Renunciation in the 4th Century

Melania of Rome (Melania the Younger)

According to Elizabeth Ann Clark, in Women in the Early Church (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1983), “the chief route to the acquisition of greater freedom for Christian women in the patristic era was asceticism.” (17) Those women who achieved prominence in the eyes of their contemporaries and later history seem also to have been those who renounced great wealth. The lives of Melania the Elder and her sainted granddaughter Melania the Younger amply illustrate this principle. Both were educated, literate and learned women, whose wealth made their choice of the ascetic life both possible, and remarkable, in the 4th and early 5th century world.

Melania the Elder (c. 342/343- c. 409/410) was both extraordinarily wealthy and enjoyed patrician status as the daughter of a Roman consul, and the wife of the Roman prefect Valerius Maximus, to whom she bore three sons. When her husband and two of her children died in short succession around 372, she placed her surviving son in the care of tutor, distributed some of her wealth to the poor, and undertook a pilgrimage to the holy lands and Egypt. On her pilgrimage, she met and became the patroness of the cleric and theologian Rufinus, studied in Alexandria, and undertook the monastic way of life. She settled in Jerusalem, becoming familiar with the group around Jerome, including Paula of Bethlehem. Here she supported a group of clerics who had been persecuted under the Arian emperor Valens, and founded and endowed a monastery on or near the Mount of Olives, in which she exercised of a community of some 50 nuns. She became involved in theological politics when the dispute between Rufinus and Jerome over the orthodoxy of Origen’s works arose (from around 394); Melania sided with Rufinus, and fell out with Jerome’s circle.

On a trip to Rome to see her family, she persuaded her granddaughter — Melania the Younger — to adopt the ascetic life. In 410 (presumably no coincidence, the year of the sack of Rome by Alaric and his Visigoths, who also headed toward Sicily, where Melania and her family were living the monastic life) the women travelled to North Africa where they made contact with Augustine, Bishop of Hippo; Melania the Elder returned to Jerusalem, and died there in 410.

See more at Vitae – Melania the Elder

The daughter of Melania the Elder’s surviving son, Melania the Younger (c 383-439) was granddaughter of a Roman prefect, heiress to great wealth, and was married at an early age to her equally privileged cousin, Valierius Pinianus. After the early deaths of two children, she and her husband converted to Christianity, and adopted the ascetic practice of celibacy admired at that time. Upon her parents’ death, Melania’s inheritance permitted her to free 8,000 slaves, sell property in Spain, Aquitania, Taraconia and Gaul to provide donations to the poor, and to retain property elsewhere that enabled her to endow monasteries. (See Elizabeth A. Clark, “Asceticism, Class and Gender,” in Virginia Burrus, Late Ancient Christianity (Grand Rapids: Augsburg: 2010) 27-45, 38.)

Melania and Pinianus left Rome in 408 (see the influence of Melania the Elder, above) and adopted a monastic life near Messina (Sicily). In 410 (remember Alaric) they traveled to Africa, making the acquaintance of Augustine of Hippo and devoting themselves to the life of piety and charity. This work included the founding of a convent, of which Melania became Mother Superior, and a cloister of which Pinianus took charge. In 417, they traveled to Alexandria and then to Palestine, and took up residence in a hermitage near the Mount of Olives, where Melania founded a second convent. Pinianus died in 420. After his death, Melania continued her patronage of the church by building another cloister for men, and a church, where she lived until her death in 439.

See more at Vitae – Melania the Younger

Read more . . .
More about Melania the Younger is in print in The Life of Melania the Younger by Gerontius (d. 485), translated with and introduction and commentary by Elizabeth A. Clark, 1984, in the LPTS Library.

A lengthy bibliography of the period geared towards theologians is online at Patristics Bibliography #9: Melania the Elder and Women in the Early Church


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