The Letter Collection of Isidore of Pelusium

Title of Chapter or Poem

The Letter Collection of Isidore of Pelusium

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Department/School

Religious Studies

Abstract/Excerpt

Given the size of the epistolary corpus that bears the name of Isidore of Peluse, and the recurring reference accorded Isidore’s letters by later writers, it is somewhat incongruous that Isidore plays a relatively limited role in popular recountings of the history of late antiquity in general and the emergence of Egyptian “desert monasticism” in particular. One can only wonder whether such lack of attention reflects Isidore’s relatively limited importance, ongoing interpretive bias, disparity in the various traditions respectively preserved in the East and the West, and/or an accident of history. One can likewise debate whether it is the size of this collection or the relative lack of knowledge about Isidore’s life and broader investments that has limited systematic consideration of his corpus. While such efforts have been further circumscribed by the limited availability of Isidore’s letters in vernacular critical editions, even a limited survey of Isidore’s vitae, letters, and legacy invites consideration of the degree to which emergent pictures of monastic life continue to be shaped by the most rhetorically persuasive (rather than the most historically representative) source material. In Isidore we meet a priest, scholar, and social critic who is on first-name terms with bishops, local monks, common soldiers, and professionally literate elites. As a monk, he remains a community-minded, incisive savant, who appears to have little use for political agendas cloaked in highly spiritualized rhetoric—a figure who, having “retired” to the “desert,” maintains active worldly involvement and deep interest in shaping the civic and ecclesial engagements of his day. This essay argues that in each of these roles, Isidore troubles traditional recounting of monastic history, brokering reexamination and reassessment of both sources and scholarship, assumptions and actuality. His letters raise provocative questions, not only about Isidore himself, but also the registers that have governed more general reconstruction of early monastic identity. They invite readers to consider: “what comes out differently that is of interest?” (K. King 1996,165), if one replaces caricatures of Saint Antony, with the characters captured in Isidore's attributed epistolography.

Document Type

Chapter

Book Title

Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide

Editors

Cristiana Sogno, Brad Storin, and Ed Watts

Publisher

University of California Press

Place of Publication

Berkeley and Los Angeles

Publication Date

2017

Pages

286-308

ISBN

9780520281448

Keywords

Ancient Literature; Ancient Language; Ancient World; Ancient Epistolography; Christian Monasticism; Ancient Pedagogy

Disciplines

Ancient History, Greek and Roman through Late Antiquity | Classical Literature and Philology | History of Christianity | Rhetoric and Composition

The Letter Collection of Isidore of Pelusium

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