The Ordination of Women in the Early Middle Ages

Article excerpt

IN HER PROVOCATIVE WORK, The Lady was a Bishop, Joan Morris argued that the great mitered abbesses of the Middle Ages were treated as equivalent to bishops. In partial support of her contention, she quoted a capitulum from the Mozarabic Liber ordinum that reads "Ordo ad ordinandam abbatissam."(1) Despite this intriguing find, there seems to have been no further research into the ordination of women in the early Middle Ages. A survey of early medieval documents demonstrates, however, how widespread was the use of the terms ordinatio, ordinare, and ordo in regard to the commissioning of women's ministries during that era. The terms are used not only to describe the installation of abbesses, as Morris noted, but also in regard to deaconesses and to holy women, that is, virgins, widows, nuns, or canonesses (monacha or sanctimonialis). In my article I offer a brief overview of early medieval references to the ordination of women and place those references into the broader understanding of ordination operative at that time. I attempt to present the roles played by medieval religious women so as to locate them within that clerical world. Finally, in a concluding section, I offer some thoughts on the historical conclusions one can draw from this data, and I discuss the theological assumptions underlying differing approaches to the status of women in the Church and indeed the status of ordination during those centuries.


Several medieval ordinals, including the Mozarabic ordinal mentioned by Morris, refer to the commissioning rites for women as ordinations. In the Ordo ad ordinandam abbatissam there is an entire rite for ordination.(2) Marius Ferotin, the editor of this rite, noted that he had found a second manuscript containing a rite De ordinatione et electione abbatisse in the Royal Academy of Science in Madrid. The rite apparently dates from the eighth or ninth century.(3) A Romano-Germanic pontifical from the tenth century offers two references to "ordinatio abbutissae canonicam regulam profitentis."(4) A twelfth-centuryRomano-Germanic' pontifical in the library of Bamberg includes the section on the ordination of religious women "Ordinatio sanctimonialium." William of Durand's famous 13th-century pontifical contains both the title "De ordinatione diaconissae" and a later copy of that work adds the title "De ordinatione et consecratione virginum." William added that although deaconesses were once ordained in the Church, this no longer took place.(5)

Popes and bishops referred to the commissioning of deaconesses, abbesses, and nuns as ordination. In 1018 Pope Benedict VIII conferred on the cardinal bishop of Porto the right to ordain bishops, priests, deacons, deaconesses, subdeacons, churches, and altars.(6) Pope Callistus II granted a privilege in the year 1123 to the convent of the Holy Savior and St. Julia in Brescia, and reminded the abbess that the bishop has the right to ordain abbesses, nuns, and all other clerics moved to take sacred orders.(7) Bishop Gilbert of Limerick included in his De usu ecclesiae the injunction "The bishop ordains abbots, abbesses, priests, and the six other grades."(8) In the Chronicle of Thietmar, bishop of Merseburg (d. 1018), it is 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."(9) A tenth-century letter of Atto, bishop of Vercelli, described the initiation of deaconesses in the early Church as an ordination and that "therefore for the aid of men, devout women were ordained leaders of worship in the holy Church."(10)

Other sources from this period speak of the ordination of women as well. The editors of the Annales Camaldulenses recorded a foundation charter from the year 867 granting lands to establish a convent of 20 nuns. The donors, Count Winigris and his wife Richild, insisted that the selection and ordination of the abbess remain firmly in their hands and in the hands of their successors. …