Posts Tagged ‘Christians in the Middle Ages’

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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