Partial Bibliography of Publications on Non-Cloistered Religious Women, 2020–21

Please see the summaries of The Other Sister Research Seminars for discussions of other recent works and works in progress. 

Another bibliography post of this kind will be forthcoming in early 2022; please contact isabelle.cochelin@utoronto.ca or a member of our graduate student team if you have suggestions for this list. Suggestions for additional titles from 2020-21 may also be appended to this blog post in the comment section below.

Partial Bibliography of Publications on Non-Cloistered Religious Women, 2020-21

Pablo Acosta-García, ‘En viva sangre bañadas: Caterina da Siena y las vidas de María de Ajofrín, Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo y otras santas vivas castellanas’, Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà 33 (2020), 143–72. English summary available here.

_____, ‘Radical Succession: Hagiography, Reform, and Franciscan Identity in the Convent of the Abbess Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534)’, in Religions 12, 223 (2021). Discussed in The Other Sister Research Seminar on Iberian Non-Cloistered Religious Women.

Cristina Andenna, ‘Female Religious Life in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, in Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin World vol. 2, ed. A. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 1039–56.

Lucy Barnhouse, ‘Disordered Women? The Hospital Sisters of Mainz and Their Late Medieval Identities’, in Medieval Feminist Forum 55, 2 (2020), 60–97.

Nancy Ann Bauer, ‘“Moniales et sorores”: La distinción canónica entre monjas y hermanas con particular referencia a las benedictinas’, in Nova et vetera: pensamiento y mundo monástico 90 (2020), 109–43.

Giulia Barone, ‘Vivere la propria vocazione religiosae dentro e fuori dal chiostro’, in Vivere la Città: Roma nel Rinascimento, ed. I. Ait and A. Esposito (Viella, 2020), 189–204.

Alison I. Beach and Isabelle Cochelin, ‘General Introduction’, in Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West vol. 1, ed. A. I. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 1–16.

Marie Brassel, ‘Le cas des repenties à la fin du Moyen Âge entre la France et l’Italie’, in La fama delle donne. Pratiche femminili e società tra Medioevo ed Età moderna, ed. Vincenzo Lagioia, Maria Pia Paoli, and Rossella Rinaldi (Viella, 2020), 57–75.

Angela Carbone, Ritirate dalle cose del mondo. Donne e istituzioni nel Mezzogiorno moderno. Guida Editori, 2020.

Paula Cardosa, ‘Unveiling Female Observance: Reform, Regulation, and the Rise of Dominican Nunneries in Late Medieval Portugal’, in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 12 (2020), 365–82.

Megan Cassidy-Welch, ‘Lay Brothers and Sisters in the High and Late Middle Ages’, in Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West vol. 2, ed. A. I. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 1027–38.

Eva-Maria Cersovsky, ‘Ubi non est mulier, ingemiscit egens? Gendered Perceptions of Care from the Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries’, in Gender, Health and Healing, 1250–1550, ed. S. Ritchey and S. Strocchia (Amsterdam University Press, 2020), 191–214. Discussed in The Other Sister Research Seminar on Charity, Caregiving, and Female Social Roles from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period.

Elisa Novi Chavarria, Accogliere e curare. Ospedali e culture delle nazioni nella Monarchia ispanica (secc. XVI-XVII). Viella, 2020.

Eloise David, ‘Catherine of Siena: a Dominican Political Thinker in Fourteenth‐century Italy’, in Renaissance Studies: Journal of the Society for Renaissance Studies 35 (2021), 237–54.

Sylvie Duval, ‘Vierges et dames blanches. Communautés religieuses féminines à Milan, XIIe-XIVe siècles’, in Revue Mabillon 31 (2020), 81–107.

Anna Esposito, ‘Le donne in ospedale nell’Italia centro-settentrionale (fine XIV-inizio XVI secolo)’, in Alle origini del welfare: Radici medievali e moderne della cultura europea dell’assistenza, ed. G. Piccinni (Viella, 2020), 427–45.

Lucia Ferrante, ‘“Essendo massime avvezza a stare rinchiusa…”: Fama e segregazione di genere (Bologna, secc. XVI-XVII)’, in La fama delle donne. Pratiche femminili e società tra Medioevo ed Età moderna, ed. Vincenzo Lagioia, Maria Pia Paoli, and Rossella Rinaldi (Viella, 2020),  259–77.

Jeffrey Hamburger and Eva Schlotheuber, eds, The Liber ordinarius of Nivelles (Houghton Library, MS Lat 422): Liturgy as Interdisciplinary Intersection. Mohr Siebeck, 2020.

Michelle Marie Herder, ‘Scandal and the Social Networks of Religious Women’, in Women and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia, ed.  M. Armstrong-Partida, A. Guerson, D. W. Lightfoot (University of Nebraska Press, 2020), 214–29.

Sigrid Hirbodian, ‘Religious Women: Secular Canonesses and Beguines’, in The Oxford Handbook of Christian Monasticism, ed. B. M. Kaczynski (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Laura Ingallinella, ‘The Canonization of Piccarda Donati’, in Forum Italicum (2021), 1–22.

Thomas Forrest Kelly and Martin Klöckener, eds. The Liber Ordinarius of the Abbey of Saint Gertrude at Nivelles : Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Lat. 422. Aschendorff Verlag, 2020.

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Katie Anne-Marie Bugyis, and John Van Engen, eds., Women Intellectuals and Leaders in the Middle Ages. Boydell and Brewer, 2020.

Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Hildegard of Bingen: Gospel Interpreter. Fortress Academic, 2020.

Racha Kirakosian, The Life of Christina of Hane. Yale University Press, 2021.

Lezlie S. Knox and David B. Couturier, Franciscan Women: Female Identities and Religious Culture in the Middle Ages. Franciscan Institute Publications, 2020. 

Vincenzo Lagioia, ‘“Sotto pretesto di riforme”: le monache di Santa Maria delle Convertite, tra infamia e santità (Bologna, sec. XVI)’, in  La fama delle donne. Pratiche femminili e società tra Medioevo ed Età moderna, ed. Vincenzo Lagioia, Maria Pia Paoli, and Rossella Rinaldi (Viella, 2020), 239–57.

Paulette L’Hermite-Leclercq, ‘Reclusion in the Middle Ages’, in Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin World vol. 2, ed. A. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 747–65.

Eliana Magnani, ‘Female House Ascetics from the Fourth to the Twelfth Century’, in in Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin World vol. 1, ed. A. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 213–31.

Corinne Marchal, Un âge d’or des chapitres des chapitres nobles de chanoinesses en Europe au XVIIIe siècle: le cas de la Franche-Comté. Brepols, 2021. 

Maya Maskarinec, ‘Nuns as “Sponsae Christi”: The Legal Status of the Medieval Oblates of Tor de’Specci’, in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 72 (2020), 280–99. 

Karen McLuskey, New Saints in Late Medieval Venice, 1200-1500. Routledge, 2020.

Julia I. Miller, ‘Eve, Mary, and Martha: Paintings for the Humiliati Nuns at Viboldone’ in Speculum 96 (2021), 418–65.

Tanya Stabler Miller, ‘Reviled and Revered: The Importance of Marginality in the Pastoral Care of Beguines’, in Rethinking Medieval Margins and Marginality, ed. A. E. Zimo, T. D. Van Sprecher, K. Reyerson, and D. G. Blumenthal (Routledge, 2020), 146–63.

Alison More, ‘Lay Piety and Franciscan Tertiary Identity’, in Non enim fuerat Evangelii surdus auditor, ed. M. Cusato and S. McMichael (Brill, 2020), 334–47.

Alison More and Anneke Mulder-Bakker, ‘Striving for Perfection in the Lay World of Northern Europe’, in Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin World vol. 2, ed. A. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 1057–73.

María Morrás, Rebeca Sanmartín Bastida, and Yonsoo Kim, eds., Gender and Exemplarity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain. Brill, 2020. 

Silvia Nocentini, ‘Una nuova Caterina o un nuovo Raimondo?: Elsbeth Achler (1386–1420), l’eccezione che conferma la regola’, in Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà 33 (2020), 25–41.

Mary Elizabeth Perry, ‘Chapter 5: Chastity and Danger’, in Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville (Princeton University Press, 2021), 97–117. 

Pierantonio Piatti, ed., Caterina da Siena e la vita religiosa femminile: un percorso domenicano. Campisano, 2020. 

Sara Ritchey, ed., Acts of Care: Recovering Women in Late Medieval Health. Cornell University Press, 2021.

Rebeca Sanmartín Bastida, ‘La emergencia de la autoridad espiritual femenina ‘ortodoxa’: El modelo de María de Ajofrín’, in Hispania Sacra, 72 (2020), 125–35. 

_____, ‘María de Santo Domingo, desde Aldeanueva’, in Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà, 33 (2020), 119–41. 

_____, ‘Performing Authority through Iconography: On Iberian Visionary Women and Images’, in The Routledge Hispanic Studies Companion to Medieval Iberia, ed. M. Gerli and R. Giles (Routledge, 2021), 600–20. 

Amanda Scott, The Basque Seroras: Local Religion, Gender, and Power in Northern Iberia, 1550–1800. Cornell University Press, 2020. Discussed in The Other Sister Research Seminar on Iberian Non-Cloistered Religious Women.

Jörg Voigt, ‘Paulerregelnonnen und Barfussenschwestern: Beginen im Umfeld der Dominikaner und Franziskaner in Leipzig im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert’, in Neue Forschungen zu sächsischen Klöstern. Ergebnisse und Perspektiven, ed. E. Bünz, D. M. Mütze, and S. Zinsmeyer (Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2020), 563–75.

Elise Watson, ‘The Jesuitesses in the Bookshop: Catholic Lay Sisters’ Participation in the Dutch Book Trade, 1650–1750’, in Studies in Church History 57 (2021), 163–84.

Alison Weber, ‘Espacio conventual postridentio: Clausura, disciplina, y caritas en dos comunidades de Carmelitas Descalzas’, in Lo spazio e i luoghi. Cultura Materiale, Storia religiosa, Patrimonio, ed. E. Marchetti. (Longo Editore, 2020), 151–67.

_____. ‘Chapter I: Little Women: Counter-Reformation Misogyny’, in Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity(Princeton University Press, 2021), 17–41.

Call for papers, RSA 2022 – Dublin. Non-Cloistered Religious Women: Between World and Church

Beguines are trendy: many websites and novels are dedicated to them. But who were they? Their rediscovery created an upheaval in the long-accepted binary scheme of the female condition in the past: the convent or the house, aut virum aut murum. The beguines were, in fact, only the tip of the iceberg, that of non-cloistered female religious life. The works of Gabriella Zarri about the “terzo stato” in the 1990s demonstrated the importance of this third way of religious celibacy outside religious enclosure. The non-cloistered sisters represented a perpetually changing reality throughout Western Christendom, and the multiplication of female congregations in the nineteenth century was based in large part on this phenomenon, long ignored by historiography. In fact, these sisters were probably much more numerous than cloistered nuns, but they have been the subject of very few studies.

 The Sorores and The Other Sister projects, supported respectively by the École française de Rome and the Canadian governement SSHRC, is planning a series of panels for the upcoming RSA conference in Dublin (31 March-2 April 2022) about women who publicly lived non-cloistered religious lives in Europe and the colonies between 1400 and 1800. Possible topics include:

  • Comparative historiography and historiographical issues about non-cloistered forms of women’s lives
  • Enclosure and its definitions
  • Forms and experiences of women’s non-cloistered religious lives
  • The structures of these communities
  • The social role and presence of non-cloistered religious women in cities
  • Community (Societies, Third Order, Dimesse…) vs individual (bizzochemonache di casa…) experiences
  • Permanency and mutation throughout long time periods 
  • Relations with ecclesiastical and secular authorities
  • The spirituality of non-cloistered religious women
  • Networks of people and groups
  • Sources and methodology

Papers should be 15-20 minutes. 

Please email your abstract by August 5, 2021, to Sylvie Duval (duvalsylvie@hotmail.com), Isabel Harvey (harvey.isabel@courrier.uqam.ca) and Sergi Sancho Fibla (ssfibla@gmail.com), with your full name, current affiliation, and email address; a paper title (15-word maximum), and an abstract (150-word maximum). 

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Iberian Non-Cloistered Religious Women

By Gustave Ineza and Meghan Lescault

On May 7, 2021, The Other Sister research group hosted a seminar on the topic of Iberian non-cloistered religious women. Three invited speakers presented their research and discussed some of their specific projects which the participants had the chance to examine prior to the meeting:

  • Núria Jornet Benito, Claustra, http://www.ub.edu/claustra/eng/info; Spiritual Landscapes, http://www.ub.edu/proyectopaisajes/index.php; and Monastic Landscapes, https://www.ub.edu/proyectomonastic/en/.
  • Pablo Acosta-García, “Radical Succession: Hagiography, Reform, and Franciscan Identity in the Convent of the Abbess Juana de la Cruz (1481–1534),” Religions 12, no. 3 (2021), https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030223; and “En viva sangre bañadas: Caterina da Siena y las vidas de María de Ajofrín, Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo y otras santas vivas castellanas,” Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà, 33 (2020): 143–172. (An English summary of the second article can be found here.)
  • Amanda L. Scott, The Basque Seroras: Local Religion, Gender, and Power in Northern Iberia, 1550–1800 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020).

Núria Jornet Benito, Professor of Library Science and Documentation at the Universitat de Barcelona, presented the results and challenges of a series of collaborative projects undertaken by a team of researchers interested in feminine spirituality. The work on the topography of feminine spirituality led to the Claustra project, the principal result of which was a map that catalogued spaces of female spirituality between the twelfth and the fifteenth century in the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula and southern Italy. The points on the map give access to a catalogue file containing historical, archaeological, and architectural data about different religious groups through these centuries, including groups of non-cloistered women. Jornet Benito then discussed how a second project, Spiritual Landscapes, provided a new framework for engaging with the spatial turn in the study of female spirituality. It places monasteries in terms of their surroundings with a broad cartographic focus. The use of digital tools played a major role, as the team was able to pinpoint the exact locations of monasteries and their estates, analyze trends in their properties, and use geographical information systems (GIS) to systematize methodologies for the analysis of monastic documents, such as cartularies. The project allowed the researchers to recreate the internal topography of monasteries and to analyze objects and their functions in relation to spaces. They have also been able to engage in the analysis of networks, for example, the networks between mother houses and reformed monasteries. The third and current project, Monastic Landscapes, engages with the performative turn through the study of the ritual, liturgical drama, and processions of monasteries. It also focuses on the study of monastic sites and excavations of monasteries from an archaeological perspective.

Pablo Acosta-García, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, unfortunately was unable to attend to meeting. His presentation was read by Sergi Sancho Fibla, postdoctoral researcher at the Université catholique de Louvain. Acosta-García explained that the articles that he shared for this meeting are part of a larger project (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Late Medieval Visionary Women’s Impact in Early Modern Castilian Spiritual Tradition, Grant Agreement 842094), the second and current phase of which involves evaluating the impact that writings had on religious communities and on reforms promoted by Cardinal Cisneros. He noted that certain penitential and devotional characteristics of the Castilian religious women include the development of an extreme religious phenomenology, including the production of new mystical literature, and he argued that their reliance on previous models of sanctity indicates the medieval dissemination of hagiographic narratives and religious writing by European women in Castile. What Acosta-García did was to show that Cisneros worked to disseminate these models for female religious at the same time that he was promoting his reform of female religious houses. When Cisneros implemented his reform, he had some of those works by or on mystical women, such as Catherine of Siena, Angela of Foligno, and Mechthild of Hackeborn printed and made available to a larger audience. Acosta-García noted the use of specific narratives taken from Catherine of Siena’s hagiography in writings on Iberian women. Moreover, he discussed the first instance of hagiography on the Franciscan abbess Juana de la Cruz as a good example of what Gabriella Zarri called “scrittura communitaria.” In this account the community of the Convent of Santa Maria in Cubas de la Sagra (Toledo) created their own chronicle of the convent from the point of view of the reform. In this sense their abbess is seen not only as a charismatic figure, but also as a model of extreme penance. Issues about the identity of these “cloistered tertiaries” were also mentioned.

Amanda L. Scott, Assistant Professor of History at the Pennsylvania State University, spoke about her research on Early Modern Basque seroras, women who were neither married nor nuns and were hired to care for church property and to assist with the liturgy. Uncloistered seroras typically served in pairs. Although these women numbered in the thousands, even surpassing the numbers of male secular clergy in the same area, they have received little attention from scholars. Scott explained that the seroras led celibate lives but took no vows and could leave their positions at any time. She noted that they had more autonomy and independence than other women as a result of compromises made between them and church officials regarding acceptable places for women. Their compromises also allowed them to last into the eighteenth century and beyond in some cases. Scott described their distinct role, which was well established and prestigious in the Basque dioceses: the seroras went through a process of examination and licensing and received clerical immunity, housing, and a competitive stipend paid in alms or by the priest of the parish where they served. Scott gave an overview of her book on the subject and discussed the following themes that the topic of the seroras can help us to navigate: the impact of local circumstances on the development of the devout lay life, the impact of religious and secular reforms on female religious life, compensation for women’s work, and instances of inconsistency in the application of religious reform. She also presented pictures of the houses in which the seroras lived, called serorias, which were located very close to the churches where they worked.

A stimulating discussion followed these presentations. The very familiar topics of terminology and identity, which have animated previous seminars, returned as prominent themes in the conversation, this time in relation to Iberian non-cloistered women. In response to a question about the potential problems involved in the identification of communities of beatas who became nuns, Jornet Benito explained that difficulties arose in the creation of the atlas because there was no documentation when a group of women made such a transition and because a plurality of names existed for some groups. Delfi Nieto, a fellow member of the project with Jornet Benito, elaborated on this point, adding that one individual woman could be called a beguine, tertiary, or other names depending on who is writing and how she is known. Nieto explained that for this reason, the team decided to refer to these kinds of women collectively as mulieres religiosae and to assign a specific group identity only to those who were explicitly identified as such. Scott related the confusion of terminology to the seroras, noting that they were described as beatas or even nuns in some documents. She clarified, however, that this discrepancy may have been the product of an on-the-spot translation from Basque to Castilian by bilingual notaries.

One particular facet of identity, that of canonical status, was addressed by Alison More. Expressing an interest in the topic of Tridentine reform and its importance for the seroras, More asked Scott if they had a status in canon law, what authority they had, and from whom they would have received such authority. Scott explained that while localities and dioceses both claimed to have authority over the seroras, it remains an unresolved conflict. She noted that the seroras, did, however, have ecclesiastical immunity.

Related to the question of identity is the question of influence, and this topic, a notable aspect of Acosta-García’s work, was introduced to the discussion when Isabelle Cochelin asked about the current of influence moving from Italy to Spain in terms of the beatas who existed prior to Cisneros’ reform. Sancho Fibla answered with reference to Acosta-García’s article that the living figures of the Observant Movement were greatly influenced by Italian models due to Cisernos’ promotion of them. He added that besides this he cannot see the clear influence of Italian spirituality before the early fifteenth century. Jodi Bilinkoff reminded the group about the possibility of an intermediate translation of a text such as Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue: given Valencia’s proximity to Italy, perhaps the text was first translated from Italian to Valencian and subsequently brought westwards and translated into Castilian. Nieto offered the clarification that the first current of influence flowed southwards from the Occitan territories across the Pyrenees into Spain. She explained that the Catalan sources of southern France spoke of beguines but simultaneously called them beatas and that this term crossed over into Iberia. Nieto specified that the Italian influence did not appear until the later Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Sylvie Duval further clarified that the influence of Italy, and specifically of Catherine of Siena, on the Castilian women must be understood in the context of the Observant reform in which Cisneros was paradoxically using the life of Catherine, a mantellata, as a model for the reform of the Spanish convents.

The discussion regarding the seroras, on the other hand, touched on their role as the influencers rather than the influenced. In response to a question about whether the seroras could be used as instruments of the Church to promote reform, Scott noted that parishioners citing Tridentine reforms as justification in conflict with their priests (despite general ignorance of what the decrees actually said) were likely repeating what they had heard from the seroras, who would have picked up on some aspects of the reform from the documents of the synods of Navarre that were sent to every parish. She clarified that despite their possible function as a mouthpiece for reform, the seroras were more of a stabilizing, rather than reforming, presence. Scott discussed how it would have been regarded as a disruption to reform the seroras due to the nature of their positions. For example, the seroras had an advantage in being well-informed about the misbehavior of priests and were often called upon by dioceses to testify in cases involving clerical misconduct. Moreover, in describing how the seroras were able to survive as a group, Scott explained that rather than being seen as unattached religious women with spiritual associations, the seroras were considered as diocesan employees with a “normal, boring job,” one, however, that would be destructive to the church if removed.

While the seroras may have embraced normal, boring jobs, this discussion further proved that the other sister, specifically in her Iberian form, is far from normal and boring.

the other sister research seminar: Medieval and Early Modern Beguines, from Provence to Northern Europe

By Emma Gabe and Laura Moncion

The Other Sister held its fifth thematic meeting on 15 March 2021 on medieval and early modern beguines from Provence to Northern Europe. The four speakers very generously shared their unpublished, forthcoming work with the group. This session was organized by Alison More and Isabelle Cochelin, with the question period moderated by Gustave Ineza. Our guests included a number of beguine specialists who engaged in a lively discussion and provided significant insights. 

The following chapters were pre-circulated and discussed during in this seminar:

  • Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, “German Beguine Communities: Origins and Emergence,” chapter from Sisters Among: Beguine Communities in Germany c. 1200-1600, forthcoming.
  • Tanya Stabler Miller, “’More Useful in the Salvation of Others’: Beguines, Religio, and the Cura Mulierum at the Early Sorbonne” in J. Deane and A. Lester, eds. Between Orders and Heresy, forthcoming with University of Toronto Press.
  • Sergi Sancho Fibla, “Reading in community, writing a community. Douceline’s Vida and the beguines of Roubaud,” in D. Nieto-Isabel, and L. Miquel Millan, eds. Transgression, Exclusion and Persecution in the Middle Ages, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022.
  • Sarah Joan Moran, “Inside Beguine homes: material culture, devotion, and family ties.” Chapter 4 in Unconventual Women: Visual Culture at the Court Beguinages of the Habsburg Low Countries, 1585-1794, forthcoming with Amsterdam University Press

Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane (University of Minnesota Morris), studying beguines in German-speaking regions, pushed back against the idea of beguines as liminal figures by discussing how they were connected to their communities, families and authorities around them. To this end, the tentative title for her upcoming book, from which this chapter was drawn, is Sisters Among, emphasizing that beguines were integral and close to the people and institutions amongst which they lived. Deane’s contribution discussed the various ways in which German beguine communities originated, and the points at which these communities begin (or stop) self-consciously calling themselves “beguines”. This intervention is in part historiographical; Deane problematized early approaches to the study of beguines, noting that binary way in which scholars have approached the topic.

Tanya Stabler Miller (Loyola University Chicago) also addressed the historiographical context of beguine history in her contribution, seeking to balance the local context of medieval Paris with the broader trends of religious movements. Miller noted that historians have often overlooked how supportive the local clergy were to the beguines on the ground. She focused on Robert of Sorbon, the founder of the Sorbonne university, and his writings and lectures to correct this scholarly oversight. Robert provided pastoral care to beguines and, in his lectures to those training to be secular clergymen, promoted pastoral engagement with them. In the context of medieval Parisian discussions on how best to live a religious life, Robert promoted beguine piety as an example, and particularly as an example of pastoral care.

Sergi Sancho Fibla (UC Louvain) studied the beguine community of Roubaud in France through one manuscript, the vita of the community’s foundress, Douceline. He argued that the vita was used by the beguines to define and support the community’s collective identity. Revisiting some scholarly commonplaces surrounding Douceline’s Vida and the manuscript which contains it, including questions about the Vida’s authorship and date of completion, Sancho Fibla presented the idea that the manuscript was used as “the book of the house” rather than “the book of the foundress”, a document legitimizing the community’s existence and network of relationships between the community, their families, and friars, and which hoped to claim this legitimacy for future generations. The community disappears from the historical record by the end of the fifteenth century.

Sarah Moran (Universiteit Utrecht) spoke about the art and architecture of court beguinages in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Low Countries. Her forthcoming book Unconventional Women: Art and Architecture of the Court Beguinages of the Hapsburg Low Countries, 1585–1794 looks at the architecture of court beguinages, the art and iconography owned by beguines, their portraits, material culture, and art and furnishings of their churches. Speaking in particular to the material culture, she concluded that the decoration of beguine homes conformed to Tridentine ideology, as Christ and the Virgin received a central place in their homes, but that the material culture of beguinages also reflected the spiritual and artistic trends of the wider community. 

A long and lively discussion followed with questions that touched on free will, numbers, diverse sources, age of entry, processions, and sermons or exhortations by the beguines, amongst other topics. The four speakers agreed that beguines seem to have all chosen this way of life, unlike the nuns who were sometimes constrained by their family to enter a monastery. Moran explained that, as beguines kept her own wealth and inherited normally, their families had nothing to gain by force them into beguinages. Interestingly, the speakers and other participants indicated that beguines outnumbered nuns, at least in some cities across Europe, although exact numbers are difficult to ascertain: Walter Simons mentioned a ratio of ten beguines to one nun in the Low Countries; Moran reached a similar conclusion for her period in Ghent; Sigrid Hirbodian also confirmed that beguines were more numerous in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Strasbourg; and Letha Böhringer affirmed the same for Cologne where she knows the names of 2,100 beguines for the period 1320–1400. In general, beguines joined communities at various ages in the Middle Ages, and some houses refused women below 40. Nevertheless, this was not universal as it appears that by the early modern period in the Low Countries at least, women usually joined in their late teens or early twenties. Most remained beguines for the remainder of their lives.

Dream Vision and Butter Miracle: Non-Cloistered Religious Women in the Vita of Haseka the Recluse

by Laura Moncion

Often, small footnotes can lead to interesting discoveries. In her chapter on “Anchorites in German-speaking Regions” in Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe (2010), Gabriela Signori mentions a recluse named Haseka in passing, as one of two recluses commemorated by the secular canons of Böddecken, Westphalia, in the fifteenth century.[1] Intrigued by Signori’s description of Haseka’s vita as “remarkably unremarkable”, I followed this footnote and found a vita (or spiritual biography) which, though brief, offers some interesting and suggestive information regarding the situation of recluses and other types of non-cloistered religious women.[2] This vita offers an example of a female recluse, and it also shows other types of non-cloistered religious life for women.

Recluses—also often known as anchorites or solitaries—were people who lived religious lives enclosed in dwellings, known as reclusoria (singular reclusorium), cells, or anchorholds. Any scholarly defintion of this form of life must be slim enough to account for the wide variation in reclusion which existed throughout the Middle Ages, from solitary monks to forest hermits to house ascetics and more. The type of reclusion discussed in this blog post, and on which I focus my research, is one which involves living in some form of enclosure in or near an urban area, often in or beside a church, a form of life which became increasingly common among women in the later Middle Ages. 

The vita of Haseka is an example of this type of urban female reclusion. Her story appears as part of a martyrology compiled in the mid-fifteenth century by Hermann Greven, a Carthusian monk, based on the ninth-century martyrology of Usuard. Haseka is one of the new and local saints whom Greven added to his volume. According to the vita, she had lived in a cell attached to the church of Schermbeck, Westphalia, and died in 1261.

Regarding Haseka, the vita tells us that she came from the Rhineland region and lived for thirty-six years as a recluse attached to this church, where she devoted herself assiduously to prayer. One miracle is recorded, as well as Haseka’s death, and a struggle between two monasteries—one Cistercian, and one Benedictine—over the right to bury her body. The local bishop apparently got involved, and Haseka was disinterred and reburied in front of an audience of monks and laypeople. Finally, the vita narrates that after she had died, Haseka appeared to a pious widow in a dream vision, encouraging her in her faith. The author ends the vita by asserting that the cult of Haseka is alive and well in the region. 

Remarkably unremarkable? Perhaps. But there is more that can be said. This vita depicts a typical urban recluse in Haseka: she lives attached to a church, she is shown concentrated first and foremost on prayer, and yet there are also suggestions that she interacted with a variety of people, from laypeople to monks.

It is worth noting that this vita shows a tension between two monasteries attempting to seize control of the body and the possible cult of a holy female recluse. Further, as Signori’s original footnote indicates, Haseka was commemorated by secular canons in Böddecken, and Greven himself was a Carthusian in Cologne. Haseka, an obscure figure to twenty-first-century medievalists, was at least somewhat important to these various groups which included and claimed her.

The vita of Haseka also shines a light on other forms of non-cloistered religious life, including in the narration of her single miracle: one day, Haseka and her attendant, Berta, receive a pot of butter as a pious donation, which is unfortunately “stinking and rancid because of its old age” (butyrum prae vetustate sua foetidum ac corruptum). Eventually, Berta can no longer stand the stench, and tries to throw it out. Haseka apprehends her and, rather than dispose of the butter, beseeches God to make it palatable again. Miraculously, the butter is returned to a freshly-churned state.

Berta, the recluse’s attendant, is a key figure in the narration of this butter miracle. I use the term “attendant” here, because, like many non-cloistered religious women sought by this project, her status is somewhat unclear. The precise terms used for her in the text are conservaministra, and soror. There are suggestions that Berta’s status is in some way equal to the recluse’s: Haseka herself is also referred to as soror, and they apparently eat together, at the same table. However, Berta is not called a recluse herself, and may be placed outside the reclusorium rather than inside it: when they eat together, it is “one inside, and the other outside” (una intra, altera vero extra). Sister Berta suggests an interesting model of the non-cloistered religious woman, that of a recluse’s attendant who is also recognizable as a spiritual figure in her own right.

In the final section of the vita, the author describes Haseka appearing to a woman in a dream. The author describes this woman as “a certain noble and devoted widow” (cuidam nobili ac devotae viduae), who receives a sort of devotional pep talk from the departed recluse, telling her not to doubt or fear but to remain firm in her belief. Her designation as devota vidua suggests a certain spiritual status, along with her appearance as the privileged recipient of Haseka’s postmortem spiritual advice. This woman calls to mind the life of pious widowhood, another non-cloistered religious option for medieval women. Her connection to Haseka further suggests that these types of non-cloistered life were not isolated from one another, but rather existed as distinct but related elements of the medieval religious landscape.

The vita of Haseka is useful for the study of recluses, a form of non-cloistered religious life often undertaken by women. It is also a source for the history of non-cloistered religious women more broadly in its depiction of Berta and mention of a pious widow. This discussion has, I hope, provided an example of a text which opens a window onto the lives and representations of non-cloistered religious women—and further shown that where one such woman is found, many more are bound to appear.


[1] Gabriela Signori, “Anchorites in German-speaking regions” in Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe, ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2010) note 32 p. 48. This book—a collection of chapters on recluses, divided by geographic region—is an informative and fruitful source for the study of medieval recluses and much recommended to anyone interested in the topic.

[2] I contributed a translation of this vita to the Stanford Global Medieval Sourcebook project, which was published in January 2020. This translation was based on “De beata Haseka virgine reclusa in Westphalia” in AASS 26 January, vol. 3, 373–4. All quotations from the vita here are taken from the same edition.

An English summary of an Article by Pablo Acosta-García

Pablo Acosta-García, “En viva sangre bañadas: Caterina da Siena y las vidas de María de Ajofrín, Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo y otras santas vivas castellanas,” Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà, 33 (2020): 143–172.

A Summary in English by Camila Walls Castillo

If citing the following summary, please give this reference:

Pablo Acosta-García, “En viva sangre bañadas: Caterina da Siena y las vidas de María María de Ajofrín, Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo y otras santas vivas castellanas” Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà, XXXIII (2020) 143-72. English Summary by Camila Walls Castillo. https://othersisters.hypotheses.org/239

In this study, Pablo Acosta-García investigates representations of female holiness on the Iberian Peninsula during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By engaging in a detailed comparative analysis of hagiographic texts, the author’s principal objective is to analyse the extent to which late-medieval Italian models of sanctity influenced the phenomenology and narration present in early modern Hispanic mysticism. As his principal point of comparison, Acosta-García looks to the work of Raymond of Capua, confessor and biographer of Catherine of Siena, and contextualizes his Legenda major as a fundamental hagiographic text, whose structure, narrative patterns, and mystic phenomenology served as a model for the written histories of later women-religious in Castile. The author takes into account a multitude of specific narrative elements, but places a particular focus on two stages in the holy woman’s lifecycle: childhood and maturity — emphasizing during this latter category the penitential traits of a saint’s life, specifically looking for codified hagiographic themes through their expressions of stigmata, and their discussion of the  process of stigmatization. The author then discusses the reliability of hagiographic influence through oral tradition, and further supports the dissemination of earlier traditions by assessing the connections these women had with their contemporary Italian counterparts. Ultimately, through a detailed review of temporal setting, physical phenomenon, and narrative arrangement, he successfully establishes the appropriation of a late medieval tradition in early modern Castilian hagiographic literature, and makes further evident the ways in which this model had evolved, diversified, and been reformed by Hispanic mysticism. 

Puella senex: Models of Saintly Childhood

Acosta-García begins by contextualizing Italian models of female sanctity through the example of beloved fourteenth-century mystic, Catherine of Siena (pg. 146). He proposes that the narrative framework of her vita, which hinges upon the division between stages of her life, provides a structural basis for later hagiographic work, the influence of which is best understood through Castilian portrayals of santa niñez (sacred childhood) and madurez (maturity) (pg. 148-149).

The narrative elements in Raymond’s telling follow a distinct pattern within each cycle.

In childhood, a holy woman is first introduced by her status, then by emphasizing the moral character of her parents, and finally, by highlighting the abundance of her family’s temporal goods (pg. 150). In this way, the author suggests that the holy child is cast in one of two roles, each representing distinct models of sacred childhood distinguished by the period in which the vitae were written: the noble child who is understood as having inherited her sanctity from birth, which is typical in narratives from the seventeenth century onward; or the secular child or puella senex (the old girl), who becomes sacred through the renunciation of worldly life at a young age, typical from earlier models of sanctity (beginning in the sixteenth century). Of these two categories, María García de Toledo (1340-1426), Beatriz da Silva (1424/1437-1492), and María de Toledo (1437-1507) represent the noble women-religious. Acosta-García remarks that the hagiographer’s insertion of noble holy women within larger late histories of the mendicant orders, suggests a “distinct aristocratic genealogy, which highlights their roots,” and echoes late medieval conceptions about the sanctity of their lineage (pg. 151). 

            The latter category therefore represents secular holy women, the group to which Catherine of Siena belongs, who is described as being “from a humble generation, but abounded in temporal goods.” (pg. 150).  This narrative element is later adopted in the lives of Hispanic secular mystics, such as María de Ajofrín (1455-1489) with respect to her parents, who “feared the Lord greatly, always walking in his commandments, and had an abundance of temporal goods,” (pg. 153) and is subsequently echoed in the description of Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534), who was said to be “… of good and Christian parents, virtuous and clean in customs, and people of an average way” (pg. 153).

Acosta-García uses the analogy of the puella senex to describe these women, who faced with an inability to claim inherited sanctity as a natural justification for their path towards holiness, must instead come to it episodically, through a development of virtues that indicated the maturity of their faith exceeded the capacities of their age. The author argues that the path of the puella senex can be understood through four distinct phases: the confirmation of one’s holy vocation through a vision; the appropriation of penitential traits in imitation of the desert fathers; the vow of virginity; and the development of virtuous habits (temperance in dressing, abstinence in eating and drinking, and sobriety in her sleeping habits) (pg. 154).

In the life of Catherine, this development of virtue is largely related to her struggle to maintain her status as a virgin. Her Legenda states that upon realizing the expectation for her to marry, Catherine cut off her hair in an act of rebellion. This narrative element is reiterated in the life of María de Ajofrín, who faced with familial pressures to marry was said to have “valiantly resisted both the world and her relatives,” (pg. 155) as well as in the life of María de Toledo, who “did not delight in boasts, nor consent to dirty her ears with them… attributing everything she had to God” (pg. 156). Acosta-García pointedly remarks that these worldly marital renunciations underscore two important features of the sacred soul, the physical (beauty) and the moral (virtue), suggesting that “these two themes are linked, since physical attractiveness, on the one hand, platonically reflects the cleanliness of the soul, and on the other, reinforces at the narrative level the denial of worldly life in favour of adopting a life related to penitential ideals” (pg. 154).

Regardless of their status at birth, Acosta-García concludes that the path towards holiness in childhood culminated in divine betrothal. This mystical union signified a solidification of the holy woman’s vows, representing a crucial turning point in the life of a saint. Raymond of Capua establishes this in his Legenda major by detailing a visionary exchange of a diamond ring between Christ and Catherine (pg. 158). We can see this exchange echoed in the life of Juana de la Cruz, where the Virgin Mary serves as espousal intermediary: “Our Lady the Virgin Mary took a ring from her precious finger and gave it to the sacred son so that he could give it, from his hand, to his wife. And so it was done, that the Child Jesus himself gave it to her, and put it in her hand” (p. 158).  The visionary’s betrothal as narrative element thus marks the young woman’s transition from holy child, to Bride of Christ — a pattern that is clearly reflected in hagiographies of the Iberian Peninsula during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  

The Mature Holy Woman: Penitence, Ecstasy, Stigmata

Acosta-García suggests that at a basic level, two distinct features of later medieval piety are clearly reflected in the biographies of Castilian holy women as they narrate their adulthood: the intermediary nature of sacred images, and a clear Christocentric devotion, with a strong eucharistic focus (pg. 158). The Legenda major by Raymond presents these elements several times throughout Catherine’s short life (her vocation for a life of faith as a result of her vision of Christ; her stigmata occurring while before a crucifix; the miracle of the Host flying towards her mouth), and it is subsequently evident in the lives of Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo,  María de Ajofrín (pg. 159).

Yet, in order to truly assess the dissemination of an earlier hagiographic tradition in early modern Spain, the author looks to the more penitential aspects of these women’s lives, particularly their experiences of stigmata. He begins this portion of the analysis by underscoring a distinction made by Jacques Dalarun, between the stigmatization (the “cause” or process by which marks are received) and the stigmata (the “effect,” or wounds, free from casual narrative). Acosta-García reminds us that only in the lives of María de Ajofrín and Juana de la Cruz are we presented with an account of the stigmatization process. In these examples, we see a stark resemblance to the Catherinian model, which can once again be understood through the replication of distinct narrative themes: first, the stigmata occur during a highlighted sacred period of time on the liturgical calendar (Holy Thursday/Good Friday); second, it makes the location of the wounds explicit (side of body, under ribs, hands and feet); third, it speaks of witnesses which can attest to the stigmata’s authenticity, in some cases through notarized documents (pg. 161).

However, Acosta-García notes that the Hispanic tradition departs from the Catherinian model in the raw and graphic physical representation of these women’s blessed wounds. The stigmatization process (at least in the earliest, original account which was most disseminated in Castile at the time of these Castilian “sante vive”), for example, clearly emphasizes the imperceptibility of Catherine’s wounds. Catherine is said to have experienced the pains of the passion while standing before the crucifix, in areas highlighted by rays of light which radiated off the holy symbol (pg. 161). In contrast to this invisible portrayal, in the life of María de Ajofrín we see that “there appeared such a deep gash, that it seemed to have been cut open with a razor… which remained open for twenty full days, her blood flowing more on Friday’s than on any other day.” The integration of carnal suffering with the repeated holy significance of Friday, is also echoed in the life of Juana de la Cruz, where it is said “[s]he possessed the glorious marks and increasing pains from the morning of Good Friday to the Day of Ascension” (pg. 166). The author notes that these narrative patterns, while ostensibly maintaining a Catherinian framework, more closely resemble narrative patterns seen in the lives of their contemporary Italian tertiaries, such as Lucia Brocadelli da Narni (1476-1544), who also bled on Fridays (pg. 166). Moreover, with respect to witness testimony, in the life of Lucia we see a rigorous notarial procedure that is echoed in the life of María de Santo Domingo. María who hosted judges which, in the process of their verification, confirmed precisely the location, shape, and blood flow of the wound, in order to “inspire faith of its factuality” (pg. 164). Much like the parallels which can be drawn between Lucia and María, so too can they be drawn between another Italian contemporary, Domenica Narducci da Paradiso (1473-1553), whose influence is perhaps present in the life of Juana de la Cruz with respect to her experience of ecstasy, prior to stigmatization. It is said of both these women, that their confessors found them strewn on the floor in the form of a cross, representing their visions of the crucifixion amidst their rapture, a narrative element which also serves to “surpass” the Catherinian model by placing a heightened emphasis on the physicality of stigmatization (pg. 170).

Ultimately, Acosta-García establishes that Catherinian models of holiness, integrated into larger models of late medieval Italian feminine piety, may have become known to these Hispanic mystics through an oral tradition that was facilitated by their connections to contemporary Italian holy women and their confessors.

Conclusion

As he concludes his argument, Acosta-García proposes that we bear in mind how these texts deliberately prevent us from knowing “where the narration of biographical facts end, and where the codification of hagiographic tradition begins” (p. 171).  Furthermore, he leaves us to ponder: are these coincidences indicative of an explicit imitation by these women of a known model? Or, is it instead the specific interests of the author, often a confessor or historian of mendicant orders, which informs the creation of these histories? His analysis nevertheless confirms, through the narrative structures of santa niñez and madurez, that these histories represent a knowledge of earlier Italian models of holiness —not simply of the fourteenth-century Catherinian model, but also of models created by holy women living contemporaneously with them in the fifteenth century; “that group of women which Bartolomei Romagnoli would call the ‘spirituale milizia femminile’” (pg. 171). This knowledge is particularly evident in the descriptions of Castilian stigmatics, who elevate their status beyond the Catherinian model through the graphic nature of their stigmatizations, such that they do not simply communicate a likeness to Christ, but instead, a total assimilation with Christ in his passion. In addition to pointing out these transgressive appropriations, he asserts the importance of looking to the models laid down by contemporary Italian women for future hagiographic comparison, such as Lucia Broccadelli da Narni and Domenica Narducci da Paradiso, who facilitated in “the negotiation of new forms and significances of the stigmata” among the female-religious of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (p. 172).

Non-Cloistered Religious Women Communities in Apulia in the Early Modern Period: Research in Progress

by Angela Carbone 

The doctoral program in Sciences of Human Relations (University of Bari Aldo Moro, Department of Education, Psychology and Communication Sciences), where I have worked for many years, is divided into three branches: History and Social Policy, Formative Dynamics and Political Education, and Psychology: Cognitive, Emotional and Communicative Processes. I have supervised many doctoral students in the History program including, most recently, Domenico Uccellini. In his recent article, he has brought new elements to the research on communities of non-cloistered religious women in the Terra di Bari (countryside around the city of Bari) between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (D. Uccellini, Benefattrici e beneficate. Conservatori femminili in Terra di Bari nella prima età moderna, in E. Ivetic, a cura di, Attraverso la storia. Nuove ricerche sull’età moderna in Italia, Editoriale Scientifica, Napoli 2020, pp. 197-208).

From the historiographical background in which many research trends in the Church’s history and the history of local powers intersect, the originality of the Uccellini’s contribution lies in the fact that he looks both at the female role in charity and at the charitable practices: women acting as benefactors and women as beneficiaries.

As evidenced by exemplary female promoters of praiseworthy charitable initiatives in Naples between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Maria Lorenza Longo, founder of the Ospedale degli Incurabili (1521), Maria d’Ayerbe, founder of the Monastery of the convertite (1537), Elena Aldobrandini, founder of the Ritiro per matrone e vergini nobili (1655), there was significant female activity in the foundation of conservatories dedicated to the assistance of women “on the margins”.

In particular, there were noteworthy initiatives undertaken by noble women belonging to the Acquaviva family, one of the seven great noble families of the Kingdom of Naples to which King Ferdinand I of Aragon granted, in the second half of the fifteenth century, the right to add the name “d’Aragona” to their surname. The Conservatorio di Santa Maria delle Abbandonate was founded in 1573 in Casamassima (Bari) in fulfillment of a testamentary bequest of Dorotea Acquaviva d’Aragona, daughter of Giovanni Antonio Donato and Isabella Spinelli, with the aim of welcoming orphan and poor girls. About twenty years later, Archbishop Riccardi mentioned the hospitium in his Report ad limina of 1594, stating that there were young girls who had not made solemn profession of monastic vows but lived religiously, and that the structure was guarded and administered very properly.

The conservatory’s book of Rules, the Regule, statuti et consuetudini d’osservarsi inviolabilmente con la Divina grazia dalle M.R. figliole di Santa Maria dell’Abandonate – on which we are still working – precisely describe the everyday life of the girls and establish a whole series of behavioral norms.

In 1660, the archbishop of Bari, Diego Sersale, transformed the conservatory into a monastery of Poor Clares. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, there were still “thirty choir nuns, and ten converse nuns, who lived in a perfect common life under the rule of St. Clare as reformed by Pope Urban.”

Another important female figure linked to the Acquaviva family was Isabella Filomarino dei Principi della Rocca, wife of the Count of Conversano Gian Girolamo II Acquaviva d’Aragona (“the one-eyed men of the Apuglia (guercio delle Puglie)”) and niece of the archbishop of Naples Ascanio Filomarino.

Isabella was a cultured, devout and imperious woman (not by chance called the “asp of Apulia”); she supported with conviction the political project of her family, which aimed at using patronage and charity as effective instruments of power. In the 1640s, she established the Conservatorio di S. Leonardo in Conversano (Bari). The institute welcomed “mujeres in honestas” who wore the habit of the Dominican Third Order and who did not profess solemn vows: they led an intense “religious life”, but were free “to leave and choose another state”. 

A new female congregation was founded, again in Conversano, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, by Caterina Acquaviva d’Aragona, mother of Gian Girolamo II and mother-in-law of Isabella Filomarino. The conservatory, called “Casa Santa” (Holy House), welcomed – in addition to a pre-existing community of Discalced Capuchin nuns called “cappuccinelle” – “some spinsters, daughters of dishonest mothers” so that they might be prevented from “following the life of their mothers with the danger of losing their honor and becoming victims of the devil.” 

When Caterina Acquaviva of Aragon died, in the early 1630s, Gian Girolamo II and Isabella Filomarino put an end to this experiment by founding, in the place of the Casa Santa and of the contiguous church of S. Matteo, a convent dedicated to the saints Cosma and Damiano, which housed Franciscan tertiary sisters.  

These are only some examples of the ongoing research made possible by the study of the rich archival documentation. It is interesting to highlight the leading role assumed by some women of one of the most important families of the Kingdom of Naples, the Acquaviva of Aragon, together with the role played by the Church. These women were, on one hand, moved by an deep religious convictions. They sought spiritual purification and renewal, often following family bereavements and, in particular, the entrance into the state of widowhood. On the other hand, these charitable institutions became an expression of the Acquaviva family’s strategies for the control of the territory, the display of family prestige, and the management of their patrimony.

Lay Sisters in Johannes Meyer’s Buch der Reformacio Predigerordens

By Emma Gabe

In the course of my work on lay sisters in late-medieval German-speaking areas, I have wrestled with the meaning of the term “lay sister” (conversa in Latin; Konversin or Laienschwester in German). “Lay sister” can refer to a converse sister––a nun who was responsible for domestic tasks inside the monastery such as cooking and gardening. But it can also refer to pious women living in the external courtyards of a monastery who had given themselves and their property to the service of the community in exchange for lifelong keep. 

The fluidity of terms and the variety of people attracted to this religious life is evident in the Buch der Reformacio Predigerordens, which chronicles the spread of the late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Observant reform in Dominican female monasteries in Teutonia (present-day Germany). The author of the Buch der Reformacio, Johannes Meyer, was an influential confessor and reformer who wrote many texts for the nuns under his care promoting the Observant way of life. The Buch der Reformacio survives in four manuscripts. Benedict Maria Reichert published a diplomatic edition of one of these manuscripts in 1908–09, and Claire Taylor Jones recently published an English translation of Meyer’s text under the title Women’s History in the Age of Reformation: Johannes Meyer’s Chronicle of the Dominican Observance (Toronto: PIMS, 2019). 

One of the tenets of the Observant reform was the strict enclosure of female monastic communities. In the Buch der Reformacio, it appears that Meyer uses the term “lay sister” to refer to sisters who lived inside the enclosure with the choir nuns, because he often distinguishes these women from people who lived in the external courtyards. The first Observant female community in Teutonia was the convent of Schönensteinbach in Alsace. According to the Buch der Reformacio, three of the original 13 women who joined this new community were laysisters (book II, ch. 6). One of them, Margaretha of Basel, had formerly worked as a maidservant (dienstmagt) in the convent of Klingental (book II, ch. 7). Among her many pious behaviours, Meyer records that Margaretha kept the monastic rule of silence so well that she even admonished other sisters who broke the silence, no matter their birth (book III, ch. 31–32). Adelheid Voigt, who had been the maid of a noblewoman, joined as a lay sister even though she could read Latin and German. She was not a friendly or popular person, but she was noted for her cooking skills (book III, ch. 40–41).

Meyer also wrote about lay sisters from noble backgrounds who joined Schönensteinbach and materially enriched the community (book II, ch. 11). Katharina of Bruges, from a noble background, took care of the kitchen and the garden, and gave herself to such humble tasks as washing the sisters’ undergarments (book III, ch. 33). Magdalena Bechrer, who insisted on entering Schönensteinbach as a lay sister despite her birth and wealth, commissioned books for the community’s confessors (book III, ch. 39). Lay sister Katharina Holtzhauser copied books for the community (book III, ch. 42). 

Meyer also tells us about family groups that joined monastic communities. For example, widow Anna Griss brought her ten-year-old daughter Elisabeth to Schönensteinbach, where the daughter was received as a lay sister (book III, ch. 34–37). Anna, however, lived in the external courtyards where she became the mistress of the secular maids and experienced much trouble keeping them in line. Eventually, she entered the cloistered community as a lay sister (book III, ch. 38). Despite being physically separated from her daughter by the community’s practice of strict enclosure, it could be that giving her daughter to the community and living in the external courtyards was a way for Anna to stay with her daughter.  

Meyer also provides an example of a married couple and their daughter who joined Schönensteinbach. The wife, Susanna of Masmünster, became one of the first three lay sisters (book II, ch. 7). Her husband Johannes, a knight, became a lay brother in the community’s external courtyards (book III, ch. 31; book IV, ch. 11). Their daughter, Ursula of Masmünster, was four years old when she came to Schönensteinbach. A choir nun, she eventually became prioress at Schönensteinbach and helped to reform other female monasteries (book III, ch. 24). 

Of course, Meyer’s aim in writing the Buch der Reformacio was to reinforce Observant values by presenting role models for others to follow, so we should not take Meyer’s writing at face value. It could be that the enclosure of lay sisters was less strict in reality than Meyer implied, particularly for those with family members also living in the community. The large number of lay sisters from noble backgrounds that Meyer writes about might have been proportionally lower in reality, because stories of lay sisters from noble backgrounds choosing to live humble lives served as compelling exempla. However, the range of backgrounds of lay sisters, both in social status but also age and marital status, suggests that the position of a lay sister was flexible and varied. 

Does Purple Preclude Piety?: Jacques de Vitry’s Disapproval of Secular Canonesses

By Meghan Lescault

In looking for clerical supporters of medieval non-cloistered religious women, the name of Jacques de Vitry (c. 1160–1240) may come to mind. Jacques, a regular canon, bishop, scholar, preacher, and author was a vocal promoter of the beguines, a role which may be seen in his sermons and his Vita of Marie d’Oignies. His enthusiasm for the non-cloistered, however, did not extend to all such women, and certainly not to the secular canonesses.

Secular canonesses were women from noble families who held prebends attached to collegiate churches where they had liturgical duties. They could renounce their prebends at any time and leave the community, usually in order to marry. They have received little attention in modern religious historiography, partly because they have been associated with a lack of traditional piety, a view that has its roots in the minds of some of the canonesses’ medieval contemporaries. As Jacques de Vitry holds such a view, a piece of his writing offers an early example of rigid disapproval of their form of life. Other ecclesiastical figures took issue with the canonesses,[1] seemingly because they were not nuns despite bearing some resemblance to them, but Jacques’ disdain is more surprising at first sight given his support for the beguines. It may be the case, however, that Jacques’ admiration for the modest life of the beguine was the cause of his apparent distaste for the wealthy canonesses.

Jacques devoted several chapters of his Historia occidentalis to various religious groups. A brief glance at the titles of these chapters may well reveal his view of the “ideal” religious life. Straightforward explanations such as De cysterciensibus and De canonicis Sancti Victoris stand in contrast to the title of the thirty-first chapter: De irregularitate secularium canonicarum. While “irregularity” in the ecclesiastical context means that the secular canonesses did not follow a rule, one cannot help but notice the pejorative sense it has for Jacques when reading what follows.

In describing the canonesses, Jacques paints a picture of opulence, laxity, and immodesty. He places secular nobility and religious piety in contrast to each other and elaborates on the canonesses’ material comfort:

Hee siquidem adeo personas accipiunt, quod non nisi filias militum et nobilium in suo collegio uolunt recipere, religioni et morum nobilitati et seculi nobilitatem preferentes. Purpura autem et bysso et pellibus grisiis et aliis iocunditatis sue uestibus induuntur, circumdate uarietatibus cum tortis crinibus et ornatu pretioso circumamicte ut similitude templi, gaudentes cum gaudentibus, liberales ualde et hospitales.[2]

If indeed they do accept people, they do not wish to receive anyone except daughters of knights and nobles into their society, preferring the nobility of the world to religion and nobility of mores. Moreover, they wear purple cotton and gray fur and other garments that delight them. They are enveloped in clothing of various colors with their hair curled and are covered in costly embellishment like a temple. They rejoice with the joyful and are very generous and hospitable.[3]

While this last aspect of his description has a potentially positive tone, Jacques quickly makes his overall position clear by discussing the sumptuous nature of their feasts and their freedom to leave the community for a time and to visit with their families and friends. He disapproves of their liturgical partnership with secular canons and portrays its apparent dangers in no uncertain terms:

Ipse uero, uelut sirens in delubris uoluptatis uocem iocunditatis annuntiantes, ipsos canonicos, dum superari nesciunt, fessos et fatigatos frequenter reddiderunt. Similiter et in processionibus, composite et ornate, canonici ex una parte et domine ex alia parte concinentes, procedunt.[4]

Indeed, just as Sirens proclaiming their call of delight in temples of pleasure, they have frequently wearied and tired the canons who are not aware that they are overcome. And similarly in processions, they proceed in an orderly and splendid manner while singing together, the canons from one side and the ladies from the other.

As if their status vis-à-vis the clerics was not enough, Jacques goes on to discuss the canonesses’ ability to leave their positions and marry, likely holding this in contrast to forms of life that required a permanent commitment. If his view of these women was not clear by this point, he lays all of his cards on the table with the following statement near the end of the chapter:

Aliquas autem ex ispsarum congregatione uidimus, que, saniori use consilio de Hur chaldeorum et de medio Babylonis fugientes, postquam mundi incendia euaserunt, sumpto cysterciensis ordinis habitu, ad magnum perfectionis cumulum peruenerunt.[5]

We have seen some of them who have taken sounder advice and have fled from Ur of the Chaldees and from the middle of Babylon, and after they have escaped the fire of the world, they have taken the habit of the Cistercian Order and have reached the high height of perfection.

Jacques clearly does not condone what he regards as the too worldly life of the secular canoness, and he goes so far as to promote the Cistercian Order as the salvific antidote. His identification of female monasticism with “the high height of perfection,” however, stands in contradiction to his admiration for the beguines, whose lives certainly differed from those of the Cistercians in many aspects. It seems to be the case that Jacques has a vision of ideal female piety that incorporates characteristics of cloistered women and beguines alike but does not accommodate the customs of the canonesses. This leaves the question of whether curled hair, abundant food, and coed liturgical processions can truly determine the presence or absence of piety and religious devotion. This is an important question for scholars to raise when revisiting such groups of women.


[1] Examples include the French Cluniac canonist Guilelmus de Monte Laudano, the Italian canonist Johannes Andreae, and the Italian canonist Cardinal Franciscus Zabarella. See Elizabeth Makowski, A Pernicious Sort of Woman: Quasi-religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), especially chapter 1.

[2] Jacques de Vitry, Historia Occidentalis, chapter 31. All Latin text is from Jacques de Vitry, The Historia Occidentalis of Jacques de Vitry, trans. John Frederick Hinnebusch, O.P. (Fribourg: University Press, 1972).

[3] Translations are my own.

[4] Jacques de Vitry, Historia Occidentalis, chapter 31.

[5] Ibid.

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