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LHMP #375 Vuolanto 2019 Single Life in Late Antiquity? Virgins between the Earthly and Heavenly Family Chapter 13

Full citation: 

Vuolanto, Ville. 2019. “Single Life in Late Antiquity? Virgins between the Earthly and Heavenly Family” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Vuolanto, Ville. “Single Life in Late Antiquity? Virgins between the Earthly and Heavenly Family”

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This article focuses primarily on women who chose a single/celibate life for religious reasons in the late 4th and early 5th century. In earlier Roman society, while modesty and chastity were desired virtues for the young, unmarried woman, it was for the purpose of entering marriage as a virgin, not as an end in itself. However shifts in social expectations due to Christianity created the idea of choosing singlehood as a deliberate strategy for religious purposes. For some, it might have been a decision made for them as early as infancy, for others the choice might arise (whether their own or imposed) as they approached or entered a marriageable age. Such a life path was often framed in the context of abstaining from other social privileges of the “good life”.

There is a discussion of how likely it was that the girl herself was the driver of these decisions, given the age at which they would have been made. Hagiography (and especially martyrdoms) focused on narratives where young women refused marriage or chose celibacy in direct contradiction to their parents’ wishes, and often at the cost of severe punishment and coercion. However the author suggests that these narratives were unlikely to reflect everyday reality.

But to what extent would such a life of religious singleness be recognizable as “a single lifestyle”? In general, the young women would remain living with their parents (whereas male ascetics might leave to join a monastery). The expectations for their behavior were nearly identical to those for a not-yet-married woman: domesticity, modesty, and restriction from the public sphere. Among the elite, however, there could be a performative aspect to their lives where it was important that they be seen to be extreme in their piety and renunciation. At the same time, the existence of young unmarried women in the household could be considered a hazard to the family’s reputation if she were accused (rightly or wrongly) of impropriety.

Separate ascetic communities for women were not an option at first, but elite households that supported their daughters in this lifestyle sometimes evolved into a “magnet” for other women, developing into a non-familial community. If such communities involved women who came to asceticism later in life, they might bring with them children who would initially grow up in the ascetic community but might not remain as a devotee.

Some of the anxieties surrounding these dedicated virgins were addressed by the development of the concept of being a “bride of Christ.” Marriage returned as the central organizing expectation of women’s lives, but in a form that allowed for chastity. For these “single women,” solitariness was not a part of their experience. Largely, they continued to live as part of familial communities, bowing to parental expectations, and ruled by the behavioral expectations for all unmarried women.

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