Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.12.31

Barbara Feichtinger, Helmut Seng, Die Christen und der Körper. Aspekte der Körperlichkeit in der christlichen Literatur der Spätantike.   München/Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2004.  Pp. 212.  ISBN 3-598-77736-1.  € 88.00.  

Contributors: Katharina Waldner, Timon Bindner, Alfred Breitenbach, Stephen Lake, Therese Fuhrer, and Christoph Markschies

Reviewed by Anthony Alcock, University of Kassel (
Word count: 2772 words

This volume is the direct product of a workshop called 'Die Christen und der Körper' that took place in Konstanz in 2001 and the indirect product of the type of major research project known in Germany as a Sonderforschungsbereich (SFB 485).

The Introduction (pp.9-26), by B. Feichtinger (BF), contains summaries of all the articles in the book, described by BF as 'work in progress'. Two of the articles deal with the suffering bodies of martyrs, two with the suffering bodies of the sick and two with the suffering bodies of those who have inflicted punishment on themselves and/or opted for sexual abstinence.

The first article, 'Zur narrativen Technik der Körperdarstellung im Martyrium Polycarpi und der Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis' (pp.27-74), by Katharina Waldner (KW), aims to show how narrative technique is deployed in two martyrological texts: Polycarp of Smyrna (P) and Perpetua and Felicitas (PF). KW argues that both texts avoid explicit description (ekphrasis) of the torture and execution, preferring instead indirect descriptive techniques. She further argues that, if the historical conditions in which the texts were produced are taken into account, both texts can be understood as 'narrative realizations of different concepts of martyrdom' but at the same time form part of the newly emerging 'pain' discourse in imperial urban culture of the 2nd cent AD, in which the upper classes began to consider pain as it affected others (the unfortunate protagonists in 'ludi' and 'munera') and pain as it affected themselves (introverted self-preoccupation). Christians transformed pain discourse by converting the shame of publicly inflicted torture into a triumph, which of course was not possible for their non-Christian fellow citizens.The resolute behaviour of martyrs in the face of torture caused some to embrace this form of suicide and others to withdraw from any possibility of it. There were also some who were obviously attracted more by the idea of martyrdom than the reality of it and when faced by wild beasts became afraid. The Polycarp martyrology very sensibly warned against this sort of behaviour (c.4), presumably because it did the cause of Christianity little good: martyrs were supposed to be heroes, not cowards. The narrative analysis begins with a rhetorical question from the author of the text, inviting the reader to admire the courage of the martyrs. This is followed by a transition to 'epideictic', here used in connection with anatomy as rhetoric. It begins with an 'indirect' description of the torture suffered by the martyrs which contains 'medical' observations about the 'oikonomia' of the body'. The 'indirect' nature of this gruesome description seems to mean that it does not refer specifically to Polycarp, but to the general group of martyrs. The indirect technique diverts the attention of the reader (or listener) from the tortured bodies and directs it elsewhere: 'they showed us that the most noble martyrs of Christ being tortured at that moment had left their bodies, indeed the Lord was standing by them, talking to them'. The 'docetic' nature of this image might have been (but in fact is not) compared with the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter, which depicts a 'laughing Christ' at his crucifixion, the whole question of docetism having been a fairly crucial one in 2nd century Smyrna. KW examines several more passages to illustrate the use of 'indirect' narrative technique to avoid the gory details of an 'ekphrasis' description and instead to provide 'metaphors and miracles'. The high point of the martyrdom is the scene where P. is consumed by fire. His body is protected by a 'vault' and is not deformed and destroyed by the fire, like meat, but rather reformed and improved, like bread or precious metal. The 'godless' see that the fire is not effective and call for the 'confector' to finish him off with a dagger, but this does not work either, because the martyr's blood extinguishes the fire. The two groups of spectators see the same event, but in a different way: believers see a miracle of transformation, unbelievers a body turned into a corpse. The events of PF are approx. half a century later than those of P. The text is a composite one: prologue (1-2), account of Perpetua (3-10), account of Saturus (11-13) and account of the martyrdom (14-21), edited by someone else. Despite the title, Felicitas (mentioned 4 times) has a much smaller role than Perpetua (mentioned 19 times).

The article 'Der Körper in der Vernichtung - Kommunikationsstrategie der frühchristlichen Märtyrerliteratur am Beispiel der Passio Montani et Lucii' (pp.75-98) by Timon Binder (TB) examines how 'the suffering body ... achieves salvation through the destruction of it that is staged in the text, (victoriously) leaves the earthly stage ... and triumphs in death'. The first twelve chapters of the text are in the form of a letter written by the martyr and deacon Flavianus, while the account of the martyrdom is written by a second author, at the request of Flavianus when he knew that he was about to die. The second author, like the author of the PF prologue, makes a special plea for this new literature to be taken seriously ('etiam de novis aliqua discamus' p.78 n. 6). The body (as it were) of the article is section II, in which TB examines in detail the appearance of the martyrs, their bodily and facial gestures, their movement and action, their speech and rhetoric, contrasted with the sketchy portrait of the torturers. TB draws attention to the contrast made between the martyrs' physical exhaustion from want of food and drink and their spiritual exaltation at the prospect of martyrdom and the use of 'corpus nostrum' by the martyrs in evocation of the body of Christ and points out the (unresolved) tension in martyrological description as a whole between the body that does not suffer (because it is protected by God) and the the body that does and must suffer in 'imitatio Christi'. After death the martyr continues to appear, but now in visions. By contrast, the torturer receives only perfunctory visual treatment, e.g. 'ferox vultus'. The martyrs are described as 'hilares' with 'vultu claro', and this total conviction of theirs merely serves to unsettle their torturers: a sort of 'vis oculi', to adapt the phrase of Tertullian ('vis in occulto') cited on p.86. The rhetorical skills of the martyrs were apparently such that it was the torturers who were 'retusi et revicti' (the equivalent of the current English colloquialism 'gobsmacked') by the martyrs. The final two sections of the article are about the transformation of the body and the victory of Christianity over death.

The article by Alfred Breitenbach (AB) is called 'Ambrosius von Mailand: Ein Bischof für die Kranken? Eine Beurteilung anhand des Lukaskommentars und der Schrift De Officiis' (pp. 101-150). It has three principal sections, each of which is subdivided into several smaller units. The first section bears the curious title 'Hinführung', indicating presumably that we are going to be led somewhere. Its first sub-section deals with the care of the sick in the early Church, from the Acts of the Apostles to Ambrose. The second deals in detail with Ambrose. The contrast in the treatment and care of the sick between the Greek East and Latin West is made here, as also in the following article by Stephen Lake. Key texts are the Commentary on Luke (CL) and De Officiis (DO), which according to AB are addressed to the parish and the clergy respectively. Each text has its own message: in CL sickness is regarded as a test (temptatio) of fortitude, and physical health is much less important than that of the 'interioris hominis'; in DO, on the other hand, the (active) clergy are exhorted to demonstrate 'misericordia' to the (passive) unfortunate. The final section asks the question: was Ambrose a bishop for the sick? The answer seems to be that Ambrose did not do very much of a practical nature for the sick, in the same way that Jerome did. Ambrose's view, perhaps influenced by his social background, was that the sick were either to be preached at or to be the recipients of 'misericordia' administered by people like himself.

The article by Stephen Lake (SL), 'Fabiola and the Sick: Jerome Epistula 77' (pp. 150-172), examines a letter of Jerome about Fabiola, one of the wealthy Romans whom he had been at pains to cultivate for the cause of Christianity. SL cites a passage from Augustine (p.156 n.15), which probably exemplifies as well as any other text the difficulty felt by Christians when confronted by people like Fabiola and the neat way in which they circumvented this difficulty: in the harsh surroundings of the monastery, for example, the wealthy were considered 'delicate', and special consideration was necessary, whereas those already less favoured with mundane advantages were 'stronger, and thus more fortunate'. Role reversal on a large scale: the extra-mural privileged become the intra-mural under-privileged. Essentially, Fabiola seems to have given large sums of money to the Church without renouncing her social status. Nevertheless, as Jerome is at pains to point out, Fabiola did not shy away from contact with the sick, as other wealthy philanthropists did. Jerome writes that she endowed an institution called 'nosokomeion', evidently the earliest use of the word in a Latin text. SL says that the name implies that medical help was available there. But does it? Jerome does not mention medical facilities of any sort but instead stresses the work done with her own hands by Fabiola in ministering to the sick. In view of the fact that the verb 'nosokomein' seems to mean 'care for the sick' (e.g. in Diodorus Siculus 14,17), it could quite easily mean 'nursing home'. Medical attention is not the only or even the most important attention required by sick people, especially those beyond medical care. SL contrasts the relatively primitive western attitude to medical care and social welfare with the better organized and more sophisticated eastern systems and points out that the study of medicine in the West was left largely to Greeks, slaves or the socially inferior and not thought suitable for 'a gentleman'. This attitude, apparently informed by a combination of ignorance and indifference, was at the basis of the comparatively inadequate provisions made for the sick by the Church in the West. In the last couple of pages SL examines textual evidence for six other types of establishment that offered care for the sick in the 'Latin West', more particularly at Arles, Tours, Rome and Mérida.

The article by Therese Fuhrer, 'Körperlichkeit und Sexualität in Augustins autobiographischen und moraltheoretischen Schriften' (pp. 173-188), is divided into three sections: (1) body, sickness and pain, (2) sexuality and marriage and (3) the resurrection of the body. Augustine writes of chest pains, toothache and general lassitude that made it necessary for him to interrupt conversations. His sick body was a sign of the state of his soul: 'sie (soul) ist noch zu sehr gebunden an die Sinne, ist noch nicht gesund.' Pain is a 'malum' that affects the body in a perceptible way and is not to be got rid of simply by spiritual exercises. 'Malum' is a 'privatio boni'. It provides a stimulus to those inflicted by it to exert themselves to recover the 'bonum' of which they have been deprived. Good makes whole and evil makes fragments: 'pain is pernicious because it strives to fragment that which was one' (p.176 n. 11 from De Ordine 2,48). Augustine repeats the theme of fragmentation in the description of his sexual life in Bk 2 of the Confessions: 'colligens me a dispersione, in qua frustratim discissus sum, dum ab uno te aversus in multa evanui.' He admits that in his youth he experimented in uninhibited fashion: 'silvescere ausus sum variis et umbrosis amoribus' (the German rendering of this passage seem to me not quite to grasp the sense of the relatively uncommon 'silvescere'). Generally speaking, Augustine's attitude to what is sinful in sexual activity is the lack of control to which the actors are usually subject and which deprives them of their reason and will. He writes of residual 'titillation' even after his conversion (p.179). Bodily resurrection was a philosophical problem for Augustine, how to reconcile Plato with Christian teaching. In his later writings Augustine developed the view that the 'here and now' body exposes human beings to various tests and, after physical death, is fulfilled in the resurrection and finds eternal life. The result of all this is that 'der erste Mensch' is 'erlöst'. This version of dualism enables Augustine to retain the Platonic view of the body as a 'cage' for the soul, without precipitating him into the wilder excesses of gnosticism. In a passage quoted on p.184 the later Augustine clarifies an earlier position: when he wrote that 'penitus ista sensibilia fugienda', he never meant that bodies were to be avoided, merely the 'sensibilia', because they are 'corruptibilia'. Augustine writes in the Confessions that he was drawn away from the life of the senses to the life of the intellect after reading 'Hortensius' by Cicero, a lost work so frequently cited by others that it is possible to reconstruct large sections of it. the 4th cent. grammarian Nonius cites a passage whose florid language may well have appealed to Augustine: 'si accedit ad iuvenilem libidinem copia voluptatum, gliscit illa, ut ignis oleo.'

The final article 'Körper und Körperlichkeit im antiken Mönchtum' (pp. 189-212) by Christoph Markschies (CM) deals with monastic views of the body. The first aspect deals with appearance and, in particular, clothing. A description from Jerome's Life of Hilarion is examined in detail: simple clothing, limited nutrition, and self-inflicted punishment. Non-Christian outsiders found this behaviour incomprehensible or repellent. CM examines archaeological and written evidence for how monks treated their bodies and what made them do what they did. In the matter of clothing, Jerome writes, presumably reflecting a common attitude, 'Let your garments be squalid to show that your heart is white' (Ep. 125,7). Reference is made to the injunction of the Egyptian abbots Shenute and Pachomius to their monks that they should not wash their feet. While this is true, it should also be pointed out that the monastery of Anba Hadra at Aswan had two rooms which have been identified as 'possible' bathrooms, one for the feet and one for immersion (cf. Colin Walters 'Monastic Archaeology in Egypt' 1974 p.213. One might also mention the presence at Kellia of latrines ibid. pp.223ff.). As CM points out, the perception of what constitutes good nutritional practice has changed in recent years (p.196). A lot of food is not necessarily the best form of nutrition. Monks probably are sparingly, but they did eat, as we know from the archaeological evidence cited by Walters of bakeries, kitchens, oil presses and so on. There is even a Coptic text in the works of Shenute on behaviour appropriate to those working in the bakery. The various methods of inflicting punishment on the body are outlined on pp. 198-199, from pillar squatting to sleep deprivation. A recent discovery, made in 1992, shows that the body of Apa Bane, whose monastery was just south of Minya, suffered from a deformed spine as a result of standing the whole time. (My own limited experience of long-term standing, 9 hours on an Egyptian bus, left me with a slipped disk and the firm resolve never to do it again.) This sort of life was considered by people like Shenute as 'the angelic life'. But, of course, the competitive element was never very far away. The language of ascetic practices and its relationship to sport has been mapped out by R. Merkelbach, whose work is cited here. This aspect of the ascetic life surely also comes under the heading of 'motivation'. The immediate aim of ascetic practices and sport was surely to subdue the body, to make it do what the inhabitant of the body wanted it to do. Both non-Christian and Christian athletes competed for 'crowns'. The reward of the non-Christian athlete was in the here and now; the ultimate reward of the Christian was in a future life, but there was also surely a modest amount of celebrity to be had in the here and now. CM ends by quoting Arsenius to the effect that his former life as a shepherd had been 'mühselig', whereas his life as an ascetic had certain 'Annehmlichkeiten'. One of these, I suggest, was the kudos of being a bit above the ordinary.

My only small complaint is that a book of this sort really should have an integrated bibliography, a subject index and an index of passages cited, but the absence of the may well be due to the publisher.

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