THE OTHER SISTER RESEARCH SEMINAR: Naming The Other Sister: Tertiary, Lay, or Penitent?

By Gustave Ineza and Meghan Lescault

On February 8, 2021 the Other Sister research group held its fourth thematic meeting entitled Naming the Other Sister: Tertiary, Lay, or Penitent? The meeting’s goal was to discuss the problems behind the nomenclature and the status of groups of religious laywomen in the Middle Ages, especially those attached to the Dominican and Franciscan orders.

The following chapters had been pre-distributed and read by all the participants:

Augustine Thompson, “Dominican Penitents to 1286” and “The Penitents of St. Dominic, 1286–1415” in Secular Dominicans: Penitents, Tertiaries, and Laity of the Order of Preachers (unpublished work in progress).

Mary Harvey Doyno, “Envisioning an Order: The Last Lay Saints” in The Lay Saint: Charity and Charismatic Authority in Medieval Italy, 1150-1350 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019).

Alison More, “Penitents and the Institutionalization of Penitential Life in the Thirteenth Century” in Fictive Orders and Feminine Religious Identities, 1200-1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Alison Weber, “Introduction: Devout Laywomen in the Early Modern World: The Historiographic Challenge,” in Devout Laywomen in the Early Modern World, ed. Alison Weber (London; New York: Routledge, 2016).

The meeting commenced with Fr. Augustine Thompson, Mary Harvey Doyno, and Alison More presenting their research. Unfortunately, Alison Weber was unable to attend.

Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., Professor of History and Theology Department Chair at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California remarked that he had already noticed problems with the so-called Rule of Munio of Zamora, Master of the Dominican Order in the thirteenth century, when writing his book Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125–1325. Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner’s discovery of what Munio actually wrote explained the anachronisms in the old Rule, which we now know dates to the early 1400s.Thompson’s new book project on penitents is connected to his book Dominican Brothers: Conversi, Lay, and Cooperator Friars. He demonstrated the importance of collaboration on these topics, as Mary Harvey Doyno’s research reminded him of the need to be aware of hagiographic stereotyping and the possibility of subjects’ lives being rewritten by the hagiographers, while Alison More’s project alerted him to the danger of assuming that normative documents identify lived practices.

Mary Harvey Doyno, Associate Professor in the Humanities and Religious Studies Department at California State University, Sacramento, explained that her chapter was trying to make sense of the disappearance of lay civic sanctity in the fourteenth century. The civic saint had often become male, while women were being more closely associated with an internal spiritual struggle. Indeed, women’s participation in civic sanctity had created a need for more precise regulatory measures for lay penitents and had resulted in definite gender roles for the ideal religious life. From there Doyno came to the broader question of the connection between the building of an institution and women’s involvement in it. She looked to Thomas Caffarini’s work on Catherine of Siena and asked how the writings of the Observant Reform Movement allowed for the institutional growth of the Dominican Order. She also pointed to San Sisto, the “universal convent” for all the female religious of Rome, as an instance of institutional growth accompanied by an attempt to define religious women.

Alison More, Assistant Professor and holder of the Comper Professorship of Medieval Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, and one of the co-investigators in the Other Sister research project, discussed the difficulties involved in studying women (and men) who wanted to live religious lives outside of the established boundaries. She noted the tendency of medieval canonists and modern scholars alike to try to fit them into neat categories, and she reminded the group that the ideas of “order” and “identity” remain open questions and that it is necessary to start “coloring outside the lines” in order to depart from the traditional narrative. These groups who did not fit into precise categories were more common than those who did. In fact, More has found that the “other sister” has always been with us and urged the meeting’s participants to embrace all of her anomalies and to engage in an ongoing conversation in order to hear her voice.

Thankfully, a piece of this ongoing conversation immediately followed. As More pointed to the question marks attached to the notions of “order” and “identity,” it is no surprise that these topics were among the main subjects of discussion. On the topic of the various names of these groups of women, such as beguines, bizzoche, pinzochere, and mantellatae, Doyno and More answered that we do not know exactly how these names arose. More noted that some names refer to the activities performed by the women—the coquenune being “nuns” who cooked—while Thompson spoke about the relationship that sometimes existed between the name of the group and the clothing of its members, as in the case of the mantellatae, meaning “veiled women.” More added that the women themselves did not create these names, and she pointed to Jacques de Vitry’s description of beguines as women who are commonly called beguines (by others) rather than women who call themselves beguines.

Related to the question of terminology is the question of definition. Doyno used the example of thirteenth-century Santa Maria in Tempuli in Rome where sources indicate the presence of laywomen in addition to the nuns there. She spoke of her attempt to understand how an effort was made to define all of these women as nuns. Noting that the Observant Reform Movement had the effect of monasticizing tertiaries, she explained that we generally have to take a “both…and” rather than an “either…or” approach with respect to tertiaries and nuns.

Not far from the topic of identity is the topic of community, another theme that significantly shaped the conversation. Greti Dinkova-Bruun asked at what point a community is made, if it is defined by numbers, and what prompts these regularizing impulses in the first place. Doyno mentioned the listing of names of members as one potential indicator of the legitimate existence of a community, while Thompson answered that the group can function independently as a community when at least one member has sufficient resources. More tied these “regularizing impulses” to the ideas of crisis and institutionalization. Although there were women living religious lives outside of traditional monastic settings for centuries, a tendency towards categorization was more pronounced in the thirteenth century. At that point, there were enough of these women to give rise to questions about their identity.

When discussing such women, the topic of cura mulierum often arises. Isabelle Cochelin asked how confessors were chosen by these women, if they were chosen at all. Doyno discussed the particular case of Margaret of Cortona for whom a confessor was chosen by the local Franciscans as a way of monitoring her and ensuring that she was free from heresy. F. Thomas Luongo spoke about Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua: it seems that Raymond was attached to Catherine because of her lofty reputation and her diplomatic missions. Thompson added his thought that Raymond was assigned to Catherine as a handler rather than a confessor. According to him, the situation with confessors changed considerably over time with religious orders becoming more involved in assigning confessors to different groups by the time of the institutionalization of the penitents in the fourteenth century. More noted the complexity of the situation, explaining that the confessor-penitent relationships seem to have as many varieties as the penitents themselves. When Gustave Ineza asked how a confessor could be a handler if he could not violate the seal of confession, More responded that the interactions between these confessors and penitents were akin to spiritual direction in modern parlance rather than sacramental confession. Thompson added that even in the case of sacramental confession, the seal was not absolute if the penitent gave permission for the confessor to reveal what she had said.

While the conversation about the “other sister” must go on, this meeting proved to be a good stop along the road.


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