- The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography
Dedicated to the pioneering scholar of late ancient studies, Duke University's Elizabeth Clark, The Cultural Turn offers specialists and students fifteen innovative essays in the fields of gender, asceticism, historiography, and Mediterranean history, c. 100-700 A.D. Dale Martin's fine introduction to the collection surveys cultural approaches to the study of late antiquity, maps out the intellectual heritages of new methodologies, and underscores the interdisciplinary nature of this exciting field. In so doing, Martin makes available for graduate students preparing for comprehensive exams a handy overview of the last thirty years of scholarship on late antiquity, from the field's origins in patristic studies to its fusion with social and cultural history, as well as anthropology, the philosophy of language, and linguistics. Acknowledging late antiquity's debt to the field work of cultural anthropologists, Martin notes that intrepid scholars must now "enter a world—a different and somewhat odd world—much the way an ethnographer would enter a foreign culture"(p. 5).
The fifteen essays then navigate the steadfast reader through the complexities of this "odd world,"focusing on diverse topics such as Susan Harvey's inventive study of the gendered, liturgical speech of Syrian Christians and its performative spaces, to Blake Leyerle's provocative analysis of desert ascetic prohibitions against oral violence, that is, meat-eating or slanderous speech, itself considered a kind of symbolic cannibalism. James Goehring traces the export of the mythic Egyptian desert as exotic exchange-commodity, from its hagiographical origins to its Gallo-Roman reinvention. Equally intriguing are the intellectual forays into the body-history of late antiquity, including spiritual tattooing on virginal flesh (Virginia Burrus) and the "grotesque" bodies of harlot-saints (Patricia Cox Miller). David Brakke meticulously negotiates the charged territory between gender theory and women's history by arguing that rhetorical portraits of women in early ascetic texts do have "concrete effects for real women"(p. 27). Maureen Tilley moves the reader into the social realm of women's history by excavating Augustine of Hippo's epistles penned to elite female recipients in order to recover "information about historical women"(p. 41).
In his essay on Theodoret, the fifth-century bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria, Philip Rousseau encapsulates perfectly the tension inherent in this field between literary and historical methodologies:"a key problem in late ancient [End Page 292] studies in recent years, especially for historians, has been the problem of access . . . are we truly getting in touch, so to speak, with the peoples of a remote past?Or are we condemned, rather, to be mere aesthetes, judging in the terms of our own times. . ."(p. 278). Rousseau challenges his readers to bridge the gap between this alien past and the familiar present by presenting them with a Bishop Theodoret whose epistemology and subjectivity turn out to be "quite modern in their tone"(p. 281). In contrast, Daniel Boyarin, drawing on the methodologies of New Historicism, invites his readers to contemplate the chasm separating modern interpreters from the (unknown) crafters of early rabbinic texts.
Identity politics play a central role in the chapters devoted to the study of heresy in late antiquity (Teresa Shaw, Averil Cameron, David Hunter) and the intersection of classical and Christian paideia (Susanna Elm, Mark Vessey, Dennis Trout). Whereas Cameron looks to Byzantine heresiologies for jewels of poetic inspiration, Trout turns to the poet of the martyrs, Pope Damascus, to chart the transformation of civic identity and public memory in fourth-century Rome. Trout ventures into spatial and visual theory (something one might expect even more of in this cutting-edge collection) by incorporating the work of French sociologist Henri Lefebvre and art historian Jaś Elsner. Overall, there is much to admire in The Cultural Turn, from its balance of literary and historical readings of the past to its disciplinary range and theoretical creativity.