Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Josh Billings remarked profoundly that “the trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much as ain’t so.” There are those who know John Chrysostom said that “the image of God is not found in Woman.” (Actually, he said that “the image of God is not found in Man or Woman.”) There are those who know that Thomas Aquinas said that a woman is a defective male. (Actually, he explicitly denies this no fewer than five times.) There are those who know that Aristotle said that a woman is a deficient male—a description based on an appalling mistranslation.

And there are those who know that an early council of bishops, held at Macon in Burgundy, France in a.d. 585 decreed that women do not have a soul. The bishops of course decreed no such thing, for if women do not have a soul how could they be baptized, how receive the Eucharist, how be venerated as martyrs in heaven? Yet it may be worthwhile to look at the story of this alleged decree, for one can see a myth in the making.

The story begins, innocently enough, in the late sixteenth century. A young scholar, Valentius Acidalius, was working as a teacher in Silesia, and, like many young scholars, he was short of money. He thought to turn an honest penny by publishing a “diverting” pamphlet. In Latin the word homo, like the word man in English, primarily means “a human being, male or female, young or old,” but has the secondary meaning of “adult male.” Valentius thought it would be fun to use this ambiguity to “show” that in the Bible only adult males have souls. If he thought the pamphlet would amuse, he was grievously wrong. Simon Geddicus, a Lutheran scholar, launched a mighty counter-pamphlet entitled A Defense of the Female Sex, in which he proposed “manfully” (he actually uses the word viriliter) to “destroy each and every one of the arguments put forward by Valentius,” who, the reader will learn with regret or satisfaction as the case may be, took a seizure and died.

The pamphlet, however, often bound with the refutation by Simon Geddicus, survived, and it appears that it was published at Lyons in France in 1647. It was now in Italian, and was entitled Women do not have a soul and do not belong to the human race, as is shown by many passages of Holy Scripture. One gathers from a commentator that “the ladies of Italy took this system very differently. Some were vexed to have no souls. Others were pretty indifferent about the matter, and looking on themselves as mere machines, hoped to set their springs so well agoing as to make the men stark mad.” Not all the ladies were silent, and the splendidly named Archangela Tarabotti wrote A Defense of Women. One way or another, the offending book caught the attention of Pope Innocent X, who put it on the Index of Prohibited Books (Decree of June 18, 1651). So much for the allegation that the Church holds that women do not have souls.

But the suggestion that women do not have souls was obviously in the air. It apparently came to the ears of Johannes Leyser, a Lutheran pastor from the region of Frankfurt in Germany, for he took up the idea and then sought confirmation for it in the doings of the Council of Macon, a small council of some forty-three bishops held in Burgundy in the year 585. Leyser had become a chaplain in the Danish army. The excitements, and no doubt opportunities, of military life seem to have sharpened his zest for feminine variety, for in 1676 he published a volume called The Triumph of Polygamy, in which he proclaimed the merits of a plurality of wives. Seeking support for his view that women are inferior, he decided to misquote the decrees of the Council of Macon. Leyser wrote: “Among the holy fathers [at the Council] there was one who insisted that women cannot, and should not, be called ‘human beings’ (homines). The matter was thought so important that it was discussed publicly and in the fear of God. Finally, after many arguments on this question, [the bishops] concluded that women are human after all.”

Now this is wholly untrue. The acts of the Council of Macon contain no such discussion. They contain neither the word “woman” nor the word “soul.” What Leyser did was to misinterpret a story told in The History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours. Gregory was bishop of that city in the sixth century and wrote a splendid history of the region. At one point he tells of a council that may, or may not, have been the Council of Macon. Gregory writes:

There came forward at this Council a certain bishop who maintained that woman could not be included under the term “man.” However, he accepted the reasoning of the other bishops and did not press his case for the holy book of the Old Testament tells us that in the beginning, when God created man, “Male and female he created them and called their name Adam,” which means earthly man; even so, he called the woman Eve, yet of both he used the word “man.”

So what the bishops discussed was the meaning of a word, not the substantial issue of whether women have souls.

Leyser was inventing stories. His untruths were taken up by Pierre Bayle, a Dutch Calvinist with a marked distaste for the Catholicism to which he had once adhered. Bayle brought the matter further by writing in his Dictionnaire: “What I think yet more strange is to find that in a Council it has been gravely proposed as a question whether women were human creatures, and that it was determined affirmatively [only] after a long debate.” Early in the nineteenth century a certain M. Aime-Martin wrote a touching book on The Education of Mothers in which he recorded sorrowfully that “people had gone so far as to doubt the existence of their souls.” Politicians, as is their way, saw an opportunity, and the French National Assembly, no less, deplored the Church’s insult to women. Later still the myth appeared in English in a journal titled John Bull, published by Horatio Bottomley, a fraudster Member of the British Parliament who would soon end in jail.

The myth was by now securely established, and will no doubt be retailed as confidently in the future as it has been in the past. If the first casualty of war is the unwelcome truth, the first weapon of the discontented is the welcome lie.

Michael Nolan is Professor Emeritus in the Maurice Kennedy Research Center at University College, Dublin.

Image by Dianelos licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.