Types Of Holy Women In The Fifth And Sixth Centuries


In Confessio, chapter 42, after relating the tribulations of virgins, Patrick adds: nihilominus plus augetur numerus . . . praeter viduas et continentes. Women at various stages of life, he informs us, were undertaking religious professions of virginity, widowhood, and continence within marriage. By expressing it in this way, Patrick was betraying his familiarity with a standard late antique schema of human classification called the 'threefold scale of perfection'. The 'scale of

52 Whereas in Spain and Gaul the restrictions in the legislation are numerous, and the absence of them in Ireland, I would argue, is significant, in light of the other, positive, indications in the extant sources.

53 Ch. I of the 7th-cent. Additamenta to Tirechân mentions two British Christian women, mothers of missionaries, who travel in Ireland; however, they are not described as missionaries themselves (Bieler, Patrician Texts, 122—80).

54 These include Cogitosus' Life of Brigit, the Memoirs of Tirechân, and an anonymous Life of Brigit, often called the Vita I.

perfection' had its origins in gnosticism but became widespread in late antique intellectual circles of all religious and philosophical persuasions. Essentially it said that there were three grades of spirituality, and each grade was defined 'by the degree of asexuality it demonstrated'.55 There were a few variations on the specific membership of the grades, but the essential feature of the top grade was that it consisted of those who were furthest removed from attachment to the world and sexuality. The lowest grade consisted of those closest to, or still engaged in, a sexual life; the middle grade was made up of those in some intermediate state, usually those who had been sexually active but had given it up.56 Christian thinkers very early on adopted the system as a way of describing the three levels of status available to Christian believers. This they did by bolting it on to Jesus's parable of the sower. In the parable, as it appears in Matthew 13: 18-23 and Mark 4: 3-9, the word of God was seed which fell (respectively) upon hard, thorny, and good earth. Christian converts were all 'good earth' because they accepted the seed (the Word) and nourished it within themselves; but their fruitfulness varied, for some brought forth more, and some less, fruit.57

In late antiquity the scale was a 'mainstay of Christian thought on sexual questions'.58 In the second century Tertullian and Irenaeus had launched the typology by dividing mankind into three categories, 'spirituals', 'psychics', and 'materials'.59 Cyprian, interpreting the seed parable in the third century, asserted that the hundredfold were martyrs, and the sixtyfold virgins.60 Thus the three levels of parabled fertility were joined onto the three levels of sexual renunciation among Christians: virgins, widows, and the married. Jerome wrote at length on these three types in his AdversusIovinianum, the purpose of which was to defend the principle that virgins, widows, and the married were ranked in holiness, refuting Jovinian who had dared to suggest they might all be equal in the eyes of the Lord. He also employed it in Commentarium in Mattheum and in his Epistola 22.61 Augustine, too, used and defended the hierarchy.62 For the Fathers, and indeed for most of Western Europe, it was a device by which authors discussed the nature of virginity, and female virginity in particular. This

55 Bugge, Virginitas, 67. 56 Ibid.

57 'But he that received the seed upon good ground is he that heareth the word and understandeth and beareth fruit and yieldeth the one and hundredfold, and another sixty, and another thirty' (Matt. 13: 32); 'and some [seed] fell upon good ground and brought forth fruit that grew up and increased and yielded, one thirty, another sixty, and another a hundred . . . And these are they who are sown upon the good ground: they who hear the word and receive it and yield fruit, the one thirty, another sixty, and another a hundred' (Mark 4: 9, 20).

58 On the threefold schema see M. Bernhards, Speculum virginum: Geistigkeit und Seelenleben der Frau im Hochmittelalter (Cologne, 1955).

59 Irenaeus, Adversus haereses bk. I, ch. 7 (PG7. 517—20). Tertullian, Adversus Valentianos, chs. 17—18.

60 Cyprian, De habitu virginum, written c.AD 249, ch. 21.

61 Adversus Iovinianum, bk. 1, ch. 3. Jerome also uses it in Commentarium in Mattheum, bk. 2, on Matt. 13: 5—8, and throughout Ep. 22.

62 Augustine's three tracts, De sancta virginitate, De bono viduitatis, and De bono coniugali are framed on the schema, and aimed to rebut Jovinian. For use of the parable, see De sancta virginitate, ch. 46, and De bono coniugali, ch. 8.

was its most common use, though it was on occasion used by writers wishing to stress that even the married are acceptable in God's eyes, in spite of their lack of sexual renunciation.63 Only in one type of situation were the attributions altered: in times of persecution. In such periods Christian writers placed martyrs among the hundredfold.64 As the world of late antiquity gave way to that of the early middle ages, the schema remained useful and was widely employed, both in Ireland and in other parts of the West, in its 'normal' form, in which the virgins are the hundredfold, widows the sixtyfold, and the married the thirtyfold. It received its widest circulation, probably, in Jerome's famous Epistola 22 to Eustochium on female holy life, where he speaks of virgins having the 'crown' and widows having the 'second degree of chastity'.65 Patrick, then, knew it and used it, which informs us that he was familiar with patristic ideas on the 'correct' relationship between sexual activity and spiritual ranking, and that his high valuation of chastity was framed by Western ecclesiastical thinking. We might add that it survived in use in Ireland long after Patrick. The sixth-century Penitential of Finnian says of married people:

Si cum bonis operibus expleant matrimonium, id est cum elimosinis et mandatis Dei im-plendis et vitiis expellendis, et in futuro cum Christo regnabunt cum sanctum Abraham et Isaac et Iacob Iob Noe omnibus sanctis, et tunc accipiant xxxm fructum quem Salva-tor in evangelio enumerans et coniugiis deputauit.66

If with good works they fulfil matrimony, that is, with alms and by fulfilling the commands of God and expelling their faults, and in the life to come they shall reign with Christ, with holy Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job, Noah, all the saints; they shall receive the thirtyfold fruit which the saviour in the Gospel, in his account, has set aside for married people.

In the seventh century the 'threefold scale' continued in use. In the Second Synod of Saint Patrick (henceforth Pa2) the chapter entitled De Tribus Seminibus Evangeliorum runs:

Centissime episcopi et doctores, quia omnibus omnia sunt; sexagissimum clerici et viduae qui contenentes sunt; xxxmi layci qui fidelis sunt, qui perfecte Trinitatem cre-dunt. His amplius non est in messe Dei. Monachus vero et virginis cum centissimis iungamus.67

The hundredfold are the bishops and teachers, for they are all things to all men; the sixtyfold are the clergy and the widows who are continent; the thirtyfold are the layfolk who are faithful, who perfectly believe in the Trinity. Beyond these there is nought in the harvest of the Lord. Monks and virgins we may count with the hundredfold.

63 Two good studies of virginitas are Bugge, Virginia, and L. Legrand, The Biblical Doctrine of Virginity (London, 1963).

64 Bugge, Virginias, 67, with patristic references. 65 Jerome, Ep. 130, ch. 15.

66 Penitential of Finnian, ch. 46.

67 Pa2, ch. 18. Note: Bieler inserted et after viduae, to make the line read clerici et viduae <et> qui con tenentes sunt; given that the thirtyfold are mentioned separately immediately after this, and given the patristic basis of the schema, I disagree with his interpolation.

The seventh-century Liber Angeli or 'Book of the Angel' and the eighth-century litany Ateochfrit also contain formulations of the 'threefold scale'.68 Whenever it appears it is a witness to a line of thinking in which the virgin was the equal of the bishop and the monk, was lower than no one, and was higher than everyone else. This principle goes back to Patrick, where it was first expressed on Irish soil, with especial reference to women.

Holy Widows

Patrick proclaimed that among his Christian Irish were widows and continentes, sexually continent Christians. This boast cannot be taken at face value to mean that there were professed Christian widows in his day, as he was employing a rhetorical formula when speaking of them. The early penitentials (Finnian's, Columbanus's, and Cummean's) do not mention holy widows at all. Nor do the canons of Pai or for that matter the later Pa2. The earliest appearance of a holy widow is in the Vita I of Brigit, in which the young saint was said to have been cared for by such a woman, who lived on her own near to Brigit's parents' home. It is clear that vowed widows did exist in Ireland from the seventh century, though there is much about them we cannot know. It is sufficient to simply note here that the very prominent evidence of widows in Gaul and Spain in these early centuries did not translate into an equal prominence in Ireland. Possibly there were holy widows as early as the sixth century, but no textual trace survives; or possibly such widows were included in the legislation under the general heading of virgines (as was the case in a few late antique sources); or there may not yet have been in Ireland any formal status accorded to widows dedicating the remainder of their lives in chastity to Christ.

Married Religious Women

The Irish material gives the impression that married laywomen were not a special category in the minds of the authors. They fell in with the general group, 'married laypeople'. The married Christian was, in the threefold grading system, the Christian who rendered the thirtyfold fruit, and reaped the thirtyfold reward for his or her faith. Doctrine, by the fifth century, affirmed that the sexually active Christian, if lawfully married, was entitled to have sex. Married love (and sex) had been partially redeemed primarily by Augustine. Marriage, though not best, was reinforced as good. This reinforcement was necessary partly because the sex act was viewed with such general distaste by those with an ascetic bent. The writers of the penitentials wrestled with the dilemma posed by

68 'I entreat Thee by all holy virgins . . . I entreat Thee by all penitent widows . . . I entreat Thee by all the folk of lawful marriage . . .' (Ateoch frit hule noeb-inghena ogha . . . Ateoch frit na huile fhedbai aithrigecha . . . Ateoch frit huile lochta in chomamais dligtheig.. .) (C. Plummer (ed. and trans.), Irish Litanies: Text and Translation (Henry Bradshaw Society 62; London, 1925), 30—45).

married people, and their solutions took the form of restrictions on when, how, and how often they could have sex.69

Most of the Christian Irish anti-sex rules for married people centre on those occasions when it was religiously inappropriate: i.e. holy days and religious periods such as Lent. Since sex was considered anti-spiritual in its effect on the human psyche, it was deemed inappropriate, if not ritually unclean, to engage in it at 'holy' times. In addition, a married person's penance for some sins, such as rape, included a prohibition against sexual relations with the spouse.70

In Gaul in particular there was a great enthusiasm for promoting the chaste marriage, to the extent that it became something of a standard formula in hagio-graphic and eulogistic writings. It seems there was no parallel in Ireland. Patrick praised continentes but 'continence' in contemporary Western literature could refer to those who followed a regime of limited sexual activity. Neither Irish canonists and penitential authors, nor seventh-century hagiographers, take up the theme of the married couple who, inspired by God, forsake all sexual activity and live as spiritual brother and sister. In Finnian full marital chastity is put forth as a permanent proposition for couples in only two specific situations. The first was in the case of barrenness:

Si qui<s> habuerit uxorem sterilem non debet demittere uxorem suam propter sterilitatem suam, sed ita debet fieri, ambo manere in continentiam suam, et beati sunt si permanserint casti corpore usquequo iudicaverit Deus illis iudicium verum et iustum.71

If anyone has a barren wife, he shall not turn away his wife because of her barrenness, but this is what shall be done: they shall both dwell in continence, and blessed they are if they persevere in chastity of body until God pronounces a true and just judgement upon them.

The second type of celibate marriage of which Finnian spoke of is clerical marriage, a distinct topic in itself.

Priests' Wives

Patrick and other missionaries worked to increase the number of priests in the Irish countryside, as a clergy was essential to the survival and growth of Christianity. A man, to be eligible for ordination, did not need to be single at this time in the West, and by all accounts most priests were married. In Ireland as elsewhere there is much we cannot know about the wives of priests. Finnian's

69 J. Lynch, Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton, 1986), 267. See also P. Payer, 'Early Medieval Regulations Concerning Marital Sexual Relations', Journal of Medieval History 6 (1980),


70 e.g. Penitential of Finnian, chs. 36, 37.

71 Ibid., ch. 41. Cf. Penitential of Cummean, ch. 2, item 28 (Bieler, IrishPenitentials, 108—35).

44 THE fifth and sixth centuries

Penitential, the earliest Irish witness to the priest's wife, does however indicate that the Irish approach to the wife of the cleric can be placed well within the Western Christian tradition of the day:

Si quis fuerit clericus diaconis uel alicui<us> gradus et laicus ante fuerit <et> cum filiis et filiabus suis et cum clentella habitet et redeat ad carnis desiderium et genuerit filium ex clentella propria sua, ut dicat, sciat se ruina maxima cecidisse et exsurgere debere; non minus peccatum eius est ut esset clericus ex iuventute sua et ita est ut cum puella aliena pecasset, quia post votum suum peccaverunt et postquam consecrati sunt a Deo et tunc votum suum inritum fecerunt. III. annos peniteant cum pane et aqua per mensura et alios .iii. abstineant se a vino et a carne et non peniteant simul sed separantur, et tunc in vii anno iungantur altario et accipiant gradum suum.72

If anyone is a cleric of the rank of deacon or of any rank, and if he formerly was a layman, and if he lives with his sons and daughters and with his mate, and if he returns to carnal desire and begets a son with his own mate, as he might say, let him know that he has fallen to the depths of ruin and ought to rise; his sin is not less than it would be if he were a cleric from childhood or he sinned with a strange girl, since they have sinned after their vow and after they were consecrated to God, and then they have made void their vow. They shall do penance for three years on an allowance of bread and water and shall abstain for three years more from wine and meat, and they shall not do penance together, but separately, and then in the seventh year they shall be joined to the altar and shall receive their rank.

The Irish were typical in giving the wife a special name and status. In Gaul there were women called in canonical legislation presbyterissae and episcopae, and it is generally agreed that the terms refer to the wives of presbyters and bishops respectively.73 Though these terms appear very infrequently indeed, and it is not appropriate to ascribe to these women clerical powers of the presbyterial and episcopal offices, the fact of the special terminology is worth noting. For in Ireland, too, the name of the priest's wife was an issue in this same period. The language which Finnian applies merits note. It is clear that the clentella is the cleric's wife: by eschewing uxor or coniunx the author shows, I believe, that the postordination relationship was not one of normal marriage. But why did the Irish use clentella, which seems to be unique in the West as a term for the priest's wife? Bieler convincingly argued that it is a Latinization of the Old Irish ban-chele, female companion or partner.74 Columbanus adopted Finnian's term, 'correcting' it to clientela, but Gildas and the early Irish canonist of Pai did not, using uxor instead. Kathleen Hughes noted this and used the fact to argue that the canons were, like Gildas's text, earlier than Finnian's Penitential: uxor must be earlier than clentella, she argued, because the former implied to her full marriage where

72 Penitential of Finnian, ch. 27.

73 B. Brennan, ' "Episcopae": Bishops' Wives Viewed in Sixth-Century Gaul', Church History 54

74 Bieler, Irish Penitentials, 243-4.

the latter distinguishes against it. Furthermore, she asserted, ascetic standards rose in the sixth century.75 But an earlier date for the canons is not necessitated by the use of uxor. The canonists, if writing in the seventh century, may simply have been relying on Gildas rather than Finnian and Columbanus for their terminology. Another possibility is that Finnian's term for the cleric's wife was not universally adopted: clerical marriage (with full sexual union) certainly did continue. Yet another possibility is that the Irish canonical writers were following the lead of Gaulish and other Western canons which continued to use uxor for priests' wives (including chaste ones) with no hesitation whatsoever.76 Mairin Ni Dhonnchadha has recently argued this point about clentella in Finnian, drawing on parallels with the Bigotian Penitential:

Christian thinking promoted the idea of equality of both partners in marriage and, more to the point here, in a celibate union. The terms uxor and coniunx would have been inappropriate for a 'former wife' in such a union. Since cele in the sense of 'wife' is not attested in Old Irish, I suggest that cele in the sense of 'fellow, companion' may have funcioned as the source for clientella, diminutive of clienta.11

Turning to the main thrust of Finnian's injunction, the insistence on clerical celibacy fits well into what was happening at the time in Western Christendom generally Though it is absolutely clear that the vast majority ofpriests remained married with children right through the early middle ages, at the time Finnian was writing there was, in Gaul and North Africa, a concern among church authorities to try to promote celibacy for the clergy. The fact that Finnian in Ireland was promoting the same thing suggests he may have been in touch with wider Western authorities and, as an ascetic himself, would certainly have endorsed the campaign.

A brief digression will suffice to illustrate the details of this trend. A vow of chastity for clerics was required for the first time in ad 401 at Carthage. A campaign for clerical celibacy was escalating in the West in the sixth century.78 Gregory of Tours, for example, romantically exalts the chastity of the marriages of the bishop Riticius of Autun and bishop Amator of Auxerre, along with those of other clerics.79 From about 500 it was a standard idea that a man who was already married could become a priest, but not vice versa, although this was not

75 'The early [5th-cent.] Irish church certainly required monogamy from all its clergy, but it may have made no serious attempt to impose complete continence. This was the work of the ascetics of the later sixth century' (Hughes, Church, 52).

76 On different grounds from those treated here, recent scholars have been less convinced of an early 6th-cent. date for the canons, with Richard Sharpe (for example) arguing strongly for a 7th-cent. date.

77 M. Ni Dhonnchadha, ' Caillech and Other Terms for Veiled Women in Medieval Irish Texts', Eigse 28 (1994—5), 71—96, at 87. This article also demonstrates convincingly that caillech was a term used for wives in many contexts in texts across several centuries in early medieval Ireland.

78 Barstow, Married Priests, 27—8.

79 Liber in Gloria Confessorum, chs. 74, 77 (B. Krusch (ed.), MGH, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1, part 2 (Hanover, 1885), 744—820).

universally (or even widely) adhered to.80 The married man could be ordained providing he and his wife agreed to live together chastely.81 In fact, it was forbidden for a cleric to abandon his wife; thus insisted the Apostolic Canons in the fourth century, Leo I in the fifth and Gregory the Great in the sixth. Subsequent canonical collections such as the Dionysio-Hadriana, Hispana, Regino of Prüm, and Burchard of Worms continued along the same line.82 Some councils tried to keep a strong hold on how the couple lived together by stipulating separate bedrooms, or, failing that, separate beds, and sometimes by threatening degradation or deposition if lapses occurred.83 It was not until the eleventh-century reforms that priests were told to send their wives away, and then there was extensive resistance.84

Finnian's passage hints that the vow of the husband's ordination involved both the man and his wife. In his edition, Bieler changed post votum suus to post votum suum on account of the plural verb.85 If he is correct that the original meaning was indeed plural, and I think he is, we can say that in yet another respect Finnian is taking precedents from other areas of the Christian West. In some areas the wife had a part herself in her husband's ordination ceremony: the Council of Orange (ad 441) stipulated that a clerical wife had to take a vow of chastity known as a conversio. The Council of Agde (ad 506) stressed the mutuality of marriage and required the wife's consent, insisting that the ordination could take place only if both had been equally changed (pariter conversi fuerint); the wife then might receive a special blessing and would thenceforth wear special clothing.86 It seems most likely that in Finnian's sixth-century Ireland wives at least took a vow of celibacy together with their husbands as part of the ordination rites. This seems even more likely when we consider that in subsequent centuries the priest's living companion was sometimes termed caillech— the standard term for 'nun' which literally means 'veiled one'.87

If Finnian's entry implies that clerical couples lived in the same household, then so too does a canon in Pai, which insists that a priest make sure his wife veils her head, because it is he who is made responsible for making sure his

80 Conciliar legislation and papal rulings of the 5th and 6th cents. are both numerous and inconsistent on this subject, and thus I here generalize. For a detailed treatment of legislation see C. Frazee, 'The Origins of Clerical Celibacy in the Western Church', Church History 41 (1972), 149—67, esp. at 156—7.

81 But at least two councils insisted on actual separation: Lyons (ad 583), ch. i. Gerona (ad 517). The Council of Agde also requires the woman to enter a convent.

82 Elliott, Spiritual Marriage, 86—7. The apostolic canons were a popular apocryphal collection from the second half of the 4th cent., which was translated into Latin c.500 and included in the Dionysiana, which in turn served as a source for the influential Carolingian Hadriana.

83 Auxerre (ad 561-605), ch. 21; Orleans (ad 541), ch. 17; Tours (ad 567), ch. 20.

84 For example, the Council of Bourges in 1031 required priests to send away their wives, and the ruling aroused a great deal of controversy.

85 'My translation of suus throughout this passage has been prompted by the plural forms of the verb. It is, then, implied that both husband and wife had to take vows of virginity on the former's ordination.' (Irish Penitentials, 244).

86 Chs. 9, 16. Discussion in Barstow, Married Priests, 33. 87 Ni Dhonnchadha, 'Caillech.'.

wife is properly attired.88 In addition to making a case for the existence of clerical cohabitation, this canon takes us back to continental rules for priests' wives. The Irish cleric's wife may well have acquired her veil as a sign of her celibate status, just as did her Gallic counterpart described in the Council of Agde.

All the early evidence, sparse as it is, points to a clergy which could live with a spouse married before ordination, and which normally did live with one afterwards. The wives seem to have taken a special vow, held a special title, and worn a distinctive dress or veil. An injunction to chastity was found in Ireland as it was elsewhere in the West in the same period, and whilst we cannot know if chaste cohabitation was widely adhered to, certainly later it was not. In both the canonical aspiration and the long-term ignoring of it, the Irish Church seems very typical of Western Churches generally.


In the Christian church in Gaul there were women called deaconesses, whose ecclesiastical function was to assist in preparing female converts in their catechism and to assist during their baptismal rites. The canonical legislators during this era were concerned to eradicate the office. There is no evidence that this office ever existed in Ireland: it is not referred to in the contemporary texts discussed above nor in any later sources.


The new religion must have looked quite odd to the majority of the non-converted population, what with its single male deity, its idealization of chastity, and its dedication to following the religious customs of faraway lands. The position of women in the new religion may not have been profoundly different from what it was in the old one, in that, while the majority of leaders were male and official rites were conducted by men, there were still roles for women and high status was still available to exceptionally gifted females.

As for the possibilities in the new religion itself, from Patrick's own writing it seems clear that even in his own day, with virtually no institutions in place, Irish women could dedicate their virginity to God. In this Ireland was a later reflection of what had been the case earlier in Gaul and still earlier in Egypt and Syria—namely that the female virginal office got going well before coenobitic communities were established for them. As elsewhere, the profession was supposed to be permanent, and penalties were issued for those who lapsed. The

88 Pai, ch. 6: Quicumque clericus ab hostiario usque ad sacerdotem sine tunica visusfuerit atque turpitudinem ventris et nuditatem non tegat, et si non more Romano capilli eius tonsi sint, et uxor eius si non velato capite ambulaverit, pariter a laicis contempnentur et ab ecclesia separentur.

model which informed female asceticism in Ireland probably came from Britain, the source of most of the missionaries, and that church in turn was heavily influenced by Gaul. As the penitentials hinted, though, the builders of the new Irish church adopted foreign ideas about women and holiness more selectively than has hitherto been imagined, opting consistently for a more generous attitude towards the female sex than had the Church Fathers and foreign synods whose deeds and writings were their blueprint.

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  • castore li fonti
    What are holy women called?
    8 years ago

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