Women have been overlooked or even completely ignored throughout centuries of history. In many college courses, women do not have a voice. This lack is based on the assumption that the thoughts and activities of women were not important enough to write down and save for future generations. In her book, Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Life-Styles, author Gillian Clark attempts to fill part of this gap in the history of women.
There are problems involved in research for a book such as this. Clark found extremely few written records of any type available that were actually written by women. Educated white males that mention women have written the available sources. This leaves us with a bias against women because of the prevailing beliefs of the period. Unfortunately Gillian Clark had to piece together a great deal of history in what she refers to as a “patchwork” because of the lack of primary sources. Using resources in a manner for which they were never intended must be extremely difficult, but Gillian Clark has done an excellent job doing just that. The purpose of her book is addressed in the first paragraph of her introduction.
“The aim . . . is to give some basic information on women’s lives in late antiquity, and to make a start on answering some basic questions: to what extent could women choose what to do? What social, practical, or legal constraints limited their choices? What options were available besides (or within) marriage and housekeeping? What was housekeeping like? What level of education or of health care was available? What conduct and ideals were women taught to admire?” (Clark introduction)
The sixth century AD is the time period which Gillian Clark uses as her cut off. She feels that she just does not have enough knowledge to go beyond what she calls the “beginning of the end of classical antiquity” (p. 5). Gillian Clark’s book is an excellent source which will benefit those who are interested, not only, in the history of women, but also, those who are interested in some possible explanations for modern-day hostility against women by men.
Gillian Clark has her book, Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Life-Styles, arranged topically in five chapters for the sake of clarity. Chapter topics are: Law and Morality; Tolerance, Prohibition, and Protection; Health; Domesticity and Asceticism; and Being Female.
While each chapter deals with a specific topic, each overlaps in information. The laws for women explain the double-standard which has existed since the beginning of time for both men and women. A woman could be killed for adultery, but not the man she was with. It was not acceptable for a woman to bring a lawsuit against anyone. “. . . women should not have the power to bring a public criminal charge except for specific causes, . . . . It is not right for women to have the power of making an accusation on every manner . . . . Advocates . . . be warned that they must not, for profit, rashly accept as clients women who may be relying on their sex and rushing into unlawful action” (p. 8). Marriages were arranged for women with seven years being the age for formal betrothals. Weddings could not take place before the age of twelve.
The health care issue is fascinating. Gillian Clark relates how women were not always treated for illnesses the same as men because of some doubt as to whether women were like men! In addition, “the female contribution [to procreation] was not thought to be equal to that of the male, and it seemed obvious that the male seed initiates the process of generation” (p. 73). This is certainly one way in which men de-emphasized the importance of women. There were women who could practice medicine (midwives), but to actually want to be a physician was not an acceptable profession. Women were on earth for one reason. “Nature produced women for this purpose, that they might bear children, and this is their greatest desire” (p. 13). If a woman had a female child which was inconvenient or just not wanted, the father had the right to “expose” the baby. Exposure was the accepted method of killing babies and was the father’s right as head of the family. The baby was taken out and left to die. There were instances where the baby was taken in, but this was not necessarily a good thing. The one taking in the baby could raise it to be a slave or prostitute.
An option for women that was almost considered acceptable was to become a Christian. Though there was some doubt as to whether the soul of a woman is, like her body, weaker than a man’s. The Christian woman who chose an ascetic life-style and completely subjugated her femininity was a woman who could achieve the highest form of godliness (according to Christian male standards). Bathing was seen as a form of worldliness, so bathing was given up by the ascetic. Clothing must be absolutely plain and without color because color was vanity. Hair must be unattractive so that men would not be enticed (this probably wasn’t difficult since was rarely washed). Malnutrition was acceptable for the ascetic female because it would destroy her womanly curves. Each and every denunciation of the above items listed would cause a woman to look skeletal, but this was the goal. When a woman looked like a woman and she was attractive to men, she could cause the man to sin. This took the responsibility from the man and is an attitude that has carried into modern times.
In her last chapter, Gillian Clark reveals the fact that women were at a disadvantage from the day they were born. Just being female was a disadvantage. Many women did not survive beyond the age of thirty because of childbirth mortality. Life for women in late antiquity was not a pleasant experience. While there must have been exceptions, the plight of women was not good. Males had the authority to life or death over the wives and children and this could not have been conducive to a feeling of security in one’s own life.
Gillian Clark has presented the facts in her book, Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Life-Styles, in a way that is straightforward without placing any negative connotations on men. There is no “male bashing” in her book though there are times that such an attitude would have been entirely appropriate. Gillian Clark tells us in her conclusion that what we know of women in late antiquity is basically assumptions because of the lack of information that was preserved by women. The “patchwork” that she has pieced together gives us a general history of women from the only sources open to us. While the pattern of the “patchwork” is vague and part of it is lost, Gillian Clark has left us a book that can be used to remind us that women did matter. Women did have a place in late antiquity. Women did live and die even though we don’t know their names. Women are important and Gillian Clark reminds us of that fact.
Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Life-Styles by Gillian Clark
Paperback: 188 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (July 7, 1994)