From letter to letter-collection: monastic epistolography in late-antique Egypt

Malcolm Choat*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


The phenomenon of the letter-collection is characteristic of late antiquity. Taking their cue from classical models, in particular those of Pliny the younger and Cicero, and with Christian authors inevitably looking back to Paul and other early Christian letter-writers such as Polycarp and Ignatius, late-antique authors and editors crafted collections of letters which survive in the manuscript traditions of most of the major Mediterranean languages. Religious and civic leaders from both the classical and Christian traditions collected and circulated their letters, in the process transforming them from everyday documents to part of a burgeoning literary genre. Alongside this runs the evidence of the documentary papyri, among which survive archives of letters from Roman and late-antique Egypt, which, if they were not ‘published’ (inasmuch as the word can be used of anything in antiquity), at least provide evidence for the letter-writing and collecting impulse which lies behind the better-known letter-collections. It is within this framework that we must investigate letters within the monastic tradition in Egypt. From documentary papyri and ostraca to collections of letters in deluxe codices, the letter is both foundational and critical to the articulation of the monastic movement in Egypt. What I wish to do here is to reflect on the monastic letter-collection, on its path from a papyrological archive to one transmitted in a manuscript tradition, by way, I hope, of better understanding the importance of this genre to the development of monasticism in Egypt. To address this theme, I have a set of general, and specific, questions. The general ones are part of a wider consideration currently taking place in various parts of the academic world from various perspectives on the role of the letter, and particularly, the function of the letter-collection, in late antiquity. We should certainly consider to what extent the number of letter-collections we have for late antiquity is a product of factors external to the content of the letters themselves, such as the relative proximity of that time to us, and the consequent higher rate of survival of literature from that era; and perhaps the rise of the codex as the dominant book-form, which makes larger collections more feasible.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCollecting Early Christian Letters
Subtitle of host publicationFrom the Apostle Paul to Late Antiquity
EditorsBronwen Neil, Pauline Allen
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781316135655
ISBN (Print)9781107091863
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015


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