The Ordination of Women in the Early Middle Ages

The Ordination of Women in the Early Middle Ages

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The Ordination of Women in the Early Middle Ages

Gary Macy

Theological Studies: Vol. 61 (2000)


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.” 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. Marius Férotin, 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. A Romano-Germanic pontifical from the tenth century offers two references to “ordinatio abbatissae canonicam regularn profitentis.” A twelfth-century Romano-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.

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