Friday, May 27, 2016

Nicola Denzey's The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women — Book Notes

My last posting was, in some respects, a piece of historiographical commentary. It was a meditation of sorts on how historians might face the challenge of the lacunae, the aporias, the silences (along with the lies and secrets, to echo Adrienne Rich) buried within historical documents, artifacts, texts, etc. My posting pointed you to a recent Salon essay by openly gay Irish novelist Colm Tóibín in which he argues that the pro-marriage equality side prevailed in the Irish referendum about same-sex marriage because gay Irish people — and the families of gay Irish people — chose to make themselves visible in a new way in Irish society, so that many of their fellow citizens could fill in a blank that had not been filled in previously, and recognize that they knew gay people, that they had close ties to families with gay sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers. Tóibín's essay is an excerpt from his foreword to a forthcoming book by Charlie Bird — A Day in May (Dublin: Merrion, June 2016)— about how the marriage equality battle was won in Ireland.

Tóibín also cites Adrienne Rich, who notes that, unlike many minority groups, the LGBTQ community has had difficulty in developing a sense of its own history because so many LGBTQ people have been hidden throughout history. And so looking into the history of the LGBTQ community, such as it exists, is often like looking into a mirror and seeing nothing reflected back by that mirror . . . .

The invisibilization of gay lives, and the difficulty of filling in the blanks created by such invisibilization (in which gay folks have themselves freely participated) as one writes a history of those lives, has, in fact, been a preoccupation of Tóibín's own work. In his novelistic re-creation of the life of the gay American writer Henry James, The Master, he comments on James's own intricate code of secrecy which kept his sexual orientation well-hidden, though this orientation can be glimpsed when one looks behind the screen of that very preoccupation with disguise to see what is eliciting the preoccupation in James's work: Tóibín writes, 

Remaining invisible, becoming skilled in the art of self-effacement, even to someone whom he had known so long, gave him satisfaction. He was ready to listen, always ready to do that, but not prepared to reveal the mind at work, the imagination, or the depth of feeling (The Master [London: Picador, 2004], p. 226).

The depth of feeling: the gaze held a moment too long, the catch in one's breath when the object of one's affection is at hand, the tiny verbal hiccup giving away to outsiders the fact that the friendship is something other than plain friendship: James's fiction, with its notorious imbrications and fussy preoccupation with commas heaped on commas, reflects his own lived experience as a gay man trying to veil a key portion of that soul as he sought by writing to reveal to others the depths of his soul.

I've pointed you previously to thought-provoking statements Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian who happens to be openly gay, made several years ago in an interview with Freddy Gray, in which he suggests that the experience of growing up as a gay youth in the home of an Anglican parson has attuned him as an historian to the revelatory disclosures hidden inside carefully crafted silences in historical texts, and to the way in which people seeking to remain hidden or to hide portions of narratives they are recording often resort to evasive codes.

The task of a good historian is to crack evasive codes, to puzzle out of silence the declaration silence intends to thwart. Good historical research and good historical writing require that one become a sleuth who doesn't take at face value what is declared, stated, recorded in any given document, text, or artifact, but that one asks searching questions about who declared and why this is stated and how the "truth" is framed in the piece of history lying in front of us.

As I wrote my brief meditation two days ago about the puzzle of recreating hidden gay lives in historical documents pertaining to our own family members, I was finishing a wonderful book that does something very much like this for the lives of women in early Christian Rome — Nicola Denzey's The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007). My intent in commenting on this important study is not to offer a complete review of it, but to make some remarks about the historical enterprise Denzey undertakes in it, and how she goes about pursuing her task of limning the contours of lives that have long since receded into the shades of history, and that were already in the process of being well-concealed and misrepresented by the growing calcification of patriarchal ecclesial structures within the Roman church in the period in which these women lived.

Denzey offers (and employs) a number of valuable historiographical tools that, she suggests, enable us to approach these hidden-and-obscured female lives of early Christian Rome. One of these tools is a healthy skepticism about the received tradition regarding these lives, about what has been handed down and handed down from "time immemorial" — by male historians. Since almost all historians of any stature at all prior to the 20th century happened to have been men . . . . 

And so Denzey is willing to go toe to toe with a historian of the prominence of Peter Brown when he proposes his "pillow-talk" theory of how Christianity eventually prevailed in the Roman Empire (p. 39): women became Christian and then persuaded their non-Christian husbands to give up the old faiths. The picture is, Denzey proposes, considerably more complex, as she analyzes the funerary art adorning cubicula N and O in the Via Latina catacombs, where an unidentified pagan woman of some importance whom Denzey names Proba and her Christian daughter were buried adjacent to each other (pp. 25-57).

Cubicula N and O, Via Latina Catacombs, from the Quizlet Site*

Women frequently remained committed to the old ways, too, and appear to have had strong influence in Roman culture in preserving and promoting those ways prior to the final triumph of Roman Catholicism, Denzey thinks. She points to Proba's tomb and the artwork she chose to adorn it to advance that argument.

And then there are the male historians-archaeologists Giovannia Battista De Rossi and his protégé Josef Wilfert, for whom it was obvious that the famous Fractio Panis fresco in the Greek Chapel of the Catacomb of Priscilla was an early rendition of a eucharistic meal . . . for men (p. 93). With a male presiding.

Fractio Panis Fresco, from Catacomb of Priscilla, Wikimedia Commons

Since this is what De Rossi and Wilfert wanted to see in a fresco that is, for Denzey, much less obviously a depiction of men or a depiction of men celebrating a eucharistic meal . . . . This is what De Rossi and Wilfert needed to see in this fresco since they wanted to discover in the catacombs evidence that, from a very early period, the Roman Catholic (and patriarchal) iteration of Christian faith had been already established in a way that would reinforce the presuppositions of Roman Catholic faith as it was practiced in the 19th century.

What De Rossi and Wilfert see in this fresco is not in the least obvious to Denzey. Where they "obviously" see males seated at a table, she sees females, instead. Denzey steps back and looks at these and other artifacts from the Roman catacombs that allow us to glimpse, and partially to recreate, the lives of women in early Christian Rome with her own eyes. She proposes that other women scholars do the same, asking questions that arise out of the experiences of women and not out of those of men, applying to these artifacts a sympathy for women who lived long ago that is often lacking in the appropriation of these female lives by male historians.

A case in point: as she looks at the lunette fresco on the back wall of the Cubiculum of the Velata at the Catacomb of Priscilla, she wonders why male viewers of this fresco, including those who wrote the standard Vatican guide for it, see in it a depiction of a wedding scene commemorating a supposed "dead man" hovering in the background of the fresco — when the central figure in the fresco, and by far its largest figure, is a woman, the praying woman in the center of the fresco (pp. 77-8). How does the male become the primary subject of the so-called wedding portion of this fresco, she asks herself, when a female occupies the center of the fresco and is clearly its most prominent figure?

Cubiculum of Velata from Catacomb of Priscilla, at Pinterest*

In the official Vatican reading of what's seen as a depiction of a Christian wedding, the woman is reduced to the function of an attendant on a groom and a male bishop who is officiating at the wedding — though, as Denzey points out, the bishop (if this is, indeed, truly who this figure represents) has his hand on the shoulder of the female attendant, not the male groom who is supposedly the primary subject in this portion of the fresco. As Denzey concludes,

The [Vatican] guide offers a stunning, yet typical, example of the masculine gaze, which reduces all activity to the sphere of male significance (p. 78).

All of this — the discussion of historiography, the poring over ancient artifacts, the consideration of how historians represent their biases and commitments in their historical research — may seem merely academic. It's not, though, is it? 

Not if really meaningful discussion of the role of women in the Christian churches, and the possibility of ordaining women in churches that refuse ordination to those lacking a penis, is to be undertaken . . . .

*It is not clear to me whether either or both starred sites from which I have uploaded photos above is under copyright. I do not see any prohibition at either site against sharing copies of these photos. It is not my intent to violate anyone's copyright, however, and if anyone knows of some reason that photos from these sites should not be shared online, please tell me.

No comments: