Atlantic, £25. Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: Band of Angels, By Kate Cooper

In its earliest centuries, the religion of outcasts and rebels had women at its heart

Some years ago I was talking to a male friend who decided, much to my surprise, to become a Catholic. Given he was most definitely a child of the Sixties, why did he find Catholicism so attractive? His answer pulled me up short: "it's such a strongly female organisation". Kate Cooper's Band of Angels, about "the forgotten world of early Christian women", shows he was on to something. Popes, cardinals and bishops across the centuries might have made Christianity seem a patriarchal faith but Cooper has used early documents to show that between the start and the fifth century, its roots are female and that women played an extraordinarily influential role in its development as a world religion.

Get money off this title at the Independent book shop

In its early days, Christianity was an underground movement with a great deal of fluidity, enabling women to play a key role in spreading its influence through their networks of family and friendship. This made it much harder for imperial Rome to contain than a political uprising. Then, just at the moment when Rome's might have crushed it, women helped it make the leap from small cult to part of the status quo. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, converted to Christianity, and many historians argue she inspired her son to do the same. As it became the religion of choice for the imperial family, Cooper explains that the wives of the Roman elite abandoned the old pagan gods for the new faith, knowing how politically important it was to follow these new beliefs.

For one group of women, Christianity offered a counter-cultural life. At a time when many were widowed young, and when so many lives were lost in childbirth, there were women who did not want to be remarried or indeed married at all. Joining a Christian movement was a welcome alternative.

Cooper describes how the fourth century translator of the Bible into Latin, St Jerome, inspired women to form communities where they became some of the most authoritative biblical scholars of the day. These groups began on Rome's Aventine Hill, now better known as the location of the headquarters of the Benedictines, the Dominicans and Order of Malta, some of the most powerful male organisations in the Catholic Church. So I shall cherish the thought that women got there first.

In 386 Jerome travelled east to the Holy Land, accompanied by two of these women, mother and daughter Paula and Eustochium, who opened a hospital and monasteries in Bethlehem. A similarly brave adventure had been undertaken more than 100 years earlier by Helena, who founded a Church there dedicated to the Virgin Mary, given the title Theotokos, or God-bearer. It was the start of the cult of Mary which has remained so powerful since in Christianity, particularly in Catholicism.

Cooper's strength is her combination of an ancient historian's eye for detail with a storyteller's narrative skill. But this is a difficult book to pitch at the right level. Some will come to it with little or no knowledge of Christianity and so need Cooper to explain the basics. But at times, for the more informed, Cooper's interpretations grate. Her accounts of the women of the Gospels, Jesus's unconventional, respectful attitude to them, and their boundary-breaking following of him, are told as if striking new analyses – but they have been the stuff of sermons and feminist theology for decades. This is a small gripe: Cooper has produced a fine piece of detective work and a gripping tale of many remarkable, forgotten women.

 

Catherine Pepinster is the editor of 'The Tablet', the Catholic weekly

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect