word rwme (“people”) is not gender specific. However, Shenoute consistently uses this word rwme to refer to monks in the male community as opposed to women in the female (see below).
Thus it seems likely that these gatekeepers are men, a supposition that takes on greater weight because of Shenoute’s anxiety about contact between the gatekeepers and the female congregation, especially the female leaders who would need to have regular communication with these men. Shenoute writes that these gatekeepers are not allowed “to speak alone with the (woman) at the gate, nor will she herself speak with them, not even regarding the smallest thing, even if she is the daughter of someone from those (men), or his sister or his mother or finally anyone at all either joined to them or not joined to them.”
One presumes that the woman is not herself a gatekeeper since she is merely at the gatehouse (“in the place of the door”) and not “appointed” to it (a gatekeeper). More anxiety appears in another rule, which insists that no material goods should be given to the gatekeepers from the (physically proximate) female community. Rather, these goods are sent from the male gathering, at some distance. These gatekeepers can also not leave the village community, even to visit the sick, unless permission is granted from the male elder.
The presence in the female community of male gatekeepers, themselves part of the male authority system and subordinate to the male elder, supports Elm’s contention that the entire female community, although treated as an equal part of the monastery in the rules, was in fact subject to constant male supervision. Yet Layton’s contention of equivalency has also been clearly confirmed.
It is precisely the fact that the evidence supports two seemingly incongruous portraits that leads me to suggest that the rules preserve a process of power negotiations. For example, the descriptions above suggest various levels of communication between the female and male communities. Shenoute’s preferred method allows a woman, who does not a hold a specific title, to come to the gatehouse but not to converse with the men there.
If necessary, “whenever the need exists, the female elder herself of the gathering, the mother of the ones in that place, will go with two other great women” to meet with the gatekeepers. Apparently, in these scenarios, only written communication passes from the male gatekeepers to the male community. Finally, however, “whenever the need exists” this same female leadership—the female elder, identified as “mother,” and two senior women—can go to the male community, either to deliver the letter themselves or possibly to meet with the male leadership.
These complicated descriptions show Shenoute’s preference for gender separation, which is made possible by the gatekeepers and which secludes the women, especially the female elder. Such a system, however, cannot have been sufficient, thus forcing Shenoute to allow physical contact between the communities even as he insists that written communication is better.
The Two Communities: Male and Female, Us and You, People and Women
Reading these few passages about the female elder in the context of the overall role of women in the White Monastery suggests that the rule material does not necessarily provide more clarity about the monastic system and its authoritative structures than the letters. Rather, like the letters that accompany them in the Canons, they record a tension in the White Monastery in terms of the place and function of the female community. Moreover, the tension appears also in the overall application of the rule material to the women. Elm contends that women lived as part of the monastery from its start and so “Shenoute’s rules and ‘Canons‘ were not originally conceived for a male community only and then simply passed on to a later female addition. They were from the beginning conceived for and addressed to men and women alike” (emphasis hers). I would argue that both the position of the female community as part of a larger federation and the authorship and audience of the ‘original’ rules remains uncertain.
Shenoute uses several phrases to signal an explicit inclusion of women in the monastic rules: (1) “Among us or among you [pl.];” (2) “Among us, either male or female;” (3) “a rwme [person/man] among us, or a woman;” (4) “Among you” where “you” is a feminine singular and so refers to the whole federation, including the female community; (5) “Among you [f.s.], either male or female;” (6) “He is cursed, namely a man [not rwme], or a woman among you [pl.];” (7) “He is cursed, namely a brother or a sister.” Two of these phrases, “either male or female” and “among us and among you” appear frequently in the letters. The first phrase, “either male or female,” serves to create an expectation of monasticism that transcends gender, even as it continues to insist on gender identity; while the second phrase, “among us or among you,” insists on two communities, an “ours” and a “yours,” that are reciprocal but separate.
A similar effect is created in the rule material, especially with some of the other five variants. To insist on a rule for all, either male or female, presents a different view of the monastic congregations from a rule for “a man among us, or a woman.” In the former case, the rule is presented as egalitarian in its inception; both men and women are submissive to a higher authority (not Shenoute, but rather God, the author of the rules) and this submission marks their monastic identity. In the latter case, women are being asked to adhere to a rule seemingly written for men, which makes the women ‘equal’ but only as an extension of the male community. As an appendage, the female community accepts not just Shenoute’s authority, but an entire system created for a male monastery. In short, they accept a male-dominated surveillance system necessary for Shenoute to exert his control.
This latter view of the female community creates subordination for women even as they are accepted as monks in the federation like the men. As Elm notes: “the mother was forced to subject herself completely to the authority not only of Shenoute but also of another father, again in the name of equality.” This point calls into question the term ‘equality’ when examining the role of gender in Shenoute’s monastery. Here modern theoretical investigations about gender equality prove illustrative. These studies have differentiated between a formal sense of equality, “treating likes alike,” and a more substantive sense, “addressing disadvantage.” Because Shenoute is equal only in the formal sense, he creates inequality.
True equality would have to be equal in the substantive sense where the ‘disadvantage’ is not simply separation from Shenoute (since he also lives apart from the male community) but rather the disadvantage of Shenoute himself not visiting their community and the disadvantage of being a later addition to a monastic system authorized by a distant, and often harsh, male leader. Because of their gender, these women were less and less able to represent themselves to the person in charge of continually shaping and setting their monastic experience; rather, they had to communicate through intermediaries who may or may not have understood or been sympathetic to their arguments.
Shenoute’s lack of substantive equality in his monastery, even as he strove for reciprocity, helped fuel the tension I have illustrated. He created a system that at times allowed for equality but at other crucial moments revealed the disadvantages the women had as members of the monastic federation.
 For two accounts of this period of Shenoute’s career, see Emmel 2004a and Chap. 2 of Schroeder 2002.
 This is the general subject of Krawiec 2002.
 Elm 1994: 296-310. Elm uses Johannes Leipoldt’s publication of some of the works of Shenoute that includes both rules and fragments of two letters concerning female monks as the basis for her interpretation.
 Layton 2002: 28-30, esp. Table 1 on 29. For his study, Layton has “read through more or less all the extant remains of the Canons” (26).
 Krawiec 2002: 52-55 and 77-79. For my study, I focused on thirteen letter fragments pertaining to the female community and examined some, but by no means all, of the rule material to set some context for those letters.
 For previous leaders of the monastery, see Emmel 2004b: 9-10. That the elders, male and female, became crucial to Shenoute’s monastic system has been noted by Layton in his suggestion that their role receive further attention (Layton 2002: 51).
 The Coptic for male and female leadership is ambiguous, although Layton suggests future work must be illuminating: “It will probably be necessary to distinguish two meanings of pHllo/tHllw as follows: (1) ‘the male Eldest/female eldest’—the two Elders par excellence (heads of the male and female hierarchies); (2) ‘one of the Elders’ generically speaking,” (Layton 2002: 51 n. 110). Although I understand Layton’s use of the superlative ‘Eldest’ to refer to the head of the group—that s/he is the eldest, not the elder of two—I will continue to use ‘elder’ in my paper as it remains the usual term in scholarship on monasticism in general, especially throughout the Middle Ages.
 The tensions, therefore, are not simply in scholarship on the female elder but in the rule material itself. For example, the main passage Layton uses for his description of the monastic hierarchy (see n. 5) does present both elders as in charge of each separate community. Yet, a gender inequality of the sort Elm describes also appears. The particular section (Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 3: 156-57) explains the procedures for making reports to Shenoute. Each elder, male and female, creates an account of transgressions (‘evil things’) based on conversations with heads of houses and senior monks, but the female elder then gives her report to the male elder, who reports everything verbally to Shenoute.
 The letters recorded in the nine Canons include those written to specific individual monks, those written to just the female or male community, and those written to the monastery as a whole. Yet, since Shenoute chose to include these particular letters within this collection, we can infer that whatever the specific original audience, the letter included a more general monastic instruction that Shenoute deemed applicable to all monks, male and female, that was consistent with the rule material with which it was integrated.
 Schroeder 2002: 88. Also as Layton notes: “In arrangement and style Shenoute’s works called Canons is not a monastic regula,” though he also notes Emmel’s point that “some materials in Canons books 3, 5 and 9 come closest to the literary form of a regula” (Layton 2002: 29 and n. 22).
 Bentley Layton, in his paper for this symposium (“Ancient Rules of Shenoute’s White Monastery Federation”), argued for the existence of two rule books which would have served as the basis of the rules Shenoute records. Under this theory, these rule books were read to the monks on a regular basis.
 This argument is not meant to contradict Layton’s presentation of the female elder as a static position, since he notes: “For present purposes, I will not take into account the possible evolution of institutional rules and structures over the long span of Shenoute’s career.” Layton 2002: 30.
 Leipoldt, 1906-1913, vol. 4: 122-23. This rule also touches on the issue of Shenoute’s codification of rules already in place, and the extent to which he adapts and adds to them. In this case, giving things secretly seems to be the “law” which was handed down from “our fathers.” However, that Shenoute also comments on the roles of the male and female elder, as well as how duties were assigned to each, suggests an amalgamation of previous rules and new circumstances: “such that any person, male or female, shall not give anything to his companion through fraud secretly, unless it was appointed to him through the male elder among us or through the female elder who has been set for you among you yourselves.”
 The rule continues, in part, “he who will shave hair in any places belonging to him without the male elder among us or the female elder among you yourselves, they (?) shall be cursed, whether he is a male, whether she is a female. And if the need exists, such that they shave sick parts (of the body), they shall inform the male elder first among us or they shall inform the female elder among you yourselves” (Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 171).
 Since Shenoute lived outside the monastery, the male community needed a person to provide daily oversight as much as the separate female community did.
 Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 59-60.
 Ibid.: 58.
 Ibid.: 106. A parallel for this passage appears in Young 1993: 48-59.
 Though Layton also points to Shenoute’s use of the phrase “congregational parents among us whether male or female” (Layton 2002: 29, Table 1, n.s 2 and 3).
 Here Shenoute uses the phrase, “Senior Women,” with noC nsHime, which Layton argues is the term for female elder monks and which functions as the equivalent for “the elders” (nHllo), implied male. Young translates the Coptic phrase as “older women” but he also translates qllw as ‘mother superior’ (Young 1993: 56).
 These heads of monastic houses are also at times called eiote, a gender neutral ‘parents.’ See Layton 2002: 29.
 This view is in keeping with Shenoute’s overall understanding of his leadership, as I argue (Krawiec 2002: 51-72), and with the general presentation of God as the author of the rules for the monastery, as Schroeder argues (Schroeder 2002: 103-07).
 Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 44.
 On the process of Shenoute’s having become head of the monastery after his complaints about the previous leader, see Schroeder 2002: 76-85 where she lays out the “political” implications of his rhetoric. For appointments of female leaders, compare the problem in Abraham, Our Father from Canon 3, where a female monk seems to have been reluctant to receive an increase in her rank (Krawiec 2002: 38-40).
 Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 61.
 Ibid.: 61-62.
 “For the letter is for us and for you yourselves the firmness and the greater benefit of our gathering” (Ibid: 108). See Young 1993: 56: “Corresponding (by letters) is indeed the assured enhancement of our assembling.”
 As Layton argues (2002: 34-35).
 “At any time within these congregations, whenever the necessity arises, such that the people who have been appointed to the place of the door of the congregation which is in the village must speak with the ones in that place, or such that the ones in that place themselves say a word to us or a message.” Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 107.
 Ibid.: 106.
 Ibid.: 107.
 See n. 21 above.
 Indeed, the passage in question ends with the specific admonition that the gatekeeper system allows the female elder and senior women to “remain there with their companions together” (Leipoldt 1906-1913, vol. 4: 107).
 See note 28 above.
 Elm 1994: 300.
 I here follow Schroeder’s arguments about the authorship and origins of the rule material (see Schroeder 2002: 100-103).
 In some cases, rules do not mention women at all. Further exploration is necessary to determine whether their absence means the rule does not apply to them or whether their inclusion is implied.
 Krawiec 2002: 95-100, esp. 99.
 Elm 1994: 308-309.
 Kapur 1999: 144.