The prime mover in Kate Cooper’s learned, engaged history is Saint Paul, the peripatetic tent-maker who was the most influential of all Christian missionaries. He and his early converts proclaimed the new faith in the seaports of the Eastern Mediterranean. These first converts, who themselves would become agents of conversion, tended to be well-born, propertied women.
Paul seems to have had a deep understanding of the societies in which he moved. In the ancient world politics, business and war-making were the preserves of men, while women dominated family and community life.
Networks of prosperous, well-connected women were precisely what proselytisers needed to tap into. The new faith spread along the women’s’ family and social connections; the first Christian communities enjoyed shelter and sustenance in their homes. Paul’s successors followed his approach: Saint Jerome, for instance, carefully cultivated society women in late imperial Rome. Paul’s letters to the communities he left behind were often attempts to dampen down bickering among, and offer guidance to, his enthusiastic new followers.
Christianity appealed to women. In those early centuries it was still a horizontally-organised faith, one which offered them a measure of equality, and positions of authority. Certain aspects of Christianity, such as asceticism, attracted women. This desert Christianity, which had its golden age in the fourth century, placed great value on virginity and sexual continence, and had a particular draw for younger women with no wish to live a life of subjection to a man, or face the mortal danger of childbirth. For older women the embrace of this austere Christianity brought release from constant pregnancies, ‘a second virginity’.
Cooper’s women and their efforts are forgotten or overlooked largely because they left behind only a few accounts of their lives and travails.
Cooper scrutinises these few that have come down to us. She makes the intriguing point that the Gospel According to Luke may (some scholars think) have been the work of a woman. It is certainly beyond dispute that the gospel relates the story of the Annunciation, and Mary’s reaction to the news of her pregnancy, from a female point of view.
Perpetua, an early Christian martyr, left behind a prison diary with almost unbearable descriptions of the sufferings, loneliness and privation she endured in her last weeks of life before she was thrown to beasts. Cooper compares the diary to that written by Anne Frank, for it also “captures the moral courage of a young woman who knows that she has been called on to play a part in a story far larger than her own, and who refuses to feel sorry for herself”.
A grim postscript to Cooper’s exhilarating history concerns Saint Thecla, a devoted follower of Paul. She is supposed to be buried in a convent in the mountain village of Maaloula near Damascus. Residents of the village have told journalists that the convent has now become the target of Al Qaeda’s shells, while jihadis attempt forcible conversions of Christians in the streets below.