All posts by Rachel Stone

Women and law-courts: the mysterious case of the Council of Nantes

In the early years of the tenth century, Regino, formerly abbot of Prüm, but now living in exile in Trier, compiled a handbook of extracts from church councils and other sources for use by bishops travelling round their diocese. The work, in two books, is known as Libri duo de synodalibus causis et disciplinis ecclesiasticis and was very influential on later canonical collections. Among the hundreds of extracts included are a number of capitula which Regino attributes to a “Council of Nantes” – including a famous and remarkable text about women and law-courts.

The date and background to this supposed Nantes council has often been debated. Several discussions incorrectly attribute it to the year 895, confusing it with the Council of Tribur;[i] some other historians saw it as dating from the mid-seventh century. However, a detailed study by Emil Seckel of the 21 canons attributed by Regino to this council identified that a number of them were taken from the episcopal capitularies of Hincmar of Rheims and Theodulf of Orléans.[ii]

There were eight canons, though, for which Seckel could find no earlier source, which he thought could be attributed to a genuine council of Nantes.

Other historians have been sceptical about this. Gabriel Fournier claimed that Regino had simply invented the council and attributed a number of canons from other sources to it in order to give them greater authority.[iii] He thought that the eight canons for which no source had been found were probably compiled in the Rhine area in the Carolingian period; more recently Wilfried Hartmann has suggested that they date from the ninth century and look most similar to episcopal capitularies.[iv]

I argued a few years ago in a seminar paper that another of the canons that Regino cites as coming from the “Council of Nantes” might be attributable to Hincmar of Rheims. This is the well-known “canon 19”, which is often cited by writers on women’s history. Here is its text, with my translation below:

CLXXIV Unde supra
Ex Concilio Nannetensi

Cum apostolus dicat: Mulieres in ecclesia taceant, non enim permittitur eis loqui; turpe est enim mulieri loqui in ecclesia [1 Cor. 14, 34-35], mirum videtur quod quaedam mulierculae contra divinas humanasque leges attrita fronte impudenter agentes placita generalia et publicos conventus indesinenter adeunt et negotia regni utilitatesque reipublicae magis perturbant, quam disponunt, cum indecens sit et etiam inter barbaras gentes reprehensibile mulieres virorum causas discutere, et, quae de lanificiis suis et operibus textilibus et muliebribus inter genitiarias suas residentes debuerant disputare, in conventu publico, ac si in curia residentes, senatoriam sibi usurpant auctoritatem. Quae ignominiosa praesumptio fautoribus magis imputanda videtur quam feminis. Unde, quia divinae leges, ut supra monstratum est, hoc contradicunt, et humanae nihilominus id ipsum prohibent, ut feminae nihil aliud prosequantur in publico quam suam causam. Ait enim lex Theodosiana [Codex Theod. II, 12, 5, Interpretatio] : «Nulla ratione feminae amplius quam suas causas agendi habeant potestatem, nec alicujus causam a se noverint prosequendam.» Idcirco ex auctoritate canonica interdicimus ut nulla sanctimonialis virgo vel vidua conventus generales adeat, nisi a principe fuerit evocata, aut ab episcopo suo, nisi forte propriae necessitatis ratio impulerit, et hoc ipsum cum licentia episcopi sui.

(Regino, De synodalibus causis, 2.174, ed. Wilfried Hartmann, Das Sendhandbuch des Regino von Prüm, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters, 42 (Darmstadt, 2004), pp. 350-351).

174. As above
From the Council of Nantes

The apostle says: Let women be silent in church, for it is not permitted them to speak; it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. It therefore seems amazing that certain little women, acting shamelessly against divine and human laws with impudent face, incessantly go to general placita and public meetings (publici conventus) and rather perturb than arrange the business of the kingdom and the utility of the commonwealth. Since it is unsuitable and reprehensible even among barbarian peoples for women to discuss men’s cases and for those who ought to discuss their wool-working and textile work and women’s work, residing in their workshops, to usurp senatorial authority for themselves in public meetings, as if residing in courts.
This disgraceful presumption should be attributed rather to their patrons than the women. Since divine laws, as is shown above, condemn this and human ones no less prohibit women pursing any other case but their own in public. For the Theodosian law says: “Women may not have for any reason the power of acting beyond their own cases, nor should they recognise anyone’s case to be pursued by themselves.” Therefore from canonical authority we prohibit any holy virgin or widow from going to general meetings (conventus generales), unless they should be called by the prince or by their bishop, unless perhaps reason of their own necessity impels this, and this is with the permission of their bishop.

Why do I think this canon was probably written by Hincmar? Because the structure of the canon looks suspiciously like his style, piling up only partially relevant quotations for rhetorical effect. The author combines quotations from St Paul and the Theodosian code to try and suggest that both “divine” and “human” law condemn women’s attendance at such meetings (and adds in that even the “barbarians” don’t think it’s suitable). But St Paul’s quotation is irrelevant to the topic, since it’s about women’s behaviour in church. The Theodosian code, meanwhile, is talking about women prosecuting or acting in the legal cases of others, not them attending meetings which weren’t purely judicial.

The text also includes some turns of phrase that, although not unique to Hincmar, are seen elsewhere in his works, like the references to women’s workshops, and to ‘mulierculae’.[v] I’m not sure I can prove this text is by Hincmar, but it does sound suspiciously like him.

After all this rhetoric by Hincmar or another, the actual provisions are surprisingly modest. What we have right at the end is a specific prohibition about religious women (holy virgins and widows) attending public meetings without royal or episcopal permission. Even when their own cases are concerned, they must first get the bishops’ permission to attend. This provision is actually not that dissimilar from the repeated royal and episcopal demands that monks shouldn’t be attending placita. It reflects common concerns both that those living a religious life (men and women) should be properly separated from the world and also that bishops should exercise control over the religious of their diocese.

We are faced, therefore, with a canon that combines general and overblown rhetoric and only marginally relevant quotations with a fairly specific prohibition on one particular group of women. It’s also one that comes to us without a known context.

And that is a serious problem, because this text often takes centre stage in a claim that a Carolingian woman was not supposed to “try to exercise power in her own right”,[vi] or that reformers were attempting “to restrict women to a privatized domestic realm”,[vii] or indeed as a more general claim that medieval women were criticized for moving outside their own spaces.[viii] But as Janet Nelson points out, this is a lot to erect on “some actually rather uncertain bits” of text.[ix]

Even if it was Hincmar writing this canon, we’re still mired in uncertainty without more of a context. Should we read it in a narrow sense as trying to place restrictions only on religious women or is Hincmar concerned about laywomen’s behaviour as well? Does the canon reflect the view of a council (if possibly a council directed or strongly influenced by Hincmar himself) or was Hincmar alone responsible for it? And is it possible, that like many of Hincmar’s supposedly general statements, it is in fact a response to a specific conflict in which he was involved?

We know of at least one dispute that Hincmar had with a religious woman: we possess the summary of a letter he sent to Bertha, abbess of Saint-Pierre d’Avenay, regarding a conflict between her men and the monks of Hautvillers. Bertha was the daughter of Lothar I and Ermengard, but controlled a convent within Hincmar’s archdiocese; Lothar and Ermengard used this to try and exert influence within Charles the Bald’s kingdom.[x] Such an entanglement of the authority of kings, bishops and abbesses certainly provides a possible context for the canon we have, but by no means the only one. And without such a context, it is difficult to be sure of the significance of the original text.

Nor is this canon alone in its isolation from any context: a number of other Carolingian texts that appear in later canon law collections are of uncertain origin or are forged. All of us using such canons as source material need to take care that we remain aware of the context (or the lack of context) in which such statements were written and circulated and are careful about the conclusions we draw from them.

Image credit: Stuttgart Psalter, f. 33v

[i] See discussion by Janet L. Nelson, ‘Women and the word in the earlier middle ages’, in W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood (eds.), Women in the church. Papers read at the 1989 summer meeting and the 1990 winter meeting of the  Ecclesiastical History Society, Studies in Church History, 27 (Oxford, 1990), pp.53-78 at pp. 57-8.

[ii] Emil Seckel, ‘Studien zu Benedictus Levita. I.’, Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde 26 (1901), 37-72.

[iii] Paul Fournier, Histoire des collections canoniques en Occident: depuis les fausses décrétales jusqu’au Décret de Gratien, 2 vols. (Paris, 1931), pp. I: 259-61.

[iv] Wilfried Hartmann, Die Synoden der Karolingerzeit im Frankenreich und in Italien (Paderborn, 1989), p. 387.

[v] De Divortio, Responsio 3, p. 130: ‘quamque, ut dicitur, etiam feminae in textrinis suis revolvunt’; De coercendo et exstirpando raptu viduarum, puellarum ac sanctimonialium, PL 125, col. 1023, c. 8: ‘Cum etiamsi illae miserrimae mulierculae veraciter adulterium perpetraverint’.

[vi]Suzanne Fonay Wemple, Women in Frankish society: marriage and the cloister, 500-900 (Philadelphia, 1981), p. 105.

[vii] Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, ‘Female sanctity: private and public roles, ca. 500-1100’, in Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.), Women and power in the Middle Ages (Athens, GA, 1988), pp.102-25 at pp. 115-6.

[viii] Barbara A. Hanawalt, ‘At the margins of women’s space in Medieval Europe’, in Robert R. Edwards and Vickie L. Ziegler (eds.), Matrons and marginal women in medieval society (Woodbridge, 1995), pp.1-17 at pp. 6-7.

[ix] Nelson, ‘Women and the word’  at p. 57.

[x] Elina Screen, ‘An unfortunate necessity? Hincmar and Lothar I’, in Rachel Stone and Charles West (eds.), Hincmar of Rheims: life and work (Manchester, 2015), pp.76-92 at pp. 79-80.

The secular university?

The secular university?

A recent article for the Times Higher Education Supplement calling on universities to consider religion as a diversity issue brought a furious response from one reader:

In my view a university is a secular place of learning. If you want attention paid to your religion you should go to a theological college. It is not a university’s job to pander to superstition. Religion, unlike race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, is a choice and if you can’t modify your choice to cater for the university’s rules you should go elsewhere.

The comment interprets “secular” in the sense of excluding religion, rather than of a religiously neutral arena. It also displays little historical awareness: the university as a “secular” space is a relatively new phenomenon. In England, only after more than 600 years of universities did the first religiously neutral university appear, with the foundation of University College London. But rather than trace the overall history of the secular university, I instead want to use my own personal history to illustrate the difficulties of the concept.

In 1983, aged 18, I went to St Anne’s College, Oxford to study mathematics. During term-time, I spent substantial portions of the week in the lecture theatres at the old Mathematical Institute. Lectures were the main form of teaching mathematics and regular attendance at them was expected and required in order to do well.

But my time at Oxford was also expanding my experience in other ways. For the first time, I was exploring my Christian faith independently, away from the limits of attending the churches where my father was rector. I came to follow a regular routine on Sundays; the college Christian union met for breakfast and then parties of us walked down to the main student churches. In my case, I went to St Aldate’s, and after a long service (the morning service averaged about 90 minutes), then walked back to St Anne’s in time for lunch.

I was aware that religious commitment was out of fashion, so I was interested when I read an article in one of the student newspapers which quoted a mathematics student, Danielle, whom I knew slightly. She was a religious Jew, something that in my naivety I hadn’t realised, and she talked about observing the Sabbath, for example by not using her bicycle on that day. Later in the year, when we received the thick booklet with Oxford’s examination decrees and regulations, I noticed that there were provisions for Jewish students who felt unable to take examinations on the Sabbath to sit them at another time and presumed that such measures acknowledged the existence of students such as Danielle.

Fifteen years later, in 1998, I was off to Cambridge, this time to study for a master’s degree in medieval history. But as I looked at the general lecture lists, I noticed something odd about the mathematics lectures: some of them were held on Saturdays. Cambridge, like Oxford, also holds some exams on Saturdays. On their website, I can find information on special arrangements for examinations for disabled students, but not Jewish ones. A mathematics student like Danielle might have to make difficult choices if she went to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

So is Oxford “pandering to superstition”, while Cambridge is not? The question is misleading, unless you bring into the equation not only Danielle’s experience, but mine. As a Christian, every British university I’ve ever been to is set up to observe my main holy days. If they hadn’t been and I’d been expected to attend lectures on Sundays, I don’t know what I would have decided to do. Either my beliefs or my mathematical training would have had to suffer, and the suggestion that I should simply “go to a theological college” would also have excluded me from the highest level of academic education. Unlike Danielle, however, I didn’t have to make such choices, since I belong to the historically dominant religion of Britain.

The university that excludes religion then, is finally a myth, since it is inevitably embedded within wider systems that have already determined religious or non-religious parameters of acceptable behaviour. Making a university secular in the sense of religiously neutral, meanwhile, remains a difficult proposition; an awareness of the historical background is likely to be essential to doing so successfully.

The image is of Penrose tiling outside the Andrew Wiles Building, where the Mathematical Institute is now based in Oxford

Scandalous priests and bishops

In April 2014, Canon Jeremy Pemberton became the first priest in England to enter into a same-sex marriage. In September 2014 he filed a discrimination claim with an employment tribunal after he had been blocked from taking up a position as an NHS chaplain in Nottinghamshire because of his marriage.

The case is obviously personally difficult for Jeremy Pemberton and his husband, Laurence Cunnington. But for a historian it also offers some fascinating comparisons and contrasts with earlier church practice, and in particular how clergy have been disciplined over prohibited sexual behaviour. Legally, it is a relative novelty that Canon Pemberton is able to take his case to a secular employment tribunal at all. His case is complicated because of the question of whether he is employed by the NHS or by the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham (whose bishop removed his permission to officiate, which he needed for the NHS post). But employment tribunals have increasingly become willing to accept that in some circumstances ministers of religion do count as employees and thus have employment rights, although the Church of England still argues that their clergy are not employees. Secular jurisdiction over priests has historically been something that individual clerics have tried to avoid, seeking the ‘benefit of clergy’. Now, however, some of them are actively seeking it.

Canon Pemberton’s case shows more historical continuity in other respects, however. Partly this is because it raises interesting jurisdictional questions. His previous position as an NHS chaplain, which had not been threatened, was in the diocese of Lincoln, in the archdiocese of Canterbury. His new job would have been in the archdiocese of York. The implication is that different bishops and archbishops have chosen to enforce the Church disciplinary rules prohibiting same-sex marriage in very different ways. Such episcopal leeway would have seemed very familiar in the Middle Ages, where the zealous (or overzealous) enforcement of priestly good conduct by some bishops might be ignored by their successors or fellow-bishops.

And the case also displays the perennial difficulty for any Church on sexual matters: how far should it intrude into the bedroom? Sexual behaviour is by its nature private and the Church of England has stated that clergy can legitimately be in civil partnerships (and can even theoretically become bishops) provided that their relationship with their partner is celibate. There are intriguing parallels with priests in the pre-eleventh Catholic church, who could theoretically be married, though not sexually active within such a marriage.

Canon Pemberton’s offence, therefore, is not strictly speaking a sexual one, unless the bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has evidence to the contrary. Instead, it is a breach of the Church of England’s rules prohibiting clerics from entering same-sex marriages. The justification for this prohibition is taken from a canon that talks of the need for clerics and their families to be ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ’.

Such language concerning reputations would have been familiar to an early medieval bishop like Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims (845-882). He wrote numerous episcopal statutes setting out how the priests and laity of his archdiocese should behave and the means for ensuring correct behaviour. His second episcopal statute from 852 gave instructions for archdeacons and rural deans as to how they should run regular investigations into priests’ behaviour. A long section is devoted to the need for priests to avoid too close contact with women, such as allowing unrelated women to live in the priest’s house.

Hincmar, however, was not concerned only with illicit sexual activity by such priests. Almost as important was the ‘evil reputation’ (mala fama) that such priests might gain within the community. As c. 21 (p. 56) of the statute points out, Hincmar’s concern is that such behaviour by priests ‘may damage the conscience of the weak by evil suspicion’ (mala suspicione infirmorum conscientias maculent). His statute details the procedure by which such priests could be removed from office if sufficient of their congregation were prepared to testify against them. Such witnesses did not have to prove immoral conduct by their priest. They had to swear only that they had seen or knew certainly that ‘women had such access or frequenting or cohabitation with that priest, from which there could be evil suspicion and an evil reputation could get out’ (c. 21, p. 58: si vidisti aut pro certo scis talem accessum vel frequentiam aut cohabitationem feminas habere cum isto presbitero , unde mala suspicio esse possit et mala fama possit exire).

In the modern Anglican church, similar principles seem to be at work, but on a much wider canvas. Public opinion and rumours about gay priests and sexuality more generally now extend not through a small rural parish, but across the globe. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, claims that the Church of England accepting gay marriage may lead to attacks on African Christians, while another bishop reports that he was once asked in Central Africa why you now had to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. Yet at the same time, the most common reason for people in Great Britain to have a negative view of the Church of England is that it is too prejudiced against women and gay people (as Linda Woodhead found in a recent survey). How can ‘scandal’ be avoided when different audiences are scandalised by diametrically different actions?

The Church of England may well be legally successful in Canon Pemberton’s employment tribunal. While exemptions from the law of the land for churches and their ministers are now far narrower than in the days of benefit of clergy, such exemptions are well-established and not under serious threat from secular politicians. But in an era of rapid global communication, it is far harder to ensure that either individual clerics or the Anglican church itself does not end up having ‘an evil reputation’ among many laypeople.

Image credit