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Melania the Elder

June 10, 2012

Melania`s feast day was June 8 so I have missed it by two days. However, I didn’t know about her two days ago so this will have to suffice. Melania, the Elder was the grandmother of Melania the Younger so no church office is intended by this title. Melania was a desert mother, one of the ascetic monks, nuns and scholars who inhabited Egypt and Palestine in the 4th century. She lived from 325 to 410 CE. She was born in Spain and married at the age of 14, bore 3 live children, two of whom died in infancy, and was widowed at the age of 22. She traveled to Rome where she became a Christian and after some years of study, she left her son with a guardian, escaped her relatives and traveled to Alexandria to study. According to some biographers, she collected and copied books.

She used her wealth to support monks who were persecuted by Arians, even to the point of disguising herself as a male slave and visiting them in prison. She eventually traveled to Jerusalem where she set up a convent for women and provided for a monastery for monks. Throughout her life she wrote letters, mentored men, and attempted to heal relationships broken by religious controversy.

Her companion for most of her life was Rufinus, a scholar and translator, also originally a friend of Jerome. However, Rufinus and Jerome fell out late in life when Rufinus recorded in a preface to his translation of a work by Origen that Jerome was an admirer of Origen. This was too much for Jerome, who felt at that time that Origen was of questionable orthodoxy and the rift was never healed.

Judging from the places that Melania traveled and from the number of people she supported, one can assume that she was both courageous and wealthy. She and Rufinus traveled together, established convents in Palestine and entertained Paula and Jerome. Both of these couples were comprised of a woman who was considered the “protectress” and who provided for the man in the couple. Paula and Jerome were exactly the same age, but Melania was quite a bit older than Rufinus. While these men spent their teenage years studying Greek and Latin literature and rhetoric, Melania and Paula were married young, and became mothers in their mid teens.The primary male-female relationship for these women was neither father nor husband, but friend and fellow scholar.

These couples in the early church defy our present framework for male-female relationships. To the best of our knowledge these relationships were chaste (they produced no offspring, at least) but they were intimate and long-lasting. These pairs functioned socially as couples. Both men and women were recognized as spiritual leaders, but neither the men nor the women had church offices.

In every way these couples defied the complementarian adage of John Piper – “At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.”

These men were dedicated scholars who had women provide for and protect them, much as happened with the apostle Paul. The women were clearly also scholars from what was said about them, but we do not have any of their writings. We can’t easily assimilate into our own thinking how these couples operated, since it seems that class, gender, wealth and faith created a context at that time that we cannot replicate today. It is not obvious to me whether these couples never married because of the influence of Christian ascetism, restrictions created by class boundaries, or simply because these women were done with marriage and childbearing.

Another similar couple are Chrysostom and Olympias. Olympias was also an extremely wealthy woman who rejected remarriage and was a strong agent and participant in the church. I can easily imagine that these women were rejecting not only further child-bearing but also the risk that remarriage would deprive them of control of their wealth. However, they were clearly women who deeply loved men – although not willing to enter again into a marriage in 4th century terms.

My best wishes to Rachel Held Evans and her week of mutuality.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2012 4:43 am

    Thanks for the post, Suzanne. I was not familiar with these women since I have not studied this period of church history in any detail. Can you recommend any resources where I can read more about them?

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 10, 2012 4:47 am

    I confess to a generous mix of wikipedia, general google results and some serious time spent in google books. Clearly some of what is written about these women is speculation, but I think I have restricted myself to uncontested facts.

  3. June 10, 2012 3:22 pm

    Wonderful! Thanks for telling us about Melania and Olympias, and drawing the parallel between the men’s youth in scholarly training and the women’s youth in marriage and childbearing.

    Is it associate these women with the role of patrons, as we know women could be patrons in Roman society? and therefore to describe Jerome and Chrysostom as their clients, in some sense? Or does that paradigm not fit?

  4. June 11, 2012 1:17 am

    Sadly I’m familiar with most of the men you mention, but not the women. I’ve clearly read the wrong books! Although, it has been a while since I’ve read any early church history. I’ll have to pull out my resources and check. Thank you for the information and drawing parallels between the couples.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 11, 2012 3:04 am

    Here are a couple of books on women in the early church. Some other women mentioned are Macrina, Theodora, and Melania the Younger.

    Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions by Rosemary Radford Ruether.

    Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies by Ute Eisen

    Naturally the men are better known since we have their writings and we don’t have anything from these women. The men, however, do record that these women founded large institutions for supporting nuns and monks, hospitality to pilgrims, for copying texts, studying, and for teaching both men and women. See Ute Eisen page 99

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  1. St. Jerome’s Sexist Racism: The Denigration of Melania and of the Shulamite « BLT

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