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Introduction to Series – Women in Medieval Times

Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Irish writer Julia Kavanagh (1824-1877) noted about women during the Middle Ages:

“The progress of Christianity owes much, however, to these women. They had little personal influence, and thus their action was not perceived at first; but the virtues of Christianity, purity, temperance, forgiveness, and resignation were essentially feminine virtues: they were more easily practiced by women than by men; and this gave to the weaker sex a moral superiority over the stronger one, which is visible even through the primitive rudeness of those dark ages.”[1]

Medieval women displayed the Christlike character that was responsible for the advancement of the Gospel through word and deed in the Middle Ages. There were thousands of women who served in God’s Kingdom in Medieval times. Over the next few months, we will cover the stories of only a few. Like their female forebears in the Patristic Era these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.[2]

The Middle Ages cover a long period of time – about a millennium. There are so many variations in how scholars break up the time periods in the Middle Ages. Because his dating method lines up so well with the stories I want to tell about women during Medieval times, I will be somewhat following the outline as given by Thomas Cahill in his book on the Middle Ages (which I highly recommend).[3]

 

The Early Middle Ages(Also called the Dark Ages) 4th through 11th Centuries.

This era began after the Roman Emperor Constantine came to power in 312 AD. When Constantine declared that Christianity would be the state religion in 313 AD, scholarship, commerce and the size of cities began to increase. This continued until the end of the eleventh century.

The High Middle Ages– 12th and 13th Centuries and first half of the 14th Century.

This era extends from approximately 1100 to 1347. This was a Renaissance period in Europe until the Black Death began in 1347.

The Late Middle Ages– Second half of the 14th Century and 15th Century

This era covers the tragedy of the Black Death and ends with the first voyage of Columbus in 1492.

 

For our purposes,  500 AD is a turning point for my series on the Middle Ages. I covered some stories from the very early Middle Ages (4th and 5th Centuries) in the “Women in the Patristic Era” series, which we defined as 2nd through 5th centuries. We noted in our series that especially after 313 AD Christian Women enjoyed the freedom to travel, preach the gospel, and minister even in leadership positions. Tragically, by 500 AD women were not allowed to participate in the hierarchy of the institutionalized church. Since things really changed for women when the church and state came together to rule, my stories will pick up where the “Women in the Patristic Era” stories ended – around 500 AD.

 

Introduction to the Early Middle Ages – 313 (or 500) AD to 1100 AD

In spite of their being sidelined, women could and did hold many leadership positions outsideof the institutionalized church in the monasteries, convents, and other Christian groups such as the faithful Beguines. It could be argued that remaining outside of the hierarchy of the institutional church enabled women to have far greater ministry to the poor, neglected, and homeless people. When the institutionalized church forbade women access to official ministry, many women found ways to go and show the love of Christ in the world anyway. It was not God’s plan to shut women up; He called and gifted many for ministry to countless thousands and they served wherever Christ called them in spite of the patriarchal system.

While Christianity was spreading from 313 to around 500 AD, cities began to grow and prosper. Scholarship, commerce, and religion, began to increase and many people including women had more access to education. As the gospel of peace was preached in Europe life improved for many people. Christians took care of the poor and homeless.

Things were looking up for European civilization but then during the 5th and 6th centuries, hordes of barbarians began to pour into Italy and spread through much of Europe.  Learning, scholarship, and culture practically disappeared from the European continent.[4]Thankfully, Christianity, including the influence of women, prevented total degradation. Over several centuries Christianity made many converts and overcame the idolatry of the barbarians. Women took comfort in the gospel and the fellowship of other female believers. Because of their virtuous lives, Christianity flourished in an otherwise barbaric culture.

Life for women in Medieval times had its ups and downs. Freedom had been high for women as Christianity advanced in the 4th and early 5th centuries. Then, as already mentioned, the status of women was lowered when the church and state united and men set up male-only government. Women would not gain influence again until men would go to war leaving the women to manage responsibilities at home. Women would prove how capable they were as they managed families, farms, businesses, and even some governmental positions.

Most of the peasants lived on land owned by the wealthy and worked as serfs. They did not own property and paid rent to the landlord and taxes to the government. The middle class system as we know it would not develop for several hundred years. In the meantime there were only the lords and the laborers. Women shared in the agricultural work with their husbands besides caring for children and taking care of the home.

Many of the stories we have for women in the 5th and 6th centuries deal with the ruling classes. This makes sense since during the barbarous times education went by the wayside and books were being destroyed.  Not much was written down except for important people and we are fortunate to have the few surviving documents that remain. Our stories of some of those important people for this time period will include Clothilda, Queen of the Franks, Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, and Radegund, also a Queen of the Franks and an abbess, as well as Irene, Empress of Athens and others.

We will begin our series on the Early Middle Ages with the stories of 2 famous Patron Saints – Genovefa (Genevieve) of Paris, and Bridget of Ireland. Then we will move on to more stories of Royalty, Abbesses, and Witnesses.

Until next time, you may enjoy reading both of Thomas Cahill’s books!

 

[1]Julia Kavanagh. Women of Christianity, Exemplary for Acts of Piety and Charity(New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1869). 55.

[2]See posts on this blog site from January 22, 2019 through June 4, 2019 for Women in the Patristic Era – 2nd through 5th Centuries.

[3]Thomas Cahill. Mysteries of the Middle Ages and the Beginning of the Modern World(New York, NY: Random House, 2008). 63.

[4]As an aside, in an interesting book by Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, he demonstrates how the Irish saved many copies of the scholarly books that were being destroyed by the barbarians in Continental Europe. With St. Patrick, Irish saints preserved much of the learning of the ages and then with St. Columba went on to spread it to Europe, thus conserving Western Culture.

It is unfortunate that we refer to the period of time from roughly 500 AD to 1500 AD as “The Middle Ages”. The people who lived during those times certainly thought of themselves as modern. Hundreds of years from now perhaps people will refer to us in the 21st century as the “middle ages”. The term is misleading because it implies that ancient history was great and our modern times are great but the thousand years in-between were just an interim or holding pattern.

The fact is the Middle Ages of Europe were a continuation of the Roman and Greek cultures on which they were built. The people living in Europe developed blended cultures that brought new languages including English, changes in government that led to more freedom for the peasants, more stable economies based on better farming methods, mobility for more people, and shifts in population centers. A major contributing factor to this freedom was the rise of the Christian Church. After Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion for the Roman world (around 320 AD), leaders began to organize to administer the new legislation efficiently. Believers, both men and women were able to care for the poor and sick unhindered by Roman persecution.

The women who lived during the Middle Ages carried on the Christian traditions handed down to them by the incredible women of the first few centuries of the Church. For the last several months we have covered stories of women from the Patristic Age (2nd through 5th centuries) – women like Thecla, Blandina, Perpetua, Helena, Monica, Marcella of Rome, Paula, Macrina the Younger, Egeria, Amma Sarah, Melania the Elder, and Empress Pulcheria.

Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great piety, fortitude, and courage and left a rich heritage for the church. Their daughters, granddaughters and many generations of descendants would follow in their footsteps participating in the same kinds of life and work during the Medieval Period making great contributions to the Kingdom of God.

Medieval women did not have to suffer the kind of persecution that the early church believers did since the Roman Government accepted Christianity and even made it the religion of the Empire during the fourth century. While it was a blessing to be able to worship freely, life for women was still complicated at the turn of the sixth century. The status of women suffered a gradual reversal during the Middle Ages. A male controlled ecclesiastical structure blamed women for men’s sins and restricted women from the established church ministries.

As the government in Rome became increasingly Christian, believers took over the civil and social functions. By 500 AD the church had organized itself into a male-dominated institution. Following the governmental structure of the empire, Christians formed provinces and then elected bishops as administrators. All bishops were called “papa”, and the first among the bishops was the bishop in Rome. By the sixth century the Church had completed its institutionalzation with a hierarchy and Gregory the Great (509-604 AD) took the title “Pope”. The Church began the structure which is still with us today of Pope, Archbishops, Bishops, and Priests. In the twelfth century the “Cardinals” were formed as the ecclesiastical leaders of the main areas of the world. The college of cardinals would then elect the pope.

The Institutionalized Church had decided that women had no part in leadership and therefore could not be priests. It is hard to understand how they could say this when the apostle Peter said that all believers, men and women, “are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood” and are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood” (I Peter 2:5, 9). In the book of Revelation we see that all believers “will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6). But male Church leaders had the power, the organization, and the Scriptures were only in Latin which most people couldn’t read, so the men established their new institutionalized organization.

It is a shame that women were set aside because in actual fact, women had more freedom to serve in leadership positions while the church was growing. In contrast to the traditionalists’ belief that women were never allowed to be in leadership positions is the fact that women were ordained as deacons in the early church. When Origen wrote about Phoebe in Paul’s letter to the Romans he understood that she was officially ordained for the ministry of the church. Later John Chrysostom also wrote that women should not be hindered because of their sex since in “Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). During the fourth century, the Apostolic Constitution still recognized female deacons[1]but women began to be gradually pushed out. When the clergy began to impose itself between God and the community, it became a male-only organization. The term ‘deaconess’ was retained to refer to women doing menial tasks, but women were stripped of the clerical office.

As we saw when we studied the lives of women in the Patristic Era, there was a strong movement that considered singleness superior to marriage; virginity and sexual purity were considered the absolute ideal for Christians. Monastic life offered men and women a chance to live this ‘higher’ life. In the early years of the medieval period (5ththrough 8thcenturies) many of the monasteries were ‘double monasteries’ – men and women. Ely Cathedral, dating from the 7thcentury was one such double monastery. “The earliest abbots were all abbesses.”[2]  Such institutions were important centers of education and learning as well as political affairs. In the later Middle Ages, the Church began to control the monasteries. While the monasteries would be subject to the rulings of the Pope, the monks and nuns were considered something above laity, but not part of the hierarchy of the institutionalized Church. Often the men and women in the monasteries were closer to the poor and did the charitable work. Even during this time of increasing misogyny women found leadership positions in the monasteries as abbesses.

         

Case in point– When women were pushed out of one sphere they turned up in another. “It is virtually certain that Oxford developed around a mid-Saxon monastic church (the predecessor of the present Cathedral) at a major crossing over the Thames, and that the first head of the church was a princess named Frideswide.”[3] Frideswide was rich, beautiful and intelligent. As a girl she memorized the entire psalter in six months. Refusing marriage to a nobleman, Frideswide and twelve other women formed a convent. Frideswide served Christ happily in her monastery for the rest of her life. Truly her gifts and abilities would have been wasted if she had been confined to the restrictive form of medieval marriage.

 

 

 

The women of the Middle Ages do not enjoy a wide recognition in the Church any more than the women of the Patristic era. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of women who served in God’s Kingdom in Medieval times. Over the next few months, we will cover the stories of only a few. Our stories will go in somewhat of a chronological order from around 500 AD to 1500 AD. While women were not allowed to be priests in the institutionalized Church, they would hold many leadership positions in the monasteries, convents, and other Christian groups such as the faithful Beguines. Some might argue that remaining outside of the hierarchy of the institutional Church enabled women to have far greater ministry to the poor, neglected, and downtrodden people. Like their female forebears these women contributed greatly to the Kingdom of God, not so they could be remembered, but so they could serve the Lord Jesus by serving others.

Many thousands that we will meet in Heaven will be grateful for their faithfulness.

 

 

 

[1]The pertinent portion from Apostolic Constitutions 8.3 reads:

Concerning the Deaconess— The Constitution of Bartholomew.
XIX. Concerning a deaconess, I Bartholomew make this constitution: O bishop, you shall lay your hands upon her in the presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and deaconesses, and shall say:—
The Form of Prayer for the Ordination of a Deaconess.
XX . O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman, who replenished with the Spirit Miriam, and Deborah, and Anna, and Huldah; who did not disdain that Your only begotten Son should be born of a woman; who also in the tabernacle of the testimony, and in the temple, ordained women to be keepers of Your holy gates—do Thou now also look down upon this Your servant, who is to be ordained to the office of a deaconess, and grant her Your Holy Spirit.

[2]David Noble, A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science(New York, MY: Alfred A Knoff, 1992), 3-4.

[3]John Blair, Saint Frideswide: Patron of Oxford. (Oxford, United Kingdom: Perpetua Press, 2004), 1.

Christian Women in the Early Church

For the last few months I have posted stories on significant women from the Patristic age. The lives of many thousands of people were touched as these women followed their call from God to a life of service in His Kingdom.

Due to space, the blog posts barely cover short stories of their lives. I tried to include some background in the posts, but much more has been written about life for women during the first 5 centuries after Christ. Here are 4 of the books that I relied heavily on. They do a very thorough job of recounting the stories of early Church women, their culture, and their legacies. They are both informative and exciting to read and I highly recommend them as a truly enjoyable way to learn history!

 

— Cohick, Lynn H. and Hughes, Amy Brown.  Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

 

This scholarly work contains the stories of women in the early Church. The book also demonstrates how the Church was helped in its formation by women. Women did more than share the good news of salvation in Christ. They helped shape theology and culture.

The authors, Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes bring the far distant past to life for us with their extremely engaging writing. I can’t put it any better than Scot McKnight in his credit for the book, “I constantly encourage students and pastors to tell more stories about women in the early church from the pulpit, in classes, and in casual conversations. … Christian Women in the Patristic World… is a book for every pastor’s and teachers’ bookshelf because it not only tells stories about women but also shows how the early church, which has often been maligned for its reputation when it comes to women, was more formed by women than many know.”

 

 

Cooper, Kate. Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women(New York, NY: The Overlook Press, 2013).

 

Kate Cooper’s book gives us a picture of women in the early Church. She focuses on the stories of the individual women by putting them in their cultural context. Her chapters are somewhat divided according to the purpose and path of each woman’s life rather than a chronological order. She begins with women named in the Bible in the first century. A pivotal character is Thecla who was a disciple of the apostle Paul. Though not named in the Bible, Thecla’s story is widely known and she became an example of the early Christian life of ascetism, piety, evangelism, and pilgrimage.

Other topics include martyrs, mothers, pilgrims, desert mothers, scholars, and empresses. If you followed my series on women in the Patristic era (Posts February through May, 2019) these categories will look familiar. Kate Cooper’s book is a joy to read. She connects all of these women to the overall culture and to each other. If you want to know more about history this is a really enjoyable way to learn it.

 

 

Deen, EdithGreat Women of the Christian Faith, (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour and Company, Inc., 1959).

 

In this book on great Christian women in history, you will encounter the stories of 45 spiritual leaders and 76 other women from around the world. The stories include women from many denominations. Theological controversies are put aside. The important thing about each woman is that she loves Jesus and that her life shows how she served God faithfully.

You will be inspired as you read the stories of martyrs, mothers, wives, and even political leaders. The stories span the last twenty centuries (at least up until the writing of the book in 1959).

Of special interest for this review is the fact that Edith Deen relates the stories many women from the Patristic Era (2nd through 5th centuries) including some who were not covered in the blog posts. Edith Deen had a great gift as a storyteller and I think you will find it to be a great book to share with your daughters and other Christian women who are interested in stories of past female saints.

 

 – Kavanagh, JuliaWomen of Christianity, Exemplary for Acts of Piety and Charity, (My copy is a public domain reprint. Originally published by D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1869).

 

Don’t let the nineteenth century English deter you. The book is so full of stories of women that you have never heard of and is so fascinating that you will be delighted to wade through it.

The author explains that it would have taken her many years to cover all of the great and pious women in history; the present book is only the beginning. (There are hundreds of women included.) Of course, it only goes through 1869, but we have many modern good books to fill in since then. (Such as the other 3 books reviewed above.)

Obviously Julia Kavanagh had to condense a lot of stories, but I hope that it will encourage the reader to get larger biographies of these women; many are easy to find on Amazon.com or at other booksellers.

Her criteria for the women she chose from history included those women who, “inherited this spirit (the spirit of Christ), who have filled their lives with acts of self-denial, who like their great Master, have gone about doing good.” All of the women in the “Women of the Patristic Era” blog series fit this description.

 

 

Millions of lives have been touched by women who persevered in their calling from God to serve in His Kingdom in spite of the many uphill battles they had to fight. Women have made important contributions to the Kingdom of God while all through history they have faced cultural, theological, political, and ideological obstacles in the world and in the Church.

For the last few weeks we have concentrated on women who served Christ during the Patristic era. Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great scholarly achievement, piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 with “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus – Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

We then recounted the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. Besides martyrs, and mothers, there were many female disciples of Christ, such as Marcella of Rome. Then we related the stories of two educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age – Paula and Macrina the Younger. Next, we looked at Pilgrimageas a Christian activity as modeled in the life of Egeria.

In our last post, we focused on the stories of the Desert Mothers. While early Desert Mothers went on pilgrimages to escape the persecution in Rome (30 to 311 AD), later women including Melania the Elder and Amma Sarah followed in their footsteps voluntarily for a life of prayer, celibacy, and ascetism.

We will conclude our study of women in the Patristic era with the story of an empress. Empress Pulcheria also known as Saint Aelia, served the Savior in the highest position in an empire. This godly woman led the Byzantine/Roman Empire with wisdom and compassion. It was said of her reign that it was the most stable in Roman memory. Truly God uses women even in the highest places of authority.

 Pulcheria (January 19, 399 -ca. August 453)

For then, in the Great Hall of Cair Paravel… in the presence of all their friends and to the sound of trumpets, Aslan solemnly crowned them and led them to the four thrones amid deafening shouts of, “Long Live King Peter! Long Live Queen Susan! Long Live King Edmund! Long Live Queen Lucy!” “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen. Bear it well, Sons of Adam! Bear it well, Daughters of Eve! said Aslan.[1]

Most people live pretty mundane lives going about their day to day tasks, without ever thinking that realistically they will ever be the president of the United States or a famous movie star or sports hero. Yet, there is something in us that loves to hear the stories of the rich, famous, and powerful. Maybe we cannot identify with their position, but we can be encouraged to be the best we can be in whatever place God has for us.

Pulcheria, empress of the Byzantine Empire in the early fifth century is a woman whose story still enthralls all those who read about her. She was loved and respected as the most powerful woman in the world. This amazing woman reigned for forty-five years with wisdom and compassion. A devout Christian, Pulcheria not only ruled during some epic times in Rome but modeled the piety and chastity that was typical of religion during the Patristic era.

Pulcheria was born to Emperor Arcadius and Empress Eudoxia in 399 AD. She was only nine years old when her father died in 408 AD. Her younger brother, Theodosius II became emperor at age seven. Pulcheria took over her brother’s education even though she was only two years older. She was obviously a very strong young woman and her brother welcomed her rule by his side which continued until his death in 450 AD. Their reign is considered by historians to have been one of the most stable that the Empire had ever known.

When Pulcheria was fifteen years old she was proclaimed “Augusta” (Empress) by the Senate of Rome. By this time she had already demonstrated great leadership ability. Pulcheria was able to stay in power by maintaining control over the men who surrounded her brother. She had learned, from her mother Empress Eudoxia by all accounts, how to play the court leaders off against each other. She also avoided their attempts at sidelining her by arranging a marriage for her. She remained single and at her brother Theodosius’s side as his most trusted relative.

Theodosius needed Pulcheria. He was a kind and good natured boy, but he was weak and self-indulgent. Some historians say that he did not appear to have ever accomplished a single political act under his own initiative. Fortunately he knew that he could leave the affairs of state to his brilliant sister. Later when he died leaving no heir a civil war was prevented because Pulcheria was so able and willing to remain on the throne.

Instead of listening to the court advisors, Pulcheria and Theodosius turned to the Church for support. Monks, clergy and commoners loved these rulers because Pulcheria founded many churches and monasteries, as well as hostels for the poor and homeless. Pulcheria won the love of the faithful when she led the royal court in acts of piety, charity, fasting, and prayer. She gave away the money to beggars that would have otherwise been used on luxurious clothing or frivolous entertainment.

There were some significant events in the Church during the reign of Pulcheria. Several heresies arose and were debated. The Third Ecumenical Council was held at Ephesus in 431 AD to deal with the heresy of Nestorius. The Council of Chalcedon (451) was convened to deal the heresies of Dioscorus and Eutychius. Pulcheria defended the Orthodox position. She maintained a friendship with Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (r. 412 -444) who was the bishop of the Christian Church in Africa and one of the great theologians of the time. Pulcheria was well educated and able to judge in theological matters.

Several times Pulcheria retired to a monastery for a contemplative life. When Theodosius married, his new wife tried to take over as the controlling influence in his life. Pulcheria wisely bowed out rather than cause conflict. Several years later she was called back by her brother when things deteriorated in the Empire without her wise rule. She ruled with Theodosius until his death in 450 AD.

After the death of Theodosius a senator named Marcion was chosen as the next emperor. The court entreated Pulcheria to remain on the throne. She could only do this by marrying Marcion which she was reluctant to do because of her vow of virginity. However, Marcion honored Pulcheria’s vow of chastity and the two were married but lived together as brother and sister. As co-rulers they continued to build the Empire. They defeated Attila the Hun when he laid siege to Rome in 452.

Not long afterward Pulcheria died (453). She had led a full and rewarding life. In her will she left all of her wealth to the poor and Marcion honored her by carrying it out.  Pulcheria was the most powerful woman of her century and one of the most important people even among men. She has been canonized as a saint; her feast days are February 17 and August 7.

Pulcheria is remembered for guiding the Empire during the times of stress and peril. A grateful populace held her in high esteem for her acts of charity. Church leaders respected her for her orthodox stance on theological issues. Pulcheria’s life of wisdom, charity, and faithfulness are proof that God does indeed call and gift women for service even in leadership positions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe(New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978). p. 181,182.

Half of the “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is female. Male-authored church history books have often left women out because they believe that women’s stories are irrelevant. This is especially noticeable for early Christian women. The fact is that women helped to build the Church, especially in the early years before the Church became institutionalized. When the Church organized herself she established a male-only priesthood despite the fact that all believers, male and female are priests (I Peter 2:9).

Women have made important contributions to history. On this blog we have posted nearly 300 stories of women. For the last few weeks we have concentrated on women who served Christ during the Patristic era. Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great scholarly achievement, piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 with “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus – Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

We then recounted the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. Besides martyrs, and mothers, there were many female disciples of Christ, such as Marcella of Rome. Then we related the stories of two educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age – Paula and Macrina the Younger.

Last week we looked at Pilgrimageas a Christian activity as modeled in the life of Egeria.

This week we will focus on the stories of the Desert Mothers. While early Desert Mothers went on pilgrimages to escape the persecution in Rome (30 to 311 AD), later women including Melania the Elder and Amma Sarah followed in their footsteps voluntarily for a life of prayer, celibacy, and ascetism.

There were dangers involved in traveling and living in a harsh desert, but the hardships actually served to test the women’s determination and commitment to Christ. The solitude was essential for meditation. In small communities of like-minded ascetics, Christians could support each other and encourage each other in the faith. This was essential especially in the days of persecution.

 

Melania the Elder (c. 350 to either 410 or 417)

Melania the Elder was born in Spain around 350 AD. She was born into a wealthy, noble family. When she turned fourteen Melania married and she and her husband moved into the suburbs of Rome as members of the highest echelon of the Roman aristocracy. Melania excelled in scholarship, rivalling Paula (see post April 2, 2019), Jerome, and Marcella in her biblical and theological knowledge.

Melania remained in Spain until her husband died eight years after their marriage,  becoming a widow at the age of 22. Two of her children also died. Following this tragedy she converted to Christianity. When her remaining son turned ten she found a family to take care of him and she set off for Alexandria. She would eventually be reunited with her son in Jerusalem many years later after he had married. His daughter, her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, came to Christ and followed in her grandmother’s footsteps.

Melania and some other Christians traveled to visit the monks at Nitria. She gave much of her wealth to the needy Christians in Egypt who were being persecuted by the Arians following the death of the orthodox champion Athanasius in 373 AD. It is said that nearly 5000 people were fed with the blessing of her gift. Some of those persecuted Christians fled to Jerusalem. Melania traveled there and founded a convent for virgins on the Mount of Olives. Nearly fifty young women found salvation in Christ through her ministry.

Melania went on to found more monasteries. She was put in prison for a time by the governor, but he had to release her when he found out that she was in the aristocracy. Eventually she entered a convent.

The Visigoths invaded Rome in 410 AD. (Some believe that Melania might have died in a Visigoth raid in 410 AD). Others believe that Melania, her daughter-in-law Albina, and her granddaughter Melania fled to Sicily. From Sicily they traveled to North Africa where they stayed for seven years. Then they returned to Jerusalem where Melania died around 417 SD.

Melania was a source of inspiration for many Christians. Believers followed her example in founding monasteries and other Christian communities. She is remembered as a pious saint, following in Christ’s footsteps, identifying with His poverty and compassion for others.

Amma Sarah (4th Century)

Little is known about some Desert Mothers except through the few accounts that have been preserved. There are three – Amma (Mother) Sarah, Amma Theodora, and Amma Syncletica – who stand out as women who were humble, insightful, and wise. Syncletica and Theodora became known as wise teachers. Amma Sarah especially engaged her wit and wisdom in dealing with the everyday life of Christians.

One problem that the female ascetics had that the men didn’t have was the reaction of the monks towards the women. Men expected the women to do things for them that the men would never do for the women. This inequality bothered Sarah, but it was more important to her to be Christlike and that meant being humble and showing a servant’s heart, even if the men did not.

Sarah desired to move beyond the gender issues and make every effort to show that serving Christ is what mattered. She still had to deal with the imbalance in power in that patriarchal society and so she responded to their discrimination in wise ways. Here is a story attributed to her:

On Male Injustice– “Another time, two old men, great anchorites, came to the district of Pelusium to visit her. When they arrived one said to the other, ‘Let us humiliate this old woman.’

So they said to her, ‘Be careful not to become conceited thinking of yourself: “Look how anchorites are coming to see me, a mere woman.”‘

But Amma Sarah said to them, ‘According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.'”

Of course this last saying follows what the apostle Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). As children of God, every Christian, male and female, reads the Bible, studies, prays, and does works of charity. There is no gender in these inner characteristics of the heart and mind.

What few writings we have of Sarah are enough to show a woman of faith, devotion, and wisdom. She spoke on the Christian life:

On Charity– “It is good for us to do charity, even if to have the glory of men. For if, in the beginning, our charity rises from the desire to please men, there will afterwards come that moment when it will become true charity, since it will be pleasing to God.”

On the Spiritual Life– “I put out my foot to ascend the ladder, and I place death before my eyes before going up it.” Here Sarah recognizes that on the spiritual ladder of life, one needs to “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). This requires a keen sense of one’s own sinfulness and the need to constantly pray, seek forgiveness, and present “your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:13).

This is what the Desert Mothers sought to do. They believed that a life of celibacy, ascetism, contemplation, and charitable works was a way of pleasing God. They desired to be like Christ Who had “nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). Christ did not marry and have children. Christ went about preaching and healing. Christ spent much time in prayer. All of these ways of emulating the Lord Jesus are open to women equally with men.

Women in the Patristic world left a great legacy. In our next post we will see that women were great leaders as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stories of women have been erased in much of church history. It is not because there have been fewer women in history. Half of the population is female. Male-authored church history books have left women out because patriarchal men believe that women’s stories are irrelevant.

Women have made important contributions to history. On this blog we have posted nearly 300 stories of women. For the last few weeks we have concentrated on women who served Christ during the Patristic era. Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Scholars, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They achieved great things while maintaining lives of piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla’s life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries, including Egeria the famous fourth century pilgrim in this post.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus – Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

We then recounted the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. Besides martyrs, and mothers, there were many female Disciples of Christ, such as Marcella of Rome. In our last post we told the stories of two educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age – Paula and Macrina the Younger.

This week we will look at Pilgrimage as a Christian activity as seen in the life of Egeria. Many men and women would follow in her footsteps as they sought the blessings that came with visiting Christians in other lands.

 

Egeria (Fourth Century)

 

Egeria and other pilgrims were influenced by Thecla (See post 2/5/19). They admired Thecla very much and sought to imitate her life. Many men and women chose celibacy as Thecla did so that they could serve Christ with their whole lives (I Corinthians 7:32-35). Many believers also desired to travel to the Holy Land. The difference between Thecla and pilgrims like Egeria, was that Thecla was an itinerant preacher. The pilgrims also wanted to travel to the Holy Land, but their emphasis was on visiting the shrines of people like Thecla. By the late fourth or early fifth centuries they also wanted to visit monasteries and cathedrals and be with other monks and nuns for spiritual edification. They believed that a special blessing came from the places where saints or martyrs lived and/or died. By this time there was also a growing fascination for relics.  Going on a pilgrimage and bringing back a relic gave the believer who went on the pilgrimage some special status.

We are especially grateful that Egeria wrote a firsthand account of her pilgrimage in a journal. Her manuscript had been copied and widely circulated by other religious pilgrims during the Patristic age but was then put aside for centuries, forgotten until discovered by an Italian scholar in the late 1800’s. Historians recognized its value and this marvelous account of fourth century Christian life is now available.[1]

To go on a three to four-year journey as Egeria did would have required some financial availability. It is believed that Egeria came from a merchant family. This seems probable because not only would funds have been available, but she would have a network of people across Europe and the Holy Land to help her. While traveling could be risky, it would not have seemed as threatening to Egeria. Many other people were going on pilgrimages. Some had left earlier because Christians were fleeing persecution in Rome. When Constantine ended the persecutions, believers took advantage of the freedom as well as the fine Roman roads and traveled to the Biblical sites.

Egeria’s journey was probably taken around 380 AD. We are not sure why Egeria went on the Pilgrimage since the first part of her diary is lost. Was she traveling on a combined business/spiritual journey? We’ll have to wait until we get to heaven and ask her.

Egeria’s account is in two parts. Part one is the description of the places and people she visited. In Part two Egeria writes about her stay in Jerusalem for a year. The diary tells of the liturgy and practices in the churches. Among others, Egeria visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulchre, and the Mount of Olives.

Egeria wrote this account for her “sisters”. It is unclear if the women were her biological sisters, spiritual sisters, or nuns. The term “sisters” was already in use for Christian women who were close companions. In any event, Egeria wanted her “sisters” who couldn’t also travel to share in the excitement and beauty of the places that she visited.

Thanks to the details in her work we know a lot about the development of monasteries during that time. We also get a picture of the growing veneration of the saints. Egeria describes the churches she visited and the rituals that were performed there. She said, “Whenever we were empowered to reach our destination, it was always our custom first to say a prayer, then to read a passage from the Bible, sing a Psalm fitting the occasion, and finally say a second prayer.”[2]

Egeria’s journey was typical of the fourth century pilgrims. She visited Old Testament and New Testament sites. One such site was Clysma, where it is thought that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea in the exodus. From there she would have gone to Mount Sinai. She was especially enthralled with the place where Moses prayed, prophesied and died.

The highlight for most travelers was Jerusalem. Egeria went there but she also went to other places such as Mount Nebo and Job’s tomb. In the company of several holy men Egeria went to Arabia.

During her journey Egeria wanted to stand in the places where God’s saints had stood. She sought out the places where Melchizedek lived, the cave of the prophet Elijah, the abode of Jephthah, and the place where Elijah stayed during the famine when he received food from a crow and water from a stream. Egeria sought to combine the special feeling of “being there” with a chance to go deeper into the stories of the Bible. She related the connection between the places that she visited and their significance in the Bible for her readers in her journal.

In her writings she emphasized the lives of the holy men and women at the various sites. Pilgrims were common in her day and Egeria enjoyed fellowship with many during her travels. There were so many pilgrims that Christian networks were developing. At St. Thecla’s shrine Egeria enjoyed meeting up with a deaconess named Marthana, whom she had met earlier in Jerusalem. Pilgrims were invited to worship in Thecla’s church, and to read the Acts of Thecla out loud together. This gave the Christians a bond. They could share Scripture, prayer and stories of their journeys.

Egeria’s diary is important for church history. Egeria was the first to develop a style of writing for pilgrims that would influence scholars into the medieval period and beyond. Her diary is a primary source for Christian life in the fourth century. The fact that Egeria’s “sisters” were eager to read her story and learn about the Bible, geography, and culture from her writings demonstrates clearly that women were educated in the fourth century. We have seen in our story about Paula that women formed study circles as did the men. (See post on Patristic Women Scholars, April 2, 2019).

Clearly in the Early Church period, Christian history was being made by women like Egeria. Thankfully, more and more manuscripts are being discovered each year containing the writings of these called and gifted servants of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]You can read a translation of Egeria’s Travels at: http://www.ccel.org/m/mcclure/etheria/etheria.htm

[2]In a translation by  George E. Gingras. Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage. ACW 38. New York: Newman, 1970. page 66.

 

The stories of women from the Patristic Age need to be told because women in all ages need to see that God has called and gifted them for service in His kingdom. Most people are only aware of the female martyrs that were thrown to the lions or beheaded, but the early Christian women encompassed all walks of life.

Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. And though left out of most church history books, women were influential as colleagues of monks and male leaders in the early church. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great scholarly achievement, piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus. There were many men and women who suffered persecution and death, but 2 whose stories have come down to us thanks to the preservation of early manuscripts are Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

We then continued with the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. We could also tell the stories of godly grandmothers such as Macrina the Elder, grandmother of Macrina the Younger who features in this post. Besides martyrs, mothers and grandmothers there were many female disciples of Christ. In our post last time we look at the life of Marcella of Rome.

It may come as a surprise to many, but there were many educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age. Among the more famous were Paula and Macrina the Younger.

 

Paula (May 5, 347 – January 26, 404)

 

In most history textbooks today the name Jerome is very prominent. His translation of the Bible into Latin is admired and his theology provides endless hours of study for Christian scholars. What has been ignored until recently is the fact that Jerome himself gave much credit to female scholars who helped him in his work. In our last post we saw that Marcella is remembered as a disciple of the famous bishop, Jerome. He admired her very much, but another Christian friend, Paula, was very special to Jerome as a source of help and inspiration.

Paula became Jerome’s closest companion while he was in Rome. The two maintained their friendship until Paula’s death in 404. After her death Jerome wrote in a letter to Paula’s daughter, Eustochium (pious scholar and disciple in her own right):

If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.

Paula was born on Mary 5, 347 in Rome. She was a member of a privileged, wealthy family. She married Julius Toxotius and had four daughters, Blaesilla, Pauline, Julia Eustochium, and Rufina, and a son, Toxotius. After her husband died, Paul committed to a life of celibacy, voluntary poverty, and good works. Jerome became Paula’s spiritual director during her new life of ascetism. She followed him to the Holy Land in 385. She landed first at Cyprus where they distributed alms to the local monasteries. From there they went to Antioch and eventually to Jerusalem. She stayed at the monastery run by Melania the Elder (look for a post in a few weeks on this “Desert Mother”) and then Paula went on an extensive pilgrimage enjoying visiting the many sites that were named in the Bible, from the Old and New Testaments.

Paula founded several monastic establishments where women could spend a life of devotion, chastity, and charity. This monastic life demonstrated Paula’s change from her aristocratic life filled with worldliness to a life of asceticism focused on heavenly things.

Paula was exemplary in her memorization of the Scriptures and Bible study. She was fluent in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Not only could Paula read the Bible in its original languages, but her exegetical skills placed her in a class of top biblical scholars. Jerome records that her life was always filled with quotations from the Bible even up until her death on January 26, 404 at the age of fifty-six. Paula died peacefully and was buried near a favorite pilgrimage tour. Her tomb became a popular site for pilgrims.

 

Macrina the Younger, also known as “The Teacher” (330 – 379 AD)

There are very few church history books that talk about the lives of the female saints. One might almost get the idea that women didn’t do anything but hide out in their houses and cook and clean. But you really don’t have to look very hard to find the stories of women who did much more than that. Just as Jerome praised Paula for her erudition and piety, the famous Saint Gregory published the story of his remarkable sister, Macrina so that she would be remembered for her piety and love of Christ and the Bible. And just like Paula, Macrina used her gift of godly intelligence to influence men who would influence the church to this day.

Macrina was born around 330 AD and lived to July 19, 379 AD. She is often called Macrina the Younger because her grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder was also renowned for her piety and courage. Grandmother Macrina and her husband lived during the time of one of the worst persecutions of the Christians. In 311 AD, they lost all of their estates by confiscation. They hid in the woods of Pontus for seven years. They had a son, St. Basil, who had ten children, the oldest of these being the Macrina of our story.

Macrina helped to raise her younger siblings. Three of these were three men who are renowned through the centuries –  Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste, all celebrated for their learning and all died as bishops of the Church. All owed much to their sister.

Macrina was taught the Scriptures as a child and loved them. She had an intelligent mind and she contemplated spiritual things all of her life. She desired to follow Christ only. She was given the opportunity to lead a pious and retired life after the deaths of both her father and the man she was betrothed to. She took her betrothal seriously, and did not wish to find another husband. She was a beautiful young woman and had many offers, but she declined them all. At this point she was more than content to see her situation as God’s will and decided to follow a different path.

She talked her mother Emmelia into helping her found two monasteries – one for men, the other for women. These were built on their own estate near Ibora in Pontus. The beautiful river Iris flowed between these homes, and the monasteries were surrounded by lovely plains, valleys, and hills. This was a perfect place for a life of solitude and prayer.

 

During this time Macrina had much influence on her brothers. Her brother Basil had studied abroad for many years and came home with his head all swelled up with his own wisdom. Macrina told him bluntly that he had become vain and would do well to learn from humbler Christian men. At this point Basil ignored her.
Later though, the unexpected death of their brother, Naucratius, shook Basil to his core. He and Naucratius had been very close. This event caused Basil to do some soul searching. He not only resigned his prestigious teaching position, but he asked Macrina to teach him the secrets of religious life.
Basil followed Macrina’s advice and left for Egypt to learn more about the monastic life. He eventually became famous as the great teacher of monasticism in the Greek Chur

After her mother Emmelia died, Macrina sold off the rest of the estate and used the money to help the poor. She lived by the labor of her own hands. Some of the women who came to join her were freed slaves. Together they served the Lord with one mind, sharing all things. They prayed, ate, fasted, and worked together. This monastery would become a model for later ones.

Some years later, Basil became the bishop of Caesarea. Their brother Gregory, whom Macrina had also persuaded to abandon selfish pursuits in order to follow Christ, had become bishop of Nyssa. Their brother Peter became bishop of Sebaste. Basil, worn out in his fight against the heresy of Arianism and partly because of his own ascetism, died before the age of fifty and Macrina could not restrain her grief. Her brother Gregory visited her. They were saddened by their loss, but mourned more for the loss of a great man in the Church. They had some consolation in their belief in the immortality of the soul and knew they would see him again.

Nine months later Gregory decided to visit Macrina during one of his travels. Her fame had become so great that she was now known as “The Teacher”. He was saddened to find that she was so sick that she could barely sit up. She was in pain and it was evident that she was near death. In spite of this, she tried to cheer him up. They spent what few hours they had rejoicing in their faith and the hope of the resurrection.

Later after her death, Gregory wrote a story about this visit, On the Soul and the Resurrection; the main arguments of the discourse being attributed to Macrina. Her arguments were so skillfully presented that she even impressed convinced skeptics. She spoke of God’s love, providence, man’s purpose in this world, and the believer’s eventual departure to glory.

Gregory opened the work with, “Basil, great among the saints, had departed from this life and gone to God, and all the churches mourned his death. But his sister the Teacher still lived and therefore I visited her.” Gregory gave her high praise. He recorded her philosophical discourse so that others could benefit from her wisdom.

Macrina died in great peace. Gregory buried her in the grave of their parents in the family chapel in Annesi. She had lived such a selfless life of poverty that she had no burial clothes. Gregory used his own bishop’s cloak to cover her as her body was carried to the grave.
Besides the discourse on resurrection referred to above, Gregory also published a work entitled, Life of Macrina, in which he tells of her pious life.

What can we learn from the lives of Paul and Macrina? it is important for women to follow their callings even into areas that some say are only for men. Women are equally intelligent and gifted and we can be thankful for their example as so many unselfishly chose to follow Christ.