For most of us, late August carries with it a vestigial thought of summer’s end and the beginning of the academic year – all the more so for students and teachers, or parents and children. But for the medieval Chuch, the 27th of August was the day for remembering Saint Monnica (d. 388), whose son Augustine would become Bishop of Hippo on the north coast of what is now Algeria.
Augustine famously started the school year, in the autumn of 384, by leaving for a new teaching job in Rome against his mother’s wishes. He was in his early thirties at the time, and to a modern sensibility the story he tells in his memoir, the Confessions, actually sounds quite unbalanced. It is all about his guilt at boarding a ship for Rome while his mother – who believed that the temptations of life in Italy would lead him astray – knelt praying that God would keep him from leaving Africa. Augustine’s story of how he gave his mother the slip and boarded the boat is one of the more woeful and melodramatic scenes of the Confessions. In fact, his tale owes something to the scene in Vergil’s Aeneid where the hero abandons the African queen Dido before himself leaving Carthage for Italy, in order to fulfil his own destiny as founder of Rome.
But Saint Monnica is a fascinating figure in her own right. When I was working on my book about early Christian women, Band of Angels, I had initially intended to include a chapter on Monnica. But the chapter started to grow like topsy, and it quickly became clear that Monnica’s story could not be contained in a single chapter. And also, intriguingly, it was almost impossible to disentangle her from the man who was remembering her and writing about her – I really would have had to turn it into a chapter on Augustine and Monnica.
We know so much more about Monnica than we do about almost any other woman in the ancient world – not only because Augustine wrote what amounts to a biography of her, but also because of the emotional intimacy of what he wrote. His story of Monnica in Book Nine is, in many ways, really about him – some times, you do wish he would talk a little less about his own thoughts and feelings and a little more about what the woman he is writing about must have felt and thought. But often, you feel that you can glimpse the private world of a fourth-century woman who knew her own mind and was able to hold her own in the face of circumstances that would intimidate most of us. (Child marriage? Tick. Spousal abuse? Tick. Life on a farm in Africa? Tick. Intrigue at the court of the Roman Emperor? Tick. Religious riots? Tick.)
I did eventually finish the ‘missing’ chapter on Augustine and Monnica, and published it in an article entitled – appropriately enough – Augustine and Monnica. But it is a story that one isn’t easily finished with.