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  • 7/22/2019 Clark, E. A. Antifamilial Tendencies in Ancient Christianity. Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 (1995), pp. 356-380


    Antifamilial Tendencies in Ancient ChristianityAuthor(s): Elizabeth A. ClarkSource: Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Jan., 1995), pp. 356-380Published by: University of Texas PressStable URL:

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  • 7/22/2019 Clark, E. A. Antifamilial Tendencies in Ancient Christianity. Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 (1995), pp. 356-380


    Antifamilial Tendencies in Ancient ChristianityELIZABETH A. CLARKDepartment ofReligionDuke University

    EARLYN THE FIFTH CENTURY,he churchather eromewroteto a highborn Christian widow named Geruchia, exhorting her not toremarry. Although earlier in his letter Jerome had tried to shame herpresumed indecision by pointing to the chastity of various pagan reli-gious officiants, from the flamen Dialis to the Vestal Virgins, he sud-denly seized upon an example whose function it was to impress uponGeruchia the immorality of pagan marital customs.' While working inRome as a papal secretary some twenty-five years earlier,Jerome reports,he had witnessed an event that had stirred all the city: the marriage of acouple in which "the man had already buried twenty wives and thewoman had had twenty-two husbands." Jerome's disgust at this displayof excessive nuptiality is palpable.2Yet the incoherence of Jerome's rhet-oric-Are pagans more or less maritally upright than Christians?-be-traysits ideological function. If pagan marriagewas to suffer such a crisisof representation (or misrepresentation) at the hands of Christian au-thors, did the depiction of Christian marriage and family devotion re-ceive more "realistic"expression from its advocates?Was, for example, the claim of the soon-to-be martyred Phileas, inthe presence of his despondent wife and children, that not they, but theapostles and martyrs, were his "parentes et propinquos" less ideologi-'Jerome p.123.7.1 Corpuscriptorumcclesiasticorumatinorumhereafter,SEL]56.80);Jerome orrows ere romTertullian'se exhortatioastitatis3. (Throughout

    these ootnotes, umberingsf Greek ndLatin exts ollow hat n theeditions sed,which ometimesifferrom henumberingsound ntranslations.)2JeromeEp.123.9.1-2 CSEL6.82-83).[JournaloftheHistory fSexuality 995,vol. 5, no. 3]@ 1995 byTheUniversity f Chicago.Allrightsreserved. 043-4070/95/0503-0005$01.00


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  • 7/22/2019 Clark, E. A. Antifamilial Tendencies in Ancient Christianity. Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 (1995), pp. 356-380


    Antifamilial Tendencies n Ancient Christianity 357cally constructed?3 Or the report that when Melania the Elder lost herhusband and two of her three children in rapid succession, she thankedGod for relieving her of such a great burden?4Or the tale recounted byJohn Cassian of a would-be monk who, upon leaving his wife, told herthat if Moses allowed wives to be divorced for the hardness of theirhearts, why should not Christ allow this for the desire of chastity?'Thesestories do not, I think, typify the behavior of most early Christians, anymore than Jerome's tale of the much-married couple exemplified cus-tomary pagan practice. Yet there is an important difference in the twoinstances: Jerome's report of the pagan couple who had seen forty-threemarriages ran up against a nostalgic ideology of Roman marriage, whilethe words of the Christian renunciants here cited encapsulate the domi-nant ascetic ideology of late ancient Christian authors.6As classicist Suzanne Dixon has emphasized, the "sentimental ideal"of the once-married Roman matron emerged as a topos at the very mo-ment that its basis in an operative system of property had crumbled;nonetheless, it persisted throughout the Imperial era to fire the moraland religious imagination of Romans.7 The ideal of the univira, Dixonwrites, "assumed a static property system in which women moved onlyonce in a lifetime, taking with them their intestate portion, which re-mained with their conjugal family whether they died in the marriage or

    3Acta Phileae6, in TheActsofthe ChristianMartyrs,d. HerbertMusurillo Oxford,1972), pp. 348, 350. On theideologicalconstruction f gender ssues nearlyChristianity,seemy"Ideology,History,andtheConstruction f 'Woman'n LateAncientChristianity,"JournalofEarlyChristianStudies (1994): 155-84.4JeromeEp.39.5.4 (CSEL54.305).5JohnCassianConlationes1.9 (SourcesChritienneshereafter, C]64.83); althoughthe biblicalreference itedis Matt. 19:29, only the Lucanversionof the pericope Luke14:26) contains he wordwife; ee Matt. 19:8 on "hardnessf heart."6WhereasBrent Shaw contrasts he "seemingdiscontinuity" etweenthe traditionalRoman deologyof the familyandthe "experience"f Augustine's somewhatChristian)family, proposeto note the discontinuitybetweenboth traditional aganand Christianfamilialdeas,on the one hand,and Christian scetic deals,on the other,with what ittlewe canglimpseof socialandlegal"realities." ee BrentD. Shaw,"TheFamilyn LateAn-tiquity:TheExperience f Augustine," astandPresent, o. 115 (1987), pp. 3-51. For ananthropologist'sautionagainstoverreliance n law for an understanding f marriagenother,or past,societies,see PierreBourdieu,"Marriage trategiesas Strategies f SocialReproduction,"rans.E. Forster,n FamilyandSociety:electionsromtheAnnales,Econo-mies,Socitits,Civilisations,d. RobertForster nd OrestRanum 1972; Baltimore, 976),pp. 117-44. Given he well-knownprinciplehat Roman awoftendraggedbehindcurrentsocialreality e.g., RichardSaller,"RomanHeirshipStrategiesn Principle ndPractice,"in TheFamily n Italy rom Antiquityto thePresent, d. David I. KertzerandRichardP.Saller New Haven,CT,1991], p. 29), the factthat,regardingawspertainingo marriedwomen, the church fathers were often more conservative than even the law is worth noting.7SuzanneDixon, TheRomanFamily Baltimore, 992), pp. 77, 88-89.

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  • 7/22/2019 Clark, E. A. Antifamilial Tendencies in Ancient Christianity. Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 (1995), pp. 356-380


    358 ELIZABETHA. CLARKnot."8 The reality of Roman marital life, she notes, was quite differentfrom this "sentimental ideal": "the exposure of children, the failure tomourn many young children, arranged marriages, violence and coldnesswithin the family, casual divorce, and remarriage on divorce or widow-hood."9 The shift from a "merged to a separate regime" of property is,according to Dixon, "the most significant historical development in Ro-man marriage"-which probably can be correlated with the changed ex-pectation that a woman might well marry more than once and henceneeded to have relative control over her own property.'0For Christians, the "reality"of marriagewas not necessarily different.Letters, sermons, and ecclesiastical decrees constitute an unhappy recordof Christian men sleeping with slaves, raping nuns, frequenting brothels,and going to "sex shows" at which girls swam naked; of Christianwomen divorcing their husbands; of Christian parents "leasing" theirchildren into slavery." Nonetheless, the Roman "sentimental ideal" ofmatronhood-even faithful, devoted matronhood-was demoted byChristian authors in favor of the virgin's exaltation. The prize of the"one-hundred-fold harvest" now went to the virgin, while the marriedwoman was relegated to "thirtyfold" status.'2 It was not just that classi-cal ideas of pietas and marital loyalty often failed in practice (pagansthemselves knew this) but that the theory of filial and parental devotionhad received a crushing blow. This essay,then, does not so much concernthe "real"family of Christian antiquity,nor the familyas praised in senti-mental rhetoric, but the ideology of antifamilialism, by which I mean apropagandistic attack on the familywhose effect (whatever its intention)is to bolster the power of ecclesiastical leaders and their