Bossuet vs. Jouarre's Women

May 03, 2010
Bossuet vs. Jouarre's Women

What authority should women exercise in the church? This has been a highly charged issue throughout church history. In Medieval times, some abbesses were granted a great deal of power, taking tithes, judging civil disputes, and commanding neighboring monks. One abbey with such powers was Jouarre in France.

Jouarre was founded under the inspiration of a visit by Columban, the sixth century Irish monk who dotted Europe with monasteries. Relatives of the nobleman and clergy with whom Columban stayed founded male and female abbeys at Jouarre near the river Marne. The female house was predominant and its abbesses enjoyed autonomy from the nearby Bishop of Meaux, answering directly to the pope. The monks who lived at Jouarre and later at nearby Rebais, were under the jurisdiction of these women.

Ermentrude, a diligent abbess, gathered many relics at Jouarre, making it a center for the awe-inspired, the curious, and the sick. So famous was the abbey that Pope Innocent II visited it in 1131. Its facilities were large enough to host a church council in 1133.

Five-hundred years after the founding of the abbey, the bishop of Meaux contested the right of the abbey to control the local churches, clergy, and people. Pope Honarius II ruled in favor of the bishop, but Jouarre presented a strong defense and Innocent II reversed the decision. The sparring continued for almost a century. Abbess Eustache was forced to publicly submit to the bishop of Meaux. Her successor, Agnes I, refused to swear her oath to the Bishop, however, and was excommunicated. The next abbess, Agnes II traveled to Rome, bearing documents that proved the abbey's historical exemption. Pope Innocent III was convinced and restored Jouarre's ancient rights. And so matters rested until after the Protestant Reformation when the Roman Catholic church cracked down on independents. Jouarre's nemesis was the new bishop of Meaux, Jacques Bossuet.

Jacques Benigne Bossuet's eloquent histories and sermons ornament the literature of the age and his deeds show him as an active participant in the ecclesiastical and political affairs of the day. He squelched the Jansenists and was a driving force behind the Four Articles that rejected papal dominion over the French church, asserting the ancient "Gallican liberties." He rejoiced at the revocation of the Edict of Nantes which had protected the Huguenots and did nothing to ameliorate harassment of the French Calvinists. Many Protestants have heard of him only as the persecutor of mystical Madame Guyon and suppressor of the mild fellow-Catholic François Fénelon. When he was appointed bishop of Meaux in 1681, a showdown with Jouarre loomed.

Seizing on weaknesses in the throne (which was dependent on Bossuet as champion of Gallican rights) and the papacy (which was hesitant to interfere in the French church, because of the Gallican controversy) Bossuet accused the abbey of simony. Simony is the attempt to buy spiritual office. Five hundred years earlier, as a gesture of peace, Jouarre sent a gift of grain to the Bishop of Meaux. According to Bossuet, Jouarre bought its rights with that gift! The charge was so absurd that it quickly collapsed.

Bossuet shifted his ground. The abbey's privileges were not authentic, he claimed. Even if authentic, he argued (incorrectly), the councils of Trent and Vienna had revoked such privileges. Jouarre defended itself vigorously, showing that as late as 1631 Parliament had confirmed its rights. But Jouarre argued in vain. On this day, January 26, 1690, the men won the skirmish; the judges ruled in Bossuet's favor. A month later Bossuet led his followers to the abbey and demanded entrance. He was barred. On March 2nd, he again sought submission. The following day he forced the locks, entered, and celebrated mass in the chapel dressed in the full splendor of a bishop. Henrietta of Lorraine, the reigning abbess, resigned. The next abbess, Marguerite de Rohan, submitted to Bossuet, but refused consecration at his hands, waiting ten years to receive it from his successor.


  1. Durant, Will and Durant, Ariel. The Age of Louis XIV. The Story of Civilization. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.
  2. Morris, Joan. The Lady Was a Bishop. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Last updated May, 2007.


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