This is Part 2 in a series examining the role of women in different phases of Church history. Our hope is to give readers a more complete picture of Christian history by focusing on the women who are too often footnoted and forgotten. Other posts in the series: Part 1– Women in the Early Church Part 3 – Women in the Reformation Era, Part 4 – Women in the American Colonies.
According to the small handful of literate monks, bishops, and noblemen in the middle ages, the status of women in medieval Christianity was quite the polarizing issue. In Her Story, Barbara MachHaffie notes that on the one hand, women are “denounced in strong terms as wicked and inferior” leading in the worst of cases to witch-hunts throughout the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries (HS. 49). On the other hand, women were also praised by Christianity and idolized as symbols of the Virgin Mary as illustrated by the ideal women preserved for us in the well-known tales of medieval chivalry (HS. 49).
How did women exercise their leadership in medieval Christianity? Again, we may see a rollercoaster of a trajectory. In the fifth century, monasticism gave women the freedom to travel, become missionaries, and even get involved politically (HS. 54). Yet, moving into the eleventh and twelfth centuries women’s monasteries were mostly closed and many women leaders were left to join bands of traveling communities such as the Beguines.
The other option for many women to find empowerment and autonomy came from living the ascetic life which offered adherents communal safety to cross borders, avoidance of the physical dangers of childbearing so prevalent in this era, and authority by virtue of holiness and personal piety (HS. 57). Vowing the ascetic life also allowed women (as well as men) access to education and the ability to study scripture in a time when literacy rates were exceptionally low. Through asceticism, women were finally allowed to choose for themselves the path of marriage and childbearing or the path of chastity (HS. 59).
Abbesses (monasteries for women) were also an important part of medieval Christianity. Understanding the term “ordination” in its original use—sometimes reserved to describe the consecration of an abbess—women such as St. Paula (357-404 C.E.) the sister of Augustine (and associate of Jerome) stand out in history as examples of “ordained women” (HS. 58). Beyond her relationship with Jerome, St. Paula herself established both a monastery and convent throughout her pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Female mystics may be one of the most interesting groups of women in this period. Between 1100 and 1450, medieval women made up a significant number of the Christian mystic tradition. Their work provides us with early writings that make use of bridal imagery for the Church, thus establishing a precedent for men to claim their rightful identity alongside women as the bride of Christ (HS. 71).
The medieval period may be the most painfully patriarchal area of Church history. As the years progress, women are continually cornered into roles unsuited for any human altogether. Still, many women stand out for us as examples of leadership within the Christian narrative.
Melania the Younger
Taking part in the ascetic life, Melania the Younger made use of her access to theological education and became quite the intellectual, even teaching the emperor Theodosius and aiding clergy with issues of textual translation and interpretation (HS. 57). Melania’s intellect was requested of the bishop Boniface who sought her help in organizing the churches in Germany (HS. 57). After inheriting a large fortune, Melania gave all her wealth to the poor and even built a church before dying on December 31. 439 C.E. To this day there is a Ukrainian festival in her honor.
Christine de Pisan
Christine de Pisan (1364 –1430 C.E.), a Frenchwomen and widow at the age of twenty-five, made her impact on Christianity (and her income) primarily through her writing which included some poetry along with two prose accounts of women. Barbara MachHaffie writes of Pisan, “Much of her writing was in protest against the violent attacks on women by medieval churchmen and noblemen… [She] supplied ample evidence to show that women were modest, gentle, and loving” (HS. 69) Again, these characteristics are significant due to the polarizing views of women in her era (e.g. women as witch or virgin saint). Pisan utilized the stories of women (both historical and mythological) to assert that 1) women do not wage war or oppress, 2) women as well as men sin equally (a minority theological perspective at the time), and 3) it was women who remained most faithful to Jesus during his trial and death (HS. 69). Pisan also instructed women to take social action to improve their cultural environment. A few scholars have even called her work some of the earliest accounts of feminism.
Julian of Norwich
Author of perhaps the first English language book written by a woman, Julian of Norwich remains one of the most significant medieval figures in the history of Christianity. This fifteenth-century female mystic became very ill and received a series of visions and revelations which would later be the impetus for several later books on spirituality and theology. Julian became well known in England around 1400 C.E.
Barbara MachHaffie suggests that Julian’s work, “reconceptualizes God more powerfully and originally than any writer before her” (HS. 71). Julian’s work not only stresses feminine attributes of Christianity (i.e. the ‘birth’ of a believer, and the believer being ‘fed’ in the Eucharist through the body of Christ) but it also considered the role of motherhood played by Christ who was on equal footing with God the Father and God the Spirit (HS. 71.) (Note to theology nerds: Julian’s work seems at least a little reminiscent of Moltmann’s social-Trinitarianism)
Says Julian of Norwich in her Revelations of Divine Love, “And thought, possibly, an earthly mother may suffer her child to perish, our heavenly Mother Jesus can never suffer us who are his children to perish. For he is almighty, all-wisdom and all-love” (pg. 166-167 of James Walsh’s 1961 ed.).
Citing Eleanor McLaugnlin, Ruth A. Tucker summarizes the passing of the medieval Christianity well when she writes that the period, “was characterized by what is often perceived as a ‘feminine’ notion of spirituality, exemplified in an ‘image of God, who was Mother as well as Father’ and emphasizing ‘Love more than Intellect.’ As we shall see in the next post Tucker notes, “This ‘feminine’ spirituality was in many ways turned on its head with the Reformation…” (DBE. 32).
MacHaffie, Barbara J. (2006). Her Story: Women in Christian Tradition (2nd Edition). Fortress Press
Pierce, Ronald W., Groothuis, R. M., Fee, G. D. (2005). Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. IVP Academic.
Also see Women’s History Month: The High and Middle Ages on the CBE blog for a discussion of Clare of Assisi and Isotta Nogarola.
This series originally appeared on Restoring Pangea, where Michael blogs along with Josiah Daniels and Nathan Smith.