This text by Mary Malone is the first volume in a series on women in Christianity. This volume covers the period from the beginning of Christianity to about the year 1000 (actually, most historians make the break at the year 1054, when the split between East and West was formalized), and as Malone states in the first chapter,
'The history of Christianity shows great ambivalence towards women.' Sometimes, the history is not so ambivalent, as when Peter Damian (an eleventh-century saint) exhibits a kind of 'road-rage' (Malone's term) against women; on the other hand, papal pronouncements about equality of the sexes in marriage or before God are often mitigated by the perceived need of hierarchical order, brought out by 'the sin of Eve'.
Malone's first chapter is one on method. She discusses the issues of conventional history, with its strengths and limitations, as well as new methods of reading and interpreting texts and silences, both in the biblical texts themselves and the later historical witness.
Malone writes that we must recognize that history is written for a purpose (and hence is not a simple, objective record of events). She makes the distinction between 'Christian history' and 'church history', claiming that the later makes theological assessments often inappropriate to the greater story of Christian history. She also introduces a technical term - periodization, the idea of separating history into discrete, manageable periods; this division can often distort (even inadvertently).
This text deliberately searches out and emphasizes the voices of women in history, as well as critical reflection on the way in which women and their issues are portrayed. Malone's stated goal for this book 'is not write a history of women, but to redirect our historical attention.' She states (as is important with the idea of feminist history) what her biases are, and that she does not claim objectivity or neutrality. (Personally, I appreciated this!)
The first section looks at women in the biblical texts and first centuries of Christian history. These include Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and other women who often remain unnamed in the biblical witness, hence becoming known by their story (the woman at the well, the healed woman, etc.).
She touches on the ideas of feminist exegesis and feminist hermeneutics as compensatory, revolutionary, and transformative. Women in the early stories of Christianity include householders and sponsors, including some who warrant the title 'apostle', such as Junia and Phoebe. Paul's writing on women in inconsistent in the epistles (if they are meant to be all equally universally applied, rather than messages to specific communities addressing particular situations). Malone concludes this section by looking at the portrayal of women in apocryphal and Gnostic literature.
The second section of the text looks at the different roles of women in the developing church; one of the primary roles includes that of martyr. Women suffered alongside their male community members in the various repressions, and some of the strongest witnesses to faith come from women of this time (Blandina and Perpetua, among others). Sometimes, however, the witness of certain women was held to be suspect, as evidenced by Irenaeus' work against some women in southern Gaul.
Women also took status as widows (an un-ordained but important office that 'died of its own ambiguities', according to Malone) and deaconesses, an office that seems to have involved ordination prayers and charges. Terminology at this time is ambiguous and not universally consistent, however, so it is difficult to determine exactly these kinds of offices. These ideas led to the development of an idealized vision of virginity, coinciding with the rise of monastic communities for both men and women.
This leads naturally to the third section of the book, which looks a women in leadership roles in these monastic communities (some Abbesses were very powerful) as well as their role in missionary activity throughout Europe as part of the growing monastic movement. Despite the appearance of some strong figures, this was a period in which the continued participation of women in the leadership of the church generally was taken away, eventually ending with a near-silence from women in any corridor of power and authority. In some locations, the church hierarchy became co-equal with the aristocracy (often being drawn from the same families).
Malone's final chapter looks at the legend of Pope Joan and Hroswitha of Gandersheim, a poet/dramatist who is credited with being the first Christian dramatist. Malone uses a narrative theological historical method to present these figures.
Very readable and very interesting, Malone's work is worthwhile to anyone with an interest in the development of Christianity. Malone sees the current feminist movement as both a challenge and opportunity for Christianity, and this three-volume series helps support both ideas.
If you are interested in seeing how this women lived out their faith, consider picking up this first volume. If you like it, you can consider the other two!