Monday, June 12, 2006

Abstract | Children in Byzantine Monasteries

"Children in Byzantine Monasteries"
Richard Greenfield
Many, perhaps a majority, of those involved in the world of Byzantine monasticism clearly believed that the monastery or convent was no place for children, just as it was not a place for eunuchs or members of the opposite sex. Others, however, could not so easily forget the exhortation of Jesus in the Gospel to "Let the children come to me," nor the precedent set by influential individuals in the early history of monasticism who did permit children in their foundations. As a result, despite frequent prohibitions and dire warnings of the consequences, children appear quite regularly within the fabric of Byzantine monastic life. It is evident that they were present in many communities throughout the period, albeit usually in small numbers and under carefully controlled circumstances.

In the late seventh century, the Sixth Ecumenical Council established the age of ten as the minimum at which a child might begin life in a monastery, but most later monastic founders and commentators set the bar much higher at the mid-teens to the early twenties. The temptations of sexual misconduct were always prominent in the minds of ascetics and monastic regulators, and the fear that the presence of beardless youths might prove too much for the monks clearly lies behind most attempts to exclude them. Also at work in such prohibitions, however, was evidently a desire to prevent women or eunuchs slipping undetected into monasteries, to ensure that vows were taken only by those who knew what they were doing, to forestall the ordinary distractions that might be produced by frivolous and irresponsible youths and girls, and to keep monks and nuns from the attachments of family life. The ban on children was extended in some places to cover not only those testing a vocation but also those who might be brought to an institution out of need (orphans or beggars, for example), in the course of everyday life (on errands or on feast days, perhaps), or in the course of work (such as apprentices or the offspring of manual laborers).

Such attempts to exclude children ran largely counter to the practice and sentiment evident in monastic institutions of the early Byzantine period, however, and it is clear that many individuals and communities in the later centuries, even during the period of reform, still saw no need to comply with the wishes of the rigorists. Hagiographies thus abound with saints and monastic founders who flee their families at a very early age and find a welcome in the monastic communities for which they pine, while relatives of prominent monks and nuns are adopted in their infancy and reared within the institution, often becoming ascetics and monastic administrators in their own right. At the same time orphans are cared for, prospective monastic or clerical candidates are educated and trained, young relatives are allowed to visit, youthful servants and workers are employed, and sick or possessed children are treated. Typically in the Byzantine world, behind the rhetoric of principled declarations and legal documents requiring the exclusion of children from monasteries, lies a rather different reality where children flit through the shadows of the courtyard and peep from the doorways of the outbuildings and dependencies of the monastic community.
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC | Byzantine Studies 2006 Spring Symposium |
April 28–30, 2006 Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium

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