Saintly Networkers

Kate Cooper’s pacy tale of heroines, virgins and martyrs recounts the largely unknown role of women in shaping the early Church

Books History The Catholic Church The Church of England
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.”

Early Christianity from a woman’s point of view is not a tale of domestic drudgery. These are women of spirit who “discover a blazing fierceness of purpose when faced with the impossible”. Women like Thecla, for example, who turned away from her expected role as wife and mother, leaving fiancé, home and family to follow Paul and preach the gospel. This kind of thinking didn’t go down too well with the imperial authorities and many early Christian women met sticky ends in Roman arenas, thrown to the lions in gladiatorial games.

The turning point came with the conversion of the empress Helena, mother of the first Christian emperor Constantine. Cooper is careful not to overstate Helena’s role “as the mother of imperial Christianity”, focusing more on the effects of legitimation of the Church as a powerful organisation within Roman society. 

This marks a “an institutional ‘hardening’ of the faith” in which women have to renegotiate their place, particularly as worship moved out of households into newly-built basilicas. Cooper presents this as a period when women could influence culture through poetry, reading, and scholarship. 

By the fourth century, books transmitted “ideals of ascetic renunciation and virginal purity” which made chastity seem like an attractive option for women. Communities of virgins and widows flourished, offering a release from volatile husbands and constant childbearing with a high risk of infant and maternal mortality. Women gained like-minded company and the chance to do good works for the poor and vulnerable.

Spiritual power is Cooper’s main focus, “not the offices and institutions that had sprouted like weeds” within the Church, and where women are concerned Cooper’s narrative makes it clear that spiritual power operates more effectively where structures are looser and improvised. There are implications for developing a deeper theology of women in the church, particularly when the ordination of women remains a contentious issue, but Cooper never strays out of her area of expertise into theological territory. 

Band of Angels is not a book for feminist theologians, who would be familiar with most of the material anyway. It’s telling that Cooper’s ideal reader is her own mother, and she describes “a desire to write the kind of book that she and my aunt would have wanted to read”. 

It is pitched at smart, interested, spirited women. I can already think of a few female friends who would enjoy it, and suspect its success will depend on word of mouth and the quiet tide of female networking.