The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity
In March 1971, the newly established Center for Byzantine Studies at Birmingham University held a seminar on the subject of the role of the ascetic in the early Byzantine world. At the end came what was apparently a second draft (the first having been read at Oxford) of a paper, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” by Peter Brown. We had expected something good from the author of Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, and here it was. Those present felt they had been given in the space of three quarters of an hour a new perspective on Syria and the Roman East in the fifth century AD, and how the “unlikely figure of the lone hermit” had come to exercise so much social and religious authority. Now, after eighteen years and the appearance of two fine collections of essays, Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine (1972) and Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (1982), we have a full-length study in which holy men figure in one of the most complex yet historically most significant aspects of the early Christian world: sexual renunciation and the factors that lay behind this. How does it succeed?
Despite the suggestive title, The Body and Society is not a book about sexual life among the early Christians. It is a profound sociological and intellectual study dealing with many ideas about personal and social relations affecting men and women in the early Church. These included their attitudes toward marriage, celibacy, lifelong renunciation of family life, and the motives that drove them along these different courses. While sexuality sometimes obtrudes—though no more than in Clement of Alexandria’s third book of Stromateis (Miscellanies)—and the discussion of “night emissions” and “sexual fantasies” seems to become more frequent as the reader approaches the career of Augustine, the theme is always sensitively handled. The author leads his readers into the mental life of those whom he describes and explains them with erudition and sympathy. His work is a tour de force, showing a mastery of text and subject through six centuries of history.
Brown begins his three-part study with the second century AD, in a pagan world where Christianity was just becoming a significant force. This in itself is original, for the many, more conventional, studies of Christian asceticism almost invariably begin with the Christians themselves. But Brown wants to point up the contrasts with the pagan world on the one hand, where “the body had its rightful place in a great chain of being that linked man both to the gods and to the beasts,” and the Jewish, on the other, where replenishment of the life of the Chosen People was all-important and a man looked for a wife who “shall be as a fruitful vine.” For Jews, sexuality should be disciplined, but the Jewish model of sexual relations derived from a single-minded solidarity with the first couple, Adam and Eve. The institution of marriage among pagans and Jews was…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.