The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers Who Have Been Written Out of Christianity’s Early History by A. Mar
I. From Silk Robes to Hairshirts
When Jerome, the Catholic priest and scholar, arrived in Rome in the middle of the fourth century, he discovered a circle of noblewomen living in elaborate homes on the Aventine Hill who were nothing like their neighbors.
They’d given up their silk clothes and pearl earrings, the hairstyles and rouge and musk, even bathing, as signs of vanity, and were now wearing coarse robes made of goat’s hair. They stayed almost entirely in their houses, fasting and praying, discussing Scripture; in secret, they might visit a nearby basilica or martyr’s tomb.
They never allowed themselves to rest on couches or cushions of any kind, and at night they slept on thin mats on the floor— though they hardly slept, spending those hours, instead, crying and praying.
Most importantly, these women—some of them widows, some only recently of marrying age, all converts to Christianity—had each taken a vow of chastity.
…Many of the female leaders of Christianity—in the Catholic Church in particular, with its 1.25 billion followers around the world—are barred from being fully ordained and are closely overseen by men. But this was not always the case. Scores of early Christian women—like Marcella, the desert-dwelling Susan, or the scholars Melania and Paula— embraced radical lives, helping the young religion fan out across the Roman Empire and beyond.