THE OTHER SISTER RESEARCH SEMINAR: Charity, caregiving and female social roles from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period

By Laura Moncion and Emma Gabe.

On 17 December, The Other Sister group held its third research seminar, discussing charity, caregiving, and gender history in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. In particular, the session concentrated on female charity organized by and aimed at women. The goal was to investigate continuities and discontinuities in female charity between the medieval and early modern periods, which saw the development of charitable institutions exclusively for women. Research questions included the religious status of caregivers, whether or not charity was a gendered activity, the type of people that female charity targeted, and the types of assistance (spiritual, material, etc.) that women offered. This session was organized and moderated by Sylvie Duval and Isabel Harvey and featured the discussion of three articles by invited speakers. The seminar was attended by over 30 participants. 

The articles discussed in this session were:

Angela Carbone and Annamaria Gaetana de Pinto, “Spaces of power between nobility and clergy: St Anne’s Conservatory in Lecce in the modern age,” in Giovanna Da Molin (ed.), Research in Progress. Population, Environment, Health, Bari: Cacucci Editore, 2017. 

Letha Böhringer, “Beginen und Schwestern in der Sorge für Kranke, Sterbende und Verstorbene. Eine Problemskizze,” in Arthur Dirmeier (ed.), Organisierte Barmherzigkeit: Armenfürsorge und Hospitalwesen in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit, Regensburg: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 2010 (with an English abstract).

Eva-Maria Cersovsky, “Ubi non est mulier, ingemiscit egens? Gendered Perceptions of Care from the Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries,” in Sara Ritchey and Sharon Strocchia (eds.), Gender, Health and Healing, 1250-1550, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020.  

Angela Carbone’s contribution presented the case of St Anne’s Conservatory (Conservatorio Sant’Anna) in Lecce, one of many charitable institutions founded in early modern Italy first and foremost by women for the ostensible aid of other women. Carbone’s work on St Anne’s, and other conservatories of this kind, can also be found in her newly published book, Ritirate dalle cose del mondo. Donne e istituzioni nel Mezzogiorno moderno (2020). In the meeting, Carbone discussed her book and the different types of conservatories, and the women for whom they were intended. Conservatories could offer help to, for example: orphan girls (in the form of education and dowry); repentant sex workers (women who, in other words, had had their honour compromised); and noble women (such as the example cited by Carbone of a woman who had been married for seven years and, failing to conceive a child, separated from her husband and went to live in St Anne’s); women fleeing from domestic abuse; women who intended to dedicate their lives to God; and women who only spent a short time in the conservatories before returning to secular society. Women entered these institutions either as a means to escape families or due to family pressures in order to maintain social status.

In Southern Italy, it is interesting to underline the foundation of repentant institutions especially when great calamities altered the common lives of the community, for instance on the occasion of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the seventeenth century. In this instance, the role of religious orders and the repentant process of women, which by definition embodied material pleasure and sin, served to alleviate divine wrath, with a subsequent benefit to the entire society. 

Using rich archival records––including foundation documents, rules and regulations, reclusion requests and administrative documents––Carbone presented these conservatories as places of conflict between the clerical and secular powers, between women and families, and between women inside these houses themselves.

Letha Böhringer’s presentation drew on both the depth and breadth of her knowledge on the beguines of Cologne, in particular the early period of beguine life in this city in the thirteenth and fourteenth  centuries. Despite the early historiographical assertions that beguines performed hospital work, Böhringer demonstrates that her Cologne sources do not show a systematic, institutional link between beguines and hospital work; if beguines worked in hospitals, this was done on an individual, ad hocbasis. While beguines did sometimes live in hospitals, as the Cologne sources show, it is unlikely that they worked there; they were more like boarders than live-in nurses. In the realm of saintly examples, the example of St Elisabeth of Thuringia (aka Elisabeth of Hungary), while a powerful image of a saintly hospital worker, was more of an ideal to admire than a practice to emulate for the everyday beguine. Böhringer’s talk also touched upon the important theme of historiography, by asking why the beguine living the active life is such a popular figure in research today, even when primary sources do not always back this up. A certain lack of appreciation for the contemplative life of nuns and other women religious can sometimes be found on both sides of the Atlantic. Beguines are sometimes cast as a prototype of the modern “working woman” or, as portrayed in Hollywood films such as Sister Act, the active life is shown as more appealing and meaningful than the contemplative one. This provokes an important question for our research, but also all historical research more broadly: How do historians’ own cultural matrices and biases influence their views of beguines, religious women, or other historical subjects?

Eva-Maria Cersovsky also commented on the historiography of care work in her paper: pushing against the notion that women became viewed as ideal caregivers in the nineteenth century, she demonstrated that learned men in the Middle Ages used and manipulated discourses of care and caregiving to implicate women. Her presentation shared some of her PhD work on care workers in Strasbourg between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Similar to Böhringer’s research, Cersovsky noted that while beguines in Strasbourg could perform nursing care, this was still an informal, case-by-case situation. One example concerned how the city council of Strasbourg tasked a community of lay brothers, sometimes also called “begards,” with visiting and nursing the sick at home during the fifteenth century. Charters also show that male and female confraternity members paid single beguines to visit and nurse the sick within the city’s biggest hospital on a regular basis, and they may have provided care to private homes as well. The work of female nurses tending to patients in their homes often involved cooking, taking care of linens, and cleaning—all important according to the Galenic medical system, but also gendered as female work. Only after the Protestant Reformation did the city council order the four surviving beguine communities to become nursing communities first and foremost––as well as Protestant. At this time, the council also specified the number and marital status of male and female nurses. In particular, they wanted to employ married men and female widows—thus ensuring that the male nurses had an outlet for their physical passions (and would not take them out on a female patient), and that the female nurses would not be distracted by the demands of their own households.

Contributions by these participants, particularly Dr. Böhringer’s talk, raised important issues of historiography in the study of non-cloistered religious women. While the historiographical focus, following the Protestant Reformations, has often been on beguines’ and non-cloistered women’s active lives, they could also have lived and valued leading contemplative lives. This conversation, among others, is helping to readjust and test the lenses through which we view premodern religious women, keeping our own biases and agendas in mind as we aim to study their lives.


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