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The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity

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Addresses the practice of permanent sexual renunciation that developed in Christian circles from the first to the fifth centuries AD. This book describes the early Christians and their preoccupations. It follows the reflection and controversy these notions generated among Christian writers. It is intended for classicists and medievalists.


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Addresses the practice of permanent sexual renunciation that developed in Christian circles from the first to the fifth centuries AD. This book describes the early Christians and their preoccupations. It follows the reflection and controversy these notions generated among Christian writers. It is intended for classicists and medievalists.

30 review for The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity

  1. 5 out of 5

    Samuel Brown

    I read this book a few years ago and just realized that I never reviewed it. Brown is everything one could desire from a scholar of Mediterranean culture in the several centuries after Christ. He founded the field of Late Antique studies as such, and this book is one of the key contributions he made earlier in his career. (He's still writing magnificent books at a staggering rate from his retirement.) It's probably one of the most insightful, interesting, and illuminating texts I've read on earl I read this book a few years ago and just realized that I never reviewed it. Brown is everything one could desire from a scholar of Mediterranean culture in the several centuries after Christ. He founded the field of Late Antique studies as such, and this book is one of the key contributions he made earlier in his career. (He's still writing magnificent books at a staggering rate from his retirement.) It's probably one of the most insightful, interesting, and illuminating texts I've read on early Christianity. It changed the way I think about gender and reproduction in the early Christian church. If you're trying to understand ancient ideas about the meaning of sexual difference and sexual expression, this book is absolutely necessary. Time spent in the presence of a wise and immensely learned scholar is a rare treasure; this book represents such an opportunity.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    One reader commented that Brown's work here is 'biased and sloppy,' and while that may be their take, I respectfully disagree. For those who don't know who Brown is, he is usually known as the imminent living expert on all things Augustine. Nice work if you can get it; while that's a neat thing to put on a business card, very few people can make a living tossing such a title around. Brown is no slouch, and I think he is a fair and judicious expert on Augustine. Especially being a female, I must One reader commented that Brown's work here is 'biased and sloppy,' and while that may be their take, I respectfully disagree. For those who don't know who Brown is, he is usually known as the imminent living expert on all things Augustine. Nice work if you can get it; while that's a neat thing to put on a business card, very few people can make a living tossing such a title around. Brown is no slouch, and I think he is a fair and judicious expert on Augustine. Especially being a female, I must posit that while Augustine is rightly known as one of the most important thinkers Christianity has ever known, he brought some of his own struggles to his work which have had lasting implications. This is also true of Jerome, of Tertullian, and of a handful of the earliest Church Fathers, from 200-400 AD, which is the time that Brown here gives treatment to. Because of the Platononism that was 'in the air' with Manichees and Gnostic dualism, the things which our Church Fathers said have had some lasting implications which any minister or learned laity would do well to explore. I think Brown's work is an excellent work in which to do just that.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    One of the most striking aspects of Peter Brown’s The Body and Society is the sheer diversity of viewpoints on sex and sexual renunciation. Augustine’s viewpoints differed greatly from his own contemporaries such as John Cassian and Jerome. The Desert fathers differed from Origen and so on. Some believed any sex was a sin, while others thought having sex in marriage was perfectly acceptable. Peter Brown’s book reveals some of the complicated discussions and diverse opinions in the ancient, mostl One of the most striking aspects of Peter Brown’s The Body and Society is the sheer diversity of viewpoints on sex and sexual renunciation. Augustine’s viewpoints differed greatly from his own contemporaries such as John Cassian and Jerome. The Desert fathers differed from Origen and so on. Some believed any sex was a sin, while others thought having sex in marriage was perfectly acceptable. Peter Brown’s book reveals some of the complicated discussions and diverse opinions in the ancient, mostly Christian world. The book starts off with the teachings of the apostle Paul and moves from there to the time of the Desert Fathers. I found Peter Brown’s handling of the biblical material underwhelming, and he too readily accepted historical-critical dating and authorship assumptions that I don’t share. As he moves through the rest of the historical people and times I thought he handled them better, but that may be due to my ignorance of the time period and scholarship around the figures. Someone other than me will need to judge him on the accuracy of his history. I ended up taking a mostly accepting posture to his historical judgment as I read this book. The picture Peter Brown gives us of sexuality, sexual renunciation, and gender in the first four centuries of the Christian era is a view far from our own. Both the pagan and Christian assumptions and conclusions are not ones shared by many in today’s society. The most prominent example comes from the subtitle of the book: sexual renunciation within marriage. Both ancient Romans and early Christians held it up as virtuous, though for different reasons, that sex within marriage should be limited if had at all. With the invention of the pill and ready access to contraception and natural family planning techniques, Christian marriages are often encouraged to have more sex, not less. Reading this book put me into a society and world with assumptions around continence and sex far different from my own. I would not want to go back to the ways of the past. The teachings on marriage, sex, and family life were not developed to the extent that they need to be by our fathers in the faith, especially with regards to understanding the female body and pleasure. I think the early Christian writers did make a mistake when they did not stress the unitive and joyous aspects of sex, something I think we have been able to grasp much better than the past. While sex is connected to procreation, pleasure also comes with it as well, and this is a gift from God. However, I think the past, as depicted by Peter Brown, does contain some valuable resources which we can benefit from. The most impressive aspect of the past figures, both male and female, is the discipline and submission of the body, including sexual urges. However we may feel about their conclusions about sex and understanding of the body, I have great admiration for the discipline these ancients, both pagan and Christian were able to show. For someone who struggles to fast some food, the disciple in fasting and sexual renunciation is admirable. The past also emphasizes the value of virginity and singleness in ways I have not seen the Protestant church do well. We do not have to accept all of the conclusions around virginity to see the value Jesus and Paul gives to those who live lives of committed singleness to the Lord. Those of us who are Protestant have much we can learn from the past and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches on this topic, even if the learning will have to be careful. In an odd turn of events, the Christian church, at least the conservative branch, has now turned into one of the strongest defenders of marriage and the family. This feels odd, and even contradictory, when compared to the emphases of the early Christians. Many wanted to emphasize the temporality of our life on earth, something virginity pointed to uniquely well. Unlike the pagans, Christians were not to create a name for themselves through procreation. As such, Christians were sometimes hostile (Jerome), but more often apathetic (Gregory of Nyssa exemplified this) to procreation. I do not believe we need to keep the insights of the past separate from our own defense of the family, however. Different times require different emphases, and the good of the natural family does need to be defended in ways it did not back in the earliest church life. But the views of the past can serve as a good corrective to some views of the family and procreation. Families are good, but Christians should not desire to make a name for themselves through their children. Only in God are we allowed to pursue fame and glory, and that glory is one where we “boast only in the cross” as St. Paul says. An unsurprising, but welcome feature of the book was the inclusion of Christian groups and teachers of questionable orthodoxy, such as Valentinian and the Gnostic teachers. I say this is welcome because it gave me a picture of Christian views I am not usually exposed to, and I think it gave a fuller picture of what leaders were teaching about sexuality and sexual renunciation. It also allowed for more of a contrast to appear between what the texts of scripture and the gnostic texts taught about the body. The orthodox Christian teachers, while still different, are much more recognizable than the unorthodox Christian sects and teachings. One reason I read this book was to get a glimpse of the lives of men and women in early Christianity. As expected, the men get far more of the page count and discussion. We simply do not have many surviving writing by Christian women to let us know what they were thinking. However, we can piece together bits and pieces here and there. The first thing to note is that women were often assumed to be lesser than men. I believe one of the gnostic texts says that in the new life women would become men. Second is that women were viewed as objects of sexual temptation. The seriousness of this threat varied depending on the writer, with Jerome and some Desert ascetics taking the most negative view of women. This led to a separation of men from women as a way to flee sexual temptation by the men. Third we also see some (though not many) Christians having a high value and expectation on women learning. Origen’s study circles were open to women, Macrina was a great teacher of the scriptures and influential in teaching her younger siblings, and we see in Jerome’s early years a similar attitude to women learning with Melania becoming a great teacher and expositor of the scriptures. Fourth we see women able to access different parts of society than the men could. Fifth, the high elevation on virginity, led to an elevated status for consecrated female virgins. These women were viewed as extra holy and able to intercede in powerful ways. One last thought for myself. After reading this book, I would like to read more on sex, virginity, sexual renunciation, and marriage by Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine. Gregory of Nyssa seemed to be going along a slightly different path than the rest of the early fathers, and I would like to engage with them in the future.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Katherine Addison

    Read long ago for an undergraduate course on the history of the body. Excellent.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    biased and sloppy. very overrated.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Aaron

    Peter Brown's THE BODY AND SOCIETY is a commendable, historical puzzling-out of Early Christian concepts of sexuality, sexual continence, and the role of renunciation/asceticism in the first five centuries of the common era. While a considerable proportion of Brown's analysis is reserved for his discernment of the Desert Fathers, their contemporaries, and those who followed them, perhaps equally fascinating are the author's tidy and resolute interpretations of the moral indices localized to Asia Peter Brown's THE BODY AND SOCIETY is a commendable, historical puzzling-out of Early Christian concepts of sexuality, sexual continence, and the role of renunciation/asceticism in the first five centuries of the common era. While a considerable proportion of Brown's analysis is reserved for his discernment of the Desert Fathers, their contemporaries, and those who followed them, perhaps equally fascinating are the author's tidy and resolute interpretations of the moral indices localized to Asia Minor or Latin Rome or of Syria, Africa, and Gaul. Concepts of sexuality, concepts of body (male or female), and distinguishing the cultural and political reasons for differentiating such human tendencies, varied by region. Brown's work provides a very good, very sharp, critical understanding of how perceptions of body and of sexuality evolved in each of these territories and why. A distinct line can be drawn from the First/Second Century notion that "sexual desire itself was unproblematic" (30), to later calculations on the role of sexual desire in pushing certain social functions of female domesticity, to yet later integrations of religiosity and spirituality and their assertion that sexual desire represented human intractability, to more modern assessments of sexuality as blameworthy, as an inherent revocation of purity that is wholly "antithetical" to the clear truth and harmony purportedly bestowed upon (or made available to) humankind by God. There is a line connecting these perspectives, and Brown traces this line. At his disposal are letters, religious tracts, and the arrogant sagacity of governing institutions whose grasp of sexual continence shifted and changed through the centuries, as one comes to regularly expect, to best suit the needs (or reflect the interests) of those officials or patrons who most benefited from constituent instruction of such matters. THE BODY AND SOCIETY, while taking noticeable strides to avoid present-day politics of the human body, does not shy away from documenting the political inclinations of authority structures of the first five centuries, and how these structures wielded their influence. Brown's discussion of Early Christianity covers a lot of ground, but is thankfully limited to its reflection on the transparency of the human will, harmony by means of retaining cultural balance and/or hierarchy, and subsequent connections to the holy through assorted rituals, traditions, and ideological reflections (symbols) of humankind's relationship with the cosmic. Does material diversity -- of human form -- ever diverge from, or progress toward, "an original common perfection" (163)? Brown cites, rather assiduously, the lives of men such as Tertullian, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, and Augustine of Hippo, in an effort to tease out an answer or two. The most unique and recurring facet of this analysis is Brown's acknowledgment of humanity's ever-elusive goal to reclaim The Adam Status -- the spiritual journey one undertakes to retrieve the unblemished exclusivity of being the non-animal. In time, this journey is reinterpreted as having less to deal with "the image of the pure" (295) -- a kind of original or native, interior purity -- than it does the more pressing, contemporary disambiguation of material possessiveness and the capacity of the soul to love, or to transform through love, to be closer to spiritual delight. This debate is chronicled loosely but sufficiently, and thus knits end-to-end an array of unanswerable questions posed by each period's greatest minds, notably: Is the sexual impulse a dutiful echo of the cosmic impulse? And, further: Is physical intimacy (and therefore, pleasure) a natural, or even necessary part of human creation? Different cultural traditions have responded to the quest to reclaim The Adam Status differently. This is important, because it shows readers that interpretations of canonical Scripture have been routinely massaged over the centuries, not merely to suit the needs of prevailing authorities, but to educate as well: Is the material social structure representative of human interactions that are necessary merely because the conditions for a population to thrive so necessitate its presence? THE BODY AND SOCIETY is an excellent window into the psycho-social consequences of establishing and revising cultural expectations. Sometimes, ideology obscures culture and custom in favor of universalizing perspective and thought in a way that deliberately minimizes an individual's lived experience. Sometimes, establishing limitations on human desire finesses the fundament of human wisdom in other facets or challenges of life such that external determinants are no longer overwhelming. There is perhaps not enough analysis in this book concerning the role, function, and influence of women on Early Christianity and its ascetic traditions, this despite Brown's indispensable (single) chapter on the matter. Brown's dismissal of Thecla, for example, is unfortunate, because it immediately precludes any contributing analysis of the power of her character (real or conglomerated) to have influenced centuries of practices concerning virgin (female) martyrs. Similarly, the author's notes on figures such as Macrina (elder sister to Gregory of Nyssa) and Melania the Elder focus far too much on what these figures did with their public lives and less on the individual lines of influence that extended from their legendary patronage. THE BODY AND SOCIETY, for its extended focus on male rhetorical spaces and patient (and particular) attenuation of body concepts among representative human tendencies capable of blame, refinement, and/or misunderstanding, remains a vital resource in contextualizing the shifting fortunes and functions of sexuality and of sexual continence in the late-antique Roman Empire and its surrounding territories.

  7. 4 out of 5

    sam tannehill

    I loved reading this book. I have loved reading any book by Peter Brown, so far. This book is a very interesting look at not just sexual mores of early Christians, but even more so the idea of how the physical body fit into creation. If you have never read a book about the history of the Christian church, first read a good history book, like "The History of the Christian Church," by Philip Schaff, or "2,000 Years of Christ's Power," Nicholas Needham. Then read this book or a book like it to fill I loved reading this book. I have loved reading any book by Peter Brown, so far. This book is a very interesting look at not just sexual mores of early Christians, but even more so the idea of how the physical body fit into creation. If you have never read a book about the history of the Christian church, first read a good history book, like "The History of the Christian Church," by Philip Schaff, or "2,000 Years of Christ's Power," Nicholas Needham. Then read this book or a book like it to fill in the details around the broader brush strokes. I especially liked how this book ended. If you read through this book, the first part may start slowly, but it gets more interesting and then finishes very well.

  8. 4 out of 5

    fausto

    "El cuerpo y la sociedad" es un libro que tenía pendiente desde hace algunos años, se trata de un muy riguroso análisis de la literatura de los primeros cristianos respecto a la sexualidad. Los múltiples debates entre las distintas sectas cristianas entre los siglos II - IV nos muestran una religión férreamente fraccionada, y cuyos líderes moldeaban su pensamiento a comunidades específicas. Sin duda alguna es un libro maravilloso, brillantemente escrito y con un rigor literario muy bien cimentad "El cuerpo y la sociedad" es un libro que tenía pendiente desde hace algunos años, se trata de un muy riguroso análisis de la literatura de los primeros cristianos respecto a la sexualidad. Los múltiples debates entre las distintas sectas cristianas entre los siglos II - IV nos muestran una religión férreamente fraccionada, y cuyos líderes moldeaban su pensamiento a comunidades específicas. Sin duda alguna es un libro maravilloso, brillantemente escrito y con un rigor literario muy bien cimentado, una lectura obligada para entender el nacimiento (e interesantísimos debates) en torno a las actitudes occidentales/cristianas respecto al sexo.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Caleb

    If you are serious about the study of Christian theology with regards to sexuality, you cannot ignore reading this book. It is an amazing study of early church history with regards to how celibacy came to be held as the ideal spiritual state in both the East and the West. It is done with thoroughness and compassion at truly trying to understand the basis and the logic of such opinions. Absolutely brilliant

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Meeks

    An in depth look at the first few centuries of Church history, revealing the ways Christians helpful, unhelpfully, and definitely imperfectly thought and taught about the body, mostly in reaction to the cultures around them.

  11. 4 out of 5

    N.W. Martin

    Need to re-read

  12. 5 out of 5

    Adam Loft

    A fascinating study of early Christian culture and the late Roman Empire through the lens of its attitudes to celibacy.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    This was an interesting book. I wouldn't recommend unless someone is really interested in the interplay between religion and sexuality because it's fairly dry and academic, but the scope it covers is fascinating. Brown illustrates how various groups within early Christianity embraced celibacy for a multitude of different reasons based on their particular theology surrounding the body, the soul, life, God, marriage, asceticism, etc. He does tend to name-drop theologians, philosophers, and other e This was an interesting book. I wouldn't recommend unless someone is really interested in the interplay between religion and sexuality because it's fairly dry and academic, but the scope it covers is fascinating. Brown illustrates how various groups within early Christianity embraced celibacy for a multitude of different reasons based on their particular theology surrounding the body, the soul, life, God, marriage, asceticism, etc. He does tend to name-drop theologians, philosophers, and other early Christian leaders that someone without a background in these kinds of topics might not recognize, but it's still possible to read without getting every reference. Probably the most frustrating aspect of the book was Brown's habit of inserting bracketed additions to just about every quotation in the book, many of which are not actually necessary for clarification. This heavy-handed editing got irritating quickly. But aside from that, I appreciated that the book was thoroughly researched and clearly written, and I gained a much more nuanced understanding of commitments to celibacy (and the Church's evolving teachings on sex and marriage) than I had previously.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Brian Hohmeier

    'The Body & Society' is an excellently written survey, loosely bound around its titular theme. While perhaps wanting for a central argument, it tracks well with the development of views of body and sexuality by the Church in its various temporal and imperial-geographical contexts. It lacks no depth of insight or personality; unlike many survey texts of Church history, Brown does not merely report but performs intelligent and insightful synthesis, bringing with comment contemporary and distantly 'The Body & Society' is an excellently written survey, loosely bound around its titular theme. While perhaps wanting for a central argument, it tracks well with the development of views of body and sexuality by the Church in its various temporal and imperial-geographical contexts. It lacks no depth of insight or personality; unlike many survey texts of Church history, Brown does not merely report but performs intelligent and insightful synthesis, bringing with comment contemporary and distantly juxtaposed figures of early Christian history together to reveal the coherently diverse landscape demonstrated by their writings. As such, he ably shows the deep relevance that social forms and social philosophy have had on the formation of these theological views and, another triumph of a scholar, does so without succumbing reductionism. 'The Body & Society' falls on a rather short list of library books that I have read yet may still buy for myself.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jain

    You will be hard-pressed to find a more detailed and thorough exploration of the rise of Christian sexual mores. Brown is the foremost authority on the history of early Christendom. If you're interested in and devoted to studying the history of mores and conventions about the human body in Western society, this is the foundational work for understanding the Christian perspective. With that in mind, however, this book is an absolute brick. It reads like a textbook, and in some places Brown is giv You will be hard-pressed to find a more detailed and thorough exploration of the rise of Christian sexual mores. Brown is the foremost authority on the history of early Christendom. If you're interested in and devoted to studying the history of mores and conventions about the human body in Western society, this is the foundational work for understanding the Christian perspective. With that in mind, however, this book is an absolute brick. It reads like a textbook, and in some places Brown is given to some mildly biased opinions and characterizations. Nonetheless, for a history of ideas, this book acutely places the different notions of thought on the body and sexual interaction as they arise in Western Christendom.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    A masterpiece of graceful scholarship! Beautifully written, elegantly footnoted, and rich with excerpts that capture the subject at hand. The author is careful not to draw conclusions that stretch the evidence. The transformation of sexual ethics through these early centuries is fascinating, and modern readers will note that the human mind does not rise very far from generation to generation, as the level of discourse today seems juvenile in comparison. The arguments here frequently begin with t A masterpiece of graceful scholarship! Beautifully written, elegantly footnoted, and rich with excerpts that capture the subject at hand. The author is careful not to draw conclusions that stretch the evidence. The transformation of sexual ethics through these early centuries is fascinating, and modern readers will note that the human mind does not rise very far from generation to generation, as the level of discourse today seems juvenile in comparison. The arguments here frequently begin with the question of political power and organization, and so it goes still. Recommended.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Myc

    Without question the most poetic, unsettling, and strangely beautiful book you will ever read on early Christian sexuality and celibacy. Just a taste: "through the abrupt cessation of married intercourse, married couples believed that they had cut the demonic current that powered the loud whir of the world--to bring about a vast silence in which the music of the Holy Spirit might, at last, be heard again." Without question the most poetic, unsettling, and strangely beautiful book you will ever read on early Christian sexuality and celibacy. Just a taste: "through the abrupt cessation of married intercourse, married couples believed that they had cut the demonic current that powered the loud whir of the world--to bring about a vast silence in which the music of the Holy Spirit might, at last, be heard again."

  18. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin Fry

    I have read many historical books in my time, and I must say that I found Browne's book to be faultless. His style of writing grips the reader from the start which continues until the end. Considering the complexity of the subject Browne manages to cover the sexual history of the early church with skill and grace, combining thoroughly researched academic information with the literary style of a seasoned novelist. I have read many historical books in my time, and I must say that I found Browne's book to be faultless. His style of writing grips the reader from the start which continues until the end. Considering the complexity of the subject Browne manages to cover the sexual history of the early church with skill and grace, combining thoroughly researched academic information with the literary style of a seasoned novelist.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kathryn Mattern

    Again, this book helped me to better understand the development of christian culture in the west, with is ruthless insistence on the superiority of virginity which has carried down, within catholicism, until my own day - although 'my day' now seems to be quite firmly in the past, and perhaps we were the last generation to be inculcated with this model. Again, this book helped me to better understand the development of christian culture in the west, with is ruthless insistence on the superiority of virginity which has carried down, within catholicism, until my own day - although 'my day' now seems to be quite firmly in the past, and perhaps we were the last generation to be inculcated with this model.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kerstin

    Stepping into late antiquity is to step into a wholly other world(view). The material world, including the body was seen as fallen. The renunciation of the body wasn't a new idea or unique to emerging Christianity, but it took on another dimension, with ripple effects to the present day. Stepping into late antiquity is to step into a wholly other world(view). The material world, including the body was seen as fallen. The renunciation of the body wasn't a new idea or unique to emerging Christianity, but it took on another dimension, with ripple effects to the present day.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    This is long and detailed. The chapter at the end on Augustine is very useful. Over all the view of sexuality and the body in the early church was tarnished by Greek and pagan elements, that were expunged at the Reformation.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Peter Brown is pretty badass. This book is, as they say, magisterial. I'm sure I have some bones I could pick with it; and his prose is so beguiling that I find myself rather mistrusting it...but for now, I just lament that every book on my comps list won't likely be such a pleasure to read. Peter Brown is pretty badass. This book is, as they say, magisterial. I'm sure I have some bones I could pick with it; and his prose is so beguiling that I find myself rather mistrusting it...but for now, I just lament that every book on my comps list won't likely be such a pleasure to read.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Katie Marquette

    A very insightful and interesting look into the history and origins of asceticism in Christianity.

  24. 4 out of 5

    AskHistorians

    What it says on the tin. An examination of perceptions of the body in Late Antiquity.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Stedwards

    clear, great resource. wonderful writing.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Aeisele

    This is a pretty good historical account of issues of body and sexual ethics in early Christianity.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Phillip

    Absolutely fascinating. One of the best books written on early Christianity.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Darrick Taylor

    Wonderful description of how Christian attitudes toward the body reshaped the ancient world. Will write more when I have time, but Brown's history is magnificent. Wonderful description of how Christian attitudes toward the body reshaped the ancient world. Will write more when I have time, but Brown's history is magnificent.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Logan Robertson

  30. 5 out of 5

    A.J.

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