|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.
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.