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SHENOUTE . This early Christian monastic leader and outstanding Coptic author is often referred to as "the Great" or "the Archimandrite," a title equivalent to "abbot" and given to him by Cyril of Alexandria (412444) in order to distinguish him from later namesakes in the Coptic Church. Born in southern Egypt c. 347 ce, Shenoute became a monk while still in his youth and was chosen c. 385 to head his monastery. His death is commemorated on July 14 (Coptic Epēp 7 = Julian July 1), and probably he died on that date in 465. The tradition that Shenoute lived to be 118 years old can be at least approximately confirmed from statements in his own and his immediate successor's writings. Unknown in the West until the late seventeenth century, Shenoute has emerged only gradually as a significant historical figure. His writings provide invaluable glimpses into the development of Egyptian monasticism during its second and third generations, as well as information about Christianity during the period when it became the dominant, state-sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire.

Shenoute was the third head of his monastery, which was founded by his uncle, across the Nile from Panopolis (modern Akhmīm), on the model of Pachomius's monastic system, although it was never formally a part of that system. Shenoute's native language was Coptic (the Egyptian language during the centuries after the rise of Christianity), but he learned Greek while he was still an ordinary monk, when he also acquired a profound knowledge of the Bible in both languages. His earliest writings are two long open letters to his community (written c. 380) exposing sin and hypocrisy in the monastery, criticizing its leadership, and announcing his intention to depart and live as a hermit. Subsequent events revealed Shenoute as gifted with penetrating insight, for which reason he was made head of the monastery when his disgraced predecessor died.

Shenoute was the ultimate authority over two men's communities and one for women. He himself spent most of his time in isolation in the nearby desert, communicating with the three communities through trusted, older male monks, who carried letters back and forth. Over the years of his leadership, Shenoute compiled his own letters into a set of nine volumes of "canons," which served as a set of rules for the monastery during Shenoute's lifetime and then for centuries afterwards. Shenoute's Canons provide detailed information about the carefully regulated life of the male and female monastics (covering nearly every aspect of life, from prayer to defecation), as well as insight into the personality of this remarkable late antique monastic figure.

Despite living as a hermit, Shenoute visited the monastery regularly to worship with his fellow monks (typically perhaps only four times each year). On these occasions he might also preach, and his appearance could attract large crowds of laypeople. The predominant theme of Shenoute's preaching was the urgent need for repentance, but his sermons often provide fascinating vignettes from the everyday world of late antique Egypt. This information is supplemented by Shenoute's treatises and letters, the latter addressed either to specific individuals, including local authorities from the provincial governor on down, or to entire communities, including Panopolis and nearby villages.

This part of Shenoute's corpus is particularly illuminating of the conflict between Christianity and paganism in the late Roman Empire. Shenoute was among those fanatic Christians who were willing to use every means, including violence, to destroy the physical basis of pagan worship (temples, images) and to convert nonbelievers. The relevant dossier of texts from Shenoute is without parallel elsewhere and throws extraordinary light on events and people in and near Panopolis around the end of the fourth century, especially a confrontation between Shenoute and a former governor (Flavius Aelius Gessius) who apparently was trying to disguise his pagan sympathies in a world that was becoming overwhelmingly Christian.

Shenoute's writings also provide information about socioeconomic circumstances (he championed the poor against oppressive landowners), ecclesiastical politics (he was an unquestioning supporter of Alexandrian theology and church politics, although refusing to be made a bishop; in 431 he accompanied Archbishop Cyril to the Council of Ephesus), efforts to establish a unified orthodoxy and orthopraxy (he opposed Arians, Melitians, Origenists, magicians, and Manichaeans, among others), and Christian spirituality (particularly interesting themes in Shenoute's works are demonology, proper interpretation of the Bible, appropriate forms of worship, and the role of prophetic insight and visions).

Near the end of his life, Shenoute took up residence again within the monastery walls. After his death, "our holy and prophetic father Apa Shenoute" quickly became a revered saint in the Coptic Church. His sermons, treatises, and letters were assembled in volumes alongside his Canons and served as a source of liturgical readings, at least in his own monastery. Later, some of these lections were added to the standard Coptic Holy Week liturgy.

Although Shenoute's name and reputation were known all over Egypt during his lifetime, the Arab Conquest (641) heralded the end of the transmission of his writings. In subsequent centuries very little of his corpus was translated into Arabic, so that when his monastery collapsed in the fourteenth century, little remained of Shenoute's writings except a large heap of deteriorating parchment books within the monastery's spectacular mid-fifth-century church (the only monastery building that remained standing, whose brilliant white limestone walls gained it the designation "White Monastery"). Shenoute's continuing fame and veneration in the Coptic Church has depended almost entirely on the liturgical tradition, based on a hagiographic "Life of Shenoute," with roots in an ancient encomiastic tradition, but to which legends continued to accrue even after it was translated into Arabic.

Although Shenoute's great literary achievement marks the high point of Coptic literature, his corpus must now be reconstructed from thousands of manuscript fragments that in modern times became scattered in dozens of museums and libraries from Egypt across Europe to North America. Recent progress in this task of reconstruction has led to a renewed effort to edit and translate his works systematically.

See Also

Coptic Church; Monasticism, overview article; Pachomius.


Behlmer, Heike. Schenute von Atripe, De iudicio (Torino, Museo Egizio, Cat. 63000, Cod. IV). Turin, 1996. An edition and translation (German) of one major work by Shenoute, with commentary.

Emmel, Stephen. "From the Other Side of the Nile: Shenute and Panopolis." In Perspectives on Panopolis: An Egyptian Town from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest, edited by Arno Egberts et al., pp. 95113. Leiden, 2002. An analysis of crucial aspects of Shenoute's antipagan activities.

Emmel, Stephen. "Shenoute the Monk: The Early Monastic Career of Shenoute the Archimandrite." In Il monachesimo tra eredità e aperture. Atti del simposio "Testi e temi nella tradizione del monachesimo cristiano" per il 50° anniversario dell'Istituto Monastico di Sant'Anselmo, Roma, 28 maggio10 giugno 2002, edited by M. Bielawski and D. Hombergen, pp. 151174. Rome, 2004. An analysis of Shenoute's earliest letters, from the first volume of his Canons.

Emmel, Stephen. Shenoute's Literary Corpus. 2 vols. Louvain, 2004. A summation of two centuries of scholarship on Shenoute, laying the groundwork for future research by means of a reconstruction of nearly one hundred manuscripts of Shenoute's works; a fundamental guide to what was published of Shenoute's corpus up to 2004, with complete bibliography.

Krawiec, Rebecca. Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery: Egyptian Monasticism in Late Antiquity. Oxford, 2002. A study of Shenoute's letters to female monastics, especially the letters in the second volume of his Canons (as reconstructed by Emmel, 2004).

Layton, Bentley. "Social Structure and Food Consumption in an Early Christian Monastery: The Evidence of Shenoute's Canons and the White Monastery Federation ad 385465." Muséon 115 (2002): 2555. The first systematic study of all nine volumes of Shenoute's Canons (as reconstructed by Emmel, 2004).

Leipoldt, Johannes. Schenute von Atripe und die Entstehung des national ägyptischen Christentums. Leipzig, 1903. The first fundamental study of Shenoute, not yet entirely superseded (although sooner or later it must be replaced).

Young, Dwight W. Coptic Manuscripts from the White Monastery: Works of Shenute. Vienna, 1993. An assortment (rather arbitrary than systematic or thematic) of fragments of Shenoute's works, with English translations and notes.

Stephen Emmel (2005)

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