In the major chapter of Gary Macy’s The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West, Macy sketches what it is that women were doing in the early Medieval Age. What he sketches clearly demonstrates that women were (1) ordained in the Roman Catholic tradition and (2) this was more rooted in local church decisions than in Rome and (3) that all this changed dramatically in about the 13th Century.
I want to sketch out his major findings and then what he thinks “church” was like in the early Medieval period.
First, there are specific terms used for women and the gifts/functions they performed. These terms include episcopa, presbutera, deaconness, and abbess. The first term might be translated “bishop” and the second one “priest” (or “elder”). These terms referred to functions more than status; they were shaped by local churches; and these terms described women who were “ordained” to those functions in those local churches. Sometimes these terms referred to wives of bishops and priests etc. but sometimes the terms refer to husband-wife teams.
Second, we need to consider functions like these: abbesses heard confessions, gave penances, and absolved people from sins. The episcopae administered churches to the level of an entire diocese. These women served at the altar and passed out communion; they preached and taught and prepared people for baptism. Some women include Theodora episcopa, “the venerable woman episcopa Q,” Brigid of Ireland, Hildeburga, the presbytera Leta, Martia the presbytera, etc..Now an important point Macy: he suggests that “the church” was simply not uniform during these days. In fact, he thinks much happened in what is called “estate churches,” that is: churches that were part of a large estate. So large that the owner of the estate got his own priest and had his own church for his family and those who worked for him. These estate churches had more control over what happened on that estate. The Pope didn’t always have control over that estate and sometimes was not happy about it.
In this situation many priests who were married and this is where it gets interesting. There are two models: Some priests continued to live with their wives and have children who followed in the priest’s vocation. Others, however, were married but chose — custom and teaching of the time — to live chaste and continent lives. The wives of such bishops and priests took vows and became episcopa and presbutera. The evidence is not entirely clear but this suggestion of Macy’s goes a long way. Macy thus suggests these words were used for women who were, in effect, in an order: married to bishops/priests but continent.
The Gregorian reforms of the 11th and 12th Centuries changed. Clerical marriage became impossible and, once standardized, the evidence for women bishops and priests, etc., diminishes and disappears and then is explained away as “it couldn’t have been that way.”