Book Review by Irene Taddiken
The Lady Was a Bishop, Joan Morris, Macmillan; NY 1973.
A very readable, thoroughly-documented book by a British writer, linguist and lecturer at the University of London. This book was written “with a sense of urgency” according to Morris, to reveal the truth about women holding episcopal jurisdiction in the Catholic Church during the middle ages. Morris begins with a very brief documentation of women priests and bishops from early church sources, and then concentrates on the history of the abbesses in exempt (not subject to the administration of the local bishop) religious orders as they exercised their canonical authority. They administered the spiritual and material affairs of vast corporate benefices which fell under their episcopal jurisdiction. They have offices and titles varying by time or place, such as deaconess, archdeaconess, sacerdos maxima, and others.
In Italy, Germany, Spain, France and England, Morris finds much interesting evidence from convent records, national archives, contracts, rules, and other sources showing that this episcopal power existed in eastern and western Europe well before the time of Gregory the Great, and continuing to this day in some places. She documents the erosion of these jurisdictions through patriarchal accumulation of benefices and wealth by men’s religious orders which authorized themselves to take over the properties originally owned by women’s orders, with which the women had been supporting themselves and their charitable and educational activities. Or they might be seized by male bishops in the increasing centralization of papal power and its international extension in the middle ages.
.An especially interesting example is the confrontation between the abbess of Jouarre and Bishop Boussuet of Meaux, when the bishop sought to take the abbey by the use of military force. A contemporary drawing shows troops attacking the gate of the convent with a battering ram. He and other Gallican bishops, during the reign of Louis XIV sought to dismantle the long-held jurisdiction of abbots and abbesses within his diocese. His legal machinations and power plays are well-described and documented in Morris’ lively but scholarly hand.
Of note are her appendices on the dual cathedrals and their significance to women, and the abbesses with powers of confession, empresses and queens with powers of “Rex et Sacerdos.” This book is full of historical vignettes and treasures, written with broad scope and masterful scholarship.