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Life and Activities of Ancient Coptic Monks and Nuns

Shenoute’s monastery was a “koinobion” — a monastery of the common life. In ancient times, a koinobitic monastery was a highly organized community of monks who worked together, ate together, and prayed together. The monastery provided spiritual direction, written rules and policies, and an elaborate chain of command. It was economically self-sufficient. The White Monastery was one of the very earliest koinobitic monasteries.

Shenoute was the leader of a federation consisting of three monastic communities: two monasteries for men and a nunnery for women. With only a few exceptions, the monks and nuns had no contact with one another; the White and Red Monasteries contained only men. Each of the three communities was headed by an abbot or abbotess, who received orders from Shenoute. Each community — the two monasteries and the nunnery — was surrounded by an enclosure wall and operated more or less independently. Each contained a number of dormitory buildings called “houses”; each house was headed by a housemaster or housemistress, who provided both administrative and spiritual guidance to the monks or nuns. The houses contained “cells” (rooms) where the monks or nuns lived. They also contained an assembly room for weaving and prayer, and workshops. Besides the houses, other important buildings in each congregation were: a central dining hall, a kitchen, an infirmary, an infirmary kitchen, a bakery, a central storage building, the church, a library and scriptorium, a gate house, workshops, and a laundry. Outside the walls were fields, vegetable gardens, palm groves, and fruit orchards, with their farm animals, equipment, and irrigation systems. These details are known from the writings of Shenoute; as archaeologists excavate the physical remains of the monastery, part of the scholars’ task is to compare the archaeological discoveries with Shenoute’s description of the monastery.

The monastic population of each congregation contained a wide range of people: not only mature adults but also young children, adolescents, the simple, and the elderly. Special arrangements were made to care for each group according to their abilities and needs. The routine life of each monk or nun was carefully regulated by rules, policies, and traditions — including how they walked, talked, dressed, ate, prayed, and what they were to think about. Their style of life was very disciplined and ascetic. Monks or nuns had to follow a daily schedule, which was signaled by the ringing of wooden bells:

Before dawn: a meeting in each congregation of all the houses, for prayer and weaving
6 a.m.: a session of prayer and weaving in each of the houses
9 a.m.: a session of prayer and weaving in each of the houses
12 noon: a communal meal for all the houses together
3 a.m.: a session of prayer and weaving in each of the houses
Evening: a meeting in each congregation of all the houses, for prayer and weaving

In between these events, they either worked and prayed alone in their cells or performed tasks assigned to them by their housemaster or housemistress. The monks or nuns in each congregation shared a communal meal at midday, consisting of bread and a strictly vegetarian diet with no milk products, fish, or wine. At night, they ate a simple meal alone in their room. Special fast days were observed on Wednesday and Friday. The mass was celebrated twice a week, on Saturday evening and on Sunday morning early. Sick monks or nuns received expert medical care from male or female monastic doctors. Professional nursing care was provided in the infirmary, and richer food could be medically prescribed for the sick. Visitors to the monastery were housed and fed in a special place near the main gate.

The federation was nearly self-sufficient, like a large farm estate. Because they produced a surplus, the monks and nuns were able to buy or barter for materials and services that the federation could not itself produce. Surplus products of the two men’s monasteries were plait work (baskets, mats, rope), sacks, and books; the nunnery produced woven goods of wool and flax.

Select biography

Besa, St. The Life of Shenoute. Translated by David N. Bell. Kalamazoo [Michigan, USA] 1983.

Coquin, René-Georges. “Dayr Anbā Shinūdah: History.” The Coptic Encyclopedia. New York 1991. Volume 3, pp. 761–66.

Emmel, Stephen. Shenoute’s Literary Corpus. 2 volumes. Louvain 2004.

Grossmann, Peter. “Dayr Anbā Shinūdah: Architecture.” The Coptic Encyclopedia. New York 1991. Volume 3, pp. 766–69.

Grossmann, Peter. Christliche Architektur in Ägypten. Leiden 2002.

Grossmann, Peter, Darlene Brooks-Hedstrom, Mohammed Abdal-Rassul, and Elizabeth Bolman. “The Excavation in the Monastery of Apa Shenute (Dayr Anba Shinuda) at Suhag: With an Appendix on Documentary Photography at the Monasteries of Anba Shinuda and Anba Bishoi, Suhag.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Volume 58 (2004), pp. 371–99.

Krawiec, Rebecca. Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery. Oxford 2002.

Layton, Bentley. “Rules, Patterns, and the Exercise of Power in Shenoute’s Monastery: The Problem of World Replacement and Identity Maintenance.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 15 (2007), pp. 45–73.

Layton, Bentley. “Social Structure and Food Consumption in an Early Christian Monastery: The Evidence of Shenoute’s Canons and the White Monastery Federation A.D. 385–465.” Le Muséon 115 (2002), pp. 25–55.

Leipoldt, Johannes. Shenute von Atripe und die Entstehung des national ägyptischen Christentums. Leipzig 1903.

Monneret de Villard, Ugo. Les couvents près de Sohag. 2 volumes. Milan 1925, 1926.

Shenoute, St. Canons. Books 1–9. Discourses. Books 1–8. Text in Coptic. Stephen Emmel, general editor. In preparation. To appear in Corpus Scriptorum Orientalium Christianorum (Leuven).