Children in Early Egyptian Monasticism

Document Type

Conference Presentation


Religious Studies

Conference Title

11th Saint Shenouda Foundation Annual Conference-UCLA Conference of Coptic Studies


University of California at Los Angeles


Los Angeles, CA

Conference Dates

July 17-18, 2009

Date of Presentation



Medieval and Byzantine monasteries and convents were teeming with children. From orphans deposited on their doorsteps to become monastics, to pupils studying in their schools before moving on to an uncloistered adult life, to sick children seeking care from church hospitals, monastic institutions for men and women, East and West, sheltered scores of children during this era. This paper will address the question of whether one may date the beginnings of this commonplace and its origins to developments in monasticism in early Christian Egypt. Sources for Egyptian asceticism testify to the presence of children among adult monks, albeit sparingly. In the most popular literature documenting early Egyptian monasticism, such as the Apophthegmata Patrum, children are to be eschewed, not welcomed into the monastic lifestyle. However, despite an ascetic ideology emphasizing the renunciation of children and family, children were a significant presence in coenobitic monasticism, and it seems that children were also among the anchorites or semi-eremitic monastics. Children required protection from hazards posed by the physical labor and corporal punishment endured by adults as well as from sexual advances by other monks. Monastic leaders had to integrate these children who would become monks into the ways of the community, and they had to accommodate their communities to the challenges posed by the presence of such children. Using material from a number of sites (including Shenoute’s monastery, the Pachomian monasteries, the monastery at Naqlun, and monasteries near Thebes/Jeme), this paper will argue that minor children were a part of Egyptian monastic life from its first stages, and that their numbers grew from the fourth through seventh centuries as they became fully incorporated into their communities. These children included biological offspring of adult monks as well as other unrelated boys or girls. Moreover, these children were not merely residing with the monks, under their temporary care until the minors reached adulthood; many of these children were monks-in-training, being raised for a future ascetic lives of their own.

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