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Wandering, Begging Monks

Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity

Daniel Folger Caner (Author)

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August, 2002.
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An apostolic lifestyle characterized by total material renunciation, homelessness, and begging was practiced by monks throughout the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Such monks often served as spiritual advisors to urban aristocrats whose patronage gave them considerable authority and independence from episcopal control. This book is the first comprehensive study of this type of Christian poverty and the challenge it posed for episcopal authority and the promotion of monasticism in late antiquity.

Focusing on devotional practices, Daniel Caner draws together diverse testimony from Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, and elsewhere—including the Pseudo-Clementine Letters to Virgins, Augustine's On the Work of Monks, John Chrysostom's homilies, legal codes—to reveal gospel-inspired patterns of ascetic dependency and teaching from the third to the fifth centuries. Throughout, his point of departure is social and cultural history, especially the urban social history of the late Roman empire. He also introduces many charismatic individuals whose struggle to persist against church suppression of their chosen way of imitating Christ was fought with defiant conviction, and the book includes the first annotated English translation of the biography of Alexander Akoimetos (Alexander the Sleepless). Wandering, Begging Monks allows us to understand these fascinating figures of early Christianity in the full context of late Roman society.


Chapter One: Wandering in the Desert and the Virtues of Manual Labor
Chapter Two: Practice What You Preach: Apostolic Wanderers of Third-Century Syria
Chapter Three: In Support of People Who Pray: Apostolic Monasticism and the Messalian Controversy
Chapter Four: Apostle and Heretic: The Controversial Career of Alexander the Sleepless
Chapter Five: Hypocrites and Pseudomonks: Beggars, Bishops and Ascetic Teachers in Cities of the Early Fifth Century
Chapter Six: Monastic Patronage and the Two Churches of Constantinople

Appendix: The Life of Alexander Akoimetos
Select Bibliography
Daniel Caner is Assistant Professor of History and Classics at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.
"Caner draws together traditions, episodes, and groups from across the geographical expanse of the Roman Empire (the Syrian Orient, North Africa, Constantinople), to present the wandering monk as a figure around whom the ecclesiastical battle for authority fought between bishops and ascetics took on acute articulations. By focusing on religious practices rather than doctrinal teachings, Caner is able to weave together hitherto separate discussions to reveal a larger pattern of profound change in late antique Christian culture, as different models of monasticism competed for economic and political power in urban centers. This is very important work. It makes major contributions to our understanding of early Christian asceticism, the emergence of monasticism as an institution within church and society, and church-state relations in the later Roman Empire."—Susan Ashbrook Harvey, author of Asceticism and Society in Crisis: John of Ephesus and the Lives of the Eastern Saints.

"Caner has cut through to the heart of central issues in the study of early Christian asceticism: social stability, economic self-sufficiency, and the reliability of the sources at our disposal. Those who were apparently unstable and dependent, the wanderers and beggars of his title, occupy the foreground of his account; but his chief argument is that they have to be placed in a broader social and historical context that softens the edges of their idiosyncrasy, and that we have to be careful not to take at face value the exaggerated categories of mutually belligerent parties in the church. . . . The second half of the work begins by tackling the "Messalian" movement—asking whether it is appropriate to talk of a "movement" in so distinctive a way. The supposedly typical "Messalian" inclination—an inclination to dramatic indigence in the service of continuous prayer—seems less sui generis, when placed alongside more moderate forms of ascetic dedication. We are warned, therefore, not to accept too readily the paradigms of heresy-hunters like Epiphanius. Caner’s account marks an important step forward in our understanding of such patterns of ascetic behavior. Caner also ventures upon an equally fresh and welcome investigation of what lay behind the contentious attitudes of John Chrysostom and Nilus of Ancyra, and then—perhaps even more exciting—explains how the whole study transforms our understanding of the maelstrom of politics that impinged upon religious debate between the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. We are thus brought to realize how eagerly and disruptively ascetic rivals struggled to attract and retain the patronage of the Christian élite, even to the imperial level."—Philip Rousseau, author of Pachomius: The Making of a Community in Fourth-Century Egypt, and Basil of Caesarea

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