Monks and Matrons: The Economy of Charity in the Late Antique Mediterranean.
Author(s)Platte, Elizabeth L.
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AbstractIn the late fourth and early fifth centuries, asceticism offered aristocratic Romans a new paradigm for the use of wealth. At its core, aristocratic Christian asceticism taught that the renunciation of possessions through charitable donations resulted in spiritual reward. But aristocratic ascetics also reaped social and economic benefits through their charitable donations. This dissertation explores such benefits of Late Antique Christian charity by considering the biographies of two women: Melania the Elder, a wealthy widow who devoted herself to asceticism in the late fourth century, and her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, who followed in her footsteps in the early fifth century. In order to understand the relationship between the attraction that charity held for these two women and the economic motivations and benefits that underlay charitable action, this project focuses on two texts: the Lausiac History, a collection of ascetic biographies; and the Life of Melania the Younger. Both works use the economic language of exchange and investment to describe charitable renunciation, suggesting that the economic ramifications of asceticism were a concern for wealthy Christians. Both works also argued that charitable renunciation, and especially the foundation of monasteries, provided particularly attractive benefits for women by offering an alternative to the traditional Roman family. Ascetic practice allowed women to avoid the familial obligations that limited their economic agency, while the foundation of monasteries allowed aristocratic women to gain acclaim. Melania the Elder and Melania the Younger invested charitably in different ways. Melania the Elder cultivated relationships with prominent Egyptian monks through her charity. In particular, she founded a monastery in the Holy Land, which sheltered the monks when they were persecuted for their practices. Melania the Elder therefore used charity to invest in her social status. However, her identity was closely tied to monks who were considered heretical, and therefore her investment failed. Melania the Younger, on the other hand, used charity as a way to move her wealth from the troubled Western Empire, which was beset by barbarian invasions. By founding her monastic institutions in the more stable East, Melania the Younger ensured returns on her charitable investment.