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On Twisted Gifts, Minds and Tongues: Inheritance Hunting and Flattery in the Late Antique West

As soon as widows enter the scene in late antique literature, the authors of these various writings are eager to veil these widows’ activities, if considered inappropriate, into a discourse of ‘insidious gifts’ or, in the project’s phrasing, of ‘false gifts’. The broader discourse that encompasses these accusations is that of inheritance hunting, captatio. These widows were, thus, main protagonists in a discourse entirely devoted to twisted transfers. These transfers however were no mere economic issue. They were intrinsically entangled with a discourse of twisted minds, i.e. widows and clerics not behaving as they should, and twisted tongues, i.e. double speech, flattery and gossip.

Instead of mere deconstructing such discourse, this subproject goes the other way round. By first analysing the widows’ ambitions in terms of social practice, the project shifts the setting from mere avarice to the élite’s modes of communication and interaction.  With that in mind this contribution is subsequently able to unveil the discourse on twisted transfers as a direct, derogatory response to the widows’ ambitions as well as to their male companions, who are throughout labelled as inheritance hunters or flatterers. As this subproject attempts to show, Christian widows of the fourth and fifth century CE were no victims of inheritance hunters nor were they ultimately dependant on the priests and bishops who wrote to them. These widows were instead on the hunt themselves – on the hunt for status and influence, as the reoccurring term ambitio makes clear. These (mostly wealthy) widows, as will be argued, constructed, contested and negotiated power relations by appropriating and nuancing communication strategies of allegedly male domains of practice, thereby not only negotiating related values and norms, but also the notion of avarice and thus corruption itself.