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The Monk as an Element of Byzantine Society

The Monk as an Element of Byzantine Society

By Peter Charanis

Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 25 (1971)

Introduction: A┬áperusal of the third edition of the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca reveals some ninety persons, inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire from the beginning of the seventh century to the end of that Empire in the fifteenth, who achieved sainthood. Of those ninety, at least seventy-five had been monks. This statistic by itself shows the importance which Byzantine society attached to the monastic life. In Byzantium, the monk – at least as a projected ideal – embodied the aspirations of his society as a whole. That is why he, as a living being, was a vital element of that society and the monastery a characteristic feature of the Byzantine landscape.

That monastic establishments in the Byzantine Empire throughout the duration of its existence were very numerous is a matter which admits of no doubt. A considerable number of them, though unquestionably only a very small fraction of the total, have been identified and their general emplacement determined. Hans-Georg Beck, in a remarkable book – apparently restricting himself to monasteries about which something definite can be said – lists 160 monasteries which existed at one time or another during the history of the Empire after the end of the sixth century. Beck’s list is admittedly and necessarily incomplete, and to it can be added a considerable number of known monasteries located in every region of the Empire, including Cappadocia, where, according to one scholar, the number of rock-cut monasteries astonishes the traveller. It has been possible to revise Beck’s list upward to include a total of 241 monasteries by adding monastic establishments drawn from other lists and by eliminating monasteries mentioned by Beck but appearing elsewhere in our documentation, or presumed to be included in such general estimates as that of R. P. B. Menthon, who says that the number of monasteries which at one time or another had been built on, or around, Mt. Olympus in Bithynia numbered no less than 100.

Generally speaking, the Byzantines founded their monasteries on mountains or on ground difficult of access. So it was that with the loss of the eastern provinces in the seventh century, the rugged terrain of Cappadocia, the mountains of Auxentios, Olympus, Sigriane, Galesion, and Latros – all located on the western coastal regions of Asia Minor – became great monastic centers. Both Olympus and Latros early came to be known as the holy mountains. In Europe the great monastic center, beginning with the second half of the tenth century, was, of course, Mt. Athos, but other high places such as Ganos on the Propontis coast of Thrace, Papikion, near the present Komotini in western Thrace, Cithaeron in Attica, and finally, beginning with the fourteenth century, the Meteora in Thessaly, were also important centers.

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