Monday, June 20, 2011

Roots of the Reformation XXI: Leave it to the ladies: An Abbess' progress

Quedlinburg Abbey
Well, let’s go  back to the Emperor Otto and his determination to reform the Church.  In the first place Otto, like Charlemagne before him, needed the Church if he was going to bring unity to his vastly diverse empire.   It would be religion that could provide a common basis for all the different races and tribes, languages, legal codes, and traditions that comprised the empire he was trying to forge out of his vast holdings.  Otto also needed the Church—or to be specific—the bishops and abbots to be a counterweight to the power of the nobility and attain a true political supremacy and not just the imperial title.  Even so, supremacy did not come easily and Otto had to put down several rebellions by various dukes who were used to independence from any outside authority. 
Otto’s first brush with the papacy was when John XII, a particularly unworthy pope, appealed to Otto for help against Berengar II who was occupying the Papal States.  (Check entries for June 6th, and June 18th for more details on John and his alleged crimes ranging from incest to the invoking of demons.)  Otto defeated Berengar and Pope John crowned Otto as emperor.  Together they issued the Diploma Ottonianum—an agreement by which Otto pledged himself to defend the Church.  John was treacherous, however, and not wishing Otto to have control of Italy any more than Berengar, John tried to build an anti-Imperial alliance with the Magyars and the Emperor of Constantinople.  The Emperor returned to Rome and convoked a synod that deposed John and elected Leo VIII. Today the Catholic Church says that this deposing a pope by a synod and at the insistence of the Emperor was invalid and Leo was (initially) an anti-pope, but in that time and for centuries afterwards this was recognized as a legitimate act.  The Emperor claimed—and was accorded—this right to “make and break” popes as part of his oversight of the Church.  The story doesn’t end there, by the way, but we need not go further for our purposes other than to say that Leo may not have been as evil as John XII, but he was no worthy successor of Peter either.  It would be a while before the Emperors were able to get men of good moral character on the papal throne.
That doesn’t mean that Otto wasn’t sincere about Church reform, but the greatest efforts of reform during his reign were actually accomplished by his daughter, Matilda, the Abbess of Quedlinburg.  Quedlinburg was an abbey of canonesses.  A canoness is a woman religious much like a nun (or even, one might say, a type of nun) whose chief purpose is to serve the church to which her community of canonesses is attached by providing for the daily round of liturgical offices.  Just as canons are (usually) religious (in this case, men) whose chief work is to sing the offices in their abbey church, so too canonesses are obliged to sing the liturgical hours for the edification of the faithful.  They differ from monks and monastic nuns who, while the sing the daily offices, have their chief work in lectio divina (contemplation of the Word of God) and manual labor (ora et labora).  That distinction is a bit simplistic but perhaps in a future entry we can explore canons and canonesses more deeply.  I am using an awful lot of parentheses today, bear with me. 
Anyway Quedlinburg was a somewhat exceptional abbey.  It had been established by Otto’s mother who, in her widowhood, served as its first Abbess.  Otto appointed his daughter Matilda as its second Abbess when she was just eleven years old.  When Otto went to Italy to sort out various problems with the papacy, he left his daughter the Abbess Matilda, as regent in Germany.  She subsequently served as regent for her brother, Otto II, when he was occupied in Italy with various issues regarding the papacy.   While still in her teens, she convoked a reforming synod of the German prelates.  She was determined to end many of the abuses that were plaguing the Church at the time—especially the domination of important abbeys and dioceses by the various nobles who interfered with the election of bishops and abbots to put family members or clients in those positions.  This was ironic, of course, as Matilda herself had been appointed Abbess by her father, the Emperor. 
The Abbess of Quedlinburg, like the abbesses of many other imperial abbeys, was exempted from the authority of the local bishop and, indeed, had a virtual diocese of her own having jurisdiction of the many churches that belonged to the Abbey.  It was not unusual in the Middle Ages for abbeys, both of men and women, to be Abbeys Nullius—that is an abbey where the Abbot or Abbess held “ordinary” jurisdiction, i.e. the administrative (though not necessarily the sacramental) jurisdiction of a bishop.  Such Abbots and Abbesses had their own canonical tribunals, appointed pastors, gave letters dimmisorial  permitting ordinations, gave dispensations, granted faculties to the clergy and the various other jurisdictional responsibilities of bishops.  Today Roman authorities claim that one has to be in Holy Orders to exercise jurisdiction in the Church, but history testifies that this was not always the case.  In 1540 the Abbess and canonesses of Quedlinburg embraced the doctrines of the Reformation, becoming Protestant, but they continued leading their lives of prayer and education until suppressed by Napoleon (along with Catholic abbeys) in 1802.

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