The Other Sister Research Seminar: Women Serving Enclosed Women

By Emma Gabe and Laura Moncion

The research group “The Other Sister” hosted its first (virtual) research seminar on 29 September 2020. The subject was “Women Serving Enclosed Women”. We discussed four papers about servants and service in various medieval religious contexts for women. 

The papers discussed were: 

  • Laura Moncion, “Between Servant and Disciple: Recluses’ Attendants in Three Medieval Rules for Recluses”
  • Kate E. Bush, “Maids of the Handmaidens: Serving Sisters in Clarissan Community, c. 1250–1550”
  • Emma Gabe, “Lay Sisters and the Discourse of Service in Late-Medieval Sister-Books”
  • Isabel Harvey, “From Servants to Converse Nuns: Tridentine Enclosure and Economic Reform of Convents in the Papal States of Clement VIII”

These four papers are forthcoming in the conference volume for We Are All Servants: The Diversity of Service in Premodern Europe, edited by Isabelle Cochelin and Diane Wolfthal, soon to be published by CRRS, Essays and Studies.

This meeting was likely the first event where international scholars of the medieval and early modern world discussed women serving enclosed women. These women have rarely been studied, even though their numbers would have been significant in the premodern world. A recluse, for instance, would often have had two servants, and between one quarter to one half of female monasteries would have been composed of female servants and conversae.  

Each of these papers brought out different nuances in the relationships between religious women and the women serving them. Also, each touched on the degree to which the servants could have been considered religious themselves. Could some have been motivated by faith when choosing this occupation? Did the social status of women prior entering a community affect whether they would become lay sisters/converse nuns or choir nuns? It appears that there were several inconsistencies. In one case, involving biological sisters: one became a lay sister and the other a choir nun. Most importantly, the diversity––and ambiguity––of terms used to refer to servants of religious women, as well as to non-enclosed religious women themselves were discussed. 

Moncion’s work centred on the representations and roles of attendants to recluses in three medieval rules. It suggested that life as a recluse’s attendant could be considered another non-cloistered religious option for medieval women. Bush’s article focused on the somewhat surprising presence of servants and serving sisters in the monastery of Clare of Assisi and other female monasteries associated with the Franciscan order up to the Observant movement. This was particularly unusual considering the importance given by Clare to poverty and to her self-presentation as ancilla Dei.  Gabe’s paper explored the roles and representations of lay sisters in late-medieval German monasteries, as recorded in the sister-books. Harvey’s article on converse nuns in female monasteries in the Papal States adopts a new approach to Tridentine reform, moving the focus from enclosure to improved organizational and economic structures. The three last papers complemented one another in their focus on converse or lay sisters, that is, members of a female monastic community who lived alongside but separate from the typically upper-class choir nuns, across different periods and regions. 

After the presentations of each of the papers, a lively discussion over Zoom ensued, attended by scholars from Canada, Italy, the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. We hope to have many such discussions in the future on the subject of non-cloistered religious women, or “Other Sisters”.


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