Women, Death, and the Sacraments

By Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt

“The contagious pestilence, which is now spreading everywhere, has left many parish churches and other benefices in our diocese without an incumbent, so that their inhabitants are bereft of a priest…we understand that many people are dying without the sacrament of penance because they do not know what they ought to do in such an emergency…if when on the point of death they cannot secure the services of a properly ordained priest, they should make confession of their sins…to any lay person, even to a woman, if a man is not present.”*

This oft-cited passage speaks volumes about the devastation wrought by Bubonic plague in the late Middle Ages.  Medieval Christians, deeply concerned about questions of salvation, believed it absolutely necessary to make a final confession before their death.  Yet the swift death (most of the visibly infected who succumbed did not live longer than a week) at the hands of the disease and the overwhelming mortality rates confounded the ability of priests to hear so many confessions.  Medieval Europeans understood the moment of death as a vulnerable moment (well-illustrated by the image reproduced here), when demons might tempt the soul of the dying.  And so, the Bishop of Bath and Wells bent the rules in a rather astounding fashion.  First, he allowed that laypeople could perform this sacrament.  This alone was an amazing inversion of medieval hierarchies that invested priests alone with this authority.  But then the bishop, in a move that must have produced gasps throughout the sanctuaries of his diocese (priests would have been instructed to read his admonitions aloud), extended that same power to laywomen.  The salvation of souls, at least in this instance, trumped any misgivings about the gender of the person exercising this authority.

Yet this was not the only instance in premodern times of women being entrusted with sacramental responsibility.  Evidence from Germany and England also reveals that midwives were allowed to perform emergency baptisms.  Worried that vulnerable newborn infants might die before the priest could arrive, civic and ecclesiastical authorities admitted that it was worth jettisoning the rules in order to secure the salvation of these newly-arrived souls.  Once again, salvation trumped gender.

Significantly, what links these exceptions to the rule is the specter of death.  The presence of women at the moment of possible death from a terrifying disease or at the precarious moment of an infant’s birth created exceptional circumstances that invested them with unusual power and authority.

* Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, writing in 1349.  Reproduced in Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester, 1994), 271-3.

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is Professor of History at Cleveland State University.  She regularly teaches a course on the history of Bubonic plague and writes on the history of gender in Europe between 1400 and 1700.

  • Matthew T. Milhon

     I found this piece very interesting but the above quoted exhortation to make a confession on ones deathbed my the bishop requires a little more dissection than your piece provides. First there is a distinction between making a confession and receiving sacramental absolution. A penitent can confess to anyone as the quote above states, but the sacrament of Penance is only able to be confected by a priest or bishop in Holy Orders who is a legitimate representative of a Church, that is he must have faculties to perform the sacrament. So you are correct in saying that one is able to confess to a woman she, however, would not be able to offer sacramental absolution for said confession. Second, the aside concerning mid-wives baptizing, is also correct but not as extraordinary as it is made out to be. Anyone, a pagan cannibal from Papua New Guinea can baptize given they use the correct formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Granted the function is usually reserved to those in Orders the form and matter of the sacrament are not predicated upon a ordained male as minister.

  • Elizabeth Durack

    As Matthew Milhon’s well informed comment pointed out, it is not possible for someone who is not a priest to absolve anyone of their sins (and, it is not possible for a woman to be ordained as a priest). We can confess (tell) our sins to anyone and everyone, and it is possible for this to help us toward having contrition, but only a priest can act in the person of Christ to_ absolve_ (it is Jesus who says the words “Ego absolvo te” or “I absolve you of your sins”, though He says this through the voice of His ordained priest). If someone tells their sins to me or to a religious sister, that is not a sacrament, and the bishop quoted in this post was definitely not claiming that it is. Even if a bishop WERE to claim that lay people authorized by him could validly absolve, he would simply be completely wrong, no absolution could validly occur, and there would be the grave sin of simulating a sacrament. I think Elizabeth Lehfeldt has innocently misunderstood because of not having adequate education in Catholic sacramental theology. Nobody who understood Catholic doctrine well would think this meant that women were acting as ministers of the Sacrament of Penance.

    Baptism does not require a priest, though in Church discipline a priest or deacon is the ordinary minister of baptism. In an emergency, anyone can baptize, even someone who is not Christian, given that they use water and the form “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and that they have the intention of doing what the Church does when she baptizes.

    Matrimony doesn’t strictly require a priest either, a Christian man and woman marry each other, in the theology of this Sacrament, they themselves confer the Sacrament on one another. However, and this is a big however, Catholics only marry validly when they marry in accord with Church canon law–which normally requires the marriage to be witnessed by a priest or deacon (among other requirements). Two Catholics who just decide they prefer to go to a justice of the peace or a protestant minister cannot marry validly in that way, because Church law does not allow for it. But two baptized Protestants (or a Catholic and a Protestant, if and only if they have a required dispensation from the Catholic Church) can validly receive the Sacrament of Matrimony if they have the correct intentions, even though it is witnessed only by a protestant minister, who is a lay man or lay woman. Non Christians, or a Christian and a non Christian, can marry validly (it is really a marriage) but not sacramentally.

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