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Now, here’s some good Sunday reading if ever there was any. Now, whether you buy any of Christianity or not is irrelevant here – think instead of the perspectives of those who do.

I. FROM SILK ROBES TO HAIRSHIRTSWhen 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.

Their ringleader was Marcella, a famous beauty, now a widow, who lived with her mother. No one was sure where she’d gotten the idea for this improvised monastic network, but when her husband died only months after her marriage, Marcella embraced a life that few of her class would ever understand.

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.

From the beginning, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth comprised a movement that was extreme, countercultural—a revolution that embraced both men and women, even social outcasts and slaves. In those first centuries, while the religion was still defining itself as an institution, many devout women flouted cultural convention and chose Jesus himself—not bishops and bureaucrats—as their personal guide. These women had permission to live beyond their gender as the leaders and patrons of local congregations, as preachers and ecstatic prophets and tough ascetics. They defied Roman family laws and rejected their sexuality. They walked the streets, spreading the gospel. They taught themselves Hebrew, analyzed Scripture, corresponded with other Christian leaders. They were aristocrats who seized control of their money and funneled it into the movement, building monasteries and helping prisoners and the poor.

Christianity took shape with the support of these female leaders and mystics and activists. But what we have left of them now are only the remembrances of a handful of men.

II. REBEL VIRGINS

It started with the virgins.

In the first two centuries of Christianity, many of the cultures in which it took hold had stubborn gender roles—but these roles weren’t as hardline as you might think. Women had long been the managers of their households, and since followers of the new movement met in private, in intimate “house churches,” women often became the natural leaders of the congregation. Christian women and men alike could become full-fledged ministers.

© and read the rest of this piece: Atlas Obscura

(Excerpt etc. first posted on feimineach.com. Orig. attribution above.)

#todayin: erasure of women: the rebel virgins and desert mothers who have been written out of Christianity's early history