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Life for orphans in religious orders and architecture of monasteries and churches in the 330s
firiel11 wrote in little_details
Searches: ward of the church mid 4th century, fostering orphans mid 4th century clergy, treatment of orphans 4th century christianity, orphans in the church during the mid 4th century, life in the church during the reign of constantine the great, monasteries and convents in church grounds mid 4th century, general attitudes to feral children in the mid 4th century

Setting: The city of Myra in Lycia in about 333 AD, during the reign of Constantine the Great

I'm working on a historical fantasy based on folklore about Knecht Ruprecht, a character said to accompany St. Nicholas on his December rounds in some parts of Germany. One of these legends (that I'm basing my story on) is that Ruprecht was a feral child adopted by the saint who continues to follow him around, punishing bad children while St. Nicholas rewards the good ones. I made a post about it here  a few days ago.   For quite a while I've been trying to find out information on what life would have been like as a child raised in the church (not necessarily with the goal of becoming a priest or nun eventually) in the 4th century. I've been able to find a few references to orphanotrophia in the 4th century which were run by religious orders and the role of the clergy in running these orphanages. Often the children became monks or nuns.

However I can't find anything that would help me answer these questions (which are mixed and probably really simple or confusing, and if they are I apologise)

1. Was it possible for a church official to take home an orphaned infant
found in the woods on the outskirts of his city and raise him himself
with help from a wet nurse if one was needed?

2. Am I right in assuming that priests in the 4th century lived at or very near the church itself so that Ruprecht would spend his childhood literally within church walls?

3. Were monasteries and convents ever located in church grounds during the 4th century?

4. What would the daily routine of a child being raised by a religious order be like? (One other character is a girl raised in one of the orphanotrophia)

5. What would the general attitude to feral children have been in the mid 4th century?

Thanks in advance for any help and sorry again if the questions are confusing!

This question is right in the period I study, but you're going to have to be more specific geographically for me to help. St. Nicholas was active in Asia Minor in the 4th century, but your last question seemed to indicate you want a northern European origin for your Ruprecht character. Where is your story set?

the Ruprecht folklore. ..


2014-07-29 11:06 pm (UTC)

is German iirc but the character (my version of him) was born in Asia Minor but is ethnically "Ethiopian". The story is set in Myra where St. Nicholas was bishop. Does this help in any way?

Edited at 2014-07-29 11:17 pm (UTC)

Re: the Ruprecht folklore. ..


2014-07-30 02:36 am (UTC)

Yes, that helps, thanks!

In the early fourth century, monasticism was still very young, and cenobitic monasticism (communal monasteries, with all the brothers/sisters living and working together, as in your classic medieval Benedictine abbey) was in its infancy. The monk who started it, Pachomius, was still alive in Egypt. So there were not any monasteries per se in Myra in 333, although the practice would be popularized in Asia Minor in just a few decades. But you could possibly have small communities of consecrated women living in the city--widows or women who have chosen not to marry--not quite nuns, but almost. Whereas early monasteries were as far away from cities as possible, these proto-nuns practiced a celibate and ascetic lifestyle while still within the city walls, sometimes never leaving their parents' homes. They would have regular contact with their local bishop for spiritual guidance.

The scenario with a priest raising an infant could maybe happen, but probably not, because of the wet nurse. Having daily contact with a lactating woman would be unseemly for a man and a bishop in this period. If he came across a foundling, he would most likely give it to an orphanage or to a Christian family in his see. He would also probably desire for the child to grow up dedicated to the church, destined to become either a priest (boy) or dedicated virgin/proto-nun (girl), but again, he wouldn't actually bring the child up himself. Unfortunately I don't have any information on what daily life in an orphanage would have been like, but I can possibly dig up some sources. In the latter half of the fourth century and into the fifth century, Christian families would give children to the church to be raised in monasteries, with the intention for them to become monks/nuns. Some monks complained that they always gave away inferior children, and saved the best ones for marriage!

Churches in this period were basilicas ( They did not include living quarters for the priest. Bishops were generally members of the elite, they could have quite nice houses. Nicholas was eventually buried in his church:,_Demre

Re: the Ruprecht folklore. ..


2014-07-30 04:33 am (UTC)

Thanks! The reason I asked about living quarters is that a description of the church of St. Nicholas at Demre back when it was regularly used as a church mention a cottage in the grounds for the priest there. Would this have been plausible in the 4th century or more common hundreds of years later? Also any resurces you can find about daily life in 4th century orphanages would be really useful.

Edited at 2014-07-30 04:41 am (UTC)

Re: the Ruprecht folklore. ..


2014-07-30 09:54 pm (UTC)

Ok, the article "Children in Judaism and Christianity" by Margaret L. King, published in the Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World (2013) has this to say (the context for "Children were not to be destroyed" is a discussion of ancient infanticide):

"If children were not to be destroyed, what then was to be done with the children abandoned by parents or orphaned by the death of their fathers? In both Jewish and Christian communities, these children were embraced. The Jewish responsibility to care for orphans is inscribed in scripture, and again in post-biblical literature. Christians responded to the same injunctions, with each community caring for the needy in their midst. By the fourth century, bishops had taken charge of orphan care in each diocese and parish. An extensive network of institutions providing orphan care developed in Constantinople, the capital of the eastern remnant of the Roman Empire that would survive as the Byzantine Empire; and here, by the end of the fifth century, the first orphanage, the Orphanotropheion, was founded."

Based on this, it looks like Nicholas, as bishop of Myra, would definitely know of and have resources in place for taking care of foundling children, but it is a little early for a dedicated orphanotropheion to be in place in the city. Needy and parentless children would probably go into Christian foster families in the community, and the bishop would take an interest in their care.

In a library search, I found a few titles you might want to check out:

--Mustakallio, Katarina, and Christian Laes, eds. The Dark Side of Childhood in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Unwanted, Disabled, and Lost. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2011.

--Leyerle, Blake. "Children and "The Child" in Early Christianity." The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World, ed. Judith Evans Grubbs, et. al. Oxford, 2013.

--Miller, Timothy S. The Orphans of Byzantium: Child Welfare in the Christian Empire. Washington D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003.

edited for html

Edited at 2014-07-30 09:55 pm (UTC)

Re: the Ruprecht folklore. ..


2014-07-31 02:15 am (UTC)

Thanks! Would the fact he's a feral child matter?

Re: the Ruprecht folklore. ..


2014-07-31 02:56 am (UTC)

If he's adopted as an infant and raised in a city home, how is he a feral child? But anyway, a child with poor language skills and severe behavior problems would probably have a very difficult life in late antiquity. The Mustakallio book might have some insights into that.

Re: the Ruprecht folklore. ..


2014-07-31 03:14 am (UTC)

Technically he was a toddler when he was found. He was exposed probably because he's got a withered leg.
Thanks for the book suggestion.

Abandoned children were quite frequently infants, and at least some of them survived, though I believe they were traditionally fed goat milk rather than human milk (with all the risks that entails!)

It was not unknown for a goat to be trained to let the child suckle.