is a striking--and disturbing--fact that historians
can locate no feminine equivalent of Peter Brown's
"holy man." To be sure, Susan Ashbrook Harvey
and Sebastian Brock named their book of translations
Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, 1 yet an inspection
of its contents suggests that most "holy women"
described in these texts were martyrs (with extra
luck, dying as virgins); 2 none appears to function
as the precise female counterpart to the "holy
men" described by Brown. In addition to martyrs
such as these, we hear much in early Christian literature
of women ascetics--but again, they do not function
as "holy men."
Christian sources concerning asceticism vary in the
denseness of their coverage of women, from "none"
in the Historia monachorum, 3 to [End Page 413] "nearly
none" in Theodoret's History of the Monks of
Syria, 4 to "some" in the Apophthegmata
patrum, 5 to "considerable" in Palladius'
Lausiac History. 6 The fullest treatment of women,
however, lies in the letters to and memorials of women
by writers such as Jerome, 7 and in the full-blown
vitae of women such as Olympias, Macrina, Melania
the Younger, and Syncletica. 8
oddly, the fuller the accounts of such early Christian
"holy women," the less they look like Peter
Brown's "holy men." The women about whom
vitae are composed are not those who illustrate the
social mobility or "achieved status" of
Brown's "holy men"; 9 their status rather
derives from their vast inherited wealth and social
position, whose prestige they carry into monastic
life. 10 It is their aristocratic status that renders
them fearless to confront threatening governors and
coercive emperors, as the cases of Melania the Elder
and Olympias suggest. 11 The patronage they exercise
is not rural, as is that of so many "holy men":
12 [End Page 414] the women are largely identified
with cities and towns--Constantinople, Jerusalem,
Rome, Bethlehem. 13 Nor is their patronage of the
sort that Brown describes (resolving disputes, forwarding
lawsuits, helping villagers to meet tax demands).
14 Rather, they appear to follow older, urban-oriented
models of patronage--except that their gifts are now
for establishing churches and monasteries, not for
the erection of statues and civic buildings, or the
endowment of clubs and guilds. 15 Moreover, they are
not generally recorded as having worked miracles during
their lifetimes, as are "holy men": Gregory
of Nyssa adds a few such miracles to the end of his
Vita Macrinae, 16 while feats paltry in both kind
and number are reported in the Latin version of the
Life of Melania the Younger. 17 After her death, Olympias'
body is said to work miracles, 18 but we hear of none
during her lifetime. Nor are Jerome's women miracle-workers.
The "holy women of the Syrian Orient" described
by Ashbrook Harvey and Brock occasionally elicit a
miraculous event by their mere presence, 19 but such
deeds are said to occur "not by her will or by
her word," 20 in contrast to the intentional
cures, exorcisms, and other wondrous feats worked
by Brown's "holy men." Women may be said
to have Christ "in" them, since as baptized
Christians they have "put on [End Page 415] Christ"
(Gal 3.27), 21 but it is not said that Christ is "made
accessible" through them, as it is for Brown's
"holy men": 22 "gender-bending,"
although prevalent in ascetic literature, did not,
apparently, stretch this far. Thus the women whom
we might have imagined as the female counterparts
of Brown's "holy men" in fact are not.
there is, I think, a further reason why our confidence
regarding the recovery of "holy women" is
shaken. It is the fullest, most detailed, sources
pertaining to women ascetics that give us the greatest
pause. These texts are the most "literary,"
the most rhetorically constructed, and hence, I shall
suggest, should arouse the most hermeneutical suspicion.
Far from uncovering "the women themselves,"
we encounter literary set pieces by male authors.
The very "literariness" of these texts constitutes
the first theoretical problem I wish to address, before
I turn to the documents pertaining to women's asceticism
for a reconsideration of what they offer: holy women?
holy words? whose words?
historical scholarship has, these past decades, been
rudely challenged by questions posed by literary theorists.
Many feminist historians, however, argue that the
post-structuralist critique of "objectivity"
seems to preclude historians' weighing of evidence
according to agreed-on disciplinary standards; "representation"
is deemed so problematic that readers might discount
any connection between people of the past and the
description of them in historians' records; categories
are so fractured that we are forbidden to speak of
"women" anymore; the decentering of the
male subject eventually leaves no space for the female
subject, either. Why, many feminists query, are we
told to abandon "subjectivity" just at the
historical moment when women have begun to claim it?
Why, Nancy Miller asks, was the "end of woman"
authorized without consulting her? 23
feminist historians willingly question the "objectivity"
of knowledge (at least of "male knowledge"),
they dispute the radical anti-foundationalism implied
by some forms of post-structuralism. Many feminist
historians believe that if we abandon "subjects,"
we have no ground for critique. 24 If we jettison
"agency," the historian's interest in [End
Page 416] change and causality is undercut. 25 Anti-foundationalism
is deemed apolitical (or worse). Thus many feminist
historians back away from the radical implications
of the theoreticians' epistemologies--but nonetheless
reject a retreat to the views of representation and
"reality" that prevailed a century ago.
How, they wonder, might they profitably combine literary
theorists' emphasis on the role of language in shaping
"reality" with more traditional historical
concerns for the extratextual world? What, for example,
might we be able to claim about "holy women"
and "holy words" in late ancient Christianity?
I thus turn to narratives of fourth- and fifth-century
women ascetics in order to explore the possible profit
we may note some ways in which the accounts of women
ascetics differ from those of their male counterparts.
Whereas the male subjects of asceticizing hagiography
most frequently "leave culture for nature,"
26 women ascetics are more often represented as adopting
forms of "house asceticism" in which they
conduct their renunciations in their familial households
(Macrina in Cappadocia and Marcella in Rome), or they
form monasteries for women, often in cities (Olympias
in Constantinople, the two Melanias in Jerusalem,
Paula in Bethlehem). 27 The women's vitae contain
fewer exotic features than do those of male ascetics:
no hippocentaurs, no friendly lions to dig their graves.
28 The women's lives represent their subjects as gradually
intensifying their renunciations, not as breaking
totally with "civilization" (a motif that
Caroline Walker Bynum also notes as characterizing
the medieval women saints she has studied). 29
our historical quest impeded or illumined by bringing
the literary and critical issues raised above to the
interpretation of these accounts? [End Page 417] First,
the feminist desire to uncover "real women,"
to hear "real female voices," recedes even
further when theoretical critique is directed to these
texts, for they are nothing if not literary productions:
it is no accident that the vitae of early Christian
women saints have been studied in relation to the
novels or romances of the first centuries of the Common
Era. Several of these novelistic narratives about
Christian women claim to be written by eyewitnesses.
30 Does this not lend weight to their "authenticity"?
Certainly some commentators have thought so, claiming
that even when the authors indulge in commonplaces
regarding their heroines, the stories are nonetheless
"true" because the authors knew the women
of whom they wrote. 31 Thus the author of Melania
the Younger's vita (presumably her monastic disciple,
Gerontius) prefaces his tale with the disclaimer that
he has so much material at his disposal that he will
not be able to tell his readers every detail of Melania's
life, or the narrative would be "interminable."
32 Likewise, Gregory of Nyssa, writing the vita of
his sister Macrina, tells the correspondent who requested
the account that he has not the time or space to report
everything that Macrina said or did; his treatise
is becoming too long already. 33 These moves, common
in literary rhetoric, signal that we are dealing with
self-consciously literary narratives of a strongly
panegyric flavor. They are "literature,"
not simply "documents" (in case you wish
to make that distinction) and hence are readily subject
to literary analysis and critique.
historians of late antiquity see these tales as rich
mines for the construction of social history, even
when they turn a skeptical eye on [End Page 418] the
reports of miracles and demons. From the Life of Melania
the Younger, for example, we learn that senatorial
families might have property in more than six provinces
of the Roman Empire; 34 that their yearly incomes,
quite apart from their land, might be 120,000 gold
solidi; 35 that it took about forty days to make the
overland journey between Constantinople and Jerusalem,
even when there was a ready supply of pack animals
provided at government expense. 36 From the vita of
Olympias, the companion and benefactor of bishop John
Chrysostom of Constantinople, we learn that even a
relatively "nouvelle" aristocrat such as
she had real estate in four provinces, besides her
possessions in Constantinople that included three
houses, baths, a mill, and various suburban properties.
Her vast wealth, we are told, enabled her to donate
ten thousand pounds of gold and twenty thousand of
silver to the Church. 37
do not always, however, concern money. The Life of
Syncletica narrates at length a different feature
of the saint's life, namely, her illnesses. We hear
in grim precision about the progress of a gum disease
that decayed her facial bones, left black holes in
her mouth, and rendered her so odiferous that her
fellow nuns could not bear to come near her. 38 Other
accounts give different kinds of details, for example,
about the women's reading habits: Melania the Younger
read the lives of the Fathers "as if they were
dessert," 39 and her grandmother, Melania the
Elder, read through the works of such theologians
as Origen, Gregory Nazianzen, and Basil of Caesarea
"seven or eight times," according to Palladius.
40 We find vivid notice about the organization of
a women's monastery in Jerome's narration of the life
of Paula. 41 Occasionally we [End Page 419] are told
the direct speech of the women: thus Marcella's retort
to her mother who was urging her to wed a wealthy
elderly senator, "If I wished to marry, I would
look for a husband, not an inheritance"; 42 or
Paula's warning to the nuns in her Bethlehem monastery,
"A clean body and a clean dress mean an unclean
soul." 43 Do not such texts invite us to feel
that we hear the women's very voices? Do not such
details "pin down" the vitae into the world
here we move to some theoretical rejoinders--such
details are precisely what literary theorist Roland
Barthes has named "the effect of the real"
(or "the reality effect"), which he claims
was a strong marker of the French realist novel as
it developed in the nineteenth century. In these novels,
an impulse toward "narrative luxury" piled
up details not necessary for the development of the
plot or the depiction of character. 44 What was the
function of such detail, Barthes puzzled? What was
"the significance of the insignificance"?
To make the reader believe the truth of the illusion
that was being constructed. The technique, he claims,
was borrowed by novelists from earlier history-writing,
45 and before that, can be seen in the ancient narrative
practice of ekphrasis. 46 Barthes further asks how
the historical form of narration differs from that
we find in "imaginary accounts" such as
novels and dramas? Not at all, he answers. Narration,
whether used in an historical essay or in a novel,
serves as "the privileged signifier of the real";
narrative structure becomes both "the sign and
the proof of reality." 47 To put the matter more
bluntly: the very details that social historians argue
give veracity to a text are here repositioned as a
creative artist's attempt to create an illusory reality
in the reader's imagination. [End Page 420]
problematic issue to which literary theorists and
"metahistorians" point, I have suggested,
concerns the narrative structure of traditional history
writing--in our case, we can think of such texts as
the Life of Melania the Younger and the Life of Olympias.
Since narrative "predominates in both mythical
and fictional discourse," Hayden White warns,
historians should be wary of it as a "suspect"
style for "speaking about 'real' events."
48 The function of narrative, White argues, is to
produce notions of "continuity, wholeness, closure,
and individuality that every 'civilized' society wishes
to see itself as incarnating. . . ." 49 Moreover,
in narrative construction, White continues, historians
work over the "traces" of past events--to
the events themselves we have no access--and endow
them with "'symbolic' significance." 50
In this creation of narrative history, the historian
employs the same techniques that Freud identified
as the "dreamwork"--"condensation,
displacement, considerations of representability,
and secondary elaboration. . . ." 51 Thus the
narrative structure of these texts raises questions
about the "historicity" of what is contained
therein. They are, perhaps, little different from
historians, needless to say, denounce such theoretical
incursions onto their intellectual turf. Thus the
distinguished ancient historian Arnaldo Momigliano:
"History is no epic, history is no novel, history
is not propaganda"--and why not? Because historians
subject themselves to "the control of evidence"
in a way that the authors of epics and novels do not.
52 But this is precisely the point that Roland Barthes
would dispute: does not the historian (here, the writer
of a saint's life) create a [End Page 421] sense of
his or her subject's veracity in the same way that
the novelist does? I think we can see the same literary
phenomenon at work in the early Christian vitae I
have described: we are led to accord considerable
"truth" to the account because so many "effects
of the real" have been summoned up. How far should
an historian press such a hermeneutics of suspicion?
What kind of histories will they write if what they
took to be social detail is now recast as literary
construction? These are questions that historians
now must ponder.
further type of literary/critical issue is raised
by another feature of these vitae: their tendency
to present their heroines as teachers of wisdom. Earlier
twentieth-century scholars argued as to whether texts
such as the Life of Anthony were modelled on the lives
of "pagan" philosophers. 53 Not only is
the ascetic hero Anthony modelled as a paragon of
self-restraint (highly important for a Hellenistic
philosopher), he also confounds secular philosophers
with his wisdom, despite his alleged lack of education.
54 The message is clear: Anthony's philosophical wisdom
is God-given, not laboriously learned in the schools
of Athens. A second message is also clear: the ascetic
as "philosopher" is a literary topos.
is one thing, however, for male ascetics to be represented
in the tradition of philosophers--and another thing,
for women. Given the general patristic denigration
of women's mental capabilities, it is surprising to
note that all the women ascetics I have here mentioned
are represented as the purveyors of wisdom, whether
they teach only within their own monasteries (as do
Syncletica and Paula) or are represented as carrying
the message of asceticism and orthodoxy to a wider
audience (so Melania the Elder, who sounds apocalyptic
warnings to male and female Roman aristocrats; 55
Melania the Younger, who gives anti-Nestorian lectures
to the Constantinopolitan aristocracy; 56 or Jerome's
Roman friend Marcella, who is represented as entering
the public arena to argue against the doctrines of
Origen). 57 Of the Life of Syncletica's 113 chapters,
83 are devoted to a presentation of her teaching,
a modified Origenism now familiar from the ascetic
instruction of Evagrius [End Page 422] Ponticus. 58
Thus Syncletia is depicted as giving advice on the
examination of one's "thoughts" (logismoi,
here as in Evagrius, demonic temptations); 59 she
counsels "pure prayer" techniques 60 and
ways to avoid the various sins that tempt ascetics
(gluttony, lust, sadness); 61 she warns that crafty
demons may represent themselves as more ascetically
rigorous than ascetics themselves; 62 she wars against
the teachings of astrology and fatalism. 63 Her advice
to ascetic practitioners is as detailed as that which
we find in the accounts of male ascetic teachers of
a philosophic stripe.
most spectacular representation of a woman saint as
philosopher, however, doubtless comes from Gregory
of Nyssa's two treatises on his sister Macrina, namely,
her vita, and On the Soul and the Resurrection. Here,
Macrina stands as Gregory's teacher of wisdom (and
hence as teacher to other men); in fact, she is repeatedly
called by Gregory "my teacher." Gregory
makes clear that Macrina had not received a philosophic
or even a literary education (as had he and his brother
Basil of Caesarea), pagan literature containing too
many "undignified" tales about women. Thus
her education consisted almost solely of the study
of Scripture 64 --yet, under the influence of the
Holy Spirit, she discourses at great length on theodicy,
the human condition, the future life and the soul.
65 In her vita, Gregory only briefly notes these as
themes on which she spoke, but in On the Soul and
the Resurrection, he provides Macrina with an expanded
platform--indeed, Macrina talks for nearly seventy
pages! Here she instructs her brother on the Epicurean
denial of providence and espousal of atomistic theory;
66 on humans as the microcosm of the universe; 67
on the relation of the soul and body in the afterlife.
68 She speaks of the love that draws us to the Good.
69 She evinces [End Page 423] knowledge of Aristotelian
logic, 70 and borrows analogies from contemporary
astronomy and physics to score her points. 71 Do not
such accounts encourage us to believe that fourth-century
Christian women could expound the same theological
and philosophical wisdom as their male counterparts?
Are these women not heroines who can be added to the
pages of "her-story"? Not without some nuance,
I would suggest.
Gregory's presentation of Macrina is not original,
but borrows from an obvious philosophical precedent:
Macrina is modelled on Socrates' muse Diotima of the
Symposium, while her words in the dialogue on the
soul and the afterlife owe much to Plato's Phaedo.
Diotima, you will recall, instructed Socrates on the
nature of true love, and it is her teaching that he
reports to his male companions at the dinner party
that is the setting of Plato's Symposium. She has
reached the summit of wisdom and shares her riches
with worthy philosophers such as Socrates.
we might also note that ancient Hebrew and early Christian
literature represents "Wisdom" as a woman--a
feat no doubt assisted by the feminine gender of the
nouns for "Wisdom" in both Hebrew and Greek
(hochmah and sophia). Is there not then Biblical as
well as philosophical precedent for casting women
as the embodiments of wisdom? Such arguments have
found a sympathetic reception with many contemporary
Christian women, in part because they are easy to
appropriate for present political purposes: Wisdom-as-woman
stands as an encouraging motif.
historians of Christianity have similarly looked to
the portraits of Macrina and other women teachers
and philosophers as providing a helpful counterweight
to the slurs on women found so frequently in patristic
literature. Images of Marcella standing down Origenist
"heretics," of Melania the Younger denouncing
the errors of Nestorius, of Macrina lecturing her
brother on the relation of soul and body in the afterlife,
can strengthen contemporary feminist visions. Yet,
we must ask--and here comes the theoretical critique--are
these depictions of philosophical women unambiguously
"good" for the feminist cause?
for example, with the model of Diotima. Here, David
Halperin's essay, "Why Is Diotima a Woman?"
provides sobering food for thought. 72 [End Page 424]
Halperin first notes the oddness of having a woman
serve as the instructor in love for a group of male
pederasts, such as are gathered at Plato's Symposium.
Critiquing previous answers which scholars have ventured
for "why Diotima is a woman," Halperin centers
on two themes which men associated with women in the
consideration of erotic issues: mutuality/reciprocity,
on the one hand, and procreativity/productiveness,
on the other. 73 These values--reciprocity and creativity--were
needed for a male philosophical culture, Halperin
argues, but were not available in the Greek cultural
construction of male-male sex relation. 74 These allegedly
"female" traits are rather used to legitimize
the male philosophic enterprise: woman provides a
tool with which men can "think" the values
of their culture. 75 But then femininity is not referential--Diotima
is not a woman--but figural, a "woman."
She stands for something else, namely, as a trope
for Socrates himself, the quintessential philosopher.
76 She is, Halperin argues, an "inversed alter
ego" of the male protagonist; she is not truly
a female "Other" to the male philosopher,
but "a masked version of the same," what
Julia Kristeva calls a "pseudo-Other." 77
It is not her presence as a woman that is here valued;
she is rather (in Halperin's words) "a necessary
female absence," "an alternate male identity
whose constant accessibility to men lends men fullness
and totality that enables them to dispense (supposedly)
with otherness altogether." 78
does not the Hebrew and early Christian Wisdom tradition
provide a positive statement about "real"
women insofar as God speaks in the guise of a female
figure, "Lady Wisdom"? Here Howard Eilberg-Schwart's
essay, "The Nakedness of a Woman's Voice, the
Pleasure in a Man's Mouth: An Oral History of Ancient
Judaism" disturbs such a positive assessment.
79 Eilberg-Schwartz reminds his readers that although
[End Page 425] God's relation to Israel as a collective
entity is depicted in imagery of male and female,
this marital and sexual imagery is abandoned when
God is depicted as relating to individual male Israelites.
80 And here, enter Lady Wisdom: since God's relation
to an individual Hebrew male cannot be represented
in terms of homoerotic relation (masculinity being
firmly linked to "heterosexual desire and procreation"
in the ancient Hebrew tradition), female Wisdom serves
as mediator between a male God and a male Israelite,
81 metaphorically buffering any notion of God's homoerotic
association with Israelite men. On this reading, the
"female" identification of Wisdom in the
very passages of the Hebrew Bible sometimes cited
by contemporary feminists to celebrate women appears
less as a positive feature in and for itself, less
an exaltation of "real" women's rationality
and good counsel, than as a cover and veil for what
otherwise would be unspeakable.
would suggest that a similar analysis might apply
to Gregory of Nyssa's portrayal of Macrina in his
two treatises concerning her. In this light, Macrina
is not herself a teacher of wisdom, but a trope for
Gregory: he is, in contemporary parlance, "writing
like a woman." Gregory has appropriated woman's
voice. 82 Although we cannot believe that we have
here the "real" Macrina, we can identify
three functions that the trope of Macrina serves for
Gregory. First, she serves as a tool with which Gregory
can think through various troubling intellectual and
theological problems that confronted male theologians
of his day; in a special way, she exemplifies Peter
Brown's claim (borrowing Levi-Strauss' phrase) that
Christian males, as well as other ancient men, used
women to "think with." 83 As I have noted,
the details of Macrina's [End Page 426] teaching would
not have been available to a woman educated only in
Scriptural reading, not in philosophical schools.
Rather, in On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory
through Macrina ponders the acceptability of a modified
Origenism that skirts "dangerous" theological
points. 84 Although Gregory has Macrina claim that
she will pose her own arguments, not borrow them from
others, 85 she is clearly mouthing Gregory's own attempt
to "tame" Origen into Christian respectability.
Thus while Macrina outrightly rejects the notion of
the soul's "fall" into the body, 86 she
subtly preaches a non-physical conception of hell.
87 She also changes Origen's equation of the body
with the "coats of skins" that Adam and
Eve received after the first sin (Gen 3.21) into the
"skins of irrationality" that beset human
life--sex, birth, old age, and so on. 88 Thus a first
"Macrina-function" is to serve as a mouthpiece
for Gregory's revised Origenist theology.
themes on which Macrina discourses can be paralleled
in the writings of Gregory in which he speaks in his
own voice. Thus, for example, Gregory offers the same
teachings as "Macrina" does on the constitution
of the world, 89 and on the relation of the soul to
the body (especially the denial of a preexistent "fall").
90 He explores the notion that humans are a microcosm
of the universe 91 and opts for a non-literal understanding
of the "coats of skins" (Gen 3.21) that,
while avoiding Origen's identification of the "coats"
with "bodies," nonetheless associates them
with "fleshliness" and "the capacity
for death." 92 Gregory, like "Macrina,"
rejects fatalistic teaching 93 and understands future
punishment [End Page 427] not as eternal hellfire
but as a remedial correction designed to return humans
to their original condition. 94 Gregory also stresses
in works written in his own voice, as he does in his
role as pupil of Macrina in On the Soul and the Resurrection,
that a teacher is necessary for the Christian seeking
to find "philosophy." 95 The teaching assigned
to Macrina in this text, in other words, turns out
to be Gregory's.
then is Macrina's function in this dialogue? In addition
to the obvious point that Gregory wishes to laud his
esteemed (and now-dead) sister, and his use of Macrina
to "speak" Gregory's own revised Origenism,
there are, I think, additional "Macrina-functions."
One of them is also theological: Macrina herself provides
a living example of Gregory's teaching that in God's
first creation of humans "in the image of God"
(Gen 1.26-27), there was no sexual division. Since
humans are created in the image of the Prototype,
the Son of God, in whom "there is no male and
female" (Gal 3.28), maleness and femaleness cannot
be assigned to the original creation but emerge only
at a second stage, when God, foreseeing the "Fall"
with its resultant penalty of death, provides for
sexual reproduction by differentiating males and females.
96 The "image," in other words, represents
the universal nature of humanity, not the differentiated
"Adam," a thing of the earth. 97
important, this first "image" pertains to
our rational capacities, not to the bodies which differentiate
the sexes. 98 As a virgin who rejects marriage, Macrina
has already begun to regain that primal presexual
condition in which the rational "image"
remained pure 99 --if in fact she lost it at all (Gregory
believes that some righteous people, such as Moses,
retained the pure "image of God" in themselves
and thus were able to exemplify it to others). 100
according to Gregory's Homilies on the Song of Songs,
the [End Page 428] heroine of that Biblical book represents
the woman who (as in Psalm 45.10-11) leaves her people
and her father's house to look to the true Father
in Heaven; she is "adopted" into the divine
family, becoming a "sister" to the Lord.
101 Perhaps Gregory pictured Macrina as such. Likewise,
she may well have served as a model for Gregory of
those who "keep their fountain sealed" (Song
of Songs 4.12), that is, those whose intellectual
properties remain untouched and "whole,"
not wasted on thoughts of external and bodily things.
102 Since as virgin and as Christian "philosopher"
Macrina has rejected sexual desire and has lived so
as to exhibit the rationality of the "integral"
mind, it is no wonder that Gregory writes at the beginning
of the Vita Macrinae that he does not know whether
it is correct even to call her a "woman,"
since she seemed to surpass that category. 103 This
topos of ascetic literature regarding women renunciants
acquires a precise designation in Gregory's theology:
Macrina exemplifies the primal rational human who
is "without sex." 104
another way in which Gregory uses "Macrina"
is as a shaming device for Christian men: "even
weak women reach this summit of wisdom and rationality
. . . and look at you!" Here, men are urged to
strive for Gregory's (a k a "Macrina's")
level of philosophical reflection. Just as the young
Macrina worked a "cure" for her brother
Basil's vanity at his oratorical skill, 105 so the
description of her abundant virtues serves to prod
less dedicated Christians to lives of more strenuous
renunciation. Gregory fears that if he neglects to
record the details of her life, her story will remain
"useless" (ano\phe\les) 106 --"useless,"
that is, for the instruction and chastisement of others.
Although Gregory does not here deploy an explicit
rhetoric of shame, as do some of his monastic and
ecclesiastical colleagues, 107 his picture of Macrina
and her "philosophy" nonetheless stands
as an implicit critique of "weaker" Christians,
including Christian men.
we should perhaps be cautious in assuming that Wisdom-cast-as-woman
provides an unproblematic positive evaluation of "real"
women. [End Page 429] Just as scholars of Gnosticism
soon backed away from linking the exaltation of Sophia
to the empowerment of "real" women--after
all, she is depicted as responsible for the disruption
of the pleroma and the entrance of woe to the universe
108 --so too our pleasure at discovering that early
Christian women can be depicted as embodiments of
"Wisdom" may require restraint: the representation
may have nothing to do with the empowerment of "real"
women or with an exaltation of "the feminine."
To be sure, it is more positive to have women depicted
as wise and beneficial than as ignorant and malevolent
(as they all too often are in ancient texts). Nonetheless,
the leap from "representation" to the extratextual
world crosses a wide and ugly ditch whose expanse
we historians should take care not to underestimate.
might this theoretical approach impact the analysis
of women and gender in other early Christian texts?
It seems clear that we must move beyond the stage
of feminist historiography in which we "find"
another forgotten woman and throw her into the historical
mix. I do not mean to belittle the enterprise of "recovery"--after
all, I have done a good bit of it myself, and I believe
these labors have served some useful functions. That
moment of recovery was, of course, politically charged:
it constituted a celebratory move that lauded our
current moment, more attentive to linguistic and social
theory, is considerably less celebratory in its conclusions:
we cannot with certainty claim to hear the voices
of "real" women in early Christian texts,
so appropriated have they been by male authors. Yet
interesting work may continue to examine how "woman,"
how gender, is constructed in early Christian texts,
but will also move beyond purely linguistic concerns
to explore the social forces at work in these constructions.
we, then, have either "holy women" or their
"holy words"? While these texts give us
no such clear vision, the "holy woman" leaves
her "traces" (as deconstructionists like
to say). Through an exploration of these "traces,"
as they are imbedded in a larger social-linguistic
framework and reflected through male eyes, she lingers
on. "Afterlife" comes in different forms--or
so we should know from the study of Christian history
A. Clark is John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion,
A longer version of some portions of this essay appears
in Church History 67 (1998): 1-31. I wish to thank
members of the North Carolina Research Group on Women
in the Middle Ages and Early Modernity, colleagues
and former Duke graduate students (especially Dale
Martin, Gail Hamner, and Randall Styers), and Dyan
Elliott for criticisms and suggestions.
1. Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Holy
Women of the Syrian Orient, The Transformation of
the Classical Heritage, 13 (Berkeley/Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1987).
The following women whose martyrdoms are told in Holy
Women so die: Martha (p. 71); Tarbo (pp. 74, 76);
Thekla and her companions (pp. 79, 80); Anahid (p.
94); some of the women martyrs of Najran (p. 108);
Mary (p. 124); Febronia (p. 165).
The anonymous author of the Historia monachorum devotes
no chapters to women; in translating the work to Latin,
Rufinus of Aquileia does not add any women. Rufinus,
however, raises the number of virgins/nuns living
in the region of Oxyrhynchus from 5000 to 20,000,
while keeping the male monastic population constant
at 10,000 (PL 21, 409).
Theodoret devotes two chapters out of thirty in his
History of the Monks of Syria to women (chps. 29-30).
The alphabetical version of the Apophthegmata patrum
reports on the sayings of four women: the wife of
Eucharistos the secular; Theodora; Sarah; Syncletica.
That women's speech is curtailed in relation to men's
also in the acta of the martyrs is stressed by Francine
Cardman, "Acts of the Women Martyrs," ATR
70 (1988): 146.
In the Greek version, 19 of the chapters partially
or wholly concern women (#3, 5, 6, 28, 33, 34, 41,
46, 54-57, 59-61, 63, 64, 67, 69).
E.g., Jerome, epp. 22, 23, 24, 38, 39, 54, 75, 79,
107, 108, 123, 127, 130.
Vita Olympiadis (SC 13bis, 406-49); (Gerontius), Vita
Melaniae Iunioris (SC 90, 124-271); Vita Syncleticae
(PG 28, 1488-1557); Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae
(SC 178, 136-267).
Peter Brown, "The Rise and Function of the Holy
Man in Late Antiquity," in idem, Society and
the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley/Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1982; original in
JRS 61 : 80-101); I quote from the reprinted
version, pp. 138-39.
See my essays, "Friendship between the Sexes:
Classical Theory and Christian Practice," in
Clark, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Friends: Essays and
Translations (New York/Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press,
1979), 35-106; "Ascetic Renunciation and Feminine
Advancement: A Paradox of Late Ancient Christianity,"
ATR 63 (1981): 240-57, reprinted in Clark, Ascetic
Piety and Women's Faith: Essays on Late Ancient Christianity
(Lewiston/Queenston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986), 175-208;
The Life of Melania the Younger: Introduction, Translation,
and Commentary (New York/Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press,
1984), esp. 83-109.
For Melania the Elder, see Palladius, Historia Lausiaca
46 (Butler, 134-35); for Olympias, see Vita Olympiadis
3 (SC 13bis, 412).
Peter Brown, "Town, Village and Holy Man: The
Case of Syria," in Society and the Holy, 158-59.
Olympias in Constantinople; Melania the Elder and
the Younger in Jerusalem; Paula in Bethlehem; Marcella
and other friends of Jerome in Rome. Macrina's monastery
was on the family estate in the countryside. See Susanna
Elm, 'Virgins of God': The Making of Asceticism in
Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), chp.
2 and p. 210 for a discussion of how part of her brother
Basil's strategy to triumph over "heretical"
asceticism was to move monasteries away from cities.
The location of Syncletica's retreat is not known
(presumably a monastery near Alexandria?: Vita Syncleticae
Brown, "Rise," 116. A counterexample could
be cited: Melania the Elder's protection of ascetics
from the wrath of a hostile ruler (Palladius, Historia
Lausiaca 46 [Butler, 134-35]).
On Christian women's patronage, see my "Patrons,
Not Priests: Gender and Power in Late Ancient Christianity,"
Gender & History 2 (1990): 253-73.
Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 37-39 (SC 178, 258-66).
As noted by Elena Giannarelli, women saints of the
fourth century tend not to work miracles ("Women
and Miracles in Christian Biography [IVth-Vth Centuries],"
Studia Patristica 25 , 377).
(Gerontius), Vita Melaniae Iunioris 60-61 (Latin text
in Santa Melania Giuniore, senatrice romana: Documenti
contemporanei e note, ed. Mariano del Tindaro Rampolla
[Roma: Tipografia Vaticana, 1905]), 34-35. Giannarelli
("Women and Miracles," 378-79) labels Melania
a "second level mediatrix" in that her miracles
are accomplished through the martyrs and a holy man's
Sergia, Narratio de Vita Olympiadis 9 (text in Joseph
Bousquet, "Recit de Sergia sur Olympias,"
ROC 12 : 255-68); ET in Clark, Jerome, 145-57.
Of Mary (Holy Women, 125); of Febronia's corpse (Holy
Of Mary (Holy Women, 125).
Of Thekla and her companions (Holy Women, 79).
Peter Brown, "The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity,"
Representations 1.2 (1983): 10, cf. 16.
Nancy K. Miller, "The Text's Heroine: A Feminist
Critic and Her Fictions," in Conflicts in Feminism,
eds. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York/London:
Routledge, 1990), 118, discussing Foucault's essay,
"What Is An Author?"
Carol Thomas Neely, "Constructing the Subject:
Feminist Practice and the New Renaissance Discourses,"
English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 13.
Myra Jehlen in Judith Walkowitz, Myra Jehlen, and
Bell Chevigny, "Patrolling the Borders: Feminist
Historiography and the New Historicism," Radical
History Review 43 (1989): 35, cf. 39. Paul Smith in
Discerning the Subject (Theory and History of Literature,
55 [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988],
xxxv, 152, 157) argues for keeping the notion of "agency"
in some form so that we can have "resistance"
(leftist politics needs at least a "trace"
of an "actor"). With her interest in "performativity,"
Judith Butler links "agency" to "repetition";
see her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion
of Identity (New York/London: Routledge, 1990), 145-46.
Evelyne Patlagean, "Ancienne hagiographie byzantine
et histoire sociale," AnnalesESC 23 (1968): 114,
borrowing from Levi-Strauss.
See Clark, "Ascetic Renunciation"; Elm,
Virgins of God, esp. chap. 1.
As in Jerome's Vita Pauli 7, 16 (PL 23, 22-23, 28).
Caroline Walker Bynum, "Women's Stories, Women's
Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner's Theory of Liminality,"
in Anthropology and the Study of Religion, eds. Frank
Reynolds and Robert Moore (Chicago: Center for the
Scientific Study of Religion, 1984), 105-25.
Often itself a literary fiction: see Hippolyte Delehaye,
The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography,
tr. V. M. Crawford (1907; Notre Dame: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1961), 71. For more traditional
scholars, a sign of the work's authenticity; see George
Luck, "Notes on the Vita Macrinae of Gregory
of Nyssa," in The Biographical Works of Gregory
of Nyssa, ed. Andreas Spira, Patristic Monograph Series,
12 (Cambridge, Mass.: The Philadelphia Patristic Foundation
Ltd., 1984), 21-22.
So Ruth Albrecht, Das Leben der heiligen Makrina auf
dem Hintergrund der Thekla-Traditionen (Gottingen:
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986), 42-43 (the Vita
Macrinae is "ein sehr authentisches Bild").
Elizabeth A. Castelli, on the other hand, notes that
since the name "Syncletica" is a pun, some
have thought that the Vita Syncleticae did not refer
"to an actual woman," but was a fictitious
invention. See Castelli, "Translation" (of
the Vita Syncleticae) in Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman
Antiquity: A Sourcebook, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 1990), 267 n. 7.
Vita Melania Junioris, prologus (SC 90, 124, 126);
ET of the Greek vita in Clark, Life of Melania the
Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 18 (SC 178, 200).
Vita Melaniae Junioris 11 (SC 90, 146); Palladius,
Historia Lausiaca 61 adds Aquitania, Taraconia, and
Gaul, as well.
Vita Melaniae Junioris 15 (SC 90, 156); in the Greek
version, the income is attributed to Melania's husband
Pinian; in the Latin version, to Melania herself.
The trip to Constantinople is described in Vita Melaniae
Junioris 51-56 (SC 90, 224-40); the Latin version
adds the precise figure of "40 days." She
leaves Constantinople at the end of February and arrives
home just before Holy Week (Vita 56-57).
Vita Olympiadis 5 (SC 13bis, 416, 418).
Pseudo-Athanasius, Vita Syncleticae 111 (PG 28, 1556).
Vita Melaniae Junioris 23 (SC 90, 174). Which Lives
would then have been available? Perhaps those of Antony
and Martin, and Jerome's three monastic Vitae? See
discussion in Jacques Fontaine, "Introduction,"
Sulpice Severe, Vie de Saint Martin (SC 133.1, 77
Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 55 (Butler, 149), a chapter
now deemed to pertain to Melania.
Jerome, ep. 108.20 (CSEL 55, 334-36).
Jerome, ep. 127.2 (CSEL 56, 146).
Jerome, ep. 108.20 (CSEL 55, 336).
Roland Barthes, "The Reality Effect," in
Barthes, The Rustle of Language, tr. Richard Howard
(1984; New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 141-42.
Ibid., 143, 146-48.
See discussion in F. R. Ankersmit, History and Tropology:
The Rise and Fall of Metaphor (Berkeley/Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1994), 140-41. Commentators
on early Christian texts often claim that even when
ekphrasis abounds, as it does in the Vita Macrinae,
the descriptions nonetheless convey "a personal
note": so Eugenio Marotta, "Similitudini
ed ecphraseis nella Vita s. Macrinae di Gregorio di
Nissa," Vetera Christianorum 7 (1970): 283.
Roland Barthes, "The Discourse of History,"
tr. Stephen Bann, in Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook,
vol. 3, ed. E. S. Shaffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1981), 7, 18. Also see Hayden White, "'Figuring
the Nature of the Times Deceased': Literary Theory
and Historical Writing," in The Future of Literary
Theory, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York/London: Routledge,
Hayden White, "The Question of Narrative in Contemporary
Historical Theory," History and Theory 23 (1984);
reprinted in White, The Content of the Form: Narrative
Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore/London:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 57; also see
White's essay, "The Discourse of History,"
Humanities in Society 2 (1979): 1-15, for an illuminating
discussion of the "history of historiography."
Hayden White, "Droysen's Historik: Historical
Writing as a Bourgeois Science," History and
Theory 19 (1980), reprinted in White, Content of the
Form, 87. Peter De Bolla notes White's emphasis on
the moralizing character of narrative ("Disfiguring
History," Diacritics 16 : 50). Roland Barthes
and Julia Kristeva attack narrativity as an "ideological
instrument"; see discussion in White, "The
Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline
and Desublimation," Critical Inquiry 8 (1982),
reprinted in White, Content of the Form, 81.
White, "Droysen's Historik," 102.
Hayden White, "Historicism, History, and the
Figurative Imagination," History and Theory 14
Arnaldo Momigliano, "The Rhetoric of History
and the History of Rhetoric: On Hayden White's Tropes,"
in Comparative Criticism, 261.
Richard Reitzenstein, "Des Athanasius Werk uber
das Leben des Antonius," Sitzungsberichte, Heidelberger
Akademie der Wissenschaften: Philosophisch-Historische
Klasse, 5 (1914): 30-32.
Athanasius, Vita Antonii 72-73 (PG 26, 944-45).
Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 54 (Butler, 147).
Gerontius, Vita Melaniae Junioris 54 (SC 90, 232,
Jerome, ep. 127.9 (CSEL 56, 152).
For a survey of these, see Elizabeth A. Clark, The
Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of
an Early Christian Debate (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1992), 60-84.
Pseudo-Athanasius, Vita Syncleticae 26, 88 (PG 28,
1502, 1504, 1541).
Ibid., 29 (PG 28, 1504-05).
Ibid., 29, 40, 49 (PG 28, 1505, 1512, 1516-17).
Ibid., 53 (PG 58, 1520).
Ibid., 81, 88 (PG 58, 1536, 1541).
Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 3 (SC 178, 148, 150).
George Luck observes that there is not a single certain
quotation from a pagan author in the entire Vita ("Notes,"
Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 17 (SC 178, 198).
Gregory of Nyssa, De anima et resurrectione (PG 46,
Ibid. (PG 46, 28).
Ibid. (PG 46, 76-79).
Ibid. (PG 46, 93, 96-97).
Ibid. (PG 46, 53).
Ibid. (PG 46, 32-33, 36-37).
David M. Halperin, "Why is Diotima a Woman?"
in Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and
Other Essays on Greek Love (New York/London: Routledge,
Ibid., 137, 138-39, 144. See also Luce Irigaray's
emphasis on the fecundity of love in Diotima's speech:
"Sorcerer Love: A Reading of Plato's Symposium,
Diotima's Speech," in Revaluing French Feminism:
Critical Essays on Difference, Agency and Culture,
eds. Nancy Fraser and Sandra Lee Bartky, tr. Eleanor
Kuykendall (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University
Press, 1992), 64-76.
Halperin, "Why is Diotima," 150, 137.
Ibid., 144, 145 citing Helene Foley.
Ibid., 149, 151.
In Off With Her Head! The Denial of Women's Identity
in Myth, Religion, and Culture, eds. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz
and Wendy Doniger (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University
of California Press, 1995), 165-84; discussion at
p. 180, citing Claudia Camp and Raphael Patai. Gregory
of Nyssa, on the other hand, in commenting on Proverbs
4.6-8 does not flinch from stating that both men and
women can be married to Wisdom, citing Galatians 3.28
for support: De virginitate 20 (SC 199, 500, 502).
Eilberg-Schwartz, "The Nakedness of a Woman's
Voice," 173-74, 177.
See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Displacement
and the Discourse of Women," in Displacement:
Derrida and After, ed. Mark Krupnick (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1983), 190, for a critique
of Derrida on this point, after a sympathetic (and
useful) review of Derrida's advancement of feminine
figurations. Arnaldo Momigliano accepts the role of
Macrina in the vita and De anima et resurrectione
at face value: "Macrina is here Socrates to her
brother Gregory" ("The Life of St. Macrina
by Gregory of Nyssa," in Momigliano, On Pagans,
Jews, and Christians [Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan
University Press, 1987], 208; the essay was originally
printed in The Craft of the Ancient Historian: Essays
in Honor of Chester G. Starr [New York, 1985], 443-58).
Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and
Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1988), 153.
Lawrence R. Hennessey notes that Gregory had "tamed"
his Origenism before he wrote De opificio hominis
and De anima et resurrectione ("Gregory of Nyssa's
Doctrine of the Resurrected Body," Studia Patristica
22 , 31-32).
Gregory of Nyssa, De anima et de resurrectione (PG
Ibid. (PG 46, 112-13).
Ibid. (PG 46, 85).
Ibid. (PG 46, 148-49).
Gregory of Nyssa, De opificio hominis 1 (PG 44, 128,
Ibid., 28 (PG 44, 229, 232-33).
Ibid., 16 (PG 44, 177, 180); Gregory faults the notion
as too "lowly" for the Christian affirmation
of human creation.
Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio catechetica magna 8 (Jaeger
3.4, 30); De virginitate 13 (SC 119, 422).
Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio catechetica magna 31 (Jaeger
3.4, 76-77); De opificio hominis 16 (PG 44, 185);
cf. the arguments of Gregory's Contra fatum (PG 34,
145-74). Gregory's critique of determinism is explored
in David Amand de Mendieta, Fatalisme et liberte dans
l'antiquite grecque (Louvain: Bibliotheque de l'Universite,
1945), Book 2, chp. 9.
Gregory of Nyssa, Oratio catechetica magna 8 (Jaeger
Gregory of Nyssa, De virginitate 23 (SC 119, 524-28);
De perfectione (Jaeger 8.1, 195-96).
Gregory of Nyssa, De opificio hominis 16 (PG 44, 181,
185). Note Verna Harrison's summation: "Gregory
argues that there is no gender in the eternal Godhead
since even within the human condition gender is something
temporary" ("Male and Female in Cappadocian
Theology," JTS, n.s. 41 : 441).
Gregory of Nyssa, De opificio hominis 22 (PG 44, 204).
Ibid., 16 (PG 44, 185).
As do virgins, according to Gregory of Nyssa, De virginitate
13 (SC 119, 422-26); cf. Hom. in Canticum Canticorum
15 (Jaeger 6, 439-40), on Song of Songs 6.2; according
to Gregory's teaching here, we recover the image when
we model ourselves on Christ.
Gregory of Nyssa, De opificio hominis 18 (PG 44, 196).
Gregory of Nyssa, Hom. in Canticum Canticorum 4 (Jaeger
Ibid., 9 (Jaeger 6, 275-76).
Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 1 (SC 178, 140).
Verna E. F. Harrison notes how Gregory also can allow
"Wisdom" to change genders in his First
Homily on the Song of Songs ("Gender Reversal
in Gregory of Nyssa's First Homily on the Song of
Songs [Studia Patristica 27 , 35-36).
Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Macrinae 6 (SC 178, 162).
Ibid., 1 (SC 178, 140, 142).
See Elizabeth A. Clark, "Sex, Shame, and Rhetoric:
Engendering Early Christian Ethics," JAAR 59
(1992): 221-45, esp. 230-35, for examples.
See various essays in Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism,
ed. Karen L. King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988),
especially Anne Pasquier's "Prouneikos: A Colorful
Expression to Designate Wisdom in Gnostic Texts,"
See Elizabeth A. Clark, "Ideology, History, and
the Construction of 'Woman' in Late Ancient Christianity,"
JECS 2 (1994): 155-84.