Searching for Secular Canonesses in Modern Literary Sources (Part II)

by Isabelle Cochelin

 

One day will come, I can feel it, when these documents [on the Chapter of Remiremont] will be looked for and collected with care, and when people will even be astonished that they had been neglected for so long.[1]

 

One would expect that the best literary sources to teach us about secular canonesses would be their memoirs. It is telling of the way late eighteenth-century Chapters functioned, however, that not all such memoirs are informative. For a variety of reasons, some secular canonesses spent very little, if any, time in their communities.

Such was the case for Madame de Chasteney, a canoness (in name) at Épinal from age 14 in 1785 until the Chapter’s dissolution during the French Revolution. It is also true of the Baroness of Oberkirch, who expected a position in one of the three German Protestant Chapters by age 4 (in 1758) and was admitted by 1766; she mentions her admission en passant in her memoirs, merely to explain why someone called her a comtesse in 1769 – the title (and a stipend) had come with her (symbolic) admission.[2] At times, therefore, the title was purely honorary and financially rewarding, with no requirement to live in the Chapter.

This is not true of the memoirs of the Comtesse Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle (1778-1854): even though she never became a canoness in Remiremont, where she spent her childhood, she discusses life within the Lorraine Chapter at length in her roughly twenty-five-page-long work. Another motivation for writing was that the history of Remiremont in the second half of the eighteenth century was intertwined with the glory of the Duchy of Lorraine and three generations of her family’s women. When the French Revolution forced her and the canonesses of Remiremont to leave the Chapter, she became at some point a secular canoness in Munich, but does not even mention the fact. Her link to the Munich Chapter was probably only honorary and financially advantageous.

I know of two editions of her memoirs. The one used by most (if not all) scholars was compiled by a specialist of local religious history, the canon Charles Chapelier (d. 1924), under the erroneous title of Memoirs of … ex-canoness of Remiremont (abbreviated from now on as « Chapelier »).[3] There is also an anonymous and undated printed booklet, titled Deux chapitres-nobles et deux chanoinesses (Fig. 1), that focuses on her family, the Messeys, and includes the family genealogy at the end. It must have been published some fifteen years later, as the most recent date the editor mentions is 1902 (p. 65).

Fig. 1: anonymous and undated printed booklet with a revised version of of the Comtesse’s memoirs Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 8o Lm3 3228

The so-called Souvenirs occupy pages 11-33; I will refer to them from now on as « the Messey ». I believe these two editions were based on two distinct manuscripts of the memoirs, and the most recent (used for the second edition) presents a slightly updated version by the memorialist herself, the Comtesse.[4] The texts are available through Gallica and I will cite them when a passage is available in both editions, each easily distinguishable by its page numbers, in the 200s for Chapelier.

The Comtesse was writing (at least in the older version) for a niece, whom she addresses as “my dear child” (ma chère enfant: p. 11, 14, and 25; 243, 247 and 259). Chapelier suggests it was the wife of her nephew Gustave, as the latter is mentioned on p. 30 of the newer version, a section absent from Chapelier – and that the work is an “intimate talk” (intime causerie: p. 260, a sentence taken out of the most recent version, p. 25).

The Souvenirs are tinged with nostalgia for a disappeared world, and it is unlikely that pre-Revolutionary life at Remiremont was as idyllic as she portrays it. There were complex politics and social inequalities at play that would have been invisible to a child’s eyes. It is, nevertheless, a rich source of information, giving us a point of view at the threshold, between the inside and the outside, of the life of secular canonesses. The Comtesse’s situation was liminal because her aunt – who was a Remiremont canoness, and was planning to make her her Dame-niece – raised her in her own house within the Chapter (see Fig. 2). The Comtesse was there when she was about four years old – she remembers Princess Charlotte of Brionne who stayed for few months at Remiremont in 1782 when she became abbess – and perhaps even earlier.

Fig. 2: House of a secular canoness in Remiremont. Found on the website “Au Pays de Mes Ancêtres

The Comtesse was being trained for a succession that never took place. In 1786, when the future Comtesse was eight years old, her aunt had to “adopt” the Prince de Condé’s daughter as her Dame-niece instead, so that the latter would become the new (and the last) abbess of the Chapter (p. 22-26 and p. 255-61). Her aunt’s sense of duty for her community (esprit de corps, p. 24 and p. 258) and the politics of Lorraine took precedence over family ties!

We find in the Souvenirs many of the themes already raised in an earlier blog. The magnificent performance of the secular canonesses’ liturgical celebrations, due to their striking clothing and the angelic looks of their younger members, is praised by the Comtesse, as Françoise Boquillon and Corinne Marchal (among other scholars) have already mentioned. The Comtesse’s point of view is here an external one, completing Guénard’s (whose novel was discussed in the earlier blog): she shows us the canonesses arriving in their choir with valets holding their long ermine-trimmed capes, and then the grille closing behind them without hiding them (p. 18-19 and p. 252-53): so close and magnificent, and yet untouchable…

She explains also how a very young voice sometimes sang unaccompanied, the child canoness moving alone, effortlessly, with her long cape, between the altar, the stalls, and the lectern while singing (p. 19 and p. 253-54). The future Comtesse obviously hoped for years to become one of these young voices behind the grille. It is also telling that she speaks of the liturgical activities of the canonesses frequently, already insisting upon it by the second page of her memoirs, when giving a historical and then structural overview of the Chapter and its activities. Here, the Comtesse’s point of reference is that of an insider. Obviously, her aunt attached importance to her religious activities as a Dame and transmitted this sentiment to her niece. Not all the canonesses necessarily viewed their positions in this religious light, but this text shows that at least some did.

Another key sentiment in the Souvenirs, possibly inherited or at least shared with her dear aunt, is one of “patriotism”: the Comtesse is very much attached to the distinct identity of Lorraine, first annexed to the Kingdom of France in 1738 and more definitely incorporated by 1766. Even though the memoirs were written decades after these events, they still resonate with the sadness of the Lotharingian nobility that had lost its independence from the French king.

The best example concerns the medallions that usually adorned the habits of all secular canonesses (seen in the illustrations of the previous blog). The Comtesse wrote that this adornment – acquired as recently as 1774 by Remiremont, thanks to a non-Lotharingian abbess – was resented by the canonesses, as it reminded them of the “new domination of France over the Chapters of the whole Lorraine” (p. 20). Indeed, the editor of the Messey explains in a note that the name of Louis XV was engraved on it; not something one would want to wear on one’s bosom if one was a patriot of Lorraine!

This fact brings us to an important theme within the Souvenirs and probably in the life of secular canonesses, at least in Remiremont: politics at all levels, not only regional (as we just saw two examples in relation to the Prince of Condé and the medallions), but also, to a lesser extent, European (for instance p. 16 and p. 249). It is worth highlighting this point: some of these women of the highest aristocracy were deeply interested in politics and played a role when necessary and possible.

Fig. 3: Portrait of Anne Charlotte de Lorraine, abbess of Remiremont (1738-1773), copy from the studio of Bernard Verschooten (1728-1783). Carlo Bonte’s auctions website.

The canonesses were also very concerned with the politics of the Chapter itself. The anonymous author who introduced the Messey considers collegiality (with the free election of the abbess) as one of the main characteristics of the noble Chapters:

The essential principle of the constitution of the aristocratic abbeys (insignes abbayes) remained intact throughout the ages: the government of chapters remained elective; the abbesses governed under the control and with the participation of the Chapter; their election was approved by the pope and their power moderated by collegiality.[5]

This is something of an exaggeration, since some Chapters did not control the election of their superior. Nevertheless, many passages of the Souvenirs demonstrate that the canonesses did have a significant say in the internal administration of the Chapter, including the admission of newcomers (p. 16-18 and p. 250-52), with the later edition adding an “in Chapter” (en plein Chapitre), as a key point in the description of the admission process, to avoid any ambiguity on the decision process. The Comtesse also took pains to explain what she meant by “Chapter” (the noble agrégation, which she calls elsewhere the “corporation”, p. 18 and p. 252) and “chapter”, the meeting space, reworking these passages between the two editions (p. 12 and p. 244, and p. 23 and p. 257), all proof that this collegial aspect was fundamental in her eyes. She insists as well on the significant territory it oversaw (Fig. 4) and the power the Chapter exerted, remaining silent on the prerogatives of the abbess (by choice or by ignorance, as her aunt had been a simple canoness):

[The Chapter] owned numerous lordships that depended solely on it and extended over a significant part of Lorraine. The French king did not send a garrison into the city of Remiremont, and his troops could not even cross the territory. The Chapter had high justice, that is, right of life and death. It had its police lieutenant, its civil officers, in one word, full and total jurisdiction… All matters of importance were deliberated by the Dames assembled in Chapter and resolved by them.[6]

Fig. 4: Map of the territories controlled by the Chapter (in blue) within the Duchy of Lorraine (pale yellow), in 1683. Drawn by Brostoler — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 4.0

Politics were always at play in these communities, with the canonesses always on their guard, always fighting for their rights.

I would like to end with what struck me the most in the Souvenirs: the Comtesse’s love for and pride in the way of life of the Chapter of Remiremont, sentiments she must have inherited from her aunt and ones that many canonesses likely felt for their own communities. This community (which she joined so young) was her family and her world; it is clear she would also have very much liked for it to have been her future.

She specifies that she called her aunt Mère (“Mother”, p. 13 and p. 246) and that the latter had “adopted” her (p. 15 and p. 248). Admission during childhood (likely leading to a strong sense of identity with the Chapter) may have been common: the only aunt of the author from whom we have a definitive date of birth, 1736, the eldest of all her aunts, had a stipend at Remiremont by 1744 (see the family tree in Messey, p. 62) and was, therefore, seven or eight at the oldest, when she joined. The Comtesse mentions as well “little Dames” aged between seven and twelve (p. 12 and p. 245); in fact, the last Remiremont canoness alive at the time she was writing was one who had been seven at the outbreak of the Revolution (p. 33 and p. 268).

Once a canoness had a stipend and her own house within the Chapter, she could adopt a Nièce de prébende (p. 17-18 and p. 251): the Comtesse’s aunt was no more than twenty-seven when she became a Mère for the Comtesse (even though the latter never became a Nièce de prébende in the end); these adoptions created one more tie between these women and their communities.[7] The same aunt also had three sisters in Remiremont (p. 14 and p. 247), and the memoirs mention a cousin (p. 13 and p. 246) and one “intimate friend … to whom she confided all her thoughts” (p. 23 and p. 257, p. 24 and p. 258).

We must, therefore, imagine a group of women of all ages, many close to each other by various ties, biological or not. The pride of the Comtesse for this way of life can be seen in her exclamation that of her five aunts who became canonesses, only one left to get married, and this was the one who went to Maubeuge, not Remiremont (p. 14 and p. 247)! She comes back to this issue later in her memoirs, saying: “in general, these Dames of Remiremont did not get married or only rarely; their status was so agreeable (agréable) and beautiful that they were little disposed to change it for another” (p. 20 and p. 254). As was the case with her aunt, her love for the Chapter was greater than the one for her biological family: her mentions of her father and uncles are sparse.

I hope these few lines will have convinced you to read the Comtesse’s Souvenirs, especially in its latest rendering, as it offers an unparalleled foray into the life of secular canonesses in the late eighteenth century. We can see the little Comtesse playing alone in a room on the ground floor of her aunt’s house while the latter, unwell, is saying her canonical hours at home (p. 22 and p. 256), or imagine them taking strolls in the countryside outside the Chapter (p. 11 and p. 243). I know many women today who could project themselves easily in such a world, but alas almost none would have the necessary pedigree!

[1]  “…un jour viendra, je le pressens, où ces documents [sur le Chapitre de Remiremont] seront précieusement recherchés et recueillis, où l’on s’étonnera même de les avoir négligés aussi longtemps.” Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle, Souvenirs, in Deux chapitres-nobles et deux chanoinesses (Besançon: Impr. de l’Est. S.d.), p. 11.

[2] Madame de Chasteney. Mémoires de Madame de Chasteney, ed. A. Roserot. Paris, 1896; see Françoise Boquillon, “La religion des chanoinesses nobles à travers leurs écrits”, L’écriture du croyant 125 (2005) 93. Henriette Louise (von Waldner) baronne d’Oberkirch. Mémoires de la baronne d’Oberkirch sur la cour de Louis XVI et la société française avant 1789, ed. Suzanne Burkard. Paris: Mercure de France, 1970.

[3] « Mémoires de Mme la Comtesse Marie-Antoinette de Messey, ancienne chanoinesse de Remiremont », Bulletin de la Société philomatique vosgienne, 1888, p. 241-68.

[4] A good example of the differences between both texts concerns the descriptions of the two highest in hierarchy after the abbess: the doyenne and the secrète. The passage in the Messey (p. 11) clarifies the tasks of the latter in comparison to the same passage in Chapelier (p. 245-46). One proof that the changes were made by the Comtesse is her comment about her father, which is present only in the most recent version (mon père, p. 15). The overall differences are not major, except in the last pages dedicated to the French Revolution, which are laden with anguish. In the later version, many sections have been moved around, and additional family and military details added. In one case, it was a conscious choice on the part of Chapelier not to cite a specific episode; he inserted instead two sets of three points (p. 29 vs 264). The absence of such signal of omission for the other missing passages indicates, I think, that they were absent from the manuscript used by Chapelier. Except for the first and last two pages, the informative footnotes in the two editions are also different. Probably, the second editor knew of Chapelier’s text, but created a new version, specifically for the extended Messey family, based on a different manuscript.

[5] “Le principe essentiel de la constitution des abbayes insignes demeura intact dans le cours des âges: le gouvernement des chapitres resta électif; les abbesses gouvernèrent sous le contrôle et avec le concours du Chapitre; leur élection était approuvée par le Saint-Siège et leur pouvoir modéré par la collégialité.” (Messey, “L’Abbaye de Remiremont”, p. 5-6).

[6] “Il possédait de nombreuses seigneuries qui ne relevaient que de lui seul et s’étendaient sur une forte partie de la Lorraine. Le roi de France n’envoyait point de garnison dans la ville de Remiremont, et ses troupes ne pouvaient même passer sur le territoire. Le Chapitre avait la haute justice, c’est-à-dire droit de vie et de mort. Il avait son lieutenant de police, ses officiers-civils, en un mot, une pleine et entière juridiction… Dans toutes les affaires importantes, les délibérations étaient tenues par les Dames assemblées en Chapitre et résolues par elles” (p. 16 and p. 249). There is an interesting footnote in Messey (p. 16), absent from Chapelier, explaining how the abbess could exercise pardon over some prisoners, for Easter, Rogations and the vigil of the Saint-Barthelemy; they would then join the barefoot procession to the collegial church.

[7] I calculated that the aunt had turned fifteen at the earliest in 1770 when her own aunt died (p. 15 and p. 248).

The Daughters and Sisters of Odelind – a Network of Non-Cloistered Religious Women

By Letha Böhringer

Religious women who were not cloistered were called beguines in the north of the German-speaking countries, and sisters or Seelfrauen in the south of this region. These women were found in almost every town and even in the countryside. One of their characteristics was that they did not establish overarching institutions or joint leadership, neither on a local nor on a supra-local level.

Two Beguines. Church St Agnes of the Beguinage, Sint-Truiden (Belgium), detail of a fresco. Picture taken by Letha Böhringer

However, there is an exception to every rule. It has been known for quite a while that the sisters of an independent community in Schweidnitz (in medieval Silesia, today Świdnica in Poland) formed a network with convents at Breslau/Wrocław, Erfurt and Leipzig; the sisters moved between the houses, and they seem to have supported each other by transferring money in case of need. The Schweidnitz sisters were interrogated by a committee of inquisitors in 1332, and the inquisition protocol reveals many aspects of the community’s inner life and the attitude of the sisters. One detail, though, remained obscure: the sisters refer to themselves as the daughters of Udyllindis. They had no explanation of who she was; she does not seem to have been the foundress of the convent, but rather an inspirational charismatic figure.

Preparing a new edition of the inquisition protocol, the editors contacted me in order to check the prosopographic material of my database which contains more than 2100 names of beguines living in Cologne between 1223 and ca. 1400.

Cologne. Kölnisches Stadtmuseum, Koelhoffsche Chronik (1499), fol.140.

Cologne housed a great number of beguines and convents during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and its citizens produced a huge amount of written record. In addition to testaments and charters, the citizens kept so-called Schreinsbücher (official record books kept in cabinets, i.e. Schreine) which resemble modern land registers. Apart from transactions concerning real estate, they also contained donations to and foundations of beguine convents.

Example of a Schreinsbuch. Website of the École des Chartes.

My database documents thousands of such entries and evidence from charters and other sources. After publishing about a dozen articles from this material, I am currently writing a monograph on the beguines of Cologne supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The grant also provides for assistance from the Cologne Center for eHumanities, especially the help of a post-graduate specialist, Jan Bigalke, who modulates the database to make it open access on the internet.

My data provides key material for the identification of the Schweidnitz figure of Udyllindis. In 1291, a woman who called herself Odelindis from Pyritz (in the medieval duchy of Pomerania, today Pyrzyce in Poland), founded her own convent in Cologne which she headed as the Magistra. This convent was the first of about a dozen communities which were quickly singled out by their contemporaries as different from earlier beguinages: these beguines were called swesteren/swestrisse/ swestriones in the German vernacular, and they exercised strict poverty in their convents. Therefore, they were also called willige Arme, the “voluntary poor”. As third time’s the charm, another trace of Udyllindis/Odelindis was found via a research network which I co-founded (Agfem). Preparing her thesis on the beguines of Eastern Swabia, Barbara Baumeister discovered a similar name in charters of around 1350: a community of poor sisters called themselves the sisters of Udelhild.

Not only the obvious similarity of the names, which are not very common ones, but also characteristic features of the convents point to common origins. We know of quite a few women who travelled great distances in order to join one of these convents. The houses in Cologne and Augsburg were acquired from their own money, without patrons or benefactors. All the women organized themselves as associations based on an oath (Schwurverband) called unio in Latin or Einung in German. The novices pledged allegiance to the ideals of strict poverty and obedience. The sisters were well respected by their neighbors and received donations. We do not know why, suddenly, they were persecuted in Schweidnitz and, it seems, their house was dissolved; there was obviously some internal strife which might have instigated the inquisition. The convent in Cologne eventually became a member of the Cellite order, and the Augsburg sisters became Dominican sisters around 1700, whose monastery exists to this day.

The discovery of Odelind’s network of voluntary poor sisters gives insight on how a “movement” was formed and spread over great distances. Her congregation is a phenomenon never described before: independent women travelling the trade routes from city to city, forming convents according to their own rules and ideals, from their own money, distanced from local clergy and authorities, and respected by their contemporaries. They constitute an intriguing group and show what women in the later Middle Ages were capable of self-governance and independence, and could have the determination to live lives according to their own desires and designs.

 

Forthcoming:

Letha Böhringer, “The Swesteren of Piritz and of Cologne and their European Context,” in The Beguines of Medieval Świdnica: the Interrogation of the ‘Daughters of Odelindis’ in 1332, ed. by Tomasz Gałuszka and Paveł Kras (Heresy and Inquisition in the Middle Ages). York, 2023.

In German:  Letha Böhringer, “Die Schwestern und Töchter der Odelind von Pyritz. Ein überregionales Netzwerk von Beginen im Reich wird sichtbar,” in Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung (2023).

Barbara Baumeister, “Schwestern der Udelhild. Eine geistliche Gemeinschaft in Augsburg mit europäischen Verbindungen,” Zeitschrift des historischen Vereins für Schwaben 151 (2023).

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Habits and Habitual Dress

On November 7, 2022, The Other Sister research group held a seminar on the topic of Habits and Habitual Dress. Four invited speakers presented some of their work on the subject, which had been circulated to all participants prior to the meeting:

  • Alejandra Concha Sahli, “Habit Envy: Extra-Religious Groups, Attire, and the Search for Legitimation Outside the Institutionalised Religious Orders,” in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 15 (2019):137-56.

For additional information, we also sent: Alejandra Concha Sahli, “Habit Envy: Extra-Religious Groups, Attire and the Search for Legitimation Outside the Institutionalised Orders”, 3rd chapter of “The Meaning of the Habit: Religious Orders, Dress and Identity, 1215-1650”, PhD thesis, UCL, 2017.

  • Kirsty Schut, “Death and a Clothing Swap: An Unusual Case of Death and Burial in the Religious Habit in Fourteenth-Century Naples,” Viator (2019): 185-226.

 

  • Thomas M. Izbicki, “Nuns Clothing and Ornaments in English and Northern French Ecclesiastical Regulations,” in Refashioning Medieval and Early Modern Dress, ed. Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Maryn Clegg Hyer (Boydell and Brewer, 2019), p. 237-54.

 

As befits the subject, our discussion on habits was comprised of many threads. The issue of what constituted religious dress, what (and whether) it conveyed authority were addressed along with more practical concerns such as sewing and purchasing garments. In all, it seems that both the growing fields of material history and study of The Other Sister are rich areas for further study.

The work of Dr. Alejandra Concha Sahli, who teaches medieval history and works in public policy in Chile, explores identity and issues of legitimation connected with the visual appearance of beguines. By adopting aspects of the appearance of more traditional nuns, newer religious movements could more easily secure a legitimate role in the social and religious landscapes. They were, however, also often accused of borrowing the habits of others, and thus coming under attack. Dr Concha Sahli mentioned Nathan Joseph’s 1986 book Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication through Clothing, as useful to understand that, in the Middle Ages, the “habit made the monk”.

Dr. Kirsten Schut, a Mellon Fellow at the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, focused her discussion on the new directions for research explored in her article, other articles in progress as well as her book project on entrance ad succurrendum and lay death and burial in religious habits. In particular, she mentioned the taking of the habit on the deathbed as sometimes representing the final stage in the journey of a tertiary. While the majority of cases of lay individuals choosing to be buried in a religious habit in her rather extensive bibliographical catalogue involve habits of traditional orders, mainly Dominican and Franciscan, Dr. Schut identified cases of women wanting to be buried in the habit of a ‘beguine,’ ‘vestita,’ ‘mantellata,’ ‘pinzochera,’ or third order. These cases were largely from Italy and Southern France, but this might be more reflective of the sources than practices. Overall, donning a religious habit on one’s deathbed demonstrates another unofficial way individuals could be linked to a religious order after their death.

Professor Thomas Izbicki, a historian of Canon Law, now retired from Rutgers, who is also active in DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics and Fashion), began his presentation by pointing out that the subject combined two of his major interests, clothing and the value of religious visitations. Differences in wealth among the nuns were often expressed in difference in clothing, even within one house. He also raised the issue of textiles produced in houses of women for non-liturgical purposes. Women’s houses were generally not given the same kind of financial support as the houses of their male counterparts. Before the seventeenth century, nuns were not allowed to teach. More attention should therefore be given to the ways these houses were able to produce goods (such as sweets or sewing works) to survive financially and stay afloat.

Professor Gabriella Zarri, now retired from the University of Florence, who is responsible for some of the foundational work on non-traditional women religious, focused on the role and purpose of a habit. Pointing out that many major rites of passage are marked by ceremonies of clothing or unclothing (from birth to death), she traced the ways this manifested itself in female religious life with reference to marriage iconography, and the cult of Mary Magdalene. Zarri touched upon the meaning of some elements of profession, such as the reception of a crown of thorns to be transformed into the afterlife into a crown of glory. She also discussed the Dimesse, an order of widows, whose habits were simple, but retained elements of the elegance associated with the social status of women in the world (see fig. 8 in the English summary of her article).

The discussion began with the issue of tertiaries, and the significance of the change of habit as the final stage in the journey of a tertiary. Kirsten Schut pointed to the frequency of burial in religious habits. The habits were often switched from tertiary to monastic habit. Delfi Nieto raised the issue of queens who were buried in religious habits, sometimes even tertiary habits; there is certainly a need for further exploration of this practice. Joseph Akl asked if the religious habits donned at death were always specific to a religious group to which Kirsten Schut answered positively, at least until the 19th century/early 20th century, when secular undertakers used more generic clothing.

The discussion then moved to the Cult of the Magdalene.

The issue of what constituted religious dress was also mentioned. Alejandra Concha Sahli elaborated on when the “clothing” of beguines became official. Kirsten Schut also raised the issue of veils. There does not seem to be much clarity on when “official” decisions were made about clothing, but Gabriella Zarri pointed out that it was stable in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Meghan Lescault asked about if/when habits were officially designated as “sacramentals”. It is a theological category that was not very clearly defined, at least in the Middle Ages. Prof. Izbicki referred to Cordelia Warr’s 2010 book, Dressing for Heaven: Religious Clothing in Italy, 1215-1545. Dr Schut pointed out that a link was often made between baptism and taking a habit. Again, the ceremony of veiling seems to be key. Katherine Walter Clark pointed out that there were comparable practices for the veiling of widows.

Fr. Augustine Thompson mentioned that habit was a key part of Dominican penitential identity. He added that, curiously, by the fifteenth century, women associated with the Dominican penitential movement were increasingly portrayed as cloistered nuns rather than as tertiaries.

As well as a liturgical dimension, there were many practical concerns related to the habit. Eva Cersovsky asked who was making them. Answers to this question were diverse: some female communities might have taken care of making their own habits but it does not seem to have been the norm. Parallels with the recluses were discussed in the chat.

Isabelle Cochelin asked if there was a clear distinction between the habits of nuns and the ones of non-cloistered religious women. She also asked who was the woman in black beside Mary-Magdalene in the 1582 painting by Francesco Cavazzoni of Christ’s Sermon to Mary Magdalene presented by Professor Zarri during her presentation (see fig. 6 in her article and the English summary of her article). Professor Zarri answered that it could be a widow as the clothing of widows was similar to that of nuns. Dr. Concha Sahli pointed out that the difference between beguines’ habits and nuns’ remains an open question.

Consecration and Conversion between Rite and Symbol: an English Summary of an article by Gabriella Zarri

 

Gabriella Bruni Zarri, “Consacrazione e conversione tra rito e simbolo,” in Vestizioni: Codici normativi e pratiche religiosae, ed. Sofia Boesch Gajano and Francesca Sbardella (Rome: Viella Libreria editrice, 2021), p. 13-36.

Summarized in English by Mary Maschio

When a young woman entered a convent in Early Modern Italy, her vocation was symbolised by the acceptance of monastic dress, including the veil, but also by the rejection of secular clothes. Zarri’s bipartite study focuses first on dressing, the accoutrements received by girls as they entered the nunnery, and then on undressing, the discarding of the clothes and jewels associated with a certain social status in order to signal an abhorrence of worldly vanity. These two acts were associated respectively with St Catherine of Alexandria (fig. 1) and St Mary Magdalene (fig. 2 of the article).

  1. Mystical marriage of Saint Catherine. Bologna, Fototeca Zeri. Anonymous Ferrarese of the sixteenth century.

The first part of the article discusses the clothing and objects given to a novice as she entered the monastery for the first time and then, more briefly, the corresponding items of dress that were conferred when a nun made her permanent vows and the variations in clothing between convents. Whilst the rite of consecration was inspired by ancient marriage ceremonies, the ceremony of dressing and the entry of the novice into the convent were more closely modelled on baptism. Each item and piece of clothing represented an aspect of the spiritual journey that the postulant was undertaking. In some rituals, we find a crown of thorns. An anonymous Lombard painting from the first half of the sixteenth century, probably commissioned to commemorate a novice’s entry into a convent, follows the model of St Catherine and the Child Jesus, but the ring is replaced with a crown of thorns (fig. 3 of the article). The words to which the Child Jesus points are also found in the Dominican rite of dressing from Genova (fig. 4 of the article).

A document from the second of half of the sixteenth century describing the ritual as it took place in the Augustinian convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Bologna is particularly interesting for the level of detail it includes about the ceremony of dressing. Following the council of Trent, the process for entering a nunnery became far more rigorous: a postulant would spend a year at the monastery, followed by a month-and-a-half at home. During this period, she was expected to dress modestly and refrain from partaking in worldly pleasures. If accepted as a novice, she would be sent a small crown of thorns and a copy of the rule of St Augustine. In contrast to the grand processions of the preceding century, it was stipulated that the entry to the convent should not resemble a marriage procession. The girl should arrive simply, accompanied only by her family. Mass was celebrated in the exterior chapel, followed by the ceremony of dressing. The priest blessed each item in turn: first the girdle, the chain of perfection, then the veil, the sign of humility and submission to the lord. The novice’s hair was then cut. The collar and wimple followed. The dressing proper then commenced: she removed her secular clothes, the priest dressed her in a black habit, to remind her of Christ’s suffering, girded by a sash to guard against the temptations of the flesh, a scapular as a shield against adversity, a white veil, a sign of continence and purity, and finally a crown of thorns, for Christ. She was handed a cross to signify her rejection of the world and a candle. The last step was the bestowal of a new name. Unusually, in this convent it was the celebrant rather than the girl herself who chose this name. After a final blessing, she was led to the grille to greet her family and friends. These celebratory meetings could continue for up to three days, during which time the girl often received precious objects or artworks to commemorate the ceremony.

The common practice of demanding a dowry for novices meant that entry into convents was usually restricted to girls from wealthier families and that institutions became linked to specific important households within a city. Ceremonies of dressing therefore varied between convents. The portrait of Caterina de’ Pazzi made before her entrance into the convent depicts her in secular clothes (fig. 5 of the article), indicating a desire to preserve her worldly and familial identity even as she supposedly renounced them upon entry into religious life.

In all convents, the rite of profession was shorter than that for entry as a novice. The most important of these was the black veil, but there is no mention of the ring that is commonly found in other rites of profession. Afterwards, the sister was once again permitted to meet family and friends at the grille for three days.

In all convents, nuns were given two types of clothing: one set for work and private prayer, and another for prayer in the chapel. Nuns’ habits also reflected the varying economic fortunes of their convents and differed between rural and urban institutions. The convent of San Giovanni Battista di Bologna, a wealthy Dominican foundation, included detailed descriptions of rather luxurious clothes in its rule. This document confirms that nuns’ habits did follow contemporary fashions to some degree, that there were different clothes for novices and fully professed sisters, and that exceptions could be made in the case of illness or other pressing circumstances. Another document from a Bolognese convent, that of San Ludovico e Alessio, testifies to the personal goods a nun had in her cell.

The second part of the article looks at the rejection of secular clothes. This normally marked entry into a convent but was also relevant in a number of other situations. It is no coincidence that this practice went hand in hand with the increasing popularity of the cult of St Mary Magdalene and the rising number of convents for reformed prostitutes at the end of the fifteenth century. Wealthy women would also signal their conversion to a more spiritual life by their rejection of luxurious clothes. The most famous case is that of Vittoria Colonna, who became a contemplative in her widowhood. At the urging of numerous preachers, many women abandoned their finery without necessarily entering convents. This practice was encouraged by written texts and images, as well as by preaching. A translation of a sermon by Pedro Chavez from 1561 on the conversion of St Mary Magdalene describes her casting off her fine clothes. A visual representation of such a scene is found in the altarpiece designed by the Bolognese painter Francesco Cavazzoni for the parish church of St Mary Magdalene in Strada San Donato in 1582 (fig. 6 & 7).

  1. Francesco Cavazzoni, Preaching of Christ to the Magdalene, 1582. Bologna, Parish Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, High Altar.
1580, chiesa priorale e parr. Maddalena Bologna
  1. Detail from Francesco Cavazzoni, Preaching of Christ to the Magdalene, 1582. Bologna, Parish Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, High Altar.

A possible inspiration for this painting is that by the Milanese artist Gaudenzio Ferrari in San Cristoforo di Vercelli, from around 1530. A later example by a Brescian painter, perhaps Francesco Ricchino or perhaps Agostino Galeazzi, was created in the context of the growing popularity of the Compagnia di Sant’ Orsola which included many charitable matrons. The position of Cavazzoni’s painting, above the main altar of an urban parish church, ensured that the message was widely transmitted in Bologna. The Franciscan Antonio Pagani was particularly interested in women’s spiritual life and frequently used St Mary Magdalene as an example. In response to the spiritual needs of the day, he championed the idea of secular women living in community, not bound by vows but subject to a rule. Entrance into this community was made not by a liturgical rite, but by the rejection of fine clothes as a mark of distinction from other women.

Zarri’s consideration of dressing and undressing highlights the importance of clothing in the construction of religious identity in Early Modern Italy. The examples from written and visual sources highlight the symbolism imbued in the clothes and objects given to novices and newly professed nuns, but also reveal the concessions to practicality, and even to fashion. This acceptance of religious dress had its counterpart in the rejection of secular and luxurious clothes, which came in itself to signify the adoption of a more devout life in lay women’s communities (fig. 8).

 

  1. Mulier dicta DIMESSA. Filippo Bonanni, Ordinum religiosorum in ecclesia militanti catalogus eorumque indumenta in iconibus expressa et oblata, 1738.

Searching for Secular Canonesses in Modern Literary Sources (Part I)

By Isabelle Cochelin

Some detours worth exploring to learn more about non-cloistered religious women include nineteenth-century novels, journal articles and memoirs evoking their past lives. I will focus here on their rendering of secular canonesses to whom another blog post and a thematic meeting have already been dedicated. Thanks to the great nobility of their families and their relative freedom of movement, one finds various, intriguing echoes of their past lives in modern literary sources. They often evoke a world of the past as the French Revolution put a definitive end to Catholic female Chapters in France and Belgium, possibly the only religious form of life that did not re-emerge there in the nineteenth century; it survived longer, however, in regions where it did not suffer dissolution, as we will see for Prague. With this blog post and one to follow later, I hope to convince scholars to look for more of such literary sources. Often written by lay authors, their point of view is not informed by knowledge of ecclesiastical norms – too often resulting in a distortion of facts to highlight or downplay differences between practices and norms. These literary sources also give a much welcome secular point of view on the non-cloistered religious women.

Fig. 1: École française du XVIIIe siècle. Marie Suzanne de Bremond d’Ars, with the insignia of a canoness. https://www.invaluable.com/auction-lot/ecole-francaise-du-xviiie-siecle-marie-suzanne-de-22-c-5814f27b05#

The novel L’enfant du prieuré ou la chanoinesse de Metz (« The priory child or the Metz canoness »), written by Élisabeth Guénard, baroness of Méré, and published in two volumes in 1802, might contain some echoes of the author’s own life: one of the female characters, for instance, marries a much older man when she is a very young woman and another marries her cousin. Guénard had married her eighty-eight-year-old cousin around the age of twenty-three. The information in the novel on the life of a secular canoness, however, is so scant that the author most probably did not know much about it. It is telling that no information is given about the inside of the Chapter of Metz; the reader is never invited within this space. Unlike the “priory child” with whom she shares the title, the canoness only appears very episodically in the story. It seems that the status of this character was chosen because a secular canoness had the freedom to travel around – she goes once to Reims, another time to Paris — but also could stay retired from the world for long stretches of time – a pattern that fits well with the life of the canoness of Remiremont we will meet in the next blog. These facts about secular canonesses’ life must have been well known to the laity. Linked to these periods of retreat, the character who is a secular canoness once presents herself as a “poor recluse” (volume II, p. 16). This said, the author knew well that, in the town itself where the community was located– here, Metz –, it was possible for the canonesses to come and go freely during the day: the Metz canoness is known to return to her dwelling at night, usually around 10 pm (I, p.134; II, p.18) and, in some circumstances, to leave it as early as 8 am (II, p.18)! I doubt we should give too much credence to such a schedule, but it represents the canonesses’ freedom of movement within the locality where their Chapter is situated. It must have also been known that the canonesses could leave their community for good. The Metz canoness did so at the end of the novel in order to live with her son and his young wife.

Probably the most striking aspect of the secular canonesses’ way of life that is offered by the novel is the beauty of some of their religious feasts; the information seems to be credible, maybe because the author saw at least one such event. The manager of the hotel where the hero is staying in Metz recommends such a ceremony to him:

… as tomorrow is the St Clotilde, there is a great office for the first vespers; I encourage you to go. It is one of the nicest possible sights to see all these ladies with their large velvet cape, trimmed with ermine. There are some, I must admit, who are as beautiful as angels… [“et comme c’est demain Ste.-Clotilde, il y a grand office pour les premières vêpres; je vous engage à y aller. C’est un des plus beaux coups-d’œil possible, que de voir toutes ces dames avec leur grand manteau de velour garni d’hermine; il y a en a, ma foi, qui sont jolies comme des anges”]

Given that the author rarely enters into the detail of her characters’ clothing, the ones worn by the canonesses for their religious services must have been striking. Figure 1 is the portrait of a Metz canoness. One can also infer from this passage that the canonesses were not all attending the offices in common every day, as the beauty of this ceremony, in the words of the hotel manager, was partly due to its infrequency. During this service, the laity were able to see the canonesses (and, vice-versa, be seen by them), as if they were on display, which would have been unusual for cloistered nuns. Finally, even though the author seemed to have known little about the world of the canonesses, she probably had a soft spot for it; indeed, two other characters take the habit in two different orders, but they are not as well liked – one, who ends his life doing penance in the Servite Order, is even depiscable — while Elisabeth, the Metz canoness, is depicted in the most positive light. The nobility of the author might explain her parti pris but given that her family had not been prestigious enough to have had one of its female members enter such a community, this explanation is insufficient.

There are other novels discussing canonesses but the ones I found so far were written much later and their authors could not, thus, have had first-hand knowledge of this way of life.[1] One magazine article, not signed (as was often the case in Victorian journals), is dedicated to two Chapters of secular canonesses in Prague. Entitled “About chanoinesses” and published in The Saint Paul’s magazine, it dates from July 1870, the last month Anthony Trollope was the editor of the journal. It seems to have been reproduced at least twice in America. Based on the slightly condescending tone of the author of the article, I am inclined to think they were male but I will use the non-binary “they” just in case.

Fig. 2: Henriette, Countess of Huyn, Second assistant, c.1896. Karl Köpl, Geschichte Des K K Freiweltlich Adeligen Damenstiftes Zu Den Heiligen Engeln In Prag, 1901, p.160

Their encounter with canonesses had occurred more than forty years earlier, in the 1830s, in the Bohemian capital. In Prague there were two Catholic Chapters, one founded in 1701, called the Freiweltlich adeligen Damenstift zu den heiligen Engeln (a name translated by the author as “The free-noble-institute of Lay Canonesses to the Holy Angels” and in a 2018 article by Michaela Žáková by “The New Town Holy Angels Institute”), and the other in 1755, called the k.k. theresianischen adeligen Damenstiftes am Prager Schlosse (rendered by the author as the “Imperial Royal Theresian Stift for Noble Ladies in the Castle of Prague” but, in the 2018 article, by “The Theresian Foundation for Noblewomen at Prague Castle”). Here, as in some other regions in central and eastern Europe, female Chapters continued to exist into the nineteenth century, sometimes even as Protestant houses. This is proof, if any was needed, that they relied heavily on the higher nobility and royalty from whom their members and their funding came, and only partially on the Church. The author of the article details the two Chapters’ ties with the highest circles of society, with the more recent chapter, the Theresian foundation, being possibly the most prestigious Chapter in Europe. I chose to focus on other topics treated in the article that would have also been representative of Chapters in the eighteenth century, if not earlier.

As already hinted at in the novel discussed above, contemporaries were quite fascinated by the canonesses’ external appearance. The first sentence of the article evokes the insignia of the oldest Chapter: a medal, also called an order by the author, and worn on the “bosom”, and a black and gold band over the body (p. 376 and Fig. 2); the other Chapter had the same insignia, except that the band was white and gold (p. 381) and the medals differed (p. 381). The dresses of the first were a “black silk gown” (p. 378) while the second had “black cloaks richly trimmed with ermine, and caps à la Marie Stuart” (p. 380); they wore these whenever they took “part in any official or church ceremony, or grand festivity” (p. 378). These descriptions fit well with Fig. 1 of a Metz canoness where we can also see a cap (sometimes called a mari!), a white and blue band, a medal (or order) on the breast, a black silk dress and ermine fur. Fig. 2 is a portrait dated c.1896 of the second assistant to the Oberinn (the name of the head of the oldest Chapter in Prague). Even though it is some sixty years after the encouters described in the article “About chanoinesses”, I doubt that there had been significant changes in the canonesses’ appearance (could the half-bare arms be a novelty?). What attracted the author most was the very young canonesses, so this picture is fitting.

There was obviously an important element of performativity in the life of the canonesses, manifested not only through their clothes but also in their well-chosen public appearances, in churches but also in lay society. Since 1791, the abbess of the Theresian Chapter was the one to crown the queen of Bohemia. Fig. 3 represents one such abbess, the Archduchess Maria Annunziata (as can be read below the 1901 photograph); she was the last abbess, who ruled from 1894 until the closing of the establishment in 1918.

Fig. 3: Archduchess Maria Annunziata, Abbess, 1901. Photo by Jindřich Eckert. Wikimedia Commons.

All the abbesses of the Prague Castle Chapter were archduchesses. Notice as well the title “Countess of Huyn (Gräfïn Huy)” of Fig. 2 and the note on Fig. 1 that the woman depicted was “Marie Susanne of Bremond of Ars, daughter of the high and powerful lord Charles of Bremond, marquess of Ars”: secular canonesses often used their family names, thus highlighting their individual status, notwithstanding their membership in a community; such behavior would have given additional visibility and prestige to their family. This said, it is these women themselves whom we see represented through these paintings and pictures, adorned with their insignia and titles. Further west, the status of secular canoness allowed them even at times to be called princesses, countesses or some other noble title, independently from their family titles – in the Chapter of Remiremont, discussed in the next blog post, all canonesses were called countesses, even if they had been princesses.

The building in which the canonesses of the older Chapter lived is also described at length in the article. This time, unlike in the novel, the reader is permitted to enter into a community as the author had obviously visited the site. It is possible that the secular canonesses’ freedom fluctuated through time and that, in the 1830s, it was somewhat greater than in the eighteenth century, with, for instance, easier access to their communities (p. 378). Still, even if the extent of it changed, some freedom of access was typical of the Chapters from the late Middle Ages onwards. The canonesses in Prague did not each have their own house within the enclosure, as was often the case in Chapters further west (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Individual houses of nuns who later took the name of secular canonesses in the eighteenth century. Blesle (Auvergne). Photo by Isabelle Cochelin)

The canonesses of the oldest Chapter in Prague lived in individual apartments of two to three rooms each, on the first and second floors of an ex-monastery. I suppose Fig. 5, a photograph of their lodging in 1901, depicts the same site that had been given to them by Empress Maria-Theresa in the mid eighteenth century and mentioned by our author.

The ground floor was devoted to service, consisting mostly of male servants, another proof of the wealth and nobility of the institution. Each canoness had in addition her own female servants (p. 379). The spatial and domestic arrangement of the other Chapter in Prague is not described in as many details but is said to have been similar, except for the fact that it was situated in the wing of the old palace, given by the same Empress Maria-Theresa (p. 380 and Fig. 5). Nothing very luxurious, considering that they were from the highest nobility, but a space of their own, nevertheless. And the view must have been stupendous…

Fig. 6: Adolph Merklas Fesca, “The Theresian Stift on the Hradschin” (based on a painting by Karl Wenzel Würbs). Wikipedia Commons.

The freedom of the secular canonesses to move outside of their Chapter (except during their novitiate) was obviously another striking characteristic for the author of the article “About chanoinesses” but their tone is one of surprise, not of irritation or condemnation; this is important as the ecclesiastical authors often had a very different position on this issue. The freedom of movement of the canonesses is touched upon already in the first lines of the article and the author often returns to it. The canonesses were able to go to balls, spend time outside of their community, and even leave to get married. It seems to me that the author believed such departures for marriage happened quite often until (as explained in a footnote) an 1855 book informed them that, in the noblest Chapter of Prague, only a proportion of two out of every seven canonesses left to get married in the one hundred years since the foundation.[2] The question is whether or not the same low percentage existed in other communities. The Theresian institution was for women of the highest nobility who were already 24 years old (unless orphaned and then, 18) upon entrance and whose family had financial problems.[3] In the other Prague Chapter, the newcomers had to be at least 16 (and less than 30) years old when admitted, without the requirement of financial problems; in these conditions, maybe more left to get married? Not so obvious: in the memoirs describing the Chapter of Remiremont discussed in the next blog post, the author claims that few left for marriage and, indeed, only one of her five aunts who were canonesses did so; even more interesting, this memorialist presents this low percentage as a matter of choice, not necessity (Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle, “Souvenirs”, p. 247 and 254). This is probably understandable as the author of the article “About chanoinesses” underlines that these women had the freedom of movement of married women without the inconvenience of husbands. I would add that their prestigious families, by placing them in a Chapter, probably intended to diminish the risks of mésalliance that would have tarnished their names: their daughters had some freedom of movement, and therefore fewer reasons to run away with someone inappropriate to express their own will. Moreover, there were fellow canonesses surrounding them who were keen to avoid scandal to their community.

These women were, indeed, living close to each other when they were not traveling, as shown in Figs. 4, 5 and 6. The last point I would like to make in relation to the “About chanoinesses” article is its author’s claim that the oldest Prague Chapter had something of a “republican character” in its mode of functioning (unlike the wealthier, more recent and nobler one, closely overseen by the empress and, later, the emperors) – a point that might explain the two-time re-printing of this article in late nineteenth-century USA. The secular canonesses of the oldest Chapter would vote on almost all admissions of newcomers and on the nomination of the Oberinn and her assistants (p. 380). I will come back to this fundamental issue more at length in the next post.


[1] Gabrielle Anne Cisterne de Courtiras Saint-Mars, Une chanoinesse. Paris: P. Pemrain, 1852 and André Theuriet, La chanoinesse 1789-1793. Paris  Nelson, Éditeurs, 1900. Both authors insist on the freedom of movement of the canonesses. Even more recent : Noëlle Dedeyan, La dame secrète. Woippy : Éditions Serpenoise, 2002.

[2] The author did not give their source but the Catalogues and Databases of the National Library of the Czech Republic allowed me to find it: Ferdinand Jitschinsky. Kurze Darstellung der Gründung und des Bestandes des k.k. theresianischen adeligen Damenstiftes am Prager Schlosse bis auf die gegenwärtige Zeit, nebst den wichtigsten geschichtlichen Momenten zu dessen hundertjähriger Grundsjubelfeier im Jahre 1855. Prague: Gottlieb Haase Söhne, 1855, p.20-21. Over one hundred years, Jitschinski counted 122 canonesses.

[3] Michaela Žáková. “The Theresian Foundation for Noblewomen at Prague Castle. The Institution, its Female Members and Aristocratic Philanthropy”, in Changes of the Noble Society. Aristocracy and New Nobility in the Habsburg Monarchy and Central Europe from the 16th to the 20th Century, ed. by Jiri Brnovják and Jan Županic, Prague: Ostrava, 2018, p. 189-200.

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Vowesses

by Emma Gabe and Laura Moncion

On 19 November 2021, The Other Sister group hosted a research seminar on the topic of vowesses. These non-cloistered women religious were usually widows who took a vow to remain chaste perpetually while living in the world. This session was organized by Isabelle Cochelin and Alison More.

The three speakers at this session, and their pre-circulated papers, were:

  • Michelle M. Sauer, “The Meaning of Russet: A Note on Vowesses and Clothing,” Early Middle English 2.2 (2020): 91-97.
  • Katherine Clark Walter, The Profession of Widowhood: Widows, Pastoral Care and Medieval Models of Holiness (CUA Press, 2018), more specifically her chapter on canon law.
  • Laura M. Wood (now Richmond), “In Search of the Mantle and Ring: Prosopographical Study of the Vowess in Late Medieval England,” Medieval Prosopography, 34 (2019): 175-205.

Laura M. Richmond addressed the interesting problem of vowesses breaking their vows, typically because of they had since married, which called their religious vows into question. As breaking vows was a serious matter, they adopted strategies in their petitions such as claiming that they had taken the vow of chastity due to grief or pressure to remarry. Katherine Clark Walter discussed the differences between available sources in Great Britain and mainland Europe, and a few notable examples of vowesses, including St Elizabeth of Thuringia and Yvette (also known as Juette/Iuetta) of Huy. She noted that liturgical texts differentiated between virgin and widowed nuns, and addressed the consecration of widows. She also observed that tertiaries seem to take the place of vowesses in mainland Europe. Michelle M. Sauer presented vowesses as one of several groups of religious women who can be considered “anchorite adjacent”, similar to recluses or anchorites in their paradoxical retreat from and engagement in the world. She also addressed how vowesses’ clothing became a visible symbol of their “renewed purity”.

The discussion afterwards touched on issues of source material by region, particularly the usefulness of bishops’ registers in Britain, and a certain lack of clear evidence for a person called the “vowess” in some other regions, such as Cologne. The conversation addressed whether or not the vowess was a distinctly English form of life. The concept of women’s “self-fashioning” was also discussed in relation to vowesses, women late in life and with relative power over their lifestyles. The clothes that they wore––or did not wear––were an important element of this “self-fashioning.” In choosing to live as vowesses, women in medieval Europe could create a space for themselves in religious life, but the expression of this religious life and how these women fit into their social surroundings depended also on local practices and customs.

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.

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