Gregory I’s Female Correspondents
Gregory I’s Female Correspondents
Some of our best sources of information about specific women in the early centuries of Christianity come from the correspondence of church fathers, particularly Jerome at the turn of the fifth century and Gregory I about two centuries later.
Jerome’s letters were mostly replies to women’s frequent questions on biblical interpretation. He was often criticized for this activity, to which he replied, “If men asked about scripture, I would not be speaking to women.”
As many church fathers, Jerome was a firm believer in celibacy as a necessity for the ideal Christian life, and his letters to women are filled with this preoccupation, encouraging them not to marry or, if already married, to convince their husbands to live with them as brother and sister. His reasoning was simple: if the Apostle Paul says both “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5) and “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17), it follows that “either we pray always and are virgins, or we cease to pray that we may fulfil the claims of marriage.”
Because of this, the only women we get to know through his letters are the ones he praises for following these guidelines.
Gregory’s letters were different. His words ring with a genuine interest in his correspondents, regardless of their gender, and are filled with encouragement and suggestions on how to stay faithful to the callings God had given them – in marriage and out of marriage, as rulers or as nuns. As a man who had been reluctant to accept his appointment as pope, he could often speak from experience.
Besides, Gregory is not afraid to call some women his friends and opens his heart to them by sharing his feelings, thoughts, and trials. This attitude allows us to gather glimpses of his correspondents – including women whom history books have forgotten.
That’s not to say he openly opposed the views of his day which saw women as weaker and less rational than men and which interpreted Genesis 3:16 as a mandate for all men to rule over women. In spite of this, his letters demonstrate a great respect for women, possibly because he first learned the Scriptures from the women in his household – his mother Sylvia and his pious aunts Tarsilla, Aemilia, Gordiana, and Pateria – while his father Gordianus led a busy life as senator and high official.
Some of Gregory’s female correspondents were powerful rulers, such as Theodelind, queen of the Lombards, Brunheld, queen of the Franks, and Bertha, queen of Kent. Grateful for their faith and commitment to peace, Gregory encouraged them to strive for the good of their kingdoms, the salvation of their husbands, and the eradication of heresy.
Not all queens were immune to the charm of popular disputes. Theodelind was a participant in the Three Chapters Controversy, with its objections to the Council of Chalcedon, and Brunheld hesitated before giving up her Arian beliefs. They were, however, willing to engage in a conversation with the pope.
In spite of her questions, Theodelind stood firm against the Arianism her husband Agilulf promoted among the Lumbards. She insisted that their son be baptized in the Catholic (non-Arian) church and was instrumental in the Lombards’ eventual acceptance of Catholicism, restoring Catholic churches, particularly after the death of Agilulf, when she became regent for their son.
Many of Gregory’s female correspondents were part of the imperial court in Constantinople and his friends since he lived there as a papal emissary. These included Constantina, wife of Emperor Maurice, Maurice’s sisters Theoctista and Gordia, the artistocratic Rusticiana (possibly a granddaughter of the philosopher Boethius), and her sister Gregoria, chambermaid of the empress.
His letters to Theostista are some of his longest and most intimate. It is to her that he fully expressed his distress and fears in his appointment as a pope, regretting her seeming distance when he most needed her kindness. “For I have lost the deep joys of my peace, and though outwardly I appear to have ascended, inside I am sinking,” he wrote. “I fell headlong into fears and anxieties, because even if I fear nothing for myself, nonetheless I dread greatly for those who have been entrusted to me.”
“I hastened to sit with Mary at the feet of the Lord to receive words from his lips,” he continued, “and behold I am forced to serve with Martha in the outer dwellings, to be occupied with many things. ... Yet there certainly are many who know how to manage outward successes such that by no means do they fall inwardly on account of them. ... But these things are difficult for me both because they are extremely burdensome, and the mind does not manage suitably what it does not accept. Behold the most serene lord emperor has commanded that a monkey become a lion. And to be sure, through his command he can be called a lion, but he cannot become a lion.”
This he wrote in October 590. Seven years later, he expressed his admiration for Theoctista who seemed to deal with stress better than he did. “I give great thanks to almighty God that your excellency, cast into such a great tumult of affairs, is filled with the richness of the sacred word and longs incessantly for eternal joys, such that I see fulfilled in you what was written about the chosen fathers: ‘But the children of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea’ [Ex. 15:19]. On the other hand: ‘I came into the depth of the sea and a tempest overwhelmed me’ [Psal 69:3]. But you walk among the waves of worldly affairs, as I see, with dry steps toward the promised land.”
He credits Theoctista’s presence of mind to the work of God’s spirit who fixed her eyes on Christ. “Therefore let us give thanks to the spirit that raises up the hearts that it fills, which creates among the tumults of men a solitude in the mind, in whose presence no place that is not of remorseful heart is secret. For you draw in the fragrance of eternal sweetness and thus you love ardently the groom of the soul, such that with the heavenly bride you can say to him: ‘Draw me: we run after you in the fragrance of your ointments’ [Song 1:3].”
But even strong Theoctista had her moments of discouragement. Four years later, when she was troubled by critics, Gregory encouraged her to remember the great number of biblical examples, including the apostle Paul, who said, “If I were still pleasing men, I would not be the servant of Christ” [Gal. 1:10]. He then exhorted her to ignore her detractors, unless her intervention was necessary to stop heresy or error or to prevent greater sin.
One of the errors he mentioned was the prevalent idea that a spouse could leave the other in order to pursue a higher spiritual life in a convent or monastery. This, Gregory says, is not only disobedience to Scriptures, but leaves the other spouse in a dangerous condition.
Gregory doesn’t condemn the mutual decision of a couple to live together in chastity, as some had done for centuries, but he condemns abandonment of one’s spouse or a demand that the spouse embrace chastity against his or her will, quoting 1 Corinthians 7:4: “The wife does not have power of her own body, but the husband; and the husband does not have power of his own body, but the wife.” By insisting that similar decisions had to be taken with mutual consent, Gregory demonstrates a sensitivity toward women that was not common in his day.
His correspondence with many members of the imperial court came to an abrupt end in 602, when the usurper Phocas killed most of the imperial family and their leading courtiers and took over the throne. Foreseeing this scenario, Gregory had urged his friends to move to Rome, but they acted too late. After the coup, he kept a correspondence with Phocas’s wife Leontia, encouraging her faith.
Far from focusing on the rulers who could be of political advantage to the church, Gregory wrote freely to a variety of women who requested his help and support: abbesses and nuns, women engaged in charitable work, widows founding monasteries or convents, and orphans needing protection.
He encouraged Savinella, a noblewoman who had devoted her life to charitable work in Africa, to persevere with the certainty that God would supply her needs. He assured Talasia, abbess of the monastery of St. Mary in Autun (in today’s France), that no king, bishop, priest, nor anyone else would be able to take advantage of the monastery for their own interests. To Bona, the abbess of a monastery that had been destroyed, he offered an oratory in Rome.
Some situations required a large amount of wisdom, as in the case of the abbess Pomponiana, who complained for years of being deprived of a property left her by her son-in-law Epiphanius. It was a long legal matter which involved many parties, including Epiphanius’s mother, but Gregory never dismissed Pomponiana’s claims and encouraged others to do the same.
When Barbara and Antonina, daughters of Gregory’s friend Venantius (who had once been his fellow monk), reached out to the pope with “letters which spoke with tears rather than words,” he identified with their pain. “For we cannot call foreign sadness that indeed by the law of charity becomes our own,” he wrote.
After encouraging them to place their trust first in God, he assured them of his support. “For after God, who is the ruler and protector of orphans, so we will be attentive of your sweetest glory, and with the Lord helping we will hasten to provide for your interest as we can so that no extortion of unjust men distresses you, and we will repay to you in all things the debt that we incurred from the goodness of your parents.”
In a later letter, he thanked them for two capes they had sent them although he didn’t believe their claim that they had made them. He knew they had probably “never put a hand to the spindle.” But he was not bothered, because his desire was for them to read the Scriptures. Then, once they got married, they would learn whatever they needed in order to run their households.
In his letters to women, Gregory showed a large measure of respect. Besides the common honorific titles given to aristocratic women (your Excellency, your Ladyship) he used others, such as “your Glory,” “your Piety,” “your Tranquillity,” “your Serenity,” “your Beatitude,” “your Sweetness,” and “glorious daughter.”
Conversely, he shunned honorific titles from his friends. For example, he asked Rusticiana to stop signing herself “your handmaiden.” “For what reason does she call herself my handmaiden, for I – who was made the servant of all through the burdens of the episcopal office – had been received as [her] special friend before my assumption of the episcopal office? And therefore I ask through the power of the almighty God that I would never at any time find this word in your letters to me.”
As Walter J. Wilkins wrote in a 1991 article, “Gregory was certainly no feminist in his thoughts and actions, especially given the generally negative valuation of women in parts of the Morals. Yet, Gregory's writings do remind us that early Christian attitudes toward women, men, the body and the mind, were quite complex as they were worked out by pastors and church leaders. As noted earlier, personal relationships and institutional needs often subvert misogynist attitudes.”
Whatever he wrote in formal papers, Gregory could not escape the fact that the women in his life were far from being weak and irrational. He often praised their wisdom, vigor, and devotion, and appreciated what they had to teach him.
 Jerome, Letter 397, to Principia (a close friend of Marcella in Rome), in Epistolae, https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/letter/425.html
 Gregory, Letter to Theoctista, October 590, Epistolae, https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/letter/1230.html
 Gregory, Letter to Barbara and Antonina, August 601, Epistolae, https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/letter/1246.html
 Gregory, Letter to Rusticiana, Epistolae, February 601, https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/letter/1090.html