Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.23


Elizabeth A. Clark, The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 287. ISBN 0-691-03173-8.

Adalbert de Vogue, Histoire littéraire du mouvement monastique dans l'antiquité tome ii, première partie. Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1993. ISBN 2-204-04586-1. Pp. 447.


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

These volumes merit detailed study impossible for the moment here, but deserve to be signaled as signs of the richness, detail, and interest of work now being done on both sides of the Atlantic in Latin late antiquity. Both these studies deal with aspects of what was formerly relegated to the exile of 'ecclesiastical history', but the abundance of sources, the detail of narrative, and particularly the range of social milieux that we know for these parts of late antiquity make these books of much broader interest.

The 'Origenist controversy' is at heart the story over a very few years of a broken friendship, between Jerome and Rufinus, over the Latin translation and censorship of the writings of the abundantly learned Alexandrian theologian of the third century -- already a long-dead worthy in their time. Origen became a touchstone for questions surrounding both doctrine and the management of doctrine through texts. In the late fourth century, Latin Christianity was just acquiring for the first time a library, a collection of venerable writings beyond The Writings of scripture, that needed to be coped with somehow. Origen was too powerful to be ignored, and too dangerous to be swallowed whole. The further history of his ideas, and the fate of his books (most lost to Byzantine book-burning a century and a half after the time of this study), offer a case study in the development of a particular late antique and medieval culture of the book, something very different from anything classical and hellenistic antiquity knew. Elizabeth Clark has re-excavated and re-told the story with economy and vigor, but with an eye for the wider social implications and the longer-range doctrinal ones. This is a book for specialists that can be given to undergraduates to read.

Adalbert de Vogue is a monk and perhaps the most learned monk of our age. He has written extensively and with a brilliant eye for the tiniest detail on the primary sources for the early history of monasticism, and has now begun to synthesize those studies in this series. The first volume essentially traced the creation of the monastic literary movement through the life and career of Athanasius in the mid-fourth century. This volume takes up only twelve years in its 400-odd pages, from 384 to 396, from the lady Egeria's memorable trip to the holy places through Ambrose's and Augustine's first monastic experiments, Jerome's quarrel over sex with Jovinian, to just the eve of the deeper quarrel that Clark's book studies. It is a book that breaks the bounds of traditional narrative here. The monks here come back to life as often eccentric, often passionate individuals, engaged on a 'movement' that was anything but established or even particularly respectable.

Here ecclesiastical history becomes social history, in a way that even the most venturesome chroniclers of our time often neglect. I think of De Ste. Croix's Class Struggle, whose vast maw has somehow failed to pick up any monk but the rebel Egyptian Schenute of Atirpe, for all that the monastic movement -- which De Ste. Croix's ideological parti pris requires him to despise -- is a remarkable, and at the same time remarkably well-documented, remaking of the world away from the urban centers and their elites.

This book will need to be read alongside other, less monkophile tomes, like Philip Rousseau's studies on ascetics east and west, Peter Brown's Body and Society, and T.D. Barnes's imminent Athanasius and Constantius, but it offers meticulous analysis that whets the appetite for further volumes in the series.