Sunday, May 21, 2017


Catherine M. Chin, Caroline T. Schroeder (ed.), Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family. Christianity in late antiquity, 2. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. Pp. 328. ISBN 9780520292086. $95.00.

Reviewed by Robin Whelan, Balliol College, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

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

This book stems from a symposium in honour of Elizabeth Clark, held at Duke University in April 2013. A short Afterword from Randall Styers provides a signal reminder—if one were needed—of Clark's contribution within the discipline of early Christian studies and far beyond it. The rest of the book sees her students and colleagues pursuing many lines of inquiry from her work, and—in the same spirit—seeking to forge onwards. Their studies are framed around Melania the Elder (c. 341-410) and Younger (c. 385-439), two of the most famous Christian aristocrats in late antiquity, renowned (then and now) for life stories which took them from senatorial households in Rome to monastic communities in Jerusalem. Of course, placing this grandmother- granddaughter pair at the centre of scholarly inquiry is not without problems. In their Introduction, the editors directly engage the problems of writing biography after the linguistic turn, justifying their choice of material as a means of understanding the interactions between individuals and the wider systems and network of the late Roman (Christian) world (3-12). This approach is pursued throughout: the two Melanias are used as case studies for the application of specific (and sometimes previously unemployed) theoretical approaches to late-antique contexts. What this means in practice are a series of overlapping readings of a set of core texts which discuss the protagonists: in particular, Palladius' Lausaic History and Gerontius' Life of Melania the Younger.

The papers in Part I consider how expectations carried over from Roman aristocratic culture continued to shape the lives of the two Melanias. Catherine Chin uses the Life of Melania the Younger (paired with the Liber Pontificalis) to consider the 'demands and agencies of late-antique buildings' (20). For Chin, Melania and Pinian's difficulties in extricating themselves from a traditional Roman aristocratic lifestyle stemmed principally from their ties to specific properties and the cluster of ideas about genealogy, inheritance and status which clung to them (20-24); Melania's foundations in Jerusalem demanded that their custodians looked even further beyond their own lifespan—that is, to the end-times (29-30). Christine Luckritz Marquis reconstructs the Elder's influence on the Younger as refracted through the competing textual depictions of (in particular) Palladius and Gerontius. Her astute readings of both texts lead to a startling conjecture: that the granddaughter did not build her own monasteries in Jerusalem, but simply renovated those of her grandmother (44-45). Caroline Schroeder explores the 'expansive emotional world' (51) afforded to Melania the Younger in the Life. As Schroeder rightly stresses, Gerontius supplied Melania a repertoire of both stereotypically 'masculine' and 'feminine' emotional performances (51-55). Gerontius' Melania emerges as a Christian philosophical exemplar (60-61), whose specific life course was inextricably linked to her membership of the late Roman 'one percent' (61), but could nonetheless inspire imitation among a wider (if somewhat fuzzily defined) audience of ascetic women.

The essays in Part II expose the relationship of early Christian texts and metaphors to late-antique embodied experiences and medical realia (insofar as they can be reconstructed). Maria Doerfler shows how ascetic writers used the rhetorical construction of spiritual motherhood both to create fictive kinship ties and to overlay biological ones. Likewise, Kristi Upson-Saia takes the titular description of Melania the Younger ('wounded by divine love') as a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging discussion of early Christian engagement with medical thought and praxis. Upson-Saia convincingly demonstrates sophisticated use of contemporary approaches to the healing of wounds in discussions of how Christians should deal with heresy and sin.

Part III pursues problems of gender and asceticism as viewed through the lens of individual and collective memory. At the core of Stephanie Cobb's paper is a reinterpretation of the Acta Perpetuae et Felicitatis. Where earlier historians saw in the two fourth-century recensions the imposition of a male framework of understanding over the words of Perpetua, Cobb instead construes the texts' 'social logic' as the modelling of exemplary female asceticism and Christian community formation in the post-Constantinian era. Rebecca Krawiec, meanwhile, presents a fascinating genderqueer reading of Melania the Elder in Palladius' Lausiac History. Due to her roles as an interlocutor, spiritual counselor and commemorator of both male and female ascetics, Melania eludes any attempt to impose gender boundaries, binaries or hierarchies (cf. 138). Krawiec contrasts this depiction to Jerome's presentation of Marcella and Paula (and Palladius' hostile reception of it)—both more clearly gendered as female despite their similar agency (136-40). Krawiec hints (with Elizabeth Clark) that Palladius' distinctive 'Origenism' may play a role in his recognition of fluidity (e.g. 130); nevertheless, many other late-antique texts seem ripe for such a reading.

The papers in Part IV approach problems of ecclesiastical politics and heresy. Robin Darling Young considers the relationship between Melania the Elder and Evagrius of Pontus as seen through the Lausiac History and Evagrius' Letters. The latter present Melania in yet another exemplary guise, as gnostic teacher (with no scare quotes in sight). Susanna Drake explores the influence of the Pelagian controversy on Gerontius' Life, highlighting tensions between nobility and humility, and perfection and sinfulness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, heresiological categories and doctrinal factions do not map neatly onto the Life or Melania's activities; Melania and her family were instead (a neat phrase) 'late ancient bipartisans' (181). Christine Shepardson draws the same conclusion: Melania the Younger in the Life was 'unassailably (because imprecisely) orthodox' (190). Nevertheless, as Shepardson persuasively argues, the portrayal of Melania as staunchly anti-Nestorian would have acted as a dog whistle for readers in the early 450s who, like Gerontius, opposed the recent Chalcedonian formula in those terms. Ironically, it was the very subtlety of this appropriation for contemporary Christological controversy which allowed the Life to be preserved as one of an 'orthodox' (i.e., Chalcedonian) saint.

Part V discusses the Holy Land, the adopted home of the two Melanias. Andrew Jacobs compares the pilgrims and ascetics of the age of the Melanias to another group of culturally influential émigrés: 'the lost generation' of Americans in Paris in the 1920s. Jacobs uses this parallel to identify the 'spatial tension' in which these Christian elites found themselves: 'at home when abroad but always the most fully realized examples of a Roman Christian virtue' (213). His definition of the whole period c. 360-430 CE as a generation (defended at 215) might have warranted further exploration—when did this ascetic mythmaking go mainstream? Or, to put it another way: which saint's life is Midnight in Paris? Stephen Shoemaker provides a helpful introduction to the Jerusalem Georgian Chantbook, a little-studied text containing hymns sung as part of the public liturgies of late-antique and early medieval Jerusalem, including a number of strikingly early hymns in praise of the Virgin.

Part VI ('Modernities')—perhaps the most intriguing section of the book—considers modern receptions of the Melanias. Michael Penn narrates the startling international response to Cardinal Rampolla's edition of the Vita Melaniae, published in 1905. Penn shrewdly traces the basis of this Melania-mania to the same sense of 'immediacy' and 'authenticity' which fascinated second-wave feminist readers (253, 256). Melania once again appears as the subject of widely divergent appropriation: the Washington Post called her the 'Richest Woman That Ever Lived' (249); the Manchester Guardian had her as a proto-suffragette on hunger strike (255). Stephen J. Davis charts similar appropriation in the twentieth-century Coptic Orthodox Church, as Pope Shenouda III and Matthew the Poor used the Melanias as models for modern would-be nuns. Finally, Elizabeth A. Castelli looks through the other end of the telescope, considering the specific moment in feminist historiography which inspired the reclamation of texts like the Life of Melania, the problems posed by late-antique hagiography for such projects, and the Life's potential contribution to early twenty-first century left-wing political theory and cultural critique.

The decision to zero in on the two Melanias produces obvious benefits: the interlocking papers build to a sort of 'thick description' of late fourth- and early fifth-century Christianity, and recent analytical approaches to its study. Close and repeated reading of Jerome, Paulinus, Palladius and Gerontius permits us to see their specific location within the wider debates and constellations of Christian thought. I could see how this book would make an excellent companion for a special subject or graduate course on asceticism in late antiquity. At the same time, that focus—and the intentional dialectic between biography and cultural history which accompanies it—brings some frustrations. A few papers do not really seem to be about either Melania (e.g. Upson-Saia, Cobb, Shoemaker). More fundamentally, if the analytical thrust of the volume is to use the Melanias to inform critical work in early Christian studies (and not simply the other way around), the very specificity of the papers can present something of an obstacle. Did the need to relate broader themes to the Melanias held authors back from more telling contributions which drew out the implications of this careful theoretical work and fine- grained textual analysis for a wider set of late-antique people, places and texts? Of course, such criticisms are a tribute to the quality of the papers in the book. If these contributions act as 'proof of concept' for various novel approaches to the study of late-antique Christianity, I look forward to their more systematic take-up.

Authors and Titles

Catherine M. Chin and Caroline T. Schroeder, 'Introduction'
Catherine M. Chin, 'Apostles and aristocrats'
Christine Luckritz Marquis, 'Namesake and inheritance'
Caroline T. Schroeder, 'Exemplary women'
Maria Doerfler, 'Holy households'
Kristi Upson-Saia, 'Wounded by divine love'
L. Stephanie Cobb, 'Memories of the martyrs'
Rebecca Krawiec, 'The memory of Melania'
Robin Darling Young, 'A life in letters'
Susanna Drake, 'Friends and heretics'
Christine Shepardson, 'Posthumous orthodoxy'
Andrew S. Jacobs, 'The lost generation'
Stephen J. Shoemaker, 'Sing, O daughter(s) of Zion'
Michael Penn, 'Afterlives'
Stephen J. Davis, 'Monastic revivals'
Elizabeth A. Castelli, 'The future of sainthood'
Randall Styers, 'Afterword'

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