Ordained women deacons in Gaul

There is good evidence to show that ordained women deacons existed in Gaul from the fourth century onwards.

(1) We know 6 women deacons in Gaul of this period by name: Geneviève of Paris, Radegund of Poitiers, Theodora of Ticini, Sigolena of Arles, Hilaria of Reims and Ida of Remiremont.

Local Councils

(2) Eight local Councils mention the presence of women deacons: Nîmes, Orange, Vannes, Epaon, Orléans, Tours, Macon and Reims. Most of these belong to the Province of Lyons. Usually the response to women deacons is negative: they should no longer be ordained; their diaconate should be abrogated 'from our region'; etc. This reveals both the prejudice of the original Roman colonisers, but also, perhaps, macho opposition from the new masters, the Franks. But the repeated rejection of women's diaconate proves its persistent presence.

1. Canons of the Synod of Nîmes

in the province of Narbonne- 394 AD - Translation by John Wijngaards

Canon 2. Illud aetiam a quibusdam suggestum est, ut contra apostolicam disciplinam incognito usque in hoc tempus in ministerium feminae nescio quo loco levviticum videantur adsumptae; quod quidem, quia indecens est, non admittit ecclesiastica disciplina; et contra rationem facta talis ordinatio distruatur: providendum, ne quis sibi hoc ultra praesumat . Source: Hefele-Leclercq, p.93


Canon 2. “It has also been suggested by some persons that, contrary to the apostolic church order, - unheard of until this time! - women have been admitted to the levitical [= diaconal] ministry I don't know in what place. This, however, is something church order does not allow because it is indecent. And since such an ordination has been performed against reason, it should be undone. Moreover, steps should be taken to ensure no one else will anymore presume to do such a thing. ”

Comment: Some commentators have argued that 'levitical' here means 'priestly' ministry. This seems unlikely: (1) People at the time were well aware of the Old Testament distinction between the ministry of priests, descendants of Aaron and Zadoc, and that of Levites. (2) The Church context in Gaul witnesses a reaction against the introduction of women deacons not women priests.

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2. The Canons of the Synod of Orange

441 AD - Translation by John Wijngaards

Canon 12. Diaconae omnimodis non ordinandae: si quae iam sunt, benedictioni quae populo impenditur, capita submittant. - Source: Mansi VI, 440  

Canon 26. “Altogether no women deacons are to be ordained. If some already exist, let them bend their heads to the blessing given to the (lay) people.”

Comment. Note that the woman deacon is called 'diacona', using the ancient term rather than just 'diaconissa'.
During the blessing the clergy stood on the side of the bishop or priest, joining the blessing he gave. Here the female deacons are told to stand on the side of the people and ‘receive’ the blessing. 

3. The local Council of Vannes

Province of Lyons - 465 AD - translation by John Wijngaards

Canon 4. Eas etiam, quae virginitatem professae et benedictionem fuerint per manus impositionem sub contestatione huius propositi consecutae, si fuerint in adulterio deprehensae , cum adulteris ipsarum arcendas a communione censemus. - Source: Mansi VII, 553


Canon 4. “We are of the opinion that those women who vowed virginity and [those] who obtained ordination by the imposition of hands on professing the vow, if they are caught in adultery, should, together with the men they committed adultery with, be banned from communion.”

Comment: 'Blessing' with the imposition of hands is always ordination. The Canon therefore speaks about two categories of women: (a) women who vowed chastity and (b) women deacons for whom the vow of celibacy was a condition. See about this also the Council of Macon.

4. The local Council of Epaon

517 AD

Can 21. Viduarum consecrationem, quas diaconas vocitant, ab omni regione nostra penitus abrogamus, sola eis poenitentiae benedictione, si converti ambiunt, imponenda. - Source: MANSI VIII, 561


Canon 21. “We abrogate the consecration of widows whom they call ‘women deacons’ completely from our region. If they wish to convert, no more than the blessing of penance should be imposed on them.”

Comment: The word used for woman deacon is the ancient form 'diacona', not the later 'diaconissa'.

5. Canons of the Second Synod of Orléans

533 AD - translation by John Wijngaards

Canon 17. Faeminae, quae benedictionem diaconatus hactenus contra interdicta canonum acceperunt, si ad coniugium probantur iterum devolutae , a communione pellantur. Quod si huiusmodi contubernium ab episcopo cognito errore dissolverint, in communionis gratiam acta penitentia revertantur.

Canon 18. Placuit etiam, ut nulli postmodum faeminae diaconalis benedictio pro conditionis huius fragilitate credatur. Source: MANSI VIII, 837


Canon 17: “Women who have so far received the ordination [lit. blessing] to the diaconate against the prohibitions of the canons, if it can be proved that they have returned to matrimony, should be banned from communion. But if they have given up this living together after they have acknowledged their error in front of the bishop, let them return to the grace of communion after fulfilling a penance.”

Canon 18. “It has pleased us to decree that from now on the diaconal ordination [lit. blessing] should not be imparted to any woman, because of the weakness of her [female] condition [= nature].”

Note: the 'diaconal ordination' literally: the 'diaconal blessing'. In this period 'blessing' with the imposition of hands always means ordination.

6. The Second Synod of Tours - 567 AD

The context of this canon concerns women who have made a vow of chastity. The theme has drifted to a widow who has had the outspoken intention of not marrying again. To the reasonable objection: 'Why can't she marry again since she has not been ordained?', the answer is given that nothing is written in canonical records about ordained widows. Having expressed the intention of not marrying again should suffice to establish her as a woman dedicated to chastity. Moreover, someone remembers that the Synod of Epaon had abolished the ordination of 'widows' . . . The author was obviously not familiar with women deacons.

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 Source: MANSI IX, 799-800


Canon 20. “ . . . 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. Father) 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.

7. Canons of the Synod of Macon

581 AD - translation by John Wijngaards

Canon 12. De puellis vero quae se Deo voverint, & praeclarae decore aetatis ad terrenas nuptias transierint, id custodiendum esse decrevimus, ut si quae puella voluntarie, aut parentibus suis rogantibus, religionem professa, vel benedictionem fuerit consecuta, & postea ad conjugium, aut illecebras saeculi quod potius stuprum est quam conjugium judicandum, transgredi praesumpserit, usque ad exitum, cum ipso qui se huiusmodi consortio miscuerit, communione privetur.
Quod si se paenitentia ducti sequestraverint, quamdiu episcopi loci illius visum fuerit, a communionis gratia suspendantur ita tamen ut propter infirmitatem, aut subitaneum transitum viaticum illis miserationis intuitu non negetur.
Source: MANSI IX, 934


Canon 12. “ With regard to girls who have vowed themselves to God, and on account of the glamour of a notorious age have gone over to an earthly marriage, we decree that this needs to be observed, namely that if the girl has professed her religious state voluntarily or at the request of her parents, or if she has obtained ordination (lit. blessing), and afterwards has presumed to go over to matrimony, that is to say to the seductions of this world that should be judged adultery rather than matrimony, she should be deprived of communion until death, together with the man who entered into such a union with her.

But if, inspired by regret, they have separated from each other, they should still be suspended from communion for as long as the bishop of that place decides, but under this provision that because of ilness or sudden departure (from life) the last rites should not be denied to them on compassionate grounds.

Comment: 'Obtaining a blessing' is here clearly distinguished from just receiving the veil of virginity. Blessing seems to refer to real 'ordination' as in so many other texts, and in particular the ordination to the diaconate. A woman deacon was expected to embrace celibacy, just like a women receiving the veil of virginity and the same rules of punishment & reconciliation apply to her if she breaks her promise. The same provision was made in the Local Council of Vannes.

8. Canons of the Synod of Reims

Gaul, province of Lyons - 630 AD - translation by John Wijngaards

Canon 23. Viduas quae se domino consecrari petierint, vel puellas domino consecratas, nullus neque per auctoritatem regiam, neque qualiconque potestate suffultus, aut propria temeritate rapere, aut trahere audeat. Quod si utrique consenserint, communione priventur. Source: MANSI X, 597


Canon 23. “Let no one either on the authority of the King nor supported by whatever power nor on his own temerity rape widows who have asked to be consecrated to the Lord or women who have been consecrated to the Lord, neither let anyone dare to hand them over. But if it was by common consent, they should be deprived of holy Communion. ”

Note: the reference to the power of the king in Canon 23 above obviously refers to the well-known case of St Radegund who was ordained deacon in the same region by the Bishop of Noyon in 550 AD. King Clothaire, Radegund's husband, was trying to force her to leave the monastery in Poitiers where she had found refuge. The phrase: "widows/women who have been consecrated to the Lord" therefore refers to the case of women deacons.

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