Tertullian: On Modesty in Apparel Becoming to Women

While modesty of apparel is often discussed and probably it is foolish of me to expect things not to stray too far from the OP, so whatever license the authorities here at SI grant for sidebars then have at it, but as for the intent of the thread I wanted to post a portion of one of Tertullian's essays, specifically a chapter concerning feminine modesty and their apparel and get some response specifically to Tertullian's language and view. I enjoy having immediate access online to so much literature both from the early church and any subsequent period but particularly the first 5 centuries and here Tertullian uses some interesting language and thought it would be worthwhile to get responses as to the essay.

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0402.htm

Quote:
If there dwelt upon earth a faith as great as is the reward of faith which is expected in the heavens, no one of you at all, best beloved sisters, from the time that she had first "known the Lord," and learned (the truth) concerning her own (that is, woman's) condition, would have desired too gladsome (not to say too ostentatious) a style of dress; so as not rather to go about in humble garb, and rather to affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve,— the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of human perdition. "In pains and in anxieties do you bear (children), woman; and toward your husband (is) your inclination, and he lords it over you." And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins? Come, now; if from the beginning of the world the Milesians sheared sheep, and the Serians spun trees, and the Tyrians dyed, and the Phrygians embroidered with the needle, and the Babylonians with the loom, and pearls gleamed, and onyx-stones flashed; if gold itself also had already issued, with the cupidity (which accompanies it), from the ground; if the mirror, too, already had licence tolie so largely, Eve, expelled from paradise, (Eve) already dead, would also have coveted these things, I imagine! No more, then, ought she now to crave, or be acquainted with (if she desires to live again), what, when she was living, she had neither had nor known. Accordingly these things are all the baggage of woman in her condemned and dead state, instituted as if to swell the pomp of her funeral.-

Tertullian, for a date references should be placed about 200 AD.

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Alex Guggenheim's picture

Well I have formed a new postulate:

Tertullian gains little traction.

So for what it is worth, as I read Tertullian's writings he seems to be an ascetic of sorts or what today is called a legalist, though I prefer ascetic. Later in the particular essay he chided men for shaving too closely and even questioned the virtues of those of dyeing garments.

That said, I cannot say that Tertullian was infected in all places with this sort of heavy asceticism or piousness. In some places he expounds quite well on some doctrinal and practical issues and regarding our Lord, his faithful words and zeal are edifying.

Now, you gateways of the devil, be at your rest. Smile

Becky Petersen's picture

Was he married?

I have a hard time reading these things with complete understanding. Maybe I don't want to work at it, but when I have to work so hard to understand someone so long ago, I tend to just skip it.

It sounds like he makes all of us accountable for Eve's sin. He also seems to blame Eve for Adam's sinning. Now that is interesting.

( "you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. ")

Does it matter to us what he thought about women in general or their appearance? If so, why? (I'm sounding a bit like a teacher asking a kid to give his opinion, I know.) I'm curious if this is relevant to us today. He seems rather "down on women".

ChrisC's picture

Becky Petersen wrote:
Was he married?
apparently so (poor woman). a later writing is called http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf04.iii.v.i.i.html to his wife .
Becky Petersen wrote:
I have a hard time reading these things with complete understanding.
it would be better if the translation wasn't 150 years old, but the benefit of such an old translation is that its free of all the modern copyright restrictions and you can read it freely on several websites.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

The relevance of early church writings is manifold. For me the most interesting is being able to note certain trends, early eccentricities and early assertion of fundamental dogmas and compare them to today. Particularly interesting are the very early writers simply because they are so close in proximity to the apostolic influence yet, even so one can observe a rapid development in schools of theology/movements.

Diane Heeney's picture

I slogged through a good portion of this yesterday...but, with Becky, I needed my thinking cap to be screwed on tight, and the help of my decoder ring as well. Wink

Quote:
How unworthy the Christian name, to wear a fictitious face, (you,) on whom simplicity in every form is enjoined!— to lie in your appearance, (you,) to whom (lying) with the tongue is not lawful!—

I found several tid bits interesting. His premise that wearing makeup etc. is, in essence, lying by misrepresentation. Wow. I thought I was a pretty truthful person up to now!

Quote:
That which He Himself has not produced is not pleasing to God, unless He was unable to order sheep to be born with purple and sky-blue fleeces! If He was able, then plainly He was unwilling: what God willed not, of course ought not to be fashioned. Those things, then, are not the best by nature which are not from God, the Author of nature. Thus they are understood to be from the devil, from the corrupter of nature: for there is no other whose they can be, if they are not God's; because what are not God's must necessarily be His rival's.

Some of the asceticism reminded me of the old line Amish and Mennonites...no makeup, no hair color, no bangles or baubles or buttons, no color. Particularly the mention of purple made me think of Prov. 31:22...purple...and tapestry and silk. Never realized she was such a worldly woman.

And this:

Quote:
As if I were speaking to Gentiles, addressing you with a Gentile precept, and (one which is) common to all, (I would say,) "You are bound to please your husbands only." But you will please them in proportion as you take no care to please others. Be without carefulness, blessed (sisters): no wife is "ugly" to her own husband. She "pleased" him enough when she was selected (by him as his wife); whether commended by form or by character. Let none of you think that, if she abstain from the care of her person, she will incur the hatred and aversion of husbands. Every husband is the exactor of chastity; but beauty, a believing (husband) does not require, because we are not captivated by the same graces which the Gentiles think (to be) graces: an unbelieving one, on the other hand, even regards with suspicion, just from that infamous opinion of us which the Gentiles have. For whom, then, is it that you cherish your beauty? If for a believer, he does not exact it: if for an unbeliever, he does not believe in it unless it be artless. Why are you eager to please either one who is suspicious, or else one who desires it not?

What do you think he was saying here? I understand that biblical love is supposed to transcend the superficial...but this almost seems to suggest that the wife doesn't need to maintain her appearance for her husband's sake, now that they are married. Wives are not supposed to make themselves attractive for their husband's sake, since he no longer "requires" it?

Or is this a caution against married women who were adorning themselves in a worldly manner for the approval of others and/or against the wishes of their husbands?

"I pray to God this day to make me an extraordinary Christian." --Whitefield http://strengthfortoday.wordpress.com

Becky Petersen's picture

Diane Heeney wrote:
I
And this:
Quote:
. Let none of you think that, if she abstain from the care of her person, she will incur the hatred and aversion of husbands. Every husband is the exactor of chastity; but beauty, a believing (husband) does not require, because we are not captivated by the same graces which the Gentiles think (to be) graces: an unbelieving one, on the other hand, even regards with suspicion, just from that infamous opinion of us which the Gentiles have. For whom, then, is it that you cherish your beauty? If for a believer, he does not exact it: if for an unbeliever, he does not believe in it unless it be artless. Why are you eager to please either one who is suspicious, or else one who desires it not?

I think he is giving too much credit to our Christian men. They DO often care what the wife looks like. Just because they are Christians doesn't mean that they are no longer men. Maybe they SHOULD be able to overlook a wife's looks, (if she changes for the worse, which most of us do--as do they), but does that mean he does? If so, why would some make comments about other women's appearances? Often they do notice other women.

(My dad was very good about never even Seeing other women!)

As to Alex's (I think it is Alex) assertions that the early church fathers' opinions are important to us today...I hear you, but remain a bit more skeptical than some, apparently. We have so many more people today who read, are scholars, etc. Just like the people who often are famous from years ago are the ones who were either connected to someone with a publishing house, etc. had relatives with money, etc....it doesn't mean that they were actually the best thinkers or most spiritual. They are just the ones we know about. I am way too cynical, I know. But, after reading a few missionary biographies, I've gotten where it seems like I wish I could hear about some of the unknowns and leave the famous ones to rest. Far too much politics. Try to imagine a modern David Livingston leaving his family at home for months if not years at a time while he goes off on a mission exploring. Would he be considered a hero or a deserter of his family? That's just one instance.

Anyway, maybe Tertullian would fit right in as the "father of the modern patriarchial" system where women have responsibility but no authority. Thus, we are responsible for Adam's failure, but certainly didn't control his actions. Many men out there do this to their wives. They blame them for their failures but of course, do not let the women control them.

pgepps's picture

Tertullian is certainly a fairly stiff example of the "Roman culture rubbing off on Christianity" pattern in Latin theology. But we can evaluate examples of responses and possible overreactions, or at any rate possibly anachronistic interpretations, without going all the way back there. How about a modern collection of sacred art throughout history? how would "modesty" rank as a concern? Please http://sharperiron.org/forum/poll-assembling-collection-of-sacred-art-yo... ]come discuss this with us.