The Greek Historia Monachorum in Aegypto

Monastic Hagiography in the Late Fourth Century

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Andrew Cain
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Andrew Cain’s fifth book is the first monograph devoted solely to the anonymously written Historia monachorum in Aegypto [hereafter HMA], apart from the critical edition produced by André-Jean Festugière [Société des Bollandistes, 1961]. While other scholars have utilized the HMA as a source for understanding fourth-century Egyptian monasticism or in studies on some aspect of late antique literature, no one has treated the HMA as a literary product in its own right. Cain remedies that in his erudite collection of related studies on the HMA.

The overarching theme of Cain’s book is that the HMA is a much deeper text than it first appears. From genre (chapter 3), to literary style (chapter 5), to its engagement with other literary sources (chapter 4 and 7), to the multi-layered arguments of its author on the roles and lifestyle of monks (chapters 6-11), Cain demonstrates effectively that the HMA is more than an illiterate monk’s flight of fancy. He argues convincingly in the first two chapters that Festugière’s edition represents, with reasonable accuracy, the original Greek book that records the pilgrimage to Egypt undertaken by a Palestinian monk and his companions from Rufinus’s Olivet coenobium. This is no mere copy of other historiae or itinerariae by a semi-literate ascetic, but instead represents a new genre written with great attention to other pieces of literature and with  contemporary literary conventions (chapters 3-7). The anonymous author uses his text to argue that God commanded this pilgrimage (chapter 6) to visit the true prophets and new apostles of fourth-century Christianity (chapters 7-8) who maintain the universal order (chapter 9) through their ascetic practice in the Evagrian tradition that serves as the best model for imitation (chapters 10-11). At the beginning and end of his monograph, Cain surmises—based on his research—that the anonymous author might be the monk Anatolios to whom Evagrius’s three famous treatises are dedicated (48, 265-67). Each of Cain’s chapters features a contained thesis within his theme of the HMA’s depth, literary magnificence (though he may stretch this claim at points in chapter 5), and tacit goal of promoting Evagrian monasticism.

It is this last point, explored in-depth in chapter 11, that is the most interesting of the book. The question of authorial intent is fraught, but Cain convincingly demonstrates that the HMA’s author intends to promote specifically Evagrian apathetic asceticism. This novel argument fills out scholarly understanding of Evagrius and his influence. Though chapters 7 (on the Egyptian monks as types of the prophets, apostles, and Christ), 9 (on the world-sustaining activities of the monks), and 10 (on their ascetic practice) are also constructive, the last chapter presents the most creative piece. The first part of chapter 6—outlining the pilgrimage in details (time, place, distance) not present in the HMA—is interesting; though a map would be a helpful accompaniment.

In addition to his copious bibliography, Cain has clearly made extensive use of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae database and its research tools (e.g., 82, 118). This kind of digital humanities analysis allows Cain to uncover unexplored aspects of the HMA and its relationship to biblical, classical, and late antique literature. It also allows Cain to explore the depth of the author’s literary prowess in ways previously unnoticed, bolstering his argument for the HMA as a unique piece of literature produced by an educated individual.

While Cain’s is a ground-breaking book, it is not without minor problems. Cain, in places, can be repetitive. The monograph also suffers from a lack of editing, with three glaring examples sufficing for the totality: randomly missing bibliographical information (e.g., a journal title at 74n.1); a misattribution of Georgia Frank’s book to David Frankfurter (58n.2); and commenting on a “preponderance of stories about instantaneous stories” where the final “stories” should be “conversions” (210). One can hardly blame Cain for such mistakes in a book of this profound breadth and depth—we all become eye-tired regarding the things we write, especially if we have been working on them at length—but Oxford University Press might consider bolstering its copyediting.

Cain could have strengthened his research for chapter 10, where he does not engage any of the classic or recent critical work on asceticism. He cites some specialized articles and monographs on aspects of ascetic or monastic practice, but he does not engage in broader scholarly questions about “asceticism” as a performative category. If the HMA is a “truly sui generis” literary product (73), then engaging the critical literature on the performative category of asceticism—in which the HMA’s author and subjects participate—could be useful for tweaking the category’s parameters. I am also wary of the weight Cain gives to “inter-Testamental” typologies (165-78), given that some of the New Testament stories were constructed with their Tanakhic precursors already in view. It is not necessary that the HMA’s author have both the original (Tanakh) and rescripted (New Testament) stories in mind.

Cain’s book will likely become the definitive text on the HMA. His research is excellent, his arguments well documented, and the theses of the eleven chapters will provide ample foundation for years of further scholarship. As an example, Cain’s comments on 217-19 about the virtual absence of ascetic women in the HMA is an ideal starting point for further research on women’s images and authorial intent in monastic literature. Perhaps the largest gift Cain has given to scholars of late antiquity, Egyptian monasticism, hagiographical literature, and travelogues is a sense of the HMA as a text on its own terms. This book will be most useful to specialists in the above and affiliated disciplines and sub-disciplines, though advanced graduate students may also find the research helpful. In short, Cain has ensured that any subsequent books or articles on the HMA must engage with this monograph. That alone places him, and this book, in rare company.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Zachary B. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Cain is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.


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