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"Twenty Thousand Nuns" The Domestic Virgins of Oxyrhynchos - Coptic Wiki

“Twenty Thousand Nuns” The Domestic Virgins of Oxyrhynchos

Historia Monachorum in Oxyrhynchos

The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto contains a literary testimony of Chris­tians in the city of Oxyrhynchos.[1] Its anonymous author, an eyewitness from Palestine writing at the turn of the fifth century, boasts that this city in Middle Egypt abounds with monasteries, both within its walls and out­side. He even notes that the bishop claimed to have under his jurisdiction a stunning “ten thousand monks and twenty thousand nuns.” Also, the Libel- lus Precum by Marcellinus and Faustinus (c. 383), a document preserved in the Collectio Avellana, mentions, during the episcopate of Theodorus in Oxyrhynchos, “sacred virgins, whose monasteries the citizenship itself venerated for their being worthy of sanctity.”[2]

As most scholars have recognized, the number of ascetics mentioned in the Historia Monachorum—“ten thousand monks and twenty thousand nuns”—is too marvelous to be taken literally (see also Luijendijk 2008: 3—6). Yet the prominence of this passage in scholarly discussions on Oxy­rhynchos and Egyptian monasticism, combined with the fact that many papyri from this city feature monastics, makes it remarkable that no one has researched monasticism in Oxyrhynchos as a microcosm to be studied for its own sake. To be sure, although no specific studies on monks and nuns at Oxyrhynchos exist as of yet, the topic of the papyrological evi­dence for Egyptian monasticism is not—please excuse the pun—virgin scholarly territory: two recent books by Ewa Wipszycka and Maria Jesus Albarran Martinez have addressed the topic thoroughly.[3]

In this chapter I am particularly interested in the earliest documentary evidence of female ascetics at Oxyrhynchos. One phrase in the Historia Monachorum draws my special interest: the bishop’s estimation of“ten thousand monks and twenty thousand nuns,” with twice the number of nuns compared to monks. Since most other sources for monasticism suggest that monks outnumbered nuns in Egypt (Wipszycka 1996: 316), the double dose of nuns mentioned in this passage in the Historia Monachorum is especially striking. So, how does the papyrological evidence compare with this statement and what can we learn from the papyri about Oxyrhynchite nuns?

As we will see, the earliest evidence for female ascetics in papyri from Oxyrhynchos confronts us not with cenobitism, but with a different kind of asceticism. The nuns we will encounter in Oxyrhynchite papyri that are roughly contemporary with the Historia Monachorum—the neighbor Annis, the apotactic sisters Theodora and Thauris, and a man’s sister Athonis—are so-called ‘domestic virgins.’These women practice a form of monasticism known also from literary sources.

They live not in a nunnery, but at home, either with their family, alone, or in a small group, and renounce marriage. Furthermore, they abstain from leisure, including and wine. A mid- to late-fourth-century text, the Gnomes of the Council of Nicaea, is quite specific in stipulating the behavior and daily activities of such domestic virgins: they should dress modestly and spend their days fasting and studying. Fur­thermore, they should lead socially restricted lives (especially from men).[4]

Another fourth-century text, the Canons of Pseudo-Athanasius (in Arabic translation), exhorts every family to set aside one of their daughters for this lifestyle, upon whose asceticism the salvation of the entire household depends: “In every house of it is needful that there be a virgin, for the salvation of the whole house is this one virgin” (canon 98).[5] The Gnomes of the Council of Nicaea assert similar family coverage from a domestic virgin: “If your daughter desires (s7U0vgEtv) a state of virginity (7tap0EVO<;) you obtain a mighty grace, for on her account you are remembered by the Lord.” According to these prescriptive texts, there is a lot at stake in the decision to become a domestic virgin, not just for the women themselves, but also for their families. But we should remember that these sources, of course, indicate how we should imagine the ideal domestic virgin from the perspective of their authors. The papyri from Oxyrhynchos that feature nuns both complement and complicate the picture evoked by the Historia Monachorum and other literary sources. So, after this brief literary tour, we now turn to our papyri from Oxyrhynchos to take a closer look.

Didyme and the Sisters

The earliest evidence of female monastics at Oxyrhynchos is difficult to ascertain.[6] It hinges on the interpretation of two letters written around the year 340 by a certain “Didyme and the sisters” (AioiiW] Kai ai aSeAxpai, P.Oxy. XIV 1774[7] and SB VIII 9746).[8] The letters are each addressed to a woman, Atienatia and Sophias respectively. In their letter to Atienatia, for example, Didyme and the sisters write:

To my lady sister Atienatia, Didyme and the sisters [send] greetings in the Lord. First of all it is necessary to greet you, praying that you are well.Write to us, my lady, concerning your health and whatever orders you need, with full liberty. Let us know if you received your orders. There is a balance with us from the money of your orders, I believe, of 1,300 denarii. Canopic cakes received for you from them will be dispatched. Greet my blessed lady sister Asous and her mother and … ([Address]:To my lady sister Atienatia, Didyme with the sisters.Trans. Bagnall and Cribiore 2006:194)

Both letters contain the customary well-wishes followed by communica­tions about exchanges of goods. Whereas the letter to Atienatia features an all-female cast of characters, the one addressed to Sophias complicates the picture, presenting both women and men. None of the men mentioned, however, appear to reside with Didyme and the sisters.

So how should we interpret the reference to “the sisters” here and the fact that we have a group of women writing? At stake is whether “Didyme and the sisters” represent a group of ascetic women or whether they are just family members or even friends. The analysis of these letters proves to be highly significant, for if they indeed involve female monastics, then they constitute the earliest evidence for such women at Oxyrhynchos. For this reason these documents have received ample scholarly scrutiny.

Their inclusion in or exclusion from the dossier of female ascetics considerably affects the prosopography of Oxyrhynchite nuns—involving three women (Didyme, Atienatia, and Sophias) and the group of monastics. Moreover, it would significantly alter our view of the Eves and activities of domestic ascetics, as these documents show them with a busthng social circle and lively exchange of goods. Wipszycka contends that one can understand this correspondence without having to resort to the “monastic hypoth­esis.”[9] Elsewhere, she observes that scholars easily succumb to their desire to push the evidence for monastics back in time.1[10]

While Wipszycka has a point there, the letters are intriguing enough that they cannot be easily set aside as irrelevant to the discussion of female monasticism. Indeed, a host of scholars, most recently Maria Albarran, has argued that these “sisters” are probably religious sisters, nuns.[11] In her assessment of this correspondence, Alanna Emmett observes: “Didyme and the sisters have not withdrawn from the world but are aware of and catering for worldly and practical items.”[12]

And Elm concludes: “While caution is advisable, the evi­dence favors a community of women and men who are not relatives and are united by other than business interests alone: at the very least by their shared Christianity, but perhaps by ascetic principles as well” (Elm 1994: 243-44). Elms observation that these people do not appear to be rela­tives is especially relevant. It is possible to interpret the letter to Atienatia as referring to business transactions, for mention is made of a balance of money, but not necessarily so; it is equally possible that they are purchasing on Atienatia’s behalf.[13] The of the greeting with “Didyme and the sisters” as senders is unusual.[14]

If Didyme and the sisters are ascetic sisters, this would be the earliest evidence for any monastics, male or female, at Oxyrhynchos. We would then observe a group of female ascetics who are actively engaged in send­ing and producing goods and who have a lively social circle comprising women and men. While this case in the end will have to remain undecided, one may wonder how this picture compares to other ascetics from Oxy­rhynchos. So what (other) ascetics do we encounter in Oxyrhynchos?

Nuns as Neighbors: Annis

The first unambiguous female monastic from Oxyrhynchos is Annis. She appears in a document from 25 January of the year 392 that details the division of a property among a group of people (PSI VI 698).[15] The bound­aries of the house are described as follows: it borders on the south (?) a public street, to the east the property of “the nun Annis” (1. 7 d7tr|/jo’)TOU Awvtoq pova/jjc), and to the southwest that of the “heirs of Apion from the primipilarii.” What additional information can we glean about Annis besides the fact that she was a monastic? First, she is a neighbor important enough to mention by name and profession. Just as Apion, the neighbor to the southwest, is identified by his social (namely military) rank as “from the primipilarii,” so is Annis, as monache.[16] Furthermore, the property seems to be her own.[17]

If the property in question borders a public street on the south and Annis’s property on the east, then it follows that Annis’s property is located on that same street. Thus Annis the nun did not seek the desert’s isola­tion or lived tucked away in a dark alley. Rather, she resides in a house located on a public street. But whether her neighbors or those strolling the street actually had small talk or deep theological conversations with her, or whether they even laid eyes on her, remains to be seen. Our literary sources do not imagine such women to appear in public by themselves, if at all.

In his Historia Lausiaca, recounts that at Antinoe he had a domestic virgin as neighbor, who, in fact, was so domestic that he had never seen her: “There was another neighbor of mine whose face I never beheld, for she never went out, so they say, from the time when she left the world. She had completed sixty years in ascetic practices along with her mother” (Palladius 1991: 141). Just like Palladius at Antinoe, at Oxyrhynchos the neighbors know that Annis is a nun, but whether they spotted her or conversed with her on the public street remains unknown. The papyrus contains no clues that either confirm or shatter this image.

According to Maria Albarran Martinez, the fact that only Annis is men­tioned in the papyrus indicates that she lives by herself (Albarran Martinez 2011: 128). While that is plausible, she may also have lived with her rela­tives (recall that ’s neighbor lived with her mother and so did other domestic virgins) or other people. In Annis’s case, the other houses mentioned in the document were inhabited by multiple people and thus must have been relatively spacious.[18] It is therefore even possible that Annis rented out rooms to others, as we witness two other domestic ascetics doing in a lease made up a few years later. So we pay them a visit next.

Apotactic Sisters Theodora and Tauris

This lease dates from June—July 400, thus around the time that the Historia Monachorum was also composed (P.Oxy. XLIV 3203). It is a contract for the lease of “one ground-floor room, namely a hall, together with the one cellar in the basement, with all appurtenances.” Two women, “Aurelia Theodora and Aurelia Tauris, daughters of Silvanus, of the illustrious and most illustrious city of Oxyrhynchos, apotactic nuns,” rent out these rooms to “Aurelius Jose son of Judas, Jew, of the same city” (see also Albarran Martinez 2011: 111, 153). While the Gnomes of the Council of Nicaea declare that “a wise virgin does not speak to men at all,”[19] this document forces us to nuance that statement as it presents us with interactions between the nuns and Jose (and his family). Furthermore, we can glean from this text that the nuns Theodora and Tauris supported themselves financially by renting out part of their property.[20] This gives us important informa- tion about their social class, namely, they were wealthy enough to own a house, but not independently wealthy, and had to supplement their income by rent. As a result, they shared their living quarters with a family, which must have affected their monastic lifestyle. Moreover, their housemates, Jews, were a family with different religious practices, and it is interesting to imagine how, if at all, their lifestyles would have impacted on each other.[21]

The meticulous language of the lease addresses Theodora and Tauris as “apotactic nuns” (jiovaxatq dutoraKTiKaiq). A note on this status is due. The term ‘apotactic’ (cototoktikti, -oq) appears in eight papyri, but only in this case applies to women.[22] In Pachomian literature, it indicates a fol­lower of Jesus (and Pachomius), who radically renounced (cutordoaojiat) the world, including family and possessions, according to a passage in the of Luke (Luke 14:26—33). Therefore, the use of this word in the papyri for monastics who clearly own possessions (e.g., Theodora and Tauris as landlords)[23] generated surprise among scholars of monasticism. Wipszycka proposes a convincing interpretation of the term: instead of thinking of one specific form of as applied in the Pachomian writings, she argues that we should understand the term more generally, namely as applying to people who have renounced marriage and in addi­tion perhaps other pleasures of life, such as family, food, wine, wealth, and leisure (Wipszycka 2009: 315—16).

The nuns Theodora and Tauris apparently renounced marriage, but kept property. Moreover, they also did not fully reject their family, since they lived together as biological sisters (they have the same father, Silvanus).[24] In a private letter that we will read next, we encounter another nun, Athonis, who also did not renounce her family and remained living with them.


This personal letter, palaeographically dated to the fourth or fifth century, is from a man called Philoxenus to his family (Grenfell and Hunt 1898: P.Oxy. LVI 3862). It contains an enumeration of goods received or still needed and an extensive section with greetings. I reproduce here the part of Philoxenus’s greetings back home relevant for our inquiry: “Greetings from me to my lady and to my lady Maria and the nun Athonis (1. 19, tqv povayijv AGcbviv) and my most sweet brother Heraclammon and my sister Herais and to Joseph and John and Paragorius andTheon the carpet­maker” (Grenfell and Hunt 1898: P.Oxy. LVI 3862, 135). In his lengthy section with greetings to an abundance of relatives and acquaintances, Philoxenus mentions Athonis the nun between his mother and siblings. In contrast to the other nuns from Oxyrhynchos we have encountered thus far and who lived by themselves, this nun lives with her parents at home.

Our correspondent supphes no further information for us about his sister, unsurprisingly, for he is writing home. Literary accounts allow us to imagine what Athonis’s life may have looked like. As we glean from the Canons of Pseudo-Athanasius, when the rest of the family enjoys their meals, ascetic daughters fast during the day and abstain from meat and wine, even on hohdays—at least, that is what the text prescribes: “Eat ye and drink nothing doubting; but the virgin shall maintain her fast each day until even and nought shall she eat whence blood cometh forth at any of the feasts, nay not at the great feast of the Lord. Nor shall she drink wine, lest the lamp of her virginity be extinguished” (Pseudo-Athanasius 1904: 62, trans. Riedel and Crum). in his Historia Lausiaca 31 tells of a certain Piamoun, “a virgin who hved with her mother spinning flax and eating only every other day at evening” ( 1991: 90—91). Apparently, it was tempting to treat these humble domestic ascetics, who guaranteed the salvation of the entire household, as domestic assistants, for the Canons of Pseudo-Athanasius warn against such abuse (canon 103).[25]

Thus, while remaining with her family may have provided for a female ascetic many of the comforts of home, it also brought its own special temp­tations and challenges. Some of those were alleviated for women choosing to live in a nunnery with like-minded women. I wonder if that is the reason that in our later sources (both Oxyrhynchite and hterary) domestic virgins disappear from view?

In Conclusion

This chapter was inspired by the Historia Monachorum’s passage about the profusion of nuns at Oxyrhynchos. By examining Oxyrhynchite papyri from the fourth and fifth centuries we encounter multiple ascetic women. At least four of them we know by name: Annis, Athonis, Tauris, and Theodora. They were all so-called domestic virgins. The papyri we have examined indicate that these women were recognized as ascetics by their families and by outsiders, and that their status was an important enough to be mentioned in official documents (instead of patronymics) and in private letters. The monastic choice must have radically influenced these women’s lives, a fact that those around them acknowledged. It seems to have given the nuns a certain level of respect in their communities, even functioned as an important marker of identity.

While such ascetic women are familiar to us from literary sources, the papyri allow us to add to and also complicate their stature. The papyri offer noteworthy moments and introduce us to a side of the lives of these women that is less known or even unknown from the literature. There, we observe domestic virgins spending time inside fasting, praying, and reading; here, we encounter them in business transactions, or simply as sister, neigh­bor, or housemate. Whether these nuns lived independently or remained with their family, in any case these ascetics spent their lives in close proxim­ity to others, non-monastics, male and female.

Apart from recording rent collection, the sources remain tight-lipped with regard to the daily activities of these women. The literary evidence for domestic asceticism gives the impression that these women were rela­tively well off. This matches the lean information in the texts we have reviewed here: in two documents we encountered women as property owners. To be sure, papyrological evidence mostly favors the wealthy, since they had more occasions necessitating written documentation (see espe­cially Bagnall 1995: 13-16). The papyri have brought us in touch with nuns who owned a house big enough that they could rent out a room and a basement. While they had their own home, they were apparently not independently wealthy and needed the income. This gives us an indication of the class of these two women.

In none of the texts securely relating to Oxyrhynchite nuns do we hear these women in their own voices. Instead, in all instances, others (all males) point out and name nuns to us. The nuns appear in documents from, for, and about men: brother, father, neighbor, renter. That is, unless we count Didyme and the sisters among the female ascetics. Thus, as it turns out, whether Didyme and the women around her count as monastics or not has huge implications for the of the life of nuns at Oxyrhyn­chos. So let us revisit Didyme and the sisters.

The letter from Didyme to Sophias betrays a wide social network. If these women are nuns, then these letters introduce us to socially very well connected nuns—perhaps surprisingly so. But if we imagine the circum­stances of the apotactic monastic sisters Theodora and Tauris, who rented part of their house to Jose and his family, or Athonis and the many others in and around Philoxenus’s parental house, other ascetics belonging to lively households come into view. However, the fact that we cannot tell assuredly whether Didyme and the sisters are monastics or laywomen is still interesting from a methodological point of view. This correspondence shows us that we can understand certain markers of identity only within a larger context and confronts us with the fact that some of them, such as ‘sister,’ remain ambigu­ous without other markers (see also Wipszycka 2009:292 and 292 n. 12).

Literary sources pertaining to Oxyrhynchos insist on the presence of nunneries in the city in the late fourth century.[26] Attested elsewhere in Egypt since the end of the third decade of the fourth century,[27] women’s convents appear on the Oxyrhynchite papyrological horizon only toward the end of the fifth and early sixth centuries.[28] It remains an intriguing question why we see no nunneries at Oxyrhynchos this early in our papyri (at least, those published so far). Part of the answer may be that papyrus documents favor certain kinds of ascetics—namely propertied women such as Annis, Theo­dora, and Tauris, who owned a house. Furthermore, depending on how we interpret Didyme’s correspondence, she and the sisters could be nuns resid­ing in a nunnery. Here, again, we have an indication of how difficult it is to understand and contextualize what at first sight appears to be simple letters.

The papyri from Oxyrhynchos thus differ from other sources on monas­ticism in regard to the early and relatively frequent references to domestic ascetics and, probably, the late appearance of female convents. In this early period, women who chose a monastic lifestyle had several options. It appears that a popular one at Oxyrhynchos was not to retreat into the desert, but rather to practice an ascetic lifestyle at home and renounce food, wine, and leisure not in the loneliness of the wilderness but among the temptations of the household or while living in a small group with other ascetics in the city. Indeed, according to Wipszycka, it would be exceed­ingly hard for women to live in the desert (Wipszycka 1996:291—92,316). Since the Oxyrhynchos papyri derive from an urban environment, this explains in part the bias toward nuns.

Like Palladius, we only barely catch glimpses of these women who chose to lead humble, ascetic lives and preferred to stay out of the public eye. It seems that they succeeded for the most part.They were noted and appreci­ated by the author of the Historia Monachorum (although he exaggerates); they were recognized and respected as neighbors, sisters, housemates.They showed up in public to take of business and to provide for their liveli­hood, and in so doing they were on record, which then accidentally made it into history.

AnneMarie Luijendijk

[1] This chapter forms part of a larger research project I am conducting on the monastics at Oxyrhynchos. I am grateful to Gawdat Gabra and Hany Takla for inviting me to contribute and to Bryan Kraemer, PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, for his excellent help researching this topic. I presented a different version of this paper in the Papyrology and Early Christian Background Section of the 2013 SBL Annual Meeting in Baltimore and thank the audience for its questions and feedback.

[2] “Sacrarum uirginum . . . , quarum monasteria pro merito sanctimoniae earum ciuitas ipsa ueneratur.” Edition: CSEL 35/1, 99, p. 35.1 thank Lincoln Blumell for this reference.

[3] Wipszycka 2009. See also Wipszycka 1996: 281—336; on Oxyrhynchos, Wipszycka 1996: 314—17 and Wypszycka 2002b; Albarran Martinez 2011. See also Wipszycka 2013a: 337—52. An English study incorporating papyrological materials is Elm 1994.

[4] English translation by Alistair Stewart, “The ‘Gnomes’ of the Council of Nicaea,” http://suciualin.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/gnomesofnicaea_18thjune2013. pdf (at footnote 192, no page number). Regarding the date of the text, Stewart remarks: “We would probably not be way out if we placed the production . . . between 360 and 400.”

[5] Pseudo-Athanasius 1904: 62. This passage comes at the very end of the text and is only preserved in Arabic translation; the Coptic manuscript lacks this stipulation. The canons date to the fourth century; see Wipszycka 2009: 591.

[6] The first male monastic appearing in a papyrus from Oxyrhynchos is a certain apotaktikos named Ammonius, who is involved in a dispute about an inheritance. The papyrus dates to ad 373-74 (P.Oxy. XLVI 3311.7 and 9-10, Apptnviog … ditoraKtiKOi;).

[7] The Oxyrynchus papyri can be found in Grenfell and Hunt 1898.

[8] In the editio princeps (P.Oxy. XIV 1777, 187), this letter is dated to the “early fourth century.”Wipszycka dates it to ca. 340 (Wipszycka 2002a: 469-73, especially 470).

[9] Wipszycka 2002a: 473. “La situazione attestata da SB III, 7243 e da POxy.XVI, 1774 si pud, alia luce dei testi analoghi, riconstruire senza ricorrere all’ipotesi ‘monastica.’”

[10] Wipszycka 2009: 292 n. 12: “On cede facilement au desir d’augmenter le dossier monastique concernant les premieres decennies de l’existence du monachisme.”

[11] Albarran Martinez 2011: 226. She notes that the redating of the letters to the year 340 by Wipszycka makes it more plausible that this could be a domestic monastic community. Albarran Martinez concludes that “the group of women led by Didyme probably formed an ascetic community” in Oxyrhynchos: “Asi pues, el grupo de mujeres liderado por Didyme probablemente formo una comunidad ascetica situada en la ciudad de Oxirrinco” (2011: 227).

[12] Emmett 1984: 83. According to Emmett, such a community is a precursor to later monasticism.

[13] See Bagnall and Cribiore 2006:194.They deny that these letters are business letters for, as they rightly state, the exchange of goods in them is completely in line with other private letters.

[14] See also Bagnall and Cribiore 2006:193: “The plural forms in the opening are not paralleled elsewhere in family letters.”

[15] PSI VI 698 (1920). The text itself specifies that the properties discussed are in Oxyrhynchos (reconstructed in 1.3, certain in 1.5: £V rfj awfl O£upuv7,i[T(J)v jtoXet]).

[16] In this period, the term monache securely indicates that she is a nun, an ascetic; see Albarran Martinez 2011: 105—106.

[17] See Albarran Martinez 2011: 136-37 about the legal background of monastics owning property.

[18] The document (evidently) does not specify the size of Annis’s house. Albarran Martinez (2011: 139) assumes that the neighborhood is rather homogenous and that therefore Annis’s house is of similar dimensions to that of the others mentioned in the contract.

[19] Translation by Stewart, at http://suciualin.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/gnomesofhicaea_ 18thjune2013 .pdf.

[20] For the amount of the lease: Haslam (P.Oxy. XLIV 3203, 184, note to line 19) mentions: “The same amount is paid in ad 444 for the lease of two dining rooms (VIII 1129).”

[21] On Jews at Oxyrhynchos, see Epp 2006 and Kasher 1981.

[22] On this term, see Albarran Martinez 2011:110-13, with the papyri listed at 111 n. 117. On its meaning, see especially Wipszycka 2009:308-15 (this text discussed at 312).

[23] See also footnote 5 above.

[24] Even though these apotactics have renounced worldly life and their families, they are still referred to and indicated in familial relationships in these letters. This is, according to Albarran Martinez (2011:149-50), because these are official contracts.

[25] Pseudo-Athanasius 1904: 66, trans. Riedel and Crum:“Rich women shall not keep by them virgin nuns in the part of servants, as (do those) that send them unto places of gold workers or of dyers, so that their c/npa is despised and they serve in worldly affairs.”

[26] The Historia Monachorum and the Lihellus Precum.

[27] The first Pachomian nunnery was founded in 329 near the male monastery at Tabennesi (Wipszycka 2009: 568). Also at Antinoe, knew of multiple nunneries early on.

[28] P.Oxy. LXVII 4620 (ca. 475-550) mentions monasteries of Ama Juliana and Ama Maria. See also P.Oxy. XXIV 2419 (sixth century) and P.Oxy. XLIII 3150 (sixth century).