Women The influence of Christianity did much in early times for the female sex. They were freely admitted to the Church, but they sat in upper rooms or galleries set apart for them. In many churches they had a gate of their own by which to enter, and of which the deaconess had charge. SEE DEACONESS. But women were never allowed to preach, though they might hold the rank of deaconess, and as such might instruct privately catechumens and their own sex generally. The Montanists (q.v.) were an exception to this general rule. As women were not to preach, so they could not baptize; nor were they allowed to keep private vigils. Tertullian thus describes the felicity of domestic life: "How can we find words to express the happiness of that marriage which the Church effects, and the oblation confirms, and the blessing seals, and the angels report, and the Father ratifies! What a union of two believers, with one hope, one discipline, one service, one spirit, and one flesh! 'Together they pray, together they prostrate themselves, and together keep their fasts, teaching and exhorting one another. They are together at the Church and at the Lord's Supper; they are together in straits and refreshments . . . Christ rejoices on hearing and beholding such things; to such persons he sends his peace. Where the two are, he is himself; and Where he is, there the evil one is not." — Eadie, Eccles. Cyclop. page 662; Bingham, Christ. Ant. book 2, chapter 22; SEE DIVORCE; SEE MARRIAGE; SEE WIDOWS.
The estimate of womanhood in the earliest Christian literature exhibits a remarkable contrast to that of paganism, as both attaching far more importance to female modesty and chastity, and, at the same time, greatly enhancing the dignity of the female character and enlarging the sphere of woman's activities. The epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians speaks of the husbands whom he addresses as exhorting their wives to the discharge of their duties with a blameless, grave, and pure conscientiousness, and in a spirit of conjugal affection, and also teaching them to superintend domestic matters with dignified decorum (σεμνῶς) (c. 1, ed. Dressel, page 48). In the same manner, Polycarp (Ad Philipp. c. 4) exhorts the Christian wives of Philippi to live in the faith, in love and purity, to duly honor their husbands, and to instruct their children in the fear of the Lord. Second marriages being systematically discouraged in the early Church, the advice given by the same writer to the widows seems directed against the faults to which iwomen, when lonely and unemployed, are specially prone — "calumny, speaking against their neighbors, bearing false witness, and avarice " (ed. Dressel, page 381).
The advice of Tertullian (Ad Uxorem, book 2, c. 8), that a woman should not refuse to marry one slightly below herself in station, provided he is likely to prove in other respects a good husband, points probably to the existence of a certain social ambition among those to whom his treatise is addressed, which he considered unworthy of the Christian character. As contrasted with the cruelty which too often disgraced the privacy of pagan households,we find Chrysostom observing that it is a shame for a man to beat his female slave, much more his wife (In Epist. I, Ad Corinth. Hom. 26; Migne, Patrol. Graece. 61:222).
The teaching of the most enlightened of the fathers was. undoubtedly to. the effect that there was no natural inferiority in the woman to the man. Theodoret (Grcee. Affect. Curat. book 5) insists emphatically on their exact equality, and says that God made woman from man in order that the tendencies and action of both might be harmonious. Sometimes, indeed, he observes, woman has been found superior to man in encountering adversity (Migne, 83:836). Chrysostom (Hoern. 61:3) says that no one is more fit to instruct and exhort her husband than a pious woman. This conception differed, however, materially from that of Plato (Repub. 5:455), in that while the Greek philosopher sought to obliterate the ordinary distinctions between the sexes, the Christian father held that nature assigned to woman her special and distinct province of activity. Chrysostom, in a passage of singular beauty, gives us a comparison between the duties of the wife and those of the husband, the former being represented as in some respects the more dignified; for while the husband is described as engaged in the rougher work of life, in the market or the law-courts, the wife is represented as remaining at home and devoting much of her time to prayer, to reading the Scriptures, — καὶ τῇ ἄλλῃ φιλοσοφίᾷ. When her husband returns, harassed with his labors, it is her function to cheer and to soothe him, so that he again goes forth into the world purified from the evil influences to which he has there been exposed, and carrying with him the higher influences of his home-life (In Joann. Hom. 61; Migne, 59:340).
The participation of young females in the exercises of the palsestra and in races, commended by pagan theorists (Grote, Plato, 3:217), is condemned by Clemens of Alexandria (Ped. 3:10) as altogether repugnant to the notions of female modesty (Migne, 8:626). Chrysostom (In Matthew Hom. 1) contrasts the difference in relation to these points between Christian and pagan teaching, and even goes so far as to affirm that true virginity was a notion which paganism was unable to realize (Migne, 57:19).
At the same time we have satisfactory evidence that this exalted conception of the female character and female duties did not involve any renunciation of woman's humbler functions. Clemens says that it is right that women should employ themselves in spinning, weaving, and watching the bread- maker (τῇ πεττούσῃ), and that it is no disgrace for a wife to grind corn or to superintend the cookery with the view of pleasing her husband (Migne, 8:626).
The excessive luxury of the 4th century would seem, however, to have been not less fatal to the maintenance of this high ideal than to other features of the Christian character. Amedee Thierry says that, by one of those contradictions which "deroutent la logique des idees," christianity itself, essentially the religion of the poor, conspired to give to the manners of the Western empire a degree of effeminacy unknown in pagan times (Saint Jerome, page 2). Chrysostom declares that many of the ladies of Constantinople would not walk across even a single street to attend church, but required to be conveyed for the shortest distance (In Matthew Hom. 7; Migne, 57:79). When there they were to be seen with their necks, heads, arms, and fingers loaded with golden chains and rings, their persons breathing precious odors, and their dresses of gold stuff and silk (Milman, Hist. of Christianity, book 4, c. 1). Others, again, affected masculine apparel, and seemed to blush for their womanhood, cutting short their hair, and presenting faces like those of eunuchs (Jerome, Epist. 18). According to the same authority, the greater facilities possessed by ecclesiastics for gaining admission to female society was an inducement with some to become priests (ibid.). Elsewhere Jerome strongly dissuades the clergy from accustoming themselves to private interviews with those of the other sex (Epist. 52; Migne, 22:260).
The exaggerated importance attached by Jerome to the unwedded life, as one of superior sanctity, seems to have led him to dwell somewhat harshly on the weaknesses and worldliness of many of the wealthy matrons of his day, He represents them as given to excessive personal adornment, and bestowing much of their time on preparations for feasts and other household matters. When, however, we find him enumerating such obvious duties as "dispensatio domus, necessitates mariti, liberorum educatio, correctio servulorum," as prejudicial to the higher interests of the soul, we perceive that his tone is that of one to whom the ascetic life alone appeared adequately Christian (De Perp. Virg. c. 20; Migne, 23:228). On the other hand, it is evident that the state of Roman society at this time rendered it exceptionally difficult for Christian women to carry the principles of their religion into daily practice. Of this Marcella's retirement to her mansion in the suburbs, as described by the same father, is an indication. He depicts the very different future which her mother, Albina, had designed for her a splendid marriage and the possession of great wealth, while the daughter rarely issued from her seclusion save to visit the churches of the apostles and martyrs, especially those least frequented by the multitude (Epist. 96). The mistresses of large establishments, according to Jerome, were often exposed to exceptional temptations; and he states that young widows would sometimes consent to marry even pagan husbands, in order to avoid being plundered by dishonest stewards. and to escape the anxieties inseparable from the management of a large household, thus bringing home to their children by a former marriage, "not a guardian, but an enemy; not a parent, but a tyrant" (Epist. 54; Migne, 22:291). Among other indications of the confusion and demoralization characteristic of that and the following century must be included that laxity of Church discipline which permitted the performance of public religious rites to be sometimes intrusted to women. In the twenty-first canon of the collection ascribed to Gelasius this is spoken of as evidence of the "contempt" into which religion had fallen.
It is generally assumed, though on somewhat scanty and doubtful evidence, that at the period of the conversion of the Teutonic nations the regard for female chastity and the respect paid to the sex were greater among pagan communities than among the Latin races. But however this may have been, it is certain that the views inherited and handed down by the Western Church with regard to "the personal and propriety liberty of women" were greatly superior to those that find expression in any of the barbaric codes, Something of this feeling seems reflected in Jerome when (Epist. 130) he censures parents for their too common practice of leaving deformed or otherwise unmarriageable daughters inadequately provided for (Migne, 22:981). "The Church," says sir Henry Maine, "conferred a great benefit on several generations by keeping alive the traditions of the Roman legislation respecting settled property," and he points out that Christianity was really carrying on the tradition of the Roman dos. The formula of the marriage service, " With all my worldly goods I thee endow," is one, he says, "which sometimes puzzles the English lawyer from its want of correspondence with anything which he finds among the oldest English law" (Early Hist. of Institutions, page 337; see also De Broglie, L'Eglise et l'Empire, I, 2:273, and Eclaircissement D).