Back in the early 1970s, I was nervous as I distributed communion for the very first time because this had never been permitted for women or lay people. But I smiled and relaxed as one woman said "It's about time women are taking their rightful place in the church." This was all in the space of an "Amen" as I announced, "Body of Christ." Mary Malone's Women in Christianity: the First Thousand Years gives one that feeling. It's about time women are taking their rightful place in church history. Malone's book is Volume One of a history of women in Christianity. In 247 pages, she sees deeply into history. Although her sources are relatively few, and as she says, "partial, distorted, eccentric and ultimately dissatisfying" (246), she finds enough to make the reader realize that women have been deliberately ignored by many church historians in the past. At the end of the book, after describing New Testament times, the Golden Age (second to fifth centuries), and the Dark Ages (sixth to tenth centuries), she concludes that "Without too much exaggeration, it can be claimed that, while men cared specifically for the political and institutional dimensions of the faith, women expressed in their lives their allegiance to the good news" (p. 246).
One might be tempted to bypass this book, thinking that women's history has been examined for a long time now, and not worthy of another approach. But Malone makes one realize that women's history is only beginning to be told. Another reason one could choose not to read this book is that it is a survey and therefore it might not be easy or interesting. In fact just the opposite is true. Despite the fact that it covers 1000 years in 247 pages, it is totally engaging and full of delightful, true stories. Also, unlike some other books on the topic, Malone sees connections between various events. She asks questions like "Why and how did all this happen?" She sees women in the context of the whole of what was going on in each of the Christian ages. In the chapter on "The Life of Virginity" for example, she gives personal insights into Augustine, Jerome and other prominent church leaders, especially regarding virginity. She summarizes how virginity became such a strong emphasis in the church and how marriage was denigrated. There is almost no sensitivity on the part of the church fathers, she notes, to the difficulties women faced in childbirth and child raising, the high infant mortality rate, and no mention of the responsibility of fathers, only their position of authority. At this time also, Mary was re-invented to be a model for virginal women. Church fathers agreed that only virgins could be 100% Christian. Married women could achieve only 30% of the Christian way of life.
Each chapter not only surveys the historical background of the period, but tells intriguing stories of individual women who lived in that era. She makes a case for Pope Joan, for example, and puts her in the context of her times. Historians dwell on the fact that Joan was a woman, but they de-emphasize the fact that the papacy itself at the time was in total chaos. What makes the content even more interesting is that many of the same discussions and debates about women have continued through the ages. Religious women at the time of St. Benedict, for example, studied canon law in order to be able to "outwit their ecclesiastical opponents" (187), something to which religious women of today can easily relate.
Some aspects of the edition could have been more helpful. There are no pictures or diagrams other that the one on the cover. The table of contents outlines three parts, but one would never know this while reading because there are no section headings in the text itself. There are very interesting quotes from various authors at the beginning of each chapter, but one is forced to go to the endnotes to find who said them, thus necessitating two bookmarks and a constant going back and forth.
However, the book is eminently worth reading. And it is written in a way that will keep even undergraduate students continuing to turn the pages. Malone has begun to write a Christian history which includes women. We can look forward eagerly to the next two volumes.