The Other Sister

The Other Sister is a research blog dedicated to the study of women who pursued forms of religious life outside of the cloister in medieval and early modern western Europe and New France. These women include but are not limited to beguines, tertiaries, penitents, pizzochere, bizzoche, beatas, lay sisters, recluses, Deo devote, oblates, and secular canonesses. They were especially numerous in cities and from a variety of social backgrounds, unlike their cloistered sisters who were from mostly noble and patrician backgrounds.

Although many non-cloistered religious women played significant roles in society, religiously and socially, they often appear marginal in traditional historiography. This is primarily due to a model that compartmentalizes women’s groups and imposes artificial categories on their lived experiences. The belief that there were only two options for pre-modern women, marriage or cloistered life (aut maritus aut murus), is still prevalent. For this reason, more collaborative research is necessary. 

We started this research group in Toronto in 2018-2019; it became international, thanks to a SSHRC grant (from the Canadian government) submitted in early 2020. Since then, some of the main organizers have changed but it remains a fundamentally collaborative and international group. By defining and contextualizing the experiences of non-cloistered religious women between the twelfth and eighteenth century, from Italy to New France, the research project, The Other Sister, establishes a necessary corrective to the standard historiographical picture. In this way, it helps to clarify the place of religious women in the Church and society.

The main goal of our research project is twofold:

  • To enhance the study of this important and global part of Christian history through workshops, thematic meetings, publications, colloquiums, editions, and this blog
  • To challenge the usual boundaries imposed on these non-cloistered religious women

We do not limit ourselves to regional studies; we believe it is key to think also about these women in pan-European and non-European perspectives. For this reason, we have included New France and, hope to include other regions of the world. 

We do not want to think about these women only in terms of one group, such as the beguines, but want to explore the similarities and differences that existed beyond the confines of labels.

Two questions animate this project: ‘Who were these women?’ and ‘What were their roles?’ From here, we can build a picture that allows us to understand the multifaceted aspects of their existence. We will:

  • Establish a methodology to reconstruct the individual experiences of devout women living outside ecclesiastical institutional structures
  • Rethink categories used to discuss feminine religious experience in both the Middle Ages and the early modern period
  • Explore the roles and functions of non-cloistered religious women by prioritizing links and continuities outside of traditional temporal or geographic boundaries 

Through our blog, The Other Sister disseminates the archival, historiographical, and geographical findings about non-cloistered women by the researchers. It sets the stage for an inclusive history of non-cloistered religious women in the Christian world between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries. In addition to giving these women a proper place in the historical record, The Other Sister has as its goal the creation of a medium for exchange and dialogue within and beyond the academic community. To this end, our blog aims to initiate and foster discussion. The posts provide information and present avenues for further research, while the ‘comments’ section welcomes insights and reflections from readers.

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