Elizabeth Castelli

Seminar IX: New Histories of Women, Sexuality and the Body

One of the great growth areas in the pursuit of later Roman history during the last four decades, especially during the 1980s, has been the study of women’s experience and of how gender was constructed. Women have always figured prominently in discussions of the later Roman Empire – that is hardly surprising with figures such as Galla Placidia and the Empress Theodora occupying a central place in the narrative. But feminism has interacted with the new emphasis on cultural history to produce a wide range of new approaches to these topics. Much of the discussion of women’s experience and gender has tended to focus on the effects of Christianisation and also of the rise of asceticism (pagan as well as Christian), in part because these movements promoted new attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles, but also because it was the ascetics (female as well as male) who produced the contributions to the historical record – the written materials – which have the most to say about these issues.

The first of this week’s seminar readings is taken from Peter Brown’s The Body and Society (1988). Covering the four centuries from the time of St Paul the Apostle down to that St Augustine of Hippo, this book defines itself as a history of the ways in which the rise of Christianity (and especially its doctrines of sexual renunciation) affected women’s and men’s relations with each other and their experiences as embodied selves – their experiences of gender, marriage and sex. It was written, according to Brown’s own account, in response to two developments which had an impact in the late 1970s and early 1980s: the first was the intensity with which questions to do with sexual politics were being asked ‘all over America’ (where Brown was based from 1978); the second was the coming of relativist theories of culture and knowledge.

More will be said about cultural relativism with respect to next week’s seminar. For now it is sufficient to note that cultural relativists maintain that there are many radically different yet equally valid ways of knowing the world, that there is no such thing as ‘superior knowledge’ only different ‘knowledges’, each belonging to different settings and groups. Relativists hold that there are no procedures by which a universal kind of knowledge might be established; rather they claim that all knowledge is situated – that ‘truth-claims’ reflect the position of the ‘knowledge-producer’ at a certain historical moment in the development of a given material, cultural and linguistic system. That is, it is not just that people in different cultures have different notions about ethics (about what is right or wrong) or about aesthetics (about what is or is not beautiful or ugly), it is that their ways of perceiving and describing reality are so profoundly mired in their situation that it is impossible to translate any of their truth-claims – let alone the statements they make about abstract issues like gender, religion and the nature of the world – in such a way as to make them entirely comprehensible to outsiders. Indeed, Paul Feyerabend (1924–94) argued in Against Method, an influential relativist manifesto published in 1975, that there are cultures and thought-worlds so different from our own that it is impossible for a modern, western, observer to comprehend them.

Cultural relativism clearly has major implications for historians of pre-modern societies, especially for those historians who work with religious and cultural artefacts and texts. If the relativists are right, evidence of this kind can never be accurately, let alone fully, understood – we can never ascertain exactly what it meant to either the persons who produced it, let alone the audiences who consumed it. Some progress may be made by comparing and contrasting contemporary artefacts – that is, by ‘reading’ a text in the light of the cultural conventions and contexts which appear the most relevant. But the results of all such ‘readings’ will always be ‘incomplete’. That might seem to render pointless any attempt to study these materials, but the rise of cultural relativism has also armed those who wish to study these materials with persuasive new arguments with which to justify their work, irrespective of its intellectual validity. For the study of materials and topics that had previously been marginalised within academia could now be defended as part of a worthy attempt to recover the voices of the ‘other’ – the voices of those cultures and persons (including women) that have been pushed to the margins in the development of western civilisation (or patriarchy). In the post-colonial context of the 1980s and 1990s, this moral imperative – this new rhetoric – seemed almost irresistible.

Thus, one effect of the rise of cultural relativism has been to legitimise and encourage a type of scholarship which an eighteenth-century philosophe might have described as ‘cultural antiquarianism’ – that is, a type of historical scholarship which eschews any attempt to interpret the significance of events according to their place in a ‘grand narrative’ (i.e. an overarching scheme of human progress), a type of scholarship aimed at preserving the distance between the past and the present, at preserving the strangeness of the ideas and ‘representations’ generated by past societies whilst making them somewhat (but never entirely) accessible to the modern reader. In studies of this kind the stress falls on the ‘evocative’ and the ‘mysterious’ as opposed to the ‘explanatory’; the aim is to paint an arresting picture of the past rather than to discover a rational explanation for what was going on. As Brown himself explains in his Haskins Lecture,

In many ways, Body and Society was an agreeably old fashioned book. It moved slowly from Christian author to Christian author, attempting to listen seriously to each one of them in turn. It concentrated on the manner in which men and women in early Christianity experienced their own bodies. It attempted to do justice to the social and moral context which enabled the writers of the time to throw up, with such vigor, so many daring and so many outrageously non-modern opinions on sexuality and marriage. Above all, it was a book in which my previous zest for explanation was held in suspense. I no longer wished to render the persons whom the reader would encounter in this book totally transparent to understanding... I wanted to make sure that the ancient authors spoke to us quietly, and with their own voices. I wanted to recover, for the modern reader, something of the weight of the life-choices which they had made, of the solidity of the ideals which they had followed, and the reserves of warmth and comfort from God and their companions on which they hoped to draw, as they trod what was often a long, hard road.

From the perspective of historians like Edward Gibbon or J. B. Bury this kind of history represents a backwards step, but it is not hard to see how this turn in academic fashion might have appealed to scholars whose driving concern was to redeem the religious culture of a pre-modern society from the derision of its post-Enlightenment critics. The aims which Brown claims for the Body and Society are aptly likened to those of anti-globalisation protestors, since they echo in a different sphere their desire to save the world’s minority cultures from being absorbed by all-devouring, monolithic, modernity. The implication is that the book was an attempt to protect an historical ‘other’ from being pushed to the margins by history’s long preoccupation with ‘steerage issues’ – by its concern, that is, with fashioning the governing elite, with training its members and with advising them as to how they should negotiate their way through political, economic and military crises.

In the other reading for this week, Elizabeth Castelli offers a more stridently feminist approach, one in which the need for emancipation – that is, the need to liberate the oppressed from the historical structures that have held them back – is the underlying subtext. She argues that ‘the ideology of virginity’ was just such a structure. The practice of virginity may have offered women a means to avoid the very real constraints associated with marriage and child-bearing, but it did so by extracting ‘a profound price’, for the abdication of sexuality through the denial of bodily passions required of these women that they deny the identities that society had given them as women, that they redefine themselves honorary men.

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Photo: Elizabeth Castelli.

Set Texts

  1. Brown, Peter R. L., The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, 1988; London, 1990), chp. 13, ‘“Daughters of Jerusalem”: The Ascetic Life of Women in the Fourth Century’. PN.YC.
  2. Castelli, Elizabeth, ‘Virginity and its Meaning for Women’s Sexuality in Early Christianity’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 2.1 (1986), 61–88. Journals P6.

Worksheet Questions

  1. What does Peter Brown think that the rise of Christian Asceticism did for women in the fourth and fifth centuries?
  2. To what extent does Brown succeed in recovering the voices of his ascetic women?
  3. What does Castelli mean when she says that virginity was a ‘cultural commodity’?
  4. Summarise the argument of Castelli’s article. How convincing is it?
  5. What questions should feminist historians ask of the late Roman world?

Additional Reading on Women and Asceticism in Late Antiquity

  • Arjava, A., Women and Law in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 1998). LTH.
  • Burrus, V., The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography, Divinations: Rereading Late Antique Religion (Philadelphia, PA, 2008). PN.C.
  • Clark, G., Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles (Oxford, 1993). LTH.
  • Cloke, G., This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350-450 (London, 1995). PN.YW.
  • Coon, L., Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia, PA, 1997). PN.YM.
  • Cooper, K., ‘Gender and the Fall of Rome’, in P. Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World (Oxford, 2007), pp. 187–200. LVL.
  • Cooper, K., The Fall of the Roman Household (Cambridge, 2007). LVS.H. An important new study which makes changes in ‘the domestic sphere’ i.e. the Christianization of marriage and the family central to the transformation of the later Roman world.
  • Cooper, K., The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA, 1996). LIC.
  • Elm, S., Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 1994). POWB.
  • Evans-Grubbs, J., ‘Marriage and Family Relationships in the Late Roman West’, in P. Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World (Oxford, 2007), pp. 201–19. LVL.
  • Fiorenza, E. S., ‘Women in the Early Christian movement’, in C. P. Christ (ed.), Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion (San Francisco, CA, 1979). PN.YW.
  • Goody, J., The Development of Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge, 1983), chps. 4–5. KVC3.
  • Hastrup, K., ‘The Semantics of Biology: Virginity’, in S. Ardener (ed.), Defining Females: The Nature of Women in Society (London, 1978). KDQWD.
  • Kitchen, J., Saints’ Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender: Male and Female in Merovingian Hagiography (Oxford, 1998). MSC.K.

Some Latin and Greek Terms Used by Brown

  • ex voto = in fulfilment of a vow or oath (Brown, p. 261).
  • kanonikai = litterally women living according to a rule or canon (Brown, p. 264).
  • didaskaleion = teaching, education (Brown, p. 266).
  • logismos = litterally reflection, inner consideration (Brown, p. 269).
  • Protoevangelion = litterally First Gospel (Brown, p. 273).

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