The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women

Nicola Denzey, Author Beacon $27.95 (290p) ISBN 978-0-8070-1308-3

In late antiquity, pious Christian women buried the remains of saints and martyrs, sometimes on land the women themselves owned. The legends of these “bone gatherers” launch Denzey's investigation into the experiences of third- and fourth-century Roman women based on the complex visual and archeological evidence they left behind in the city's catacombs. Denzey, a lecturer at Harvard University, uses a technique “akin to feminist midrash” to decipher what these women's lives were really like as the feminine ideal shifted from pagan Rome's devoted wives to Catholic Christianity's virgin martyrs. Sometimes delving into the macabre, the author probes into the meanings revealed by underground burial spaces and wall paintings that reflect women's presence. The study concludes with an analysis of Pope Damasus's impact in the fourth century: a “stunning masculinization of Rome's sacred space,” the privatization of women's roles, and the end of the female tradition of bone gathering. Although the book's black-and-white photographs are sparse and hard to decipher, Denzey's prose paints vivid pictures of the sites she visits. Some readers may find her imaginative interpretations of the visual evidence too speculative, but her densely layered inquiry is insightful and haunting. (Aug.)

Reviewed on: 05/28/2007
Release date: 07/01/2007
Genre: Nonfiction
Ebook - 313 pages - 978-0-8070-1318-2
Paperback - 290 pages - 978-0-8070-1309-0
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