Two old Orthodox great schema monks

Misappropriating “Brother-Making”

A new attempt was made recently to reach back and re-interpret history in light of today’s social mores. That attempt has already been met with strong responses, notably from Dr Alfred Kentigern Siegers and Archpriest Lawrence Farley. By way of further historical context, we offer this review by a student at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary of a notable recent publication in the field of Byzantine Studies. 

Review of: Claudia Rapp, Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Claudia Rapp is an esteemed Professor of Byzantine Studies at the University of Vienna and director of the Division of Byzantine Research in the Institute of Medieval Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She is also a prolific contributor to scholarly journals, particularly in the field of Byzantine holy men, spiritual leadership, spiritual relationships, and church rituals. Prior to the publication of Brother-Making… she was awarded the prestigious Wittgenstein Prize. This book represents the culmination of twenty years of research, seeking to weave together the various aspects of her previous writings.

Against a contemporary backdrop of intense debate over same-sex marriage and attempts by some scholars to effectively re-write history to justify modern perspectives,
 Rapp’s book is a thorough analysis of the issues relating to historical same-sex partnerships through the lens of the ancient ‘brother-making’ ritual. The author sets out her position in the introduction, that she does not find herself in agreement with the conclusions of John Boswell in his 1994 book, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, that the brother-making ritual was an early form of same-sex marriage. Although this would be evident to any Orthodox Christian who knows the Church’s moral and canonical tradition, there are many who are taken in by Boswell’s argument. As well as setting out to demonstrate that Boswell’s conclusions are wrong, Rapp’s study seeks to provide a broad overview of a distinct and widespread socio-religious practice, with a particular focus on the liturgical aspects of this ritual within the Church of the Byzantine Empire and its dependencies.

Rapp’s book is arranged into six chapters, dealing with: sociology and social networking in Byzantium; the Adelphopoiesis (brother-making) ritual as found in liturgical manuscripts; small-group monasticism; social practices surrounding brother-making in Byzantium; rules and regulations concerning brother-making; and brother-making beyond the historical-geographical Byzantium. Most chapters feature case studies to illustrate Rapp’s findings, or in the case of chapter two, the personal reminisces of two of her contemporaries. The appendices include a comparative table of manuscripts featuring brother-making prayers, a chart of the various prayers, and some of the author’s own translations. The bibliography is thirty pages long, showing the vast amount of research that has gone into this work.

Based on the manuscript rubrics, the author points out in the second chapter that Boswell’s argument that brother-making was a form of wedding service is totally inaccurate and based on both a misreading of the texts in question, as well as a lack of broader knowledge of Byzantine liturgical rituals.

The third chapter is by far the longest and most detailed of the book, and contains the crux of Rapp’s thesis that the brother-making ritual developed in the context of small-group monasticism. In a highly-detailed and historically broad chapter, using a multitude of historical and hagiographical sources, she gives a broad explanation of the various types of monasticism that developed from the late third century onwards, with a particular focus on small groups, and the role of relationships in monasticism – most significantly the spiritual father-son, and spiritual brother-brother relationships that developed in the context of monastic discipleship and cohabitation. Also explored is the various practices and rituals of monastic initiation, such as the cutting of hair, the wearing of special clothing, and the swearing of oaths, which is significant for the study of brother-making in particular.

Following this, Rapp develops her thesis by exploring the cases of ‘paired monasticism’ that frequently occur in the literature, exploring the reasons why this developed, and the variety of temptations that could occur, such as bickering and jealousy. The theme of ‘spiritual capital’, or the co-suffering of paired monastics on each other’s behalf, particularly in regard to taking on another’s penances, is explored through various hagiographical accounts. The case study for this chapter is the life of Saint Symeon the Fool and his paired monasticism with a man that he met whilst on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. The author speculates that the prayer that is recorded in this hagiographical work might possibly be the first recorded brother-making prayer. The blessing precedes their two men’s mutual reception into the monastic life, and subsequent ‘paired monasticism’ in the desert together. This bond is dissolved when, despite the spiritual union and the pleas of his spiritual brother, Symeon returns to the world to undertake his struggle of “foolishness for Christ.”

Brother-Making… is probably the most comprehensive work in its field, and one that posits a very realistic assessment of the subject at hand. Rapp’s compilation of manuscript sources and translations alone is an excellent contribution to studies in this area, and will likely be priceless for future scholars who research the subject. For those with no prior knowledge of the brother-making ritual, this book is both an ideal introduction and probably the only work that one should need to read in order to obtain a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the subject — such is its breadth and coverage.

Claudia Rapp has produced a work of scholarship that is not only meticulously researched but also avoids the dense language that could make it inaccessible to non-scholars. Her argument is well developed and she easily refutes the theses of Boswell and Foucault by the weight of her accumulated evidence. Her interesting approach to the question, through historical sociology and the use of case studies and peoples’ personal accounts, gives her argument a “three-dimensional” feel, bringing the subject alive for the reader. Although this is a fairly specialized subject, the relevance of Rapp’s findings make it a work that I would recommend to anyone with more than a passing interest in Byzantine social history or liturgics, or contemporary moral issues.

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