An Immodest Proposal – By Maria Doerfler

Maria Doerfler on Kate Wilkinson’s Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity

Kate Wilkinson, Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 184pp., $95
Kate Wilkinson, Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 184pp., $95
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One of the distinct pleasures of living in New York City is the fact that at 7:30am on a Tuesday morning, the C train becomes an ethnographer’s sandbox. The seemingly ageless business professionals in tailored suits; the gum-snapping, phone-tapping, jeans-so-tight-they-look-painted-on-wearing teenagers; the young women draped in colorful chadors — all are present, and on seemingly unselfconscious display amidst the push and shove of the morning commute. The tantalizing proximity of these women notwithstanding, their lives, habitus, self-understandings remain by necessity elusive to the observer — and that not merely because staring threatens to violate one of the unspoken commandments of New York’s public transportation etiquette. From the perspective of the late ancient historian, however, they are subjects of enviable transparency: what scholars wouldn’t give to walk the streets in Olympias’ wake or catch a glimpse into Egeria’s entourage!

That attending to the stories and experiences of contemporary women might yield insights into the lives of their counterparts from other eras has been an explicit or implicit assumption of feminist scholarship for some time. Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity joins the ranks of such publications, albeit with a twist. Rather than constructing female ascetics as the “bad girls” of late antiquity or as proto-feminists realizing an agenda of personal liberation, Wilkinson’s interest lies with female renunciants’ potential for agency precisely by living into (one set of) culturally valorized expectations: their manifestation of modesty (pudicitia / verecundia). The study focuses on three generations of women from one of Rome’s most prominent families, the Anicii. The granddaughter’s, Demetrias’, decision to forego marriage in favor of consecrated virginity famously prompted an outpouring of advice from the leading lights of late ancient asceticism, including Jerome, Pelagius, and Augustine. Wilkinson’s monograph constructs visions of ancient Christian modesty in action by drawing upon these writers’ correspondence with Demetrias and her family, supplemented by a smattering of related treatises and the work of earlier authors, particularly Cyprian and Tertullian.

The book’s introductory section provides an overview of the history of feminist scholarship, particularly as applied to late antiquity. Most of its content will be, no doubt, familiar to social historians of the period but nevertheless offers a helpful backdrop to the project at hand and might even serve as a “quick & dirty” introduction for students in the process of acquainting themselves with the theoretical discourses that have shaped the field. Individual chapters orient themselves around the practices by and spaces in which women instantiated their modest selves. Wilkinson attends to late ancient thought and practice surrounding modesty in apparel; public appearance, or rather the lack thereof, and that lack’s conspicuously public display; and modest speech, silence, and the agency inhering therein. The book concludes with an investigation of the question of “authenticity” in modesty — the congruence between a woman’s inner attitude and outward display — and an examination of the differing motivations for and anxieties over ascetic practice among two of the women’s most famous correspondents, Pelagius and Augustine.

Crowning Victorious Athletes. Detail of mosaic from villa del Casale, Sicily.
Crowning of victorious athletes in a detail of a mosaic from villa del Casale, Sicily.

Students of late antiquity are likely to be well-acquainted with the primary sources on which the book draws: Jerome’s literary excitations on the subject of female virginity are the stuff of undergraduates’ bafflement and occasional revulsion, and Pelagius’ contributions to Demetrias’ spiritual formation has been a focal point for students of the so-called Pelagian controversy. It is all the more to Wilkinson’s credit that she succeeds in drawing new, interesting insights — perhaps even a new scholarly direction — from familiar and by necessity quite narrowly delimited material. The latter at times appears more designed to hide rather than reveal the daily practices of women’s lives. Jerome, Augustine, Pelagius were, after all, laboring to narrate idealized visions of Demetrias’ entry into asceticism, frequently without any prior acquaintance with the women to whom they are addressing themselves, and to craft ideal ascetic programs for her and her household. Women, including Demetrias & Co., no doubt took seriously the advice offered to them, even if they did not feel slavishly bound by it: Jerome’s exhortation that Demetrias avoid investing her considerable fortunes into building churches, the epigraphal evidence suggests, fell on not wholly receptive ears. Bridging the gap between literary vision and embodied practice, however, remains the challenge with which historians of antiquity – and particularly those who do not wish to see “the lady vanish” entirely – are forced to grapple.

Women and Modesty seeks to negotiate this challenge by bringing its late ancient sources into conversation with contemporary, ethnographic data concerning women’s lives in non-Western societies. This strategy has much to commend itself: the narratives offer a delightfully vivid counterpoint to the rather obscure glimpses and carefully qualified insights into late ancient women’s practice. The resulting effect serves Wilkinson’s purposes: rather than adducing claims for correspondences between women’s practices across the centuries — a project challenging to the point of being untenable — she aims to stimulate the historical imagination. That of which we cannot conceive, we cannot recognize in the texts before us, the book suggests. If, in other words, feminist scholars want to take seriously the possibility of ancient women ascetics actively embracing and living into a cultural ideal of modesty, they will be helped in the process by considering the more plentiful evidence for such practices in contemporary societies. As a theoretical framework, Wilkinson’s approach is not, however, without its challenges. On occasion, the ethnographic material threatens to overwhelm the late ancient sources; in Chapter 3, for instance, nearly as many pages deal with the practice of purdah in contemporary Hindi and Muslim communities as with matters of public and private display in Demetrias’ era. Most of the rest of the volume is more balanced. Moreover, the interlocutory examples are without fail well-chosen and lucidly deployed, even though the different groups and individuals under discussion at times threaten to blend into a decontextualized “other”.

Throughout the monograph, Wilkinson is evidently committed to telling a well-integrated story of female and feminist practices. Indeed, the author does not even except herself from such a narrative, noting with candor both her scholarly and her confessional pedigree. As a reader and writer, I found myself challenged by this practice. Telling one’s own story is, of course, part of the rich history of feminist scholarship; by the same token, students learn early on to scrutinize books’ acknowledgements for traces of their authors’ scholarly affinities. Still, posing the Gretchenfrage (“How do you hold with religion?”) of a scholar is frequently a shortcut to awkward silence among historians of religion; we guard our privacies carefully, perhaps only too aware of a tendency to do autobiography in our scholarship — if not in substance, then at least in the questions that draw us.

Wilkinson’s candor is here is both refreshing and a touch subversive, a tip of the hat to her resistance, even in the face of self-disclosure, to her work’s easy categorization. Sitting self-consciously at the intersection of late ancient studies and historical theology, feminist methodology and inquiries into traditionally anti-feminist subject matters, Women and Modesty is part delightful provocation, part apt foray into a new era of scholarship, one committed to blurred boundaries and liminal spaces, without compromising literary, linguistic, and historical rigor. That is, surely, a high aim for any scholar’s first monograph, and happily it is not beyond the book’s reach. As such, I commend it to readers interested in the lives and practices of late ancient women with wholly immodest enthusiasm.