The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography

The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography

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The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography by Philip Rousseau

The essays in this provocative collection exemplify the innovations that have characterized the relatively new field of late ancient studies. Focused on civilizations clustered mainly around the Mediterranean and covering the period between roughly 100 and 700 CE, scholars in this field have brought history and cultural studies to bear on theology and religious studies. They have adopted the methods of the social sciences and humanities—particularly those of sociology, cultural anthropology, and literary criticism. By emphasizing cultural and social history and considerations of gender and sexuality, scholars of late antiquity have revealed the late ancient world as far more varied than had previously been imagined.

The contributors investigate three key concerns of late ancient studies: gender, asceticism, and historiography. They consider Macrina’s scar, Mary’s voice, and the harlot’s body as well as Augustine, Jovinian, Gregory of Nazianzus, Julian, and Ephrem the Syrian. Whether examining how animal bodies figured as a means for understanding human passion and sexuality in the monastic communities of Egypt and Palestine or meditating on the almost modern epistemological crisis faced by Theodoret in attempting to overcome the barriers between the self and the wider world, these essays highlight emerging theoretical and critical developments in the field.

Contributors. Daniel Boyarin, David Brakke, Virginia Burrus, Averil Cameron, Susanna Elm, James E. Goehring, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, David G. Hunter, Blake Leyerle, Dale B. Martin, Patricia Cox Miller, Philip Rousseau, Teresa M. Shaw, Maureen A. Tilley, Dennis E. Trout, Mark Vessey

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822386681
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/07/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 970 KB

About the Author

Dale B. Martin is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Yale University. Among his books are Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians and The Corinthian Body.

Patricia Cox Miller is W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. Among her books are The Poetry of Thought in Late Antiquity: Essays in Imagination and Religion and Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture.

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Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3422-4

Chapter One

The Lady Appears: Materializations of "Woman" in Early Monastic Literature


According to a famous monastic saying, the Egyptian desert in late antiquity was the place where, as in some recent theory about gender in history, "there are no women." To be sure, the desert was filled with thoughts of women, memories of abandoned wives and mothers, and demonic specters of women, but monks claimed that there were few, if any, flesh-and-blood women in their desert. Likewise, Elizabeth Clark has invited historians of Christianity to consider the prospect that our sources present us not with real women from the past, but with male authors' fantasies about or rhetorical uses of women, no more than the gendered literary "traces" of elusive "real women." Imagine, then, the surprise of a group of lay tourists-and perhaps our surprise as well-when their representative monk turned out to be really a woman:

Some worldly people visited a certain anchorite, and when he saw them he received them with joy, saying, "The Lord sent you so that you would bury me. For my call is at hand, but for the benefit of you and of those who hear (your report), I shall tell you about my life. As for me, brothers, I am a virgin in my body, but in my soul up to now I have been inhumanly under attack by fornication. Look, I am speaking to you, and I behold the angels waiting to take my soul, and Satan meanwhile standing by and suggesting thoughts of fornication to me." Having said these things, he stretched himself out and died. While dressing him the worldly people found that he truly was a virgin.

The radical confirmation of the monk's claim about himself-"a virgin in my body"-made possible by the appearance of a female body only underscores what the monk presumably left unsaid about him/herself. Whatever truths the monk may have told his admiring visitors "about my life," perhaps only summarized here, his body, once he stopped talking, told a different truth: he was a woman. At the end of the male monk's discourse, the lady appears. So the story, presumably told by the visitors, says. This surprise was too good to tell only once: a longer and more complicated apophthegma about Abba Bessarion likewise climaxes with a monk revealed to be a woman at his death (Apoph. patr., Bessarion 4). The heroine of the later Life of St. Pelagia the Harlot lives for three or four years disguised as a male monk in Jerusalem, until her death reveals her ruse. From here the motif of the transvestite ascetic multiplied in early and medieval Christian literature; the abundant detail of these later narratives provides fertile ground for complex scholarly readings on several levels.

In contrast to later medieval tales, the two apophthegmata in which dead monks are revealed to be women are spare. For example, the Life of Pelagia explains why its heroine chose to disguise herself as a man: a reformed actress and "prostitute," she sought to escape her wealth and notoriety in Antioch for a life of ascetic anonymity. "She held her fortune to be worse than blood and fouler than the smelly mud of the streets"; wearing clothes given her by Bishop Nonnus, she fled to Jerusalem to live as a monk. In contrast, the apophthegmata narrate only the postmortem discovery of the monks' cross-dressing, leaving it to scholars to offer plausible reasons for an ascetically inclined woman in fourth- or fifth-century Egypt to have impersonated a male monk. First, solitary women in the desert faced the risks of robbery and sexual assault: passing as a man provided some (but not complete) protection from such dangers. Second, sayings about and attributed to Amma Sarah, one of the very few named female anchorites in the apophthegmata, indicate that some male monks did not accept female colleagues and were even openly hostile to them. There were, then, good practical reasons for women who wished to pursue the eremitical life in the desert to disguise their sex. If so, then why are such stories so few? And why are they only of these women being discovered at their deaths? The compilers of the sayings appear to have been interested only in successful cross-dressers-or rather, almost successful-they made it through their lives without being discovered, but at their deaths the masquerade ended.

This essay, then, analyzes these two apophthegmata, along with certain kindred monastic sayings and anecdotes about "real women." I ask about these women, "What were or are they doing there?"-not in a positivist quest for the actual motivations of real cross-dressing monks but to explore the relationships between the literary and the social, the rhetorical and the real. On the one hand, I explore the rhetorical effects, in literature produced by and for men, of stories about such unexpected women. What purposes do these women serve? How do these stories construct "woman"? On the other hand, I draw on the metaphor of "performance," recently influential in studies both of asceticism and of gender, to argue that monastic discourse about real women was not "merely" literary but materialized "woman" as embodying "the world" of sexuality, embodiment, and discourse, that which for the male ascetic was the "strictly foreclosed, ... the nonnarrativizable." Such materializations had concrete effects for real women.

On one level our short anonymous apophthegma plays on the gender ambiguity of the Greek word parthenos ("virgin") and on the definition of true virginity. Unlike the male body, the female body could provide evidence of whether a person "truly was a virgin," and in the fourth and fifth centuries Christian authors increasingly identified female virginity with physical intactness, as the debate over Mary's virginity illustrates. The case of men was more difficult: John Cassian quotes Basil of Caesarea as saying, "I do not know woman, but I am not a virgin," and comments, "Well indeed did he understand that the incorruption of the flesh consists not so much in abstaining from woman as it does in integrity of heart, which ever and truly preserves the incorrupt holiness of the body by both the fear of God and the love of chastity." Our anonymous monk echoes Basil by claiming that his body is virginal, but his soul has been vulnerable to temptation; yet the anecdote seems to take the dead monk's integrity of body as evidence of the virginity of his soul, caught between the angels and Satan even at death. Only a female body could provide proof of the monk's virginity "truly."

Or, drawing on antiquity's equation of virtue with manliness, we could say that only a female body could provide proof of the monk's manliness. Through her ascetic discipline, especially through her battle against the "inhuman" temptation of fornication, our anonymous virgin proved herself to be manly; she achieved the masculine virtue of self-control. A variety of early Christian writings portrayed virtuous women as being "made male" or becoming "men." In monastic works, the metaphor of the ascetic life as warfare with demonic forces of temptation portrayed the monk as a combatant, an agônistês, a masculine figure (e.g., Apoph. patr. 7.58). The monks inherited this metaphor from the literature of martyrdom, which understood the captive Christian's struggle with beasts or gladiators in the arena to be combat with Satan. A female martyr such as Perpetua displayed masculine courage in her triumphant defiance of the demonic forces: "I became a man," she says. The anchoritic life in the desert succeeded martyrdom as the arena in which a woman could prove herself to be a female man of God.

Like our anonymous monk, Amma Sarah epitomized this masculine ideal, waging warfare against the demon of fornication for thirteen years without asking God for relief. At last, "the spirit of fornication appeared corporally [sômatikôs] to her and said, 'Sarah, you have conquered me.' But she said, 'It is not I who have conquered you, but my master, Christ'" (Apoph. patr., Sarah 1-2). Rightly then Sarah was able to say to two male anchorites who sought to "humiliate" her, "According to nature [physis] I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts". To another set of brothers she stated, "It is I who am a man, you who are women". Sarah's assertion that she is a woman "according to nature" parallels our anonymous apophthegma's identification of the anonymous monk as a (female) virgin "truly" based on her body. Bessarion and his disciple Doulas, as we shall see, discover that their anonymous monk "was a woman by nature [physis]" (Apoph. patr., Bessarion 4). Thus the sayings present an ancient version of the modern assignment of sex (man or woman) to the body or to nature, and of gender (masculine or feminine) to practices or to culture. Naturally or truly Sarah and the anonymous monk are women, but in their thoughts, by their practices, due to their virtue, they are masculine, that is, men. Successful cross-dressing shows that they exemplify the power of the monastic regime to lift the human being above human nature and the sinful body, both associated with femininity.

In recent years modern scholars have developed their own vocabulary of the "performative" for the transformations, gendered and otherwise, that ascetic and other practices produce. Drawing on theories of performance, Patricia Cox Miller has called ascetics "performance artists, enacting the spiritual body in the here-and-now," and Richard Valantasis has developed a nuanced and highly persuasive theory of asceticism as "performances within a dominant social environment intended to inaugurate a new subjectivity, dierent social relations, and an alternative symbolic universe." Here scholarship on ancient asceticism dovetails with recent theory on gender. Contesting the assignment of sex to the body and gender to culture, Judith Butler famously argued that gender is performative, "a stylized repetition of acts ... in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self." Amma Sarah and our anonymous monks appear to embody these theoretical positions: they became "male" by performing ascetic acts. Yet the concept of performativity questions the apophthegmata's insistence upon the persistence of a "natural" and "true" gendered identity, female, grounded in a body impervious to the transforming power of performance. It pushes us to ask how this seemingly "natural" and "true" female body may actually have been rendered "real" or "materialized" through monastic performance. A fuller analysis of the rhetorical context of the appearing women will lead us to perhaps the most powerfully transformative of monastic ideologies, Origenism.

The version of the monk-as-woman anecdote preserved under the name of Bessarion amplifies the figural dimension of its presentation and thus its rhetorical utility:

On another day, when I (Doulas) came to his cell I found him (Bessarion) standing at prayer with his hands raised toward heaven. For fourteen days he remained thus. Then he called me and said to me, "Follow me." We went into the desert. Being thirsty, I said to him, "Father, I am thirsty." Then, taking my sheepskin, the old man went about a stone's throw away and when he had prayed, he brought it back, full of water. Then we walked on and came to a cave where, on entering we found a brother seated, engaged in plaiting a rope. He did not raise his eyes to us, nor greet us, since he did not want to enter into conversation with us. So the old man said to me, "Let us go; no doubt the old man is not sure if he ought to speak with us." We continued our journey toward Lycopolis, till we reached Abba John's cell. After greeting him, we prayed, then he (John) sat down to speak of the vision that he had had. Abba Bessarion said that a decree had gone forth that the temples would be overthrown. That is what happened: they were overthrown. On our return, we came again to the cave where we had seen the brother. The old man said to me, "Let us go in and see him; perhaps God has told him to speak to us." When we had entered, we found him dead. The old man said to me, "Come, brother, let us take the body; it is for this reason that God has sent us here." When we took the body to bury it, we discovered that it was a woman by nature. The old man marveled and said, "See how women triumph over Satan, and we behave shamefully in the cities." Having given thanks to God, who protects those who love him, we went away.

This version makes explicit that the story is told by and for men. The speaker is Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion. Bessarion gives the discovery of the woman its moral: "See how women triumph over Satan, and we behave shamefully in the cities." As soon as she is stripped of her male monastic garb and revealed to be a woman, this "brother" is expelled from the (male) monastic community, as Bessarion speaks of "we" monks in contrast to "women." The function of this woman is to shame male monks.

Shaming men, Clark has taught us, is one of the most ubiquitous functions of the "woman" that ancient Christian authors constructed. They inherited the tactic from the gospel writers (e.g., Luke 24:22-25), as well as from pagan moral philosophers, whose talk of virtuous ("manly") women scholars are now inclined to see less as indicative of a belief in the equality of the sexes in achieving virtue and more as a "rhetorical strategy designed to provoke the male moral subject." Bessarion only makes explicit the implicit function of our sparer anonymous apophthegma, in which the monk's identity as a woman provides physical confirmation of his claim to be "a virgin in my body." The possibly less pure male monastic reader should feel shamed by this woman, as he should by Sarah's statement, "It is I who am a man, you who are women." The Life of Pelagia carries this motif to a higher level. As a group of bishops sits outside a church in Antioch waiting for a meeting, the actress Pelagia, adorned with expensive jewels, passes by in a late ancient version of a promotional photography spread, seated on a donkey, accompanied by a throng of boys and girls. Exclaiming on the great attention that Pelagia has lavished on her body in order to please her potential lovers, Bishop Nonnus chides his dumbstruck colleagues, "We have paid no attention to our souls in the attempt to adorn them with good habits so that Christ may desire to dwell in us.... And maybe we should even go and become the pupils of this lascivious woman" (Vita Pel. 4-11). When the dead monk Pelagius is discovered to be a woman, the monks "wanted to hide this astonishing fact from the people but were unable to do so. This was to fulfill what is written in the holy Gospel: 'There is nothing hidden which shall not be revealed, and nothing concealed which shall not be made known' (cf. Matt. 10:26)" (Vita Pel. 50). As actress and as monk, Pelagia serves to broadcast a moral to men: if a woman exhibits such care and devotion, how much more should a man?


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction / Dale B. Martin 1


The Lady Appears: Materializations of "Woman" in Early Monastic Literature / David Brakke 25

No Friendly Letters: Augustine's Correspondence with Women / Maureen A. Tilley 40

On Mary's Voice: Gendered Words in Syriac Marian Tradition / Susan Ashbrook Harvey 63

Is There a Harlot in This Text?: Hagiography and the Grotesque / Patricia Cox Miller 87

Macrina's Tattoo / Virginia Burrus 103


Rereading the Jovinianist Controversy: Aestheticism and Clerical Authority in Late Ancient Christianity / David G. Hunter 119

The Dark Side of Landscape: Ideology and Power in the Christian Myth of the Desert / James E. Goehring 136

Monks and Other Animals / Blake Leyerle 150


Archives in the Fiction: Rabbinic Historiography and Church History / Daniel Boyarin 175

How to Read Heresiology / Averil Cameron 193

Ascetic Practice and the Genealogy of Heresy: Problems in Modern Scholarship and Ancient Textual Representation / Teresa M. Shaw 213

History, Fiction, and Figuralism in Book 8 of Augustine's Confessions / Mark Vessey 237

Hellenism and Historiography: Gregory of Nazianzus and Julian in Dialogue / Susanna Elm 258

Knowing Theodoret: Text and Self / Philip Rousseau 278

Damasus and the Invention of Early Christian Rome / Dennis E. Trout 298

Bibliography 317

Contributors 355

Index of Modern Authors 357

Index of Citations to Ancient Authors and Scriptures 360

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