“Virtue is a fruit, a sacrifice, a state of health” (5). In this excellent monograph, Dana Robinson unites case studies of three of the most influential authors of late ancient Mediterranean Christianity to reconstruct the ideological uses and social possibilities of food discourse in early Christian communities. John Chrysostom, Shenoute of Atripe, and Paulinus of Nola were engaged in transforming the religious landscape of the Roman Empire in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and they did so to a substantial degree using the subject of food. Since they wrote from three sides of the Mediterranean and in three of its most important languages, Syria/Greek, Egypt/Coptic, and Italy/Latin, respectively, they form an especially representative triad. In Robinson’s analysis of Shenoute, virtue is a fruit, while ascesis is the labor of cooking and farming. In Paulinus, piety and ascesis are both sacrificial gifts embodied through the mouth as a threshold for eating and speech. In Chrysostom, virtue is health and ascesis medicine.
Robinson’s approach to the subject of early Christian food discourse is robustly interdisciplinary. She makes use of three primary analytical tools: the concept of food as embodied material culture, taken from anthropology; cognitive metaphor theory, taken from linguistics and literary theory; and the idea of space and place as socially constructed entities, taken from cultural geography. Together these allow her to analyze a variety of food metaphors and practices of early Christianity in productive ways that delineate a social and religious world marked by a series of embodiments.
She devotes two chapters to food discourse in the sermons of Chrysostom. In the first, she examines his treatment of elite food consumption from a medical, philosophical, and economic perspective with a focus on his multivalent, and sometimes rather elusive, understanding of moderation. Of particular interest to the social historian is a section in which Robinson reconstructs an elite Roman diet. She accomplishes this by subjecting the food purchased by Theophanes of Hermopolis, which he had recorded on a series of papyri during his sojourn at Antioch in 322 or 323, to rigorous economic and sociological analyses (53–65). The results allow her to contextualize Chrysostom’s admonitions to dietary moderation with a precision that would otherwise be impossible. In the second chapter, she focuses on Chrysostom’s project to make the late Roman dining room into a place where the correct relationships of human beings with God as well as with each other are enacted in the everyday rituals of food consumption.
Robinson also devotes two chapters to food discourse in the sermons and canons of Shenoute, in particular the sermons “You, O Lord” and “Righteous Art Thou.” In the first chapter, she elucidates the duality of Shenoute’s imagery of fruit as virtue: the individual body is both the site that produces fruit and the final product that is consumed and assimilated into the communal body. In the second chapter, she again shifts the focus from metaphors of food production and consumption to locations and practices, demonstrating how Shenoute’s food discourse places the monastery, at the expense of the Christian household and martyr festival, at the center of the Christian landscape. The feeding of thousands of refugees for three months at Shenoute’s monastery during the 340s forms a social-historical parallel to the purchase history of Theophanes in its potential to connect words with experience (146–53). Unfortunately, Robinson leaves this episode underdeveloped by comparison. This is due in part to the nature of the sources, but this fascinating event should have been brought into clearer focus.
Paulinus of Nola receives one chapter, rather than two, which Robinson focuses on his Natalicia, a series of poems he delivered on the feast days of St. Felix. Through his sacrificial poetics, Paulinus attempts nothing less than to assimilate Roman votive religion to Christian martyr piety and provide a framework for Christianization itself. Given the necessary abstractions of her largely theoretical analyses, Robinson’s reproduction of the plan of the shrine of St. Felix and accompanying discussion provide a welcome entry into the physical spaces created by Paulinus in conjunction with his verbal ones (208). This diagram, however, would have benefited from labeling specific to Robinson’s analyses, and a more thorough integration of visual evidence into the argument would have been welcome. The same holds for her reproductions of the excavations of Shenoute’s White Monastery (6, 173). Yet these concerns are minor, and Robinson has indeed demonstrated that food is “good to think with” (222) by modeling the incisive utilization of mutually reinforcing theoretical approaches to explicate the complexities of the apparently simple language of food and reminding us that “a meal is never just a meal” (225).