Dr Marzena Wojtczak, Chair of Roman Law and the Law of Antiquity Faculty of Law and Administration University of Warsaw.
Visiting Research Fellow, September - October 2020
Project: Representation and legal capacity of monastic communities in late antique Egypt.
Worldly affairs of the monastic communities and their contacts with ‘the world’ have become in the recent years the subject of growing interest and debate among scholars dealing with late antiquity. The literary sources depicting the Egyptian monastic milieu evoke images of the desert and popularise the narrative of monks renouncing all worldly possessions. While focusing on the issues such as spirituality, faith, prayer, and discipline, the late-antique literary discourse pays little attention to the engagement of monks in the comings-and-goings of daily life. Even when it does, the references to social and economic interactions with the surrounding world usually appear as a side-note to a larger story that served religious purposes, rather than attempt to give a faithful account of the monastic existence. One must, however, remain cautious when attempting to infer the reality of Egyptian monastic life from these writings. As has been observed by various scholars, Egyptian monasticism was deeply involved in contacts with the ‘outside world’, including the local economies. It is thanks to the papyri that we are granted an insight into such practical matters of administrative, organisational, and legal nature, related both to basic sustenance concerns and accumulation of wealth, including the acquisition of land and assuming the related fiscal responsibilities. The documents of legal practice allow us to observe the community as a conscious entity engaged in legal relations and autonomous from the monks. For a lawyer, these observations are all the more stimulating as there has been an ongoing debate about the existence of the ‘legal persons’ as such in Roman law and whether we could talk about anything approaching our current understanding of ‘legal personality’. The heated debate has yet to lead to a satisfying conclusion that would take into account not only the perspective of Roman law (closely investigated by Riccardo Orestano), but also the documents of legal practice coming from the Byzantine Egypt (sources largely ignored in the ‘romanistic’ discourse). The need for a study that would take into account the new material which came to light only after the seminal works by Arthur Steinwenter has already been noted. Thus, an interdisciplinary approach that would combine papyrological sources with that of Roman law would fit perfectly to this demand.