Women of spirit: "St Helena", c.1495, by Cima da Conegliano
Woman is "the figure that embraces society, the figure that contains it, the mother of the community", according to Pope Francis. That sounds like a fairly important task to me but the role women play in shaping culture hasn't always been valued. Kate Cooper, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Manchester, aims to give credit where credit's due with Band of Angels, which explores the largely unknown role of women in shaping the early Church.
Cooper understands that women's power doesn't always come through formal institutional roles. Rather, it's the "informal happenings of daily life" — sharing a meal, caring for the vulnerable, offering hospitality — that provide a framework for the transmission of culture. Christianity lacked a formal structure in its earliest years: meetings took place in courtyards or households, communities formed around converted families. Women were often at the centre of things, providing hospitality and shelter for new converts and creating what Cooper calls a "tide of female networking".
Few documents preserve the "small-scale acts of seemingly unimportant people that allowed Christianity to snowball into an empire-wide spiritual revolution", so Cooper reconstructs this forgotten world of early Christian women from "glancing references" in surviving early texts. She admits the book "remains an exercise of the imagination" but this is academic modesty. Band of Angels is quietly informed by scholarship, and it's Cooper's individual genius — her particular familiarity with sources gained over years of research — that allows her imaginatively to cross-reference texts, adding line and texture to otherwise blurry patches in the historical record.
For all that academic scaffolding, Band of Angels is not a dry work but a pacy tale of heroines, martyrs, virgins, mothers and sisters. The narrative rarely slackens and manages the tricky task of slipping in historical context without being an obvious lesson in ancient history. Starting with Paul's letters to the Corinthians, Cooper takes several women named in the letters and asks who they were. As a tent-maker, Paul probably encountered prosperous and independent women in the cloth trade who owned property and businesses in their own right: "they were used to juggling the sometimes diverging demands of a complex identity."