C.M. Chin and Caroline T. Schroeder, eds. Melania: Early Christianity Through the Life of One Family. University of California Press, 2016.
The promise of the subtitle for C.M. Chin and Caroline Schroeder’s compilation of essays may, at first glance, seem simultaneously broad yet overly specific. Using the life of one family to explore the social, political, and religious worlds of ‘early Christianity’ seems like a herculean task, particularly when the “family” in focus is really just two women. Yet the “Melanias” were part of no ordinary family. Melania the Elder and her eponymous granddaughter belonged to an exclusive group of extraordinary women whose wealth and social status in Roman society granted them access to the upper echelons of the post-Constantinian Christian world. Both women wielded a great influence in their own day and continued to loom large in the historical memory of later Christian writers, making their unique “family” an ideal vehicle for exploring early Christianity.
Yet behind this volume lies another woman whose impact within the field of early Christianity figures just as prominently – Elizabeth Clark. Inspired by her lifetime of work, each essay is penned by a scholar who was either formally or informally mentored by Clark. Melania, then, is a testament both to the impact the Melanias had on the nascent Christianity of the fourth century as well as the impact that Elizabeth Clark has had in shaping the study of that very world. As Chin and Schroeder lay out in the introduction, the essays “demonstrate how a single scholar’s work on two individuals can evolve into a much larger-scale system of analyses and narratives” (8). Penned by leading contemporary scholars in the field, the essays in Melania reflect the breadth of Clark’s own work and the variety of research trajectories her students have followed.
The collection is split into six parts, each with its own mini-introduction, and is bookended by a framing introduction and epilogue. Consisting of 15 essays, this book examines the Melanias from all sides – socially, theologically, spatially, and historiographically. Each essay stands alone, but the authors often build upon the themes and conclusions of the other works within each section. With so many rich pieces, I regret that this review can only skim the surface of the volume, and will suffice with a brief overview of each section and reflections on a few scattered highlights.
The opening section explores how the Melanias’ social position as part of the Roman aristocracy facilitated, hindered, and colored their transition into a uniquely ascetic upper class. Particularly of note in this section is a fascinating chapter by C.M. Chin, “Apostles and Aristocrats” (19-33). Chin takes a cue from Annabel Wharton and treats the buildings of Rome “not merely as locations, but as actors in their own right” (20). With this frame, Chin explores how Melania the Younger’s identity as a wealthy property owner at times hindered her ascetic aspirations, yet also shaped a specific brand of expectations for her new role. Part two brings to the fore asceticism’s paradoxical relationship with the body. In this section, Maria Doerfler presents a powerful essay, “Holy Households,” that explores the relationship between the metaphor of spiritual motherhood and the reality of living in a world with high infant (and maternal) mortality rates (71-85). Doerfler shows that despite the tension that existed between children and ascetic practice, writers were often able to reconceptualize renunciation as spiritual motherhood (76-78), and at times, even championed ascetic genealogies “forged…by blood relation” (79).
Part three, "Gender and Memory," provides two brilliant gems from Stephanie Cobb and Rebecca Krawiec. Each approaches the ever-fraught relationship between gender and asceticism that emerges from late ancient literature. Cobb opens by questioning the ‘social logic’ of the Acta Perpetuae et Felicitatis, a “reconceptualization” of the third century Passio (114). The Acta, according to Cobb, reflect the ascetic interests of its fourth century authors: renunciation, communal concerns, and asceticism’s ability to restore humanity to a pre-lapsarian state. This is followed by Krawiec’s stunning piece, “The Memory of Melania” (130-141). Using the Lausiac History’s representation of Melania the Elder, Krawiec offers a genderqueer reading for which Palladius’ women have always been so ripe. Building on Virginia Burrus and Amy Hollywood’s discussions of queerness as a challenge to normative sexual and gender discourse, Krawiec argues it is Melania’s queerness that allows her to interact with men, teach men, and engage in the masculine task of “remembering” (131). This essay is too rich to be watered down to a few sentences, but I will leave you with a summation of my personal estimation – any work that compares Melania with Karen Walker (135-36) is worthy of canonization in my book.
Part four, "Wisdom and Heresy," similarly engages with the issues of female representation and memory but through the lens of ecclesiastical debates. The essays of Robin Darling Young, Susanna Drake, and Christine Shepardson explore how debates about heresy and doctrine influence depictions of the Melanias. Shepardson’s essay, “Posthumous Orthodoxy” (186-201) provides a particularly intriguing reading of Gerontius’ Life of Melania. Gerontius’s vita deploys Melania the Younger as a sharp critic of Nestorianism and thus, by extension sharply anti-Chalcedonian (at least for Gerontius). Yet while her hagiographer eventually fell out of orthodoxy, Gerontius’s Melania resisted this fate and seamlessly became a figure of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. In part five, Andrew S. Jacobs and Stephen Shoemaker visit the Holy Land. In a most intriguing essay, Jacobs compares the wave of Jerusalem pilgrims between 360-420 to the “lost generation” of the 1920s. This “historical mirror” allows Jacobs to explore ways in which the ascetic émigrés to Jerusalem crafted an identity separate, but not entirely divorced, from the imperial center. Like the Lost Generation, these ascetics leaned into the mythological allure that emerged from their movement (207-221).
Stepping out of antiquity, the final cluster of essays focus on the afterlife of the Melanias since the early-twentieth century. Michael Penn kicks off this section by examining how Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, an “almost-pope,” used his retirement to publish Gerontius’ long-forgotten Latin vita. Rampolla’s translation catapulted Melania into the spotlight and her “first afterlife” of the modern era was characterized by excitement and popularity (245-259). Stephen J. Davis’ essay, “Monastic Revivals,” shifts to the Melanias’ afterlife within the modern Coptic Orthodox Church. Davis’s piece shows two different ways in which the Melanias continue to be co-opted in the Coptic monastic revival. His piece ends with a very welcome translation of Pope Shenouda III’s homily on the two Melanias to show just how effectively the memory of two ancient women can be deployed as a model for modern nuns (267-68). Finally, Elizabeth A. Castelli closes out the section by looking at the more recent afterlives of the Melanias since the 1980s and particularly after the “linguistic turn.”
In sum, Melania is a delightful compilation that more than delivers on its promise. The essays of this volume provide fruitful research for all students and scholars interested in early Christianity. Much like the work of Clark herself, the essays of this book will be useful for students engaged in social history, discussions of heresy, gender studies, post-structuralism, and much more. In short, Chin and Schroeder’s volume is a fabulous contribution to the multi-faceted subfields that make up the study of “Late Antiquity.” I give this book my full support but not without a minor warning: everyone (i.e. uninformed family members, your hairstylist, older men sitting next to you in airplanes) will assume you are reading about the modern first lady, who is apparently better known than the Melanias of antiquity. But this mix-up does afford you the opportunity to bring the exciting knowledge of both fourth-century asceticism and the work of Professor Clark to non-specialists, so in the end, the confusion is more than worthwhile.
Jeannie Sellick is a PhD candidate in Judaism & Christianity in Antiquity at the University of Virginia.