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The Lausiac History Of Palladius by Palladius Of Galatia

IN the fourth and fifth centuries of our era Egypt had come to be regarded with great reverence throughout Christendom as a Holy Land of piety. Pilgrims came from all parts to visit the saints who lived there, and several wrote descriptions of what they saw and heard, which are among the most interesting documents of the early Church. Palestine was so near that it was usually included in their tour; the glamour of its sacred sites, which remains with us still when that of Egypt has faded into oblivion, was already potent. But Palestine was clearly second to Egypt in the affections of the pilgrims.

The prevailing sentiment was expressed by Chrysostom with admirable clearness (Hom. in Matt. viii.). It was eminently appropriate, he explains, that the child Jesus should be taken to Egypt to escape Herod. Palestine persecutes Him, Egypt receives Him. This typifies the position Egypt was to occupy in the development of the Church. The land which had oppressed the children of Israel, had known a Pharaoh, had worshipped cats, was destined to be more fervent than any other, to have its towns and even its deserts peopled by armies of saints living the life of angels, and to boast the greatest, after the apostles, of all saints, the famous Antony.

Palladius, the author of our book, who was destined to be Chrysostom’s devoted adherent, made a pilgrimage to this holy land, like so many others, and stayed there many years. The following is an outline of his life, with the dates as established by Butler.

He was born in Galatia in 363 or 364, and dedicated himself to the monastic life in 386 or a little later. In 388 he went to Alexandria; as Paul went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, James, and John, so, he says in the Prologue, did he go to Egypt to see the saints for himself. About 390 he passed on to Nitria, and a year later to a district in the desert known as Cellia from the multitude of its cells, where he spent nine years, first with Macarius and then with Evagrius. At the end of the time, his health having broken down, he went to Palestine in search of a cooler climate. In 400 he was consecrated bishop of Helenopolis in Bithynia, and soon became involved in the controversies which centred round St. John Chrysostom. The year 405 found him in Rome, whither he had gone to plead the cause of Chrysostom, his fidelity to whom resulted in his exile in the following year to Syene and the Thebaid, where he gained first-hand knowledge of another part of Egypt. In 412–413 he was restored, after a sojourn among the monks of the Mount of Olives. His great work was written in 419–420 and was called the Lausiac History, being composed for Lausus, chamberlain at the court of Theodosius II. Palladius was also in all probability the author of the Dialogue on the Life of Chrysostom. He died some time in the decade 420–430.

The character of the man stands out clearly in the History. He was sincere, simple-minded and not a little credulous. His deep religious fervour, of the ascetic type, needless to say, appears throughout the book, and especially in the concluding chapter, which almost attains eloquence. But he had a fund of good sense, so we learn from the Prologue, which predisposes us to a favourable judgment on the rest of the book. What could be saner, for example, than his summing up of the question of teetotalism: “To drink wine with reason is better than to drink water with pride” (Prol. 10)? We need not attach much importance to the accusation of Origenism which has been the slur on his reputation. If he admired Origen, that great and original thinker, it will hardly redound to his discredit to-day. And he was in good company in his own day. Saints such as Basil, the two Gregories and Chrysostom shared his tendencies; if Chrysostom the master is forgiven his Origenism, Palladius the disciple may be forgiven also.

It has been the lot of many a scholar to grapple with the difficulties of an ancient text so successfully that the result of his labours has been accepted as substantially representing the original work of the author: few editors indeed can be credited with an achievement equal to that of Abbot Butler, who brought order out of confusion and rescued for the historian a document which had been regarded with the utmost suspicion. His conclusions were at once recognized as correct, and much that had been written on early monasticism became obsolete, based as it was on an erroneous estimate of the original authorities.

Butler was confronted by three main documents, each with its own textual history.

A. The document which was accepted till recently as the Lausiac History, called by Butler the Long Recension. It appears in a Latin form in Rosweyd’s Vitae Patrum (1615 and 1628), and includes the History of the Monks in Egypt (see C below). In 1624 a Greek text was published by du Duc purporting to be the original of Rosweyd’s Latin, though in reality it was patched up from various sources. This is the text which, with some additions, is reprinted in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, xxxiv.

B. Butler’s Short Recension, called originally Paradisus Heraclidis, printed by Rosweyd in his appendix.

C. The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, which was till recently supposed to have been written in Latin by Rufinus, but turns out to be Rufinus’ translation of a Greek original compiled by an anonymous writer and describing a visit paid by a party of seven, in which Rufinus was not included, to the Egyptian ascetics in 394–395. The Greek text has been edited by Preuschen, and a text of Rufinus’ Latin version forms part of the Long Recension, as stated above.

Tillemont long ago had seen the lines on which the problem was to be solved, but subsequent investigators dismissed his suggestion as impossible, and it was left for Butler to show with a wealth of argument the true relations of the documents.

His solution is briefly this: A (the Long Recension) = B (the Short Recension) + C (Historia Monachorum). B is not an abridgment of A, nor is A Palladius’ second edition of B. In Sozomen, who used the Lausiac History (see Hist. Eccl. I. 13 f., III. 14, VI. 28 ff., etc.), there are clear traces of B, also of C, none whatever of A. The early versions, especially the Latin and Syriac, confirm these results. There is no reason to think that Palladius used Greek documents, or that he translated from the Coptic.

Having established this fact, that the Latin version in Rosweyd’s appendix represents substantially the work of Palladius, Butler proceeds to discuss which is the best text of the Greek original of this. He finds that the MSS. are divided as follows:

(i) The B group, giving the Short Recension as hitherto printed.

(ii) A shorter and simpler text, which he calls the G group.

(iii) An A group, which is composite of B and G.

Ruling out the A group according to the rules of textual criticism, as between B and G, he pronounces in favour of the latter, which is supported by Sozomen and the versions, and is superior intrinsically as well. B is a “metaphrastic” text, says Preuschen, and Butler styles it “rhetorical, turgid and overladen.”

It remains to discover the best examples of the G text. Butler finds these in a MS. in the National Library at Paris (P) and one at Christ Church, Oxford (W). The latter was not available until more than half of the text had been printed, and therefore to get Butler’s mature judgment on the text of the earlier part a number of readings from W given in the appendix must be substituted for those of the text. The two MSS. are the offspring of a common ancestor. “It is clear that P and W have to serve as the basis of the text, pre-eminently W where it is extant.” Other MSS. are used in the main to eliminate the eccentricities of P and W. Occasionally neither are extant, and the printed text is Butler’s critical reconstruction from the other sources.

The story of Egyptian monasticism is inevitably an oft-told tale, and need not be repeated here, since summaries of it are readily accessible. All that will be attempted is the emphasising of some points that might be overlooked.

Asceticism was inherent in Christianity from the first; it could hardly have been otherwise among the disciples of Him Who had not where to lay His head. In 1 Corinthians St. Paul teaches that in view of the shortness of the time before the end the unmarried state is preferable to the married. St. John, convinced that it was the last hour, bade his little children keep themselves from idols, a command which in practice involved renunciation of the world. We are therefore not surprised to find asceticism a strong force in the early post-apostolic age. There was as yet no formal separation from the world; devotees of both sexes lived at home and were described as bearing “the whole yoke of the Lord.” When monasticism underwent its great development in the early part of the fourth century, it was but a making explicit of what had been implicit in the Church from its early days, and even, so it would seem, in the teaching and example of our Saviour.

Two questions may be asked at this point: Why did monasticism begin when it did? Why did Egypt witness its beginning rather than some other land such as Asia Minor, which was perhaps the most Christian part of the empire at that time?

In answering the first question one would be inclined to attach importance to the tradition which connects the origin of monasticism with the Decian persecution (c. 250), when many Christians fled from the settled parts of Egypt to the surrounding deserts and remained there for some time (Dionysius of Alexandria ap. Eus. H.E. VI. 42). Some at least of these must have been living the ascetic life at home, which they would naturally continue in the desert under more rigorous conditions. When a later tradition affirms that certain of these remained in the desert permanently and became the first Christian hermits, it is intrinsically so probable that one is justified in concluding that the Decian persecution was the historic occasion which led to the origin of monasticism.

Paradoxical as such an argument may seem at first sight, the cessation of persecutions may be adduced as a main cause of the great development of monasticism. The deliverance of the Church from this danger coincided with the adoption of Christianity as the State religion, the swamping of old landmarks by a flood of imperfectly instructed adherents, and the lowering of standards in the direction of worldliness. Monasticism in one of its aspects was the reaction of the sterner spirits against the secularisation of the fourth-century Church. Hitherto there had been an intermittent warfare of the State against the Church which expressed itself in persecution. When persecution ceased, a need was felt on the part of the Church for a “moral equivalent for war”; this the Church found in monasticism, which represented the Church militant against worldliness within.

If we turn to our second question, it is not hard to see why Egypt, rather than some other country, was the motherland of monasticism. The solitudes of Asia Minor with their rigorous winter climate were not suitable places for ascetic experiments. Egypt, however, was ideal for this purpose. The climate was warm and practically rainless, the desert was never far away from the narrow strip of cultivable land, and the neighbouring mountain ranges abounded in natural caves.

Another reason may be suggested. The recent discoveries of papyri have thrown a flood of light upon the conditions of life in ancient Egypt. We can trace the ever-tightening hold of the Government upon the people and the process by which the peasants became ascripti glebae. The process was at work in other provinces, but Egypt was in the main docile, had been paternally governed since the days of the Ptolemies, and was of great importance as the granary of Italy. Accordingly the pressure of taxes and public burdens was greatest in Egypt, and the temptation to escape from them by running away became very strong. In the second and third centuries whole districts became depopulated by the flight of their inhabitants. Things became worse in the fourth century. In 312 the village of Theadelphia became “utterly deserted”; so did that of Philadelphia in 359. The peasants ran away from their intolerable burdens. The word used for their retreat (ἀναχώρησις) is the same as that which describes the monks (ἀναχωρηταί, anchorites). What some did from economic, others could do from religious motives; doubtless in some cases both causes operated.

Such an explanation seems far more plausible than that which used to be given, according to which the pagan monasticism of Egypt was the model for the Christian institution. There is little to be said for such a theory, which is indeed now generally abandoned. The resemblance of the so-called monks of Sarapis to the later Christian monks is merely superficial.

The solitary life, begun in the desert as described above, was organised about 305 by St. Antony, who is justly reckoned as the founder of Christian monachism. Through the efforts of him and his disciples great colonies of monks arose, the most famous of which were at Nitria and Scete. The cells were grouped round a central church, where services were held on Saturday and Sunday, devotions otherwise being said in the individual cells. The main feature of this type of monasticism was its voluntary character; each monk lived his own life, and the monastery had a number of solitary lives lived in common rather than a true common life.

The first coenobium, or monastery of the common life, was founded by Pachomius at Tabennisi sometime in the years 315–320. Here Palladius found a federation of monasteries constituting a true Order as understood subsequently in the West, with obedience to the Rule and the Superior as the main principle. There is no need to discuss the two systems here, since the reader will find both modes of life fully described in the text (see especially Chapters VII. and XXXII.).

By the side of the monks there were nuns of various kinds. The purely solitary life was clearly inappropriate to women, though it was attempted, as may be seen from the story of Alexandra, who lived alone in a tomb for ten years (Ch. V.). When women were gathered into a monastery, the presence of men was necessary if only to administer the sacraments. Convents of the Antonian type existed, but the true common life for women was found in the Pachomian nunneries, over the first of which Pachomius’ sister was abbess. These were closely associated with the men’s houses in a system of double monasteries, which formed an economic whole, the women, for example, making the men’s clothes. This institution, carefully safeguarded as it was and providing protection for women in a rough age, fell into suspicion in the East and was forbidden by Justinian.

Little need be said about Palestine. The monastic life was introduced there early in the fourth century by Hilarion, a disciple of Antony; the original impulse continued, and the monasteries were mainly of the Antonian type.

No one would deny that Palladius reflects the age in which he lived, the more faithfully because of his simplicity and lack of originality. His casual allusions to Church observances are of great value. Note, for instance, the continued use of the Agape (XVI. 5), the importance attached to frequent communion, a five weeks’ abstention being enough to deserve severe punishment (XVII. 9), the offering of the Eucharist for the dead (XXXIII. 4), the use of Holy Oil (XII. 1, XVIII. 11) and Holy Water (XVII. 9) to effect cures, the Invocation of Saints (LX. 2), the beginnings of the Rosary (XX. 1), and generally the great esteem in which the Bible was held, large portions being learned by heart.

But a novel may contain such historical data, and it has been claimed that Palladius’ History is little better than a romance. We may disregard the earlier criticisms of this kind, since Abbot Butler has answered them satisfactorily, and confine ourselves to the most important of recent books on the subject, Reitzenstein’s Hellenistischen Wundererzählungen (1906). He pays special attention to the Lausiac History, and tries to prove that some at least of the stories are old literary motives formerly attached to pagan characters. Thus the tale of Sarapion Sindonita was originally told of some Cynic philosopher. It may be so, though the arguments are not cogent, only this scholar is too ready to assume a literary connection where none is needed. If the same stories were told of Egyptian peasants, heathen and Christian, the simplest explanation is that Egyptian peasants behaved in much the same way, whether before or after conversion. The common background of life and thought is sufficient to explain the similarity of the stories.

Palladius then tells what he saw and heard, his reminiscences in fact of what happened in some cases over twenty years previously. Under such conditions the element of exaggeration and distortion cannot be excluded. But there is no reason to doubt his good faith when he describes what he saw for himself. Where he reports hearsay he is naturally at the mercy of his informants. Those who told him that a virgin hid Athanasius in her house for six years (Ch. LXIII.) were giving the exaggerated popular version of what had happened many years ago.

There is one reason why Palladius’ evidence has been distrusted which is not very creditable to nineteenth-century scholars, namely, his conviction that he had witnessed miraculous and supernatural events. It is coming to be recognised that a fifth-century Christian writer who did not believe in the miraculous would be a portent which required explanation. There would be little left of the history of the time if all the writers who believed in contemporary miracles were ruled out as unworthy of credence.

The modern reader has to contend with certain prejudices which hinder his proper appreciation of the people depicted in the Lausiac History. To begin with, there is the preoccupation with sexual temptations, which will offend some. Not that this is unfamiliar to the reader of modern literature, where there is enough and to spare of such topics. But the Christian to-day, resting upon the accumulated experience of the Church, has learned that solitude is the worst possible condition for a man troubled with such temptations, and is apt to be impatient with the struggles of the solitaries. Doubtless the monks were often morbid in this matter, and it requires an effort of sympathetic imagination to do them justice. The background of their lives must not, however, be forgotten. Their point of view is readily intelligible when it is regarded as a necessary reaction from the incredible corruption of the pagan society of their day, with which even the Church was infected. Thus the women who boasted that they had not had a bath for years are not to be laughed at or reproached for dirtiness. Their conduct appears in a new light when compared with that of those who did take a bath, the Christian ladies of Alexandria who defied all modesty in the public baths. They sacrificed physical cleanliness as a protest against moral uncleanness. And the monks who fought with their passions under the hot African sun and described their struggles with painful frankness were doing the right thing under conditions needlessly difficult. We who have a truer insight into the psychology of temptation must not reproach those who had not such knowledge.

Again, the demonology of the Lausiac History is at times grotesque to modern eyes. In his poem “St. Simon Stylites” Tennyson shows a just appreciation of this side of early monachism. His description of the saints is fully borne out by the records.

“Devils pluck’d my sleeve,

Abaddon and Asmodeus caught at me.

I smote them with the cross; they swarmed again.

In bed like monstrous apes they crushed my chest:

They flapped my light out as I read: I saw

Their faces grow between me and my book:

With colt-like whinny and with hoggish whine

They burst my prayer.”

But the heroic nature of the warfare is easily missed. The ascetic went into the desert knowing that the demons were awaiting him on their own ground. The evil spirits had a special fondness for waterless places; they took up their abode among the animals which frequented ruins. They were also identified with the heathen gods, whose monuments and pictorial representations were to be found in the Egyptian desert. It argued therefore no small degree of moral courage if the monk went out alone to join battle with these potent forces of evil. We forget the squalor and shabbiness of the Middle Ages in our admiration of the chivalry and devotion which dared and accomplished great things, and though we laugh at Don Quixote it is with a pang of regret that the age of chivalry is giving place to the centuries of materialism. Now the monks went into the desert of Egypt to fight their battles in a spirit of chivalry. Maybe they tilted at windmills sometimes, but let us never forget that the battle was won, that their life was a successful protest against corruption in the Church, and that they handed the lamp of spirituality down to posterity through ages which apart from them were truly dark.

Tennyson was right in much of his poem, but surely he was mistaken in making his typical ascetic speak in so uniformly penitential a vein. The great monks must have been very happy on the whole. Cold in winter, scorched in summer, always hungry, tortured by visions, yet they had the deep inward peace of knowing that they had obeyed the call and were doing God’s Will. Dom Morin of Maredsous in Belgium, writing shortly before the Great War, pointed out that this is the special and inalienable happiness of the monk. “On pourra m’expulser, comme tant d’autres, des murs paisibles du cloître, on pourra me priver de toutes les consolations de la vie religieuse, on pourra disposer de moi de diverses façons imprévues; il est cependant une chose que jamais on ne pourra me ravir, c’est le bonheur d’obér: celuilà, il m’accompagnera jusqu’à la mort.”

The monk in an Order obeyed the Rule and its living exponent, the Superior; the solitaries in the desert obeyed an inward monitor. But for both obedience was the master-word, and in consequence beneath all their surface struggles they had a deep peace of the soul. Cardinal Newman’s words about the Benedictines express better than anything else the true spirit of monasticism. “To the monk heaven was next door; he formed no plans, he had no cares; the ravens of his father Benedict were ever at his side. He ‘went forth’ in his youth ‘to his work and to his labour’ until the evening of life; if he lived a day longer, he did a day’s work more; whether he lived many days or few, he laboured on to the end of them. He had no wish to see further in advance of his journey than where he was to make his next stage. He ploughed and sowed, he prayed, he meditated, he studied, he wrote, he taught, and then he died and went to heaven.’

Some, while recognising the justice of what has been said above, will maintain that they are bound to pass an unfavourable judgment on a movement so anti-social and anti-national as monasticism. It is pitiful, they say, to see the elect spirits of their generation engaged in spiritual self-culture, a selfish endeavour to save their own souls. Why did they not marry and bring up children, throw themselves into the national life, and so strengthen the moral and economic fabric of the State that it might have had a fair chance of resisting the barbarian onslaught that was impending?

“I can never forgive monasticism this wrong to civilisation,” said a distinguished Cambridge resident to me once. At the time I felt that the objection was unhistorical, a judging of the men of bygone days by standards which would have been meaningless to them, resembling the criticisms of monasticism which Charles Kingsley puts into the mouths of his characters in Hypatia. But the objection was, after all, raised at the time, for Eusebius deals with this very difficulty in a passage of great interest.

Why, he asks, did the Old Testament Saints attach such importance to marriage and the begetting of children, while we neglect the duty? His answer is first that what was natural in the early days of the human race is unsuitable now when we are living in the last days—quoting St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7. If the time was short in the apostle’s day, how little is left now before the advent of the new order. Then in the Old Testament the bulk of mankind were living a life akin to that of the beasts, and so the few who served God were obliged to have families if the holy seed was to be preserved at all; whereas now there is such a multitude of Christians that some can be spared for the ascetic life. He goes on to speak of spiritual children begotten by these holy men, and points out that after all for the great majority of men the New Testament does enjoin marriage.

Surely we can accept Eusebius’ conclusions. There will always be enough to obey the primitive human instincts which lead men and women to marriage; there will certainly be enough children born from these marriages to carry on the race, if the Christian teaching on marriage is honoured. So we can but rejoice, if out of the great number who remain unmarried some do so in order to live a life separated from the world and devoted to unseen things. Let us exercise a little common sense. At this distance of time who can pretend to care whether a few little Egyptians more or less were born in the fourth century, to live dim, undistinguished lives, cultivating the soil in order to fill the grain-ships with bread-stuffs for Rome, or later, Constantinople? But it makes a good deal of difference to us that men and women were ready to forsake all for Christ and that the sweet savour of their example is still fragrant in our midst. Many of the monastic records are exquisitely beautiful. Take, for example, the deaths of two great nuns, Emmelia and Macrina, as described in the Life of the latter. Of Emmelia, the mother, it is said that “when she ceased to bless, she ceased to live.” Of Macrina, her daughter: “As she approached her end, as if she discerned the beauty of the Bridegroom more clearly, she hastened towards the Beloved with the greater eagerness.”

Or we may quote from Palladius the answer given him by Macarius, when he complained that he was making no progress: “Say, for Christ’s sake I am guarding the walls.” He means: Comfort yourself with the thought that the people of Egypt are living their life in the world, exposed to so many temptations; as a protecting wall between them and the enemy the monasteries are interposed; you with your prayers are helping to guard that wall.

Is not this the real point at issue? If we believe in prayer as the noblest and most fruitful activity of man’s nature, we shall probably be led to believe that God separates some to a life of prayer, and that the mass of mankind dwell in greater security, thanks to the protecting wall of the prayers of these separated ones. It is because the monks of Egypt put spiritual things first, albeit sometimes in an exaggerated and strained fashion, and believed in the life of prayer, that their example is of permanent value to Christendom.

Finally, it is a commonplace to say that we live in a materialistic age. Riches are the pathway to power and influence over the lives of others. The Church itself is infected by materialism, in that finance absorbs so much of its energies. Great philanthropists, ecclesiastical statesmen, and missionaries all need money to carry out their schemes of benefiting mankind. Of course there is a good side to this; over against our Lord’s praises of poverty must be set His teaching about stewardship. Yet one suspects that English Christians have not so far learned all that is implied in His treatment of riches and poverty. And so it is a salutary experience to read the Lausiac History and live for a while in an age of the Church when renunciation of all possessions was the surest road to fame and widespread influence for good.

I have followed Butler’s text throughout, including the readings from W given in the Appendix, which are in some cases to be substituted for those which appear in the body of the book. Where a different text is followed, for example a reading suggested by C. H. Turner, the deviation from Butler is indicated in the notes. The paragraph divisions are those of Butler, the sections into which the chapters are divided are Lucot’s.

In places I was confronted with language which could hardly be translated literally; Lucot manages to do so, but the traditions of English are different. To omit the passages would in some cases have spoiled the sense of a whole passage; besides, the book is intended for scholars, who have a right to know what the author said. I met the difficulty by toning down and employing euphemisms; the scholar will have no difficulty in seeing what is meant. I cannot pretend that the compromise is satisfactory.

I have aimed at the combination of accuracy, not necessarily identical with literalness, and an easily-read English style. Only those who have tried know how hard it is to combine the two. Palladius, though not a stylist, is a clear and forcible writer, and the task of translating him into English presents no special difficulty. A feature of his style is the incessant use of the particle οὖν.

(See also list of abbreviations.)

Butler, E. C., Chapter on “Monasticism” in Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. I. Cambridge, 1911.

Cabrol, F., art. on “Monasticism” in Encylopœdia of Religion and Ethics,” Vol. VIII. Edinburgh, 1915.

Clarke, W. K. L., St. Basil the Great: A Study in Monasticism. Cambridge, 1913.

Duchesne, L., Chapter on “Les Moines d’Orient” in Histoire Ancienne de l’ Église, Vol. II. Paris, 1907.

Krottenthaler, S., Des Palladius von Helenopolis Leben der heiligen Väter (German translation of Butler’s text). München, 1912.

Ladeuze, F., Le Cénobitisme Pakhomien. Louvain, 1897.

Leclercq, H., art. Cénobitisme” in Dictionaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne. Paris, 1910.

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, The: Athanasius,

Cassian, Socrates, Sozomen. Oxford, various dates.

Zöckler, O., Askese and Mönchtum. Frankfurt-a-M., 1897.








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