BMCR 2006.06.14

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

, , The cultural turn in late ancient studies : gender, asceticism, and historiography. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. 364 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0822334119 $24.95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography constitutes an excellent collection of essays on Late Antique Christianity. Many of the essays previously appeared in a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (Fall 2003). The book is dedicated to Elizabeth Clark whose presence is both explicitly and implicitly felt throughout the volume. Divided into three sections, “Gender”, “Asceticism”, and “Historiography”, these essays essentially apply the notion of “representation” and “construction” to various topics and texts. Rather than deconstructing artifacts of antiquity as insubstantial rhetorical constructions, however, the essays make substantive claims about monastic ideology, Christology, clerical and episcopal authority, heresy, Hellenism, individual characters, and the invention of Christian Rome. The essays admirably apply theoretical models to specific exempla, thereby illuminating methodology while simultaneously advancing our understanding of particular subjects and providing numerous insightful readings. The title is somewhat misleading because all but one of the essays focus on Christianity during this period. Such an observation, however, in no way detracts from the valuable contributions of these essays, which amply demonstrate how cultural studies deepen our understanding of Late Antiquity.

The contributors to this volume, although well aware of the constructed character of our sources, do not shy away from tackling substantive historical issues. Starting from the recognition that in the world of the monks women were physically absent, but mentally omnipresent, David Brakke accounts for the anomalous instances of the presence of actual women in a place where “there are no women” (p.25). Such rare instances involve a female pretending to be a male monk, whose true gender is revealed only after her death. Since, however, these instances of real women appear in apophthegmata and sayings attributed to Amma Sarah, the “actual” female must be viewed as a discursive construct, who, according to Brakke, ultimately complicates or reinscribes monastic conceptions of gender. For the monks, manliness is performed by resistance to the female. Such accounts reveal the performative character of the real and rhetorical monastic world because they include the discovery (what Brakke calls “materialization”) that a female played the role of male. As a result, these tales articulate the possibility that the monastic narrative may not always correlate with monastic reality (p.35). Patricia Cox Miller, analyzing the Life of Mary in Egypt and the Life of St. Pelagia of Antioch, complements Brakke’s piece by focusing on the complicating (rather than reinscribing) effect of female holiness. Mary is presented with male biblical and Christological allusions, while monks attempt to conceal that the recently dead ascetic Pelagius was really Pelagia. According to Miller, it is problematic to represent holiness through a female. This explains why, for example, Pelagia is initially introduced in a grotesque image that simultaneously evokes both the whore of Babylon and Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem (95). James E. Goehring, adopting a similar interest in discourse, treats a different topic, the myth of the desert landscape. The desert myth has an ideological power that both represents and generates the “Christian transformation of late antiquity” (146). Not only does the desert symbolize the possibility of achieving Christian virtue (138), it functionally erases urban asceticism. For example, even though Palladius gives special attention to urban monks in his Lausiac History, a later foreword attached to the work refers to desert ascetics alone (143). A major contribution of cultural studies is the recovery of these erasures. Blake Leyerle appropriately addresses a neglected topic: animals and asceticism. Even if animals are not significant in a culture, they perform an important semiotic function of marking what a society deems to be insignificant (and consequently, significant). Leyerle explores the Christian transformation of the traditional hunt mosaic into Isaiah’s “Peaceable Kingdom” thereby erasing the traditional meaning of conquest and domination (158-159). Drawing on stories such as Gerasimos and the Lion (reported by John Moschus) that blur the line between animal and monks, Leyerle notes that these mosaics suggest that monks, like the animals, must show restraint. Thus, in contrast to the Roman world in which restraint of the passions qualified the Roman elite to dominate subordinates, Christian monks were encouraged to eschew domination whether in the form of eating meat, assuming positions of leadership, or giving advice (162).

Understanding the dynamics of power represents a significant contribution of these essays. Maureen A. Tilley suggests that Augustine’s preference for male rather than female friends may be attributed to his non-aristocratic family background so that he was never comfortable with upper class, educated women. In a particularly fine piece based on a close reading of Ephrem of Syrus’s Hymns to the Nativity, anonymous dialogue poems ( soghyatha), and verse homilies on Mary from Jacob of Serug, Susan Ashbrook Harvey indicates how discourse about Mary may reflect an increasing tendency to control women’s religious roles. She also suggests that the imagined voice of Mary generated an angst among men that required textual healing. This may explain why these texts juxtapose the topos of Mary’s poverty with the theological problem of “uncontainable divine greatness confined to the contained smallness of a mother’s womb” (67). Power struggles also occurred between Church leaders and between pagans and Christians. David Hunter attributes the three responses to Jovinian by Siricius, Ambrose, and Jerome not to theological difference so much as political positioning. Although all three condemn Jovinian’s equal valuation of celibacy and marriage, they do so in different ways for different reasons. Siricius promotes clerical over monastic authority while Ambrose asserts episcopal authority through the defense of virginity and the episcopal ritual of velatio. Jerome attempts to recover his own authority as the Latin spokesperson for monasticism by implicitly attacking that “consecrator of virgins” (Ambrose) and explicitly criticizing the man responsible for expelling him from Rome (Siricius).

In addition to the political struggle, Late Antiquity is also marked by Kulturkampf. In “Hellenism and Historiography: Gregory of Nazianzus and Julian in Dialogue” Susanna Elm complicates the boundaries between Hellenism and Christianity. Drawing on the work of Simon Goldhill, Elm claims that the limits of Hellenism themselves were matters of contestation during this period. Although Gregory and Julian agreed about the primary value of the philosophical life and the primary value of Greekness, they disagreed precisely over who could lay claim to “the universality of Greekness”, pagans or Christians (259). Elm rightly cautions against the a priori equation of paganism and Hellenism (261). Therefore, Gregory’s struggle with asceticism should not be read in solely Christian terms, but rather in light of a debate between Gregory and Julian on whether to prefer the active or theoretical philosophical life. Gregory’s hesitant commitment to the philosophical life of action from a Christian point of view has been considered the reluctant decision of a sensitive soul. Seen without a boundary between Hellenism and Christianity, Gregory’s reluctance understandably emerges from his decision to take on the emperor and defend Christian teaching as the true source of philosophy (263-269).

Dennis Trout demonstrates how the struggle for culture was fought in Rome not only discursively, but also visually. According to Trout the hagiographical elogia of Damasus for martyrs represent an attempt to resolve the problem of being both Roman and Christian in fourth century Rome (p.300). Trout properly identifies the traditional Roman character of this solution, as Augustus had also reinvented Rome by restaging its past through literature and monuments. Damasus’ elogia draw heavily on the form and content of Classical Latin literature, thereby making the memorialization of the martyrs both acceptable and challenging to the new Roman Christian elite. The tombs of the martyrs become a national cemetery performing a national Christian ideology: whoever stands at the tomb of the martyr beholds a direct link between heaven and earth. Damasus’s work provides a specific instance of Henri Lefebvre’s general observation “that the impulse to civic ‘self-presentation and self-representation’ readily lodges in sites where death can be both ‘represented and rejected'” (p.305). In this sense then, Damasus is like a new Augustus and new Livy.

The attention to political and cultural struggle does not mean neglect of the traditional interest in theological debate. Here as well, however, the traditional subject receives an innovative approach. Averil Cameron argues for a literary approach to heresiological literature that reads “these compositions. . .as self-perpetuating constructions that helped to formulate thought and underpin social norms in the Christian society of Byzantium” (p.206). Questioning the assumption that heresiologies are simply sources of information, Cameron notes that Epiphanius does show some literary skill in modeling the Panarion on Song of Songs and scientific treatises on snake bites and poisons (198). The systematic classification of heresies reflects a serious attempt to organize knowledge in order to affirm orthodoxy. Thus, Cameron suggests that the genre of listing and labeling, although perhaps not particularly engaging, nevertheless enacts Christian control of heresy even if in actuality heresy is a particularly slippery and elusive phenomenon. In a convincing piece, Teresa Shaw complements Cameron’s piece by implicitly critiquing the power the heresiological genre has exerted even on contemporary scholars. Shaw claims that there is no reason why the Discourse on Salvation to a Virgin, although falsely attributed to Athanasius, should play only a marginal role in reconstructing the history of early Christian asceticism. Shaw points out how legitimate arguments against Athanasian authorship tend to go hand in hand with attributing heretical ideas to the work. This obscures the moderate character of the text. “Un-Athanasian” need not be equated with heretical and the work should be viewed as a representation of asceticism, not a polemical work to be measured on a scale of heresy and orthodoxy.

Appropriate to such a methodologically aware collection, even the notion of “constructiveness” is explored and complicated. Virginia Burrus meditates on the significance and signification of Gregory of Nyssa’s reference to a small mark below Macrina’s neck. The tattoo symbolizes the production of female subjectivity and agency. Woman and women’s history is like a stigma, marking difference (113). Just as the tattoo both hurts and reveals, the writing of Macrina’s life reveals Gregory’s pain of bereavement. Even though the tattoo (and discourse about the tattoo) is constructed, it provides a real glimpse into Gregory’s psyche. Similarly, Philip Rousseau argues on the basis of Theodoret’s letters that precisely because the epistolary genre makes its constructed nature explicit, we can actually get a glimpse of the self. In order to explain Augustine’s relentless self-presentation in the Confessions, Mark Vessey applies the hermeneutical principles of De Doctrina Christiana to a reading of Augustine’s conversion. According to Vessey, the “objectification of ‘Augustine’ as a hermeneutical figure” reflects the fusion of two literary models: Jerome’s annalistic self-dramatization and Apuleius’ conflation of literature and autobiography. Augustine does not appear arrogant and self-indulgent because he never changes back from an “ass” and he does not offer himself as a signum to be emulated (252). This accounts for the apparent contradiction between Augustine the figuralist and Augustine the antipictorialist (247). He presents himself as a figure, not an icon.

In a methodological piece, Daniel Boyarin boldly approaches the problems of writing a diachronic history of Judaism by considering how to handle the variety of rabbinic legends associated with the founding (or refounding) of Judaism at Yavneh. Drawing on Neusner, Jonathan Hall, Hayden White, and Marc Bloch, Boyarin proposes to trace the development of the discursive construction of Yavneh. Rather than seeing various stories about Yavneh as deviations from an historical kernel, Boyarin sees the variations themselves as fracture points illuminating systematic changes in rabbinic culture. Like an archaeologist “reading” artifacts, Boyarin proposes to understand the anecdotes in their textualized contexts and then examine the relationship between contexts (186). Although a fine piece in its own right, Boyarin’s piece points to a problem in this book’s own self-representation—the Christian-centered contents of the essays do not correlate with the general title of the work.

Dale Martin’s explanation in the introduction is hardly satisfying: “[t]he essays in this volume, concentrating for the sake of coherence mainly on Christianity in late antiquity, exemplify those changes” (p.1). The idea that a focus on Ammianus, Islamic martyrs or Manicheans would somehow prevent “coherence” hardly seems self-evident. In fact, one of the major contributions of Late Antique studies (as reflected in its periodization), is the previously neglected “coherence” between pagans, Christians, Jews, Moslems, and “heretics.” Even the rationale for including Boyarin’s piece performs marginalization: “the one article in this volume that focuses on non-Christian materials, that by Daniel Boyarin, is nonetheless closely related to the study of late ancient Christianity” (n.1, p.18). Not only does Martin inscribe Late Antiquity as a world divided between Christians and non-Christians, he also assumes that Christian scholarship justifies relevance, not the topics and concerns of Late Antique Studies. Let me make clear that this criticism does not apply to the essays as a whole, which in fact give serious attention to the fluid boundaries between various cultures of Late Antiquity. Moreover, Dale Martin does an excellent job in the “Introduction” defining cultural studies and articulating its impact particularly on historiography. Martin properly calls attention to the potential risk of a definition of culture that becomes too all-inclusive to be meaningful. He highlights anthropology’s attention to different cultures rather than a universal culture. Moreover, the linguistic turn appropriately narrows the field to an emphasis on the construction of history rather than the kernel of history. My issue here is how the title and “Introduction” represent the work in a manner that functionally equates Late Antique Studies with Christian Studies. This is rather surprising in a work acutely sensitive to the constructed character of history.

From the department of minor quibbles, I wish that Maureen Tilley provided less of a survey and more discussion of specific, representative passages from Augustine’s letters to women. On p. 159 Leyerle incorrectly attributes the inscription from the Ma’in mosaic to Isaiah 11:7 instead of Isaiah 65:25. Although both passages are almost identical, Isaiah 65:25 has ὡς instead of ἅμα in Isaiah 11:7 ( καὶ λεῶν καὶ βοῦς ἅμα φάγονται ἄχυρα).

Notwithstanding this one major concern and the couple of minor ones, this book is a must read for serious scholars of Late Antiquity, especially because the essays both explain and apply the method of cultural studies.

Authors and Titles of Essays:

Dale B. Martin, “Introduction”;

David Brakke, “The Lady Appears: Materializations of ‘Woman’ in Early Monastic Literature”;

Maureen A. Tilley, “No Friendly Letters: Augustine’s Correspondence with Women”;

Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “On Mary’s Voice: Gendered Words in Syriac Marian Tradition”;

Patricia Cox Miller, “Is There a Harlot in This Text? Hagiography and the Grotesque”;

Virginia Burrus, “Macrina’s Tattoo”;

David G. Hunter, “Rereading the Jovinianist Controversy: Asceticism and Clerical Authority in Late Ancient Christianity”;

James E. Goehring, “The Dark Side of Landscape: Ideology and Power in the Christian Myth of the Desert” ;

Blake Leyerle, “Monks and Other Animals”;

Daniel Boyarin, “Archives in the Fiction: Rabbinic Historiography and Church History”;

Averil Cameron, “How to Read Heresiology”;

Teresa M. Shaw, “Ascetic Practice and the Genealogy of Heresy: Problems in Modern Scholarship and Ancient Textual Representation”;

Mark Vessey,”History, Fiction, and Figuralism in Book 8 of Augustine’s Confessions“;

Susanna Elm, “Hellenism and Historiography: Gregory of Nazianzus and Julian in Dialogue”;

Philip Rousseau, “Knowing Theodoret: Text and Self”;

Dennis Trout “Damasus and the Invention of Early Christian Rome.”