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Ordination of Women in the Early Middle Ages: An Historiographic Problem

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 29, 2013
pp. 1-15 | 10.1353/ems.2013.0005

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Due to a production error, volume 29 of Essays in Medieval Studies was released with the incorrect publication date of 2013 on the article title pages. The correct publication date is 2014.

This paper assumes that most historians do not discuss women as ordained clergy in the early Middle Ages. However, if women were ordained, it would represent a very important form of women’s piety and devotion. It is the “if” that is the issue, as it so often is. So proceeding any further it might be best to look at the evidence for the ordination of women in the Middle Ages.

Evidence for the Ordination of Women in the Early Middle Ages

The evidence that women were considered ordained in the early Middle Ages is really quite striking. When popes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries made lists of the different church orders, they included those of women. In 1018, Benedict VIII conferred on the Cardinal Bishop of Porto the right to ordain bishops, priests, deacons, women deacons, subdeacons, churches, and altars. This privilege was repeated by John XIX in 1025 and by Leo IX in 1049. In 1026, John XIX conceded to the bishop of Silva Candida “the consecration of churches, altars, priests, clerics, deacons, or women deacons for the whole Leonine City.” Benedict IX continued this privilege in 1037 and also exempted from lay control “priests, deacons, monks, housekeepers, clerics of whatever order or dignity, all holy women or women deacons.” Calixtus II, in a privilege of 1123 to the convent of the Holy Savior and St. Julia in Brescia, granted the abbess the right to seek the ordination of abbesses, nuns, and all other clerics advanced to sacred orders from any bishop she wished.

Not only popes but also bishops included women among the ordained. Bishop Gilbert of Limerick included the injunction in his handbook, On the Practice of the Church, “The bishop ordains abbots, abbesses, priests, and the six other grades.” The chronicle of Thietmar, Bishop of Merseburg (d. 1018), recorded that “the same woman who at that time was twelve years old was veiled on Sunday, the kalends of May and on the next day ordained abbess.” A tenth-century letter of Atto, Bishop of Vercelli, described the initiation of women deacons in the early church as an ordination: “Therefore for the aid of men, devout women were ordained leaders of worship in the holy Church.”

A number of medieval liturgical books include commissioning rites for women that they call ordinations in the same way that commissioning rites for men are called ordinations. In fact, the rites for men and women are listed together in the books. Ordination rites for women deacons are contained in the eight-century pontifical of Bishop Egbert of York, in the influential ninth-century Gregorian sacramentary and in the twelfth-century Roman Pontifical. The most complete liturgy for the ordination of a women deacon occurs in the tenth-century Romano-Germanic Pontifical. The ordination rite for a women deacon takes place within the Mass and begins with the instructions, “When the bishop blesses the women deacon, he places the orarium on her neck. However when she proceeds to the church, she wears it around her neck so that the ends on both sides of the orarium are under her tunic.” The orarium is a form of stole that, according to the Council of Toledo in 633, was worn by bishops, priests, and deacons. Again, according to the Council, the deacon was to wear his orarium on his left side when he preached.

These are just the most prestigious references to the ordination of women from the sixth through twelfth centuries. Maddigan and Osiek, for example, in their extensive survey and translation of sources for ordained women list one hundred seven named women deacons and eleven women priests from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Still other references from bishops, theologians, wills, charters, chronicles and saints lives could recounted here, but then I would have time for nothing else.

Celebration of the Eucharist

Along with specific references to women who held ordained positions in the early medieval period, evidence from the fourth through the eleventh centuries also...

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