The Other Sister research seminar: secular canonesses

By Meghan Lescault

On January 14, 2022, The Other Sister research group held a seminar on the topic of secular canonesses. Three invited speakers presented some of their work on the subject, which had been circulated to all participants prior to the meeting:

  • Sigrid Hirbodian, “Religious Women: Secular Canonesses and Beguines,” in The Oxford Handbook of Christian Monasticism, edited by Bernice M. Kaczynski. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020;
  • and “Weibliche Herrschaft – männliche Herrschaft? Stiftsdamen und –herren im Vergleich,” in Frauenstifte – Männerstifte (Schriften zur südwestdeutschen Landeskunde), edited by Oliver Auge, Sigrid Hirbodian, and Friederike Schnack. Ostfildern: Thorbecke Verlag, forthcoming in 2022. (An English summary of the secondary article can be found here.)
  • Eva Schlotheuber, “Pilgrims, the Poor, and the Powerful: The Long History of the Women of Nivelles,” in The Liber ordinarius of Nivelles (Houghton Library, MS Lat 422): Liturgy as Interdisciplinary Intersection, edited by Jeffrey H. Hamburger and Eva Schlotheuber, 35–96. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020.
  • Steven Vanderputten, “They Lived Under That Rule as Do Those Who Have Succeeded Them: Simultaneity and Conflict in the Foundation Narratives of a French Women’s Convent,” The Downside Review 139, no. 1 (2021): 82–97.
  • For more information on the topic, please refer to Vanderputten’s new book: Steven Vanderputten, Dismantling the Medieval: Early Modern Perceptions of a Female Convent’s Past (Turnhout: Brepols, 2021). Open access link:

Sigrid Hirbodian, Director of the Institut für Geschichtliche Landeskunde und Historische Hulfswissenschaften at the Universität Tübingen, framed her presentation in terms of three questions, the first being what are secular canonesses? She answered that they are religious women, mostly from noble families, whose way of life was characterized by the practice of the vita communis and the absence of strict enclosure. They did not take permanent vows, could leave to get married, and had their own private income through their prebends. Hirbodian noted that unlike the beguines, the secular canonesses celebrated the Divine Office, which stood at the center of their religious life. In answer to the second question, which concerned the religious self-image of the canonesses, Hirbodian explained that they seemed to perceive themselves both as sanctimoniales and as the female equivalent of secular canons, all the while being aware that they led a special way of religious life in between the religious and secular spheres. She pointed out that the canonesses of St. Stephen’s in Strasbourg manifested this understanding of themselves in a rotulus of 1359 in which they emphasized the secular components of their life in order to make clear that they were neither nuns nor regular canonesses. As her third and final question, Hirbodian asked whether there were differences between the secular canonesses and canons. She has found that the two were quite similar in many ways but that a marked divergence was the greater adherence to the vita communis on the part of the female communities, due especially to the inability of the women to accumulate prebends, a common practice of the men. Hirbodian explained that secular canonesses and canons had equal standing and ability in terms of organizing finances and exercising power over subjects. It was the office not the individual, that mattered, and it was not until the Reformation that the ability of an abbess to lead a church was questioned.

Eva Schlotheuber, Chair of Medieval History at the Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf, began by introducing the Abbey of Nivelles, which was founded in the middle of the seventh century by Itta, the widow of Pepin the Elder, and her daughter, Gertrude, a typical foundation of an aristocratic widow working with Irish missionaries. Schlotheuber explained that this community developed into the Chapter of Nivelles with forty-three canonesses and thirty canons under the leadership of an abbess. The chapter cared for strangers, the poor, widows, and orphans, operating multiple hospitals for almost 1200 years. At the same time, Nivelles was closely connected to the Merovingian, Carolingian, and Ottonian dynasties, and the abbess had the status of the most powerful territorial ruler in the region for centuries. Schlotheuber noted that the secular canonesses were not the only type of religious women in Nivelles. The beguines had a presence there and managed hospitals as well. In fact, it seems to be the case that Nivelles was hospitable to the beguines precisely because of the social and religious environment created by the canonesses. Schlotheuber then discussed the Liber ordinarius of Nivelles, which has been explored in recent years following its purchase from a private collector in 2009. Schlotheuber explained that this book, containing documents and records of Nivelles as well as liturgical customs, was produced in response to a conflict that reached its peak in the 1230s. The immediate question at issue was whether the abbey should retain its self-governing status despite having no political protection, as the chapter thought fitting, or whether it should be under the protection of the Duke of Brabant despite losing some of its freedom, as the abbess thought best. The underlying question, however, was who or what constituted the church of Nivelles—the abbess or the chapter. Schlotheuber noted that the chapter ultimately prevailed and limited the power of the abbess, who although continuing to represent the Abbey of Nivelles, was nevertheless accountable to the chapter.

Steven Vanderputten, Senior Full Professor in the Department of History at Ghent University, began by explaining his realization that scholars’ interactions with the early medieval primary source material related to religious women are largely dependent upon the handling of the sources by these women’s early modern successors. This, together with the fact that little work has been done on this phenomenon, inspired Vanderputten to investigate how a community’s early modern perception of its medieval past could be influenced by ruptures and transitions over the course of its existence. He was also interested in studying early modern memory culture through the lens of gender, and in particular, “women’s agency in the politics of memory.” Vanderputten found that institutions of canonesses provided an ideal case study. While early modern secular canonesses often emphasized the differences between themselves and their medieval predecessors due to a combination of internal and external factors, including centuries of clerical criticism and the local belief that these communities were originally cloistered, they simultaneously gave pride of place to continuity, linking themselves especially to the founders of their communities and their first inhabitants. He explained that his work on the Abbey of Bouxières is an even more specific case study, as he thought a micro-historical approach best to examine the topic of canonesses’ memory culture. This allowed for a detailed view of how women lived in and experienced an eighteenth-century house with elements and spaces from the fifteenth and twelfth centuries. Vanderputten gave some examples of ways in which the canonesses embraced continuity with their predecessors, including the story of a ca. late-seventeenth-century painting that hung in the abbatial church and displayed important moments from the abbey’s foundation story. He also provided instances of ruptures, one such being that the early modern canonesses disposed of the abbey’s archival charters related to individuals whom they no longer remembered.

Following the presentations, the floor opened for a discussion amongst all participants. As with many research seminars of The Other Sister, questions of identity and categorization featured prominently. When a question arose concerning evidence of very early canonesses, Vanderputten and Schlotheuber concurred that the categorization of religious communities before 800 is not realistic, and Vanderputten noted that it remains difficult to label groups as Benedictines or canonesses even afterwards. He offered an alternative method of assessment by which we can look at individual communities of religious women and see how they were organized, how they interacted with their surrounding environments, and what type of function they had in society. Schlotheuber offered the categories of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa for religious women. As an example of the vita activa, she mentioned groups of women, such as the secular canonesses, who operated schools and hospitals. In response to a question about the fittingness of using the vita activa, rather than the private ownership of goods, as a distinguishing feature of secular canonesses, Vanderputten argued that terms such as “nun” and “canoness” reflect normative concepts from normative sources and are not necessarily indicative of the reality of the women to whom they refer. He gave examples of Benedictine women receiving a prebend and canonesses having a mensa conventualis, the reverse of what one would expect in normative terms. He offered the reminder that ecclesiastical authorities could legislate in a way that did not reflect the reality of the communities, and he thus underlined the necessity of looking at the local realities and expectations of these women.

Another question touched upon these same topics—is it possible to arrive at one definition of secular canonesses given their many differences over time and space? Hirbodian remarked that the answer to this question could be “very easy or very complicated,” but that the truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle. It would be easy simply to say that secular canonesses do not belong to any religious order but rather follow the Regula Aquisgranensis and have their own statutes, that they retain their personal possessions, and that they do not take perpetual vows and may leave the community. The complicated aspect comes in, however, because the above attributes are theory, but in practice, every community has its own particularities, according to Hirbodian. She offered the reminder that we have to see how the women thought of themselves. Schlotheuber built upon this idea by offering the notion that we could look at two aspects of the canonesses—their internal structure and their religious life. She noted that the internal structure can vary widely from one community to another. Vanderputten also warned here of the dangers of over-categorizing and offered a few examples of external pressure potentially altering the identity of canonesses. He explained that from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward, ecclesiastical authorities could put pressure on communities of canonesses to place themselves in one strict category or another. He also discussed how the canonesses’ constitutions in the early modern period might suggest some self-conscious attempts to conform to the image of them held by the surrounding society.

While these questions primarily examined the identity of the secular canonesses, an additional question furthered the discussion by asking what kind of demands of society required such an institution/identity to exist for many centuries apart from the flexibility of the internal structure, as the speakers had previously mentioned. Hirbodian explained it in terms of two desires on the part of the nobility. One was their need for a place to send their daughters while still being able to retrieve them for marriage later, if need be. The second relates to the exclusive social status associated with these institutions. Placing a daughter there meant that you belonged to a certain high-level social group. On a different note, Schlotheuber discussed the case of Nivelles in which the importance of the canonesses there was closely tied up with their hospital service. Vanderputten addressed both of these ideas. He first mentioned letters of abbesses written in 1790 and 1791 in which they defended themselves against the dissolution of their institutions by emphasizing their economic generosity with hospitals and the poor. He then underlined Hirbodian’s point about communities of canonesses as pre-marriage holding places for daughters of nobles, and he added that not only the institution, but the prebends themselves, were thought to belong to the nobility.

While we may not always be able to categorize the other sister, we can surely identify secular canonesses as a fascinating research topic that merits further investigation.

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