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Archive for June, 2019

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.

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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.

 

 

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