Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents: A Complete Translation of the Surviving Founders' Typika and Testaments

By Alexakis, Alexander | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents: A Complete Translation of the Surviving Founders' Typika and Testaments


Alexakis, Alexander, The Catholic Historical Review


Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents: A Complete Translation of the Surviving Founders' Typika and Testaments. Edited by John Thomas and Angela Constantinides Hero with the assistance of Giles Constable. 5 vols. [Dumbarton Oaks Studies, XXXV] (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. 2000. Pp. xlix, 439; xiii, 441-858; xiii, 859-1294; xiii, 1295-1678; xiii, 1679-2021.)

Byzantine Monasticism is one of the rather well documented segments of Byzantine life. Hagiography provides abundant information concerning the lifestyles of particular mate and female monks from the early years of monasticism. Acts of monasteries and, to a lesser extent, Byzantine canon law, are other sources that illuminate the more practical aspects of monastic life. Despite the extensive research and literature on the subject, it is still difficult to form a clear understanding of monastic life in the Byzantine world. Before the appearance of the present work, it was not possible to write a definitive history of Byzantine monasticism.

The five-volume work under review represents a giant step toward addressing a number of the difficulties surrounding the understanding of Byzantine monastic life. In the volumes edited by John Thomas and Angela Constatinides Hero we have the final fruit of an ambitious project that was conceived some twenty years ago at Dumbarton Oaks. The first four volumes contain the complete translation into English of the sixty-one surviving monastic foundation documents together with extensive introductions and detailed annotation. The project concludes with painstakingly detailed indexes that fill all of Volume V

Each of these documents (most of which are better known as typika) was written for a specific monastery and its dependencies. Many of the later extant typika copied earlier ones. Despite that, a number of differences among them are evident, differences that reflect both the individual character of each monastery and the changes in Byzantine monasticism across the centuries. Briefly said, a typikon usually contained the rules, by which the monastic community for which it was written was organized, the legal and economic status of the monastery, and a number of binding statutes that prescribed the details of the daily life of the monks and nuns. These typika were, on occasion, confirmed by the emperor, and this confirmation invested them with legal authority on which the protection of the monastic community and of its rights rested. This brief description of the nature of the typika makes apparent their paramount importance not only for the life of the monks (in this respect one could possibly compare them to the modem constitutions of the sovereign states) but also for the study of the history of monasticism.

The earliest surviving document comes from seventh-century Egypt and is the testament of Apa Abraham, while the latest one, tentatively dated to 1449, is an Inventory of the Monastery of the Mother of God Eleousa in Stroumitza. The eight centuries that these documents span occupy the most significant period of Byzantine monasticism, a period that witnessed-among others-the appearance of Athonite Monasticism, the development of the Protectorate (Ephoreia-some sort of protective patronage of the monasteries, known also in the West as advocacy), the development of the Cbaristike (a controversial public program that transferred private religious foundations to concessionaires unrelated to the founders, practically antagonizing the Epboreia), and, finally, the monastic reforms of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that promoted the inviolability of sacred property. All these developments were initiated or facilitated by influential individuals who left their indelible mark on monasticism, not only with their acts, but also with their writings, among which typika figure prominently. …

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