Kate Wilkinson. Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity. Cambridge Press, 2015.
Kate Wilkinson’s Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity argues that Christian ascetic modesty was challenging work. Women of aristocratic rank in the ancient Roman world lived with an array of modesty expectations—to be sexually pure, domestic, well covered, and frugal. In this respect, Christian ascetic modesty was not a new invention of ascetic theorists; rather, conventional pudicitia, or modesty/chastity, was infused with new spiritual meaning. While one might think of adherence to modesty standards in late antiquity as a pre-feminist subservience to “the patriarchy,” Wilkinson interjects an alternative narrative. She shows how these ascetic modesty behaviors were valuable attributes of a woman’s identity, requiring careful attention to the mediation of internal dispositions and outward appearance.
Wilkinson’s subjects are the early fifth-century Anicia women, and she analyzes the letters of advice from Augustine, Jerome, and Pelagius for ascetic theology and behavior. When the Anicii women cast-off their aristocratic identity to pursue a life of piety, they embodied, according to Wilkinson, a specific mode of women’s agency. To be clear, Wilkinson is not mapping a Western feminist sense of agency, which frames agency as resistance to oppressive patriarchal structures; instead, her aim is “to explore the agency implicit in ‘living into norms,’ not in subverting them” (90). Echoing the work of Saba Mahmood (Politics of Piety) and other post-colonial thinkers, Wilkinson argues that agency is present in the choice and navigation of social expectations. In this way, modesty could be a creative act of cultural identity formation.
Chapter 1 situates Wilkinson’s work in the broader field of feminist historiography. Feminist scholarship of antiquity has characteristically pursued one of two goals: either to retrieve lost history of real women or to analyze the rhetorical construction of women (See Elizabeth Clark’s “The Lady Vanishes: Dilemmas of a Feminist Historian after the ‘Linguistic Turn’” for the two sides in this conversation). Wilkinson situates herself between these aims, contending, “I am committed, however, to an attempt at the exploration of real women’s lives as they were influenced by and participated in these provisional and often contested ideal constructions of gender” (13). Wilkinson admits that the search for historical women within the pens of male authors is difficult, but she is committed to envisioning how Christian ascetic discourse might have shaped the lives of and brought meaning to real women.
In Chapters 2-4, Wilkinson considers how a woman could take ownership of her modesty by analyzing a range of modesty behaviors—such as dress, chastity, and speech—that served the production of an idealized pious self. For example, the first act of an ascetic elite woman like Demetrias was to cast off her rich fabrics and pearls and don the dull cloth of “a common tunic” and cover herself “in an even humbler mantle” (Jer, Ep. 130.5). However, this cloth is far from simple as the ascetic modesty discourse transformed the virgin veil “into scriptural cloth of very high value, a queen’s raiment” (41). Thus, the ordinary garb of ascetic women was reinvested with a prevailing ascetic discourse of value and social capital. A woman like Demetrias chose one set of cultural symbols for the other, her identity marked by her dress (a theme introduced in Kate Cooper’s The Virgin and The Bride).
In another example, Wilkinson examines the production of domesticity—a women’s place may be in the home, but the reputation of her home should be broadcast far and wide. Wilkinson begins with Rome writ large, analyzing Imperial Roman funerary sculpture and epigraphy. Etched phrases like “chaste, modest, decent” accompany images of styled hair and veils, descriptions of erotic intimacy mirror the composition of couples enjoining hands. In this way, the depiction of private domestic space upon funerary materials brought clout to the living household in the public domain. Transitioning to ascetic writers, Wilkinson identifies the same performative logic in the rhetoric of ascetic modesty. Pelagius, for example, advised Demetrias to limit the visitors to her home but to prepare the home nevertheless to appear sufficiently demure. Wilkinson observes, “The passage draws attention to the double necessity for the reputable women to both stay at home and be seen to stay at home” (69). Thus as domestic ideals are thrust upon Demetrias, she must choose when and how to perform them. Therefore her domesticity “is a state that is created by the careful negotiation of boundaries” (70).
In Chapters 5 and 6, Wilkinson considers the anxieties surrounding the performance of modesty—first from the Christian writers who fear “false” virgins and feigned authenticity and then from modern scholars themselves who wonder how authentic the modest woman’s agency might actually have been. Wilkinson argues that it is precisely because modesty was a performance that modesty was open to criticism. Jerome, for example, decries the hypocritical virgin who might garb herself in simple tunics, all the while accentuating her best physical features with “a prostitute’s skill” (127). Wilkinson observes the tension in patristic anxiety: “This public veiling can be a true act of modesty or the skillful posturing of a prostitute who knows when to follow social norms” (128).
Modern feminist scholarship, as well, can bring a skeptical and critical eye to ascetic women’s modesty, questioning how much agency is present in living into patriarchal standards. However, Wilkinson considers “modesty-as-agency” (141), arguing that the Christian writers take for granted the freedom, will, and capacity for the virginal woman to exercise modesty. A woman like Demetrias must exhibit some free will to choose to accept the Christian discourse of modesty, and its performance relies on her attention and care. To emphasize her point, Wilkinson weaves in accounts of Bedouin Egyptian and Hindu Indian veiling practices, considering how a woman can act within an established social discourse and fulfill it in her own way. Western audiences might perceive modesty as a constraint, yet Wilkinson argues the veil can create and maintain a woman’s public perception, such that modest dress is a valuable script of identity. It would be an injustice to ascetic women to view their acceptance of virginal conditions in exchange for heavenly rewards as delusional or wrong; rather, Wilkinson contends we should take seriously their commitment to join Christ’s brides as we analyze the dialectical relationships between discourse and performance.
Modesty was a social value that took particular forms, not necessarily as an ascetic woman’s radical resistance to patriarchal expectations nor as a mere discursive creation of a patristic program. A woman is bound by her reputation, and though it is informed by society, she can choose to perform it—that reputation supplies her identity. Wilkinson convincingly demonstrates that modesty was neither meaningless nor trite work, but a significant performance in the making of a pious self.
 Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin (2013): 41. “Fundamentally, pudicitia was the corporal integrity of a freeborn woman, untouched until marriage, vouchsafed for one man within marriage.“
 Proba, a widow, lived with both her widowed daughter-in-law Juliana and Juliana’s early teenage daughter Demetrias in the early fifth century C.E.
Krista Dalton is a PhD student at Columbia University and an editor at AJR. @KristaNDalton