Women in the Medieval Church: Did You Know?
The first autobiography in the English language was written by a Christian woman, Margery Kempe, who lived in the early 1400s.
In the early Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for an abbess (the female head of a religious community) to rule “double” communities of both men and women. One who did so was Hilda of Whitby (614–680), whose abbey became famous for its learning and libraries. Five future bishops were trained in her community, and kings and rulers sought her advice.
Many women joined the Crusades. They began to be required to gain their husbands’ consent before leaving.
Christian women often corresponded with—and gave advice to—the most prominent leaders of their day. Heloise (better known for her relationship with famous philosopher Peter Abelard) maintained a significant exchange with Peter the Venerable, the influential abbot of Cluny. The two discussed theology and spirituality at length. Anselm, later Archbishop of Canterbury (1093–1109), corresponded with Queen Matilda on matters of religion.
Of all the recognized saints between 500 and 1200, about 15 percent were women.
Some Anglo-Saxon queens appointed bishops. Queen Emma of Normandy, one of the most powerful people in England in the early eleventh century, clearly did so. So did Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor, the English king who built Westminster Abbey.
Brigid of Ireland was said to have been consecrated a bishop. Brigid, who was born in the late 400s, founded the first nunnery in Ireland and served as an abbess. According to one account, Bishop Mel conferred the episcopal order upon the abbess, even though she had requested only the order of repentance; “and hence Brigid’s successor is always entitled to have episcopal orders and the honour due a bishop.” ...