This paper seeks to discuss a scholarly presumption that suggests only women were at the mercy of Christian male intellectuals responsible for the construction of gender definitions in late antiquity. This examination highlights the evolution of the definition of masculinity from the Greco-Roman period to the era of late antique Christendom and the use of masculine language to describe strong holy women. This survey shows that men were called upon by male Christian intellectuals to refine themselves with traits that stereotypically associated with femininity, while women were praised as masculine after they had de-feminized themselves in the ascetic setting. From this observation it is safe to assume that the Byzantine late antique notion of gender categories was fluid and, ultimately, this paper suggests that men and women rarely lived up to the gendered and spiritual ideals set for them by male intellectuals. Men and women were at the mercy of male definition makers.
Any scholarly discourse that is overly gynocentric, in that it omits the masculine from its research, offers little fresh information to the field with which to understand the fluidity of both the masculine and the feminine. This paper, through raising this issue and receiving feedback from those listening, will hopefully aid in comprehending what it means to possess non-gendered positive and negative traits that are inherent in all human personalities regardless of sex, which men and women were equally called upon to dispel or enhance within a Christian context.
The aim here is to explore briefly the (re)construction of gender definitions for men and women through a focus on two works: i) Ambrose’s list of ideal masculine qualities for men and of derogatory traits for the majority of women found in De Cain et Abel and ii) Saint Matrona of Perge’s Vita Prima, which was written by an anonymous male monk in the sixth century from the notes taken by Eulogia, a nun of Matrona’s convent, in the fifth. These two works will be supplemented by the Vitae of other female transvestite monks, discourses of other patristic writers, and, when relevant, pre-Christian Greco-Roman philosophical and medical treatises.