The Other Sister Research Seminar: Iberian Non-Cloistered Religious Women

By Gustave Ineza and Meghan Lescault

On May 7, 2021, The Other Sister research group hosted a seminar on the topic of Iberian non-cloistered religious women. Three invited speakers presented their research and discussed some of their specific projects which the participants had the chance to examine prior to the meeting:

  • Núria Jornet Benito, Claustra, http://www.ub.edu/claustra/eng/info; Spiritual Landscapes, http://www.ub.edu/proyectopaisajes/index.php; and Monastic Landscapes, https://www.ub.edu/proyectomonastic/en/.
  • Pablo Acosta-García, “Radical Succession: Hagiography, Reform, and Franciscan Identity in the Convent of the Abbess Juana de la Cruz (1481–1534),” Religions 12, no. 3 (2021), https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030223; and “En viva sangre bañadas: Caterina da Siena y las vidas de María de Ajofrín, Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo y otras santas vivas castellanas,” Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà, 33 (2020): 143–172. (An English summary of the second article can be found here.)
  • Amanda L. Scott, The Basque Seroras: Local Religion, Gender, and Power in Northern Iberia, 1550–1800 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020).

Núria Jornet Benito, Professor of Library Science and Documentation at the Universitat de Barcelona, presented the results and challenges of a series of collaborative projects undertaken by a team of researchers interested in feminine spirituality. The work on the topography of feminine spirituality led to the Claustra project, the principal result of which was a map that catalogued spaces of female spirituality between the twelfth and the fifteenth century in the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula and southern Italy. The points on the map give access to a catalogue file containing historical, archaeological, and architectural data about different religious groups through these centuries, including groups of non-cloistered women. Jornet Benito then discussed how a second project, Spiritual Landscapes, provided a new framework for engaging with the spatial turn in the study of female spirituality. It places monasteries in terms of their surroundings with a broad cartographic focus. The use of digital tools played a major role, as the team was able to pinpoint the exact locations of monasteries and their estates, analyze trends in their properties, and use geographical information systems (GIS) to systematize methodologies for the analysis of monastic documents, such as cartularies. The project allowed the researchers to recreate the internal topography of monasteries and to analyze objects and their functions in relation to spaces. They have also been able to engage in the analysis of networks, for example, the networks between mother houses and reformed monasteries. The third and current project, Monastic Landscapes, engages with the performative turn through the study of the ritual, liturgical drama, and processions of monasteries. It also focuses on the study of monastic sites and excavations of monasteries from an archaeological perspective.

Pablo Acosta-García, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, unfortunately was unable to attend to meeting. His presentation was read by Sergi Sancho Fibla, postdoctoral researcher at the Université catholique de Louvain. Acosta-García explained that the articles that he shared for this meeting are part of a larger project (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Late Medieval Visionary Women’s Impact in Early Modern Castilian Spiritual Tradition, Grant Agreement 842094), the second and current phase of which involves evaluating the impact that writings had on religious communities and on reforms promoted by Cardinal Cisneros. He noted that certain penitential and devotional characteristics of the Castilian religious women include the development of an extreme religious phenomenology, including the production of new mystical literature, and he argued that their reliance on previous models of sanctity indicates the medieval dissemination of hagiographic narratives and religious writing by European women in Castile. What Acosta-García did was to show that Cisneros worked to disseminate these models for female religious at the same time that he was promoting his reform of female religious houses. When Cisneros implemented his reform, he had some of those works by or on mystical women, such as Catherine of Siena, Angela of Foligno, and Mechthild of Hackeborn printed and made available to a larger audience. Acosta-García noted the use of specific narratives taken from Catherine of Siena’s hagiography in writings on Iberian women. Moreover, he discussed the first instance of hagiography on the Franciscan abbess Juana de la Cruz as a good example of what Gabriella Zarri called “scrittura communitaria.” In this account the community of the Convent of Santa Maria in Cubas de la Sagra (Toledo) created their own chronicle of the convent from the point of view of the reform. In this sense their abbess is seen not only as a charismatic figure, but also as a model of extreme penance. Issues about the identity of these “cloistered tertiaries” were also mentioned.

Amanda L. Scott, Assistant Professor of History at the Pennsylvania State University, spoke about her research on Early Modern Basque seroras, women who were neither married nor nuns and were hired to care for church property and to assist with the liturgy. Uncloistered seroras typically served in pairs. Although these women numbered in the thousands, even surpassing the numbers of male secular clergy in the same area, they have received little attention from scholars. Scott explained that the seroras led celibate lives but took no vows and could leave their positions at any time. She noted that they had more autonomy and independence than other women as a result of compromises made between them and church officials regarding acceptable places for women. Their compromises also allowed them to last into the eighteenth century and beyond in some cases. Scott described their distinct role, which was well established and prestigious in the Basque dioceses: the seroras went through a process of examination and licensing and received clerical immunity, housing, and a competitive stipend paid in alms or by the priest of the parish where they served. Scott gave an overview of her book on the subject and discussed the following themes that the topic of the seroras can help us to navigate: the impact of local circumstances on the development of the devout lay life, the impact of religious and secular reforms on female religious life, compensation for women’s work, and instances of inconsistency in the application of religious reform. She also presented pictures of the houses in which the seroras lived, called serorias, which were located very close to the churches where they worked.

A stimulating discussion followed these presentations. The very familiar topics of terminology and identity, which have animated previous seminars, returned as prominent themes in the conversation, this time in relation to Iberian non-cloistered women. In response to a question about the potential problems involved in the identification of communities of beatas who became nuns, Jornet Benito explained that difficulties arose in the creation of the atlas because there was no documentation when a group of women made such a transition and because a plurality of names existed for some groups. Delfi Nieto, a fellow member of the project with Jornet Benito, elaborated on this point, adding that one individual woman could be called a beguine, tertiary, or other names depending on who is writing and how she is known. Nieto explained that for this reason, the team decided to refer to these kinds of women collectively as mulieres religiosae and to assign a specific group identity only to those who were explicitly identified as such. Scott related the confusion of terminology to the seroras, noting that they were described as beatas or even nuns in some documents. She clarified, however, that this discrepancy may have been the product of an on-the-spot translation from Basque to Castilian by bilingual notaries.

One particular facet of identity, that of canonical status, was addressed by Alison More. Expressing an interest in the topic of Tridentine reform and its importance for the seroras, More asked Scott if they had a status in canon law, what authority they had, and from whom they would have received such authority. Scott explained that while localities and dioceses both claimed to have authority over the seroras, it remains an unresolved conflict. She noted that the seroras, did, however, have ecclesiastical immunity.

Related to the question of identity is the question of influence, and this topic, a notable aspect of Acosta-García’s work, was introduced to the discussion when Isabelle Cochelin asked about the current of influence moving from Italy to Spain in terms of the beatas who existed prior to Cisneros’ reform. Sancho Fibla answered with reference to Acosta-García’s article that the living figures of the Observant Movement were greatly influenced by Italian models due to Cisernos’ promotion of them. He added that besides this he cannot see the clear influence of Italian spirituality before the early fifteenth century. Jodi Bilinkoff reminded the group about the possibility of an intermediate translation of a text such as Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue: given Valencia’s proximity to Italy, perhaps the text was first translated from Italian to Valencian and subsequently brought westwards and translated into Castilian. Nieto offered the clarification that the first current of influence flowed southwards from the Occitan territories across the Pyrenees into Spain. She explained that the Catalan sources of southern France spoke of beguines but simultaneously called them beatas and that this term crossed over into Iberia. Nieto specified that the Italian influence did not appear until the later Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Sylvie Duval further clarified that the influence of Italy, and specifically of Catherine of Siena, on the Castilian women must be understood in the context of the Observant reform in which Cisneros was paradoxically using the life of Catherine, a mantellata, as a model for the reform of the Spanish convents.

The discussion regarding the seroras, on the other hand, touched on their role as the influencers rather than the influenced. In response to a question about whether the seroras could be used as instruments of the Church to promote reform, Scott noted that parishioners citing Tridentine reforms as justification in conflict with their priests (despite general ignorance of what the decrees actually said) were likely repeating what they had heard from the seroras, who would have picked up on some aspects of the reform from the documents of the synods of Navarre that were sent to every parish. She clarified that despite their possible function as a mouthpiece for reform, the seroras were more of a stabilizing, rather than reforming, presence. Scott discussed how it would have been regarded as a disruption to reform the seroras due to the nature of their positions. For example, the seroras had an advantage in being well-informed about the misbehavior of priests and were often called upon by dioceses to testify in cases involving clerical misconduct. Moreover, in describing how the seroras were able to survive as a group, Scott explained that rather than being seen as unattached religious women with spiritual associations, the seroras were considered as diocesan employees with a “normal, boring job,” one, however, that would be destructive to the church if removed.

While the seroras may have embraced normal, boring jobs, this discussion further proved that the other sister, specifically in her Iberian form, is far from normal and boring.


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