[This is a paper delivered by Julia Hillner at IMC 2015, Leeds, on 7 July 2015; altered and amended for this blog post]


This paper looks at a momentous change in the late antique penal landscape that occurred in the course of the sixth century: the introduction, into written legislation, of the penalty of forced residence in a monastery. Sometimes, but not always, this also involved taking up the ascetic lifestyle permanently.

The change mentioned was momentous because, before the sixth century, no secular or ecclesiastical legislation had included a comparable penalty, at least not for elite criminals  Of course, Roman law knew the penalty of exile and ecclesiastical law that of excommunication – and both underpinned the emergence of the penalty of forced residence in a monastery – but, even where they might have included forced residence at a particular place before the sixth century this never went as far as prescribing spatial seclusion.

What I will do in this paper is the following: I will begin by discussing the legal norms, i.e. those legal texts that introduced forced monastic residence as a penalty. Then I will look at what one might call ‘anecdotal evidence’ – evidence of incidents of forced monastic residence that might have actually happened. As I will discuss in this section, however, there is at times a mis-match between legal prescriptions and practices in the sense that not all of the actual incidents seem to have come about as a consequence of judicial decisions (although it should be stressed, some did). To be sure, this is not always easy to ascertain – mainly because of the rhetorical elaborations of such incidents. Here, however, it helps to use a tiny bit of social network analysis.

Let’s start by having a look at legislation.


NB: this is just 6th c legal evidence. We should note that more of this can be found in the seventh century and later, particularly in the Visigothic council legislation, but also in Visigothic law. So we are really dealing with the beginning of a phenomenon here.

What do we learn?

To begin with, that monasteries were institutions on which bishops and emperors were confident enough that they could be incorporated into their agendas. Secondly, that this was a prescription that appeared in both Eastern and Western legal texts, but that there were regional differences between who was pulling the strings. In the east, it was the emperor and he could extend the measure to lay people, although we should note that in the ecclesiastical legislation the measure also over time got extended to clerical families. But what can we say about the purpose of the penalty? Apart from the few hints in some of the texts that the measure was to facilitate ‘penance’ or ‘to improve’ the offender in question, it’s perhaps best to look at who it was envisaged for. Notable is the proposed use, firstly, for deviant women. It seems to have been meant as a measure to protect male honour and safeguard the continuity of the family. For example, ascetic conversion of the adulteress and the wife who filed for divorce, as in the Justinianic legislation, had the potential to free the remaining spouse to remarry, which usually would have been more controversial due to the rising idea that marriage was indissoluble. Notable is also the proposed use of the penalty for clerics. Here we should note that sometimes permanent stay in the monastery was proposed (although it is not entirely clear whether it included the taking of monastic vows) and sometimes a short stay. In the latter case, the stay in the monastery – a widely recognized penitential space by the sixth century – paved the way for clerics to return to their office afterwards. Here, we are arguably in front of the solution to an old problem: clerics were to be deposed (not excommunicated) and excluded from return to office according to more ancient prescriptions (e.g. Statuta ecclesiae antiquae 84 (68)). There was an increased expectation that they would retire to an ascetic life as a consequence, but at the same time this led to an increased possibility that they could return to office afterwards. Notable is also the proposed use of the penalty for ascetics in other monasteries for offences such as stealing or fornication: this can be directly linked (as Albrecht Diem has shown) to the rise of irreversible monastic vows, which meant that expulsion from the monastery wasn’t really an option anymore.

All of this gives us some insight into how imperial or ecclesiastical lawgivers envisaged the role of monasteries in safeguarding the social order and the integrity of some social institutions (clergy, marriage etc) in the sixth century. But did forced residence in monasteries really happen?

Well, yes. Here are some sources mentioning forced residence in a monastery:


The image shows the first page of Appendix III of my book Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity. As a disclaimer I would like to add that relevant data from this Appendix are currently being fed into our clerical exile database which will be available online from, hopefully, 2016/17.

I would like to say a few things about these sources recording episodes of forced residence in a monastery that in the book have perhaps not received sufficient attention. In particular it is important to point out how utterly diverse these episodes are. Apparently the measure was imposed on heretical groups (although it should be noted that at least the earliest evidence, from the Liber Pontificalis, is doubtful). It was also apparently imposed on deposed and/or banished clerics. It is quite interesting to see particularly numerous episodes of forced residence in a monastery of such individuals at a time when Justinian also legislated about the ascetic conversion of deposed bishops (see previous image). Justinian certainly had much trouble with some dissenting clerics, in particular during the so-called Three Chapter Controversy, and a number of bishops and other clerics (Victor of Tunnuna among them) ended up interned in monasteries in Carthage, Alexandria and Constantinople. It is tempting to see a connection between norms and practices here, but it is also important to note that none of the individual clerics actually sent to monasteries under Justinian that we know of were meant to stay there permanently, as was envisaged in the emperor’s law – rather, the most important aspect seems to have been that of coercion, making dissident clerics subscribe to the emperor’s will. Clerics sent to monasteries for life, with direct reference to legal norms, were more numerous where this happened following an ecclesiastical decision, but again, this isn’t clear-cut: for example, in late sixth-century Italy Gregory the Great had some problems with his sub-deacons releasing clerics from monasteries, but also imposed short-term monastic stays on some clerics himself.

The other big group of individuals apparently being forced to reside in monasteries upon misbehaving were women. It should be noted that this group is extremely diverse. We have: women who supported the Miaphysite side of religious conflict; several nuns being moved around monasteries to allow for stricter discipline; a slave woman who had formed an illicit relationship with a deacon; an adulteress (married to a tenant of the church of Rome); the widow of a subdeacon in Catania who had remarried; and some royal women both in the eastern empire, and in Merovingian Francia. Contrary to clerics, however, most of these women were to be sent to monasteries for life; and it’s quite clear that this often happened in the same spirit as Justinian’s law on divorce and adultery had been promulgated, to safeguard male honour or the honour of institutions, the Church or a monastic community. The case of royal women is a bit more complicated, as they were of course also carriers of dynastic legitimacy, and ascetic conversion shut down their route to remarriage and worldly power. In the east, we have one very specific context in which royal women ended up in monasteries in this period, a conspiracy against emperor Zeno. This conspiracy had allegedly been led by the dowager empress Verina, Zeno’s mother-in-law, in 478. Verina (so the later chronicler John of Antioch reports) was made a nun in Tarsus, though other sources report she was held in confinement at a fortress in the Tauros mountains (as we shall see later, these might have been subsequent scenarios, though). In any case, Marcian, the son of the former Western emperor Anthemius and husband to Verina’s daughter Leontia, Zeno’s sister-in-law, took her confinement as a pretext to revolt against Zeno in 479. In the course of the suppression of this uprising both Marcian and Leontia ended up in monasteries, in Caesarea in Cappadocia and in Constantinople respectively.

What we see, then, in the anecdotal evidence is that there is sometimes, though not always, a relationship between the legal norms and some episodes of forced monastic residence. Forced stay in a monastery could hence according to many sources be imposed from above, and collaboration from monasteries might be explained by their opposing doctrinal views (in case of dissident clerics), financial benefits envisaged by laws, and tight patronage relationships with those imposing forced monastic residence, emperors or bishops.

It may also be noted that monasteries may have, in fact, provided a spatial framework that aided the control of movement, at least if we take the monastery at Mount Sinai, later called St Catherine as a guide: like other monasteries it was heavily fortified by Justinian, the sixth-century walls surviving to this day (but note that this particular monastery is not recorded as having hosted unwilling residents, although another of Justinan’s fortified monasteries, Mandracium in Carthage, did):

st catherine

So this is quite a nice, tidy scenario in which monasteries appear almost as proto-prisons. This appears a little differently, however, if we look at the evidence from another perspective:


What I have done here is to feed the evidence from the fifth- and sixth-century Eastern Roman empire on relationships between monasteries, those who were forced to reside at them, and those who allegedly imposed this forced residence, into a software tool that allows for social network analysis (NodExl, an add-on to Excel).

Just to be clear: this isn’t really social network analysis. Most importantly, what is presented here is a diachronic scenario, displaying evidence from the mid-fifth to the late sixth century. Network analysis would for example look for density of networks, to assess how the connectedness of certain people impacts on their action, or how the action of people impacts on the creation of social networks in real time. For example, one could measure the distance it would take for everyone in the network to reach an important player. Because most of the network agents in what is presented here did not overlap in lifetime this is mostly meaningless here, and of course the graph only represents relationships created for or through forced monastic residence, so does not display other relationships agents might have.

I still think displaying the evidence as a network graph is a useful thing to do because, firstly, the software allows to break the network into components that I think are meaningful. To arrive at this graph I have asked the software to look for the agents with the most connections and to group the network accordingly. Not surprisingly, it has come up with components grouped around emperors who imposed forced stays in monasteries on certain individuals, which allows us to see at what times the measure was particularly frequently used (by Marcian, Justinian, and Justin II, less so by Leo and Zeno, and there are no records at all for Anastasius).

Secondly, I have also required the software to display the quality of relationships, where known. The graph accordingly displays relationships of conflict where our sources talk about the imposition of forced monastic residence; support, where our sources talk about concrete measures of help (such as food or lobbying imperial authority); or allegiance where agents had some other, but less directly defined positive relationship. And this brings out something interesting: in some instances, in fact, the monastery that came to host a certain individual, supposedly forcedly, also had a relationship of allegiance with it. For example, Peter the Fuller, the Miaphysite bishop of Antioch, banished to Oasis in Egypt for having forcibly expelled his predecessor in 471, instead resided at the fiercely Chalcedonian monastery of the Acoemetae, or Akoimetes (‘Sleepless Monks’), outside Constantinople. However, this monastery probably had been Peter’s original community, so also had a relationship of allegiance with him. Might the monastery hence have offered Peter sanctuary, even though he was a doctrinal rival? In fact, while a contemporary source described Peter’s stay at the monastery as exile (Liberatus), a much later sources, the chronicler Theophanes, reported that Peter ‘hid’ at the monastery. Interestingly it is the same monastery, Leontia, the wife of the usurper Marcian, fled to in 479, which induced the emperor Zeno to treat her like an exile and confiscate her property (so John of Antioch, who reported the incident, confusingly presented this event as both voluntary and imposed). Yet, if this was true for Leontia, there are some chances that also the forced monastic residences of her husband, Marcian, and her mother, Verina, were actually incidents of sanctuary (particularly as both were later moved to other scenarios, Verina to a fortress and Marcian apparently was forced to become a cleric).

And the graph draws attention to another interesting thing. It is in fact notable that some monasteries repeatedly appear in our sources that describe forced residence at a monastery (the monastery called Canopus near Alexandria, the monasteries of the Acoemetae, of Dios, in the Palace of Hormisdas, of the Abramites, all in Constantinople). To return to social network concepts: if we think about these monasteries as agents within our network, they are indeed the only ones that have a lifetime throughout the period covered, so had the potential to connect certain communities over time. This is exactly what the graph shows: These institutions are the nodes that connect the whole network, acting (if this was real time) as brokers between the scenarios of forced monastic residence under a number of emperors (they are, in social network analysis language, ‘in between’). The reasons why this might be so, can be myriad: it might come down to accident of survival of the evidence which just happens to record these institutions; it might be their location; it might be their patronage relationships with the emperors in question (which was true, certainly, for the monastery in the Palace of Hormisdas); their doctrinal position; or in fact their particular commitment to providing sanctuary.

Looked at this way, the evidence for forced monastic residence as a general top-down strategy is somewhat starting to crumble. However, even where patterns emerging from the bigger picture allow us to raise doubts, every case has to be looked at individually: some may present a scenario of sanctuary and others reflect state- or church-enforced control; and in fact it should be noted that even where forced monastic residence may have started as a sanctuary movement, it became an imperial and ecclesiastical penalty, so could at least in theory be imposed. But we should also not file a ‘sanctuary’ situation completely under the label of ‘benign’ – it might not be direct, subjective violence, but more of what recent sociologists call ‘objective’ violence, more hidden from view and diffuse, violating individual agency, rather than the body itself. Think Julian Assange in the embassy of Ecuador! However, it’s also worth noting that Julian Assange has of course not become an Ecuadorian purely by being in this embassy. Neither did everyone forced to reside in a monastery by whatever circumstances join the monastic community. On the contrary, particularly where clerics were concerned they seemingly were able to zoom in and out of monasteries. It seems that full ascetic conversion in the sense of taking vows was mostly envisaged, and practised, for women.