By Alice-Mary Talbot
Illinois Classical Studies, Vol.12:2 (1987)
Introduction: The institution of monasticism was one of the most important characteristics of Byzantine society, and touched the life of virtually every imperial subject in many ways. First of all, a substantial number of Byzantine men and women took monastic vows: some in their youth, who pledged themselves to a lifetime of dedication to Christ; some in middle age, when their children were grown; many more at the end of their lives. Countless Byzantines, when they realized they were on their deathbed, took the monastic habit for their final hours or days, in the belief that, by dying in the holier monastic state, they were more likely to achieve salvation in the world to come.
The monastery was often the spiritual center of a rural village or urban quarter; local inhabitants might attend services at the monastic church, seek out monks for spiritual advice, or ask for help in time of need. If a Byzantine fell ill, he or she might find medical care in a hospital attached to the monastic complex, or alternatively seek healing at the tomb of a saint whose relics were preserved in the church. A traveler who hesitated to stop for the night at an inn (which was usually a euphemism for a brothel) might find accommodation at a hostel run by monks. An elderly widow without children to look after her could find spiritual companionship and nursing care in a convent; the nuns would also see to her proper burial and arrange commemorative services after her death, all in exchange for a handsome donation to the nunnery. The poor could come to the monastery gate and receive loaves of bread, wine, and the leftovers from the refectory. A wealthy noble, who wanted to present a deluxe illuminated Gospelbook to a church, could commission the copying and illustration of such a manuscript in a monastic scriptorium, or workshop for the production of manuscripts. A peasant who owned a small plot of land might be pressured into selling his vineyard or olive grove to the local monastery, which wished to increase its holdings; he might on the other hand give the land to the monastery as a pious act, in exchange for commemorative requiem masses in perpetuity. Emperors as well as peasants took personal interest in monasteries; they might found new ones, or present existing ones with landed estates, or declare their immunity from taxation. Emperors sought out monks as advisers on matters of state as well as religious policy. And not a few Byzantine emperors ended their lives in monasteries, either unwillingly when they were deposed from the throne by a usurper and forced into the tonsure, or of their own accord as an act of personal faith when their end drew near. Finally, monasteries served as the bulwark of Byzantine Orthodox Christianity: in the eighth and ninth centuries monks were among the most ardent supporters of image veneration and adversaries of iconoclasm: in the thirteenth century monks were persecuted for opposing Michael VIII’s policy of Union with the Roman Church at the Council of Lyons (1274). In the following century the monasteries and hermitages of Mt. Athos nurtured the burgeoning mystical movement called hesychasm, which was to give new vitality to the Orthodox religious tradition.