Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity by Kate Wilkinson
Wilkinson's new monograph holds up the women of the Anicii family as a case study through which to query the nature of modesty in the late antique Roman world. Throughout her study, Wilkinson stresses the performative nature of modesty (rather than modesty conceived as an internal state). Specifically, in chapters 2–4 she focuses readers' attention on the myriad ways in which late ancient women's modesty was constructed and interpreted in their dress, their voice, their comportment, and their relation to and movement through certain spaces. This focus on performativity enables Wilkinson to highlight the self-conscious and strategic calculations women made on a day-to-day basis, stressing their agency in defining the contours of modesty in antiquity.
Wilkinson acknowledges that our sources are limited in that they provide us scant access into these day-to-day choices. She aims to fill these gaps with the help of comparative ethnographic material. Ethnographic intertexts, she asserts, provide insight into how often and in what ways Roman women were actively engaged in rich yet subtle acts of self-expression, self-formation, and self-conscious performances of modesty. Thick descriptions of women's dress in other contexts, for instance, alert us to the wearer's choices regarding how to arrange their garments, as well as choices regarding the decoration, color, and pattern of clothing. Further, ethnographic sources attune scholars to the varied audiences women keep in mind as they craft their appearance and, in turn, construct their public personae. With this comparative material in mind, we return to late ancient sources able to see the similar choices available to Roman women (at least, to aristocratic women like the Aniciae). For instance, extant material evidence suggests that Romans could change out the decorative hems of their tunics, and women were continually making choices about how to hold, fold, drape, pin or belt the cloth of their mantles (a particularly unwieldy garment). We also read anew ancient men's voluminous advice and urgent recommendations regarding modesty as no longer mere constraints put upon women, but also as revealing the degree of choice women had with respect to complying, negotiating, or rejecting their male mentors' wishes and the significance of their decisions.
Throughout these chapters, Wilkinson insists that we attribute agency to women when they chose to conform to the conventions of modesty determined by men, as much as we attribute agency to women who resist or subvert patriarchal social norms. Following Saba Mahmood—whose analytical insights reverberate throughout the [End Page 522] book—Wilkinson argues that "living into" traditional modesty norms, even those norms that may seem to contemporary readers to be antithetical to the exertion of free will and agency, nonetheless were opportunities for ancient women's active self-formation and self-representation. As such, Wilkinson joins a cadre of scholars who want to correct the impression that women's historical agency can only be revealed in cases when women are "shown to represent a counter-discourse or an undercurrent of resistance to patriarchy" (90).
In Chapter 5, perhaps the most provocative in the book, Wilkinson surveys early Christian discussions that pit internal modesty (that is, modest motivations, disposition, desires) against external displays of modesty (the performances discussed in previous chapters). She finds that early Christians worried about "false" modesty—namely, pious external appearances or displays that obfuscated an impious interiority—even while they remained confident in the ultimate reliability of appearances. No matter how competent individuals were at performing modesty, they concluded, without a truly modest nature, their immodesty would eventually surface in externalities. Previous scholars who have commented on these sources highlight the manner in which (male) early Christian leaders claimed authority and expertise to interpret appearances rightly and to distinguish authentic from inauthentic piety. Wilkinson, on the contrary, wishes to shift our reading. To her, these discussions illuminate how internal modesty collapses into external performances of modesty, further demonstrating the stakes of performativity and thus the "rigorous exercise of attention and intellect" required of women who wished to be and to be regarded as modest (132). As such, the work involved in "'seeming' modest as well as being modest begins to look like a full-time job" (56).
At the end of the book, after several chapters that urge us to recognize the activity involved in constructing modesty, Wilkinson considers how the Aniciae women themselves would have conceived of their moral agency in light of the theological debates in which their mentors were embroiled: namely, the so-called Pelagian controversy. If they listened to Pelagius, on the one hand, they would have been urged to embrace the freedom they possessed to act rightly, constrained only by the force of bad habits. Moral merit, "unlike the accrued political merits of her family and the honor due to her because of her wealth and high birth," could be regarded as "hers alone and truly her own" because it was freely chosen (147). If they were persuaded by Augustine, on the other hand, they would have credited God with implanting in them a desire for piety, as well as for enabling them through God's grace to act piously, thus seeing their piety and modesty as gifts to safeguard. Either way, Wilkinson suggests, the Aniciae women would have understood the special import of their moral agency and their modest activities whether because fully in their control or because they wished to secure God's gift.
In short, Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity is a compelling and enjoyable read. While some readers may not respond to Wilkinson's comparative methodology, which requires us to employ our historical imagination and bases its findings in plausibility, I found her approach to be a measured and ingenious way to speculate about the experience of ancient women when our sources fail to provide us access to such information. [End Page 523] Other readers (including myself) may want more robust discussions of terms (pudicitia, modestia, verecundia, castitas), discussions of the manner in which ancient modesty was gendered (that is, when and how modesty was inflected as a feminine or masculine virtue and immodesty was inflected as a feminine or masculine vice), and deeper engagement with the scholarship on the early Christian sources she discusses. These, however, are minor quibbles. Most will agree that Wilkinson succeeds in pushing the scholarly conversation on a well-worn topic in a new direction and that her book will stimulate fresh methods and insights in the work of those who follow her lead.