- Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity by Kate Wilkinson
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015
Pp. ix + 174. £62.00.
In a 2009 retrospective review of Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy Fast (University of California Press, 1987) published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin (37.1), R. Marie Griffith pays tribute to Bynum’s “appetite for full humanity,” “her humane insistence on the dignity and complexity of her subjects.” Bynum, Griffith notes, provided a corrective to earlier feminist models by insisting that her medieval women subjects were not merely “creatures constrained and impelled by society’s notions of the female as inferior.” Women’s internalized misogyny or their brave resistance to patriarchal norms were not the only stories a feminist historian could tell. Religious women acted as agents—as subjects of freedom and producers of knowledge—in the midst of (and often in support of) structures that called for women’s submission to male authority.
Kate Wilkinson’s book stands in the tradition of feminist historical scholarship of which Bynum and Griffith are a part. Recalling the text of a bumper sticker that reads “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History,” Wilkinson turns her attention to the late ancient women left out of this style of history making. Well-behaved women—modest, demure, submissive women—made history. “Doing modesty was a part of [women’s] participation in history,” she argues (26). The group of modest (and famously wealthy) women that Wilkinson investigates, three-generations of the Anicii family in late fourth- and early fifth-century Rome, worked to “live up to the cultural ideal of feminine decorum” (160). [End Page 665] Their modesty was learned, trained, performative, and perfected over time. The traditionally feminine practices that Wilkinson examines and that structure the book—modest dress, seclusion, quietness, and the cultivation of a modest interior disposition—are often grouped as “passive” performances that contribute to the silencing or erasure of women. Wilkinson re-evaluates these practices, however, as a “set of social performances, a collection of ‘doings’ that contributes to the maintenance of a modest personhood” (18). She argues that these practices are best understood in light of their public and social nature. Women’s spectacular performances of modesty are imbricated in important theological debates of the time, not only in discussions of gender and asceticism but also free will and moral agency.
The most important contribution of this book lies in its application of theoretical insights of Saba Mahmood (Politics of Piety) to the history of late ancient Christian women. Mahmood’s presentation of the ways that pious women pursue projects of freedom apart from the resistance to male authority informs Wilkinson’s entire book. In Chapter One, Wilkinson situates Mahmood’s work as part of the theoretical underpinning of her study and positions herself in contrast to feminist historians of early Christianity who have too often tracked women’s agency by attending solely to those women who resisted patriarchal norms. Wilkinson argues that “by concentrating on moments when ancient Christian women seemed to have protested or escaped the norms of their communities, feminist historians of the early church have failed to explore some of the most interesting and numerous examples and possibilities for women’s agency, the ways that they ‘lived into the norms’” (22–23).
Another compelling contribution of the book lies in its comparative analysis. Wilkinson turns to feminist ethnographies of women in contemporary West and South Asia and to material evidence from the imperial and late Roman eras to provide a new way of thinking about the Anicii women’s performances of modesty. She states that the contemporary ethnographic material is used not to argue for similarities between early Christian ascetics and twentieth-century South Asian women per se but, rather, to “further decenter a tacit understanding of the person as a Western, liberal person” (26). Wilkinson’s case for the necessity of decentering the Western liberal subject when examining late ancient women is persuasive. Likewise, her use of Roman funerary sculpture as an entry point for a “historical imagination” of the complex lives of the Anicii family is carefully and vividly rendered, particularly in...