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Reviewed by:
  • Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles
  • Virginia Burrus
Gillian Clark. Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. 178 pages. $14.95.

Faltonia Betitia Proba’s Cento stands almost alone among the female-authored texts surviving from late antiquity. As Gillian Clark points out, cento is “Latin for a patchwork cloak,” and Proba’s Christianizing recycling of Virgilian fragments serves as a peculiarly apt metaphor for Clark’s own task: constructing a history of women, she too “work[s] with the prestigious literary forms developed by men, and use[s] them to make her different commitment acceptable and convincing” (p. 4). Clark’s “different commitment” to women’s history is communicated straightforwardly in the title of her book, Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles, a patchwork constructed from the fabrics of legal and medical texts as well as the philosophical and theological treatises and letters more familiar to patristic scholars. The author never loses sight of the fact that her sources include no more than fragments of women’s views or experiences—fragments notoriously scarce and unreliable at that. Nevertheless, exercising a sharp eye, a collector’s patience, and a keen sense of pattern, Clark is able to make of her snippets “something useful” indeed. “If [the patchwork] looks good, that is a bonus,” she notes with characteristic practicality, adding that her “sympathies are with frugal housewives” who make the most of whatever is at hand (p. 4).

This eminently useful patchwork does offer several bonuses. It literally “looks good”: the five black-and-white plates are a modest but fitting contribution to a work that remains consistently attuned to the material conditions and textures of women’s daily lives, from contraception to cooking to clothes. Far more significant in this case, the book reads well. Clark is a remarkably lucid writer, and she has produced a work that is both wise and accessible; even the occasional invocation of more “theoretical” terms like “discourse” or “the male gaze” does not disrupt the matter-of-fact clarity of her voice. Though the well-referenced text displays ample evidence of its author’s wide reading, it remains relatively unencumbered by lengthy commentary on other scholarship. As a result, Clark’s encounter [End Page 253] with the ancient texts takes on a quality of directness and immediacy, whether she is wondering about the heat source that cooked an omelette (p. 96) or how menstrual cloths were constructed and kept in place (p. 77), glossing her interpretation of a text with the humorous aside that “Jerome (as usual) is concerned about sexuality” (p. 111), or noting parallels between female asceticism in late antiquity and “the efforts of women in the 1960s and 1970s to escape from the feminine role” (p. 141). In keeping with its author’s respect for frugality, the book is not overly long: a “patchwork cloak” of modest size, it is both sturdily constructed and artfully fashioned to cover just those areas previously left bare. At a time when specialized studies proliferate, Clark’s work fills a clear need for a basic text that focuses on women in the period not of classical but of late antiquity and gives equal attention to Christian and pagan sources.

The first two chapters rely primarily upon the evidence of the law codes assembled under Theodosius II and Justinian. Clark carefully notes the many problems associated with interpreting the late Roman legal codes but nonetheless maintains that such sources can tell us something about “the general conditions under which women lived, what they were thought to be like, how they were protected or restricted, and how opinions differed” (p. 13). Chapter 1, “Law and Morality,” focuses on marriage and divorce, while chapter 2, “Tolerance, Prohibition, and Protection,” ranges more broadly in order to encompass both the legal status of other relationships entered into by women, on the one hand, and the law codes’ assumptions about “women’s weakness” and the consequent female need to be protected and controlled, on the other. Topics dealt with in this second chapter include the relationships legally available to prostitutes, actresses, or slaves, legal aspects of childbearing, and legal ramifications...

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