- Monachesimo orientale: Un'introduzione
Students seeking an introduction to early monastic history have had few good options in any language. Derwas Chitty's The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism in the Christian Empire (Oxford, 1966) remains the classic narrative, but its usefulness as an introductory survey is limited by the fact that it deals only with two regions of monastic development, and even its accounts of these have been considerably outmoded by recent scholarship.
Most welcome, therefore, is the publication of Monachesimo orientale: Un'introduzione. Clearly and elegantly written by a group of specialists drawn mainly from the University of Turin, it provides a comprehensive introduction to the different "eastern" traditions that makes ancient monasticism so complex and interesting to study: not only the Egyptian and Palestinian traditions but also those of Antatolia/Cappadocia and Syria that developed independently in the East Roman and Persian empires, as well as the Gallic traditions of Cassian and Sulpicius Severus that evolved in dialogue with the East. Each regional tradition receives its own separate essay. Indeed, the book offers almost everything to be desired in an introductory survey: concise description of major regional figures, trends, and developments; explanation of historical dynamics (with special focus on the production and circulation of texts); discussion of hagiographical, archaeological, legal, and papyrological [End Page 757] sources, including the interpretative challenges posed by each; and a generous engagement with a wide range of current scholarship, displayed in both its essays and general bibliography.
The book begins with an historiographical overview that explains how early monastic history, once mainly a subject of sectarian debate, has become a lively field of secular inquiry, due not least to the impact of anthropology and archaeology. The next four essays deal with historical developments in Egypt, Anatolia/Cappadocia, and Syria, focusing not only on standard questions of origin, precedent, and innovation by figures both familiar (e.g., Pachomius, Evagrius Ponticus, Basil of Caesarea) and less so (e.g., Eustathius of Sebaste, Philoxenus of Mabbug, Babbai the Great, Emperor Justinian) but also on key debates within monastic culture (e.g., Origenism, anthropomorphism, Messalianism) and on the relation of monks to church hierarchies before and after the Council of Chalcedon. Egypt receives two essays, the second examining the regional dispositions that developed after Chalcedon up to the Arab Conquests; most sweeping is the essay on Syria, a remarkable synthesis that ranges from the second to the eighth century, showing how Syria eventually broke from its own monastic traditions to adopt Egyptian (especially Evagrian) monastic principles. The final two essays focus on Gaul and Palestine and Sinai, explaining, among other things, how monastic life in these regions also came under the influence of Egyptian or Anatolian/ Cappadocian traditions.
Specialists will not find many surprises here. This itself may be deemed a virtue in a book that explicitly presents itself as an introduction; nonetheless, it would have been interesting to have a concluding chapter that posed alternative ways to conceptualize ancient monastic traditions besides the regional configurations around which the book is organized. For example, an exploration of evidence for tensions between an "apostolic" monastic model and a "philosophical" or contemplative model (associated especially with Egypt), or an analysis of other models or methods that transcend regional differences, might be suggested. There also is little on female asceticism, gender issues, or the role of lay patronage on early monastic formation. These omissions may not be noticed, however, due to the laudably detailed and balanced attention that so many other important topics receive. It is hoped that this book may soon be translated into English.