Matristics: Women Authors of the Early Church


There are few women writers from the early church whose writings have
survived till now. This guide is a listing of some of their works. It is
based on a list prepared Kari Elisabeth Børrensen. A number of the authors listed
are discussed by Peter Dronke, Woman Writers of the Middle Ages. A Critical
Survey of Texts from Perpetua (+203) to Marguerite Porete (+1310).
(New York: Cambridge U P, 1984). Hagiographical works, the lives of the female
saints, are outside the scope of this bibliography. The list is limited to writings
before 500 AD.

Passio of Perpetua and Felicitas (d. 203 AD)

This is the account of the martyrdom of three catechumens and two young
women. Vibia Perpetua, 2l years of age, was "well born, liberally educated,
honorably married, having father and mother and two brothers, one like herself a
catechumen, and an infant son at the breast." Felicitas, her slave, was pregnant.
Chapters 3-10 of the account are Perpetua's own diary. Chapters 11 to 13 were
written by Saturus. Tertullian may have edited the whole work. There are both
Latin and Greek versions; the Latin seems to be the original. There are many
editions and translations:

The Passion of Perpetua. Ed. Marie-Louise von Franz. Irving, TX: Spring
Publications, 1980. (Jungian Classics Series)

Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis. Ed. James Holporn. Bryn Mawr:
Thomas Library, 1984. (Latin text, English commentary)

English translation in Anne Fremantle, ed. Treasury of Early Christianity (New York:
Viking, 1953).

Latin text with English translation by Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972).

Also, try doing a subject browse search under "Perpetua, Saint, d. 203".

See also the account, not by a woman, of the martyrdom of Blandina, a virgin slave
girl martyred in 177 at Lyons, together with her Bishop. The martyrdom is
described in "The Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne," preserved in
Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 5.1.3-63.

Desert Mothers

Among the aphorisitc writings which have come down to us from the desert
monastics, some are attributed to women. As Columba Stewart concluded in "The
Portrayal of Women in the Sayings and Stories of the Desert," (Vox Benedictina 2
[1985] 5-23) in their sayings the desert fathers have a distressing tendency to regard women not as sisters in the faith, but as dangers to their vocation who are to be avoided whenever possible. This is driven home by certain classes of stories:
women relatives who distract monks, actresses and prostitutes who try to seduce
them, married life as a terrible fate, women ascetics of "manly virtue." On the
other hand, there are several women who are presented as models of monastic
virtue, as well as stories about women, who when approached by importuning
monks, convince the monks not to abandon their vocation. Similarly, while
acknowledging the unwholesomeness of the aphorism reported by Cassian--"the
monk must absolutely flee from women and bishops"--Louis Leloir ("Women and
the Desert Fathers," Vox Benedictina 3 [1986] 207-227) cites some counter-
examples, of whom Ephrem the Syrian is the most impressive. Palladius, too,
portrays the desert monks as having a much more healthy view of women, and
women having a honorable place in the desert.

In the collections of sayings there are thirty attributed to Syncletica, twelve to
Sarah, ten to Theodora, two to Eugenia and one to Matrona. These are a small, but
interesting, part of the total number of aphorisms. Theodora's sayings are translated
in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection, tr. Benedicta
Ward (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975) 71-72, while most of the sayings
of Sarah and Syncletica appear in the same volume on pp. 192-197.

Etheria (Egeria) (late 4th century)

Etheria seems to have been a Spanish nun. She left an account of her
pilgrimage to Egypt, the Holy Land, Edessa, Asia Minor and Constantinople at the
end of the fourth century. The first part of her account concentrates on the places,
the second on the liturgical observances.

The Pilgrimage of Etheria. Ed. M. L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe. New York: Macmillan,

Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage. Tr. George Gingras. ACW 38. New York: Newman,

Itinerario de la Virgen Egeria. Ed. and Spanish tr. Agustin Arce. BAC 416. Madrid: BAC, 1980.

Latin editions of Geyer, CSEL, 1898; Franceschini-Weber, CCSL 175.

Also, try doing a subject or author browse search under "Egeria, 4th/5th cent." or a title browse search under "Itinerarium Egeriae".

Petronia Proba

Proba was a noble and cultured Roman matron, whose husband, Claudius
Adelfus, held several important imperial offices. Around 360 AD she composed a
Virgilian cento (a poetic summary using Virgilian verses forms and phrases) on the
Bible. Jerome (Ep. 53.7; PL 22.544-45) thought the poem was stupid and
offensive. The Decretum Gelasianum (PL 59.162) repudiated it. I. Opelt (JAC 7
[1964] 106-110) questions the orthodoxy of some of the Christological titles
ascribed to Christ. The text has not been translated into English. It can be found in
PL 19.805-818; ed. Schenkl, CSEL 16 (188) 605-615, which is reproduced in PLS
1: 773-779. Important studies include F. Ermini, Il Centone di Proba (Rome,
1909); M. R. Cacioli, "Adattamenti semantici e sintattici nel Centone Virgiliano de
Proba," Studi Italiani de Filologia Classica 41 (1969) 188-246; C. Cariddi, Il
Centone di Proba (Naples, 1971).

Julia Eustochium (c. 370-419)

Eustochium was a Roman virgin of noble descent. She and her mother Paula
were much influenced by St. Jerome, who initiated them into the monastic life in
Rome. Jerome's Letter 22 (PL 22:394-425) to Eustochium, On Virginity, caused
such an uproar that mother and daughter left Rome. They settled in Bethlehem.
There they founded four monasteries of which Eustochium became the head when
her mother died in 404 AD. Jerome also addressed his letters 32 and 108 to her. A
letter from Paula and Eustochium to Jerome is printed among Jerome's letters as
#46 (483-492). Cf. also letters 54 and 66. On letter 46 see Dronke, pp. 17-19.

There is an English translation of #22 in The Letters of St. Jerome, vol. 1, tr.
C. C. Mierow, intro. T. C. Lawler (Westminster: Newman, 1963) 134-179, and a
translation of #54 in The Letters of St. Jerome, A Selection, tr. James Duff (Dublin:
Browne & Nolan, 1942) 207-216. Both letters 22 and 54 also appear in Select
Letters of St. Jerome (London: Putnam, 1933). All the letters are published in Latin
with a Spanish translation and ample notes in Cartas de San Jerónimo, tr. Daniel
Ruiz Bueno (Madrid: BAC, 1962).