BMCR 1995.04.07

1995.04.07, Elm, Virgins of God

, Virgins of God : the making of asceticism in late antiquity. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. xvii, 443 pages : map ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9780198149200. $70.00.

As the study of Late Antiquity is becoming a field in its own right, this is reflected in an increased volume of publications. The last three decades have brought forth an great number of studies on regional, social, institutional and religious topics. In recent years, this process has culminated in the emergence of a number of new ‘revisionist’ works, building on earlier efforts to identify, assemble, and sift the source material and approaching this material with a fresh mind and new interpretive methods.

Susanna Elm’s book is a significant contribution in this vein. Broadly speaking, it deals with the variety of ascetic lifestyles in the 4th century AD and the process by which specific models of ascetic life, i.e. those of Pachomius in Egypt and Basil of Caesarea in Asia Minor, became normative and formative for the subsequent monastic tradition of the Middle Ages. E. sets the framework of her inquiry in the introduction, declaring her debt to the works of sociologists (Max Weber) and historians of women’s religiosity (Caroline Walker-Bynum). She sees her topic as a test case for theories about the formation of societies and the mechanisms for the control or exclusion of marginal groups, thus also justifying her focus on the experience of women. She argues convincingly that a complete picture of the life of religious communities in the 4th century can only be gained once we abandon our linear conception and cease to view the early monastic movement through the lens of Benedictine monasticism which grew out of it.

Having thus outlined her approach and established the relevance of her work as an exemplum of historical analysis, E. develops her argument. The book is divided into two parts, Asia Minor and Egypt; thus it moves backward in terms of chronology. Confusing though this may at first seem, this arrangement enables E. to establish her interpretive model for the region and period where the evidence is relatively abundant and allows her then to apply the same model to her interpretation of the situation in Egypt, where the documentation is much more patchy and problematic.

She begins with the Councils of Elvira (306) and Ancyra (314), which aimed to regulate the life of those who had professed virginity, and then makes a few flashbacks to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in order to show that women who decided to pursue an ascetic life as virgins had to do so within the established institution of the household, either in their parental home, under the authority of the paterfamilias, or by breaking the ties with their family and joining the household of a clergyman (as virgines subintroductae), a mutually beneficial arrangement, granting economic security to the virgin and affording household services and the opportunity to practise charity for the cleric.

The second and third chapters are, in my view, the best of the whole book. They contain a juxtaposition of the contribution of Basil of Caesarea to the formulation of a monastic ideal in theory and practice with the achievement of his sister Macrina in forging an ascetic life. After the premature death of her fiancĂ©, Macrina declared herself a ‘widow’ and devoted her life to the pursuit of virginity and asceticism. It is significant that she initially did so within her parental home (thus following established precedent for the life of female virgins), first on her own, then joined by her mother and younger brother Peter (who supervised the other men in the household). Soon, they attracted other women of noble and less noble background. This process culminated in the transformation of the household into a veritable monastic community of like-minded virgins of equal social status. From E.’s careful analysis of Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of his sister Macrina, Basil’s Letters and other sources emerges a new interpretation which is nothing less than revolutionary: it is Macrina whose resolve and initiative give birth to the monastic model of communal life in Asia Minor, Basil is merely its imitator as the leader of groups of ascetic men (his first monastic retreat to the family estate in Annesi dates to 357/8, more than a decade after the retreat of Macrina and her mother) and his contribution is that of a ‘reformer’ who formulates in his Asketikon the principles and precepts which govern these communities.

The following chapters penetrate even deeper into the sources and trace the history of communal asceticism in Asia Minor back another few decades, to around 330, and to the ‘dynamic figure’ (p. 124) of Eustathius of Sebaste, an advocate of the homoiousian (Arian) doctrine. He was condemned by the Synod of Gangra (340 or 341) because his followers engaged in unacceptable customs. He and his fellow-ascetics, E. argues, caused offense because of their belief that women can be transformed through asceticism into ‘manly virgins’ (who cut their hair and wore men’s clothes—in contrast to Macrina’s group who adhered to the traditional modes of female conduct) and that both men and women vowed to chastity can transcend their sexuality and live a communal life. Basil, an adherent of Nicene, homoousian doctrine, sought to counteract the popularity of Eustathius by marginalizing the most powerful elements in his movement: he insisted that ascetic communities move to the countryside, away from the urban centers where they had made a name for themselves as pressure groups and trouble-makers in the doctrinal debates, and he aims to further curb their growing strength by advocating the strict segregation of men and women, thereby binding women to their subordinate role. Through such repressive measures, Basil was, as bishop of Caesarea (370-379), able to safeguard orthodoxy and at the same time to assert the superiority of the institutional clergy.

The case of Egypt is even more complex: Since the 3rd century, women pursued a variety of ascetic lifestyles: at home or in the household of a clergyman. In addition to these patterns with which we are familiar from the discussion of Asia Minor, we also encounter ascetic women living in secluded communities of women or withdrawing as solitaries to the desert, where they either remained in one place or roamed about, but always maintained some form of contact with the male hermits. With regard to the communal monasticism of women, three different modes of organization can be distinguished according to their historical origin, which gives definition to the relation of the nuns to male authority. Pachomius’ foundation for his younger sister Maria (in 329) is aptly labelled ‘a family affair’ (p. 291), where the paterfamilias (in this case the male superior of the men’s community) holds the highest authority also over the adjacent women’s establishment. Shenoute of Atripe, by contrast, the superior of the White Monastery from 383/5 to 466, established the monastic rules for a community that already consisted of a male and a separate female settlement in the vicinity, and therefore granted relative autonomy to the mater of the women’s branch.

Finally, there is Athanasius of Alexandria and his attitude towards monasticism and female ascetics. E. coaxes the sources with the help of some ingenious guess-work to reveal a scenario parallel to that which Basil so forcefully tackled in Asia Minor. In Egypt, it was the ascetic groups around Hieracas and the Melitians, both groups opponents of the Council of Nicaea, i.e. Arians, who accorded a prominent role to women and brought unrest to the cities. In addressing this situation, Athanasius made every effort to win the ascetics and especially the ordo of virgins over to his side (or at least to assure their neutrality) and at the same time strove to increase the authority of the orthodox clergy.

In a concluding chapter, E. explains how differing ascetic views and practices of homoousians and Arians were rooted in their conceptions of the relation between God and His creation and the human ability to attain salvation, reflected in their attitudes to the body as an instrument towards this goal.

There are various subtexts one could read into this book: One might discover a narrative of increased masculinization of the ascetic ideal and deliberate strategies to bring the female element under control. E. does not make this much of an issue, although she sometimes bases her argument on the assumption that women demanded their share of power and self-determination. Another constant theme which underlies the argument, directly connected with the former, is the growth of the clergy in the age after Constantine, which increasingly monopolized the interpretation of doctrine and the regulation of the life of Christian men and women.

This is an ambitious book. Instead of three venerable patristic figures, Basil, Pachomius and Athanasius, as the founding fathers of the monastic tradition, we are now faced with a variegated ascetic tradition in which women and heretics played the pivotal role. E.’s argument is based on an impressive mastery of the sources and of the secondary literature (the bibliography will prove very useful to students of this period). As the argument unfolds, it goes into great detail, which the general reader may find overwhelming. But this is counterbalanced by frequent summaries in apposite places. The specialist reader may be disappointed by inaccuracies in the Greek citations (due to negligent proofreading?) and puzzled by the consistent use of koine to denote the rural areas of Egypt.

If the book sometimes seems too narrow in its focus, to the exclusion of larger developments affecting the role of women and the attraction and mode of operation of ‘heretical’ movements in 4th century society, this is easily excused by the complexity of the phenomenon the author has successfully addressed in over 400 pages. It would be a work of lesser value if it did not invite the reader to probe deeper into the fascinating transformation of Church and Empire in Late Antiquity.