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London through Richard Jefferies’s novel After London (1885). But arguably the most powerful evocation of this morbid fantasy in English occurs at the start of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s ‘review’ of Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes. Macaulay deploys the image in his demonstration of the ‘ long dominion’ of the Roman Catholic Church: ‘And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall,
in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.’ Higgins’s preoccupation with ruins implicitly reinforces her claim that Roman Britain is a place where the anxieties of empire can be played out, an interpretation that avoids the extremes of celebrating or denouncing Rome in Britain. Recent comparisons between Roman Britain and British involvement in Afghanistan suggest that such anxieties continue beyond the age of empire.
Charlotte Higgins ultimately rejects the tradition that denies the Romans a role in the birth of Britain. Her book is a thoughtful and entertaining reminder that, long before the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans gave an identity to ‘a land as ferocious as its people’. To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 53
‘You are the gateway of the devil’, a rather hysterical Church Father told women in the third century. They were the cesspool into which men could fall, the daughters of Eve, the seductresses whose advice could never be trusted. Yet contrary to received opinion, this was not the majority view among the most influential Christian thinkers of the first four centuries. Compared to most women living in the Mediterranean at the time, for whom contact with men from outside the family circle was frowned upon, women in early Christian communities enjoyed not just astonishing equality with men, but power and independence too.
Women exerted a profound influence on the formation of early Christianity. So why today have most of us never heard of such female disciples as Junia, ‘outstanding among the apostles’, according to Paul, who gave her his blessing to go and preach independently? Or Emmelia and her daughter Macrina, who were hugely influential figures in the monastic movement of the fourth and fifth centuries? Or Empress Helena, who was credited at the time with having converted her son Constantine to Christianity (though it is now believed that he converted her)? Or Pulcheria, the most powerful woman of the fifth century, who was responsible for establishing the exalted position of the Virgin Mary?
In a series of portraits drawn from New Testament stories, Christian romances and early biographies, Band of Angels tries to recover these women, starting with Chloe, a missionary colleague and possibly a rival of Paul. Inevitably, given the paucity of sources, some of the portraits are more sketchy than others, but Kate Cooper, professor of ancient history at Manchester University,
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Domestic Godliness Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women
By Kate Cooper (Atlantic Books 342pp £25)
combines solid scholarship with an eye to her lay readership to give us a deeply satisfying explanation of why these women, who made such an impact on early Christianity, disappeared from its history.
It was women’s very domesticity – the domesticity that has been viewed as the cause of their subjugation – that initially brought them to prominence. In its early days, Christianity was centred around the home. Paul’s converts met together in ‘house churches’, homes such as Chloe’s or the purple-dye seller Lydia’s, where services took the form of a meal. Here women occupied a central position, above all as storytellers. Since the gospels were originally recounted as stories to family and friends, this gave women a vital role in the transformation of the tiny Jesus cult into the religion adopted by Constantine in the fourth century.
It’s now a commonplace to say that humans are storytelling creatures, that we understand our lives, remember our past and plan our futures in terms of narratives. Why this should be so is less obvious, but Cooper gives a simple and clear explanation: stories are the way we inculcate our social – that is moral – norms, not just in our children but, in the case of oral cultures, in adults as well. Stories are how you grab the attention of your listeners, and mothers are the primary storytellers, handing down stories from generation to generation. It is an obvious insight,
perhaps, but it also helps to explain how Christianity spread so effectively. Modern sociologists of religion such as Rodney Stark have argued that the best way to spread ideas and convert people is through word of mouth by family and friends.
But if women were in large part responsible for Christianity’s rapid spread over the first couple of centuries, their success also contributed to the decline of their influence. As the Church began to attract ever more followers, it formalised its structures and forms of authority and lost its domestic setting. The power of the Church and its battle with the State became the crucial focus of interest. Christianity was transformed into an institution in which men inevitably came to the fore, and ceased to be a practice and set of relationships in which women predominated.
As the canon began to be established by the bishops at the end of the second century, a number of stories celebrating women and women disciples were excluded. Out went the Gospel of Mary; out went the Acts of Paul and Thecla, in which Thecla defied her mother and fiancé to follow Paul and then, with his blessing, struck out on her own to ‘teach the word of God’.
Nonetheless, women maintained their influence and status within the Church thanks to that other basic element of the domestic, private world – sex. Despite the radical acceptance by men that Christian a u g u s t 2 0 1 3 | Literary Review 13