Skip to content Skip to footer

Book review: “Queens of a Fallen World: The Lost Women of Augustine’s Confessions” by Kate Cooper

Kate Cooper’s Queens of a Fallen World is one of those wonderful books of detective work that tell the history of people forgotten by history.

It’s a truism that, for millenniums, history has been written by and about the people in power, which is to say about men, whites, the rich, the victors, the colonizers.  Which is also to say that history traditionally has had very little to say about women, people of color, the poor, the conquered and the colonized.

For a century or more, scholars have worked to rectify this by developing ways to enable those on the outside of power today to tell who they are and what they are about.  While that isn’t easy, it’s easier than the job that historians face in looking look back over the ages and finding ways to tell about the lives of people and groups long gone.

Consider, for instance, Linda Nochlin’s 1971 manifesto Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?  As a feminist at a robust moment in feminism, Nochlin might have been expected to gin up a list of female artists to challenge Michelangelo and Rembrandt.  Instead, she wrote:

“The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated, nor have there been any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, nor Eskimo tennis players, no matter how much we might wish there had been.”

Her point was that there were reasons no woman became a supremely great artist, and her short book detailed many of those explanations, such the reality that women weren’t given the training that men got, and that women had to take care of households and children unlike men and so didn’t have the time to be great.

Other historians have used similar approaches to detail the lives of, for instance, American slaves and the London poor of the Industrial Revolution and the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere in the pre-Columbus time. Often, this involves taking records and reports prepared by the dominant group and sifting through them for clues to the people who were being dominated.

“For what they said”

That’s what Cooper, a historian at the University of London, does in Queens of a Fallen World. 

The record that she uses is Confessions, written around 400 A.D. by the important Christian theologian and philosopher Augustine of Hippo. Widely regarded as the first autobiography, the book is an account of Augustine’s life and eventual conversion to Christianity, told in the form of a prayer to God. 

I think it is fairly certain that, in the sixteen centuries since Confessions was written, no one had gone to this significant work of Western literature and foundation of Christian theology to learn about the lives of women in his era — until Cooper.

The subtitle of her book, which was a finalist for the 2023 Cundill History Prize, administered by McGill University in Montreal, is The Lost Women of Augustine’s ‘Confessions,’ and it’s double-edged.

The four women who are the focus of Cooper’s book have always been in Confessions but generally overlooked except as characters in the author’s story.  To that extent, they have been lost.  However, Cooper has discovered a way to use Confessions and a vast amount of other information about the era to tell stories about the women of that time. In this way, they are found.  She writes:

We are used to thinking of the women of the past as silent, since few sources have survived to preserve their voices.  But Augustine is not a writer who expects women to be silent.  He often found them memorable precisely for what they said.

“Fundamentally predatory”

Living in a patriarchal society, the four women suffered from what Cooper calls “the unquestioned cruelty of the Roman approach to family life.”  She notes that male sexual interest in women was “fundamentally predatory.”

A double standard meant that women could achieve social success in part by their success in resisting sexual attention from men. This was possible for free women, much less for female slaves, since men won status by exercising sexual prowess on women.  Cooper writes:

Within this system, slaves and other low-status people were notoriously vulnerable to sexual exploitation, coercion, and violence. Male and female slaves — many of them children — were expected to serve the sexual needs of their masters, though because of the dual standard, mistresses were discouraged from exploiting their slaves in the same way.

“The use of their bodies”

Marriage in this world, restricted to Roman citizens, was much less common than today and was very much a contractual agreement between families for the production of children as heirs. A free female citizen was the bargaining chip of her family and jealously protected. Slaves and non-citizens, though, were exposed.

Christian preachers also recognized that in a slave society, the sexual exploitation of slaves was central to the life of every household; just as slaves were ubiquitous, so was the use of their bodies by people who owned them, and indeed by others. (By law, free men were permitted to force sex on another man’s slave, though causing physical harm to the slave was condemned as damaging to the owner’s property.)

If a slave was attractive, she could get unwanted attention from any random man or many random men.  However, if she was attractive, she had the chance to attract one of the males in her household as a concubine.  In such cases, other men were expected to stay away from her. 

However, a concubine’s life, although it could be monogamous, could not continue if the male in the relationship got married.  A new wife didn’t want to have to compete with the husband’s old lover, so the concubine would be sent away.

“His willingness to betray”

All of this had importance to the women in Augustine’s life.  In Confessions, he tells about his 15-year relationship with his concubine, whose name isn’t known but who is called Una by scholars. 

In Confessions, Augustine writes of his great emotional pain at breaking their relationship when, at the urging of his mother Monnica, he agreed to marry a rich ten-year-old girl when she came of marriage age at twelve.  The name of this girl isn’t known, but Cooper calls her Tacita.

Monnica arranged the marriage to advance Augustine’s career, but Augustine broke off the engagement.  Over the centuries, this has been seen as a rejection of sex as prime evidence of a fallen world, a world looking away from God.

Yet, Cooper argues that the young man came to realize that he and his mother had been caught in a lust for status and power rather than focusing on right living. By  embracing their fallen world, they had chosen ambition rather than love.

Augustine discovered this after meditating on his decision to send Una away.

What shook him, finally, was his willingness to betray the woman who ought to have been his wife — the mother of his child — for a lucrative arranged marriage.  The root of his problem was not sexual desire.  It was ambition….

Certainly, he was guilty of a terrible sexual sin, but the sin was not sleeping with his concubine.  It was casting her away.

God’s voice “speaking through women, slaves and children”

Augustine was a man of his time — and he wasn’t.  He lived within a society that was built around slavery, but, ultimately, he chose Christian values over Roman ones.

An aspect of this was his willingness — his openness — to listen to women, such as his mother, and even to slave women, such as Una. In Confessions, “enslaved women consistently come across as honest and reliable people capable of speaking truth to power,” Cooper writes.

Augustine is fascinated by the idea that God distributed the ability to do good in the world evenhandedly and that human beings are just as likely to hear his voice speaking through women, slaves, and children as through powerful men.

This was astonishingly radical for his era.  And this openness to women was an aspect of Augustine’s openness to humanity and nature, a readiness to hear people who aren’t usually listened to and to see and ponder the way people interacted without letting the overlay of cultural expectations get in the way.

If the Confessions is partly a story about women struggling to make a difference, it is also a story about Augustine’s own effort to understand those women.  He needs to make sense of his relationships with them partly because he knows that those relationships are part of his path toward God.

Kate Cooper’s Queens of a Fallen World is a rich book because it tells us about how women navigated a difficult and dangerous world and just as much because it tells us about the man who wrote Confessions and did much to shape theology in the early years of Christianity.

Patrick T. Reardon

1.23.24

Leave a comment