Women and the Medieval Church

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    Feeny 1

    Thomas Feeny

    Professor Pumphrey

    History 208

    13 April 2011

    Women and the Medieval Church

    Religion played a critical role in peoples lives during the middle ages. Unlike modern

    times, ones religion was neither a private, nor personal choice. Both men and women of all

    statuses were expected to hold religious beliefs. Christianity was the most practiced faith in

    Western Europe during this period. The majority of women were Christian, yet they did not

    wield significant influence within medieval society. Women were banned from seats in the

    Christian hierarchy. Although the heads of nunneries possessed considerable power in early

    medieval society, their authority was drastically reduced in later centuries.1 Not only did women

    have a diminished role within the Church, but religious figures focused on Biblical teachings that

    held women subordinate to men. Nunneries were extremely constricted and did not enjoy the

    same privileges as monasteries. By the high middle ages, the Church had become an institution

    that routinely restricted the opportunities of women in society.

    The early Christian church offered women expanded opportunities after the death of

    Jesus. In Christianitys early years, the informal leaders of small congregations were sometimes

    women. However, their chances became restricted as the religion became more popular. As the

    religion spread, churches were constructed to accommodate the larger congregations. The

    professionals of the church who led the congregation became known as priests. All priests,

    bishops, and archbishops were male. Women were prohibited from these positions, as well as

    from becoming the Pope, or Bishop of Rome. The Patriarch of Constantinople was also

    1Sandy Bardsley, Womens Roles in the Middle Ages (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 27.

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    exclusively male. Consequently, women were left out of the hierarchy of the Christian church.

    This had important ramifications because the Christian church held significant political power in

    addition to its religious clout. Women lost out on additional opportunities within the political

    realm of medieval society. This exclusion from very important seats within the Roman Catholic

    Church exists to this day.2

    Several important Christian figures expressed doubt towards the role of women within

    the church. Odo, a tenth century abbot of Cluny, compared women to a sack of dung and

    proclaimed that the highest virtue in a woman is not to wish to be seen. He believed that the

    ideal woman was one who was securely locked out of sight and away from male temptation. The

    Christian Church supported Biblical passages that oppressed women and viewed them as inferior

    to men. Church reformers recalled Pauls teachings, which stated that women were not to have

    authority over men. According to First Corinthians 14:34-45, Paul believed that women should

    keep silence in the churches.3

    He also stated that women have no right to preach and should

    remain subordinate to their husbands. This led to the disbanding of double monasteries, which

    housed both monks and nuns.4

    Saint Jerome had little confidence in womens ability to act as good Christians. He

    accused them as being spiritually weaker than men. However, he believed that one way that

    women could overcome their weak and sinful nature was through chastity. Saint Paul also agreed

    that virginity was preferable to marriage.5 The intense interest in maintaining womens virginity

    was due in some part as a reaction to romantic literature of the time. There was also the

    perception of social dangers from female recklessness.6

    2Bardsley, 28.

    3Bardsley, 28.

    4Bardsley, 37.

    5Bardsley, 30.

    6Southern, 311.

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    Women who did not maintain their physical virginity were not considered saints. There

    are stories of women who went to such great lengths to preserve their virginity that they hoped

    for and received physical deformities that would make themselves less attractive to men. The

    requirement to be considered a true virgin became stricter in later centuries. Women not only had

    to refrain from sex their entire lives, but they also had to be pure in mind and modest in behavior.

    The meaning of virginity expanded beyond chastity and made it difficult for women to truly be

    considered virgins.7 Women were often held to a higher standard than men. This was in part due

    to the perception that women had an inherently lustful nature.

    Nunneries were severely constrained by both laws and financial limitations. Although

    women in nunneries exerted great authority in the early middle ages, this power was curtailed in

    later centuries. As society became more organized and patriarchal, males asserted themselves to

    the high positions in the church.8 Abbesses, or the heads of nunneries, lost much of their

    influence due to increasing regulation from church officials.9

    Bishops insisted that abbesses

    confine their rule to only their institution and not the local government.10The rules of nunneries

    became more standardized. St. Augustine decreed that nuns be more obedient and subordinate to

    the entire community. The Bishop of Arles imposed a rule that called for women to be strictly

    enclosed within nunneries. Nuns were confined on these grounds for fear that they either made

    others desire them, or saw things which they themselves desired.11

    Once they entered the gates

    of a community, they were not allowed to leave. Caesariuss Rule declared that the enclosure

    proclamation shall be more strictly enforced. During the reign of Emperor Charlemagne, church

    councils passed laws that enacted this doctrine. Women were forbidden from leaving the nunnery

    7Bardsley, 31.

    8Southern, 310.

    9Bardsley, 32.

    10Bardsley, 38.

    11Southern, 311.

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    and their interaction with the outside world became deeply limited.12

    The Bishop of Arles also

    insisted that women give up all of their individual property upon entering the nunnery. 13 Most

    nunneries throughout Western Europe adopted a variation of the Benedictine Rule. Just as the

    monks had, the nuns took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. From the year 1213 and

    onwards, nuns and abbesses lost more of their privileges, including visitation rights and

    permission to build new settlements.14

    Throughout Western Europe, nunneries were always poorer than monasteries. In

    Normandy during the mid-thirteenth century, the average net worth of a nunnery was fifteen

    percent of that of a monastery. The disparity was even more obvious when one considers that

    nunneries were slightly larger institutions. English nunneries generally received half of the

    resources of the average monastery. The prayers of nuns were less attractive to donors than those

    of monks. Women drew much less financial support than their counterparts. This was due in

    large part because monks were sometimes ordained as priests, a position that nuns were excluded

    from. This attitude towards women was a consistent theme of the middle ages. Families usually

    invested less money in their daughters and more in their sons.15

    Families who could not afford to pay the dowries for their daughters wedding sometimes

    forced them to enter nunneries. The entrance fee was usually much lower than the cost of a

    dowry.16

    Unmarried women were uncommon in the early middle ages. Girls were usually

    married by age fourteen and widows remarried with little delay. Family connections were made

    and land was distributed through the institution of marriage. Families usually felt obligated to

    12Bardsley, 34.

    13Bardsley, 33.

    14Southern, 316.

    15Bardsley, 39.

    16Bardsley, 34.

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    make provisions for girls who refused to marry. Nunneries provided a dignified religious retreat

    for unmarried women and widows in medieval society.17

    In Medieval churches, the congregation was divided by sex. Women were grouped on the

    north end of the church and men on the south end.18 Men repeatedly used the opportunity to warn

    the women not to gossip with their friends. Paintings inside the churches showed gossiping

    women being overshadowed by a demon who recorded their conversation on a scroll.19

    Lay

    women were also supposed to ask permission from their husband before they embarked on

    pilgrimages. On these journeys, they sometimes discovered that Christian shrines or relics were

    in areas that women were prohibited from visiting. Lay women had many restrictions on their

    life and often needed permission from their husband to enjoy even the most basic freedoms.20

    The freedoms enjoyed by women in the early stages of the Christian church had mostly

    disappeared by the high middle ages. Although women had been allowed to lead congregations

    in the decades after Jesuss crucifixion, they were completely excluded from the church

    hierarchy once the religion reached most of Western Europe. This segregation by gender would

    result in serious negative effects that were clearly evident in later centuries. The first universities

    were founded in the twelfth c