If you have not yet come across Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Baker Academic, 2017; source: publisher), I strongly recommend that you take a look. Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes have done a wonderful job of addressing a lacuna in patristic studies. Through a series of separate chapters, the authors examine the lives of Christian women in the period immediately after the apostolic age through the Post-Nicene period.
As one would expect, discussions of motherhood features throughout the Christian Women in the Patristic World. Motherhood is examined through the lives of Helena and Monica. As mothers to Constantine and Augustine, their critical role in the lives of their respectively sons are important case studies. However, just as significant is Pulcheria’s decision to pursue life as a virgin, rather than produce a possible heir to the Byzantine Empire. An ascetic life of prayer and holiness superseded not only motherhood, but also the giving birth to one within the imperial household.
Chapter two contains an interesting study of the dynamics of motherhood in conjunction to imprisonment and death. Cohick and Hughes relate the last days of Perpetua and Felicitas, exploring themes as nursing, thirst, satiation, and the realization that their children will grow up without their mothers. As martyrs, “Felicitas models the suffering Christ of the cross, while Perpetua highlights the image of Christ victorious in his battle with death. In every case, the female body is the place where Christ shows his victory (Christian Women in the Patristic World, chapter 2).” In addition to the events of Perpetua and Felicitas, the reality of martyrdom for Christian women is related through a study of church historian Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.
Literary works also feature heavily in Christian Women in the Patristic World. Chapter six provides an insightful introduction to Egeria’s reiterations during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Chapter one explores themes of sexual ethics and virtue through the literary figure of Thecla in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Modesty, not simply an act of self-restraint, is related to themes of “agency and self-expression.” As such, “The story elevates typical feminine qualities to be normative for all and challenges typical masculine virtues such as courage to include submission to force or power, as Thecla does in the arena (Christian Women in the Patristic World, chapter 1).
Finally, chapter three entails a study of the “Fractio Panis” or “The Breaking of Bread” third century fresco found in the Catacomb of Priscilla.
The authors discuss the possible interpretations of the piece and the implications these interpretations have on how we understand third-century church life.
As quickly evident, Christian Women in the Patristic World is not just short biographical sketches detached from any historical context or greater theological significance. Cohick and Hughes provide an insightful study of the lives of Christian women situated within careful historical study. We now need such a work for the medieval period, the Reformation, and beyond.