Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.16

Gillian Clark, Body and Gender, Soul and Reason in Late Antiquity. Variorum collected studies series, CS978.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2011.  Pp. 346.  ISBN 9781409423751.  $154.95.  

Reviewed by Mark Masterson, Victoria University of Wellington (

Table of Contents

As Gillian Clark is a leading historian of late antiquity, this volume of eighteen papers is quite welcome. Scholars have been contending with the dispersal of these papers from 1993 to 2005 in journals and edited volumes. Thanks to this volume, appreciating the range of Clark’s thought will be an easier task. Clark’s work places front and center issues of gender and sex and offers both broad vistas of late-ancient society and closely argued explications of short passages of iconic text. She reads Christian and pagan sources together often and confidently places her analyses in cogent relationship with late-ancient society as a whole. There is a brief preface from Clark and an equally brief index (both are two and one-half pages) and just over seven pages of addenda (providing, for the most part, more recent bibliography and the occasional authorial comment). The volume helpfully preserves the pagination of the originals while giving each paper a Roman numeral designation for use within the volume. Hence, the volume will seamlessly interact with scholarship that cites the originals. In this review I will refer to the papers using these Roman numeral designations.

The first four papers are grouped under the heading “Bodies and Minds: The Limits of Reason.” The second group (papers V to XI) come under the title, “Bodies and Gender: Christian Challenges.” The final section, “Bodies and Souls: The Philosophic Life,” contains papers XII to XVIII. While these headings do help with organizing the contents, they only imperfectly categorize the papers that, granted, do have connections with one another (though the placement of the two papers on Victricius of Rouen in section three is rather odd, but he was probably always going to be the odd-man out). Taken as a whole these papers are wide- ranging and yet come from an integrated base of concerns that have animated Clark’s overall intellectual project. On the one hand, Clark has been concerned to read as an historian, reading her chosen authors in their “social and intellectual context” (preface, x), while, on the other, her frequent emphasis on gender and ecological concerns shows her to be responsive to prevailing interests in the academy of recent decades.

Major areas of emphasis in the volume include the works of Augustine and Porphyry, which makes perfect sense given her considerable work elsewhere on these authors.1 Augustine figures in a paper on the place of animals in his thought (III). Paper VI features a discussion of Confessions 2.2.2. In this passage Augustine regrets that his male friendships were befouled by “mists from the muddy lust of the flesh.” This passage then becomes the basis for an interesting discussion of the place of the body in Augustine’s thought. This is a challenging paper and its conclusion that the body in later Christian thought is no longer solely dichotomized with the soul/mind but instead “becomes a zone of interchange [for good or evil and] a harmonious union of flesh and spirit” (VI.220) is surely correct. But I must say that the paper as a whole and the final conclusion sit oddly with the quotation with which it started. I will have more to say of this at the end of the review. In papers VII and X, Clark discusses in persuasive terms Augustine’s quite stunning bestowal of a uterus on Adam at Confessions 13.20.28. Augustine uses arresting language to make the reader pause; this violent authorial gesture causes an aporia in the reader that both underscores humanity’s confused state and suggests the profundity of the wound that is sexual differentiation, a wound which will be healed in the end times (X.22). Porphyry is quite naturally a centerpiece for a discussion of animals (IV). In his De abstinentia he maintained that animals weakly possessed the logos (and were therefore in possession of souls) and they were not be eaten because of this. The final five papers (XIV-XVIII) all contain substantial discussions of Porphyry and his notion of the proper way to live one’s life. Clark contrasts his views with those of Iamblichus (XV) and Augustine (XVIII). Augustine and Porphyry also feature often in the other papers and in some sense feel like presiding presences.

Although ultimately not influential in his own time (but rather more so now, considering the attention he has received in recent decades), Victricius of Rouen features in two important papers in the volume. In a highly interesting, if overheated sermon (De laude sanctorum), which is his only extant work, Victricius theorizes how relics work, i.e., how sanctity can be perceived (outrageously) in bits and pieces of martyrs’ bodies. Clark’s two papers provide discussion of the sermon’s content (XII) and of its legal and social context (XIII). Her excellent translation of the entire sermon comprises one half of XII.

In addition to the focus on these authors, Clark writes authoritatively on gender. Paper V features an important discussion of women and asceticism. Clark sensitively presents the ways in which the adoption of asceticism by women clashed profoundly with expectations for them in the secular world (e.g., V.38-39). Paper IX is an early discussion of masculinity that helped to open the subject up in the early 90s. Presentation and discussion of ideas about the proper roles of men and women in Christian and pagan literature emerges often (see, e.g., papers XV, XVII, and XVIII). Paper VIII speaks of martyrdom and gender differentiation visible in accounts we have of it. Paper XI, “‘In the foreskin of your flesh’: the pure male body in antiquity,” tracks changes in the valuation of circumcision. Clark shows how circumcision went from being associated (by those who did not practice it) with excessive interest in sex to its becoming a metaphor that functioned as “a sign of religious commitment” among men who were physically uncircumcised and, even, as a metaphor applicable to women. I think this paper is exceedingly well done.

A number of the papers consider the effect of paradox (a trope much beloved by the late-ancient authors). Clark twice considers Augustine’s ascription of a uterus to Adam (as previously noted) and paper XVI features a consideration of Porphyry’s exceedingly odd notion of framing properly pursued askesis as a “fattening of the soul” (De abstinentia 4.20.10-11). In the paper, the observation of this paradoxical metaphor functions as a springboard to a consideration of differences between late- Platonism and Christianity. The former worries more about things alimentary, while the sexual transfixes the latter. This conclusion impresses me as possibly controversial, though I find myself in substantial agreement with it; I read Clark as indicating broad trends and not asserting absolutes. Clark is also quite nicely attentive to Victricius’ obsessive embrace of paradox in the two papers concerned with him. I note here too that the role that nature plays in the late-ancient thought world receives a well-supported and lengthy discussion in papers II-IV. It emerges that the late-ancients, relentlessly anthropocentric in their orientation, do not therefore center nature and animals in the way we see it done in current eco-criticism. Paper I features consideration of both the impact of late- ancient interest in asceticism on actual children and late-ancient ideas about the proper way to raise them.

I will offer a recommendation and introduce and ask a question to conclude this review of an excellent collection of papers. First, I suggest that readers bear in mind that asceticism had deep roots in religious fasts and the avoidance of certain foods undertaken in the interests of securing ritual purity. Clark (along with many other scholars) privileges the important philosophic background to asceticism while the story is coming to be seen as more complicated than that.2

Second (and as noted above), the final conclusion of paper VI (embodiment’s enmeshment, for good or bad, with the divine) sits oddly with the marquee quotation (Confessions 2.2.2) that gives the paper its name, “‘The bright frontier of friendship’: Augustine and the Christian body as frontier.” Here is part of the passage from Augustine relevant in the present instance: “et quid erat quod me delectabat, nisi amare et amari? sed non tenebatur modus ab animo usque ad animum quatenus est luminosus limes amicitiae, sed exhalabantur nebulae de limosa concupiscentia carnis….” This passage is not irrelevant to Clark’s argument; the clouds from the muddy lust of the flesh causing feelings and thoughts surely speak to an interaction between body and mind/soul. I feel, however, that an erasure has occurred. Clark was certain that this passage contained no reference to same-sex sexual (if I may offer this as a synonym for “homosexual”) acts in her commentary published in 1995.3 She does not take a position in this paper originally from 1996 and instead refers the reader to her commentary and to the one by O’Donnell (1992, ad loc.4), who believes that Augustine is not concerned about what we may think he may have done in some carnal way to compromise his friendships. While Augustine came to associate amicitia with marriage and sexual relations between men and women in De bono coniugali and we surely can relate Confessions 2.2.2 to sexual relations in marriage in an expansive consideration of Augustine’s thought, I do question the impulse to erase a clear res of this passage, i.e., the eruption of carnality that compromises friendship between males. Clark’s elision is at the very least somewhat violent to the actual sense of the passage and it also prevents perception of germane and interesting continuities between same-sex desire and desire within the context of marriage between man and woman.


1.   E.g., her translation of Augustine’s Confessions (1993) and a text and commentary of Confessions 1-4 (1995) (both Cambridge) and a translation with commentary of Porphyry’s De abstinentia (Cornell 2000).
2.   See, for example, Richard Finn’s Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge 2009).
3.   P. 118 (Confessions 1-4, Cambridge).
4.   James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: Confessions (Oxford 1992 [consulted online 27 November 2011 here].

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