Abbesses in Women's Religious History

Female Heads of Religious Orders

Hildegard of Bingen, from the Eibingen Abbey
Hildegard of Bingen, from the Eibingen Abbey. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

An abbess is the female head of a convent of nuns. A few abbesses headed double monasteries including both women and men.

The term Abbess, as a parallel to the term Abbott, first came into wide use with the Benedictine Rule, though it was used occasionally before that. The female form of the Abbott title has been found as early as an inscription from 514, for an "Abbatissa" Serena of a convent in Rome.

Abbesses were elected from among the nuns in a community. Sometimes the bishop or sometimes the local prelate would preside over the election, hearing the votes through the grille in the convent where the nuns were enclosed. The vote had to be otherwise secret. Election was usually for life, though some rules had term limits.

Eligibility for being elected usually included age limits (forty or sixty or thirty, for instance, in different times and places) and a virtuous record as a nun (often with minimum service of five or eight years). Widows and others who were not bodily virgins, as well as those of illegitimate birth, were often excluded, though exceptions were made, especially for women of powerful families.

In medieval times, an Abbess could exercise considerable power, especially if she was also of noble or royal birth. Few women could rise to such power in any other way by their own achievements.

Queens and empresses gained their power as a daughter, wife, mother, sister, or other relative of a powerful man.

There were limits on the power of an abbess because of their sex. Because an abbess, unlike an abbott, could not be a priest, she could not exercise spiritual authority over the nuns (and sometimes monks) under her general authority.

A priest had that authority. She could hear confessions only of violations of the order's rule, not those confessions normally heard by the priest, and she could bless "as a mother" and not publicly as a priest could. She could not preside at communion. There are many references in historical documents of violations of these boundaries by abbesses, so we know that some abbesses did wield more power than they were technically entitled to wield.

Abbesses sometimes functioned in roles equal to those of secular and religious male leaders. Abbesses often had significant control over the secular life of surrounding communities, acting as landlords, revenue collectors, magistrates, and managers.

After the Reformation, some Protestants continued to use the title Abbess for the female heads of women's religious communities.

Famous abbesses include St. Scholastica (though there's no evidence that the title was used for her), Hildegard of Bingen, Heloise (of Heloise and Abelard fame), Teresa of Avila, Herrad of Landsberg, and St. Edith of Polesworth.

The Abbess of Fontevrault at the monastery of Fontevrault had houses for both monks and nuns, and an abbess presided over both. Eleanor of Aquitaine is among some of the Plantagenet royals who are buried at Fontevrault.

Her mother-in-law, the Empress Matilda, is also buried there.

Historical Definition

From The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907: "The female superior in spirituals and temporals of a community of twelve or more nuns. With a few necessary exceptions, the position of an Abbess in her convent corresponds generally with that of an Abbot in his monastery. The title was originally the distinctive appellation of Benedictine superiors, but in the course of time it came to be a applied also to the conventual superior in other orders, especially to these of the Second Order of St. Francis (Poor Clares) and to these of certain colleges of canonesses."

Also Known As: abbatissa (Latin)