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.
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