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Wandering, Begging Monks. Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity.

Wandering, Begging Monks. Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity. By Daniel Caner. The Transformation of the Classical Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. xv + 325 pp. $65.00 cloth.

Daniel Caner has brought together a wealth of material from Byzantine and early Christian studies in this volume focusing on developments in monasticism in the Eastern Mediterranean, with a nod to Augustine's Hippo. Claims to material support from "others" and the ascetic poverty of monastics are its concerns. The author asserts that much of the increased emphasis on manual labor for monks by the established church was designed to combat the potential discredit to Christianity brought by those itinerant ascetics who did not work, but that the preponderance of the manual labor component of monasticism came relatively late and that those who preached and prayed, rather than working, were the important group within early eastern monasticism. This is demonstrated by the Life of Alexander Akoimetos (the Sleepless), itinerant charismatic monastic leader, born ca. 355-60, who founded communities in Constantinople that practiced perpetual prayer. That Life or Vita is the centerpiece of this volume, and the translation and commentary on that Vita (249-80) are in themselves a major contribution to diversifying our understanding of early monasticism. I would not hesitate to assign this clear well-annotated Life to undergraduates as a means of providing them a more diverse picture of early asceticism, although most would find Caner's analysis beyond their abilities.

The volume opens with a consideration of the model holy man. It asserts that the traditional historiography on monasticism has been a normative tradition that should not be accepted as historical reality. Instead, certain types of monasticism have come to be valued over others and the valued traditions perpetuated as the "only" monastic way. Taking a cue from the late Imperial codes that valued stability in profession, monasticism too promoted stabilitas loci, rather than wandering. Chapter 1 treats the traditions of wandering in the desert that were characteristic of an early age of Egyptian monasticism versus the later stability and manual labor that were in part a response to the increased numbers of monks found there in monastic communities whose marginal economic resources could not absorb wanderers. Chapter 2 turns to an early tradition of apostolic wanderers in Syria particularly witnessed by texts such as the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, a text in which "Thomas is repeatedly called a 'stranger,' and he identifies himself primarily by the material renunciations he has made in service to Christ" (58). Chapter 3 describes the "post-Constantinian ecclesiastical process of defining, consolidating, homogenizing, or rejecting forms of Christian life and expression that now came under the direction of a largely Mediterranean-based, Greco-Roman hierarchy with its own institutional perspective and concerns" (84). That institutional hierarchy often deemed the behavior of monastic wanderers as "Messalianism," rejecting not so much a theoretical definition of the Christian life as a particular lifestyle.

Chapter 4 turns to showing how it is within this tradition that Alexander Akoimetos is to be understood. The career of Alexander Akoimetos, Alexander the Sleepless, represents that of a charismatic spiritual authority as opposed to a monasticism controlled by a church bureaucracy. His story (and indeed the entire book) reflects then on the battle between monastic and episcopal powers for control of the Eastern Church. Chapter 5 treats latter "hypocrites" and "pseudo-monks" particularly within the cities of the fifth century. Chapter 6 turns to later developments in monastic patronage. The Vita itself follows an epilogue of conclusions. The history of early monasticism that Caner tells is thus a very different one from that usually told by historians of the medieval West, who too often still simply repeat what the standard medieval monastic writers have to say about the origins of monasticism in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. It is centered on the issues of monastic wandering versus monastic stability and of monastic begging versus monastic self-support by manual labor.

Finally, while this is not the point of Caner's analysis, it seems to me that it can illuminate our understanding of later ecclesiastical intransigence about monastic mendicancy and enclosure, which in the West came to be focused particularly on monastic women who had no priestly duties that might be used to justify any lack of stability, absence from enclosure, or avoidance of manual labor. A valuable and useful book that will contribute to our understanding of both Western and Eastern Mediterranean traditions, with an addition to the corpus of Saints' Lives in translation from which we can draw on for our teaching.

Constance H. Berman

University of Iowa
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Author:Berman, Constance H.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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