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  • Bishop Q June 27, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    Today a curious Roman marble inscription from Terni in central Italy – not Rome as often reported – that probably dates from towards the end of the Empire, perhaps from the end of the fourth century (Olybrio = consul?). It is an inscription that is so unexpected that it is difficult to know where to begin. (CIL 11.4339) ‘Hu[nc titulum 3] / si vis cog[nosce via]/tor hic requie[scit] / venerabilis fem[ina] / episcopa Q  dep(osita) in pace V [3] / Olibrio ’ ‘If you wish to know, traveller, who lies here, the venerable lady, bishop Q [name obscured] rests in peace. Olibrio’ The problem will be self evident to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of modern Christianity: the Catholic, the Orthodox and the Eastern churches are determined in their refusal to allow women into the clergy, as indeed, are many Protestant churches. Yet here in the late Empire we seem to have an inscription that offers us not just a female priest, but a Roman female bishop! When Beachcombing first read this inscription several years ago, he shrugged and moved on. He assumed that this was all based on a misunderstanding and thought with some sadistic enjoyment of the radicals on both sides of the vicars-with-knickers debate  slogging it out. But tilting his head sideways and looking at the Latin today he is stumped. The stone is clearly in a poor state of preservation– Beach would feel easier in his own mind if he could get his hands on a photo or drawing of the inscription – but the key word episcopa is preserved. And there can be no arguments about an illiterate carver (they existed) getting masculine and feminine mixed up because Q was  a uenerabilis femina, a venerable lady. That leaves only one other way out that can preserve Christian sanity. There are several records of presbytera (lady priests) in inscriptions where it is suggested that the woman in question was not a female priest but the wife of a priest. Could Q have been a bishop’s wife? This, of course, would be interesting in its own right! But, unusually for a Latin inscription, there is no mention of Q’s husband. Could she have been the daughter or mother of a bishop? Would an honorific work in a context like this? There is a parallel piece of evidence from ninth-century Rome where the Chapel of St Zeno has a mosaic celebrating an ‘episcopa’ (pictured above), one Theodora. Theodora was the mother of pope Pasqual I (824) and is also called an episcopa on a reliquary from the same place. Beachcombing would like nothing more than to throw a grenade into the church parade: his sense of anarchy only being slightly dulled by the fact that the ultra Catholic, ultra conservative Mrs B, for some reason he has never fathomed, favours women priests. But then Mrs B may have a point in historical terms. After all, as previously discussed in this blog, there is evidence for female office-holding in the apostolic church. But the fragments of late antique and early medieval evidence that show women in ecclesiastical office fall into one of two categories. Either they relate to heresy: Montanism, Priscillianism, crazy Bretons… Or they are fragmentary, easily misunderstood sources from the mainstream like the two offered above – don’t even get Beach started on the female ‘pope’ Joan (another post another day) or the cross-gendered abbot of Drimnagh. Given that there is nothing to be gained from provoking his wife here, Beachcombing is going to come clean: he hasn’t the foggiest. However, any opinions gratefully received and propagated – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    28 June 2011: First up is Roy: ‘Episcopa is most definitely clear in that fragment and a very clear feminization of Episcopos (overseer/bishop).  The simplest explanation here is that Q is indeed the wife of a Bishop.  How could this be as the Church prohibited clergymen from marrying?  The answer is that the clergy were not prohibited as a whole from marrying until much later.  The Synod of Elvira called for celibacy among both married and unmarried clerics.  The date of this event was around 305 A.D.   In 325, Constantine actually rejected a ban on priests marrying, and thus the practice continued.  The (third) Council of Carthage at the close of the 4th century clarified this, stating that Priests, Bishops, and Deacons must abstain from intercourse with their wives, meaning that clergymen continue to marry well after the Synod of Elvira.  The practice became less frequent as time went on. It wasn’t until after the great schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches that clergymen were actually banned from marrying in the West (though their counterparts in the East could indeed continue to marry).  Therefore, the simplest explanation would be that this lady was the wife of a Bishop.’ Next comes Invisible: ‘Hmmm, a pretty problem, your episcopa. I am woefully ignorant of 4th-9th century Roman church history, but I can tell you that your statement about heretics, Montanists or crazy Bretons does not quite hold water in, say, 12th century Spain. I reference the Abbey de Santa Maria la Real de Las Huelgas. The Abbesses there, as it was a royal foundation (Alfonso VIII of Castile) enjoyed royal prerogatives and quasi-episcopal powers. The Abbess had the ability to issue licenses authorizing priests to preach, say mass and hear confessions in her churches. She had the power to recommend candidates for ordination (there are hints that she herself could and did perform ordinations.) She could dispense vows or annul them and give permission to her nuns to enter and leave the enclosure. Some Abbesses of Las Huelgas held that they could hear confessions, preach, give the habit to their nuns, and read the gospel in public. The Abbess was ‘Lord’ with the usual untrammeled secular powers over at least 50 villages. She held her own civil and criminal courts, could censure clerics in her jurisdiction and could confirm other Abbesses in their offices. At a General Chapter of the Cistercians in 1189, the Abbess of Las Huelgas was made Abbess General of the Cistercians for the Kingdom of Leon and Castile, with the right to convoke an annual general chapter at Burgos. It was joked that if the Pope were ever to marry, the only lady appropriately equal to him in rank would be the Abbess of Las Huelgas.’ Beachcombing has vague memories of a similar abbess from Calabria? Invisible moves on to Joan Morris ‘You’ve probably seen the lamentably titled The Lady Was a Bishop: The Hidden History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops, Joan Morris, The Macmillan Company, 1973 (height of feminist history craze). Good information, though. Let me list a few of the ‘episcopa’ mentioned by her in an early chapter. An episcopa Terni mentioned in canon 20 of the Council of Tours – is this the same lady in the inscription? In the same Council of Tours, canons 13 and 14, deaconesses and subdeaconesses are mentioned. An episcopa is listed in a Vatican Library manuscript taken from an epitaph from the cemetery of the Basilica of Saint Valentiniane. The INSCRIPTION READS: (Hono)rabilis femina episopa. The way in which some consecrated widows are recorded also resembles the formulas used by bishops. They are said “to sit in a basilica”. For example (taken from Marini): RIEXEM PPLI AANV VIDVA SEDIT BASILICA ASEVISV RAVIT QUE OBIT EST The author has relatively little information about episcopal women of the early Christian centuries except to suggest that since the term episcopus means ‘overseer’ that the women overseers – episcopae – show the beginnings of a tradition that lasted for centuries.’ Beach doesn’t have easy access to Joan Morris, though he finds some of these references surprising and would want to check them – particularly ‘Terni’ at the Council of Tours.* In any case, Invisible continues: ‘By the way, Episcopa Theodora was alive (and obviously well-respected) when that portrait was made as evidenced by the square halo. Some other info from The Lady Was a Bishop. Dating from the fifth century, the Wisigothic Sacramentary gives instructions for the ordination of abbesses. In the prayer it is stated that before God there is no discrimination of the sexes and that women, like men, are called to collaborate in the spiritual struggle. They were invested with sacerdotal robes, the pallium and the miter. In the Sacramentary of the Moisac Monastery the rite for the abbots and abbesses was identical. They prostrated before the altar and received the stole. You will see a photo of one of the Abbesses of Saint Walburga, Eichstatt, Germany. She is carrying her abbatial crosier and is wearing her pectoral cross and what look damnably like episcopal gloves and ring. Morris gives some good examples of archaeological and heraldic evidence for the episcopal insignia given to abbesses – one rarely sees more than the cross and crosier today. Some abbesses also actually wore mitres, although not in the same pattern we recognize for male bishops. Here is a short article on mitred abbesses. Here is the table of contents of The Lady Was a Bishop. Women Overseers of Churches, ‘Stones Will Cry Out’, Canonical Institutes and Religious Orders, The Episcopal Jurisdiction of Abbesses, Exempt Women’s Orders in England, Quasi-Episcopal Abbesses in France, Ditto in Germany, Italy, and Spain. How the Quasi-Episcopal Abbesses Lost Status. Appendixes: The Taboo of Women During Pregnancy and Menstruation; The Status of Women in the Gospels; In Defense of Saint Paul; Empresses and Queens with Powers of Rex et Sacerdos [mostly Byzantine empresses, Edgitha, Matilda of Quedlinburg, Adelheid of Pavia, St Margaret of Scotland], The Ordination of Abbesses, Abbesses with Powers of Confession; Dual Cathedrals and Their Significance to Women; The Effect of the Council of Trent on the Status of Women, extensive notes and bibliography.’ KMH has a Biblical reference to share: ‘Bishop Q could have been the wife of a bishop who informally shared some of the bishops duties, especially for females. The biblical requirements for a bishop are given in 1 Tim 3:2-7, among which is that the man must be the husband of one wife. The meaning precludes polygamy or divorce, and suggests a higher status for the wife as a devout Christian, perhaps leading to her assistance with the females of the diocese.’ Finally, there is SY ‘Beach, you refer to the stone as being from Umbria not Rome (as in some sources). The confusion is that the stone was found in Terni (Umbria) but is now at St Paul’s Outside the Walls. Note that one (p. 34) useful source claims that the ‘q’ may be part of a phrase giving her age at death: qua e vix etc. This sounds credible. I would just underline what you said. This is a wrecked inscription. We may be missing some important elements.’ Thanks Invisible, Roy, SY and KMH!! *Canon 20 of the Second Council of Tours must be the canon in question as this touches on female office in the church but there is no reference to a woman bishop Terni there. It is a nice example of the creation of a factoid as several online sites refer to this bishopess Terni, almost certainly a misunderstanding of the site of the discovery of the Q episcopa stone. Beach – who has committed far greater sins against history in his time – guesses that JM read about this in a foreign language and got things mixed up, perhaps in a paragraph where Canon 20 and the discovery of the Terni stone both featured. Thanks again to Invisible for sending in some extra bibliographical references to help clear this up. Beach promises though that he will leave the Abbot Real de las Heulgas well alone!  Canon 20. . . . Illud vero quod aliqui dicunt: vidua quae benedicta non fuit, quare non debet maritum accipere? cum omnes sciant quod nunquam in canonicis libris legitur benedictio vidualis: quia solum propositum illi sufficiere debet. Sicut in Epaonensibus canonibus a papa Avito vel omnibus episcopis conscriptum est: Viduarum consecrationem, quas diaconas vocitant, ab omni regione nostra penitus abrogamus. Et expressius decretum est in synodo Arelatensi: Professas viduas si in incontinentia perstiterint, cum raptoribus esse damnandas.’ ‘With regard to what some people say: ‘Why may a widow who has not been ordained (lit. blessed), not accept a husband?’ — while everybody knows that never in our canonical books we find written about an ordinatio (lit. blessing) of widows: because a simple intention should suffice for them. As has been written in the canons of Epaon by Archbishop (lit. Pope) Avitus and all bishops: We abrogate the consecration of widows whom they call ‘women deacons’ completely from our region. And as has been decreed even more clearly in the Synod of Arles: Widows who have made a vow, if they persevere living in a sexual relationship, have to be condemned together with those who rape them.’