Monday, November 23, 2015


Kate Wilkinson, Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 174. ISBN 9781107030275. $95.00.

Reviewed by Jochen Schultheiß, Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (

Version at BMCR home site


The last four decades have witnessed a surge in interest in women of Late Antiquity and indeed there is no longer any reason to complain about a lack of research. However, the slim, yet dense book under review here ventures to delve into that field and manages to offer a welcome new approach. Right at the beginning, when Kate Wilkinson defines modesty, her method becomes clear: she has chosen an historical approach, explicitly positioning her studies in the context of feminist history. She does not confine herself to the late antique discourse on values that pervades the texts written by early Christian authors. She tries instead to gain a better idea of the historical reality of women's lives. Wilkinson is not primarily interested in a semantic analysis of normative texts – the traditional method of research when values are at issue. While she does not neglect this aspect, she refuses to get bogged down by the historical terminology. By introducing the category of "performance", she aims to get beyond the explicitly formulated moral discourse created by male writers and to make visible the situation of women at that time. Wilkinson's central goal is to answer the question of whether there is any scope for women to maintain some level of self-determined agency while acting in compliance with norms. By the way, it is fortunate that Wilkinson defines her understanding of "modesty" right at the beginning (pp. 14-18), not least because the English term is multivalent indicating moderate self-assessment in general as well as self-restraint in terms of controlling one's sexual activity and limiting one's attractiveness to others, a fact that may cause misunderstandings, especially for readers who are not native English-speakers.

Wilkinson briefly outlines the two diametrically opposed ways in which these texts tend to be interpreted (p. 45): either the ascetic life is considered to be an alternative to a traditional life for women and an opportunity for them to exercise their freedom to choose between two ways of life or it is interpreted as a mere illusion of self-determination created by Patristic authors, who in the end suggest a life that is no less restricted than the traditional one.1 Wilkinson shares the former view, attributing a considerable degree of self-determination to the women of Late Antiquity. However, she shifts perspective and thus throws a new and more revealing light on the problem. She shows that performance is an elementary characteristic of modesty and that women can choose between manifold forms of self-presentation.

In ch. 1 Wilkinson expounds the method of research she has applied. By focusing on female "agency" Wilkinson avoids falling into the trap of rehearsing a shallow dualism of male agents and female victims. In this way, she ventures to take up a position within the feminist discourse which rejects more radical stances, but is in line with the current discussion, which stresses the importance of self-determined action for the creation of a gender identity (pp. 23-25). The concept of performance allows her to uncover modes of acting that otherwise would not be recognizable. Wilkinson detects three areas within which modesty is performed: dress, location, and speech. Her following analysis is structured according to these. The idea of modesty as agency links modesty with choice, will, and the degree to which human beings are able to behave virtuously by volition, a question that was vigorously debated during this period. According to her approach Wilkinson defines modesty as "a variety of 'traditional' or 'conservative' activities including seclusion, veiling, and silence" (p. 14). Consequently, she does not stick to the Latin term modestia, but also considers behavior that is connected to dispositions as pudicitia, pudor, verecundia, pietas or castitas. Wilkinson reiterates throughout the book that these values are defined both as internal dispositions and as external forms of behavior. She focuses on the letters by Jerome, Augustine, and Pelagius to three women from the aristocratic family of the Anicii. In addition, she also refers to writings by Ambrose. However, her analysis is not limited to the moral norms these authors exhibit. She seeks to deduce from the advice they give on how female ascetics should behave the scope women in Late Antiquity had to make decisions and take action. Although the norms were given, women appear to have had a great deal of free choice about which mode of behavior they should assume in order to comply with these norms.

Ch. 2 deals with the relationship between modesty and dressing. Analyzing the letters by Jerome to Demetrias, which reflect historical facts despite their literary character, Wilkinson shows that the young virgin is well aware of the meaning of clothes and uses them as a medium to express her interior development. The changes she makes to her outward appearance help her to convince others of the reality of her inward change. Patristic authors themselves are aware of the important role that performance plays when somebody is attempting to remove any doubt about her inner virtue. Consequently, they appeal to women to present their modesty. Wilkinson interprets Tertullian's and Jerome's polemics against the luxury of garments as indicators of the valuation and importance of clothing in ancient society. Wilkinson ascertains that women's social position still left them with a wide range of possible options in terms of how they could dress or style their hair.

Ch. 3 is concerned with women acting both in the public and the private sphere. In this context, as is the case throughout the book, Wilkinson convincingly shows that modesty is a form of female agency that does not just relate to the individual. It also involves the whole family in so far as it can diminish or improve the reputation of a particular household. Wilkinson shows that even domesticity was not a fixed concept that merely meant that a woman stayed at home. It too was an attribute that was under public observation and thus had to be performed as virtuous behavior. Wilkinson bases her research on epitaphs and visual representations as well as on literary works. Referring to the latest findings on the Roman household, which posit that there were no spaces gendered per se and that the boundaries between domestic and public were fluid, Wilkinson shows that modesty was not bound to the house and women's rooms, but was consciously exhibited so that the public would notice it. Wilkinson bases these interpretations on a comparison with conceptions of seclusion in modern India, which demonstrate that gendered space is not fixed, but undergoes permanent reinterpretations by all participating persons. Wilkinson manages to show that the range of free choice that women in these societies have can also be detected in Jerome's advice to Demetrias on how to interact with other persons in her cubiculum and how to present herself to the public. Though taciturnity was a virtue for women, Christian authors did not expect them to remain entirely silent, but instead formulated precepts for a modest female rhetoric. The Patristic writers point out that there are special occasions when it is even necessary to break the boundaries of reticence, e.g. in order to reprehend or to motivate. Consequently, this concept of reticence left a woman plenty of scope to use a modest voice that in the end stressed her usual restraint from speaking. Among the aspects of performance Wilkinson names, voice as a medium to express oneself is certainly of prime importance. However, much more could be said about the other corporeal modes of expression that are at issue in the sources Wilkinson quotes, e.g. the movement of the body (the 'virginal gait'). These might be fascinating areas of interest in which to apply Wilkinson's approach in future research.

Performance, however, is not a sufficient proof of morality in a sphere that defines pudicitia or verecundia as interior virtues and judges a person by her interior dispositions. That gave rise to a discourse on real and hypocritical modesty, which Wilkinson deals with in ch. 5. She convincingly shows that the satirical traits in the works of Pelagius and Jerome reflect a contemporary awareness of the important role that performance played for women who wanted to lead a modest life. Satirical attacks often poked fun at the dubious sincerity of those performing modesty. Wilkinson modifies the concepts of "sincerity" and "authenticity" as regards their historical applicability, since they are – she insists – culturally determined. I agree that there is no reason to assume that early Christian writers were not already concerned about a potential discrepancy between interior sentiment and outward impression. One need only think of Augustine's appeal to his readers to believe in the truth of his narration on his interior developments (Confessions 10.3.3). Wilkinson argues that these ideas are also applicable in Late Antiquity, while stressing that in this epoch the good moral disposition was not thought of as being purely interior and categorically detached from any performance. It always led to or called for the right performance.

Wilkinson aims in ch. 6 to show that agency is not a fixed concept but varies from culture to culture. She highlights the theological background of Jerome's, Pelagius's, and Augustine's recommendations. For Pelagius, ascetic merit must be based on free choice. Similarly, Augustine underlines the voluntariness of virginity, while stressing the important part played by divine grace. Again, the most intriguing observations come about through Wilkinson's use of ethnographical research. Taking the situation of present-day South Asian women as her starting point, Wilkinson gleans from literary sources that, in Antiquity, a woman's self-determination was judged less by comparison with men than by comparison with women of different social strata. This enabled Pelagius to impute that his aristocratic female addressees enjoyed a great deal of freedom. The book ends with a concise index, which consists of an intelligent selection of key terms.

Though the title of Wilkinson's book suggests that the author will examine women's modesty generally "in Late Antiquity", the analysis is focused exclusively on Latin sources. The Greek world is only considered in passing and only as a contrasting foil in order to highlight the Roman situation. These references to Greece specifically apply to the situation in classical Athens (pp. 58-59). However, Greek Christian authors reflected on gender-related issues as well.2 This might be a most interesting field for further research. Wilkinson includes her own translations, which are not perfectly flawless,3 but more than sufficient for the purpose of supporting her interpretations. However, these minor shortcomings should not distract from the overall contribution this work makes to the field.

Wilkinson's book is highly recommended for any classicist or theologian, even those working outside the realm of feminist historiography. Thanks to its most innovative approach it is able to offer new insights into the situation faced by women living in Late Antiquity. Wilkinson's method is characterized by a determination to highlight the aspect of performance, which is an intrinsic element of modesty, and by an attempt to compare ethnographical and anthropological research. This approach allows her to make visible and to reconstruct how much scope there was for female agency at that time, something we can no longer infer exclusively on the basis of contemporary texts. By putting her focus on performance and drawing ethnographic parallels, Wilkinson manages very intelligently to ascertain from the predominantly normative source-material the level of self-determined agency a woman in Late Antiquity appears to have had. This is a completely untrodden path within research on Early Christianity and I believe that further studies in this direction should definitely be undertaken. Wilkinson has taken a very promising first step.


1.   In addition to Wilkinson's bibliography see Barbara Feichtinger, Apostolae apostolorum. Frauenaskese als Befreiung und Zwang bei Hieronymus, Frankfurt et al., 1995.
2.   E.g. the epitaphs by Gregory of Nazianzus on his mother.
3.   See e.g. impleret: implore (p. 42).

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