Situated in a period that witnessed the genesis of institutions that have lasted to this day, this path-breaking study looks at how ancient Christian women, particularly in Asia Minor and Egypt, initiated ascetic ways of living, and how these practices were then institutionalized. SusannaElm demonstrates that--in direct contrast to later conceptions--asceticism began primarly as an urban movement, in which women were significant protagonists. In the process, they completely transformed and expanded their roles as wife, mother, or widow: as Christian ascetics, they became `virgin wives', `virgin mothers', and `virgin widows' - with all the legal and economic implications of such a dramatic shift. As importantly, though, Christian menand women ascetics lived together. As `virgins of God' they created new families `in Christ'. No longer determined by their human bonds or human sexuality, they were `neither male nor female'. Finally, the book demonstrates how ascetic bishops - today known as saints - eventually `reformed' these early models of communal, ascetic life by dividing the `virgins of God' into monks and nuns and thus laid the foundation for the monasticism we know today.