Abbesses who were 'Sacerdos'
For about 600 years, from the 6th to the 13th century, a number of abbesses in Western Europe carried the title 'Sacerdos'. The title seems to have been given mainly to abbesses who enjoyed so-called 'double jurisdiction. This did not mean, however, that all abbesses with double jurisdiction could claim the title.
Source: Joan Morris, The Lady was a Bishop. The History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops, Macmillan, New York 1973.
'Jurisdiction' is a legal term which expresses the right and power to exercise authority over a certain territory. 'Double jurisdiction' refers to the power possessed by abbesses who enjoyed almost complete political power as well as ecclesiastical power over a certain territory.
Double jurisdiction came about when Kings founded abbeys which they exempted from interference from other governmental authorities and for which the same Kings obtained from the Pope a similar exemption of interference from church authorities, such as local bishops. In France, for instance, the abbeys of Jouarre and Fontevrault enjoyed such double jurisdiction. So did in Germany the religious institutes of Quedlinburg and of Saint Mary's Überwasser in Münster with their various abbeys.
The abbesses were 'ordained' by one or more bishops. Their ordination included:
• the laying on of hands by the bishop
• being invested with quasi-episcopal vestments and a stole
•receiving a mitre and crozier
The temporal power of the abbess consisted in:
• administering the lands, with all their servants & tenants
• running hospitals & institutions for the area
• collecting her own taxes.
Her ecclesiastical jurisdiction
• appointing priests to parishes & paying their salaries (She could not ordain the priests);
• overseeing the running of the parishes, maintaining their church buildings;
• excommunicating heretics or dissidents;
• in some cases, hearing the confessions of her sisters.
The Abbess Sacerdos
In some instances - we do not know exactly why - particular abbesses received the title of 'Sacerdos' [= cult priest] or even 'Sacerdos Maxima' [= cultic highpriest].
In Christian communities, leaders were called 'presbyters' [= our word for priest]. Deriving from the Greek language it really means: elders of the community, community leaders. Originally Christians did not use the pagan term 'sacerdos', a Latin term referring a temple priest, a priest performing a cult act. But from the early Middle Ages, in line with a shift of the community leader's function to more 'sacrificial' tasks in churches that looked like ancient temples, the term 'sacerdos' became common, next to 'presbyter'.
It seems that in the case of the 'Abbess Sacerdos', the stress was the sacerdotal responsibility for liturgical worship. Although the abbess did not preside at the Eucharist, because of her ecclesiastical jurisdiction, she was seen as having overall responsibility for the cultic worship by the communities in her charge. After all, she appointed the parish priests, built & maintained parish churches and so fulfilled the spiritual needs of the people in her area.
In total, we know of 14 abbesses who carried the title.
England• Sacerdos Maxima of Ebchester: Aedda (642) & Elfrida• Sacerdos Maxima of Brigg: Adelburga• Sacerdos Maxima of Ely: Sexburga (679)
Germany• Sacerdos of Gandersheim: Roswitha (950) & Gerberga II (956)• Sacerdos Maxima of Quedlinburg: Matilda (966), Adelheid (999) & Sophia (1203)• Sacerdos of Gebstedt: Sophia (ca 1000)• Sacerdos of Paderborn: Sophia (ca 1035)• Sacerdos of Passau: Helica• Sacerdos of Prague: Agnes of Bohemia (ca 1233)• Sacerdos Magna of Suselic: Beatrix (died 1310)
Ministries of women in the West
gaul, italy, germany
north africa, gaul, italy
england, wales, ireland
southern italy, sicily
basque area, gaul, spain
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