Ive been back again reading Kate Coopers The Virgin and the Bride, which is not only a very useful book for considering late antiquity, but as Ive already indicated, has a surprising number of contemporary resonances in considering the links between religion, gender and social reputation. At the core of her book are several chapters on what one could call the asceticism war of the western Roman empire in 380s till the early fifth century. The fourth century had seen major changes to the Christian church, with it becoming first tolerated and then the official religion of the Roman Empire and with the gradual conversion of the senatorial elite. The asceticism war was really about how an old social hierarchy based on birth and wealth could be reconciled with the moral hierarchies which had developed in a Christian sub-culture. On one side were Christian authors such as Ambrose and Jerome who saw ascetics and virgins as true Christians and others as inferior; on the other was a traditional view that saw holiness as located in the Christianised household, focused on a married couple living in conjugal harmony.
The achievement of Cooper (following Peter Brown) and other recent scholars is to show that the verbal conflicts between these sides werent simply a matter of True Christians like Jerome trying to tackle a few backsliders who were really pagans. (This has been the traditional view, mainly because the ascetics were the winners and the texts that their opponents wrote are rarely preserved). Instead the ascetics were a shrill minority, trying to separate Christians from a social structure that had been Christianised, but was still traditional. And this small but very influential minority used some fairly nasty tactics, particularly Jerome. As readers of earlier entries may know, Im not fond of Jerome, and nor is Cooper. He gets accused in the book of opportunism, vulgarity and also sanctimonious posturing. The asceticism war and particularly Jeromes contributions to it accentuated and possibly even created some of the worst aspects of the Christian tradition: its misogyny, its negative attitude to almost all sexual acts. Seeing its impact (still felt today, particularly in the Catholic church), its easy to conclude not only that this outcome wasnt inevitable but that the wrong side won the war.
And yet, as I look again at it, Im no longer so sure. A model of Christianity based around the holy household and the married couple has in many ways far more to offer the majority of Christian women, then and now. But this model, as Cooper points out, was essentially a traditional Christianity, containing Christian behaviour within existing social structures of the pre-Christian world. As Peter Brown suggests, if Christianity has not become a religion of two ways (the ordinary family and the celibate elite) it would have probably have ended up with a sexual morality much like that of traditional Judaism or Islam, focusing on control of wives and daughters within the house. A religion that does not sanction moving outside family tradition for women (or indeed men) is less amenable not just to the development of womens potential, but arguably to all sense of individualism. (This isnt to argue that individualism cant be seen within Islam or Judaism, just that it is less central to their religious traditions). Christianity preserved a sense that conversion could involve a radical break with an individuals past and a necessary abandonment of all pre-existing commitments, including ones family. Such a view, inherent in the gospels, could easily have become seen after the Christianisation of the Roman Empire as suitable only for the early church, to be marvelled at but not repeated. Instead the fourth century church institutionalised the possibility of radicalism (for both men and women) in clerical and monastic orders. Yet the radical possibility remained there as a resource for the future, whether in the innumerable visionaries and eccentrics founding their own Christian sects or orders, or the Christian men and women who felt justified in putting their personal relationship with Christ before social conventions. With a different outcome in the asceticism war, I think such claims to individual truth may have become harder to make. Perhaps, after all, the providence of God ordained that even Jerome was of use.