Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Jacob A. Latham

Committee Members

Maura Lafferty, Matthew Gillis, Christine Shepardson


This dissertation reconceptualizes the boundedness of the late antique and early medieval Christian ascetic body. Many ascetics spent the majority of their lives out of sight, residing primarily in either tiny cells or caves deep within mountains. Because their flesh was inaccessible to the pilgrim, I argue that their location became a second skin, as flesh melded with physical materiality. I use various sources, from letters and treatises, to hagiographies and collected sayings – from the regions of Gaul and Rome to Egypt, Syria and Palestine – in order to explore this entanglement. Christian authorities attempted to solidify these men and women into a single physical form, casting them as impenetrable bridal chambers, or even literal walls that shielded Christian towns from the onslaught of demons and Huns alike. Bishops rhetorically transformed ascetics’ bodies in their bishoprics to stone, portraying them not only as the limits of their political power, but as the fortified boundaries of the Christendom itself. Even when ascetics completely hid their bodies, their abodes were depicted as their face to the world, allowing pilgrims to access their holiness through a medium other than skin. Moreover, the second half of investigates how this negotiation of bodies and space took place in the late antique world when salvation was at stake. I contend that bishops and other episcopal authorities tried to exert control over their surroundings and thus themselves, though that materiality often pushed back in unexpected ways. Their anxiety over self-categorization is often palpable throughout their letters and saints’ lives, letting us peek behind the curtain of their overt assuredness. This project ultimately examines how late ancient and early medieval Christians negotiated their own sense of self in spaces and with bodies that distort traditional categorizations of gender, materiality, and mortality, revealing that an author does not have sole agency over the shape of his story.

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