Women and law-courts: The mysterious case of the council of Nantes
In the early years of the tenth century, Regino, formerly abbot of Prüm, but now living in exile in Trier, compiled a handbook of extracts from church councils and other sources for use by bishops travelling round their diocese. The work, in two books, is known as Libri duo de synodalibus causis et disciplinis ecclesiasticis and was very influential on later canonical collections. Among the hundreds of extracts included are a number of capitula which Regino attributes to a “Council of Nantes” – including a famous and remarkable text about women and law-courts.
The date and background to this supposed Nantes council has often been debated. Several discussions incorrectly attribute it to the year 895, confusing it with the Council of Tribur; some other historians saw it as dating from the mid-seventh century. However, a detailed study by Emil Seckel of the 21 canons attributed by Regino to this council identified that a number of them were taken from the episcopal capitularies of Hincmar of Rheims and Theodulf of Orléans.
There were eight canons, though, for which Seckel could find no earlier source, which he thought could be attributed to a genuine council of Nantes.
Other historians have been sceptical about this. Gabriel Fournier claimed that Regino had simply invented the council and attributed a number of canons from other sources to it in order to give them greater authority. He thought that the eight canons for which no source had been found were probably compiled in the Rhine area in the Carolingian period; more recently Wilfried Hartmann has suggested that they date from the ninth century and look most similar to episcopal capitularies.
I argued a few years ago in a seminar paper that another of the canons that Regino cites as coming from the “Council of Nantes” might be attributable to Hincmar of Rheims. This is the well-known “canon 19”, which is often cited by writers on women’s history. Here is its text, with my translation below:
"174. As above
From the Council of Nantes
The apostle says: Let women be silent in church, for it is not permitted them to speak; it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. It therefore seems amazing that certain little women, acting shamelessly against divine and human laws with impudent face, incessantly go to general placita and public meetings (publici conventus) and rather perturb than arrange the business of the kingdom and the utility of the commonwealth. Since it is unsuitable and reprehensible even among barbarian peoples for women to discuss men’s cases and for those who ought to discuss their wool-working and textile work and women’s work, residing in their workshops, to usurp senatorial authority for themselves in public meetings, as if residing in courts.
This disgraceful presumption should be attributed rather to their patrons than the women. Since divine laws, as is shown above, condemn this and human ones no less prohibit women pursing any other case but their own in public. For the Theodosian law says: “Women may not have for any reason the power of acting beyond their own cases, nor should they recognise anyone’s case to be pursued by themselves.” Therefore from canonical authority we prohibit any holy virgin or widow from going to general meetings (conventus generales), unless they should be called by the prince or by their bishop, unless perhaps reason of their own necessity impels this, and this is with the permission of their bishop."
Why do I think this canon was probably written by Hincmar? Because the structure of the canon looks suspiciously like his style, piling up only partially relevant quotations for rhetorical effect. The author combines quotations from St Paul and the Theodosian code to try and suggest that both “divine” and “human” law condemn women’s attendance at such meetings (and adds in that even the “barbarians” don’t think it’s suitable). But St Paul’s quotation is irrelevant to the topic, since it’s about women’s behaviour in church. The Theodosian code, meanwhile, is talking about women prosecuting or acting in the legal cases of others, not them attending meetings which weren’t purely judicial.
The text also includes some turns of phrase that, although not unique to Hincmar, are seen elsewhere in his works, like the references to women’s workshops, and to ‘mulierculae’. I’m not sure I can prove this text is by Hincmar, but it does sound suspiciously like him.
After all this rhetoric by Hincmar or another, the actual provisions are surprisingly modest. What we have right at the end is a specific prohibition about religious women (holy virgins and widows) attending public meetings without royal or episcopal permission. Even when their own cases are concerned, they must first get the bishops’ permission to attend. This provision is actually not that dissimilar from the repeated royal and episcopal demands that monks shouldn’t be attending placita. It reflects common concerns both that those living a religious life (men and women) should be properly separated from the world and also that bishops should exercise control over the religious of their diocese.
We are faced, therefore, with a canon that combines general and overblown rhetoric and only marginally relevant quotations with a fairly specific prohibition on one particular group of women. It’s also one that comes to us without a known context.
And that is a serious problem, because this text often takes centre stage in a claim that a Carolingian woman was not supposed to “try to exercise power in her own right”, or that reformers were attempting “to restrict women to a privatized domestic realm”, or indeed as a more general claim that medieval women were criticised for moving outside their own spaces. But as Janet Nelson points out, this is a lot to erect on “some actually rather uncertain bits” of text.
Even if it was Hincmar writing this canon, we’re still mired in uncertainty without more of a context. Should we read it in a narrow sense as trying to place restrictions only on religious women or is Hincmar concerned about laywomen’s behaviour as well? Does the canon reflect the view of a council (if possibly a council directed or strongly influenced by Hincmar himself) or was Hincmar alone responsible for it? And is it possible, that like many of Hincmar’s supposedly general statements, it is in fact a response to a specific conflict in which he was involved?
We know of at least one dispute that Hincmar had with a religious woman: we possess the summary of a letter he sent to Bertha, abbess of Saint-Pierre d’Avenay, regarding a conflict between her men and the monks of Hautvillers. Bertha was the daughter of Lothar I and Ermengard, but controlled a convent within Hincmar’s archdiocese; Lothar and Ermengard used this to try and exert influence within Charles the Bald’s kingdom. Such an entanglement of the authority of kings, bishops and abbesses certainly provides a possible context for the canon we have, but by no means the only one. And without such a context, it is difficult to be sure of the significance of the original text.
Nor is this canon alone in its isolation from any context: a number of other Carolingian texts that appear in later canon law collections are of uncertain origin or are forged. All of us using such canons as source material need to take care that we remain aware of the context (or the lack of context) in which such statements were written and circulated and are careful about the conclusions we draw from them.
 See discussion by Janet L. Nelson, ‘Women and the word in the earlier middle ages’, in W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood (eds.), Women in the church. Papers read at the 1989 summer meeting and the 1990 winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, Studies in Church History, 27 (Oxford, 1990), pp.53-78 at pp. 57-8.
 Emil Seckel, ‘Studien zu Benedictus Levita. I.’, Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde 26 (1901), 37-72.
 Paul Fournier, Histoire des collections canoniques en Occident: depuis les fausses décrétales jusqu’au Décret de Gratien, 2 vols. (Paris, 1931), pp. I: 259-61.
 Wilfried Hartmann, Die Synoden der Karolingerzeit im Frankenreich und in Italien (Paderborn, 1989), p. 387.
 CLXXIV Unde supra
Ex Concilio Nannetensi
Cum apostolus dicat: Mulieres in ecclesia taceant, non enim permittitur eis loqui; turpe est enim mulieri loqui in ecclesia [1 Cor. 14, 34-35], mirum videtur quod quaedam mulierculae contra divinas humanasque leges attrita fronte impudenter agentes placita generalia et publicos conventus indesinenter adeunt et negotia regni utilitatesque reipublicae magis perturbant, quam disponunt, cum indecens sit et etiam inter barbaras gentes reprehensibile mulieres virorum causas discutere, et, quae de lanificiis suis et operibus textilibus et muliebribus inter genitiarias suas residentes debuerant disputare, in conventu publico, ac si in curia residentes, senatoriam sibi usurpant auctoritatem. Quae ignominiosa praesumptio fautoribus magis imputanda videtur quam feminis. Unde, quia divinae leges, ut supra monstratum est, hoc contradicunt, et humanae nihilominus id ipsum prohibent, ut feminae nihil aliud prosequantur in publico quam suam causam. Ait enim lex Theodosiana [Codex Theod. II, 12, 5, Interpretatio] : «Nulla ratione feminae amplius quam suas causas agendi habeant potestatem, nec alicujus causam a se noverint prosequendam.» Idcirco ex auctoritate canonica interdicimus ut nulla sanctimonialis virgo vel vidua conventus generales adeat, nisi a principe fuerit evocata, aut ab episcopo suo, nisi forte propriae necessitatis ratio impulerit, et hoc ipsum cum licentia episcopi sui.
(Regino, De synodalibus causis, 2.174, ed. Wilfried Hartmann, Das Sendhandbuch des Regino von Prüm, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters, 42 (Darmstadt, 2004), pp. 350-351).
 De Divortio, Responsio 3, p. 130: ‘quamque, ut dicitur, etiam feminae in textrinis suis revolvunt’; De coercendo et exstirpando raptu viduarum, puellarum ac sanctimonialium, PL 125, col. 1023, c. 8: ‘Cum etiamsi illae miserrimae mulierculae veraciter adulterium perpetraverint’.
Suzanne Fonay Wemple, Women in Frankish society: marriage and the cloister, 500-900 (Philadelphia, 1981), p. 105.
[8i] Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, ‘Female sanctity: private and public roles, ca. 500-1100’, in Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.), Women and power in the Middle Ages (Athens, GA, 1988), pp.102-25 at pp. 115-6.
 Barbara A. Hanawalt, ‘At the margins of women’s space in Medieval Europe’, in Robert R. Edwards and Vickie L. Ziegler (eds.), Matrons and marginal women in medieval society (Woodbridge, 1995), pp.1-17 at pp. 6-7.
 Nelson, ‘Women and the word’ at p. 57.
 Elina Screen, ‘An unfortunate necessity? Hincmar and Lothar I’, in Rachel Stone and Charles West (eds.), Hincmar of Rheims: life and work (Manchester, 2015), pp.76-92 at pp. 79-80.