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Retelling the Family: Blood Ties in Egyptian Monasticism (Fourth–Seventh Centuries)

Mariachiara Giorda, University of Turin, Italy, Summer Fellow 2010

During the summer term, I worked on the last two chapters of my book about Egyptian monasteries and, in particular, about the “monastic family.” Within ascetic literature, it is common to read biblical quotations that imply that the path to perfection involves renouncing family ties. But this is only part of the story, as there are also holy couples and entire families who are attracted to the ascetic lifestyle. Creating an alternative notion of family can transform blood ties, and a new monastic identity may take many possible forms. A more attentive consideration of the ascetic families that emerged in Egypt has enabled me to understand the plurality of monastic strategies where family is always the focus but where the forms of family organization are different. Studying these family transformations also helped to define the complex relationship between asceticism as a way of life and monasticism as a form of social organization. My research initially concerned the language of the family. The monastic family is no longer a biological, but a spiritual, family modeled on the contemporary Christian family. The terms commonly used to define family roles referred to the duties of people living in the monastery; the relationships among mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons are reused in a monastic context to define monastic links. This language helps to create a self-awareness of the family and is accompanied by frequent recourse to images and metaphors of the family. On this premise, my research was also dedicated to analyzing the use of family imagery in monastic sources, with particular attention to the epigraphic and archaeological sources.