Part 8: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 8 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

When the barbarian invasions swept across the Roman Empire, Christian women played important roles in evangelism and peacemaking. In Roman Gaul (present day France), for example, communities of consecrated women worked alongside their bishops to evangelize the invaders, and in Baudavia, Saint Radegund acted as a peacemaker between the local church and the reigning families of the new social order.

The barbarian tribes brought with them a "mixed bag" of attitudes and customs regarding the status of women, so it is difficult to generalize on their impact, but whatever the local influence of the barbarians may have been in different areas, throughout the age of Christendom (roughly 313 to 1400 AD), women often attained places of major significance in society as a whole. This was especially true in the earlier Middle Ages, as we shall see. In the late Middle Ages, we find more references to women in literature as weak, fragile, lacking in judgment and (based loosely on the writings of Aristotle) as "incomplete" or "imperfect" men. At the same time, however, among the aristocracy we find in Middle High German literature on chivalry two basic characteristics: the elevation of women as models of virtue, and the moral refinement of men by women. Among all social classes, the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, not only as Mother but also as Queen, was said by St. Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179) to have improved the image of women throughout the entire era. John Saward explains:

Orthodox Catholic doctrine about and devotion to Our Lady "has not oppressed women but rather has allowed them to appear in their highest dignity."... A simple English carol from the last years of the Catholic Middle Ages expresses this beautifully. It is one of several which present the excellence of Our Lady as a reason for respect and honor towards all women: "Wymmen beth bothe goude and truwe/ wytnesse on Marie".... Something similar can be seen in the old medieval legend, much loved by Chesterton, that Robin Hood, out of piety towards the Mother of God, would never raid any company which included a woman. I am not claiming that men and women of the Middle Ages always lived up to this noble vision, but I do believe there was a deep and general sense in that period that in the uniquely graced womanhood of Our Lady all womanhood was raised up to a dignity beyond compare. ("Thanks for the Feminine," p. 127)

Overall, it would be wildly innacurate to claim that during the medieval-Christendom period of European history, "a woman's place was solely in the home."

First of all, there were women of extraordinary spiritual gifts who shattered the boundaries of a woman's place in the world by the evident and remarkable charisms from the Holy Spirit that they had received. One thinks, for example, of St. Joan of Arc, the military leader, prophet, and liberator of France, and St. Catherine of Sienna, one of the most extraordinary women who ever lived: servant of the sick, admonisher of popes and kings, and probably the greatest spiritual writer of her time.

Some women also attained a high level of education, and used their gifts to help civilize a violent and uneducated world. Hauke writes:

The clergy, the members of religious orders and women were the educated classes of the Middle Ages. Primarily involved here were the ranks of the nobility .... [W]omen of noble lineage [often] received a better formal education than did the men, who were to be trained for military careers ....

The early Middle Ages was familiar, especially under the influence of the [early Church Fathers] Jerome and Ambrose, with an ideal image of woman containing, among other things, "study in depth of the Holy Scriptures and the works of the Church Fathers." In particular, high theological standards were often attained in convents. Lioba, the sister of St. Boniface, was most completely educated in the worldly and spiritual sciences. She knew the Bible almost by heart, and besides that "she studied ... the Church Fathers, the councils, and the whole of canon law." She passed her wealth of knowledge on to numerous female students, and princes and bishops sought her out from afar because - according to her biographer - she "was very well versed in Scripture and prudent in her advice." (Hauke, p. 465)

Among the highly educated female religious of the medieval period, perhaps none stands out more than St. Hildegard Von Bingen, who excelled in music, poetry, philosophy, theology, and mystical writing, and to whom popes and princes turned for counsel and advice. In fact, she was so well-respected that she was permitted to do something extraordinarily rare for a woman in the Middle Ages: to travel throughout central Europe as a public evangelist, preaching the gospel. Father Francis Martin notes that she also wrote some in-depth reflections on the natural equality and differences between men and women:

Although she utilizes the Aristotelian ... notion of the four basic elements, she does not follow Aristotle in assigning the two higher and more mobile elements (air and fire) to man and the two lower, heavier elements (earth and water) to women. Rather, she attributes the highest and lowest to man and the middle two to women (air and water). Thus, neither sex has a physical superiority to the other. She carries this through in regard to generation, contradicting the Aristotelian notion that the seed of the male required only a place in the female body in order to grow. For Hildegard, the male seed is cold and requires the heat provided by the female if there is to be generation: once again male and female are equal in their roles, though these roles are different. ... She concludes that in the resurrection all will rise in the integrity of their bodies and their sex. (The Feminist Question, p. 368-369)

Medieval abbesses (i.e., heads of convents and of female religious orders) were especially influential. According to Hauke:

The abbess of a community of choir nuns, for instance, administers the community property and awards benefices and spiritual offices, and the members of her community are obliged to swear an oath of obedience to her. The women even participated at imperial diets [that is, the medieval equivalent of sessions of Congress] and [Church] synods. The Church not only tolerated the spiritual power of these women, but even defended it against rebellious clergymen [as did Pope Honorius III in 1212]. (Hauke, p. 465)

An excellent example in this regard is the famous St. Hilda of Whitby. Writing from Abbess Hilda's English homeland, the church historian Bede in the 8th century reported that under her "five bishops were produced from her school at Whitby Abbey." Moreover, it was under her oversight and spiritual guidance, and at her Abbey at Whitby, that a synod was held at which the Celtic and Roman ecclesiastical leaders came together with the King to settle their differences.

Francis Martin provides several examples of just how powerful these medieval abbesses could be:

The Saxon abbey of Gandersheim, an important religious and intellectual center in its day, was freed from royal rule by Otto Leven in 947 and granted autonomy such that the abbess could keep her own army and court of law, coin money, and have a seat in the imperial diet. ...In Italy, a comparable authority was exercised by the abbess of the monastery of S. Salvatore or S. Guilia in Brescia. She routinely engaged in major land transactions, managed and developed large territorial holdings, received property gifts from emperors and popes, and oversaw thousands of dependent workers. ... The abbesses of Notre-Dame-aux-Nonnais enjoyed rights over the bishop of Troyes: when a new bishop was installed, he would lead a procession to the abbey, mounted on a palfrey, then kneel and receive cross, mitre, and prayer book from the abbesses hands. (Martin, p. 132)

Among women, it was not only the nuns who had a major impact on medieval civilization. In the professions too, we have evidence that there were female doctors and pharmacists, as well as teachers. Lay women could be merchants and members of the medieval trade guilds, and often took on tasks that involved considerable responsibility, but were seen as especially suited to women, such as the directorship of hospitals. Even in the late Middle Ages, when the social roles of women were beginning to be curtailed, according to records collected by the English Parliament in 1389, of the 500 hundred guilds in the country only five were exclusively male. In the 85 crafts guilds women were essentially treated as equals: given equal status in the election of officers, in participation in feast days, and in punishment for misdeeds (see Martin, p. 129). In the High Middle Ages, women were especially prevalent in the textile, ale-brewing and food-producing industries, and could even be found among blacksmiths and carpenters, often continuing their husband's trade as widows. Thus, contrary to popular belief, women in the Middle Ages were not confined largely to the home or the enclosed convent; that was a regression that began with the Renaissance, as European civilization rediscovered the classical wisdom of ancient Greece, which all too often ignored or denigrated the gifts and talents women had to offer.

Next Time: The Amazing Female Royalty of Christendom

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Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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