Dana Robinson, Food and Lay Piety in Late Antiquity (Catholic University of America, 2016).
The most important meal in the daily life of early Christians was not the Eucharist, but rather the ordinary domestic supper. The fourth century bishop John Chrysostom regarded the elite dining room as the most dangerous part of the house because of its similarities to the theater, which he famously abhorred as a cause of urban vice. He proposed an alternative script for Christian dining: instead of theatrical songs and raillery, psalm-singing and Scripture-reading; instead of elaborate sauces and marble paneling, simple fare and repentance; instead of envy and social climbing, true friendship and inclusion of the poor. Through such exchanges the Christian could transform the domestic banquet from a display of vice into a training ground for virtue, and convert the household into a little church.
My dissertation-to-book project, The Common Table: Food, Virtue, and Community in Early Christianity, argues that the developing public face of Christian lay piety in the fourth and fifth centuries CE owes much to the food culture of Greco-Roman households. The basic metaphors of virtue in Christian discourse — health, fruit, sacrifice — are rooted in the agricultural and socio-economic realities of food in the Greco-Roman world. But as we learn from cognitive metaphor theorists like George Lakoff, food metaphors are more than mere literary devices. They structure the imagination in particularly compelling ways thanks to their deep connection with lived experience and biological reality. They also reach into the physical spaces where food is produced, distributed, and eaten. Just as pre-modern economic networks track along with food supply patterns, so the pious landscapes of early Christianity take shape around the performance of food-based social rituals.
In addition to space and metaphor theory, my work is also broadly informed by social anthropology, in its emphasis on food as a communicative system in which cultural ideology and biological imperatives interact. Michael Dietler calls food (and drink) “embodied material culture,” noting that it is unique among products of human culture because it is “…created specifically to be destroyed, but destroyed through the transformative process of ingestion into the human body.” This quality entwines food particularly tightly with constructions of personal identity and difference, experiences of memory and emotion, or exercises of power, resistance, and social change. These “technologies of the body” (in Yannis Hamilakis’ useful expression), these concepts of embodiment and process, are foundational to my analysis.
I trace these landscapes of food, rhetoric, space, and bodies through three case studies of Christian leaders and their communities in the late fourth and early fifth centuries: John Chrysostom, Shenoute of Atripe, and Paulinus of Nola (a new addition for the book version). Each of them uses traditional food metaphors to capture the moral imagination, but they tend to focus on different semantic fields with varying points of emphasis. While each preacher interacts with local households, their individual experiences color and inform their divergent attitudes toward local food practices and their spatial orientation toward the Christian community.
The first section of each case study explores the cognitive metaphor systems underlying each figure’s typical rhetoric about food and virtue. For example, Chrysostom’s Lenten sermons build on the locally accepted custom of fasting to develop a holistic model for progress in virtue that he calls the “true” fast. This metaphor is grounded in the medical discourse of antiquity, in which health is a state of balance and ideal consumption is regulated by the needs of the body. Moderation, as an ostensibly objective dietary standard, becomes an ethical standard as well, the Aristotelian ur-virtue of a uniquely lay-oriented ascesis.
Shenoute, the subject of my second case study, takes a different metaphorical approach to ascesis in his public sermons. Plants, agriculture, food production and wine-making metaphors are particularly prominent in his virtue rhetoric; a theme most strikingly encapsulated by his remark that the goal of Christian formation is to become food acceptable to Jesus. This shift in the imaginative model from food consumption to food production both naturalizes the labor of ascesis and alters the experiential framework from renunciation to transformation.
For my third figure, Paulinus of Nola, food serves as both literal and metaphorical currency in the gift economy that links St. Felix with his earthly devotees. Paulinus constructs his personal friendship with Felix — and martyr piety generally — as a system that functions as a hybrid of aristocratic patronage networks and sacrificial cult. Food offerings are central to both of these systems, and Paulinus’ public poetry (the Natalicia in particular) draws frequently on sacrificial metaphor to describe lay piety.
The second half of each case study shifts to the spatial qualities of food practices along a public-private axis. John Chrysostom’s description of the Christian home as a “little church” is just the tip of the iceberg in his conception of the Christian community. As a priest in Antioch, where public religious space was highly contested, Chrysostom envisions a cellular model of Christian unity where the values of the institutional church are diffused among all the households of the city. Moreover, the virtues he emphasizes, from moderation to almsgiving to religious education, are defined in terms of household economy and meal practices.
The food rules in the Canons, Shenoute’s collection of internal monastic instruction, show Shenoute’s sociology of food in the day-to-day logistics of his rural monastic household. In his public sermons, he applies a modified form of this monastic sociology to lay meal events like refugee relief, martyr festivals, and funerary observance, where the relationship between home and church remains controversial. The monastery, in Shenoute’s view, is the only site that can productively collapse this dichotomy.
Paulinus’ establishment at Nola takes yet another approach to the home-church relationship. At his suburban complex, where the monastic community lives in service of the martyr cult, Paulinus translates aspects of elite rural otium and hospitality into the domus of Felix. Paulinus’ poetry, building projects, and rituals together construct a multi-dimensional sacred space where food is a structuring element that helps to incorporate non-elite exchange networks and local piety.
With its two-pronged approach to food in metaphor and space, this book takes up the perennial topic of meals in the Greco-Roman world and uses it to re-evaluate important themes in late antique Christianity. The project resides at the surprisingly under-populated intersection of studies on classical food culture, on early Christian social and liturgical development, and on the Christianization of the Roman household. Previous work on food in early Christianity, notably by Dennis Smith, Hal Taussig, and Andrew McGowan, has tended to focus on the New Testament period or on the eucharistic liturgies. A few scholars, like Veronika Grimm and Teresa Shaw, have explored ascetic theories of fasting. Regarding the household, Kimberly Bowes and Kate Cooper have been particularly illuminating. But food in post-Constantinian Christianity has often been treated as tangential to another subject or isolated in a single context like almsgiving or martyr cult. However, the entirety of late antique food culture turns out to be a venue for Christian discourse, whose semiotic richness depends on the overlapping metaphors and multivalent resonance of food across multiple contexts, places, and occasions real-and-imagined (to borrow Edward Soja’s term from Thirdspace).
When I asked what this emerging Christian food culture might have meant for the ordinary fourth century Christian, I found that it was not merely a trickle-down or oppositional model of lay vs. monastic or institutional piety. Rather, food helped early Christians negotiate among ideas across the spectrum of lived experience. Public and private, lay and monastic, domestic and institutional — seen through the prism of food rhetoric and practice, these dichotomies shift and re-form into an image of everyday religion that is constantly under negotiation. Bishops and abbots probed into the domestic life of their congregations, but also co-opted its values and structures for the emerging Christian culture at large. Lay Christians could assert their own spiritual priorities in their everyday decisions about food and eating. This quiet battle over the religious stakes of the ordinary shaped the Christian world for centuries to come.
 E.g. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Matt. 48, PG 58.495.
 Popularized in George Lakoff and and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
 Michael Dietler, “Alcohol: Anthropological/Archaeological Perspectives,” Annual Review of Anthropology 35, no. 1 (Oct. 2006): 232.
 Yannis Hamilakis, “Food Technologies/Technologies of the Body: The Social Context of Wine and Oil Production and Consumption in Bronze Age Crete,” World Archaeology 31, no. 1 (June 1999): 38-54.
 Shenoute, You O Lord, Discourses 5, GL 180.
Dana Robinson received her Ph.D. in Early Christian Studies at Catholic University of America in January 2016, following an M.A. in Classics. She currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship at Creighton University, where she teaches ancient history and early Christianity for the Honors Program.