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  • Children and Asceticism in Late Antiquity: Continuity, Family Dynamics, and the Rise of Christianity by Ville Vuolanto
  • Margaret Y. MacDonald
Ville Vuolanto Children and Asceticism in Late Antiquity: Continuity, Family Dynamics, and the Rise of Christianity Surrey, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2015 Pp. 263. $127.00.

In studying the intersection between families, the lives of children, and asceticism in the development of early Christianity, Ville Vuolanto certainly breaks new ground. He describes his original contribution succinctly in the first chapter: "This is the first book-length study to analyse the interplay of asceticism, family life and children in early Christian ideology, and also the first to scrutinize in depth the role of children in the actual family dynamics of the Roman world" (4).

Vuolanto is indebted to the extensive body of literature on asceticism, including the discussions of origins, the shape of the phenomenon, and attempts at definition. He defines asceticism for his own purposes as "a physically and mentally disciplined life" which is based on practices leading to the contemplative life and "the control of the passions, abstinence from physical comforts and pleasures, and the renunciation of worldly power and wealth" (5). He makes clear, however, that his main interest is not primarily asceticism in all of its various manifestations, but rather the relationship between asceticism and family history of the late Roman world. He offers an example early in the study of the potential fruitfulness of the approach, noting that by the end of the fourth century, especially in the West, the majority of women ascetics remained connected with "ordinary households (home asceticism)" (5). Here he builds upon the interests of scholars working on families and children at earlier stages of church history (e.g., Halvor Moxnes, David L. Balch, and Carolyn Osiek) but moves to the fourth and fifth centuries, which to date have been of little interest (an exception, as noted by Vuolanto, is Odd Magne Bakke) (10). Yet, the heart of Vuolanto's original contribution lies in examining the interaction between family dynamics and asceticism when one brings children to the center of investigation.

The body of literature analyzed is focused on the late fourth and early fifth centuries c.e. There is particular concentration on Western sources, mainly from Italy and North Africa, but attention is also given to Eastern sources, especially from Roman Cappadocia and Syria, in addition to texts from southern Gaul that figure primarily in comparative discussions. Texts from ecclesiastical writers of the period are central, especially letters from such Western authors as Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Paulinus of Nola, and Augustine of Hippo. But texts and treatises on virginity and widowhood are also important, supplemented by the legislation and canons of the ecclesiastical councils of the day and hagiographic accounts. Vuolanto is aware of the competing viewpoints on asceticism in this era and the impact of ancient literature created by elite men "to whom the family was not the center of interest when they acted in public life" (17). Nevertheless, the predominance of epistolary material from the Nicaean authors leads to a concentration "on the writings of the side which ultimately emerged as the winners in ecclesiastical struggles of the fourth and fifth centuries" (15).

A major feature of Vuolanto's distinctive approach is the detailed attention [End Page 330] given to continuity strategies. This theme offers the foundation for the theoretical underpinnings of the study, which draw upon social scientific concepts, methodologies emerging from rhetorical analysis, and historical interpretation (e.g., from the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Robert J. Lifton). The attention given to progeny, inheritance, and ultimately immortality leads to original assessments of family dynamics and the implications of asceticism. Such probing questions shape the analysis: "People strove for continuity of their property and privilege—but what about their memory and reputation, cultural values or identities, their afterlife?" (25) Chapter One sets out a framework for continuity strategies, including a helpful chart (41) that divides strategies into two main parts: welfare during lifetime (survival, advancement); and continuity after death (patrimony, offspring, immanent continuity, transcendental continuity).

The body of the discussion is divided into seven chapters followed by a conclusion. Chapters Two to Four concentrate...


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