Early Christian Virgins on Sexuality and Virginity

Saint Melania the Younger. Miniature from the Menologion of Basil II. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Church Fathers, Independent Virgins, published by Verso in 1991, Joyce Salisbury examines early Christian attitudes toward sexuality, chastity, and gender. Salisbury contrasts the doctrines established by the Church Fathers with the deeds of a group of women who developed an independent ascetic tradition.  

In the late fourth century, Augustine wrote a letter to a chaste matron, Ecdicia. Some years earlier, Ecdicia had persuaded her reluctant husband to join her in a vow of chastity to live a “spiritual marriage" instead of a carnal one. Ecdicia's husband fell from his vow and took a mistress; the aggrieved wife wrote to Augustine seeking advice, and no doubt sympathy. Augustine's response in the surviving letter was surely not what Ecdicia had expected, for he reprimanded the woman, saying: "This great evil (the adultery) arose from your not treating him in his state of mind with the moderation you should have shown. ..." Ecdicia had apparently assumed that her vow of chastity released her from other wifely responsibilities, notably that of obedience to her husband. Without consulting him, Ecdicia gave a good part of her property to two wandering monks, causing him to fly into a rage and curse her for subverting his authority and depriving their son of some of his patrimony. That was not the full extent of Ecdicia's disobedience. In her piety (or willfulness, depending on one's point of view) she chose to put aside a fitting “matronly costume" and wear widow's clothing while her husband was still living.

Augustine showed a good deal of sympathy for the husband, who had taken the vow of chastity reluctantly in the first place and had been driven to anger by his wife's subsequent behavior. The Bishop wrote: “Finally, it came about that, when scorned, he (the husband] broke the bond of continence which he had taken upon himself when he was loved, and in his anger at you he did not spare himself." Augustine advised Ecdicia to apologize to her husband, to promise to obey him and submit to his will in all things except the carnal debt which they had both renounced. Augustine felt that in this way the husband could be won back to a chaste marriage and the wife, by being humble and obedient, could establish a truly virtuous life consistent with his view of her vow of chastity.

This account represents more than a fourth-century example of domestic disharmony. It shows a serious struggle that took place from the late second century at least through the fourth century regarding the role of celibate women in society. Ecdicia seems to have believed that by renouncing the marriage debt and taking control over her own body, she could also control other aspects of her life. Her husband and Augustine did not agree with her. They believed that her renunciation of sexuality did not mean that she was freed from other feminine obligations, primarily that of subservience.

In the first part of the book, Salisbury presents the Fathers' views of sexuality and the rules they adopted to control it. In part two, she explores the Lives of seven virgins recorded in a single tenth-century manuscript from the Escorial monastic library in Spain. The book's final chapter, reprinted below, synthesizes a wider view on sexuality and virginity evinced in the record of these women's lives.  

In all the stories in the Escorial manuscript, women chose to follow a spiritual life. They wanted to free themselves from worldly considerations so that they could seek God, a goal that was consistent with orthodox Christian principles and aspirations. However as we have seen, the ways they chose to lead their new religious lives departed dramatically from the rules for celibate women that Church Fathers were establishing. These women rejected the social expectations that bound their sisters, moved about more freely than the Fathers allowed, came to their own conclusions about the application of Scripture to their own conditions, and generally created lives for themselves that transcended gender expectations. 

In the fifth century Palladius wrote The Lausiac History, which recounted great deeds of ascetic men and women. In this book, he told an anecdote about Melania the Younger that points up in stark contrast the difference between the Fathers' and the virgins' views about how to lead a chaste life. In this incident, Palladius told of a young woman named Alexandra, who immured herself in a tomb. She received the bare necessities of life through a window so small that it kept her from being seen by anyone. One day, Melania visited her and asked her why she had so buried herself. It is not surprising that Melania, who loved to travel, would ask this in some amazement. Alexandra told her story: "A man was distracted in mind because of me, and rather than scandalize a soul made in the image of God, I betook myself alive to a tomb, lest I seem to cause him suffering or reject him." Melania continued the dialogue through the small window, asking how Alexandra persevered in such a lonely, restricted life. Alexandra answered: "From early dawn to the ninth hour I pray from hour to hour while spinning flax. The rest of the time I go over in my mind the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs. Then I eat my crusts and wait patiently the other hours for my end with good hope." 1 Melania may have been awed by Alexandra's piety and asceticism, but she did not chose to entomb herself. On the contrary, she wandered off to see other interesting sights. 

All the Fathers would have approved of Alexandra's chosen way of life. The early Fathers feared sex, located sexuality in women and secluded women to save themselves from temptation. Alexandra sealed herself away from the world so that she would never again tempt a man into desire. It was in this spirit that Tertullian urged women to veil themselves so that no man would be tempted by looking at them. Augustine feared passion, which he equated with pride. He would have approved of Alexandra's humble acceptance of her role as a woman, spinning and praying in quiet seclusion. Melania, however, walked away, choosing neither to hide nor to spin. There is clearly an alternative view of chaste women's roles that contradicted the position of the Fathers. This view was held by Ecdicia in opposition to her husband and Augustine; it was held by all the women whose lives I have told here in opposition to the orders of Jerome and others, and it was probably held by many of the men and women who read and copied the Lives.

The women's alternative view of the best life for chaste women did not exist in a philosophical vacuum. Just as the Fathers' view of sexuality shaped their rules for women, the women had a different view of sexuality upon which they founded their lives and their perceptions of virginity and chastity. It is to this alternative view of sexuality that I will now turn.

First of all, there is no evidence in the Lives to suggest that these women found sex intrinsically evil, sinful, or disgusting. They did not repudiate sexuality, because it was too intimately related to reproduction, which they accepted as easily as they accepted their own bodies. Helia's most exuberant praises took the form of reproduction images: "Happy childbirth for the men, the women, the old who are made fecund..." 2 There was not the slightest sense of rejection of the carnal in Helia's enthusiastic prayer.

Perhaps an even more vivid praise of reproduction and, in turn, of the sexuality that produced it may be found in the Life of Melania. Melania heard of a woman whose child had died in the womb and was not delivered. Melania arrived, accompanied by her virgins, as a surgeon was cutting out the child in an attempt to save the mother. Melania intervened and tied her belt around the tormented woman's waist. The fetus was delivered and the woman saved. Within this tale is an implied rejection of the surgeon's attempts to deal with the situation, and the grim details of the surgery immediately bring the reader to compassion for the dead child and its distressed mother. The standard solution practiced by the male physician was not only grisly, but was shown to be inadequate when compared to Melania's alternative, miraculous solution. Melania did not just let this anecdote speak for itself. She counteracted the fear and disgust generated by the description of the surgeon's actions by saying that reproduction could not be filthy because God had created it. Only sin was abominable. Furthermore, no bodily part that God had created could be filthy, because through it were born the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and other saints. 3 In this powerful passage Melania not only vindicated reproduction and childbirth, but also accepted and even blessed women's vaginas, which Tertullian had identified as the "Gateway of the Devil."

When the Fathers rejected the physicality that meant sexuality, they also feared and renounced the senses that might lead them to the physical. Since the women did not fear their own bodies, neither did they fear the senses. There is no warning in the Lives to avoid seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, or hearing. On the contrary, there were moments in which women acknowledged the senses as a positive good. The sight of Pelagia inspired Bishop Nonnus to greater spirituality, not to sin. Thus, contrary to Tertullian's warnings, sight, even the sight of a beautiful woman, was accepted and, moreover, dignified. In her pilgrimage through the Holy Land, Egeria seemed to see no inconsistency between holiness and traveling in some comfort. Constantina best articulated the theoretical position underlying this acceptance of the sensual: "We need to seek how to please God in our bodily members [as well as spiritually]"; she then proceeded to list all the senses and describe eloquently the beauty they all experience, from the sweetness of tastes to the softness of touch. Instead of rejecting these experiences she said, echoing Melania, that God made the body, so all these experiences must be good. It is only for us not to misuse them. 4

Patristic fear of sensuality caused the Fathers to urge women to close themselves off from the world; to live like Alexandra, walled away from all sensual experiences. Since the women in the Lives did not express such a fear and revulsion of the physical, neither did they adhere to the predominant patristic metaphor for the chaste life, that of being "closed" to the world. In fact, the Lives are pervaded with images of being "open." Constantina's first prayer for Gallicanus's young daughters was that God "...open the ears of the virgins. Open the ears of their hearts for my words." 5 Even the Fathers did not object to ears being open for educational purposes; that was the only sense they permitted women to keep "open." However, Constantina continued her prayer: "Open their doors so my words can infuse them with virtue." 6 Constantina's choice of metaphor is a telling one, precisely because it seems forced and redundant after the more logical plea that their ears be open and receptive. In patristic works, the image of "door" had a strong sexual connotation, referring to women's genitals. The policy of enclosure derived in large part from the concept that women should keep their closed doors behind closed doors. Constantina's use of the word in an open context argues both for an acceptance of womanhood and a rejection of enclosure as a principle. 

As we have seen from the narratives, most of these women rejected the principle of enclosure. They rejected it for themselves as individuals, but also for spirituality in general. In the Life of Mary of Egypt, the hagiographer made a point of saying that Zosimas “left the doors that had enclosed him for so long." Zosimas had to leave his monastery in order to achieve the higher spirituality that he discovered in the desert in the person of Mary. Moving about was an accepted value of the ascetic world. In addition, however, it would seem that these women rejected the principle of enclosure not only because it constrained their freedom but also because it did not express a metaphoric reality for them.Women's bodies did not need to be closed to the world for them to experience a spiritual life.

In the miracles of Melania, the metaphor of openness is brought into vivid focus. The hagiographer says that he is going to relate only a few of the many miracles Melania performed; in fact, he relates only three. In the first, a woman was “gripped by an evil demon. Her mouth and lips were closed for many days, so that she could neither talk nor eat. She was in danger of starvation.” Melania cured the woman and opened her mouth. In fact, the woman held by a demon was the logical conclusion of patristic requirements for silence and fasting. Melania opened her mouth, freeing her from those requirements, replacing the metaphor of closure with one of openness. In the second miracle, the hagiographer merely says: "Another woman who had suffered from the same disease was cured by Melania." It is significant that she did not cure men suffering from lockjaw; this was a metaphor for the constraints placed on women. Melania's third miracle I have already discussed: in it she opened a woman's womb so that her dead child might be born. All her miracles speak to the principle of openness instead of enclosure, and in them she rejected the patristic view of women and of sexuality.

All these positive images of women's sexuality and sensuality leave us with a paradox. These women vigorously and certainly rejected a sexual life and embraced an ascetic one that involved a renunciation even of sensual comforts, not to mention pleasures. Yet they did not reject sexuality as intrinsically evil, nor did they fear their own sensuality. However, sexuality could not have been unambiguously positive, or these women would not have renounced it so powerfully. What sexuality brought to these women was a loss of liberty. Sex might have been good in the abstract, but when a woman had intercourse she bound herself to concerns of the world and to a pre-set relationship with her partner. As the Fathers repeatedly noted, wives were too busy with domestic concerns to be able to give themselves over to spiritual matters, and all these women were passionately committed to a spiritual life.

But it is important to remember that it was not just a spiritual life they sought. If it were, they could have followed the spiritual path for women as outlined by the Fathers: they could have become like Alexandra, buried in feminine obedience. Instead, they chose to be free to follow their own spiritual paths. Their choices revealed a large diversity — from Egeria's pilgrimages to Melania's changes from stability to movement; from Mary of Egypt's retreat to the desert to Castissima's quiet retreat to a monastery. What marked all of them was that each woman chose her own way, despite all pressure. By renouncing the sexual tie, each woman claimed her personal sovereignty. However, all these women were able to renounce sexual intercourse without renouncing the sexuality of their own bodies. The Fathers were never able to do that.

In the Lives, when the women did express an aversion to sexuality it was a sexuality that resided in the male and, more importantly, it was a male sexuality that would entrap the woman. Constantina calls Gallicanus's lust "diabolical passion," 9 but it was "diabolical” because it might give him the right to decide her destiny — that is, she might be forced to marry him. The same sentiment pervaded Castissima's fear that her father would acquiesce in her suitor's lust, and her life would no longer be her own. These fears express their view of sex as bondage, tying them to social responsibilities.

Now this might sound as if these women were angry at men and looking for a way to remove them from their lives. However, it is not as simple as that. The problem was not simply that men were oppressing women. These women saw men's sexual desire as oppressing both men and women, because it forced them into a relationship bound by social expectations. In the Lives, once women had clearly established their right to be chaste, they had very close and friendly relationships with men. Melania's husband, Pinian, was portrayed almost as a villain in the beginning of the Life while he was urging his wife to continue their sexual relationship. Once they had both taken vows of chastity, however, they traveled together and his role changed from villain to friend. I admit that this perception is from Melania's point of view; we have no way of knowing how Pinian felt about the altered relationship. But the women in the Lives repeatedly expressed pleasure in close, chaste relationships with men. Castissima and her mentor Agapius were very fond of each other; Mary of Egypt's and Zosimas's lives were bound together in chastity. The relationships between Pelagia and Nonnus, and even Egeria and her many escorts, all reveal that women were not taking vows of chastity to avoid men. They wanted to establish a new relationship with men, one based on chastity, not on sexual intercourse, and this goal reflected their desire to establish new ways of life for themselves.

The women in the stories under discussion were not unique in the early centuries of Christianity in their desire and capacity to establish new relationships with men based on celibacy. Rosemary Radar has detailed a whole series of such male–female friendships during these centuries and in fact sees a paradigm shift in the relationships between men and women, made possible by the celibacy of the early Christian communities. 10 She argues convincingly that “... celibacy thus became a means by which a less restrictive, more egalitarian type of relationship was able to exist between men and women." 11 One can see evidence for this new kind of relationship in many sources from the early Middle Ages — letters between men and women, to men and women cohabiting in chaste marriages, or even in double monasteries — and what made these relationships possible during that time was the vow of chastity that freed men and women from the roles which governed their relationship.12 To be realistic, we must note that this ideal friendship based on a mutual renunciation of sex did not always work peaceably. One of the failures was the one with which I began this book: Ecdicia and her husband did not suddenly become close when they renounced their sexual relations. They disagreed on exactly how much freedom Ecdicia had earned by her sexual renunciation. New paradigms are not simple to implement. However, the new possibilities for male–female relationships bear testimony to the fact that these women were not rejecting men. What they were rejecting was the limitation of choice that came with entering into a sexual relationship with men.

This view of sexuality that accepts sex itself as good, and rejects it only because it binds people to the world and its expectations, opens an interesting possibility: that sexuality can be accepted once the constraining nature of the relationship is abandoned. But that option would not have been available to most of the women of the late Roman Empire. They could be free to make their own choices and pursue their spirituality in their own way only by renouncing sexual intercourse.

The way the women's sexual renunciation was portrayed in the narratives is quite different from comparable descriptions in patristic works. The Fathers, from Jerome to Augustine, described their sexual urge as a serious obstacle to their spiritual growth. They were plagued with doubts, dreams, and desires. Perhaps one of the most obvious contrasts between the Fathers and the virgins is between Jerome and Mary of Egypt. Both went into the desert to seek ascetic spirituality. Jerome was beset by dreams of women; Mary dreamed of food and drink. 13 Notwithstanding prevailing medieval wisdom that women were insatiable sexually, no sexual temptations seem to have troubled the women in these saints' lives. It is important to recognize, however, that these women do not represent a random sample of medieval women. Just because their sexual renunciation did not seem to present a hardship does not mean that would have been true for all women. In fact, the Life of Melania alludes to other women burdened by their sexuality. Melania frequently questioned the virgins living in her community about their thoughts to be sure that they were not having sexual fantasies. 14

In general, however, the women did not feel, as the Fathers did, that one had to practice rigorous asceticism in order to conquer lust. The reader will recall that Jerome thought the only way to conquer lust was by rigorous fasting. So strongly did he believe this that he equated fasting with chastity. None of the virgins made such an equation. While most of them fasted, they fasted as a proof of their accomplished spirituality, not as a prerequisite for it. Melania said: "Of all the virtues, fasting is the least. ..." and she left the choice to fast to each individual's personal discretion. 15 In the Life of Castissima, too, the hagiographer reduced the importance of fasting by saying that in the monastery, each monk "keeps the fast as he wishes. ..." 16 So the women did not feel that their bodies needed to be so rigorously tamed as the Fathers did. This view is consistent with the women's general acceptance of their bodies and their comfort with their own sexuality. Renouncing sex did not represent a battle.

This is not to say that these women's commitment to the ascetic life came easily. They may not have been troubled by dreams of renounced intercourse, but they were tempted by recollections of lost status. When the Devil appeared to Pelagia, he did not try to tempt her with images of the sexual experiences from her nights as a prostitute. Instead, he reminded her of the silver, gold, and jewels that would no longer be hers. To put her devil behind her, Pelagia immediately gave away all her wealth. 17 Melania, too, said that the hardest part of the ascetic life was not struggling against the flesh, but getting rid of her fortune. 18 She had a practical problem giving up her wealth simply because she had so much of it, but the problem goes deeper. The wealth, the jewels, and indeed the clothing that was of such concern to all the women represented their status or identity in the world.

Women in the classical world belonged primarily to the private sphere of their homes. This was dramatically true in the Greek world, where women were virtually not permitted to go outdoors. Roman women emancipated themselves beyond that, and could move about in the world. Yet as Simone de Beauvoir noted, they were emancipated, but with no real place in the world: "She was free — but for nothing.” 19 Their only recognition in the public sphere derived from their family status, as marked by the clothing they wore. The classic and perhaps most vivid example of this is Livy's account of the Roman women's demand that the Oppian Law, a sumptuary law, be repealed so that women could resume wearing their ornaments, fancy dress, and purple stripes on their togas. 20 This incident has been used to describe women's lack of political acumen, but the ability to wear signs of one's status in public was a political statement for women. They were seeking the public recognition that was always given so reluctantly. Lucius Valerius, who argued in favor of the women's petition, perceptively recognized their situation. He said: "No offices, no priesthoods, no triumphs, no decorations, no gifts, no spoils of war can come to them; elegance of appearance, adornment, apparel — these are the woman's badges of honour. ..." 21

The reality that women were defined in public largely by what they wore was expressed also on a daily basis. Prostitutes had to acknowledge their profession by a particular article of clothing; 22 women of senatorial families could remove their head veils; 23 and young girls expressed their family's status by wearing clothing with embroidery. 24 Men, too, of course, were defined in part by the clothing they wore, 25 but men had other measures of public definition — their jobs, for example. This is probably why in the saints' lives of men, clothing does not come up as such a significant subject. For men, clothing simply followed the public position; for women, clothing was the public position. When the women in this book had dreams and were tempted by the wealth and clothing they were giving up, they were in fact fearing loss of definition in the public sphere.

All the women under discussion were women of wealth and status, either derived from their families (Castissima or Melania) or from their own efforts (the successful prostitutes, Pelagia and Mary of Egypt). When they renounced their previous lives to embrace an ascetic one, they had to give up the thing which had given them most of their identity in their previous roles: their distinctive clothing. However, although they changed their ways of life, they did not change all their old patterns and concerns. This is why, when they converted to an ascetic life, they often continued to mark their status by their clothing, their new ascetic clothing. We have seen how the significant points of Melania's life were marked by changes in her clothing. This continued throughout the narrative to her death, when she was buried in garments “worthy of her holiness.” 26 She had transcended all worldly desires except to be publicly recognized for what she had accomplished.

Most of the other women in these narratives shared Melania's desire to use clothing to mark their freedom from men, and from traditional women's roles. This was true of Ecdicia, who wore widow's clothing to demonstrate her new chastity even though her husband was still alive. It was certainly true of Pelagia and Castissima, who wore men's clothing to demonstrate their renunciation. It was even true of Mary of Egypt, who, after her clothing had rotted away in the desert, said she was dressed in the word of God. 27 The only Life in which the clothing theme does not emerge as a significant one is the Life of Constantina. It seems likely that Constantina, as the daughter of the Emperor, had so much public status that she did not need to be so careful to express it by her clothing. Within the Life, her status was defined by the repeated use of the title “Augusta” to acknowledge her as the Emperor's daughter. The virgins, then, in their struggle to free themselves from the expected roles that bound them in society, continued to want public recognition for themselves. A private renunciation was not enough. This is probably why they were tempted not by dreams of sex, but by dreams of the wealth and clothing that had traditionally provided their public definition.

The women we have been looking at were successful in their desire to shape a new way of life for themselves. They built lives of chastity based not on a patristic vision but on their own view of themselves and their needs. This view reveals not only a different perception of sexuality from that of the Fathers, but also a different perception of virginity and chastity. One of the most striking differences is that the narratives of the Lives do not distinguish in any significant way between whether the women were virgins, like Castissima and Constantina, or chaste wives, like Melania, or even ex-prostitutes, like Pelagia and Mary of Egypt. Because of their vows of chastity, all these women are portrayed with the same degree of dignity and sanctity, and all receive the same privileges. This suggests that, unlike the Fathers, they saw women's sexuality as a state, a choice, not a permanent, magical condition. When a woman was engaged in a sexual relationship, she lost personal sovereignty; when she renounced intercourse, she regained her freedom and status. This is a far cry from Jerome's view that the integrity of virginity is such a supernatural state that even God could not restore a fallen virgin. Jerome and the other Fathers saw women as bound by their bodies, slaves to their own carnality, with their destiny determined by the state of their hymen. The women in this book were much more at ease with their own bodies, with their sexuality, and felt their destiny should be determined by choice.

As we have seen throughout the Lives, the prevailing image of chastity for women was freedom. With the initial choice of freedom from sexual intercourse, other freedoms seem to come as well. While Melania was living with Pinian as a wife, she obeyed him. As soon as they took vows of chastity she became the leader in the relationship, telling Pinian what to wear and where to live. The lesson can be seen more subtly in the other Lives. For example, when Mary of Egypt was still a prostitute, she could not enter the church; she was magically prevented from doing so. As soon as she had taken a vow of chastity she was free to enter; the constraints were lifted. By such associations of freedom with chastity, the women departed radically from the Fathers' associations of chastity with restraint and humility.

The narratives do accept some of the patristic images for chastity, but only those that enhance the dignity of the women involved. The careful selection of patristic work was shown most clearly in the Life of Helia, but the rest of the Lives reveal the same preference for certain types of images. The two images most favored in the Lives are the bride of Christ image and the associations of chastity with fertility. The attraction to the bride of Christ image is fairly obvious. By being Christ's bride, a woman's status in the world with regard to everyone else was elevated, and such a status was often convenient. For example, Constantina argued that by remaining true to their husband, Christ, Gallicanus's daughters would be “univira," women who remained true to only one husband. Such women were highly respected in the Empire, so the bride of Christ metaphor was used to bring status in a way familiar to the Romans.

The second popular image, that of fertility, fits well with the women's view of sexuality in which their bodies and their reproductive function are not disdained. Again, the narrative of the Life of Helia is rich with such images, but the images are not limited to that Life. The Life of Constantina, for example, contains a wonderful praise of St Agnes in which Agnes's care is described as rich and fertile, and she is portrayed as “suckling" those under her protection. 28 Even in smaller incidences fertility images abound. When Castissima spoke to á monk, “her heart was irrigated by his words.” 29 The examples could be multiplied, but the significant point is to recognize the degree to which a cohesive body of thought is expressed in these narratives. The woman's ascetic view presents a vision of women that does not reject their bodies or their sexuality, and this acceptance is brought to its vision of chastity.

All these women renounced lives that included sexual intercourse in favor of a better life, a life that Constantina called the "highest good." 30 This way of life was first and foremost spiritual. One would not want to lose sight of the fact that these women — indeed, all the ascetics — were seeking God. Yet the second fundamental fact of the ascetic life was that it was individual. Each woman felt that she could best find God in her own way, and the freedom implicit in this value extended to other aspects of her life. Thus, when we look at the specific values that underlie these ways of life, we can discern significant differences from the patristic dictates that were designed to guide women to chaste spirituality.

After freedom of choice, one of the values that emerges as important in a chaste way of life for many of these ascetic women was a close-knit, supportive community. With some exceptions (Mary of Egypt, Castissima and Pelagia) the women valued their ties with a community of women like themselves. Constantina surrounded herself with 120 women — living with her, as the hagiographer said, "in a kind of family.” 31 Egeria's letter to her community is full of affection and caring. Melania, after a period of ascetic solitude, surrounded herself with a community of virgins, but she also showed the importance of female companionship in her friendship with the Empress Eudocia. The hagiographer said of the two women that they "were scarcely able to be separated from one another, for they were strongly bonded together in spiritual love." 32 There is nothing in the Lives to indicate that by giving up sexual intercourse these women gave up close, nurturing relationships. Quite the contrary, for Constantina says: "When you have virginity whole, you always have love." 33

The Fathers were most concerned that women within communities be strictly bound by obedience to their superiors, so that spiritual women's roles would parallel the expected roles of secular women. The narratives of the Lives of the ascetic women repeatedly show that obedience was not a high value. Most of them did not even discuss the question of obedience, they just did as they pleased. The Life of Melania, however, presents a more detailed consideration of the place and nature of obedience in these ascetic communities.

When Melania organized her community of women, she did not assume the role of Mother Superior to the house; she appointed someone else. Gerontius, the hagiographer, attributed this to her "excess of humility,” 34 but it was a very strange form of humility, for she never particularly acceded to the Mother Superior's authority. For example, whenever Melania decided the Mother Superior was too rigid in her treatment of the women, she would care for her "weaker sisters" by leaving extra items in their cells in violation of the Mother Superior's wishes. 35 Gerontius relates this incident to show Melania's "boundless compassion," but in fact it is equally revealing of her independence of all authority.

Melania's views on authority are further shown by her instructions to her virgins on the virtue of obedience. At first glance, this seems to be exactly the sort of exhortation that Jerome or Augustine might make to nuns. Upon closer consideration, however, one can see that Melania was not talking about a strictly hierarchical principle. She described obedience as a mutual respect in which, for example, "even worldly rulers submit and obey each other." Therefore, the lesson she drew was that "all ought to be obedient to each other." 36 The communal life described by Melania was not a difficult one, the requirements for obedience were not exacting, and the community was to be close and nurturing. Furthermore, in the general spirit of personal sovereignty and choice that pervades these Lives, the day-to-day life the women followed within the community was not strictly prescribed, and not as restricted as that demanded by the Fathers.

The key to the spiritual life as articulated in these Lives is education. The spirituality women sought was intimately tied to their ability to read, write, and understand the sacred texts and other Christian works. In the Life of Constantina, the conversion of Gallicanus's daughters was precipitated by, and intimately associated with their education, to the degree that when Constantina told Gallicanus about the conversion, she described how “learned they have become." 37 Castissima was also known for an early education that enhanced her spiritual progress. In her youth, she was renowned not only for goodness or virtue (although those qualities were present) but was also famous throughout the city for her "wisdom and love of learning.” 38 Egeria, too, reveals a strong preoccupation with study, for in her travels to the Holy Land she collected copies of letters to enhance some works that the community held in Spain. In her letter to the virgins at home, she described these acquisitions with pride and said she could not wait to share them with her sisters. 39 The Life of Melania also stresses the theme of the importance of education, but characteristically it yokes this theme with that of independence. Gerontius said that Melania "decided for herself how much she ought to write every day, how much she should read in the canonical works and how much in the collections of sermons." 40

The early Fathers, like Jerome, also stressed education in the service of spiritual growth. Augustine emphasized it less, for it might lead to pride. He preferred to see women involved in more traditional female occupations like spinning, so that they might remain humble. The Lives in this ascetic tradition departed from the views of even the early Fathers, however, when they addressed what women were to do with such learning. The Fathers believed that women should be silent, keeping their learning to themselves and being living examples of closed, mute chastity. In the ascetic tradition, however, these educated holy women were not silent. They taught, preached, and explicated Scripture. Zosimas urged Mary of Egypt to speak to instruct him; 41 Constantina explicated Scripture; 42 Melania was a "divinely inspired teacher" who "did not stop discussing theology from dawn to dusk." 43

These differences between the Fathers and the virgins in their perceptions of how women should lead a chaste life derive from their differing views of sexuality and womanhood. The women in the ascetic tradition were not afraid of their sexuality, nor were they ashamed of their gender. Therefore there was no reason to restrict their liberty once they had removed themselves from the commitments of sexual intercourse. They pursued their own spiritual paths in a society that did not have a clearly defined place for them. I have been discussing this alternative view of sexuality and virginity from the examples of a handful of women. It remains to consider the impact of narratives like these that articulated this different viewpoint.

During the early centuries of Christianity, this ascetic perspective was a body of thought that was one among many possible directions Western Christianity could have selected. This view was not insignificant in its contemporary impact. Palladius said that his book was “written also to commemorate women far advanced in years and illustrious God-inspired mothers who have performed feats of virtuous asceticism in strong and perfect intention, as exemplars. ..." 44 These women, like the women commemorated in the Escorial manuscript, were influential in articulating not only an ascetic way of life but also an ascetic body of thought that offered an independence attractive to many women. Such women adopted a chaste life that permitted the kinds of freedoms Melania and others were enjoying. They spread the ideal from the East all over the Empire. Ambrose gave credit where credit was due, and said that he was only describing the virgin life; it was the women who had initiated it. 45 As Jo Ann McNamara forcefully stated:

These women conceived and carried out a revolution of vast proportions. They forced the social structure of antiquity to incorporate the celibate woman in a secure and even superior stratum. Some of the men who commented on the process were hostile and fearful of the new order developing in their midst. 46

Among the men who were concerned about the impact of this option for a Christian life were the Fathers who legislated so prolifically about how virgins should live. The volume of writings on the subject by Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and others suggests that they were trying to control a popular movement. That is perhaps most clear in the writings of Tertullian, who, writing in the late second century, was closest to the beginnings of the ascetic movement. In his tract “On the Veiling of Virgins," he specifically says that he is against virgins claiming freedoms that married women do not have — freedoms such as speaking in church, teaching, baptizing, and holding ecclesiastical offices. 47 The freedoms he is trying to restrict are exactly the kinds of liberties ascetic women were claiming. Tertullian wanted to limit choice on many levels — for example, he said, regarding virgins veiling their heads: "[Up until recently) the matter had been left to choice, for each virgin to veil herself or expose herself as she might have chosen. ...” 48 Tertullian was afraid of the social ramifications of giving some women so much freedom, so he was vehement in his desire to restrict it.

By the fourth and fifth centuries, the Church was beginning to become more strictly organized. Homogeneity of belief and obedience to hierarchy began to be enforced. Under the weight of patristic pressure, fewer and fewer women were able to live an ascetic life that valued freedom of choice as part of its central theme, and accepted women's sexuality as no hindrance to sanctity. Yet in spite of the Fathers’ influence, this body of ideas was not lost

Throughout the Middle Ages, saints' lives like these were widely copied and translated from Latin into vernacular languages. As they were copied century after century, copyists were affirming that the values and ideas embodied in the Lives were worth preserving, even if they did not adhere to the strict dictates of the orthodox Church. Not only were Lives like these copied, but they were read and used as exemplars. The Escorial manuscript that I have been using for a sample of this type of narrative was a Codex Regularum. This means it was a collection of monastic writings that served as a rule for monks and nuns to follow in their lives. The inclusion of the saints' lives in such a codex ensured that they would be read seriously. It appears that the Church was not as successful as it would have liked to be at eliminating the variety of ideas that originated in the freer, early centuries of Christianity. Of course, most of the women who read and copied these narratives could not appreciably change their own lives, but perhaps they took pleasure in the examples of these women, and perhaps they took comfort in the underlying view of sexuality and womanhood that was in such contrast to the patristic view they were living. In any case, the ideas were preserved by men and women who saved the ascetic vision, perhaps until such time as diversity of opinion would be accepted in the West.

The fact that this ascetic view of women was saved for over a millennium in itself warrants its presentation here. Too many people worked to preserve it for it to be lost. Yet after all these centuries, and all these pages, it may not be inappropriate to consider what these women's lives have to say to us. First and most importantly, the recognition of these ideas lets us reclaim a portion of our past. People who are exploring the ideas that have historically bound women into predetermined roles can look to a long-standing alternative body of thought that gave women both dignity and independence, and this body of thought is as venerable as some of the most restrictive ideas. Furthermore, people who are trying to explore new ways of looking at sexuality that are not bound to the negative view articulated by the Church Fathers need not think they are working in a historical vacuum. Throughout the Christian era there have been men and women who have seen sexuality and the relationship between men and women in terms different from the patristic view that has dominated Western thought. Those ideas, too, are our intellectual history. In this alternative ascetic view that can still speak to us, the problem with sexuality lies not within our bodies but within social patterns that see biology as destiny, sexual intercourse as determining social intercourse, and a social intercourse that arbitrarily restricts freedom of choice.


1. Palladius, The Lausiac History, transl. Robert T. Meyer, London 1965, pp. 36—7.

2 "Vita Sanctae Heliae," Esc. an 9, fol. 91.

3. "Vita Sanctae Melaniae," Fr. a Il 9, fol. 109.

4. "Vitae Sanctae Constantinae," fol. 64v.

5. "Vita Sanctae Constantinae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 60v.

6. lbid.

7. "Vita Domne Marie Egiptie," Esc. a Il 9. fol. 125.

8. "Vin Sanctae Melaniae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 109.

9. "Vita Sanctae Constantina," Ec. a Il 9. fol. 60v.

10. Rosemary Radar, Breaking Boundaries: Male/Female Friendship in Early Christian Communities, New York 1983, p. 61.

11. Ibid., p. 109.

12. This same argument is sometimes made today. See, for example, V. S. Finn, "Two Ways of Loving," in Celibate Loving, ed. Mary Anne Huddleston, New York 1984, pp. 29—45, where she argues that a friendship without sex provides intimacy with freedom. On the other hand, a friendship with sex provides intimacy without freedom.

13. Jerome, "To Eustochium," p. 25; "Vita Domne Marie Egiptie," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 129v.

14. "Vita Sanctae Melanie," Esc. a Il 9, fol 99.

15. Ibid., fol. 104.

16. "Vita Sanctae Castisimae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 113.

17. "Vita Sanctae Pelagiae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 123.

18. "Vita Sanctae Melaniae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 97v.

19. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, transl. H. M. Parshley, New York 1968, p. 96.

20. Livy, From the Founding of the City, Book xxxiv, transl. Evan T. Sage, Cambridge, MA 1961, pp. 413-39.

21. Ibid, p. 437.

22. Bullough, The History of Prostitution, New York 1964, p. 48.

23. "Vita Sanctae Melaniae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 96v.

24. Ibid, fol. 100v.

25. There is abundant literature on the purposes and meaning of clothing, but a good, readable survey on the subject may be found in Alison Lurie, The Language Of Clothes, New York 1981.

26. "Vita Sanctae Melaniae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 112.

27. "Vita Domne Marie Egiptie," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 130.

28. "Vita Sanctae Constantinae", Esc. a Il 9, fol. 60v.

29. "Vita Sanctae Castissimae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 113v.

30. "Vita Sanctae Constantinae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 62.

31. "Vita Sanctae Constantinae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 61v.

32. "Vita Sanctae Melaniae," Esc. a Il 9, fol.108v.

33. "Vitae Sanctae Constantinae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 63.

34. "Vita Sanctae Melaniae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 103.

35. Ibid, fol. 103v.

36. Ibid., fol. 104. The Latin version of the Life Of Melania adds another discussion of obedience that is not in the Greek Life. In this version, obedience is seen in the hierarchy of bishops under the "prince of bishops," who in turn owes obedience to the synod. Since this view of obedience is inconsistent with all of Melania's other speeches and actions, I believe it was added by the Latin editor of the Greek Life to try to bring the Life into more conformity with patristic, hierarchic thought rather than the ascetic tradition. See Clark, Melania the Younger, p. 191.

37. "Vitae Sanctae Constantinae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 70.

38. "Vitae Sanctae Castissimae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 112v.

39. Wilkinson, p. 120.

40. "Vita Sanctae Melaniae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 99.

41. "Vita Domne Marie Egiptie," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 128.

42. "Vitae Sanctae Constantinae," Esc. a Il 9, fol. 66-66v.

43. "Vita Sanctae Melaniae," Esc. a Il 9, fols 110v.

44. Palladius, p. 17.

45. Ambrose, "Concerning Virgins," Nicene Fathers, vol. X, p. 380.

46. McNamara, A New Song, pp. 2–3.

47. Tertullian, "On the Veiling of Virgins," p.33.

48. Ibid, p. 28.