The Other Sister Research Seminar: Recluses

By Laura Moncion

On 20 April 2022, The Other Sister group hosted a thematic session on the topic of recluses. We had four speakers, presenting on their two jointly edited recent publications. This session was organized by Laura Moncion, in collaboration with Alison More, Isabelle Cochelin, Sylvie Duval, and Kendall Sneyd, with the question period moderated by Michael Hahn. The four speakers presented aspects of their ongoing work in relation to their recent edited collections, the introductions and tables of contents of which had been pre-circulated to the group:

  • Frances Andrews and Eleonora Rava, “Introduction: Approaches to Voluntary Reclusion in Medieval Europe (13-16th Centuries),” in Quaderni di storia religiosa medievale, 24/1 (2021) and table of contents. 
  • _____. “Defining Reclusion: An Introduction with Presentation of the Papers in this Issue,” Quaderni di storia religiosa medievale, 24/2 (2021) and table of contents. 
  • Michelle M. Sauer and Jenny C. Bledsoe, “Bodies, Objects, and the Significance of Things in Early Middle English Reclusion: and Introduction,” in The Materiality of Middle English Anchoritic Devotion, ed. Michelle M. Sauer and Jenny C. Bledsoe (Amsterdam University Press: 2021) and table of contents.

For our thematic meeting, Eleonora Rava (University of St Andrews) presented elements of her research in the context of the joint project on voluntary reclusion conducted by herself and Frances Andrews. Rava highlighted in particular her edition of Johannes Nider’s section on recluses in his work, Tractatus de secularium religionibus, and how Nider’s text challenges the idea that clerics and Church officials tended to repress recluses or channel them into monastic life. Rava also spoke about additional workshops, editions of liturgical sources, and maps relating to the project, Inside Speaker’s Corner: Late-medieval Italian Anchoresses in European Context (https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/inspeco/).

Frances Andrews (University of St Andrews) spoke about their project’s aims in addressing on the one hand the types of sources, and on the other the broad geography relating to reclusion, and their development of a typology of “the ideal recluse” in order to discuss reclusion. Andrews also addressed the interactions which she and Rava had had with today’s prisoners about medieval reclusion. Their conversations with two long-term prisoners, charged with political crimes, on the subject of medieval reclusion, and these prisoners’ comments on passages from medieval texts about recluses, forms the basis for an article in the second Qrsm volume.

Michelle M. Sauer (University of North Dakota) addressed the subject of her co-edited volume with Jenny C. Bledsoe, namely, materiality as it relates to anchorites (a term used more in English sources). Sauer offered an expanded concept of materiality, especially through the integration of sound and voice into the study of manuscripts and shrines in churches. She also provided an update on her own mapping project of anchorholds and hermit locations in Britain. Finally, Sauer invoked the concept of “anchoritic adjacent” and its usefulness not only in describing historical people or phenomena but also in sharpening and defining the qualities of the “anchoritic” or “reclusive”.

Jenny C. Bledsoe (Northeastern State University, Broken Arrow) elaborated on the idea of the “anchoritic adjacent”, and addressed this concept especially in relation to manuscript studies. The “anchoritic adjacent” in this context are primarily texts circulating alongside anchoritic texts, for example in miscellanies. Building on the idea of anchoritic textual communities, Bledsoe discussed how the circulations of these groups of texts beyond their immediate anchoritic contexts suggest the influence of recluses in their societies. 

These presentations were followed by lively discussions over video and in the Zoom chat, a portion of which is summarized here: Isabelle Cochelin asked about the geographical distribution of sources, especially the normative sources, such as spiritual guides, customaries, and rules for recluses, the latter being a difficult category considering that these texts may not have had the same place in recluses’ lives as a monastic rule would for monks and nuns.[1] We discussed further the “anchoritic adjacent”, following a comment made by Laura Moncion concerning people who were recorded as spending a short period of time in a reclusorium (e.g. Christina of Markyate or Juliana of Mont-Cornillon). Alicia Smith and Eddie A. Jones suggested here that such instances of temporary reclusion might challenge the idea of reclusion as being a form of death to the world, despite the forbidding language of some profession documents. Rava pointed out that many recluses found in the Italian sources were “temporary”, and stayed in their enclosure for only a short period. The question of reclusorium over monastery was raised, as well as a recluse or anchorite’s enclosure with or without a proper ritual. Elizabeth Lehfeldt asked about socio-economic and communal reasons for reclusion, which prompted reflections on the relative wealth which some recluses could have. Andrews and Cochelin both added that our ability to answer this question may come down to a question of sources: wealthier recluses may be likely to have left more sources than poorer ones. Jones brought the discussion back to maps, and the various decisions involved in mapping reclusoria and anchorholds based on documentary and archaeological evidence. Andrews and Rava pointed to Rava’s recent work on the topic, showing the movement of recluses between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.[2] Kirsty Schut asked about early modern recluses, and Alicia Smith pointed to several examples of texts relating to these later recluses, edited in Jones’s recent volume.[3] Kate Bush invited the speakers to discuss the restriction and expansion of women’s speech in the context of reclusion. Bledsoe reflected on Ancrene Wisse’s instructions to recluses to teach their servants, as well as the dissemination of anchoritic literature, while Rava offered an example of a recluse acting as witness in a court case, suggesting the value placed on her voice in this context.

We thank all of the participants who attended this session for their attention, participation, and collaboration—and we extend special thanks to Andrews, Rava, Sauer, and Bledsoe for presenting their work.


[1] Bella Millett, “Can There Be Such a Thing as an ‘Anchoritic Rule’?” in Anchoritism in the Middle Ages: Texts and Traditions,ed. Catherine Innes-Parker and Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013): 11–30.

[2] Eleonora Rava, “Eremite in città. Il fenomeno della reclusione urbana femminile nell’età comunale : il caso di Pisa” Revue Mabillon 21 (2010): 139–62. 

[3] E. A. Jones, Hermits and Anchorites in England, 1200–1550 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).

Jeanne le Ber (1662–1714): A Recluse in New France

by Laura Moncion

Walking into the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Montréal, Québec, one could be forgiven for overlooking the simple marble plaque attached to the north-eastern wall. This marble slab marks the place where in 2005, amid much pomp and ceremony, were placed the mortal remains of Jeanne le Ber, the first known recluse of New France.[1]

Jeanne lived in a period when Ville-Marie was filled with non-cloistered religious women. Many of them were associated with the Hôtel Dieu hospital, or the teaching sisters of the Congrégation de Notre Dame, the foundations of which are attributed to two women, Jeanne Mance and Marguerite Bourgeoys, both non-cloistered religious for much of their lives. These women are considered today as important figures in the history of Montréal. 

Jeanne le Ber is less well-known, despite her recognition and status in her own time. Among several texts written about her, the earliest surviving is a spiritual biography written by the Sulpician Father François Vachon de Belmont (1645–1732) and sent in 1722 to his superiors in Paris as part of a report on sanctity in New France.[2]

According to Belmont’s biography, Jeanne was born into one of the more wealthy and respectable families of Ville-Marie. Her godparents were Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the governor of the colony, and Jeanne Mance herself. She was educated at the Ursuline house in Québec City, where, Belmont writes, she developed a particular interest in penitence and devotion to the Eucharist. Around the age of fifteen, her parents brought her back to Ville-Marie in order to enter the marriage market. Rather than accept any of the proposals made to her, or join a monastery or another female religious house, Jeanne ended up living in reclusion in her father’s house for around fifteen years. At age seventeen, she took a vow of chastity, valid for five years, and at age twenty-two a vow of perpetual virginity. Belmont frames these fifteen years as a period of transition, with Jeanne moving more and more decisively away from worldly interests—although he admits that she did not give them up completely. As a key reason for Jeanne’s choice of individual reclusion over life in a monastery, Belmont cites her aversion to a vow of poverty and desire to keep her own fortune in order to continue donating to the charitable causes of her choice.

Her biography describes how she used some of this money to build a chapel next to the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre Dame, with a special cell behind the altar, where she could live in close proximity to the Eucharist. She entered that cell to live permanently in approximately 1695, at the very symbolic age of 33. On this occasion, Belmont includes a comment from Marguerite Bourgeoys, praising Jeanne’s promise of devotion. As a church recluse, Jeanne spent her time in prayer and devotional reading, conversation with the sisters of the Congrégation through her cell window, and manual work embroidering liturgical vestments, some of which still exist today.[3]

In one of several medieval hagiographical tropes carried over into this later biography, Belmont describes Jeanne as willingly suffering from physical illnesses, refusing to add a garden to her cell space for fresh air or to light a fire in her room against the cold. He also writes that she wore hair shirts and performed several food-related ascetic practices, such as fasting, eating on the ground, and refusing wholesome food while happily drinking foul-tasting medicines. In October 1714, Jeanne died of one of these illnesses. Her body lay in state for three days in the chapel of the Congrégation Notre Dame, before being buried in the family plot. Borrowing another hagiographical trope, Belmont’s biography claims that two women were healed of scrofula, and one other of a persistent migraine, after visiting her tomb. 

Much of Jeanne’s biography is engaged in the argument that she consistently turned away from the world. Belmont’s narrative, however, includes references to the ways in which religious women could be part of the colonial project of New France. Jeanne’s prayers, one of which was written on a battle standard, apparently vanquished a fleet of invading English ships. One of the women healed by Jeanne’s tomb is described as Indigenous, suggesting the complex history of colonialism and Christianity in Canada. Moreover, Belmont’s purpose for writing this biography is explicitly to show God’s favour bestowed on French settlement in the “New World”. Jeanne’s biography contains many references to European devotional cultures and themes from medieval hagiography, but it cannot be divorced from its historical and geographical context.

The life of Jeanne le Ber demonstrates the longevity and adaptability of reclusion as one of many non-cloistered options for religious women. It also suggests a broad horizon of options for women’s religious lives in New France, and an understanding of how religious women and their forms of life—from hospital and teaching sisters to recluses—are all intertwined.


[1] New France was the French colony established on Turtle Island (North America) in the mid-sixteenth century, which forms the basis of today’s Canadian province of Québec. Ville-Marie was the settlement which became Montréal, located on the traditional and unceded land of several Indigenous nations, principally the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Huron-Wendat, the Abenaki, and the Anishnaabeg (Algonquin) peoples.

[2] François Vachon de Belmont, “Éloge de quelques personnes mortes en odeur de sainteté à Montréal, en Canada, divisé en trois parties” in Rapport de l’archiviste de la Province de Québec (1929–1930) pp. 144–166. Available online here: https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2276299. For more on Jeanne le Ber, see esp. Dominique Deslandres, “In the Shadow of the Cloister: Representations of Holiness in New France” in Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 1500–1800, ed. Allan Green and Jodi Bilinkoff (2003); Françoise Deroy-Pineau, Jeanne le Ber: La recluse au cœur des combats (2000); https://margueritebourgeoys.org/jeanne-le-ber/ and https://reclusesmiss.org/wp/jeanne-le-ber/

[3] https://www.maisonsaintgabriel.ca/collection-objets/

The Other Sister research seminar: secular canonesses

By Meghan Lescault

On January 14, 2022, The Other Sister research group held a seminar on the topic of secular canonesses. Three invited speakers presented some of their work on the subject, which had been circulated to all participants prior to the meeting:

  • Sigrid Hirbodian, “Religious Women: Secular Canonesses and Beguines,” in The Oxford Handbook of Christian Monasticism, edited by Bernice M. Kaczynski. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020;
  • and “Weibliche Herrschaft – männliche Herrschaft? Stiftsdamen und –herren im Vergleich,” in Frauenstifte – Männerstifte (Schriften zur südwestdeutschen Landeskunde), edited by Oliver Auge, Sigrid Hirbodian, and Friederike Schnack. Ostfildern: Thorbecke Verlag, forthcoming in 2022. (An English summary of the secondary article can be found here.)
  • Eva Schlotheuber, “Pilgrims, the Poor, and the Powerful: The Long History of the Women of Nivelles,” in The Liber ordinarius of Nivelles (Houghton Library, MS Lat 422): Liturgy as Interdisciplinary Intersection, edited by Jeffrey H. Hamburger and Eva Schlotheuber, 35–96. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020.
  • Steven Vanderputten, “They Lived Under That Rule as Do Those Who Have Succeeded Them: Simultaneity and Conflict in the Foundation Narratives of a French Women’s Convent,” The Downside Review 139, no. 1 (2021): 82–97.
  • For more information on the topic, please refer to Vanderputten’s new book: Steven Vanderputten, Dismantling the Medieval: Early Modern Perceptions of a Female Convent’s Past (Turnhout: Brepols, 2021). Open access link: https://www.brepolsonline.net/action/showBook?doi=10.1484/M.STMH-EB.5.122603.

Sigrid Hirbodian, Director of the Institut für Geschichtliche Landeskunde und Historische Hulfswissenschaften at the Universität Tübingen, framed her presentation in terms of three questions, the first being what are secular canonesses? She answered that they are religious women, mostly from noble families, whose way of life was characterized by the practice of the vita communis and the absence of strict enclosure. They did not take permanent vows, could leave to get married, and had their own private income through their prebends. Hirbodian noted that unlike the beguines, the secular canonesses celebrated the Divine Office, which stood at the center of their religious life. In answer to the second question, which concerned the religious self-image of the canonesses, Hirbodian explained that they seemed to perceive themselves both as sanctimoniales and as the female equivalent of secular canons, all the while being aware that they led a special way of religious life in between the religious and secular spheres. She pointed out that the canonesses of St. Stephen’s in Strasbourg manifested this understanding of themselves in a rotulus of 1359 in which they emphasized the secular components of their life in order to make clear that they were neither nuns nor regular canonesses. As her third and final question, Hirbodian asked whether there were differences between the secular canonesses and canons. She has found that the two were quite similar in many ways but that a marked divergence was the greater adherence to the vita communis on the part of the female communities, due especially to the inability of the women to accumulate prebends, a common practice of the men. Hirbodian explained that secular canonesses and canons had equal standing and ability in terms of organizing finances and exercising power over subjects. It was the office not the individual, that mattered, and it was not until the Reformation that the ability of an abbess to lead a church was questioned.

Eva Schlotheuber, Chair of Medieval History at the Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf, began by introducing the Abbey of Nivelles, which was founded in the middle of the seventh century by Itta, the widow of Pepin the Elder, and her daughter, Gertrude, a typical foundation of an aristocratic widow working with Irish missionaries. Schlotheuber explained that this community developed into the Chapter of Nivelles with forty-three canonesses and thirty canons under the leadership of an abbess. The chapter cared for strangers, the poor, widows, and orphans, operating multiple hospitals for almost 1200 years. At the same time, Nivelles was closely connected to the Merovingian, Carolingian, and Ottonian dynasties, and the abbess had the status of the most powerful territorial ruler in the region for centuries. Schlotheuber noted that the secular canonesses were not the only type of religious women in Nivelles. The beguines had a presence there and managed hospitals as well. In fact, it seems to be the case that Nivelles was hospitable to the beguines precisely because of the social and religious environment created by the canonesses. Schlotheuber then discussed the Liber ordinarius of Nivelles, which has been explored in recent years following its purchase from a private collector in 2009. Schlotheuber explained that this book, containing documents and records of Nivelles as well as liturgical customs, was produced in response to a conflict that reached its peak in the 1230s. The immediate question at issue was whether the abbey should retain its self-governing status despite having no political protection, as the chapter thought fitting, or whether it should be under the protection of the Duke of Brabant despite losing some of its freedom, as the abbess thought best. The underlying question, however, was who or what constituted the church of Nivelles—the abbess or the chapter. Schlotheuber noted that the chapter ultimately prevailed and limited the power of the abbess, who although continuing to represent the Abbey of Nivelles, was nevertheless accountable to the chapter.

Steven Vanderputten, Senior Full Professor in the Department of History at Ghent University, began by explaining his realization that scholars’ interactions with the early medieval primary source material related to religious women are largely dependent upon the handling of the sources by these women’s early modern successors. This, together with the fact that little work has been done on this phenomenon, inspired Vanderputten to investigate how a community’s early modern perception of its medieval past could be influenced by ruptures and transitions over the course of its existence. He was also interested in studying early modern memory culture through the lens of gender, and in particular, “women’s agency in the politics of memory.” Vanderputten found that institutions of canonesses provided an ideal case study. While early modern secular canonesses often emphasized the differences between themselves and their medieval predecessors due to a combination of internal and external factors, including centuries of clerical criticism and the local belief that these communities were originally cloistered, they simultaneously gave pride of place to continuity, linking themselves especially to the founders of their communities and their first inhabitants. He explained that his work on the Abbey of Bouxières is an even more specific case study, as he thought a micro-historical approach best to examine the topic of canonesses’ memory culture. This allowed for a detailed view of how women lived in and experienced an eighteenth-century house with elements and spaces from the fifteenth and twelfth centuries. Vanderputten gave some examples of ways in which the canonesses embraced continuity with their predecessors, including the story of a ca. late-seventeenth-century painting that hung in the abbatial church and displayed important moments from the abbey’s foundation story. He also provided instances of ruptures, one such being that the early modern canonesses disposed of the abbey’s archival charters related to individuals whom they no longer remembered.

Following the presentations, the floor opened for a discussion amongst all participants. As with many research seminars of The Other Sister, questions of identity and categorization featured prominently. When a question arose concerning evidence of very early canonesses, Vanderputten and Schlotheuber concurred that the categorization of religious communities before 800 is not realistic, and Vanderputten noted that it remains difficult to label groups as Benedictines or canonesses even afterwards. He offered an alternative method of assessment by which we can look at individual communities of religious women and see how they were organized, how they interacted with their surrounding environments, and what type of function they had in society. Schlotheuber offered the categories of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa for religious women. As an example of the vita activa, she mentioned groups of women, such as the secular canonesses, who operated schools and hospitals. In response to a question about the fittingness of using the vita activa, rather than the private ownership of goods, as a distinguishing feature of secular canonesses, Vanderputten argued that terms such as “nun” and “canoness” reflect normative concepts from normative sources and are not necessarily indicative of the reality of the women to whom they refer. He gave examples of Benedictine women receiving a prebend and canonesses having a mensa conventualis, the reverse of what one would expect in normative terms. He offered the reminder that ecclesiastical authorities could legislate in a way that did not reflect the reality of the communities, and he thus underlined the necessity of looking at the local realities and expectations of these women.

Another question touched upon these same topics—is it possible to arrive at one definition of secular canonesses given their many differences over time and space? Hirbodian remarked that the answer to this question could be “very easy or very complicated,” but that the truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle. It would be easy simply to say that secular canonesses do not belong to any religious order but rather follow the Regula Aquisgranensis and have their own statutes, that they retain their personal possessions, and that they do not take perpetual vows and may leave the community. The complicated aspect comes in, however, because the above attributes are theory, but in practice, every community has its own particularities, according to Hirbodian. She offered the reminder that we have to see how the women thought of themselves. Schlotheuber built upon this idea by offering the notion that we could look at two aspects of the canonesses—their internal structure and their religious life. She noted that the internal structure can vary widely from one community to another. Vanderputten also warned here of the dangers of over-categorizing and offered a few examples of external pressure potentially altering the identity of canonesses. He explained that from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward, ecclesiastical authorities could put pressure on communities of canonesses to place themselves in one strict category or another. He also discussed how the canonesses’ constitutions in the early modern period might suggest some self-conscious attempts to conform to the image of them held by the surrounding society.

While these questions primarily examined the identity of the secular canonesses, an additional question furthered the discussion by asking what kind of demands of society required such an institution/identity to exist for many centuries apart from the flexibility of the internal structure, as the speakers had previously mentioned. Hirbodian explained it in terms of two desires on the part of the nobility. One was their need for a place to send their daughters while still being able to retrieve them for marriage later, if need be. The second relates to the exclusive social status associated with these institutions. Placing a daughter there meant that you belonged to a certain high-level social group. On a different note, Schlotheuber discussed the case of Nivelles in which the importance of the canonesses there was closely tied up with their hospital service. Vanderputten addressed both of these ideas. He first mentioned letters of abbesses written in 1790 and 1791 in which they defended themselves against the dissolution of their institutions by emphasizing their economic generosity with hospitals and the poor. He then underlined Hirbodian’s point about communities of canonesses as pre-marriage holding places for daughters of nobles, and he added that not only the institution, but the prebends themselves, were thought to belong to the nobility.

While we may not always be able to categorize the other sister, we can surely identify secular canonesses as a fascinating research topic that merits further investigation.

Female Power – Male Power? Canonesses and Canons in Comparison: An English summary of an article by sigrid hirbodian

Sigrid Hirbodian, “Weibliche Herrschaft – männliche Herrschaft? Stiftsdamen und –herren im Vergleich,” in Frauenstifte – Männerstifte (Schriften zur südwestdeutschen Landeskunde), ed. by Oliver Auge, Sigrid Hirbodian, and Friederike Schnack. Ostfildern: Thorbecke Verlag, forthcoming in 2022.

Summarized in English by Emma Gabe

A thirteenth-century Weistum (legal text) showed that the abbess of Andlau exercised power and authority at various levels in her demesne in Breisgau: she ruled over lands that incorporated several villages, and her rule included the wielding of authority over the demesne’s legal courts. As a feudal mistress, she was sometimes represented by a noble bailiff who was enfeoffed to her, but she often exercised her power and authority in person.

Communities of canons wielded similar power and authority over their lands. Legal sources do not indicate any differences in the exercise of power by houses of canons or houses of canonesses, nor in the perception and acceptance of their power by the villeins over whom they ruled.[1] Therefore, we must approach the study of the authority of male and female houses in a different ways: 1) through a comparison of the different types of male and female houses, following Peter Moraw’s classification; 2) through an analysis of the similarities and differences in the statutes and ways of life for canons and canonesses; 3) through an analysis of the structure of their properties and assets (Besitzstruktur); and 4) through an analysis of the practices of rulership in houses of canons and houses of canonesses. This analysis focuses on houses of canons and canonesses in south-west Germany, mainly in the triangle between Mainz, Alsace, and Buchau am Federsee, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

1) In 1980, Peter Moraw identified three types of male Chapters[2]: those affiliated to a monastery, those connected to a bishopric, and those associated with secular rulers. The first type is not relevant for houses of canonesses as there are no known houses founded by a monastery. That said, many houses of canonesses alternated between leading a monastic form of life and functioning as houses of canonesses over the course of their histories. These were not formal, legal changes of status. Rather, the canonesses had to contend with recurring pressure from the papacy and bishops to conform to a monastic, i.e. an enclosed, form of life, which they resisted by invoking their traditional customs and statutes. Indeed, after the papal decretal Periculoso in 1298, there was no formal recognition of the canoness’ way of life in church law, but it continued in practice.

Moraw’s second classification––collegiate Chapters such as Domstifte bound to a bishop––is not relevant for canonesses, because the canonesses could not fulfill the spiritual offices required to support the bishop and his power. However, Moraw does include Augustinian canons and Premonstratensians in this category, which does touch on women, because many of these Chapters were founded as double communities.

Moraw’s last classification concerns houses founded by secular powers. For canons, he identifies the royal houses founded by kings in the early Middle Ages, as well as Chapters in royal residences and universities (Residenzstifte and Universitätsstifte) in the later medieval period. Here again, the situation is different for houses of canonesses. All the houses of canonesses established by secular authorities had been founded in the early or high Middle Ages (before the thirteenth century). Their function was to look after the memoria of their founders, to provide for their female family members and those of their allies, and to secure their authority over lands and out of the grasp of competing rulers by transferring these lands to spiritual institutions while retaining certain legal rights (Vogteirechte) and the power to chose the abbess. By the late medieval period, secular powers chose Cistercian monasteries, and later Dominican or Clarissan houses and even beguinages when they wanted to support a community of women religious.

2) There are also notable differences in the structure of male and female houses. Unlike in male Chapters, which were headed by a provost and then a dean in the second position of power, houses of canonesses were invariably led by an abbess, and deans were uncommon. This demonstrates again the similarities that houses of canonesses shared with female monasteries. Another difference is that female houses always had a certain number of prebends for canons, who preformed sacramental duties for the canonesses. These canons initially had little influence, being greatly outnumbered by canonesses and lacking a voice in chapter meetings and the election of the abbess. By the late medieval period, however, as the number of canonesses declined in many communities, the canons accumulated more rights and power. At the same time, the power of the chapter increased in the late medieval period. In the fifteenth century, for example, the abbess of Buchau had to swear an oath of obedience to the chapter’s decisions right after her election. The increasing power of the chapter led to increasing conflicts with abbesses and hindered the abbesses’ ability to govern. For example, one noble canoness from St Stefan in Strasbourg wanted to build her own house in the community in the 1320s and mobilized her networks for support when the abbess refused permission. The bishop threatened the abbess with excommunication, even though this violated the abbess’ supervisory rights as laid out in the community’s statutes. The abbess, meanwhile, enjoyed the support of a group of canonesses deriving from the lower nobility. The fight eventually ended in a compromise, with the noble canoness being allowed to have her own apartment in an existing building with the community, and the creation of new statutes.

This example clearly shows that the social background of participants played an important role in conflicts, and that the contents of and changes to statutes was a constant process of negotiation between the abbess, the canonesses, their families and their networks. The abbess’ power, then, was not dissimilar to that of the provost in male Chapters.

One way in which the power of abbesses differed from provosts, however, was that abbesses often had the title of imperial princess (Reichsfürstin), like some of their monastic counterparts. Another difference between canons and canonesses concerns the communal life (vita communis), which played a larger role in communities of canonesses. Canons, on the other hand, often had multiple prebends (and therefore responsibilities in multiple churches) and employed vicars to undertake some of their duties. While canonesses had many similarities with canons including freedom of movement, the possibility for long absences, individual dwellings and secular clothing outside of choir, the vita communis played a more important role in their communities. Even education was internal to the community: canonesses were often raised and educated in the community, unlike canons who studied at universities.

3) Similarly to male houses, the finances of houses of canonesses can be classified in three parts. Firstly, prebends financed the living costs of canonesses and canons (Pfründen). Secondly, attendance at mass and choir was financially rewarded (Präsenzgeld). Canons, who were more likely to have multiple prebends, often employed vicars to fulfil some of their duties, however. Thirdly, communities also had funds and possessions for the maintenance of the community’s church and buildings (Kirchenfabrik). These properties and possessions, with multiple and diverse rights and privileges, formed a complex structure of income for female communities.

4) Abbesses had to defend and secure their power in various ways, often through long and expensive legal challenges. The abbesses of St Stefan in Strasbourg, for example, had to defend against repeated attempts of other lords to usurp the abbess’ rights and possessions in Wangen in Alsace. In order to secure the community’s rights and possessions, it was often necessary for the abbess of St Stefan to represent her institution herself. She had property registries drawn up and legal texts copied, and she regularly travelled to the community’s lands to inspect them. Facing costly legal challenges, she lobbied the bishop and city council for help, and she even imprisoned her enemies when necessary. For the people over whom the abbess ruled and for those who challenged her authority, however, it did not matter that she was a woman: similar challenges to a community’s rights can be observed in houses of canons. Ultimately, the exercise of power was the same for male and female religious, although there are differences in the histories of their communities and forms of life.


[1] English lacks a ready translation for the German term Stift. I have translated Stift as “house of canons/house of canonesses” or “Chapter” (with a capital C).

[2] Peter MORAW, “Über Typologie, Chronologie und Geographie der Stiftskirche im deutschen Mittelalter,” in Untersuchungen zu Kloster und Stift. Göttingen, 1980, p. 9–37.

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.

Isabel Harvey, ‘Braccio di ferro tra una terziaria domenicana e un convento maschile visto attraverso l’Inquisizione napoletana. Il processo per affettata santità contro suor Giovanna Cesarea di Napoli (1672-1682)’, in Donne e Inquisizione ed. Marina Caffiero and Alessia Lirosi (Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2020), 97-127.

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.

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