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The Virgin and the Bride

The Virgin and the Bride

Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity

Kate Cooper

ISBN 9780674939509

Publication date: 05/15/1999

During the last centuries of the Roman Empire, the prevailing ideal of feminine virtue was radically transformed: the pure but fertile heroines of Greek and Roman romance were replaced by a Christian heroine who ardently refused the marriage bed. How this new concept and figure of purity is connected with--indeed, how it abetted--social and religious change is the subject of Kate Cooper's lively book.

The Romans saw marital concord as a symbol of social unity--one that was important to maintaining the vigor and political harmony of the empire itself. This is nowhere more clear than in the ancient novel, where the mutual desire of hero and heroine is directed toward marriage and social renewal. But early Christian romance subverted the main outline of the story: now the heroine abandons her marriage partner for an otherworldly union with a Christian holy man. Cooper traces the reception of this new ascetic literature across the Roman world. How did the ruling classes respond to the Christian claim to moral superiority, represented by the new ideal of sexual purity? How did women themselves react to the challenge to their traditional role as matrons and matriarchs? In addressing these questions, Cooper gives us a vivid picture of dramatically changing ideas about sexuality, family, and morality--a cultural revolution with far-reaching implications for religion and politics, women and men.

The Virgin and the Bride offers a new look at central aspects of the Christianization of the Roman world, and an engaging discussion of the rhetoric of gender and the social meaning of idealized womanhood.


  • Cooper's the tension between virginity and marriage as Christian ideals during the rise of the ascetic movement, and her main strength is her insistence that theological debates did not take place in a cultural vacuum but within the parameters set by traditional Graeco-Roman views of sexuality. She goes further than many previous writers on this period in her confident integration of the 'classical' and 'theological' sources; and she is surely right to identify the reluctance of classicists to get mixed up with theologians, the 'anti-intellectual population of religious fanatics', as one of the reasons why interdisciplinary work on church history is still relatively rare...[An] excellent study.

    —Helen King, Times Literary Supplement


  • Kate Cooper is Senior Lecturer in Early Christianity, University of Manchester.

Book Details

  • 192 pages
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Press