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Reviewed by:
  • Handmaids of the Lord: Contemporary Descriptions of Feminine Asceticism in the First Six Centuries
  • Teresa M. Shaw
Joan M. Petersen, translator and editor. Handmaids of the Lord: Contemporary Descriptions of Feminine Asceticism in the First Six Centuries. Cistercian Studies Series, 143 Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1996 Pp. 441. $49.95 (hd); $24.95 (pb).

In this volume of the Cistercian Studies Series, the late Joan M. Petersen has gathered English translations of texts representative of female asceticism in eastern and western Christianity from the fourth to the sixth century. Her translations and introductions are directed primarily to general readers having interests in late antiquity, early Christianity, or women and religion. The selection of texts includes: Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina, eight of Jerome’s Epistles to ascetic women, selections from Palladius’ Lausiac History concerning the two Melanias, Gerontius’ Life of Melania the Younger, and three texts concerning Radegunde, a sixth-century monastic founder and collector of relics in Poitiers. There are apparently no previous English translations of the two Lives of Radegunde by Fortunatus and Baudonivia. Readers will find Petersen’s translations refreshing, particularly in comparison to those of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series. She has generally avoided non-inclusive language where the Greek and Latin permit alternative readings, as well as other archaic forms such as “thy” or “lusteth.” Curiously, she and the series editors chose to reprint S. L. Greenslade’s translations of Epistles 107 and 108 as well as his rather unforgiving introduction to Jerome.

In a substantial historical introduction to female ascetic lifestyles in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Petersen familiarizes the reader to key developments, individuals, and textual evidence. She also includes shorter introductions to each author and text. The notes concentrate on biographical information and historical background for people and events mentioned in the texts, with references to related primary sources and biblical citations; notes accompanying the Radegunde selections are fuller. A bibliography of primary texts and suggestions for further reading appears at the end, and a map of the Mediterranean region is found inside the front and back covers. [End Page 337]

Petersen’s volume is a substantial and valuable collection of sources providing a good introduction to female asceticism and monasticism. It would serve an undergraduate or introductory course by its inclusion of both eastern and western materials as well as by the inclusion of both “standard” texts such as Jerome’s Epistle 22 to Eustochium and lesser-known sources such as the Lives of Radegunde. The fact that she has translated the complete texts, and not just excerpts, is a real bonus. And her introductions and notes offer enough historical information to orient the reader who is unfamiliar with the period or the literature.

A few possible limitations should be noted. First, Petersen set out to address a wide audience. Because there are intentionally very few references to secondary materials or to recent scholarly discussion, the volume may not be of great use for students conducting further research. Indeed, Petersen chose not to include chapter or section numbers in any of her translations, which would make it difficult and frustrating to refer back to these texts in order to find a particular passage cited in another study. In addition, some readers of this journal may squirm at the sometimes pious tone of Petersen’s prose, for example when she discusses Macrina or Melania as role models for contemporary devotion and spirituality (47–48, 296). She criticizes contemporary scholarship that relates ancient women’s piety to contemporary feminist concerns (without citing any offenders), noting that “these women were not out to demonstrate anything except their love of God and their faithfulness to their calling” (34). Finally, a fair number of typos litter the pages; most are only irritating, but some are more serious and confusing. For example, in Jerome’s description of life as a race-course (Ep. 22.3), instead of “we contend here, we are crowned elsewhere” we read “we contend here, we are downed elsewhere” (172), an eschatological goal that may strike some as unappealing!

Overall, however, Handmaids of the Lord is a welcome collection of primary sources and should prove...

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