Searching for Secular Canonesses in Modern Literary Sources (Part I)

By Isabelle Cochelin

Some detours worth exploring to learn more about non-cloistered religious women include nineteenth-century novels, journal articles and memoirs evoking their past lives. I will focus here on their rendering of secular canonesses to whom another blog post and a thematic meeting have already been dedicated. Thanks to the great nobility of their families and their relative freedom of movement, one finds various, intriguing echoes of their past lives in modern literary sources. They often evoke a world of the past as the French Revolution put a definitive end to Catholic female Chapters in France and Belgium, possibly the only religious form of life that did not re-emerge there in the nineteenth century; it survived longer, however, in regions where it did not suffer dissolution, as we will see for Prague. With this blog post and one to follow later, I hope to convince scholars to look for more of such literary sources. Often written by lay authors, their point of view is not informed by knowledge of ecclesiastical norms – too often resulting in a distortion of facts to highlight or downplay differences between practices and norms. These literary sources also give a much welcome secular point of view on the non-cloistered religious women.

Fig. 1: École française du XVIIIe siècle. Marie Suzanne de Bremond d’Ars, with the insignia of a canoness.

The novel L’enfant du prieuré ou la chanoinesse de Metz (« The priory child or the Metz canoness »), written by Élisabeth Guénard, baroness of Méré, and published in two volumes in 1802, might contain some echoes of the author’s own life: one of the female characters, for instance, marries a much older man when she is a very young woman and another marries her cousin. Guénard had married her eighty-eight-year-old cousin around the age of twenty-three. The information in the novel on the life of a secular canoness, however, is so scant that the author most probably did not know much about it. It is telling that no information is given about the inside of the Chapter of Metz; the reader is never invited within this space. Unlike the “priory child” with whom she shares the title, the canoness only appears very episodically in the story. It seems that the status of this character was chosen because a secular canoness had the freedom to travel around – she goes once to Reims, another time to Paris — but also could stay retired from the world for long stretches of time – a pattern that fits well with the life of the canoness of Remiremont we will meet in the next blog. These facts about secular canonesses’ life must have been well known to the laity. Linked to these periods of retreat, the character who is a secular canoness once presents herself as a “poor recluse” (volume II, p. 16). This said, the author knew well that, in the town itself where the community was located– here, Metz –, it was possible for the canonesses to come and go freely during the day: the Metz canoness is known to return to her dwelling at night, usually around 10 pm (I, p.134; II, p.18) and, in some circumstances, to leave it as early as 8 am (II, p.18)! I doubt we should give too much credence to such a schedule, but it represents the canonesses’ freedom of movement within the locality where their Chapter is situated. It must have also been known that the canonesses could leave their community for good. The Metz canoness did so at the end of the novel in order to live with her son and his young wife.

Probably the most striking aspect of the secular canonesses’ way of life that is offered by the novel is the beauty of some of their religious feasts; the information seems to be credible, maybe because the author saw at least one such event. The manager of the hotel where the hero is staying in Metz recommends such a ceremony to him:

… as tomorrow is the St Clotilde, there is a great office for the first vespers; I encourage you to go. It is one of the nicest possible sights to see all these ladies with their large velvet cape, trimmed with ermine. There are some, I must admit, who are as beautiful as angels… [“et comme c’est demain Ste.-Clotilde, il y a grand office pour les premières vêpres; je vous engage à y aller. C’est un des plus beaux coups-d’œil possible, que de voir toutes ces dames avec leur grand manteau de velour garni d’hermine; il y a en a, ma foi, qui sont jolies comme des anges”]

Given that the author rarely enters into the detail of her characters’ clothing, the ones worn by the canonesses for their religious services must have been striking. Figure 1 is the portrait of a Metz canoness. One can also infer from this passage that the canonesses were not all attending the offices in common every day, as the beauty of this ceremony, in the words of the hotel manager, was partly due to its infrequency. During this service, the laity were able to see the canonesses (and, vice-versa, be seen by them), as if they were on display, which would have been unusual for cloistered nuns. Finally, even though the author seemed to have known little about the world of the canonesses, she probably had a soft spot for it; indeed, two other characters take the habit in two different orders, but they are not as well liked – one, who ends his life doing penance in the Servite Order, is even depiscable — while Elisabeth, the Metz canoness, is depicted in the most positive light. The nobility of the author might explain her parti pris but given that her family had not been prestigious enough to have had one of its female members enter such a community, this explanation is insufficient.

There are other novels discussing canonesses but the ones I found so far were written much later and their authors could not, thus, have had first-hand knowledge of this way of life.[1] One magazine article, not signed (as was often the case in Victorian journals), is dedicated to two Chapters of secular canonesses in Prague. Entitled “About chanoinesses” and published in The Saint Paul’s magazine, it dates from July 1870, the last month Anthony Trollope was the editor of the journal. It seems to have been reproduced at least twice in America. Based on the slightly condescending tone of the author of the article, I am inclined to think they were male but I will use the non-binary “they” just in case.

Fig. 2: Henriette, Countess of Huyn, Second assistant, c.1896. Karl Köpl, Geschichte Des K K Freiweltlich Adeligen Damenstiftes Zu Den Heiligen Engeln In Prag, 1901, p.160

Their encounter with canonesses had occurred more than forty years earlier, in the 1830s, in the Bohemian capital. In Prague there were two Catholic Chapters, one founded in 1701, called the Freiweltlich adeligen Damenstift zu den heiligen Engeln (a name translated by the author as “The free-noble-institute of Lay Canonesses to the Holy Angels” and in a 2018 article by Michaela Žáková by “The New Town Holy Angels Institute”), and the other in 1755, called the k.k. theresianischen adeligen Damenstiftes am Prager Schlosse (rendered by the author as the “Imperial Royal Theresian Stift for Noble Ladies in the Castle of Prague” but, in the 2018 article, by “The Theresian Foundation for Noblewomen at Prague Castle”). Here, as in some other regions in central and eastern Europe, female Chapters continued to exist into the nineteenth century, sometimes even as Protestant houses. This is proof, if any was needed, that they relied heavily on the higher nobility and royalty from whom their members and their funding came, and only partially on the Church. The author of the article details the two Chapters’ ties with the highest circles of society, with the more recent chapter, the Theresian foundation, being possibly the most prestigious Chapter in Europe. I chose to focus on other topics treated in the article that would have also been representative of Chapters in the eighteenth century, if not earlier.

As already hinted at in the novel discussed above, contemporaries were quite fascinated by the canonesses’ external appearance. The first sentence of the article evokes the insignia of the oldest Chapter: a medal, also called an order by the author, and worn on the “bosom”, and a black and gold band over the body (p. 376 and Fig. 2); the other Chapter had the same insignia, except that the band was white and gold (p. 381) and the medals differed (p. 381). The dresses of the first were a “black silk gown” (p. 378) while the second had “black cloaks richly trimmed with ermine, and caps à la Marie Stuart” (p. 380); they wore these whenever they took “part in any official or church ceremony, or grand festivity” (p. 378). These descriptions fit well with Fig. 1 of a Metz canoness where we can also see a cap (sometimes called a mari!), a white and blue band, a medal (or order) on the breast, a black silk dress and ermine fur. Fig. 2 is a portrait dated c.1896 of the second assistant to the Oberinn (the name of the head of the oldest Chapter in Prague). Even though it is some sixty years after the encouters described in the article “About chanoinesses”, I doubt that there had been significant changes in the canonesses’ appearance (could the half-bare arms be a novelty?). What attracted the author most was the very young canonesses, so this picture is fitting.

There was obviously an important element of performativity in the life of the canonesses, manifested not only through their clothes but also in their well-chosen public appearances, in churches but also in lay society. Since 1791, the abbess of the Theresian Chapter was the one to crown the queen of Bohemia. Fig. 3 represents one such abbess, the Archduchess Maria Annunziata (as can be read below the 1901 photograph); she was the last abbess, who ruled from 1894 until the closing of the establishment in 1918.

Fig. 3: Archduchess Maria Annunziata, Abbess, 1901. Photo by Jindřich Eckert. Wikimedia Commons.

All the abbesses of the Prague Castle Chapter were archduchesses. Notice as well the title “Countess of Huyn (Gräfïn Huy)” of Fig. 2 and the note on Fig. 1 that the woman depicted was “Marie Susanne of Bremond of Ars, daughter of the high and powerful lord Charles of Bremond, marquess of Ars”: secular canonesses often used their family names, thus highlighting their individual status, notwithstanding their membership in a community; such behavior would have given additional visibility and prestige to their family. This said, it is these women themselves whom we see represented through these paintings and pictures, adorned with their insignia and titles. Further west, the status of secular canoness allowed them even at times to be called princesses, countesses or some other noble title, independently from their family titles – in the Chapter of Remiremont, discussed in the next blog post, all canonesses were called countesses, even if they had been princesses.

The building in which the canonesses of the older Chapter lived is also described at length in the article. This time, unlike in the novel, the reader is permitted to enter into a community as the author had obviously visited the site. It is possible that the secular canonesses’ freedom fluctuated through time and that, in the 1830s, it was somewhat greater than in the eighteenth century, with, for instance, easier access to their communities (p. 378). Still, even if the extent of it changed, some freedom of access was typical of the Chapters from the late Middle Ages onwards. The canonesses in Prague did not each have their own house within the enclosure, as was often the case in Chapters further west (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Individual houses of nuns who later took the name of secular canonesses in the eighteenth century. Blesle (Auvergne). Photo by Isabelle Cochelin)

The canonesses of the oldest Chapter in Prague lived in individual apartments of two to three rooms each, on the first and second floors of an ex-monastery. I suppose Fig. 5, a photograph of their lodging in 1901, depicts the same site that had been given to them by Empress Maria-Theresa in the mid eighteenth century and mentioned by our author.

The ground floor was devoted to service, consisting mostly of male servants, another proof of the wealth and nobility of the institution. Each canoness had in addition her own female servants (p. 379). The spatial and domestic arrangement of the other Chapter in Prague is not described in as many details but is said to have been similar, except for the fact that it was situated in the wing of the old palace, given by the same Empress Maria-Theresa (p. 380 and Fig. 5). Nothing very luxurious, considering that they were from the highest nobility, but a space of their own, nevertheless. And the view must have been stupendous…

Fig. 6: Adolph Merklas Fesca, “The Theresian Stift on the Hradschin” (based on a painting by Karl Wenzel Würbs). Wikipedia Commons.

The freedom of the secular canonesses to move outside of their Chapter (except during their novitiate) was obviously another striking characteristic for the author of the article “About chanoinesses” but their tone is one of surprise, not of irritation or condemnation; this is important as the ecclesiastical authors often had a very different position on this issue. The freedom of movement of the canonesses is touched upon already in the first lines of the article and the author often returns to it. The canonesses were able to go to balls, spend time outside of their community, and even leave to get married. It seems to me that the author believed such departures for marriage happened quite often until (as explained in a footnote) an 1855 book informed them that, in the noblest Chapter of Prague, only a proportion of two out of every seven canonesses left to get married in the one hundred years since the foundation.[2] The question is whether or not the same low percentage existed in other communities. The Theresian institution was for women of the highest nobility who were already 24 years old (unless orphaned and then, 18) upon entrance and whose family had financial problems.[3] In the other Prague Chapter, the newcomers had to be at least 16 (and less than 30) years old when admitted, without the requirement of financial problems; in these conditions, maybe more left to get married? Not so obvious: in the memoirs describing the Chapter of Remiremont discussed in the next blog post, the author claims that few left for marriage and, indeed, only one of her five aunts who were canonesses did so; even more interesting, this memorialist presents this low percentage as a matter of choice, not necessity (Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle, “Souvenirs”, p. 247 and 254). This is probably understandable as the author of the article “About chanoinesses” underlines that these women had the freedom of movement of married women without the inconvenience of husbands. I would add that their prestigious families, by placing them in a Chapter, probably intended to diminish the risks of mésalliance that would have tarnished their names: their daughters had some freedom of movement, and therefore fewer reasons to run away with someone inappropriate to express their own will. Moreover, there were fellow canonesses surrounding them who were keen to avoid scandal to their community.

These women were, indeed, living close to each other when they were not traveling, as shown in Figs. 4, 5 and 6. The last point I would like to make in relation to the “About chanoinesses” article is its author’s claim that the oldest Prague Chapter had something of a “republican character” in its mode of functioning (unlike the wealthier, more recent and nobler one, closely overseen by the empress and, later, the emperors) – a point that might explain the two-time re-printing of this article in late nineteenth-century USA. The secular canonesses of the oldest Chapter would vote on almost all admissions of newcomers and on the nomination of the Oberinn and her assistants (p. 380). I will come back to this fundamental issue more at length in the next post.

[1] Gabrielle Anne Cisterne de Courtiras Saint-Mars, Une chanoinesse. Paris: P. Pemrain, 1852 and André Theuriet, La chanoinesse 1789-1793. Paris  Nelson, Éditeurs, 1900. Both authors insist on the freedom of movement of the canonesses. Even more recent : Noëlle Dedeyan, La dame secrète. Woippy : Éditions Serpenoise, 2002.

[2] The author did not give their source but the Catalogues and Databases of the National Library of the Czech Republic allowed me to find it: Ferdinand Jitschinsky. Kurze Darstellung der Gründung und des Bestandes des k.k. theresianischen adeligen Damenstiftes am Prager Schlosse bis auf die gegenwärtige Zeit, nebst den wichtigsten geschichtlichen Momenten zu dessen hundertjähriger Grundsjubelfeier im Jahre 1855. Prague: Gottlieb Haase Söhne, 1855, p.20-21. Over one hundred years, Jitschinski counted 122 canonesses.

[3] Michaela Žáková. “The Theresian Foundation for Noblewomen at Prague Castle. The Institution, its Female Members and Aristocratic Philanthropy”, in Changes of the Noble Society. Aristocracy and New Nobility in the Habsburg Monarchy and Central Europe from the 16th to the 20th Century, ed. by Jiri Brnovják and Jan Županic, Prague: Ostrava, 2018, p. 189-200.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Meghan Lescault (September 1, 2022). Searching for Secular Canonesses in Modern Literary Sources (Part I). The Other Sister. Retrieved July 25, 2024 from

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