Monks, Hermits and Ascetics: The Little-Known History of Women in Desert Asceticism
Theodoret of Cyrrhus (423–457) tells us that when little girls played games in forth-century Syria, they played monks and demons. One of the girls, dressed in rags, would reduce her little friends into giggles by exorcising them. This glimpse into a Syrian childhood scene points to the prestige of the monk figure and may serve as a preview to what must appear in this modern age as a somewhat strange theme in the setting of Christian hagiography—the woman monks of the deserts. Women who disguised themselves as monks and lived as hermits, or as members of the male monastic communities is a recurring theme in the first and oldest layers of Byzantine history.
Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Thebaid), 1420. ( Public Domain )
As the early Christian church began to flourish under Constantine’s rule in the fourth century Greco-Roman world, so too did the ascetic movement. The early Christian hermits, ascetics and monks known as the “Desert Fathers” who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt in 3 CE were a major influence on the development of Christianity. This movement was catalyzed by Saint Antony the Great, who is revered as the father and founder of desert asceticism.
Painting of Saint Anthony by Piero di Cosimo, c. 1480 ( Public Domain )
Before Antony went into the desert, he first placed his sister in a community of “respected and trusted virgins,” which indicates that such monastic communities had existed for some time before the Father of Monasticism set out on his desert journey.
One of many artistic depictions of Saint Anthony's trials in the desert. ( Public Domain )
There was very little information about the women who looked after Antony’s sister, as well as about the women who decided to follow his example to go to the desert, earning themselves the name of the “Desert Mothers.” Yet, they existed, and some of them were sainted.
Christian Women in the Ancient Roman Households
Women had long been the managers of their households and, since followers of the new movement met in private houses, women often became the natural leaders of the congregation. When Jerome, the Catholic priest and scholar, arrived in Rome in the middle of the fourth century, he discovered a circle of noblewomen living in elaborate homes on the Aventine Hill who had given up their silk clothes and were now wearing coarse robes made of goat’s hair. They were all converts to Christianity who lived an austere lifestyle, stayed almost entirely in their houses, and had taken a vow of chastity.
However, laws passed by Emperor Augustus just before the start of the Common Era still required all men to marry and all women to procreate. Women could only become independent if they’d been divorced, widowed or had given birth to a minimum of three children. To escape this system, some upper-class women went so far as to register as prostitutes to have free rein of their own lives and money.
It was in this environment that Christian women began to use the vow of chastity as both an act of devotion and a legal loophole. As a consecrated virgin, a woman became free of many of the empire’s gender laws to preach, led their community and model themselves after the apostles.
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Top Image: Deriv; Sunset in Egyptian desert with figure. ( CC BY 2.0 )