Wednesday, June 22, 2011

When Women Ruled the Churches 2

Actress Peggy Wood as the Abbess in
The Sound of Music
We have looked at several powerful women who had great (and positive) influence in the Church, indeed who parlayed their role as abbesses to playe direct roles in Church administration.  Matilda of Quedlinburg convoked reforming synods as did Hilda of Whitby.  Brigid of Kildare actually exercised jurisdiction over a diocese and, through her royal connections, was the most influential leader of the Irish Church in the sixth century and became not only one of the three great “patron saints” of Ireland but did so precisely because she, like Patrick and Colombanus—the other two—actually shaped the character and temperament of Irish Christianity.
How did these women—and others like them—achieve this power?  We need to understand the role of women in Germanic culture as opposed to the role of women in Mediterranean culture.  Now, first of all, when I say “Germanic” let me be more specific.  I do not mean among the peoples who comprise modern day Germany but rather all the tribes from Northern Europe who occupied what is today Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and the non-Slavic lands north of the Alps.  Much of what we say about them can also be said of the Scandinavian tribes and the Celtic peoples of Ireland and Britain.  In these societies there was a fundamental equality in and before the law between men and women.  Women had rights of inheritance, property, and often even say in political assemblies.  It was not unknown for women to exercise kingship.  In 61 AD The Celtic queen,  Boudica, stormed and burned the Roman colony where London stands today.  Caesar, in the Gallic wars, tells us how surprised he was at female military and political leadership.  This is because in the Mediterranean world women were subordinate to men. They never would have led an army or commanded men!  Women had no legal personage.  They could not sue in court nor could they be sued.  They lived under the “mundiburd”—the legal protection—of a male.  A woman was under the authority of her father until he took her hand in placed it in the hand of her husband and with that gesture, the authority over her passed from father to husband.  In her widowhood, she lived under the authority of her son (and usually the thumb of her daughter-in-law). 
A Real Abbess, The Right Reverend Dame Benedicta
von Spiegel, Lady Abbess of Saint Walburga in Eichstatt
until her death in 1950. Note the crozier, pectoral cross,
and pontifical gloves as signs of her rank. 
Monastic life freed women from this subordination.  When women fled to the desert to live as hermits or in colonies of nuns they escaped male authority.  Nuns were women monks.  We lose the awareness of this in modern English where we have two words—“monk” and “nun” for men and women monastics respectively.  In Syriac, Greek, Latin, and even the modern romance languages such as Italian this is not so.  It is the same word with only a gender-specific suffix to let us know if the monastic is a male or female.  A female monastic community in the ancient world might often inter-related with a male monastic community.  The women monks might offer to weave clothe for the monks in return for some of the harder physical labor—construction projects perhaps—that they did not feel they had the strength to do.  (You might be surprised, however, at some of the projects these “delicate ladies” did undertake.)    And the nuns depended on monks for chaplaincies, though even there many of the duties we associate with a chaplain—the various blessings and rites and even the hearing of confessions—were performed by the abbess.  (The linking of “confession” and sacramental absolution, as well as the requirement for the Sacrament of Penance was not defined until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.  Before that time, in monastic communities confession was linked more to the spiritual direction the abbot (not always a priest until the eleventh or twelfth centuries) or abbess.)  Sometimes, in fact in the early and central Middle Ages (the fifth through the eleventh centuries), and sometimes even later, the chaplains attached to monasteries of nuns were actually monks or canons who belonged not to an abbey of men but to the nuns’ abbey and owed their obedience to the abbess. 
An Abbess, by the way, is an interesting person legally.  While in the desert communities of ancient Egypt and Syria monks were governed by an abba (a “father”or a “Dad”—remember that Jesus tells us to call God “Abba”), and nuns by an ama (a “mom”), the practice soon dropped the feminine idea of an ama and feminized the word for “Dad.”  An abbess is a female abbot.  She is a women who is doing the work of a man.  She is a woman who has the authority of a man.   The Abbot is the pater familias of his monastic community.  The Abbess is also the pater familias, the “father” of her monastic community.  She is not a “mother superior;” she is a female “father superior.”  This is a hard concept for us to understand, but do you know that Queen Elizabeth of England is legally a man?  Elizabeth Windsor, the lady who drives a Land Rover and breeds racing horses is a woman, but Elizabeth II, the person who wears a crown and opens parliament stands before the law as a man.  In fact in the Middle Ages a queen regnant (a woman who heads a nation as different from a queen consort—a woman married to the king) most often referred to herself as “Rex” (king) rather than “Regina” (queen).  In the same way an abbess is legally a man, or at least was so regarded in the Middle Ages.  (And again, the key word is “legally” which differentiates between the person in private life and the person in their public office.) 
When one combines this monastic autonomy with the Germanic legal codes recognizing women as equal to men in law, then any problem with women exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction vanishes.   If an abbot can be an Abbot Nullius—an abbot who governs a diocese—then so can an abbess.  One such Abbacy Nullius headed by a woman was Las Hueglas in Spain which I understand lasted at least until the middle of the last century.  Another was the Abbacy of Conversano in Italy.  This lasted until suppressed by Napoleon in 1806.  Here is a description of the ceremonial of obeisance by the clergy to a newly enthroned Abbess.  
A power of jurisdiction almost equal to that of the Abbess of Las Huelgas was at one time exercised by the Cistercian Abbess of Conversano in Italy. Among the many privileges enjoyed by this Abbess may be specially mentioned, that of appointing her own vicar-general through whom she governed her abbatial territory; that of selecting and approving confessors for the laity; and that of authorizing clerics to have the cure of souls in the churches under her jurisdiction. Every newly appointed Abbess of Conversano was likewise entitled to receive the public "homage" of her clergy,--the ceremony of which was sufficiently elaborate. On the appointed day, the clergy, in a body repaired to the abbey; at the great gate of her monastery, the Abbess, with mitre and crosier, sat enthroned under a canopy, and as each member of the clergy passed before her, he made his obeisance, and kissed her hand. 
We will look more at these medieval abbesses in future entries.  But in the meantime remember there is historically no problem having a woman at the head of your diocese.

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