The evidence for female monasticism is not extensive. Materials authored by women not survived and our understanding comes through the lens of their male counterparts. Nevertheless, alongside the new papyrological and archeological discoveries, some ancient literary texts not yet sufficiently appreciated offer fresh evidence also on female communities.
The image of a society conquered by ascetic practices, which glorified women's virginity, comes from a very sophisticated rhetorical literature, a product of the conflicts that animated the Church, when it needed to establish an orthodoxy recalling paradoxical themes of Christian discourse, such as the incarnation of Christ and of his dual nature with the birth of a virgin woman. In fact, the rhetoric of virginity practiced by educated members of Christian elite did not change the Roman society. Female ascetism arose from a strong aristocratic impulse, while marriage and procreation remained the normal expectations of life for the vast majority of women. We will try to verify this approach by studying the institutional and economic aspects of the main models of female settlements, in different geographical areas of the late ancient Empire (IVth-VIth century AD). The relationship between the monastery, abbess and bishop will be illuminated by comparing the management of Gregorian monasteries in Italy with those in Gaul, in Spain and in the East, while fresh testimonies will confirm that the ‘holy arrogance’ of noblewomen, whose according to Jerome virginity gave an authority even greater than what they would get for their social background, never became a paradigmatic virtues. The Christian virgins, even if blessed rules, was denied any ministerial role and female virginity became synonymous of obedience and renunciation.