Sybarite Sarabaites? Monastic pairs in Byzantium

Jon Jarrett had been doing most of this term’s blogging on IHR earlier medieval seminars, but we felt that Claudia Rapp on ‘Ritual Brotherhood in Byzantium: Origins and Context’ was really more in my field of interest. Claudia was talking about the ritual of adelphopoiesis (‘brother-making’). This ritual was brought to general attention by John Boswell’s book Same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe, which made the deliberately sensationalist claim that these were akin to gay marriages. Byzantium is the only medieval society with both evidence of the ritual and narrative sources discussing ritual brotherhood, so it’s revealing to look at the evidence rather more carefully.

The ritual itself is very well-attested, with over 60 Greek manuscripts from the late eight century onwards, plus an Old Church Slavonic version. Claudia was thinking about it in the context of other rituals which create ‘fictive’ kinship (non-biological ties): marriage and godparenthood. Marriage affected inheritance rights and marriage prohibitions (you may not marry your desceased wife’s sister etc); godparenthood affected marriage prohibitions, but not inheritance rights, ritual brotherhood had no effect on either. (In questions Claudia also said that the adelphopoiesis ritual doesn’t look much like the marriage ritual, and isn’t normally found in liturgical manuscripts together with it). She saw ritual brotherhood as a very flexible relationship that was an additional strategy for building alliances.

Claudia’s main focus in the paper was on looking for the origins of the ritual: she thinks it came from early monasticism (C3-C6). Those who work on the west in the Middle Ages tend to think of monasticism in Benedictine patterns, but early eastern monasticism had three main patterns (with monachos and monasterium terminology used for all three). One was eremitic (hermits), cenobitic (communal) and the third was semi-anchoritic (living in small groups of two or three). In the Benedictine Rule, these are the monks that Benedict condemns as Sarabaites.

There are a lot of texts which discuss such monastic pairs or triples: Pachomius had his brother with him, Anthony and Macarius each had two disciples, John Cassian and John Moschos both travelled with a single friend. Some of the bonds were hierarchical (with master seen as father, and disciple as son) and some non-hierarchical, seen as brothers. They shared ‘spiritual capital’, as Claudia put it: for example one motif was that when a pair went into a village to sell their handicrafts, one sinned sexually with a woman and they both did penance, or the ‘brother’ did penance for the other. There was also often a desire to die together and be buried together: one story has a monk telling his sick ‘brother’ that he’s not going to outlive him, and then lying down and dying first. We also have monastic documents which show brotherhood, such as letters to ‘X and his brother’ and even one sixth-century papyrus which shows some kind of formal legal settlement of a dispute between two brothers.

But what really got most people’s attention was the archaeological evidence of twin-occupant hermitages (for a hermit and his disciple): Claudia had plans for several of them, such as at Kellia in the western Nile Delta. A look at some of these (the plans here look very similar) had some members of the audience afterwards making favorable comparisons to the average London flat. Together with a reference to monks inheriting rock-cut hermitages (which assiduous readers of this blog may already know about), it reminds us that the realities of monasticism may not necessarily correspond to the ascetic virtuosity described by hagiographers. I asked Claudia later on why the monks were still admired, when there life didn’t seem so much more austere than the rest of the population: she thought that the hours spent in prayer was probably one important factor.

But if the Sarabaites led less ascetic lives than we might imagine, how far did that go? Pairs of monks might lead some modern thought into yet more gay monk fantasies. But when I asked about why sarabaites were criticized by St Benedict (and others before him, like Jerome and John Cassian), Claudia though their real concern seemed to be about economic practices. The semi-anchorites seem to have been nearer to the lay world in economic terms than hermits or cenobites (and their letter collections show quite a lot of presents being exchanged).

There’s inevitably the problem of negative evidence, but I can’t believe that if such institutions were hotbeds of vice Jerome, for example, wouldn’t have mentioned it. Syneisaktism (where a man and woman lived together chastely) came in for an awful lot of late antique criticism, after all. (This isn’t to deny the existence of some gay monks in Byzantium, any more than some gay laymen or some gay clergy, just their concentration in particular institutions). If the evidence from Egypt and Syria challenges our images of monasticism, we have to let it do so, whatever those images of ours might be.


One thought on “Sybarite Sarabaites? Monastic pairs in Byzantium

  1. Seminary LI: `brothers’ in ByzantiumDue to reasons of travel idiocy I missed the antepenultimate Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research this term, and although I made it to the penultimate one on 3rd June, Professor Claudia Rapp presenting on “Ritual br…


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