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.
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.
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.
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.
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. They sometimes adopted men’s clothing and hairstyles, or sheared their heads entirely, and preached in the streets. However, this life outside of social convention would not last as, toward the end of the third century, the emperor Diocletian ordered widespread attacks on chaste Christian women. All partner-less women who refused to marry were to be raped or prostituted – at least 1,000 widows were martyred in Antioch and 2,000 virgins were martyred in Ancyra.
Being a woman in the early days of Christianity perhaps led to the most interesting facet of the life of the Desert Mothers, which was their assumption of male clothing. A reason for the necessity to assume the male clothing (also perhaps for the dismissal of the Desert Mothers by some as “romantic legends”) was likely to be connected to the view that a woman, as the daughter of Eve, is the sign of the lower reason, lust and carnality. It was a woman who tempted man, who was believed to have a higher power of intellect and will, to sin by making him give in to his baser, carnal desires. Thus Anthony was said to have been assaulted by demons who took the form of women and the monk Sisois was said to have replied to the despairing cry of his disciple “Where is there a place without women except in the desert?” by immediately saying, “Then take me to the desert!” Sisois was either ignorant of the fact, or had forgotten, that even the desert was filled with women. These women included Matrona who is reported to have commented that one cannot escape temptation by mere flight. This anti-feminine bias can even be seen in the view women had of themselves. For example, Sara used to say, “I am a woman in sex but not in spirit.”
However, donning male clothing was not only a reflection of the male orientation of the early Church. A more practical reason for this practice was also that it was a prudent course of action in the desert where a lone female could easily be robbed, raped, or mistaken for a demon and therefore thrashed or killed. On the other hand, the disguise also had its dangers as there are stories that reported “female man of God” who were accused of seduction by another woman—yet that was still a preferable alternative than staying in Rome to be raped or murdered.
Anthony lived in a time of transition for Christianity. The Persecution by Emperor Diocletian in 303 CE was the last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Ten years later, Christianity was made legal in Egypt by Diocletian’s successor, Constantine I. Those who left for the desert at the time of uncertainty formed an alternate Christian society even when it was no longer a risk to be a Christian, believing that the combination of religion and politics could never produce a truly Christian society. Desert monasticism appeared nearly simultaneously in several areas, including Egypt and Syria.
In all the studies of the eremitical tradition of medieval Western Europe, there is usually a passing reference to the very large number of female ascetics. By 1320 CE, there were 260 female recluses in Rome alone, while 455 recluses of both sexes had been found in France before the tenth century. The number rose to 3,000 in the following centuries. Palladius mentions 2975 women in his Lausiac History and, in his preface to The Paradise of the Fathers,Wallis Budge says that “of the sixty-eight histories which are given in the first book of the Syriac Paradise, nineteen are devoted to the lives of women”. This is no mean proportion when we consider that these are only the individually named women or groups of women.
Judith Butler argues that “gender is performative, a stylized repetition of acts, in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self”. Meanwhile, Thomas Laqueur’s one-sex model argues that male bodies are perceived to be perfection and female bodies are the imperfect males—a sentiment echoing Plato’s Republic. This way of interpreting the human body is seen throughout early Christian texts referring to women achieving salvation by becoming “male”. These gender theories support the stories that the Desert Mothers began performing more masculine actions to renounce their “femaleness” and adopt “maleness”. This breaks the traditional view of female as a lesser being by taking on typically masculine traits in behavior, as well as physically transforming the body to pursue knowledge and spiritual growth which traditionally belonged to the men.
Saint Marina the Monk was disguised as a man in order to join her father in the monastery. She was later accused of fathering a child. She did not defend herself from the crime she was accused of, choosing instead to accept the severe punishment that was pronounced against her by the Abbot, which was to leave the monastery and to raise the child. She spent the rest of her life living ascetically and looking after the child. Her identity as a woman was only revealed after her death.
This illustrates the length women could go through to live as a “Desert Mother”. The monasteries had small but separate cells where the monks lived, which made it possible for Marina to conceal her identity. With her male name, short hair and male clothes, as well as her ascetic living (which would have changed anybody’s biology), making her lose much of her womanly appearance and physical nature, Marina was able to go on living at the monastery with a disguising identity until her death.
Another woman who made her mark in the desert was Saint Melania. We know of Melania through her contemporaries Jerome and the historian Palladius. A daughter of a former consul, Melania married into a leading Roman family and was among the wealthiest people in the empire. When her husband and two of her three sons fell sick and died, Melania turned to religion and converted to Christianity. After a few years, she decided she would travel to Egypt into the desert following the footsteps of the thousands of people in 4 CE who renounced the material world.
Adopting the rigorous scholarly lifestyle of her male counterparts, Melania shaved her head, dressed as a monk and established herself as a strong Christian leader, unbound to the gender norms prevalent at this time. A legend associated with Melania was that on a trip, in the intense heat, a deacon traveling with Melania washed himself with water and then laid down on the ground for a brief rest. Melania, then 60, supposedly called out to him, “How can a warm-blooded young man like you dare to pamper your flesh that way?” Melania’s reputation was so impressive that Jerome called her a living saint.
Another woman mentioned by Jerome was Saint Paula, a mother of one son and four daughters. When her husband died, she gave herself completely to religion. Jerome describes Paula’s story as this, “Disregarding her house, her children, her servants, her property, and in a word everything connected with the world, she was eager…alone and unaccompanied…to go to the desert.” As her children stood on the shore watching the ship leave, Paula, standing on the deck, turned her back and refused to look at them.
The Desert Mothers chose to live at the edge of society. Many of them disobeyed and left their families, gave away all they owned, educated themselves, produced scholarly works, founded entire communities, and were sainted. Most, if not all of them, were considered to have renounced their femininity. However, what little we know about them, we know through a small number of early Christian writers and bishops—all of whom were men. The highest praise given to a woman was still that she was “manly.” Therefore, what little we know of these women does not necessarily reflect what they themselves thought. As with many biographical or historical accounts, writings are often more a reflection of the biographer’s training and experience than an accurate picture of the person whose life is being described. These discoveries may not shed much light on the women themselves, but they show us these women’s existence and how they were viewed by their male contemporaries.