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Queens of a Fallen World by Kate Cooper

16 June 2023

John Binns considers the women in the life of St Augustine of Hippo

KATE COOPER has already helped us to understand the world and experience of women in early Christianity, and here she turns her attention to the bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo, and the part played by the women in his life, which lies behind his conversion experiences recorded in his Confessions.

While the struggles over his beliefs which occupy much of the book are carried out in the company of male friends, women come into prominence when he reaches the moment of conversion, and they lead him in various ways to his discovery of faith in Christ. They have very different influences.

The Empress Justina, the mother of the child-emperor Valentinian II, was an opponent of Bishop Ambrose when Augustine was living in Milan; his mother, Monica, followed him to Italy and patiently guided him towards the Catholic faith. Then there was Augustine’s long-term concubine, the mother of his son Adeodatus, unnamed in the text, but here given the name Una or “the One”; and the ten-year- old Milanese heiress, here called Tacita, or “the Silent One”, to whom he was briefly engaged.

Augustine’s decisions to end the relationship with Una, and then to break off the engagement to Tacita, followed by the death of his mother, all contributed to the drama of his change of life and return to Africa, where he became a monk and then a bishop. We also meet a household slave who was a childhood companion of Monica.

While these women are part of the story and his reaction to them leads to his change of life, Augustine gives us little information about them. So, here their place in society and the way in which they might have fitted in to the households of late antiquity is explored. The feelings, emotions, and choices confronting these women are imaginatively suggested, and we wonder about what might have happened if other choices had been made.

We are helped to enter into their experiences and see their place in late Roman society. It is an engaging story, told in an imaginative style, as we sympathise with the aspirations and frustrations in the lives of these women.

After he becomes a monk and a bishop, he continues to engage with the lives of women around him, advising, writing letters and reflecting on scripture. His later teaching includes his reflection on these relationships, along with frank discussions of sexuality, and leads him away from the Roman idea of marriage as a legal means of transferring property to a new understanding of marriage as a faithful lifelong relationship, which shaped later Christian understandings.

Thus, Augustine’s women had an influence that reached into the mainstream of Christian teaching on marriage.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.


Queens of a Fallen World: The lost women of Augustine’s “Confessions”
Kate Cooper
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