Thursday, April 24, 2014


Ariel G. López, Shenoute of Atripe and the Uses of Poverty: Rural Patronage, Religious Conflict and Monasticism in Late Antique Egypt. Transformation of the classical heritage, 50. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 237. ISBN 9780520274839. $75.00.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Platte, Kalamazoo College (

Version at BMCR home site


In his introduction, López writes, "This book is a study of [Shenoute's] restless struggle for leadership and public recognition—a study, in other words, of an abbot's public career" (3). López' work indeed presents Shenoute, the fifth-century abbot of an influential monastic foundation in southern Egypt, as a public figure rather than a secluded ascetic. He places Shenoute alongside such figures as Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Libanius of Antioch, and even Augustine of Hippo (128), emphasizing both Shenoute's involvement in the social and political life of Panopolis, the city where his monastery was located, and Shenoute's place among some of the most famous figures of Late Antiquity. In particular, López argues that Shenoute's use of poverty in his own writings and sermons established the abbot as a public and political figure. Shenoute, according to López, used the opposition between wealth and poverty in order to explain his place in the rural landscape of fifth-century Egypt, presenting himself as an advocate for the poor in contention with secular local landowners, while also connecting himself to powerful imperial figures.

The first chapter, "Loyal Opposition," presents an image of Shenoute's character gleaned from his own writings. Here, López introduces the role of poverty in the construction of Shenoute's public character: Shenoute speaks for the poor, and therefore presents himself in clear opposition to the rich, including his primary target, a wealthy local landowner named Gesios. As a supporter of the rural poor, Shenoute also distrusted the entire city of Panopolis, near which his monastery was located. Shenoute thus set up a series of binaries—city and countryside, pagan and Christian, rich and poor—which clearly defined his own place in society. At the same time, his advocacy for the poor also connected Shenoute with the Roman state in a sort of "vertical solidarity" (36) (an idea López adopts from Assmann1), as both the abbot and the imperial hierarchy felt a religious need to support the poor, unlike the local aristocracy. However, López is careful to note that the poor, in Shenoute's thought, were not defined by a lack of means, whether voluntary or systemic. Instead, for Shenoute, the poor were primarily a group oppressed by the rich, and especially by local landowners—Shenoute's own enemies. Shenoute's interests and those of the local poor were therefore aligned. In this chapter, López also introduces the contrast between parrhesia, which he defines as "fearless speech" (35) and rhetoric. However, the lack of clear definitions of these terms, along with a lack of engagement with theories of rhetorical expression and presentation in Shenoute's speech, may leave readers wondering precisely how López has untangled the historical from the rhetorical in the speeches of Shenoute.

In the second chapter, "A Miraculous Economy," López addresses Shenoute's description of the wealth of his monastery in the context of his self-representation as a champion of the poor. Here, López makes two crucial, related points. First, Shenoute presented the material success of his monastery as miraculous, as the title of the chapter would suggest. In particular, Shenoute used stories based on biblical models of duplication to describe the agricultural wealth of the monastery, even when called upon to feed 20,000 refugees of barbarian invasions (57-63). Secondly, the miraculous success of Shenoute's monastery was a direct result of his support of the poor through charity: "By being given out to the poor, the monastery's wealth became involved in a 'virtuous circle.' The more Shenoute gave, the more 'blessings' he received from God" (62). López's readings of these miracle stories to illuminate the use of poverty in Shenoute's thought is both innovative and convincing. Furthermore, throughout this chapter, López engages with the rich economic evidence from Shenoute's own works to consider the relationship between wealthy monasteries and Christian care for the poor, therefore providing scholars interested in the monastic economy with another valuable source. Nevertheless, some readers will doubtlessly desire more than the cursory engagement that López offers with the archaeological evidence not only from the White Monastery and its environs, but from fifth-century Egypt in general.

While López's second chapter focuses on descriptions of wealth within Shenoute's work, in the third chapter, "Rural Patronage: Holy and Unholy" López makes use of papyrological evidence to consider the rural economy in fifth-century Egypt and the place of patronage in Shenoute's care of the poor. López argues that the phenomenon of rural patronage, or the close dependence of poor agricultural laborers on wealthy land owners, informed Shenoute's use of poverty and his self-representation as an alternative patron for the poor. He writes, "In an operation that is the exact opposite of Shenoute's glorification of his monastery's wealth, this discourse of economic inequality exposes rural production for what it really is:[…]a violent and abusive activity that takes from the poor what they rightfully deserve" (75). López focuses his analysis on patterns of alleged abuse by landowners in Shenoute's work, considering in depth descriptions of exploitative epoikia, or workers villages, and the "stinking wine" that wealthy landowners, such as Shenoute's adversary Gesios, forced on his laborers. Shenoute contrasted this "unholy patronage" with the holy support of the poor offered by both the charity of his monastery and his own vocal advocacy. In conjunction with the preceding chapter, these two chapters form a strong argument for the close connection between the function of Egypt's rural economy in the fifth century and the charitable actions and local influence of rural monasteries and abbots, like Shenoute.

Finally, in "The Limits of Tolerance," chapter four of the book, López addresses Gesios' paganism in light of Shenoute's attacks on his adversary. Although this chapter is thematically related to the others through its discussion of Shenoute's conflict with Gesios, the relationship between this chapter and the argument of the book seems disjointed, especially in light of the preceding two chapters. López is justified in including a discussion of Gesios' pagan beliefs in order to more firmly integrate Shenoute into the contentious religious landscape of the fifth-century; indeed, this chapter includes an extended comparison between Shenoute and Libanius that illustrates Shenoute's famously violent actions in light of comparable, non-Egyptian texts. Moreover, the topic of this chapter allows López to consider Shenoute's public failure to further his anti-pagan cause, as Shenoute's notorious smashing of jars of urine on Gesios' door exceeded, as López argues, the "limits of intolerance" (116-117). However, the reader would also be justified in desiring a clearer articulation of the connection between Shenoute's religiously motivated actions against Gesios and his use of poverty to combat the wealthy landowner.

In addition to these four chapters, the book includes a short conclusion and an introduction to Shenoute and the history of scholarship concerning the abbot, which will be especially useful to readers new to fifth-century Egypt, as will the two appendices, covering the chronology of Shenoute's life and work and editions of texts. There are also extensive endnotes, bibliography, and a full index.

Considering the the numerous strengths of this book as a study of the corpus of Shenoute, and López's own emphasis on long quotations from texts and accessible translations (x), the general lack of Coptic in this volume is notable and, at times, frustrating. All Coptic words in the main text of the book are transliterated rather than provided in a Coptic font, but the author does not provide a key to transliteration, which would presumably be helpful for those readers who do not know Coptic. While the book does use Coptic font in the endnotes, the author rarely supplies his reader with more than a single word. Even passages of Shenoute's writings that López has singled out as particularly difficult or important are not included in the original Coptic in notes. While López should be commended for writing a book on fifth-century Egypt, and Shenoute in particular, which is truly appealing and accessible to a non-specialist audience, many readers of this work will inevitably be Coptic readers or Copticists. Such an audience is sure to find the failure to provide key passages in the original language puzzling, especially given the difficulties of working with Shenoute's corpus and that fact that López's argument rests on some unpublished texts—points which López himself brings up several times. With this exception, this volume is quite well edited and well presented, and the shortcomings mentioned here in no way overshadow the importance of López's argument for Shenoute's particular place in the rural landscape of fifth-century southern Egypt.

In this reader's view, the great strength of this work is the integration of Shenoute into the late Roman world, and scholars and students of the rural economy or poverty in the ancient world would do well to pick up this book. The wealth of information López has provided about Shenoute's place in the economy of fifth-century Panopolis is valuable in itself, but his convincing interpretation concerning the connection between Shenoute's self-presentation and his support of the poor also adds an important new angle for the interpretation of the fifth-century monastic economy. Indeed, the publication of López's volume is timely, following on the heels of Peter Brown's monumental study of wealth and poverty in Late Antiquity2 (the timing may be more than fortuitous, as Brown was the advisor of the dissertation that eventually became this book). López's volume is an essential counterpart to the current dialogue on wealth and poverty in late ancient Christianity, as it provides a prospective from the Egyptian countryside that is often sorely missing from the broader discussion.


1.   Assmann, J. 2006. Ma'at : Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im alten Ägypten. 2nd ed. Beck'sche Reihe, 1403. München: C.H. Beck.
2.   Brown, P. 2012. Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1 comment:

  1. The conflict of motivations is exemplified with Shenoute's reply to the charge that he was thief "there is no crime for those who are in Christ" conflicts with his claimed concern for the poor. The gospels present a similar conflict in the dramatic character of Judas who declares his care for the poor but whom the gospel writer describes as being a thief. Divine sanction for actions on the margins acceptability is an ever present problem for extremists. A central message of the gospels is care for the poor. Julian recognized what a potent instrument this was in furthering the interest of the Christian community and Shenoute himself could not neglect such a powerful means of evangelization for furthering the cause but one wonders how pure the intentions were.