Situated in a period that witnessed the genesis of institutions that have lasted to this day, this path-breaking study looks at how ancient Christian women, particularly in Asia Minor and Egypt, initiated ascetic ways of living, and how these practices were then institutionalized. Susanna Elm demonstrates that-in direct contrast to later conceptions-asceticism began primarly as an urban movement, in which women were significant protagonists. In the process, they completely transformed and expanded their roles as wife, mother, or widow: as Christian ascetics, they became 'virgin wives', 'virgin mothers', and 'virgin widows' - with all the legal and economic implications of such a dramatic shift. As importantly, though, Christian men and women ascetics lived together. As 'virgins of God' they created new families 'in Christ'. No longer determined by their human bonds or human sexuality, they were 'neither male nor female'. Finally, the book demonstrates how ascetic bishops - today known as saints - eventually 'reformed' these early models of communal, ascetic life by dividing the 'virgins of God' into monks and nuns and thus laid the foundation for the monasticism we know today.
Susanna Elm is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley.