The Other Sister Research Seminar: Book “Medieval Religious Women”

by Julia Cole and Devon Sherwood

On Friday, December 15th, The Other Sister met for a discussion of Medieval Religious Women, c. 800-1500, ed. Kimm Curran and Janet Burton (Boydell, 2023). Kimm Curran, Janet Burton, Cate Gunn, and Alison More joined us to discuss their contributions (listed below) to this exciting new publication. The thematic session was organized by Delfi Nieto-Isabel and Mary Doyno.

  • Kimm Curran and Janet Burton, “Introduction,” p. 1-21.
  • Alison More, “Change and Renewal: Mendicants and Tertiaries in Later Medieval Europe,” p. 61-75.
  • Cate Gunn, “On the Fringes: Anchorites,” p. 76-89.

Janet Burton, Professor of Medieval History at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter, and co-editor of the volume, was the first speaker. She recalled how she and Kimm Curran commissioned essays for the volume after the initial rejection of their proposed volume topic. This disappointment galvanized them and allowed them to rethink traditional narratives as they pertain to medieval religious women. The texts themselves includes an extensive temporal range, beginning with the councils of Aachen (816-17), and ending c. 1500. Burton points out, however, that movements differed regionally and that the same thematic approaches cannot be applied to all geographic regions in the same way.

Next, Kimm Curran, an independent researcher based in Scotland, and co-editor of the volume, echoed Burton in sharing their desire to produce a book that would break down barriers between those in formal institutional communities and those who existed outside of them but who still lived a religious lifestyle. She noted commonalities between the two groups in addition to acknowledging women’s search for identity within the environments of new orders and transition between groups, illustrating the issues inherent in anachronistic categorization. Decisions about the choice of words were at the forefront of their minds as they worked on the volume, with a preference for ‘women religious’ or ‘sister’ over ‘nun’. Similarly, Curran emphasized their avoidance of the term ‘nunnery’. Alongside their contributors, they navigated the challenging issue of language and adjusted to more inclusive terminology. In its final form, the multi-disciplinary book represents topics such as women’s agency, authority, identities, literacies, and materialities, and reflects the diversity of its multi-disciplinary contributors.

Alison More, Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of St Michael’s College, University of Toronto, added to the discussion on terminology. She pointed out that terms themselves do not mean anything other than what you choose them to mean. Her chapter discusses the emergence of a spiritual revolution, which people sought out and participated in with fervor. She highlighted the diversity of religious women, even within the category of ‘tertiary’, a label that she suggested warrants further investigation. Finally, Professor More spoke about the fact that many of the women in her study do not fit neatly into institutional parameters; rather, they sought out ‘do-it-yourself religion’.

Next, Cate Gunn, an independent researcher with a focus on medieval English literature, religious literature, and medieval devotional culture, spoke. She explained that the question, ‘how do we talk about female anchorites?’ guided her study. She sought to question their marginality and explore where and how they lived. During her talk, she, too, returned to the issue of medieval categorization and specific identity. She paints the anchorites that she studies as spiritually, textually, and physically impactful to their landscapes, even given the extreme form of religious life carried out in such as small cell. Serving this role, anchorites were necessary to their communities since they served as proxies for spiritual matters and carried out meaningful functions through prayer while also generally reflecting the values of medieval society by means of anchoritic life.

The Q&A period touched upon a number of themes including further inquiry into the classification, organization, and self-identification of specific groups, the problematization of terminology as related to translation in different languages, evidence of cultural exchange and similarities between disparate groups, and transitions between groups over time. Furthermore, speakers and participants discussed relationships within and between groups, leading to a broader discussion about the social practices of anchorites and different experiences of liminality and marginality. In addition, the speakers answered several questions specific to their contributions, providing essential context for ongoing discussions about the experiences of women religious in a variety of geographical regions.

Mary Doyno posed the first question to Alison More, asking if she felt that there is use in employing terminology used by the historical women that she studies. More expressed similar sentiment as to wanting to use these terms, but explained the jigsaw-like puzzle of sources that her work has drawn from can make it difficult. Rather, she explained, women seemed to focus more on what needed to be done than issues of self-identification and classification. Cate Gunn also responded, pointing out that some women felt anxiety associated with the uncertain status of not being under a rule, and therefore adopted a rule to quash this anxiety.

Remaining on the topic of terminology, Renate Blumfield-Kosinski then brought up the challenge posed by different languages both in sources and in modern scholarship. She pointed out that as much scholarship has been focused on Italy and England, many of these terms are familiar, but that a multitude of terms exist in other languages. This poses the question; do we define every term when we use it? Agreeing, Cate Gunn echoed that definitions can be very different, even between scholars working in the same field.

Devon Sherwood wonderedunder if there is evidence of women shifting between different groups over time. This question brought to mind a common misconception for Cate Gunn, who shared that many think that anchorites ended up transitioning to communal living, but that this is not true. Rather, anchorites connected through their beliefs and lifestyles but did not live communally. Instead, they would transition from communities to the more isolated lifestyle that an anchorhold provided.

Kimm Curran returned to the anxiety over terminology that she had as an editor: she felt trapped by publishing norms that focused on certain categories of religious women and sought a broader and more inclusive category for women religious. For Curran, this issue was embodied in the complex identity of Saint Hedwig, who graces the cover of the volume. Curran also discussed the issue of male authors writing about these women, making it difficult at times to find the voices of the women directly. Alison More brought up transitions of religious life, whether reforming or moving to a stricter form of life. The associations of women religious with a specific order poses challenges for perceived identity, which could either change or simply appear to have changed from the sources based on who was providing pastoral care. Within this topic, she concluded, there is much to explore.

Lucy Barnhouse returned to Alison More’s chapter, wondering how women were in part defined by their relationships (with other women, bishops, confessors). Janet Burton agreed as to the centrality of women’s relationships, highlighting the importance of locating women within their wider communities. This included their relationships with their orders, the secular community, patrons, and others. Delfi Nieto-Isabel pointed out that often the locality of the women studied lies in different terminologies, an issue of the modern day, not the sources. Turning back to Cate Gunn’s chapter, she then asked about the difference between liminality and marginality, claiming that what was liminal in the period under study has only been made marginal through modern study. Though Gunn pointed out that the anchorites in her chapter did not use either term, their position on the threshold between life and death posed a serious challenge, but the value in their role made it easier. Alison More agreed, stating that women did not choose to be liminal, but rather filled the positions that they saw as necessary, waiting for their institutions to catch up with them. Janet Burton added that being liminal did not mean one was unimportant. Bruce Venarde agreed that liminal, marginal, and identity are our modern words and shared Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper’s 2000 article, “Beyond ‘Identity’”.

Sister Carla Thomas sought clarification from Cate Gunn on her mention of vows, wishing to know who received the vows of the women in her study. For lay anchorites, Gunn answered, they made vows to a bishop and were usually linked to a specific church not living under a rule. There was, however, an earlier practice of women transitioning from a monastic community to an anchorhold. Making an oath to a bishop was part of an attempt to control this practice (of lay women becoming anchorites) but was also practical as it allowed the church to check that the women had the financial means to support themselves and were connected toa church that could administer the sacraments. Kimm Curran agreed, giving a Scottish example of a nun moving from an enclosed community to an anchorhold.

Next, Letha Böhringer connected the ongoing discussion of terminology to the context of practices and social spaces. She asked Cate Gunn about her experience regarding the social practices of anchorites as opposed to those of other women. Gunn answered that the main difference was that anchorites lived in isolation, enclosed on their own, even when connected to others via letters. Isabelle Cochelin commented that recluses in England were perhaps more solitary, but those on the continent were very social and played a vital role in society. Some women even applied for the job of recluse through their local government. Gunn agreed that though a recluse’s life was solitary, they played an important role in their communities.

Barbara R. Walters Doehrman brought up the impacts of geographical and economic milieu on the practices of anchoresses, even though daily practices could be quite similar place to place. Cate Gunn responded that work in this area is beginning to be done, highlighting the similar nature of the spirituality of women in different regions.

Minlib Dahl posed the final question, asking Alison More to explain Raymond of Capua’s influence on and relationship with Catherine of Siena. More explained that he wrote in a way that sought to highlight the links she had with the Dominican Order as a tertiary.

Concluding a fruitful and lively discussion, the chat continued with encouraging and complimentary messages for the speakers from participants until the very end of the meeting. The important themes of terminology (both that in sources and modern scholarship), identities of religious women, and the ties that they had with each other and their wider community drove the conversation. Thank you to all contributors and those who posed thoughtful questions and comments.



Cite this blog post
Isabelle Cochelin (2024, February 2). The Other Sister Research Seminar: Book “Medieval Religious Women” The Other Sister. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vr03

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