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Deaconesses in Late Antique Gaul

by Matthew Smyth

published on www.womenpriests.org with permission of the author

Deaconesses in the restricted sense — that is to say women officially ordained as deaconess by the laying on of hands as they were to be found in most Eastern churches in the patristic age — were not as widely represented in the Latin West. North Africa and Spain seem to have been unaware of their existence. And for the rest of the Latin world, we have no mention of deaconesses before the 4th century. According to the British monk Pelagius († circa 420), who spent a long time in Rome, deaconesses are an institution fallen into disuse in the West, though remaining in the East (In Rom. 16:1). Worst, for Ambrosiaster, an anonymous Italian of the end of the 4th century, while commenting on I Tim. 3:11, considers them to be the fruit of a new heresy “that dares ordain deaconesses.”

As a matter of fact, Gallic canonical legislation, mainly issued by synods, only seems to have mentioned deaconesses to condemn them (they ought not to be mistaken for diaconissae who are only the deacon’s wife mentioned by the 20th canon of the Synod of Tours held in 567). Apparently, female diaconate was victim of a lengthy process which modeled woman’s image in the Church on the secular Late Antique feminine ideal; an ideal highly incompatible with non-codified usages inherited more or less directely from early-christian times allowing women to be entrusted with ecclesiastical responsibilities.

But, precisely, those conflict should be analysed not only from the point of view of triumphant legislative authorities, but also from the angle of the ancient customs local churches were clinging to, and whose abolition the synods had in mind. Custom, although naturally faithful to tradition, has been too long considered as a negative foil to more recent written legislation edicted by synods or individual bishops. Furthemore this new legislation would have been uterly pointless if a few Latin churches had not at some point agreed to formally ordain deaconesses by laying on of hands.

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The best proof of the existence of Western deaconesses is found in the very effort which was made to stop them from spreading, once the custom of ordaining deaconesses was accepted here and there. In this respect, our first witness, the Synod of Nimes in 396 (canon 2) rejects vigorously the ordination of women to the diaconate: “it has been made known to us that — a thing unheard of until now —, against the apostolic discipline […], women raised to the office of deacons had been seen; this is not acceptable to ecclesiastical discipline because it is indecent.”

In spite of all this, the 26th canon of the 1st Synod of Orange (441) is obliged to recognize the existence of an apparently well established custom, despite the decisions issued previously in Nimes. This is another attempt to abolish deaconesses and to oblige them to take their place among the ordinary faithful: “Deaconesses should by no means be ordained. If there are already some, let them bow their head during the blessing given to the people.”

Next century, the legislation seems still without effect, for the Synod of Epaon (517), canon 21, states that: “We abrogate totally within all our territory the consecration granted to widows called deaconesses. Let them receive only a penitential blessing if they desire conuersio” (that is to say if “entering ascetic life”).

The 17th canon of the 2nd Synod of Orleans (533) bears witness, in spite of itself, to the vigour of the female diaconate, which is able to survive despite more than a century of hostile synodical legislation: “Let the women who have received the blessing of diaconate up to the present day, despite the canonical prohibition, be excommunicated, if it is proven that they have gone back to married life.” Deaconesses who are found “defaulting” are to be excommunicated (as a matter of fact, since they are recruited among widows and virgins, deaconesses came under the same measures inflicted on fallen female ascetics and adaptated of the 15th canon of Chalcedon). As for the 18th canon, it tries one more time to supress the female diaconate: “It has also been decided that, henceforth, diaconal blessing will not be any longer granted to any women, because of the fragility of their condition.” The same fear is at work here of “fallen” widows and virgins among whom the deaconesses are recruited — a fall explicitly linked with alleged weakness of woman confronted with temptation.

These directives do not seem to have been yet universally followed, as is shown by the 21th canon of the 2nd Synod of Tours (567): “[…] everyone knows that a particular blessing for widows is not to be found in the canonical books, because their personal decision is enough […] as it is stated by the canons of Epaon, Pope Avitus and all the bishops: ‘We totally abrogate in all our ecclesiastical discipline the consecration of widows called deaconesses’.”

Deaconesses in historical records

Meanwhile, we have this time two positive testimonies of great value:

the Testament of Remigius of Reims († 533) mentions “my daughter Hilary the deaconess”;
and, according to the Vita of queen Radegunde († 587) written by the Italian Venantius Fortunatus bishop of Poitiers († circa 600), bishop Medardus of Noyon, after some hesitations because of the youth of Radegunde, “consecrated [her] deaconess laying the hands upon her (manu superposita),” after she had left her husband King Clotaire to take the religious habit.

One cannot use Frankish legislation to undermine those testimonies: on the contrary, the case of Radegond illustrates the very usage which the Synods opposed. However, it is to be noted that in the case of Radegond, the female diaconate is in fact linked to monastic life, in the Eastern fashion.

As for Ireland, whose ecclesiastical institutions (especialy liturgical) are in many respects very close to that of Gaul, we have the testimony of a gloss in the Epistolary of Wurzburg Universitätbibl. M. th. 12 (8th century) which mentions a deaconess (bandechuin in Gaelic); the Liber Angeli of the Book of Armagh (7th century), refers even to women in matrimonio legitimo ecclesiae servientes.

In Italy, where legislation did not oppose the female diaconate, a Roman liturgical book of the 8th century known as the Gregorian Sacramentary contains the sole surviving Western formulary for the ordination of a deaconess, simply reusing the formula for the ordination of a deacon but in the feminine (n·994).

It is unnecessary to adduce more documents to prove the strength of a custom which met so well the need for an official recognition of the dignity of this commitment and lasted in some places until the 11th century before it up fell into dissuetude.

Were deaconesses nuns?

It is to be noted that Latin deaconesses were in those days de facto linked to the state of continent widow or voluntary virgin, since this ministry was usualy recruited among women who have chosen sexual continence. Accordingly, to a state of mind inherited from Judeo-Christian Encraticism, most churches held celibate life in great favour, therefore widows and virgins were considered more able to be entrusted with female ministries. Canon 21 of the Synod of Epaon (517), seems to indicate that in Gaul, contrary to the East at the time, deaconesses were recruited mostly among widows; already traditionally entrusted with female ministries. According to some scholars, such a blessing, was thought to underline the dignity of a status now devalued in comparison with that of virgins who were, from the 4th century on, granted a an episcopal consecration of their commitment bestowed during a solemn veiling modelled upon the Roman wedding ceremony (a consecration that widows were usually not allowed to receive in Gaul before the 8th century).

This does not at all imply that the female diaconate was meant to be purely honorific, since widows, as well as consecrated virgins, were entrusted precisely with ministries, as is shown in the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua, a canonical collection composed in Provence at the end of the 5th century. This document, which enjoyed a wide reception, states that instituted widows and voluntary virgins were entrusted with the ministry of preparing female catechumens for baptism: “Widows and nuns who are chosen to minister to women about to receive baptism, must be well prepared for this office, in order to be able to teach clearly and correctly unlearned and rustic women when they are to receive baptism; how those women ought to answer the questions asked by the one who baptises them, and how they should live after their baptism” (canon 100). It is not much of a surprise since female ascetics, who were recognized as a highly priviliged ecclesiastical rank, benefiting from special care on the part of the bishop and his clergy, enjoyed a great prestige and played an important role within the community, especially if they came from the aristocracy. Voluntary virgins notably personified in a way the local church. Furthemore, they were not prevented to fulfil ecclesiastical ministries as long as they carried on to take part in ordinary daily life, dispose of their own property, live in their family’s home, their own house or in common with other women sharing the same ideal, or under the roof of a wealthier sister-member. Genevieve of Paris († 502), for instance, does not belong to a monastery (as a matter of fact, she gathers informally a few friends around her), uses her own possessions, receives visitors at home (and even meets Germanus of Auxerre at an inn), calls on people, dabbles in civil and Church politics, travels the country, has a basilica built, and of course takes part in parish services.

Thus the female deaconess appears as a justified development that had been lacking too long, although the Statuta clearly refers to a female diaconate in the etymological sense — that is to say the service accomplished by women within the assembly (presumably, what Pelagius had in mind when he mentions the former Latin deaconesses). To grant an ordination bestowed by the laying on of hands to women entrusted with a ministry, meant that deaconesses were able catch up a little with the male diaconate or presbyterate raised long ago to the status of “ranks” within a hierarchy of dignitaries.

But in the meantime the Gallic episcopate, strongly influenced by cenobitical monasticism and its ideal of fuga mundi, became growingly hostile to a female asceticism rooted within the Christian baptismal community. An ideal of complete separation (much stricter for consecrated virgins than for men) spread rapidely in the wake of the Regula virginum imposed by Cesarius of Arles († 543). Nuns, henceforth provided with their own oratory and ministers, are severed from the life of the assembly of the baptised, symbolically identified with the “world”. This segragation goes hand in hand with the ending of the freedom enjoyed formerly by consecrated virgins. They no longer form an haphazard gathering of pious persons, but an institution shaped to lead an autonomous life in the long term, clearly situated at the periphery of the local assembly, in whose eucharist it does not share any longer.

Synods followed the movement: canon 19 of Orleans V (549) submits nuns to a “perpetual enclosure,” and excommunicates those who flee to marry, as well as the non-cloistered ascetics who go back on their former commitment. A little later, the 3rd canon of the Synod of Lyons (583) and the 14th canon of the Synod of Paris (614) excommunicate nuns who leave the monastic enclosure, even without marrying. Legislation displays a striking fear of what is looked upon as a fall. This new strategy of reclusion and this fear of any “fall” — that is to say marriage — betray a growing lack of consideration for the freedom proper to Christian commitment, and more generally a latent pessimism inherited from Encraticism hanging over relationship between sexes doomed by flesh. By the way, it is to be underlined that this pessimism was hanging much heavier on women. Previousely, legislation tended only to inflict a penance on women who marry after commitment to an ascetic life, but by the end of the 6th century, it goes further and excommunicates virgins and widows who marry, even if they do not live in a monastry. The Austrian Synod of Saint-Jean de Losne (circa 675) states that: “if [widows] are unmindful of chastity, they […] should be put behind walls in a monastery.”

”Female fragility”

Such an evolution of female asceticism was incompatible in the long run with ministerial responsibilities entrusted formerly to widows and virgins. Obviously, in the eyes of the espiscopate, deaconesses (or any ascetic women) in charge of an ecclesiastical office within the assembly, was far too much at risk of “falling”, considering the alleged “fragility of the feminine condition”.

Actually, even before the complete triumph of the ideal defended by Cesarius of Arles and his followers, along with the shift of mentality that it reflects, other sources of tensions between usages and episcopal directives existed, resulting from a hostility towards female ministries that existed well before the expansion of the monastic movement. Nonetheless, these very conflicts between custom and legislation unwillingly lift the veil that covers the range of ministries actually entrusted to women.

Since Tertullian (De Virginibus Velandis 9:2, De Baptismo 17:4-5, and De Praescriptione Haereticorum 41:5), a further series of negative testimonies enables us to say that until the 6th century, some Western communities on the outer limits of the Great Church (for one reason or another) were in a position to retain female ministries inherited from paleochristian usages. Most certainely, those ecclesiastical ministries did not correspond completely to the one fulfilled by male deacons. Women were not expected to look after the finance of the domus episcopi, nor to present candidates to the priesthood in front of the bishop as the archdeacon did. All the same, the functions they were entrusted with remained very wide.

As a matter of fact, female ministries which remained under the form of a help to the priest ad altare (at the altar), of a baptismal ministry, or other functions performed coram populo (in public), have from time to time given rise to harsh criticism. Their formulation suggests that those ancient usages persisted in groups which stayed apart from churches where a self-affirmation of hierarchical authority was under way. Within the cultural context of the Roman Empire or its remains, this effort of hierarchical structuration was in fact incompatible with the appointement of responsibilites to women.

We find such recriminations in the decretale Necessaria Rerum (494) of Gelasius to the bishops of Southern Italy. Unfortunately omitting to specify who were to blame, Gelasius complains that “holy things have been held in such contempt that some have approved of women who perform a ministry at the holy altars and take part in functions reserved to a sex to which they do not belong”.

Without letting us know any better which communities he was thus targeting, the compiler of the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua is also found confronted to comparable usages as he asks women “not to dare to baptise” (canon 37).

On the other hand, in the case of the 1st canon of the Synod of Saragossa (380) against the conventicles inspired by the preaching of Priscillian of Avila, this is a clearly marginalised movement which gives rise to the prohibition: “that no women belonging to the catholic Church […] should join the women who read publicly, following a desire to teach or to learn.”

As for the Letter of Licinius of Tours, Melanius of Rennes and Eustochius of Angers to the Briton Priests Lovocatus and Catihernus written around 520, it scorns the same type of usages, this time within Celtic churches (which were not doctrinally but geographically marginalised): “it has been made known to us,” write the Gallic bishops, “that you do not cease to carry among your fellow-countrymen, from one hut to another, certain tables on which you celebrate the divine sacrifice, with the help of women to whom you give the name of conhospitae (lit. assistant hostesses). While you distribute the eucharist, they take the chalice and have the audacity to administrate the Blood of Christ to the people. This is a novelty and superstition unheard of before. We have been deeply distressed to witness in our time the resurgence of an abominable sect which had never been introduced previously in Gaul: the Eastern Fathers call it the Pepodian [i.e. Montanist] sect, named after Pepodius author of the schism.”

If the origin attributed to Montanism is fantastic — “Pepodian” refers in the first place to the town of Pepuza in Phrygia where the parousia was supposed to take place according to Montanists —, the parallel is not without any ground, since this movement was favorable to female ministers (although, paradoxically, one of the first to bear witness that a tradition has been recieved in the Church forbidding any kind of female ministry inter mysteria [during the sacred mysteries], is the Montanist Tertullian). Furthermore, their conservatism was notorious and their tiny marginal assemblies were ardent enough to feel free from an overwhelming carnal concupiscence. Judging by these two last sources, we have a confirmation that marginal groups felt the need to keep important female ministries, whether their situation arose from ecclesiastical (such as for the Priscillianists) or geographical reasons (such as for the Celtic churches).

This description of Celtic deaconesses (in the wider sense) suggests that their institution did not result from ideology but was due to an actual ministerial necessity, inherent to the concrete needs of assemblies without a numerous clergy. Moreover, the choice of a conhospita to help the priest, that is to say a virgo subintroducta [virgin/religious drawn in]living in an Encratite union with a male ascetic, confirms that, if these offices were allowed to be entrusted to women, it was not done in contempt of tradition, but because of a particularly conservative institutional context making the way to the survival of customs forgotten elsewhere: Encratite unions were already criticized in the time of Cyprian (cf. Ep. 4) before their official condamnation by the 3rd canon of Nicea (325). Beside, the Catalogus Sanctorum Hiberniae Secundum Diversa Tempora (8th century) testifies that this way of life was quite in favour among the first Irish ascetics. Celtic churches had been evangelised already at the begining of the 5th century from Great Britain (where Christian centres were present at least since the 3rd century). Offset communities appear thus as a haven to a kind of gender egalitarianism inherited from that of the primitive Church, and which displayed a certain unconcern towards Late Antique social prejudices common to the larger assemblies set in an post-Constantinian urban context. Celtic churches, unaware of the disciplinary transformations led by the great centres, did not allow social relationship between the different sexes to be dominated by fear in the same fashion.

Far from a novelty, these female ministries known in the Western fringes, are one example among many others of those ancient traditions erased from the memory of more “advanced” churches. What is in fact traditional henceforth seems to contradict general ecclesiastical discipline. As usual, wild accusations of “novelty” thrown in on those occasions should not be taken into account without further examination. Actually, first because of the fear of a “fall” (into marriage!) and a contempt for women (alleged to be “fragile” in front of carnal temptation), hierarchical authorities sought to abolish these female ministries within the assembly, that is to say female deacons or female ascetics still taking part in the local assembly.

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It is certain that our Western sources do not provide a very clear picture of female deacons in regard of the responsibilities they were entrusted. However, as for the range of ministries actually entrusted to women, whether they were deaconesses (in the narrow sense) or not, does not help to judge how churches regarded female ministries. Phoebe, diakonos of the church at Cenchreae, the women mentioned after the deacons in I Tim. 3:11, and the ministrae put to torture by Pliny the Younger (Lib. X, Ep. 96, 8) performed an ecclesiastical office, which constitutes them ipso facto as “deaconesses,” irrespective of a diaconate granted through the laying on of hands. This is what Origen seems to allude to, commenting on Romans 16:1 (In Epist. ad Rom. 10, 7), when he mentions the “women in charge of an ecclesiastical ministry.”

We have a well known example of these ministries — in a fashion that the Great Church does not seem afterwards to have encouraged — in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, where a virgin, Thecla, assumes the responsibility of catechising and baptising. Beside, the 1st Council of Nicea (canon 19) testifies that deaconesses constituted a well established ecclesiastical reality though remaining longer than other ministries without an institution performed by laying on of hands.

However, that this recognition, especially in the West, came only after a somewhat hesitant and lengthy evolution does not change anything to the nature of the female diaconate. It simply betrays an aspect of the mentality that dominated the espiscopal hierarchy during the first centuries of the Church, in conformity with ambient rules regarding women’s role in society. Furthermore, the desire to endow every ecclesiastical ministry with a solemn liturgical blessing is difficult to imagine before the establishment of the Church, except may be for the great ecclesiastical centres. Indeed even the need to ratify the most prominent ecclesiastical ministries with a particular blessing through cheirotonia was by no means universal and immediate. In apostolic and sub-apostolic times, it would be a complete anachronism to think of deaconesses in terms of a sacramental “rank” or dignity instituted by the laying on of hands. It would be even a stranger mistake to try and read those facts in the light of medieval Latin sacramental dogmatics with the idea of setting apart the female diaconate from the other main holy orders. History does not provide any ground for this kind of artificial distinction.

Matthew Smyth


A. Souter, Pelagius’ Expositions of Thirteen Episteles of st. Paul II, Cambridge, 1926, (Texts and Studies 9).

Ambrosiaster. In Rom., Ed. H.J. Vogels, Vienne, 1966, (Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 81, 1)

Concilia Galliae A.314-506, Ed. Ch. Munier, Turnhout, 1963 (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 148) and Concilia Galliae A.511-695, Ed. Ch. De Clercq, Turnhout, 1963 (CCSL 148 A)

Vitae sanctae Radegundis, Ed. Br. Krusch, MGH, Auct ant. IV, 2, Berlin, 1881, p. 41

Testamentum Remigii, PL 65, col. 971

Thes. Palaeohibernicus. A Collection of the Oldest Monuments of the Gaelic Language I, Ed. Wh. Stockes—J. Strachan, Cambridge, 1901, 683 (Wurzburg Universitätbibl. M. th. 12)

The Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick with other Documents Relating to that Saint II, Ed. Wh. Stockes, Londres, 1887, 354 (Liber Angeli), quoted in L. Gougaud, “Celtiques (Liturgies),” in Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie II—2, Paris, 1910, col. 2998 .

Ed. Ch. Munier, Les Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua, Paris, 1960 (see also Concilia Galliae A. 314—506).

A. Thiele, Epistulae pontificum romanorum genuinae I, Braunsberg, 1868, 376-377 (Necessaria Rerum).

L. Duchesne, “Lovocat et Catihern,” Revue de Bretagne et de Vendée 57 (1885) 6-7 and L. Gougaud, Christianity in the Celtic Lands. A History of the Churches of the Celts, their Origin, their Development, Influence and Mutual Relations,2 Dublin, 1992, 870 (Letter of Licinius of Tours…).

J. Deshusses, Le Sacramentaire Grégorien d’après ses principaux manuscrits I, Le sacramentaire, le supplément d’Aniane, 2 Fribourg/CH, 1979 (Spicilegium Friburgense, 16).

A.W. Haddan—W. Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland II, Oxford, 1878, p. 292 (Catalogus Sanctorum Hiberniae).

Studies :

For recent studies on the matter see:

R. Gryson, Le ministère des femmes dans l’Église ancienne, Gembloux, 1972 (Recherches et Synthèses; Section d’Histoire 4);
A.-G. Martimort, Les diaconesses. Essai historique, Rome, 1982 (Bibliotheca “Ephemerides Liturgicae” Subs. 24);
D. Ansorge, “Der Diakonat der Frau. Zum gegenwärtigen Forschungsstand,” in Liturgie und Frauenfrage, Ed. T. Berger—A. Gerhards, St. Ottilien, 1990 (Pietas Liturgica 7), 31-665;
M. Metzger, “Le diaconat féminin dans l’histoire,” in Mother, Nun, Deaconess, Munich, 2000 (Kanonika 16), 144-166;
M.B. Smyth, Widows, Consecrated Virgins and Deaconesses in Antique Gaul Magistra 8 (2002) 53-84…