Melania is a tribute to the renowned historian Elizabeth Clark. It is a tribute in a concrete and rather obvious sense, in that the volume is dedicated to Clark and most of the essays derive from papers presented at a 2013 Duke symposium held in her honor. More importantly, the book embodies a coherent and compelling intellectual project and vision—unusual for a Festschrift—that is a tribute not only to the paths opened up by Clark's groundbreaking publications but also to her extraordinary teaching career. Clark has trained an entire generation of skilled and gifted scholars of late ancient Christianity, two of whom, Catherine Chin and Caroline Schroeder, edited Melania. Chin, Schroeder, and the other contributing authors (most of whom were also her students) have clearly worked hard to produce a book that gathers and carries forth Clark's multifaceted contributions while also continuing to move them in new directions. Some of what makes the volume work so well is structural: the essays cross-reference each other frequently and effectively; references to Clark's work are pulled through the chapters rather than merely providing jumping off points; and in addition to the general Introduction, each of the six parts (“Aristocracy,” “Body and Family,” “Gender and Memory,” “Wisdom and Heresy,” “In the Holy Places,” and “Modernity”) opens with an introduction of its own.
More significant, though, is the wager that provokes and unifies the volume's contributions, namely, that it might be possible to write new histories of early Christianity by attending to the lives of two Roman women, each named Melania—the so-called Elder (ca. 341–ca.410) and her granddaughter the Younger (ca. 385–ca. 439). Here the emphasis is not on points of view, as it were, but on focal points or nodes of connection; we are encouraged to consider the Melanias as “small, if colorful, people” (3) who emerge as parts of larger assemblages or apparatuses, such as “the senatorial aristocracy; the household; late Roman systems of gendering; heresy and orthodoxy; and place, particularly the places of Rome and Jerusalem” (7). The editors want the volume “to tell stories about different large historical beings and about two specific persons inside them” (8), the doubled Melanias signaled by the book's singular title. In so doing, it returns us to Clark's early work, an English translation of the Life of Melania the Younger, weaving that text and others through themes that have continued to grow and develop in Clark's later work, including gender, class, asceticism, hagiography, heresy, pilgrimage, and (most recently) the reception of ancient Christian texts in the modern period. Honoring Clark's embrace of first the social-historical and then the linguistic turn, the volume also intends to draw us toward a new materialism that is attuned to agencies other than, and often larger than, those of individual persons.
The authors have chosen simple, almost bland, titles (eschewing subtitles altogether) for both the six parts and the fifteen chapters distributed among them. Seemingly mimicking “companion” volumes, these titles may mask the topical specificities and distinctive arguments of the essays—some of which are truly innovative, and others that put fresh spins on more familiar themes. How far does the book as a whole go toward meeting its goal of writing a history that attends to “‘big things’ as agents who create, shape, challenge, and are challenged by the human individual” (8)? At the very least, this framing encourages readers of chapters dealing with, for example, “orthodoxy” or “gender,” to consider such phenomena as having a kind of material agency and persistency of their own that both enable and constrain individual human subjects while also operating on larger and more diffused temporal and spatial scales. In some cases, the venture and its payoff are explicit. The best example is Catherine Chin's chapter, somewhat cryptically titled “Apostles and Aristocrats,” which looks at the fascinating problem of how the agency of buildings, whose lives typically exceed those of humans, may complicate and restrain the range of human choice. Chin considers “the persistence of large-scale buildings that interact with and make demands on a series of human caretakers over their long life spans” (20), taking her cue from the Life of Melania the Younger and focusing on two of Melania's Roman properties as well as her Jerusalem building projects. Elizabeth Castelli's chapter, “The Future of Sainthood,” appears in some points to follow up on Chin's proposal that we read the Life of Melania with attention to nonhuman as well as human agents. Stressing “the problematic adhesiveness of private ownership” (277), she points out the many obstacles—and objects!—that stand in the way of renouncing wealth. “Indeed, as the narrative unfolds,” writes Castelli, “one has a sense of all elements of the material world and the materialization of wealth itself as embodiments or instantiations of excess, wildness, noncooperation with sanctity” (278). Castelli closes by evoking Melania as an exemplar who is still, or once again, relevant, her saintliness aligned with “an excessive refusal of the prevailing systems of value” (279) and thus offering “a political resource for cultural critique” (280). Yet does Melania's vita and her very excessiveness not teach the limits of human capacity to refuse an economic system that extends so far beyond her, raising the question of how politics takes account of such more-than-human forces?
Also particularly illustrative is Andrew Jacobs’ chapter, “The Lost Generation,” which compares the Roman ascetics who migrated to Jerusalem—“migrant virtuosi,” as he calls them—to “the so-called Lost Generation of expatriate American writers and artists living in Paris after World War I” (207). From this perspective, the two Melanias are part of the same “generation” of ascetic émigrés whose identities were defined not only by their spatial dislocation but also by their chronological placement between the reign of Julian in the 360s and the barbarian invasions of the 410s and 420s. Generations, which “emerge as markers, spaces of cultural, political, and social innovation” can thus be seen as among the “big things” that make the Melanias as much as the Melanias make them. Here Jacobs’ chapter sits interestingly alongside that of Robin Darling Young, titled “A Life in Letters.” For Young, the Melanias would seem to belong to different generations. Using Evagrius’ correspondence with Melania the Elder to give us a new understanding of Melania's role as gnostic teacher and “friend of God,” Young makes the case that Melania the Elder and her associates—Rufinus and Evagrius, among others—should be viewed as standing not at the beginning of new forms of monastic contemplation but rather at “the end of esoteric instruction, of the tradition of the Christian gnōstikos, the end of a form of life among early Christian groups that had begun in the second century” (166). Generations, perhaps, can be understood as fluid assemblages, emerging and dissipating, overlapping and diverging from one another. Methods of chronology and periodization are directly affected then, when we attend to “big things” as well as to individual human lives.
The volume closes with an elegant Afterword by Randall Styers, which suggests that we view Clark's own life, like the lives of the Melanias, not only or even primarily in individual terms as hagiography often seems to invite, but rather in relation to the larger assemblages of which it has been a dynamic part. Throughout her career, Clark has found herself in the midst of intellectual movements and disciplinary developments far larger than she. Yet as Styers points out, she was often “in the vanguard;” moreover, “her efforts have turned on her ability to mobilize a broad cadre of students, colleagues, and intellectual companions toward common scholarly passions” (286). This volume is certainly evidence of that. Its aim is not comprehensive coverage of the lives of the two Melanias; rather, its multiple and distinct yet convergent perspectives offer a delightfully kaleidoscopic view of these two “small, if colorful,” figures and the strange worlds of which they were a part.