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In Catholicism, an abbess (Latin abbatissa, feminine form of abbas, abbot) is the female superior of a community of nuns, which is often an abbey. In the Catholic Church (both the Latin Church and Eastern Catholic), Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Anglican abbeys, the mode of election, position, rights, and authority of an abbess correspond generally with those of an abbot.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Historical origin

Monastic communities for women had sprung up in the East at a very early period. After their introduction into Europe, towards the close of the fourth century, they began to flourish also in the West, particularly in Gaul, where tradition ascribes the foundation of many religious houses to St. Martin of Tours. Cassian the great organizer of monachism in Gaul, founded a famous convent at Marseilles, at the beginning of the fifth century, and from this convent at a later period, St. Caesarius (d. 542) called his sister Caesaria, and placed her over a religious house which he was then founding at Arles. St. Benedict is also said to have founded a community of virgins consecrated to God, and to have placed it under the direction of his sister St. Scholastica, but whether or not the great Patriarch established a nunnery, it is certain that in a short time he was looked upon as a guide and father to the many convents already existing. His rule was almost universally adopted by them, and with it the title Abbess came into general use to designate the superior of a convent of nuns. Before this time the title Mater Monasterii, Mater Monacharum, and Praeposisa were more common. The name Abbess appears for the first time in a sepulchral inscription of the year 514, found in 1901 on the site of an ancient convent of virgines sacræ which stood in Rome near the Basilica of St. Agnes extra Muros. The inscription commemorates the Abbess Serena who presided over this convent up to the time of her death at the age of eighty-five years: "Hic requieescit in pace, Serena Abbatissa S. V. quae vixzit annos P. M. LXXXV."

In medieval times the Abbesses of the larger and more important houses were not uncommonly women of great power and distinction, whose authority and influence rivalled, at times, that of the most venerate bishops and abbots. In Saxon England,

they had often the retinue and state of princesses, especially when they came of royal blood. They treated with kings, bishops, and the greatest lords on terms of perfect equality;. . . they were present at all great religious and national solemnities, at the dedication of churches, and even, like the queens, took part in the deliberation of the national assemblies, and affixed their signatures to the charters therein granted. (Montalembert, "The Monks of the West," Bk. XV.)

In Germany the Abbesses of Quedimburg, Gandersheim, Lindau, Buchau, Obermünster, etc., all ranked among the independent princes of the Empire, and as such sat and voted in the Diet as members of the Rhenish bench of bishops. They lived in princely state with a court of their own, ruled their extensive conventual estates like temporal lords, and recognized no ecclesiastic superior except the Pope. After the Reformation, their Protestant successors continued to enjoy the same imperial privileges up to comparatively recent times.

In France, Italy, and Spain, the female superiors of the great monastic houses were likewise very powerful. But the external splendour and glory of medieval days have now departed from all.

Notable abbesses

  • Saint Brigid of Kildare
  • St. Edith of Polesworth
  • Æthelgifu
  • Æthelthryth of Ely / Etheldreda / Audrey
  • Herrad of Landsberg
  • Heloise (of Heloise and Abelard fame)
  • Hildegard of Bingen
  • Margarete of Werdenberg
  • St. Scholastica (though there's no evidence that the title was used for her)
  • Teresa of Avila
  • Elisabeth von Wetzikon
  • Katharina von Zimmern

References

  • “Medieval Clergy”, medievalchronicles.com < link >
  • Abbess Wikipedia
  • Oestereich, T. (1907). Abbess. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 2, 2022 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01007e.htm
  • Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Abbesses in Women's Religious History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, http://thoughtco.com/abbesses-in-womens-religious-history-3529693.
  • ”Abbesses, Feudal Society, and Power.” rulingwomen.ch <link>
  • “Daughters of the Church: Women and ministry from New Testament times to the present,” by Ruth A. Tucker and Walter L. Liefield, Zondervan 1987 pp 143-145. Quoted at “Abbesses”, Women’s Ordination Worldwide, January 30, 2020. < link >
  • “A Beginner’s Reading List: Medieval Nuns.” September 21, 2016, < link >
  • “Nuns – Powerful women in the Middle Ages.” By Andrej Abplanalp, Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum. (2020) < link >
  • “Cantiga 7 The pregnant abbess.” Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index. < link >
  • Search on keyword “Abbess” at Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index. < ink >
  • Æthelgifu, Abbess of Shaftesbury Wikipedia
  • “Etheldreda: Queen, Abbess, Saint.” By Jessica Brewer (2019) medievalists.net < link >; “Æthelthryth of Ely, perpetual virgin.” Jun 23, 2016 | Bibliography of British and Irish History, Digital Resources, IHR Digital (2016) < link >
  • “One year of Ælfgif-who?! International Women's Day 2022.” By Florence H R Scott.< link >
  • Hildegard of Bingen Wikipedia; Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Hildegard of Bingen, Mystic, Writer, Composer, Saint." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, http://thoughtco.com/hildegard-of-bingen-3529308; “Hildegard of Bingen fought the patriarchy from her cloister.” atlasobcura.com. < link >
  • Héloïse Wikipedia
  • “My Sister for Abbess: New Research: fifteenth-century disputes over the Abbey of Sainte-Croix, Poitiers.” Medieval Histories, NATURE HISTORY HERITAGE (05/01/2014). < link >