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Emperor Theodosius (347-395)

by John Wijngaards

The Emperor Theodosius I who first ruled the East of the Byzantine empire, then both East and West, took an active interest in Christianity as a unifying factor in his realm. The following law (390 AD) is only extant in its Latin form. The lawyer who drew up this canon, may have been unfamiliar with Eastern Church practice. He seems to have conflated ‘deaconesses’ and ‘widows’. He was concerned that a priest, who had authority over a women deacon, might claim her inheritance for the Church, at the expense of the family. The law was relaxed soon after (394).

Law XVI, 2, 27. No woman, unless older than 60 years and having children at home, should be transferred to the company of deaconesses according to the precept of the Apostle [Paul; cf. 1 Timothy 5,3-13]. She should [legally] entrust her property to her children if they are capable, – requesting the help of a guardian if the children’s age demands this, to be administered by them with religious care. She should only obtain the income of her [landed] estate, and she retains full power to keep this, sell this, give this, divide this, and bequeath either what is left of it or what she grants at her death, provided she possesses her free will. Nothing of her jewels or expensive dresses, nothing of gold, silver and other treasures of a noble household, should she spend under pretext of religion, but she should legally transfer everything totally to her children or relatives or others of her own choice And when she dies, she may not declare any church, any cleric or any poor person to be her heir.[1]


1. Mayer, Monumenta, p. 16.