Ambrose's Virginity Treatises: An (Inter)Textual Approach

Metha Hokke

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    Ambrose’s Virginity Treatises. An (Inter)Textual Approach – Metha Hokke

    When Ambrose became bishop of Milan in 374, virginity became a cornerstone of his ecclesiastical policy. He expressed the importance of virginity in four virginity treatises based on sermons: De Virginibus, De Virginitate, De Institutione Virginis, and Exhortatio Virginitatis. The first two virginity treatises were written at the start of his episcopate, the last two at the end. By these treatises he wants to recruit young girls for a life of virginity within the Church and so the parents and the girls themselves are his primary addressees. In his sketch of virginal life, Ambrose introduces an ascetic ideal to be followed by all the members of the ecclesiastical community within certain limits. An ascetic lifestyle included a renunciation from all sorts of pleasures and material comforts. This appeal was meant to lead to a moral, but also spiritual improvement of the Church, as it represented a disengagement from the world and concentration on God. This thesis is based on five articles written as case studies for specific conferences, based on textual analysis of passages from Ambrose’s virginity treatises. In general, Ambrose’s first treatise, De Virginibus, has received a lot of attention, but the other three treatises are hardly studied. In this dissertation, the unknown treatises have received most attention and a development of the ideas on virginity reflected in the treatises is discussed.

    The first article compares the prayers ending the last two virginity treatises. The first prayer expresses Ambrose’s arguments in favour of virginity in the public ritual of the virginal consecration he shaped. The second prayer I interpret as more personal than the general view of it being a prayer held during the consecration of a church building. The second article is on the virgin as terminus of salvation history as visualized by the spread of a divine scent. This passage from the second virginity treatise can hardly be understood without intertextual comparison. The third article focusses again on the last two virginity treatises, in which the physicality of virginity is increasingly playing a major role. An explanation is sought in Ambrose’s leading role in the controversy around Mary’s different forms of virginity. On the one hand Mary’s virginity became pivotal to guarantee Christ’s divinity, on the other hand Mary’s virginity as reversal of Eve’s fall introduced paradise into the later virginity treatises. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise on virginity offers a different line of argument connecting virginity with paradise and the trinity. In the fourth article a sociological reversal of the hierarchical relationship between virgins and bishop within the Church between the first and second treatise is demonstrated, based on biblical exegesis and the use of metaphors. The last article treats the different meanings and relational uses of the concept misericordia in the first two treatises and Ambrose’s contemporary treatise against the remarriage of widows. Misericordia’s tripartite relationship (Christian – fellow human being - God) is often expressed by economical terminology. Ambrose portrays the widow’s role as public within the ecclesiastical network of misericordia (charity). For the virgin, living retreated at her family’s home, misericordia refers to God’s mercy towards her. Her most important virtues are virginity and fides.

    This dissertation not only takes part in the recently renewed interest in the Church Father Ambrose, but also contributes to a reconsideration of the concept of virginity and its continuing implications. The study of virginity questions the concept of the self, the relationship between mind and body, the idealization of childhood and paradisiacal innocence, power relations, the goal of an individual life and life in general and thus its relation to this big unknown in this life, God.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Tilburg University
    • van Geest, Paul, Promotor
    • Koet, Bart, Promotor
    Award date10 Sept 2021
    Place of Publication[s.l.]
    Print ISBNs9789464213980
    Publication statusPublished - 2021


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