Women in the Medieval Church

Julian icon
       Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416

By the 6th century, the church had developed a theology of human sexuality, a world-view based on classical understandings of human biology (the differences between men and women) and Christian convictions about the necessity of virginity (male and female) for ministry.

From the medieval church we have inherited traditional ideas about women:

• women are weaker than men, physically and intellectually
• women are more emotional than men
• women are deliberately seductive, in competition with God for men’s souls
• women should be confined to the home and child-raising
• women’s blood pollution (menstruation and childbirth) prevents contact with the Holy
• and thus women were forbidden to minister in the church.

How close is this traditional teaching to what you absorbed growing up female?

What we now call ‘the Middle Ages’ (so named because these years were thought to be the time between the classical era and the final return of Christ) lasted approximately 1,000 years, from 500–1500. The years from 500–1000 are often called ‘the Dark Ages’ (so named because of the repeated barbarian invasions which eventually destroyed the Roman Empire). The years from 1000–1300 were years of growing social stability and slowly improving quality of life. Political and social stability was imposed through feudalism, a system in which every person had responsibilities to those above and below them in the social order.

For both men and women, the monastic life provided a way out of this closed feudal system. Monasteries provided a secure way of life and time for prayer and contemplation. Monasteries also gave men and women opportunities to study and ways to minister to the people of town and countryside. For both men and women, life in a monastery offered more choices than marrying (for women) or inheriting their father’s position in the feudal system (for men).

Throughout these centuries, there was very little political unity in Europe. The only common bond across the continent was the Christian faith that was nominally shared by all. But as early as the 8th century, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor, a struggle for power between the leaders of church and state was launched. The battle between the papacy and the empire, each struggling for supremacy over the other, went on for six centuries.

The church-state dispute reached the boiling point in the 11th century. The spreading practice of lay investiture – secular leaders appointing clergy, bishops and abbots – opened the door to buying and selling church offices. The papacy itself was bought and sold among a group of Roman noble clans. All this spread cynicism among the laity and demoralization in the ranks of the clergy.

New and reformed monasteries: During the latter half of the Middle Ages, there was a vast expansion of monasteries, and the establishment of new orders of monks. These churches and monasteries grew more affluent over the centuries; in the later centuries, their income from landholdings alone exceeded the revenues of any one country of Europe. One of these new orders was Cluny, a reformed Benedictine order established in France. Unlike previous monasteries, Cluny’s houses were not independent, but were closely tied together and responsible directly to Rome. The Cluny movement attacked many of the abuses then prevalent in the church, which gradually brought reform to monasteries and to secular clergy as well.

Papal reforms: While Cluny reformed local monasteries, the papacy worked to establish its own power over local dioceses and clergy. To exert more control over the clergy, to remove them from lay influence, and to prevent clergy sons inheriting from their fathers, celibacy was imposed. Clashes between the reformed papacy and empire now became inevitable; open warfare developed under the greatest of the reforming popes, Gregory VII (a Cluny-oriented monk who devoted his entire life to the reform movement).

The Gregorian Reform: In the 11th century Pope Gregory VII (and his successors) began reorganizing the papacy – by teaching that

• the church’s power comes from God alone
• the church has authority over both religious and secular life
• the pope, no matter what he has done, becomes holy by virtue of his office
• the sacraments are necessary for Christian life
• the power of the sacraments is in the hands of clergy, and thus enhances clergy control
• clerical celibacy is needed to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments
• marriage (while a sacrament and source of grace) is a relationship of two unequal partners: women are called to submission; to selfless love; and to complete fidelity

How close is this medieval doctrine to the Church’s teaching today?

The Gregorian Reform was also a power struggle between church and state. Asserting the dominance of the spiritual over the temporal, the church wrestled politically and even militarily with the rulers of the various European states. The church denied lay rulers their customary right to appoint clergy – including bishops and abbots – to positions on their lands, and developed a system of canon law which governed (and judged) the clergy, who were to be independent from civil laws.

Christendom: Throughout the 11th–12th centuries the church worked to impose an ordered, uniform society of common faith, or ‘Christendom’. Hans Kung outlines the characteristics of Christendom, as

centralized – around the absolute power of the papacy
legalistic – developing and imposing canon law, often more concerned for following rules than following the Gospel
politicized – often more concerned for ecclesiastical power than for justice
militaristic – pursuing wars (such as the Crusades and persecution of the Cathars) to social problems
clericalized – increasingly identifying the clergy as “the church” and the laity as lesser members.

The traditional monastic life of the church diversified in the 12th century. The Benedictine rule had dominated monastic life since the sixth century; in the twelfth century two new orders of mendicant friars were born, the Franciscans and Dominicans. These new orders were based in cities, but the friars wandered through the countryside – evangelizing, preaching, and offering pastoral care to the people. They were also obedient to the papacy, going where the pope commanded. There were women who wanted to live the same kind of life, but society and church frowned on women not being safely cloistered in home or convent.

The 13th century was the height of the medieval papacy. The fourth Lateran Council decreed that that pope alone speaks for Christ; ecclesiastical power centered in the pope’s person. The establishment of a system of seven sacraments, and increasing devotion to the holiness of the Eucharist, deeply influenced the lives of ordinary lay people. As power was consolidated in the papacy, there was a corresponding decline in the power of bishops and abbots. Universities were established and expanded, teaching young men the arts, theology, and canon law. Universities were the avenue to all significant positions in the church or the state.

But lay people were desperate for spiritual nourishment. As the church became more organized, it also was becoming more remote from ordinary people. In local parishes, the church was increasingly divided between clergy and laity, with clergy regarding the laity as unimportant, even not fully Christian. Yet lay people still hoped for authentic religious experience, and were inspired by the idea of the vita apostolica – the life of Jesus and his first disciples.

These were also the years of the Crusades. There were many conflicting motives behind the launching of the crusades, but there was also a simple faith that moved many of the Crusaders. Their stories of the Holy Land, brought back to Europe, would inspire new generations of the faithful, eager to live the vita apostolica.

The vita apostolica: When the Crusaders began returning from the Holy Land, a new form of spirituality swept across Europe. Wandering preachers, speaking not in Latin but in the vernacular, proclaimed the gospel to ordinary people, told stories from Scripture, and taught that everyone – lay and clergy – was called to serve Christ. So at the same time that the church was becoming more structured, clerical and hierarchical, there was a growing desire on the part of lay people to live the vita apostolica. Many began to see the church as actually blocking ordinary people from pursuing the vita apostolica.

The visionaries: A number of laywomen, almost all in convents, wrote during these years. Their writings, rooted in their own experience and reflection, sought to convey the insights of their visions and to teach other women how to pray. These writings demonstrate a mystical spirituality – in which, through visions, the writer participates in the sufferings of Jesus, and then directs her energies to the life of love and compassion for others.  Since they believed (and taught) that the life of prayer was open to everyone and anyone, the official church was frequently threatened by their words and teaching.

These women called for, and exemplified, Christ’s work of compassion in the world around them. As practical ministers – as well as theologians, writers, and spiritual guides – they focused on Jesus’ compassion and called for compassion from the organized church of their own day. If there is a common theme that links these women writers, it is that they found compassion lacking in the church’s ministry.

hazelnutGod showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… I looked at it and thought: What can this be?  And I was given this answer:  It is everything which is made.  I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing.  And I was answered in my understanding:  It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.  (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love) 

Like other women visionaries, Julian knew the Church’s teaching about original sin, but she clung to the goodness of each person’s central essence.

Julian begged God to help her understand why God continues to love when humans fall into sin. God then revealed a parable about a lord and his servant:  A servant sets off on an errand for his lord, but falls into a ditch; he cannot get out, so he loses heart and begins to feel utterly worthless. In his self-absorption he forgets that the lord loves him – and that he had loved the lord – and he falls into despair.

This is how Julian understood sin: we forget that we are loved, which leads us to self-absorption and feelings of worthlessness. But God, out of God’s very nature, continues to love us. The servant in the ditch couldn’t help himself, but the lord could. He finds his servant in the ditch, heals him with his grace, and then rewards him with love.

Julian’s theology developed, not from abstract principles (as in the scholastic thinking of the universities and clergy of her day), but from her own experiences. She used female language for God as well as the more traditional male pronouns. She had experienced God as compassionate and loving, and she compared Jesus to a mother who is wise, loving, and compassionate.

What is the role of compassion in your theology?
… in your thinking about God?
… in your thinking about Jesus?
… in your thinking about the society we live in?
… in your thinking about the churches still active in the modern world?

One thought on “Women in the Medieval Church

  1. Donna, thank you. You brought me to tears…compassion is the key.
    Our gift to the world. Giving us the ability to see Christ in everyone and BE Christ for each person we meet. To treat our physical world compassionately and to treat ourselves with compassion. Sue

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