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The Episcopal Jurisdiction of Abbesses

The Episcopal Jurisdiction of Abbesses

by Joan Morris

from Against Nature and God, Mowbrays, 1974, Chapter 4, pp 16-23.

See also:

There was a close relationship between the right of queens and the right of abbesses to rule. Queens reigned as co-rulers or as regents or with sole power over their own countries. Abbesses of exempt monastic orders had jurisdiction over their separated districts in both ecclesiastical and civil matters. The mother-right of queens and empresses to rule as regents for their young sons was usually accepted throughout all historical periods, in both the East and in the West. In the Byzantine Empire empresses were co-rulers with the emperors, as, for example, Pulcheria with Marcian and Theodora with Justinian.(1) The empresses were often regents for their sons, as Irene was for Constantine VI. Empresses could also reign in their own right, as Irene did at a later period. During their reigns empresses were able to depose and elect patriarchs, legislate in both ecclesiastical and civil matters, and convoke both local and general councils of the Church.(2) In the West the Ottonian empresses and princesses continued the Byzantine tradition.

The abbesses of royal abbeys had the same position and power as the queens and empresses. The abbeys of the Middle Ages did not consist of a single convent building situated in an enclosed garden as today. The women’s abbeys, in the same way as the men’s abbeys, depended on the revenues of large territories. These included villages and towns, arable land and rural districts, which the abbesses were obliged to look after and to legislate for by means of civil and ecclesiastical courts.

The quasi-episcopal jurisdiction of an abbess or an abbot did not comprise the sacerdotal powers of a bishop. Such functions as the ordaining of priests, the dedication and consecration of altars, the blessing of the chrismatory oils were reserved to the specific sacerdotal power of the bishop alone. Jurisdiction was considered as another matter, which could be undertaken by abbots and abbesses. The heads of religious orders were not originally selected from persons who had been ordained priests. Neither Saint Benedict nor Saint Francis are considered to have been in Sacred Orders. Nevertheless, superiors of religious orders were “overseers” of their own districts, and as such they had what was later termed “quasi-episcopal” prerogatives.

The monastic freedom and exemption from taxes on their territories paid to the civil powers or from tithes paid to bishops threw the responsibility for raising income on the heads of exempt religious orders, so that they had to undertake certain forms of jurisdiction over their own domains. The right of abbesses to this form of jurisdiction was not questioned until about the time of the Council of Trent. Earlier there had been a considerable amount of litigation between religious orders and bishops concerning the right of religious orders—both monks and nuns—to take the tithes paid by the people on their territories, which otherwise would have gone to the bishops. Religious orders, however, had held their privileges from time immemorial and were unwilling to lose them.

The status of abbesses was undermined at the Council of Trent by the bishops—from whose authority the abbesses were exempt —being given the right to act as delegates of the Holy See; so although nominally not contravening the agelong jurisdiction of the abbesses, the bishops were, in fact, permitted to interfere.(3)

From very early times it was an accepted custom that monks and nuns should be exempt from tithes or taxes. The Church protected these who withdrew from society to live a life of penance and prayer as having chosen the “better part”: a life of meditation sanctioned by Our Lord himself when in favor of Mary he refused to concede to the demands of Martha.

Already in 672 in England, at the Synod of Hertford, Theodore, Bishop of Canterbury, established in canon 3 of his Penitential that “it shall not be lawful for any bishop to disturb in any matter any monastery dedicated to God, nor remove by force any of their possessions.”(4) That is to say, men’s and women’s religious orders were already independent of the bishop of the diocese with regard to their way of life and their property. Archbishop Theodore was appointed to Canterbury by Pope Vitalian in the second half of the seventh century. Theodore was a Greek monk and so must have been familiar with both Eastern and Western customs. The fact that this canon on the exemption of religious orders was third on the list shows that it was considered important.

The exemption of monasteries can be traced back to a much earlier date than the seventh century. In a bull sent by Pope John IV (641) to the Parthenon of Beatae Mariae et Sanctae Columbae et Agathae (5) the exemption, we are led to understand, was based on a custom practiced during the time of Saint Anthony, Saint Pachomius, and Saint Benedict Abbot. The Council of Carthage (525), in canon 2, gave the monasteries the absolute right to be independent, adding that they always had been so.(6) At the General Council of Carthage (536), with 217 bishops present, the right of the independence of monasteries was likewise affirmed. Bishops were requested by the Holy See to ordain the clergy of the monasteries, but only when the consent of the abbot or abbess was given. The bishops were not permitted to receive any contribution for services rendered nor to interfere in the election of the abbot or abbess. The episcopal chair was not to be erected in the abbey church except on the occasion of the dedication of the church or when the bishop was invited for a special feast day. This was likewise the ruling for the women’s community founded by Cassian at Marseilles and headed by the Abbess Respecta, as is affirmed in a letter to her from Pope Gregory the Great.(7)

The Council of Chalcedon required agreement between the religious orders and the bishops. At the Council of Arles (455), however, the power of Bishop Fregus was curtailed and the greater authority given to the abbot of Lerin.

The Celtic Church in Ireland, Britain, and Brittany gave preeminence to abbots and to abbesses over bishops as at Iona and Kildare.(8)

At the Council of Agde (506) there was a swing back to the recognition of the predominance of the bishop over the abbots. However, not long afterward, Pope Hormisdas (514-26) gave exemption to the women’s community at Arles at the request of Bishop Caesarius, brother of the Abbess Caesaria, the foundress of the Order.(9)

It was Pope Gregory the Great who established exemption of religious orders as the normal custom in the West. He first gave it to Benedictine communities and then to other orders. It is certain that Gregory the Great gave exemption to women’s orders as well as to men’s, as we have a copy of his letter addressed to Respecta, abbess of the Cassian foundation in Marseilles.(10) The letter confirms an earlier bull of Pope Virgilius giving the community exemption from the jurisdiction of the bishops. The letter required that the abbess be elected from among the nuns and not from persons outside the community, and it stipulated that the abbess be elected by the nuns and hence not appointed by an outside authority as often happened. It added that the elected abbess should be ordained by the bishop. The word ordained is translated by later writers as blessed, thus showing prejudice against the ordination of women. But in earlier centuries the word ordained was used for the consecration of abbesses. The abbesses were often deaconesses or archdeaconesses (11) and were sometimes given the title Sacerdos Maxima.(12)

Neither the bishop nor any ecclesiastic was to have any power over the Cassian community; its monastery appertained solely to the abbess. On the day of dedication of the monastery—then named in honor of Saint Cassian, although later it was called the Monastery of Saint Savior—the Mass was to be celebrated solemnly by the bishop, but afterward his chair was to be removed from the church of the monastery, corresponding to the regulations made in Africa.(13) The original letter is not extant, and we have only a copy. The injunction that the bishop should choose the priest to serve the Order seems to be in contradiction to the foregoing requirement that the bishop’s chair must be removed. It is permissible, therefore, to consider the phrase regarding the bishop making the choice of the priest, as a possible interpolation.

During the Middle Ages there was a big growth of monastic freedom. Not only the abbots and abbesses and their communities were exempt from the bishops’ authority, but the secular clergy serving them and the laity within the village churches belonging to the monasteries(14) were also included in the exemption. The religious orders were exempt from the service and taxes due to the king or nobleman and from the tithes due to the bishop. The monasteries of nuns with their clergy and people were directly dependent on the Holy See.

The effect of these exemptions was to give the abbesses as well as the abbots a position of quasi-episcopal jurisdiction; that is, they had the same duties and rights to act within their separated territories belonging to the congregation as had a bishop within his diocese. The right of jurisdiction was quite independent of the power of the priesthood, as already mentioned. In the later Middle Ages a more definite terminology was developed, and the abbesses, like the abbots, were established as of Nullius Diocesis and as Praelatura Nullius, qualitate nullius, with both spiritual and temporal jurisdiction recognized by many papal bulls through numerous centuries. The last abbess to hold this position was the Abbess Bernarda Ruiz Puente of Las Huelgas of Burgos, Spain, with twelve dependent convents holding the same privileges, whose right of jurisdiction was abolished in 1874.(15)

The books that have been published on the subject of monastic freedom have been chiefly concerned with men’s orders.(16) There were, in fact, many women’s orders with the privilege of exemption and directly dependent on the Holy See. If one takes the Register of Pope Gregory IX alone, which has the advantage of being considered completely authentic, there are numerous examples of women’s orders that were given exemption from the bishop and made directly dependent on the Holy See.

The exemption consisted as a form of protection against either ecclesiastical or civil encroachment on the territories of the monasteries. In many cases it was the donor, generally, a member of a feudal family, who requested the papal protection, so that the gift would not finish up in wrong hands. Often the bishop’s agreement was also sought and given, for it was not necessarily against the bishop’s interest to have lucrative neighbors who took over some of the burden of looking after parishes, which he had not the means to run so well. Sometimes it was the bishop himself, as in the case of Bishop Caesarius of Arles, who asked the pope for this form of protection, knowing the perils these monasteries faced. As time went on, and the papacy itself became stronger, popes were asked more and more frequently to give this papal protection. But the popes became more reluctant to give the privilege unless the order could prove that the right of exemption had been given in the past from “time immemorial.” This led to many monasteries hunting up old documents, many of which had been lost in invasions and fires and other disasters, and alleged copies were made, which later historians have considered forgeries. Such accusations have been made sometimes too easily. There is no doubt that these privileges were common. Gregory the Great gave the right of exemption to all Benedictine monasteries, Gregory IX to all houses of the Order of Saint Clare, and Alexander III to all houses of the Order of Fontevrault. The following examples, taken from the Register of Gregory IX, give some idea of how widespread was the custom in many different countries: (17)

No.406.(18) The pope confirms the privileges given earlier by Honorius III to the abbess and nuns of Sancta Maria extra Portam Sensensen de Camulia, in protection against Hugo, Bishop of Ostia and Velletra, who is stated (in an attached letter) to have no right over the monastery as it is dependent on the Holy See.

No.105.(19) Gregory IX renews the privileges already given by Pope John, Pope Leo, and Innocent III to Abbess Sophia and the nuns of Sanctae Mariae et Petri et Sancti Cyriarci in Gernode; the community and all its possessions are taken under protection of the Holy See.

No.445.(20) Confirmation of the papal exemption was given to Abbess Hersende of the Abbey of Jouarre, and of her community, clergy, and people, declaring them independent of the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Sens.

No.5267.(21) The prioress of the Convent of Halliwell, London, of the Order of Saint Augustine, whose jurisdiction over the Church of Welleswes was given earlier by Hugo of Lincoln, has her rights confirmed.

No.5274.22 Regarding a disagreement of the Abbess of Fontevrault with the Bishop of Poitou, who sought to make an episcopal Visitation, the abbey is confirmed independent from the jurisdiction of the bishop.

No.5349.(23) The Abbey of Fontevrault is again confirmed as not being under the jurisdiction of the diocese of Poitou.

No.6000.(24) All the abbesses and nuns of the Order of Saint Damian are declared exempt from episcopal jurisdiction.

The letter of Gregory IX to the Abbess Audisia of Brundisio (Brindisi) (25) is long and very interesting because it shows that a Benedictine women’s community had enormous territories with many churches dependent on it. This exempt abbey had existed a long time before the arrival of the Cistercian women’s community that took over the property of the monks of Saint Benedict at Conversano.(26) The transfer of the right of exemption is considered by some writers a terrible abuse. Had the Cistercian nuns taken over the Benedictine women’s monastery at Brindisi, they would have had a far greater district to rule and many more churches, priests, and laity under their jurisdiction than at Conversano. The bull of Gregory IX (March 15, 1233) gives the full list of the villages, churches, and property belonging to the Brindisi community. It confirms the privileges given earlier by Paschal II (1099-1118), Callixtus II (1119-24), Honorius II (II24-30), Alexander III (1159-81), and Celestine III (1191-98), predecessors of Gregory IX. There were some thirty-six churches, and it is interesting to note that in them both Greek and Latin rites were allowed, for the whole of Apulia, in which Brindisi is located, had come under Greek domination at various periods in history, while at other times it had been included under the rule of Naples.

The abbesses were given both spiritual and temporal jurisdiction. In a letter to the abbess of the Monastery of Saint Mary and Saint Apollinarius-Outside-the-Gates of-Rome in Milan, Saint Gregory states it explicitly: they have exemption: ab omni episcopali, et cujuslibet, conditionis obligatione tam temporalibus quam in spiritualibus pleno jure liberamus. And, moreover, any excommunication of the order by the bishop is declared invalid. This clause was included in many bulls.(27)


This survey gives some idea of the growth of monastic exemption and of the great number of women’s monasteries that held independent jurisdiction. It gives an idea of what this jurisdiction entailed: abbesses with independent jurisdiction had all the duties of a bishop with regard to ecclesiastical and civil administration in a diocese, which in their case was called a “separated territory.” The abbesses had spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, which in Canon Law was termed nullius diocesis or praelatura nullius. This status did not entail a priestly ordination, even though abbesses had a form of ordination.

Owing to the great number of independent monasteries governed by quasi-episcopal abbesses it has not been possible in this volume to give a really comprehensive survey. A few examples have been selected from the different countries, which show how universal a custom this form of jurisdiction became. It was considered based on a tradition of “immemorial” existence.


Dalc - Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, F. Cabrol (ed.) (Paris, 1912-1955).

PG. - Patrologia Graeca, J. P. Migne (ed.), 161 vols. (Paris,1857-1866).

PL. - Patrologia Latina, J.P. Migne (ed.), 221 vols. (Paris, 1879-1890).

Chapter Four

1. Procopius of Ceasarea, The Secret History of the Court of the Emperor Justinian (London: English translation printed by John Barkesdale, 1674), chaps. X and XVI.

2. See Appendix IV.

3. See Appendix VIII.

4. Dorothy Whitelock, English Documents (London: Eyre and Sportiswoode, 1955), vol. I, p. 651.

5. Jean Mabillon, Annalis S. Benedicti (Paris: Lutechlae, 1703-1739), p. 687. These bulls are often suspected of being fabricated at a later period than claimed; even so the formula shows what was considered to be the custom.

6. D. P. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum, Nova Editio, vols. 12 and 13 on seventh General Council.

7. See p. 19.

8. Bede, op. cit,, Book III; Cogitosus, “Vita Sanctae Brigidae” in Thomas Messingham, Florilegium Insulae Sanctorum seu Vitae et Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae (Paris: Cramoise, 1624), chap. VI, p. 193ff; J.Ryan, Irish Monasticism (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1931), pp163-90.

9. Caesarius, “Regula Virginum”, Codex Regularum Monasticarum, ed. Holsten and Brockie (Augsburg:1759), vol 2.

10. St. Gregory the Great, Epistola XII; PL. 77-78. The Vatican Ms. D. adds: “Sivi de suis elegerit ordinatur” left out of other Mss. which shows a prejudice against women being ordained, even though here the ordination did not entail priesthood.

11. See p. 65. The Abbess of the Canoness Institute of St. Mary’s Überwasser was archdeaconess and was able to represent the bishop in several towns.

12. See Appendix V. George Fabricius gave the title of Sacerdos Maxima and Sacerdotes Virgines to some twenty abbesses and canonesses or nuns in his Saxon Chronicles.

13. See p. 18.

14. The term women’s “monastery” is used in this book in preference to “nunnery”or “convent” because in the Middle Ages many women's monasteries covered large districts over which the abbesses ruled as well as over their own communities. They were very different to convent communities today.

15. See Chapter Nine on the Abbey of Las Huelgas, Burgos.

16. D. Knowles, “The Growth of Exemption” in “Essays in Monastic History,” Downside Abbey Review (1932), vol. 1, pp. 201-31; Giles Constable, chap, on "Growth of Monastic Freedom” in Monastic Tithes (Cambridge: Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 1964), vol. 10; Terence P. McLaughlin, Le Très Ancien Droh Monastique de I'Occident (Ligugé: Abbaye St ; Martin. Paris: A. Pacard, 1935); Jean-François Lemarignier, L’Étude sur les Privilèges d'Exemption et Jurisdiction Ecclesiastique des Abbayes Normandes (Paris: A. Pacard, Archives de la France Monastique, 1937); D. Z. B. Van Espen, Jus Ecclesiasticum Universum (Louvain: 1784), Tom. 1, Tit. 33, chap. 2, no. 31.

17. Vatican Ms. Reg. 17 and 18; Lucien Auvray, Les Registres de Gregoire IX (Paris: Bibliothèque des Écoles Françaises d’Athene et de Rome, 1896-1910), vols. 1 and 2 and Fascicule XII (1910).

18. Lucien Auvray. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 254. January 26, 1230.

19. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 55. June 12,1227.

20. Ibid.,vol. 1, p. 279. April 27, 1230.

21. Ibid., Fascicule XII, p. 290. July 19, 1240.

22. Ibid., Fascicule XII, p. 298. August 11, 1240.

23. Ibid., Fascicule XII, p. 346. January 23, 1241.

24. Ibid., Fascicule XII, p. 493. April 26, 1241,

25. Ibid., vol. 1, no. 1194, p. 676. March 8, 1233.

26. See Chapter Eight on the Cistercian Abbey of St. Benedict, Conversano.

27. Vatican Ms. Reg. 17. Epistle 44, A.D. 1235.

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