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  • The Canons of Our Fathers: Monastic Rules of Shenoute by Bentley Layton
  • Malcolm Choat
Bentley Layton
The Canons of Our Fathers: Monastic Rules of Shenoute
Oxford Early Christian Studies
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014
Pp. 384. $145.00.

Unlike the rules of Pachomius, those of Shenoute (ca. 347–465) were never brought together in one corpus (at least not one that survives). Rather, Shenoute embedded them within nine volumes of Canons that he personally arranged and bequeathed to the federation of three monasteries that sat near one another at the edge of the western desert in the Panopolite nome in Upper Egypt. Nor—again unlike the Pachomian rules, transmitted via Greek and Latin translations beyond their Upper Egyptian origin—were Shenoute’s rules ever translated from Coptic, until now. With painstaking erudition, Layton has extracted no fewer than 595 rules from the vast and largely unedited Shenoutean corpus. Their presentation here, in both the original Coptic and English translation, provides access to many of them for the first time, in a magnificent new resource for the study of Egyptian monasticism.

The rules themselves are prefaced by a valuable discussion of what they tell us about early Egyptian monasticism. Chapter One provides background, addressing the early history of the federation, notably its founder and the author of the nucleus of the rules, Shenoute’s uncle Pgol. The discussion centres on the “Naples fragment,” a lacunose and acephalous hagiographical text that refers to Pgol and an unnamed actor who Layton argues convincingly is Pshoi, founder of the Red Monastery to the north of Shenoute’s coenobium. From this and a few other sources, Layton spins a hypothetical but nonetheless convincing reconstruction of the federation’s early history, followed by a brief narration of Shenoute’s early monastic career. Chapter Two addresses the rules themselves, discussing in turn how they survive; their author(s) (largely Pgol and Shenoute); their form and content; and language. The chapter closes with consideration of the unusual fact that of the 595 rules, only around 20 specify a physical punishment: the rules prescribed behavioral norms and seemingly left the exact punishment for monks who disobeyed them to the one judging them.

The insights the rules provide into the history of Egyptian monasticism are [End Page 615] explored in two chapters. Chapter Three investigates “Monastic Life as Seen in the Rules.” Here Layton explores the “vivid . . . incomplete and ideal” (51) image of Shenoutean monasticism in the rules, isolating within them details on the social history of the monastery. Here is a wealth of information, as valuable to the modern observer as it was incidental to Shenoute, on the coenobium’s physical institutions; the people who comprised the community; ascetic observances; the congregation’s hierarchy; liturgy; and the monastic economy. Chapter Four, on the “Monastic Experience,” addresses three critical features: conversion to, and initial experiences of, the monastic life; the way the rules articulated the acquisition of monastic identity; and how they helped maintain it. Throughout these two chapters, the historian of monasticism and late antique society will find novel insights and perspectives, be it the presence of children in the monastery (55); the “knocking signal” (a wooden gong?) that summoned the monks to gatherings (72); or the routines constructed by the rules that kept the monks’ identity intact, even when they passed beyond the “non-porous boundary” formed by the monastery’s walls and gates (83–84).

The centerpiece of the work is of course the rules themselves, presented with Coptic text and facing English translation over 248 pages, numbered from 1 to 595, and arranged by the order in which they occur in Shenoute’s Canons. It is for others to assess the translation in detail, but it is readable. And when it shepherds Shenoute’s Coptic style into more straightforward English, it sometimes offers a literal translation in a footnote (e.g. 99n8; 229n93). Most of the rules appear here in English for the first time, which means the volume will be valuable for determining how Shenoute is viewed in the coming years.

Where Layton subdivides continuous sections of text into separate rules, “Continues as follows” is placed between the rules. Where (as frequently) there...


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