Medieval institution evolved form the pagan "college" of priestesses or virgines - that is, unmarried women (not necessarily physical virgins) dedicated to divine service.
Early convents were double: a community of male monks united with female priestesses under the rule of an abbess, usually a landowning noblewoman.(1) "Priests and monks together with the nuns took vows of obedeience to the abbess in imitation of the obedience of Jesus to his mother." A 10th-century Saxon chronicle speaks of double convents inhabited by "priests of both sexes," although in a translation it was revised to read "priests of both orders."(2)
As Christian laws encroached on women's property rights, many women of noble rank took vows to remain single, so as to protect their wealth from the claims of husbands. Thus originated the so-called convent of noble ladies, an independent mini-queendom. For example, the Saxon convent of Gandersheim in the 9th century held overlordship directly from the king. The abbess conducted her own courts of law, kept her own seat in the imperial parliament, and maintained her own standing army.(3) Culture and learning were pursued. This convent trained the poetess Hrotswitha of Gandersheim, called "a Sappho, deserving to rank with the fabled Veleda and Aurinia, ancient German poet-priestesses."(4)
In the 7th century, a papal bull confirmed the rights of freedom from taxation and from episcopal jurisdiction of the Parthenon of Beatae Mariae et Sanctae Columbae et Agathae (Virgin-house of Blesed Marys and Holy Doves and Kindly Ones). Abbesses of Las Huelgas ruled sixty towns, had the right to license bishops and priests within their dioceses, to confer benefices on clergy of their own choice, to nominate ecclesiastical judges, to hear criminal cases among their subjects, and to establish new parishes. Bishops and apostolic delegates were forbidden to visit churches, parishes, clergy, or beneficiaries in the abbess's territory. The nuns remained exempt from episcopal jurisdiction all the way up to 1874.(5)
Ancient goddess-queens were described as "abbesses" in Christian histories, to disguise the real nature of the pagan matriarchate that backed them. Such a one was St. Odilia or Ottilia, called the abbess of Odilienberg (Hohenburg), a pilgrimage shrine of Alsace that was her own Holy Mountain.(6) Her legend had no documentary basis.(7) She was fraudulently canonized, only to attract her votaries to Christianity.
Many abbesses retained their pagan title of High Priestess - Sacredos Maxima - especially in the German convents. At Quedlinburg the abbess was "in control of the whole town, its people, churches, hospitals, clergy, canons and canonesses, and all religious orders." She was not only High Priestess, but also Superior Canoness of the Cathedral, Metropolitana (mayor), and Matricia (matriarch). At St. Mary's Uberwasser in Munster, the abbess's title was Prima domna et matre nostra spirituale, "Mistress-Leader and Our Spiritual Mother." Cistercian monks at Las Huelgas swore obedience to the abbess as "the Illustrious Lady ... my Prelate, and my Lady, Superior, Mother and legitimate administrator in spiritual and temporal affairs of the Roayl Monastery and its Hospital."(8)
Some centuries earlier, the Latin title of Sacredos Maxima meant a high priestess of the Great Mother of the Gods. She was assisted by lesser priestesses known as ministra, "ministers." The word "sodality" came from Latin sodales, a college of dancing priestesses trained in the Great Mother's temple.(9)
That women in convents long retained the sexual freedom of the ancient priestesses is shown by interchangeable use of the words "convent" and "brothel" in medieval times. Nicholas Clemangis said the monasteries were not so much sancturies of God as they were "abodes of Venus."(1)
The word nun originally meant a nurse, that is, a priestess of a healing shrine, like the "nymphs" in colleges of Hygeia and Panacea in pagan Greece. That the convents continued to function as hospitals is suggested by medieval romances: wounded, sick, or dying folk were usually cared for by "nuns."(11) The word also meant a irgin mother in Germanic paganism. A cognate was Nana, virgin mother of the god Balder.
Sometimes pagan queens established convents in order to have themselves canonized, just as Roman emperors were made gods by virtue of their religious leadership. The canon of saints includes several pagan queens whose only claim to beatitude was wealth, which brought the jurisdiction of an abbey and its subject lands. Some of the queen-saints were even distinctly hostile to church men, like Queen Bathild, foundress of a druidic convent at Chelles in the 7th century. She was the real ruler of the western Franks, having placed her son Chlotar on the thorne. Certain bishops who tried to interfere with her were assassinated. In the end she was "unceremoniously" removed from power by Christian nobles, and apparently murdered as a heretic, though her subjects maintained her cult and called her Saint Bathild.(12)
In Bede's time, Queen Ethelreda was ordained High Priestess of Ely, and was succeeded by other supreme abbesses governing the monastery's beatarum regimine feminarum (holy order of women) up to the Danish invasion in 866. The abbey of Wherwell was founded by Queen Elfrida in 986; it was exempt from earthly services, and held many territories and churches.(13)
Another pagan princess who founded a convent in the 7th century and was canonized, was St. Wereburg of the royal house of Mercia, ruler of the city of Chester. Her establishment was specifically for "noble women" refusing to give up their property to husbands. St. Wereburg was canonized centuries later, on the strength of a legend that her holy bones had extinguished the fires set in the city of Chester by maurding Danes.(14)
St. Hild, or Hilda, of the royal house of Northumberland, established one of the most famous double monasteries of Anglo-Saxon times at Hartlepool, the "Isle of Stags." Her influence extended over all England. She created bishops and abbots, favoring especially the poet-missionaries of Celtic background. Bede said "all who knew her called her Mother."(15) Since she bore the name of the pagan Great Mother Hild, or Hel, one might wonder about the real basis of her authority, in a century when a majority of people had not yet heard of Christianity.(16)
Even when convents became Christianized, abbesses were still ordained like bishops, and in some areas held more secular power than bishops, though church histories have tried to conceal this, sometimes through deliberate falsification of the records. For instance, a papal bull said the abbess of the Cassian foundation in Marseilles was "ordained"; a later editor changed the word to "blessed." At Jourarre, Quedlinburg, Conversano, and other places, an abbess held supreme jurisdiction over both clergy and laity in her territory. According to the Rule of St. Donatus, abbesses functioning as Matris Spirituale (Spiritual Mother) regularly heard confessions. French ecclesiastical records sayd abbesses gave absolution by imposition of their hands on the heads of men.(17)
The church began to encroach on the rights of convents in the 12th and 13th centuries, devising ways to appropriate the nuns' property and make them subject to male clergy At Fontevrault, canonesses preceded the monks in processions, carried the pastoral cross, preached, read the Gospel, and heard confessions. Pope Innocent III deprived them of these privileges. Disagreements arose between male and female clergy. Monks insisted they would no longer genuflect every time they passed the abbess. Nuns reacted by refusing to kneel in the confessional before their brothers. Innocent III also commanded the abbess of Jouarre, her clergy, and her layfolk to subject themselves to the authority of the bishop of Meaux. When the abbess asked for time to prove her right to independence, she and all her community were excommunicated. Decrees of the Council of Trent changed church laws to say women's orders must be take over and supervised by men's orders.(18)
Considerable bitterness accompanied sexual segregation of the double convents, judging from the letter of Abbot Conrad of Marchtal, on barring women from his order:
We and our whole community of canons, recognizing that the wickedness of women is greater than all other wickedness of the world, and there is no anger like that of women, and that the poison of asps and dragons is more curable and less dangerous for men than the familiarity of women, have unanimously decreed for the safety of our souls, no less than for that of our bodies and goods, that we will on no account receive any more sisters to the increase of our perdition, but will avoid them like poisonous animals.(19) [Cf. Taliban; cf. Islam.]
Convents had been centers of higher learning for women in an age when women were forbidden access to schools and universities. Earlier in the medieval period, girls as well as boys attended ecclesiastical schools in Ireland and learned to read and write; but this practice was later forbidden, the schools being kept only for males.(20) [Cf. Taliban; cf. Islam.] Premonstratensian and Cistercian ordes were famed as educators of women, until the Council of Trent ruled that women's orders must be taken over by men's orders.(21) Then Cistercian nuns were forbidden to establish any more teaching convents.(22)
Nuns were further commanded not to teach or discuss theological matters. This was used as a device for outlawing their orders and confiscating their property. It served as an excuse for the Council of Vienne to deprive the teaching nuns called Beguines of their lands and houses, in 1312 when monks of the Inquisition demanded them:
We have been told that certain women commonly called Beguines, afflicted by a kind of madness, discuss the Holy Trinity and the divine essence, and express opinions on matters of faith and sacraments... Since these women promise no obedience to anyone and do not renounce their property or profess an aproved Rule ... [w]e have therefore decided and declared with the approval of the Council that their way of life is to be permanently forbidden and altogether excluded from the Church of God.(23)
The Beguines were forced to integrate into orders approved by the pope, where they would receive no education. Their properties were taken over by the Inquisition to provide dwellings and prisons for the inquisitors' use.(24)
From the 12th century on, there was increasing pressure on convents to adopt rules of close confinement, to keep nuns segregated from the outside world. The canonesses of St. Mary's Uberwasser rebelled three times against the imposition of the Benedictine Rule, which would force them into seclusion.(25) Many convents were threatened with excommunication, dissolution, or even prosecution by the Inquisition to force them to accept strict seclusion and to cease developing the sisters' minds.
Early in the 17th century, teacher Mary Ward tried to found a Catholic order of teaching nuns known as the English Ladies, to provide education for girls. She and her sisters refused to submit to the cloister, so Mary was arrested and accused of heresy. Her order was suppressed in 1629. Pope Urban VIII rebuked them: "Certain women, taking the name of Jesuitesses, assembled and living together, built colleges, and appointed superiors and a General, assumed a peculiar habit without the approbation of the Holy See...carried out works by no means suiting the weakness of their sex, womanly modesty, virginal purity."(26) With typically patriarchal reasoning, the English Ladies were punished for doing what women were supposed to be unable to do.
A few convents managed to hold on to their pre-patriarchal independence. The clergy failed to turn out the canonesses of St. Waudru, at Mons. Monks of Fontevrault likewise failed to take over the main church or the nuns' house, and were obliged to continue to vow obedience to the abbesses, up to the French Revolution.(27)
1. Encyc. Brit., "Women in Religious Orders."
2. Morris, 45, 132.
3. Bullough, 158.
4. Borchardt, 107.
5. Morris, 18, 85-86.
6. Gifford, 133.
7. Attwater, 257.
8. Morris, 58-65, 89.
9. Vermaeseren, 57, 109.
10. Sadok, Kaplan & Freedman, 24.
11. Funk, 281.
12. Attwater, 60.
13. Morris, 25-26.
14. Brewster, 93.
15. Attwater, 170.
16. Brewster, 490; Encyc. Brit., "Holda."
17. Morris, 19, 71, 142.
18. Morris, 48, 76, 37, 149.
19. Bullough, 160.
20. Joyce I, 410.
21. Morris, 157.
22. Bullough, 191.
23. Bullough, 163.
24. Lea, 226.
25. Morris, 157.
26. Bullough, 208.
27. Morris, 149.
Could, 2000 plus years later, the roots of the minstrel shows (dancing and singing with lots of tamborines) be related to those dancing priestess ministra (see note 9) dedicated to the temple of the Mother Goddess?
Some interesting information on Hild or Hilda and the double monastery at Hartlepool, from Wikipedia:
Hilda of Whitby
And this information on the origin of the "Island of Stags" and information on St. Hilda and the monastery at Harttlepool from a tourist site on the Tees Valley:
OLD HARTLEPOOL -THE HEADLAND
Surrounded on three sides by the sea, the Magnesian Limestone headland or peninsula called the Heugh at Hartlepool is more familiarly known as Old Hartlepool. Hartlepool may not always readliy accept association with Teesside, it has its own natural harbour to the north of the river, but in recent centuries its industrial history has been very closely tied up with the River Tees.
In prehistoric times Hartlepool's headland is thought to have been an isolated tidal island covered by thick forests. In the nineteenth century during excavation of the adjacent marshy area called the Slake, trunks of trees from the ancient forest were found embedded in the clay along with antlers and the teeth from deer that seem to have inhabited the area in large numbers many years ago. [Sounds like an ancient goddess sanctuary to me, perhaps dedicated to Diana/Artemis, goddess of the hunt].
Hartlepool forest is still recorded in existence in the thirteenth century. In fact the ancient Anglo Saxon name for Hartlepool was Heret eu meaning Stag Island which is a reference to either the stag's head shape of the headland or perhaps an indication that the area may have been well inhabited by forest deer.
Hereteu was later known as Hart or Hartness [hart = deer] and was in fact the name of a whole district which included the Heugh headland and the villages of Hart and Billingham to the west. At an early stage the coastal headland was distinguished from Hart by the addition of the word `pool', a reference to the sheltered coastal bay adjacent to the headland.
ST HILDA OF HARTLEPOOL
Hartlepool's headland is of course the site of the original Hartlepool and was to form the natural harbour for the old fishing town for many centuries. In earlier times this area had been the site of a monastery associated with St Hilda. The Anglo-Saxon monastery at Hartlepool was founded in 640 A.D by St Aidan for both men and women and its first abbess was an Irish princess by the name of Hieu. Some say that Hieu gave her name to Heugh, the name of the headland. In 649 A.D Hieu was succeeded by St Hilda who was here until 657 A.D when she founded the monastery at Whitby.
In its later days the monastery at Hartlepool seems to have declined in importance until it was finally destroyed by the Danes in the ninth century
*************************************************************Yeah, right - the monastery at Hartlepool was founded by a dude (St. Aidan), but he let a woman run it? Oh please. This is probably one of those later patriarchal gloss-overs that Walker talked about in her encyclopedia entry on "Convent", above.
So - a mystery! Who is the Princess (of) Hieu or Heugh??? Are she and St. Hilda (Hild or Hel) actually the same person?
What's with the close association of the monastery at Hartlepool and the ancient symbol of the goddess, deer? Thar be pagans on the land back then...