Women Writers of the Early Church
Much is made of the writings of the Early Church Fathers: St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, Origen. Yet, hardly any attention is paid to the female writers of the Patristic Period. Granted, there are far fewer female writings from that time. However, what few writings there are give great insight into the liturgy, theology, and courage of the Early Church. A Lost Tradition: Women Writers of the Early Church collects four writings written by women between 200 and 500 AD, and the result is wonderful.
The book is split into four sections, one for each of the ancient writings. Before each work, a brief explanation is given about the background of the author and piece. The first work is assumed to be written by St. Perpetua, as a detail of her martyrdom (with the climax added in by a later, unknown editor). The second is a poetic epic in the style of The Aeneid, detailing the history of the Scriptures, written by Faltonia Betitia Proba. The third is the travel writings of Egeria, written during her pilgrimage to various holy sites in Israel and Turkey. The final work is a fictional description of the conversion of St. Cyprian, written by Aelia Eudocia.
Perpetua’s Martyrdom, written before her death at around 200 AD, has almost a fantastical edge to it. The text begins with Perpetua being arrested by the Roman soldiers, but quickly progresses to a showdown between her and those who wish her to recant. Her father tries to get her to recant, begging her to think of her nursing infant. Perpetua refuses, committing the infant into the care of her brother and mother. Then, as the day of martyrdom grows every closer, Perpetua experiences visions symbolizing the type of horrors she will face. She dreams that she must climb a ladder to heaven made of weapons, symbolizing the torture which will take place during her martyrdom. The actual martyrdom sequence is written by an unnamed editor. The martyrdom culminates in Perpetua guiding the executioner’s sword to her neck, for his untrained hand is too unsteady to reach the destination on its own. Perpetua’s martyrdom shows her to be a virtuous and courageous woman, explaining why the Early Church deemed her a Saint.
Proba’s A Virgilian Cento Concerning the Glory of Christ is more in line with Homer than with anything else. Borrowing verses from various poems by Virgil, Proba retells the story of the Bible from creation to Christ’s ascension. For the telling of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, Proba takes verses from The Aeneid, converting lines about the love between Dido and Aeneas to lines relating the love between Christ and His followers. Though the Christ of Proba’s Cento is characterized more like a Virgilian hero than the Jesus of the Bible, the Cento is still a fascinating look back into history and poetry.
The writings of Egeria are quite simple. It is a detailed list of her pilgrimage around the Holy Land in the 380s AD. The true interest of her writings is not the travel details, but her details of the liturgies she attended while in Jerusalem. Though it is not riveting reading, Egeria’s work gives scholars and other interested parties great insight into the liturgical practices of the Early Church: from prayer to confession to the Eucharist.
The final work in this book is Eudocia’s fictional description of the conversion of St. Cyprian. Sadly, parts of this story are lost to history, but what remains is fascinating. Eudocia tells the story of a virgin, St. Justina, whose great beauty drew the attention of many suitors. So Cyprian the Magician was hired to charm the virgin to fall in love with a suitor. However, because Justina spent so much time praying and fasting, the love spell had no effect on her. Recognizing the weakness of his magic, Cyprian eventually converted to Christianity. The story concludes with the martyrdom of both Cyprian and Justina.
As someone who only recently began reading the works of the Church Fathers, I found it fascinating to read these four female authors. Their works may not be as theologically deep as some of Augustine’s, but they are still a wonderful insight into the world of the Early Church. The only downside to the book was its ugly formatting and multiple spelling errors. The errors did not take away from the power of the ancient literature, but it was annoying to stumble over words because of improper spelling. All in all, this is a marvelous book for anyone who wants a slightly different look into the world of the Early Church. I heartily recommend it.
Published on 7 January, 2017. Last updated on