Personhood in Roman Law (Personhood Part V)

The interpretation of early Christian beliefs about personhood into the law of the Roman Empire began very early in the reign of Constantine. On 21 March 315, for instance, only two years after he issued the Edict of Milan, which document granted official religious toleration to Christianity following the worst persecution the Church had yet endured, Constantine promulgated a law which ordered that “if any person should be condemned to the arena or to the mines … he shall not be branded on his face … so that the face, which has been made in the likeness of celestial beauty, may not be disfigured.”62 Although the interpretation of the doctrine of Imago Dei which this law offers is rather haphazard and peculiar, it is nonetheless significant that Christian anthropology, even if in an incomplete form, was being used as a source for Roman law at this early date. Just two months later, on 13 May 315, Constantine promulgated another law with made infanticide and exposure of infants illegal in the Roman Empire and appointed money from the imperial treasury be used to feed children whose parents could not feed them.63 Similarly, four years later, on 11 May 319, Constantine issued another law which forbade masters from mistreating or killing their slaves.64 Constantine also published a number of laws whose intent was to encourage slave owners to manumit their slaves and to make the process of manumission, formerly a complicated process under Roman law, as easy and desirable as possible for them. A law promulgated on 18 April 321, for instance, grants Christian clergy the right to legally free slaves whose owners wish to manumit them.65 Another law, promulgated in an attempt to prevent poor parents from selling their children into slavery and published on 6 July 322, stipulated that children whose parents are too poor to support them should receive their support from the imperial treasury.66 As significant as are these and other laws promulgated by Constantine, the most significant reform of Roman law in accordance with Christian beliefs came under the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Under the influence of his powerful wife Theodora, Justinian included in his extensive and thorough reforms of Roman law the promulgation of many laws protecting the rights of women and children. Among them were laws prohibiting forced prostitution, allowing marriages between members of any social class, banning infanticide, granting women guardianship over their children, and allowing women to more easily leave prostitution without being subject to continuing legal or social handicaps. In justifying the promulgation of such laws, Justinian echoed the words of Paul, proclaiming, “in the service of God, there is no male nor female, nor freeman nor slave.”67 The influence of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the massive product of Justinian’s comprehensive reform of Roman law, continues to the modern day. Later, in 797-802, a woman, Irene of Athens, would reign for the first time as empress regnant of the Roman Empire.68 She also convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787.


62 Codex Theodosiani 9.40.2, in Joseph Story, ed., Conflict of Laws (Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1841).

63 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.1

64 Codex Theodosiani 9.12.1

65 Codex Theodosiani 4.8.1

66 Codex Theodosiani 11.27.2

67 Justinian, quoted in J. A .S. Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 37.

68 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 73-94.

Personhood in Greco-Roman Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part II)

Demonstration of the very narrow understanding of personhood in Greek thought begins with the earliest texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the poet Homer and composed in about the eighth century BC.1 Both works limit their purview to the lives of male Greek aristocrats. The concerns of women and children are treated only insofar as they affect the men. The concerns of slaves, of the poor, of the handicapped, and other such groups are never considered at all. The world of Homer is the world of a small but powerful elite class.

Later developments in Greek thought served to justify this narrow definition of personhood. Aristotle, for instance, writing in the fourth century BC, provided a succinct list of groups explicitly excluded from the category of personhood as well as a justification for the exclusion of each in his Politics: “Although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority; and the child has, but it is immature.”2 Because of their lack of “the deliberative faculty,” Aristotle claims that slaves, along with “brute animals[,] … have no share in happiness or in a life based on choice.”3 Similarly, says Aristotle, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”4 In addition, Aristotle also excluded the lower classes, the poor and even laborers from his definition of personhood, arguing, for instance, that “the life of mechanics and shopkeepers … is ignoble and inimical to goodness.”5 Aristotle also placed the entirety of the non-Greek population into the category of those lacking “the deliberative faculty,” asserting that “barbarians … are a community of slaves” who should rightfully be ruled by the Greeks.6

These negative assessments regarding the personhood of women, slaves, children, barbarians, and others in the writings of Aristotle can be taken as representative of Greco-Roman thought more generally. The Leges Duodecim Tabularum, or Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, a document of the fifth century BC which formed the foundation of Roman law, institutionalized the systematic marginalization and oppression of these groups within Roman society.7 In the Twelve Tables, the male head of household was granted the right to dispose of the women, children, and slaves within his household in the same manner as he treats animals and other property under his control, including the right to sell them and even to kill them; he is, in fact, ordered by the Tables to kill any children born with deformities (Table IV). Women, being property themselves, are denied the rights of property ownership (Table VI). Marriages between members of the aristocracy and members of the lower classes were banned outright (Table XI). In short, only an adult male member of the Roman aristocracy was granted full personhood in this initial document which governed and defined Roman society. This narrow understanding of personhood remained the standard understanding in the Roman Empire until the fourth century.


1 Harold Bloom, Homer (New York: Infobase Publishing, Inc., 2009), 205.

2 Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 1260a10-14.

3 Ibid., 1280a32-34.

4 Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, in Aristotle: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 737a26-7.

5 Aristotle, Politics, 1328b39-40.

6 Ibid., 1252b4-8.

7 The Laws of the Twelve Tables, (accessed 24 March 2013).

A piece of my family history

I recently came across some documents, in my grandmother’s home, related to my family’s history. Finding them fascinating even apart from my personal interest in my own family, I thought they might be of interest to some of you as well. The author of the two short passages written below is Effie (Bryza) Adamski (9 September 1887 – 24 April 1984), the eldest sister of my great-grandmother (specifically, my father’s mother’s mother), Martha (Bryza) Hanna (21 July 1901 – 1 July 2008). I have reproduced the passages exactly as they appear (on two separate sheets of paper), including grammar and spelling errors. The name headings are the headings as she wrote them. I have not been able to find out why she wrote them or for whom.

Effie Bryza Adamski

I was born in Poland Poznan 1887. I remember doing little errands, going to a neighbor to get linseed oil for toast. My Grandma lived with us. My father, John Bryza came to America 1890 with his brother-in-law, Nick Michalski and his wife.They lived in Tawas City. They worked on rail road going north. Then got a job in Alabaster in 1892. Grandma Michalski, Mother, my sister (2 years old), and I (4 years old) came 1893, Landed in Alabaster at the dock. My Auntie Mary Michalski came to meet us. I was 5 years old that fall, started school at 7yrs. Had to talk and learn in English — hard to pronounce right; went to school at age 14 and quit, got a job patching bags Alabaster plaster. When I was 16, my sister 14, we worked in Hotel help wait on tables, dry dishes. In fall age 17 got a job in the sugar beet fields, worked with girls from Alpena. Made friends, one took a liking to me (Hattie Adamski), wrote letters. Hattie came for Easter she, got a job, kind girl. She stayed until fall. Wanted me to go back with her to Ossineke, we finely came on the Train — No one to meet us, had to walk 5 miles. I was tired, sat on bench and went to sleep. My friend’s brother (Walter) came in the house. He said he feel in love at first sight. In following spring, we got married.

The second page:

Effie Bryza

I was born in Poznan, Poland September 30, 1887. A sister Katie born in 1889. Grandmother lived with us. Mother went to work in field. John Bryza, his brother-in-law, and wife came to America. Landed in Tawas, Michigan. Lived there for years (1890) Then they moved to Alabaster, got a job in the quarry. Two years later (1893), Mother, I, my sister Katie and Grandma Michalski came to America, landed in Alabaster at the dock. Aunti Mary Michalski came to meet us, got house on first block from the lake. Three years later moved on 40 acre farm. Had over 1 mile to school, quit at 14 years old, went to work. At 17 got acquainted with Hattie Adamski. She wanted me to come with her to Ossineke in the fall. I got acquainted with her brother Walter. In the spring of 1906 we got marrid. Walter and I raised 10 children all were baptized and went to St. Catherine Church, and went to St. Charles School on Nicholson Hill Rd. 2 graduated from Alpena High School. All married, 4 to polish families. Walter and I bought an 80 acre farm on Nicholson Hill, closer to the St. Catherine Church, and half a mile to St. Charles School. We had 11 children. Viola died at as an infant, 18 months, in December 1914 — May 1916. Viola is buried at St. Catherine’s church cemetery — Infant daughter of Walter and Effie Adamski.

On the back of the paper containing this passage is written in both Polish and English the hymn “Serdecezna Matko.” The Polish is handwritten, whereas the English is typed in very small letters and has a small black-and-white image of the Madonna and Child next to it. I’ve reproduced the English as written on the paper below and following that is a video I found on YouTube of a choir from Catholic parish in Minnesota singing the hymn in Polish:

BELOVED MOTHER Guardian of our Nation,
Hearken O Hearken, to our supplication.
Your loyal children, from the plain and city,
We kneel beseeching, Your great love and pity.

God of our Fathers, for so many ages,
Has shown us Justice, Mercy and His Grace;
Still we implore our Mother kind and tender;
Oh be our refuge; O be our Defender!

The Great Reforms of the 19th Century

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia came to a crossroads in its history. Under the influence of ideas largely emanating from Western Europe, Russians began to question certain aspects of their traditional way of life and government. Of especial concern was the status of the serfs, a group of people who made up the vast majority of the population of the Russian Empire but possessed a status little above that of slaves. Throughout his reign in the years 1855 to 1881, Czar Alexander II implemented a number of reforms in government which drastically altered Russian society in order to bring it in line with the new views of what a just society should look like.

The first and by far the most drastic of the great reforms implemented by Alexander II was the emancipation of the serfs. In the years leading up to and beginning Alexander’s reign, an insurrectionist spirit had begun to foment among the lower classes in Russia. Discontented with their situation, serfs had launched a large and increasing number of small rebellions since the the turn of the nineteenth century. Early in his reign, Alexander II announced his intentions to emancipate the serfs to his advisers, confiding in them that it was “better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to abolish itself from below.”1

After a prolonged deliberation on the proper means by which to go about this emancipation, Alexander II finally issued the the decree abolishing the institution of serfdom in Russia on 19 February 1861. As a result of his decree, which at least one historian has referred to as “the greatest legislative act in history,” “some 52 million peasants, over 20 million of them serfs of private land owners,” were freed.2 Along with their freedom, however, came a great deal of debt and further disappointment. In an attempt to pacify the landlords, Alexander II had limited the amount of land the serfs took with them and had legislated the necessity of repaying the landlords for this land. As a result, “overpopulation and underemployment” were rampant “among former serfs, who, at least after a period of transition, were no longer obliged to work for the landlord and at the same time had less land to cultivate for themselves.”3

As Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “the emancipation of the serfs made other fundamental changes much more feasible.”4 Such sweeping legislation, no matter how haphazard and incomplete it might have been, could not help but act as a gateway to further reform in Russian society. Other reforms, particularly in Russian government, followed swiftly.

Perhaps the most important of these reforms in government in Russia was the implementation of the zemstvo system in local government. Local government in Russia had been ineffective and overly bureaucratic for centuries. Since the reign of Catherine the Great in 1762 to 1796, local government in Russia had been conducted with the participation of aristocratic landowners in the governed areas. With the establishment of his new system of local government, Alexander II sought to both update the system, making it an overall better functioning government, and also to allow for a measure of democracy by incorporating the participation of the newly-emancipated serfs.

To this end, the zemstvo system included representation from the peasant and urban classes in addition to the old landowning class. The range of government programs and services governed at the local level also increased under the zemstvo to include things such as “education, medicine, veterinary service, insurance, roads, the establishment of food reserves for emergency, and many others.”5

Although the zemstvo system had a number of drawbacks, it was largely a positive development for Russians and functioned very effectively until it was abolished following the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917. For example, “in effect, Russia obtained a kind of socialized medicine through the zemstvo long before other countries, with medical and surgical treatment available free of charge.”6 Such free universal access to quality healthcare is an accomplishment that would not be achieved in most of Western Europe until the twentieth century and has still not been achieved in some places in the Western world.7

In addition to the reform of local government, “at the end of 1864, the year that saw the beginning of the zemstvo administration, another major change was enacted into law: the reform of the legal system.”8 In order to put an end to the corrupt and antiquated practices and approaches rampant in the Russian legal system, Alexander II decreed a number of reforms. Perhaps the most significant of these reforms was the separation of the courts from the system of administration; Alexander II made the law courts a separate branch of government from the rest of the bureaucracy.

Two other particulars of Alexander II’s reform of the judiciary also stand out as of special importance among the many reforms thereof. The first is his simplifying of the system. Whereas there had formerly been a culture of secrecy and twenty-one different ways of conducting various kinds of court cases, Alexander II ordered that proceedings be done openly and that there be only two ways of conducting court. The other especially significant reform of the judiciary was the introduction of the right to trial by jury “for serious criminal offenses, while justices of the peace were established to deal with minor civil and criminal cases.”9 Finally, and by far most importantly, “all Russians were to be equal before the law and receive the same treatment.”10

The last of the great reforms of Alexander II was “a reorganization of the military service in 1874.”11 In the spirit of democratization that ran throughout the other reforms, the military was also remodeled in the interests of equality for all people. For example, “the obligation to serve was extended from the lower classes alone to all Russians.”12 In addition to widening the pool of conscripts, the minimum length of required service was also drastically reduced from 25 years, essentially a life sentence, to a mere six. A number of benefits also accrued to those were drafted, such as the guarantee of a basic education.

Czar Alexander II’s reforms of Russian society and government were sweeping and changed the face of Russia permanently throughout the course of his reign. Largely implemented in the hopes of quelling rebellion and appeasing the new and ever-growing groups of radicals and revolutionaries in Russia, Alexander II’s reforms went a great measure toward making Russia a more modern and certainly more democratic nation. As time would soon tell, however, his reforms were not implemented nearly soon enough nor were they, at least for a significant segment of the population and especially of the intelligentsia, nearly far-reaching enough. The opening of the twentieth century, and particularly the year 1917, would spell the end of Alexander II’s reforms and of the entirety of the old way of life, and would see the implementation of much broader and much deeper changes.

1 Czar Alexander II (1855). Quoted in Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 361.

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 368.

3 Ibid., 369.

4 Ibid., 370.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 371.

8 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 371.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 372.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. 

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

The Role and Status of Women in the Early Medieval Church

The role and status of women in both society at large and in the various Christian churches has changed much in the last several decades as a result of the radical feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.1 In the light of these changes and the challenge they present to traditional ways of life and modes of thinking, much new scholarship has been produced reexamining the place of women in the history of Western culture and in the foundational document of Western culture, the New Testament.2 It seems that the most popular, or at least most influential, assessment has been to find oppression and repression of women in every nook and cranny of Western history and civilization.3 However, such views are inherently and fatally flawed for a number of rather obvious reasons; primary amongst these reasons is the rear-view perspective from which they are written, which leads to the strange position of judging the past according to standards which are quite different from those of the past but which themselves find their philosophical roots in that past. A more balanced approach is to allow the past to speak for itself and to evaluate the past based upon its own ideals and those that preceded it. With this approach in mind, this paper will discuss the role and status of women in the early medieval Church, roughly the period from the reign of Constantine I (r. 306-337 CE) to that of Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE), arguably the infancy years of what has become modern Western civilization. This paper will discuss the views of the Church Fathers on women, the ideals of Christian womanhood, and the roles that women filled in the Church during this period.

Before the role and status of women in the infancy of the Christian Roman Empire can be examined and evaluated, it is important to note, as was said above, what the role and status of women consisted of in the previous era of the pagan and pre-Christian Roman Empire. According to historian of ancient Rome Marcel Le Glay,

Freeborn women … scratch[ed] out a living as laundresses, weavers, butchers, and fishsellers, or in one of the occupations that are recorded on inscriptions at Pompeii: bean-dealer, nail-seller, brick-maker, even stonecutter. A number of poor women worked as waitresses in taverns, where they were probably expected, or obliged, to engage in prostitution on the side. In fact, for a lot of unskilled working-class women, prostitution was the only way to make a living, however inadequate. Many worked out-of-doors in the public archways (fornices). Slave women were employed mostly in the homes of the wealthy, cooking, cleaning, weaving — in short, doing whatever they were told to do, which sometimes meant submitting to the sexual demands of their owners. … It is reasonably clear also that daughters were abandoned more often than sons, perhaps because they might some day need a dowry, and could therefore be seen to be a potential drain on the family’s financial resources.4

In spite of this bleak picture, describing the role and status of women in the first centuries of the Roman Empire, roughly from the first century BCE through the second century CE, the lot of women in nearly all sectors of society, but especially amongst the upper classes, had improved significantly by the time that Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor, began his reign in 306 CE.5 Beginning in the middle of the second century CE, Roman women gained a number of privileges they had not previously possessed, including the rights to own property separate of their husbands and to initiate divorces.6 During this same period, the interest and interaction of women in philosophical inquiry, which had previously been the privilege almost solely of men, also increased significantly, as did the appreciation of the role of women in religious activities both at home and in the temples.7

In order to be understood and evaluated in context, however, it must be realized that these gains for women were not, as it may appear at first glance, the product of any organic growth from pagan thought or of a natural shift in attitudes amongst Roman pagans. On the contrary, these advances were made largely as a result of exposure to, and often as a reaction against, Christian ideas concerning women and the attraction that these ideas held for women.8

In the words of Thomas Cahill,

Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current. It is no wonder, really, that the primitive church seemed an almost fairyland harbor to women, who had always been kept in the shadows, and to slaves, who had never before been awarded a soupçon of social dignity or political importance.9

Though the estimated proportions of female to male converts posited by various scholars differ, what is agreed upon universally is that in its first several centuries “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women” specifically because, in sharp contrast with the pagan Greco-Roman civilization and all other religions and cultures of the ancient world, “Christians believed in the equality of men and women before God.”10 “It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance,”11 and it was through this penetration into the upper, governing classes of the Roman Empire that Christianity was eventually, in 313 CE,12 legalized and, in 381 CE,13 made essentially the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Fathers of the Christian Church of the first centuries after this legalization and official adoption of Christianity continued to emphasize the early Christian tradition, unique, radical, and unprecedented in world history, that all human beings, male or female, are inherently equal.

While various quotes and misquotes of the Church Fathers are often touted about for the apologetic purposes of those who would like to indict Western civilization for its supposed inherent sexism, most of these quotes are, if authentic at all, wrenched out of context.14 In addition, the choice of these quotes reflects a lopsided selectivity which leads to a biased and unbalanced view, unrepresentative of the rather balanced views of the majority of Church Fathers.15 While it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine each individual quote and to present the relevant counter-quotes to establish a more balanced view of the Fathers, a single example, from the writings of Gregory Nazianzen, a very important fourth century Christian bishop, is sufficient to demonstrate the views of the early medieval Church Fathers in general on women.

Gregory Nazianzen, who was Archbishop of Constantinople, the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire and one of the most important ecclesiastical sees in medieval Christendom, during the years 380-383 CE and who presided at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381 CE,16 wrote on the equality of the sexes and the injustice of the unequal pagan law still in force in the Roman Empire, condemning the latter by reference to aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition,

What was the reason why they restrained the woman, but indulged the man, and that a woman who practices evil against her husband’s bed is an adulteress, and the penalties of the law for this are very severe; but if the husband commits fornication against his wife, he has no account to give? I do not accept this legislation; I do not approve this custom. Those who made the law were men, and therefore their legislation is hard on women, since they have placed children also under the authority of their fathers, while leaving the weaker sex uncared for. God does not do so, but says Honor your father and your mother, which is the first commandment with promise. … See the equality of [God’s] legislation. There is one Maker of man and woman; one debt is owed by children to both parents.

… How, though you are equally a body, do you legislate unequally? If you inquire into the worse — The Woman Sinned, and so did Adam. The serpent deceived them both; and one was not found to be the stronger and the other weaker. But do you consider the better? Christ saves both by His Passion. Was He made flesh for the Man? So He was also for the Woman. Did He die for the Man? The Woman also is saved by His death. He is called of the seed of David; and so perhaps you think the man is honored; but He is born of a Virgin, and this is on the woman’s side. The two, He says, shall be one flesh; so let the one flesh have equal honor.17

Given that this quote from a single Church Father provides an accurate summary of the views of the early medieval Patristic consensus and that it indeed represents a significant departure from Greco-Roman pagan attitudes towards women, it is safe to say that a statement like that of Norman F. Cantor that “the teaching of the fourth century church fathers on sex and marriage was the first and very modest stage in the emancipation of women in western civilization”18 is itself too modest a statement.

Gregory Nazianzen’s reference to the birth of Jesus Christ from “a Virgin” in the quote above is very significant in examining the status and role of women in the early medieval Christian Church. Elizabeth Sarah Cowie succinctly summarizes the ideals of womanhood, and the model of those ideals, held by Christians in this period:

The Mother of God is the model of married women and mothers in her life with Joseph and her bearing Christ. She is the model for monastics and celibates (as well as their abbess), in that she is ever virgin and attained to perfect spiritual union with God. … The Mother of God is the ideal of Christian womanhood for all women. She embodies every virtue.19

Even the terminology that Cowie uses here to refer to the Virgin Mary, “Mother of God,” is significant and indicative of the attitude of early medieval Christians toward women. The title “Mother of God,” in Greek Θεοτόκος (“Theotokos”),20 for the Virgin Mary, although long in use amongst Christians, was officially recognized and endorsed by the Church at the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431 CE.21 “When the decision was announced, whoops and cheers filled the night, and torchlight parades began, led by women chanting hymns to the Theotokos.”22 The effect of this decision, essentially an official endorsement by the Church of the popular veneration of Mary that had been an unofficial aspect of Christian doctrine and piety since the religion’s earliest days, should not be underestimated.23 By the early medieval era, Mary was nearly universally regarded by Christians as the entirely sinless Mother of God. This view of Mary, coupled with the early Christian and medieval doctrine of recapitulation, largely forgotten by Western Christians in the later Middle Ages in favor of Augustinian soteriological views,24 had great ramifications for the Church’s view of women. Even as early as 180 CE, Irenaeus of Lyons, a Christian bishop in Gaul, could write that,

The Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled,—was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain (portaret) God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness (advocata) of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience.25

It was in the fourth and fifth centuries especially that these earlier seeds of Marian piety and doctrine, including this recognition of her role in the redemptive activity of Christ through recapitulation, began to be fully explored by the Church Fathers; the selection from the writings of Gregory of Nazianzen quoted earlier is an example of the thinking that this reinvigorated theological exploration produced.

According to the doctrine of recapitulation, Christ “passed through every stage of human growth, hallowing each and redeeming each.”26 Essentially, Christ, in being simultaneously a sinless human being as well as God incarnate, perfected each stage of human life by passing through it perfectly, undoing the sin and corruption introduced by Adam; his perfect death on the cross was the culmination of this process of recapitulation and his resurrection was the fulfillment of the process. Similarly, Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Gregory posited, the Theotokos, in being simultaneously a sinless human being as well as the Mother of God incarnate, also served the same purposes in roles unique to women, undoing the sin and corruption introduced into womanly nature by Eve. It was this exalted view of the role of the Virgin Mary in the scheme of redemption, which included her perfection of both motherhood and virginity, that informed the roles of women in the early medieval Church, as the Virgin Mary acted as the ideal and the example for women who chose either possible course in life: the family life of motherhood and marriage or the monastic life of prayer and virginity.

Naturally, the most common course for a woman to choose was the former of the two options; the vast majority of women chose to take a husband and have children. The family life being the most frequently chosen lifestyle, the amount of material written by early and medieval Christians on the subject is enormous. It is sufficient to say that the ideal marriage was that inculcated by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:22-29 (NKJV):

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.

Of course, it is no understatement to say that the reality of marriage more often than not fell far short of such a lofty ideal, as is evidenced by the regulations imposed by various Church councils as well as the frequent admonitions of the Church Fathers. It is indicative of the overall view of the Church Fathers on the relationship of men and women that these regulations and admonishments were more often directed to men than to women. For instance, the bishops gathered at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451 CE forbade the practice of kidnapping a woman and forcing her into marriage, imposing a stiff ecclesiastical penalty on violators:

The holy Synod has decreed that those who forcibly carry off women under pretence of marriage, and the aiders or abettors of such ravishers, shall be degraded if clergymen, and if laymen be anathematized.27

Another example of this attitude toward relationships between men and women, this time more specifically within a legal marriage, is the homily of John Chrysostom, a famous fourth century preacher and Archbishop of Constantinople during the years 398-404 CE,28 on the passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians quoted previously. Addressing the husbands of his congregation, Archbishop John expounded:

Thou hast seen the measure of obedience, hear also the measure of love. Wouldest thou have thy wife obedient unto thee, as the Church is to Christ? Take then thyself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yea, even if it shall be needful for thee to give thy life for her, yea, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yea, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever,—refuse it not. … Yea, though thou see her looking down upon thee, and disdaining, and scorning thee, yet by thy great thoughtfulness for her, by affection, by kindness, thou wilt be able to lay her at thy feet. For there is nothing more powerful to sway than these bonds, and especially for husband and wife. A servant, indeed, one will be able, perhaps, to bind down by fear; nay not even him, for he will soon start away and be gone. But the partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband himself enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman? Yea, though thou shouldest suffer anything on her account, do not upbraid her; for neither did Christ do this.29

For those women who did not desire the family life, monasticism was allowed by the Church as an alternative.

Although not formalized and standardized by the Church until the fourth and fifth centuries, female monasticism, a state of lifelong consecrated virginity or widowhood coupled with intense devotion and the practice of spiritual and ascetic exercises such as prayer, fasting, and charity, had been a popular, even if minority, option for Christian women since the Church’s earliest days.30 In a pagan world that attached a great deal of value to family ties and in which women were treated as the property of their fathers, husbands, and other dominant male figures in their lives, the celibate life had great appeal for many women who saw in it an escape from this tyrannical patriarchal system.31 “Their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and of their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children’s lives.”32

In the fourth and fifth centuries, the period immediately following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, spiritual seekers, including both men and women, flocked in droves to the deserts of Egypt, establishing hermitages and communal monasteries across the landscape. “The enthusiasm for the monastic life became so great that, as a famous quip put it, the desert had become a city.”33 Many famous and venerated female monastics and ascetics belong to this period, including Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Sara of the Nile, Macrina the Younger, Syncletica of Alexandria, and Mary of Egypt.34

The story of Mary of Egypt in particular presents an illuminating example of the reverence with which these holy women were held. According to the sixth century account of Sophronius of Jerusalem, Zosima of Palestine, a hieromonk,35 encountered Mary, who was naked, shriveled, and sunbaked from her years of asceticism in the desert. Mary, recognizing Zosima as a priest, approached him to ask for a blessing, in accordance with Eastern Christian tradition. Zosima, however, recognized Mary’s holiness and instead begged for her blessing. According to the account of Sophronius,

Zosima threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing. She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both: “Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosima: “Abba Zosima, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for may years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.” This flung Zosima into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her: “O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.” Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said: “Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.” Zosima answered: “Amen.”36

That Zosima was willing to break with Christian tradition and urge Mary to bless him, rather than bless her in accordance with custom, is indicative of the general attitude of Christians of all ranks and social classes to holy women found throughout the literature of the early medieval period.

So central was monasticism to the female experience and ideal in the Church that even the one ordained order that was open to women, that of deaconess, was very early on identified with monasticism. The other ordained roles in the Church, those of priest, bishop, and deacon, were viewed as the exclusive vocations of men largely because of an understanding and appreciation of the differences inherent in men and women and because of a view of the local church as a family under the presidency of a father with a unique sacramental role.37 The wives of these sacramental clergy filled the role of mother.38 The role of deaconess, on the other hand, was a sacramentally ordained ministry unique to women. Probably always an order which consisted entirely or nearly entirely of virgins and widows, the order of deaconesses, in the Late Middle Ages, faded from parish life and became identified with women’s monasteries. Eventually, probably in the High Middle Ages, it disappeared entirely, becoming united with the role of abbess, the head of a women’s monastery.39

Interestingly, the role of abbess would also come to include aspects of the prerogatives not only of deaconesses but even of priests and bishops.40 For instance, at some point in the Middle Ages, the tradition developed of asking for an abbess’ blessing and kissing her right hand upon greeting her, as had been the custom involving greeting priests and bishops; in the case of a priest and an abbess greeting each other, each blessed the other and kissed the other’s hand.

There is no doubt that the place of women in society had changed dramatically from the days of the pagan Roman Empire described at the opening of this essay. Inspired by ideas unique to Christianity, including the belief that all human beings are equal in the sight of God and the venerability of the Virgin Mary, the amount of respect for and equality granted to women would continue to increase throughout the Middle Ages. In the sixth century, Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian I, would enact a large body of legislation, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, for the protection of women.41 Still later, in the years 797-802 CE, Irene of Athens would be the first woman to reign as empress regnant in the Roman (Byzantine) Empire.42 She also convoked and presided over the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 787. This growth in the status of women in society would eventually lead to the first wave of feminism in the nineteenth century. The role and status of women in the early and medieval Christian Church, as propounded in the writings of the Church Fathers and explicated in the doctrine and piety of the Church, forever changed the way that women viewed themselves and were viewed by men, inevitably leading to a view of womanhood, and an appreciation of its distinctive aspects, far different than that of the culture which the Church had emerged from and conquered. To say, as in the words of Norman F. Cantor which were quoted previously, that “the teaching of the fourth century church fathers on sex and marriage was the first and very modest stage in the emancipation of women in western civilization” is so vast an understatement as to be a lie. On the contrary, it was the teaching of the fourth century Church Fathers, radical and innovative in its time as well as inspirational and influential in all times since, that overturned and replaced the previous order.


1 Danielle Crittenden, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).

2 Actually a collection of 27 distinct documents first compiled as is by Athanasius of Alexandria in his Paschal letter of 367 CE. See Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

3 For instance, Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 2009).

4 Marcel Le Glay, et al., A History of Rome, 4th ed. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009), 179-180

5 Jacob Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine the Great (New York: Dorset Press, 1949).

6 Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 130-1.

7 Arnaldo Momigliano, On Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), 170-1.

8 ibid., 206-7.

9 Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World (Hinges of History) (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 44.

10 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967), 58.

11 ibid.

12 Jon E. Lewis, A Documentary History of Human Rights: A Record of the Events, Documents and Speeches that Shaped Our World (New York: Avalon, 2003), 115-6.

13 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 120.

14 For example, see Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).

15 Sarah Elizabeth Cowie, More Spirited Than Lions: An Orthodox Response to Feminism and a Practical Guide to the Spiritual Life of Women (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2001).

16 John Anthony McGuckin, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001).

17 Gregory Nazianzen, “The Fifth Theological Oration,” 6-7, of “Oration XXXVII,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 339-340.

18 Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 354.

19 Cowie, 251.

20 “Mother of God” is an imprecise but appropriate translation of the word Theotokos. A literal translation renders the word as “God-bearer.” See Jenny Schroedel and Reverend John Schroedel, The Everything Mary Book: The Life And Legacy of the Blessed Mother (Avon: F+W Publications, Inc., 2006), 58.

21 John Anthony McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004).

22 Ted Byfield, ed., The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years; Darkness Descends A.D. 350 to 565 The Fall of the Western Roman Empire [Vol. 4] (Canada: Christian History Project), 183.

23 Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 55-66.

24 John Norman Davidson Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines: Revised Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 170-173.

25 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies,” book 5, ch. 19, par. 1, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 547.

26 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 144.

27The XXX Canons of the Holy and Fourth Synods, of Chalcedon,” Canon XXVII, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. 14 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 287.

28 David C. Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church: The Full Views of St. John Chrysostom (South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1996), 5-10.

29 John Chrysostom, “Homily XX on Ephesians 5:22-24,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, vol. 13 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 144.

30 Chadwick, 175-7.

31 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Random House, 1988), 87-9.

32 ibid, 20.

33 David Bentley Hart, Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith (London: Quercus, 2007), 56.

34 Margot H. King, “The Desert Mothers: A Survey of the Feminine Anchoretic Tradition in Western Europe” (2003) (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

35 A “hieromonk” is a monk who is also an ordained priest. See The Orthodox Church of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, “Glossary of Terms” (2010) (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

36 Sophronius of Jerusalem, “The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt” (2010) (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

37 John Chrysostom, “Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood,” Book 2, chapter 2, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 40.

38 Frederica Matthewes-Green, “Twice Liberated,” in Cowie, 299-300.

39 Valerie A. Karras, “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church,” Church History 73, no. 2 (June 2004): 272-316.

40 Protopresbyter Alexander Lebedeff, “How to Greet a Monk or Nun” (February 1999) at “Orthodox Christian Information Center,” (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

41 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (London: Routledge, 1999), 11-39.

42 ibid, 73-94.


Burckhardt, Jacob. The Age of Constantine the Great. New York: Dorset Press, 1949.

Byfield,Ted, ed. The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years; Darkness Descends A.D. 350 to 565 The Fall of the Western Roman Empire [Vol. 4]. Canada: Christian History Project.

Cahill, Thomas. Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World (Hinges of History). New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Dorset Press, 1967.

Cowie, Sarah Elizabeth. More Spirited Than Lions: An Orthodox Response to Feminism and a Practical Guide to the Spiritual Life of Women. Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2001.

Crittenden, Danielle. What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Daly, Mary. The Church and the Second Sex. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf, 2009.

Ford, David C. Women and Men in the Early Church: The Full Views of St. John Chrysostom. South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1996.

Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527-1204. London: Routledge, 1999.

Garnsey, Peter and Richard Saller. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Gregory Nazianzen. “Oration XXXVII” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 2nd Series, Vol. 7. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.

Hart, David Bentley. Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith. London: Quercus, 2007.

Irenaeus of Lyons. “Against Heresies” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.

John Chrysostom. “Homily XX on Ephesians 5:22-24” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 1st Series. Vol. 13. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

John Chrysostom, “Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 1st Series. Vol. 9. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.

Karras, Valerie A. “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church.” Church History 73, no. 2 (June 2004): 272-316.

Kelly, John Norman Davidson. Early Christian Doctrines: Revised Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1978.

King, Margot H. “The Desert Mothers: A Survey of the Feminine Anchoretic Tradition in Western Europe” (2003) (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

Lebedeff, Protopresbyter Alexander. “How to Greet a Monk or Nun” (February 1999) at “Orthodox Christian Information Center.” (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, Yann Le Bohec, David Cherry, Donald G. Kyle, and Eleni Manolaraki. A History of Rome. 4th ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009.

Lewis, Jon E. A Documentary History of Human Rights: A Record of the Events, Documents and Speeches that Shaped Our World. New York: Avalon, 2003.

McGuckin, John Anthony. Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.

McGuckin, John Anthony.Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Momigliano, Arnaldo. On Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

The Orthodox Church of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. “Glossary of Terms” (2010) (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity. New York: Random House, 1988.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Schroedel, Jenny and Reverend John Schroedel. The Everything Mary Book: The Life And Legacy of the Blessed Mother. Avon: F+W Publications, Inc., 2006.

Sophronius of Jerusalem. “The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt” (2010) (Retrieved 10 November 2010).

The XXX Canons of the Holy and Fourth Synods, of Chalcedon” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 2nd Series, Vol. 14. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.