Women in early Christianity

THE examination of the position of women, necessary to any account of moral progress, compels us to extend our inquiry over a wider field--to go back in fact to the beginning.

In the savage stage, woman is looked upon as the slave of man and the minister of his passions; but the institution of marriage exists and the value of chastity is in some degree recognized. The two steps which first raise woman are the abandonment of purchase and the institution of monogamy.

In the Heroic age of Greece we find women holding a very honourable position, as exemplified by Andromache, Penelope or Nausicaa. In the properly historic ages they are of little account except such as have enrolled themselves among the emancipated hetaerae whose beauty and talent might place them in a position commanding if irregular.

In Rome there was not only a far higher standard of conjugal fidelity; the legends of Lucrece and of Coriolanus, such characters as Cornelia and Porcia, show the honorable estimation in which women were held. But in the early empire if there were noble women worthy of their noble husbands, the general standard had fallen with the general corruption.

Christianity, while it introduced that special form of reverence for women which is inseparable from the cult of the Virgin, was on its moral side so closely bound up with the ascetic doctrines that, while it held virginity in the highest honour and denounced unequivocally every form of unchastity, it treated marriage as a weakness necessary to the life of the race, and the married state as inferior to that of virginity, women being for the most part the seductive means to sin.

Nevertheless the barbaric, conquest tended to raise them because the standard of female virtue among barbarians was high. And at the same time Christianity emphasized the sanctity of the marriage bond by its mystical conception of the Church as the Bride of Christ. Finally from the interplay of all these arose that strange amalgam of religious, licentious and military feeling which was formed around women in the age of chivalry, and which no succeeding change of habit or belief has wholly destroyed.

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