Midweek Blog: Augustine Was a Crappy Long-term Boyfriend

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Well, last week we completed our series on the Apostolic Fathers. This week I wanted to start a new series of blog posts on St. Augustine of Hippo. Many people have written on his life, read his Confessions, and in general have some idea of who he was. He is probably the most important theologian in Church History after the New Testament period, especially in Western Church History. A brief biography of Augustine before launching into our post: he lived from 354 to 430 CE and had a dramatic conversion experience, which he recounted in his autobiographical text, Confessions. In it, he relates how his mother, Monica, was instrumental in praying for his salvation during the years of his youth. He wrote a treatise, City of God, in response to the sack of Rome in 410 and the subsequent blaming of Christians for “upsetting the gods.” He is famous for his responses as bishop of Hippo Regius (a city in North Africa) to a group called the Donatists and a monk named Pelagius. Overall he is a fascinating historical figure, and the student of his is never want for reading, as Augustine was very prolific. That said, I want to discuss his long-term concubine and his rather unfortunate response to her.

Augustine first introduces his readers to his long-term “mistress” in Confessions 4.2. He writes, “In those days I lived with a woman, not my lawful wedded wife but a mistress whom I had chosen for no special reason but that my restless passions had alighted on her. But she was the only one and I was faithful to her.” Now, Confessions is filled with discussions about how he could not resist sexual temptation throughout his youth and even into his early adult life. It is also important to note that chronologically, this relationship with his concubine actually took place before his conversion. This relationship was rather long-term and produced a son, named Adeodatus, whom Augustine (I’m sure playfully) refers to as “my natural son born of my sin” (Confessions 9.6).

So what’s the problem with Augustine? And where does the snappy title of this blog come in? Well, unfortunately for Augustine’s concubine, whose name we are never told, it just wasn’t meant to be. Augustine himself relates that “I was being urged to marry, and had already made my proposal and been accepted. My mother had done all she could to help, for it was her hope that, once I was married, I should be washed clean of my sins by the saving waters of baptism” (Confessions 6.13). However, the marriage was not to his concubine, but to a girl who was two years too young to be married. Thankfully, Augustine assures us, “I liked her well enough and was content to wait” (6.13). In the meantime, the concubine “went back to Africa [from Milan], vowing never to give herself to any other man, and left me with the son whom she had borne me” (6.15).

Now, we need to pause here to underline a key concept in examining Augustine’s relationships. In the fourth century, actions such as this were rather normal. It was normal for a man to marry-up in life. That is what Augustine was doing when he dismissed his concubine and proposed to the young girl’s family. She was wealthy and he was able to climb the social ladder through the proposal (the marriage never took place). Peter Brown in his work, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, describes how we should be careful looking back on this situation with 21st century eyes.

However, I would note that Augustine himself notes that he was unhappy to lose his concubine. He writes that his concubine was “torn from his side as an obstacle to my marriage, and this was a blow which crushed my heart to bleeding, because I loved her dearly” (6.15). Augustine actually relates that he couldn’t wait for the two year engagement and instead took a new concubine “because I was more a slave of lust than a true lover of marriage” (6.15).

So what do we do with this Augustine character? Can we say his actions are morally deplorable? Should we say, “Oh well, that’s the fourth century for you” and ignore it? I think it’s somewhere in between. Obviously by today’s standards, Augustine does not exactly act honorably toward his first concubine, expecting her to go away and never be with another man while he becomes engaged to someone else (someone who was two years too young for marriage-another blemish to 21st century eyes). However, in the fourth century, marrying up was common and we have to wrestle with this concept. Clearly Augustine loved his concubine, but her social status was not good enough, so a remedy had to be sought if he was going to continue his very promising career prospects.

These events also took place before his conversion and only further underscore how enslaved he was to his passions and to sex. He notes that he couldn’t even wait the two years for his engagement and had to go find another concubine. Clearly Augustine succeeds in showing modern readers how sinful he was prior to his conversion. Either way, I think we can safely say that the moral standards for concubineage were pretty unfair to women. The man is allowed (and even expected) to marry-up in status while the woman is expected to be celibate and leave their son with the father (so the son can enjoy the social status as well).

What do you all think? Was Augustine a crappy long-term boyfriend? Maybe only at the end.

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7 thoughts on “Midweek Blog: Augustine Was a Crappy Long-term Boyfriend

  1. I am sure that we could find some 20th century situations that match that very well. People have not changed from being human from the very beginning. Amazing though how petty and self indulgence Augustine was in the beginning. I look forward to hearing the rest of the story.

  2. But like you say, “boyfriend” really isn’t the right term. If I remember correctly, concubinage was a legal contract usually with a woman of lower class (or rather, with her family) basically renting her for a while. The children were to be considered partial heirs of their father. Marriage on the other hand was with a social peer, the girl’s family gave a dowry which would be inherited by her children, and which would be taken back in the case of divorce.
    I seem to remember hearing in class that church fathers were against concubinage, and a young man with a concubine could not be baptized, but exceptions were made if the man was older and a widower with children from a wife. In that case there was little risk of the relationship being broken up, the couple could be baptized and were considered married, even if legally they were not. Even a slave girl could be considered a “wife” by the church under those circumstances.
    But for the life of me I cannot remember the sources!

    • Good point to make. I think it might have been in Thomas Matthewes’ St. Augustine of Hippo: An Intellectual Biography where he mentions that the Catholic Church would often sanction concubineage if there were enough reasons to do so. Again underscoring the fact that for many fourth-century individuals, Augustine’s relationship would be totally normal.

      • Just had an idea: if the ancient church considered concubinage and maybe even a relationship between a free man and a slave as marriage in certain circumstances, regardless of what Roman law defined as marriage, what does that mean for Christians today when the state is transforming marriage in a way most Christians (taking into account places like Africa or Latin America) think is illegitimate? Almost an inverse situation. Or the attitude of liberal churches towards gay marriage before the state acknowledged it? Would be a parallel situation, mutas mutandis.
        Something a theology grad student could write a paper on, right?
        All I ask is a mention in the footnotes.

  3. Pingback: Midweek Blog: Augustine Was Mean to the Donatists | The Historical Christian

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