As other essays in this series have expounded, Augustine offers many details about his relationships with his mentor Ambrose and friends Alypius and Nebridius in Book 6 of the Confessions. These relationships demonstrate that we are shaped by those around us and call on us to cultivate our communities. Augustine even tells us about his dreams of an ideal community of friends in which they would live together in leisure by sharing a common fund (Conf. 6.14.24).

This ideal community never materializes because “some of us were already married and others hoped to be, and as soon as we began to consider whether our womenfolk would consent to these arrangements the whole elaborate plan fell apart, came to pieces in our hands and had to be discarded” (Conf. 6.14.24).

It might be tempting to read this as Augustine blaming women for the collapse of his dream community comprised of male friends. But I don’t think it is simply a matter of misogyny. After all, Augustine’s mother Monica was present at Cassiciacum and is featured in those dialogues. It seems like marriage, not women generally, is the problem.

And doesn’t that make some sense? We probably have all experienced a friend start to become less and less available once they start seriously dating someone. They might begin socializing only as a pair and then only with other couples. Then once they get engaged, it’s all about wedding planning. Once they get married, it’s all about the experience of being newlyweds. And if they have kids? You might never see them!

Okay – that admittedly is a tad hyperbolic. There are plenty of adults who manage to maintain friendships while having a family of their own. But do they bring their spouses and children to live with those friends? Likely not.

Augustine is thinking about how a marriage might prove to be an obstacle to communal life as he considers his own marriage prospects and desires. Now that he is entering his thirties, Augustine says there is “[i]nsistent pressure” on him, especially from his mother, to get married (6.13.23). He is not particularly inclined toward marriage, and his friend Alypius doesn’t want him to. But the pressure persists, and Augustine tells us that an offer is made (likely by Monica, as his father had passed away, but perhaps a male relative stepped in) to a girl on his behalf. This girl is still too young to be married – which likely means that she was only 10 years old – so they have to wait until she turns 12.

Augustine never actually weds this girl because after his conversion he decides not to marry. Nonetheless, this episode is not a very pleasant part of Augustine’s past to dwell on. Augustine is not responsible for the Romans’ marriage customs and laws, and we should acknowledge that, as relatable as Augustine might seem to us at times, his context was quite different from our own. But it is disturbing to think that, as a man in his thirties with tremendous intellect, he agreed to marry a 10 year-old girl. Augustine so frequently shows himself capable of criticizing Roman culture and customs, but here he seems to bow to the status quo.

It is also troubling to consider that Augustine consents to this arrangement even though he was already in a relationship with a woman and they have a son together – and that their relationship is ended to prepare for Augustine’s forthcoming marriage (6.15.25).

Danuta Shanzer has meticulously probed this passage in Book 6.15.25 to uncover the biblical resonances behind Augustine’s description of his lover being “ripped” from his side, in a dramatic reversal of Gen. 2:21. Shanzer also provides insight into what we might call Augustine’s relationship with this unnamed woman. Was it a concubinage or more akin to a marriage?

When I first encountered the Confessions, this woman was referred to as his “concubine.” Maria Boulding’s translation chooses to refer to her as Augustine’s “common-law wife.” I don’t like the language of either. “Concubine” connotes for us today something negative and immoral; “common-law wife” seems to sanitize too much.

In On the Good of Marriage, Augustine takes up the question of whether we would consider a man and a woman who “form a union solely for the purpose of giving in to their desires by sleeping together…with the understanding that neither of them will sleep with anyone else” to be married. Augustine says that it is “not absurd perhaps to call this a marriage, provided they maintain the arrangement until the death of one or other of them” (De bono coniugali 5.5.). This arrangement sounds similar to the relationship between Augustine and the unnamed woman, except for the fact that they did not stay together until death.

So what was the nature of their relationship and what should we call it?

There is not enough detail in Augustine’s Confessions to explain what we should call their relationship and whether he (or she) saw their union as a marriage. Moreover, we do we know how exactly they (or he, or his mother) ended it. What we do know is that Augustine, even if he loved this woman, never married her legally or sacramentally. Perhaps he could not; perhaps he would not. But he never did.

Augustine tells us that she returned to Africa (leaving Adeodatus in Augustine’s care) and vowed “never to give herself to another man.” Augustine showed her no such loyalty in return. He could not remain chaste as he waited the two years for his bride to turn 12 so he “got himself another woman, in no sense a wife” to satisfy his lust (6.15.25). We know even fewer details about this woman than the first.

What should we make of all this? These aspects of Augustine’s life are some of the most difficult to reckon with. When I teach Augustine, I see my students, especially my women students, look to me for some sort of answer. But I don’t have one – at least not one they would find satisfying. I cannot excuse Augustine here or make this part of the Confessions more palatable. His treatment of these women and this girl is horrendous.

All I can offer is that Augustine – though admittedly with frustratingly scant detail – confesses his behavior. That might not seem like enough, but I think there is some value in the fact that he did not try to conceal these wrongs from us but instead let us consider them and form our own judgments about his actions and his character.