Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Jaclyn Maxwell: Scholars, Peasants, and Monks in the Life of Hypatius

The Life of Hypatius by Callinicus provides a lengthy account of an ascetic’s conversion as a young man, his life and leadership in different monastic communities, his good works and miracles. This Vita is especially remarkable for its portrayal of different social groups at the monastery: people from the highest (prefects, counts, even members of the imperial family) to the lowest (peasants, slaves, beggars) levels of society intersected at Hypatius’ rural monastery near Chalcedon. This paper will examine the relationships among and depictions of these different groups, drawing attention to the ambivalence toward high social status and culture. For instance, Hypatius was a man of both the lower and upper classes: passing himself off as a slave, he hid his well-born, educated family background from his followers. As an abbot, Hypatius helped the local laity in their struggle with rural poverty. In return, the country people could be counted on to defend the monastery when necessary. Yet, Hypatius never encouraged the country people to enter the contemplative life, whereas he did recruit scholars and other, more urban, visitors. According to Callinicus, Hypatius’ followers were astonished that an unlettered man could command such authority (6.8).  At the same time, the hagiographer provides the testimony of visiting scholars (scholastikoi) regarding the abbot’s considerable intellectual credentials.

This Vita demonstrates that the ascetic emphasis on almsgiving, the rejection of wealth, and freedom of speech in the face of power, challenged traditional social divisions without abandoning them altogether. There has been surprisingly little attention paid to this Vita: it is most often cited for its references to the Huns, and for Hypatius’ interference with the Olympic Games in Chalcedon. This text should be more widely known for its depiction of social and cultural connections among scholars, peasants, and monks.

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