All posts by Isabelle Cochelin

Associate Professor, Department of History and Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto.

Book Culture

by Devon Sherwood

On February 23, 2024, The Other Sister held a thematic meeting on the topic of book culture among non-cloistered religious women. Works from the invited speakers had been circulated prior to the meeting.

  • John Van Engen (University of Notre Dame) gave a short introduction.
  • Barbara Newman (Northwestern University), “Mechthild of Magdeburg at Helfta: A Study in Literary Influence,” in Women Intellectuals and Leaders in the Middle Ages, ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Katie Bugyis and John Van Engen, Cambridge, MA: D.S. Brewer, 2020, p. 383–95.
  • Diana Denissen (Université de Lausanne), “Literacies, Learning, and Communal Reform: The Case of Alijt Bake,” in Medieval Women Religious, c. 800–c. 1500. New Perspectives, ed. Kimm Curran and Janet Burton. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2023, p. 137–51.
  • Patricia Stoop (Universiteit Antwerp) for an article written with Anna Dlabačová, “Incunabula in Communities of Canonesses Regular and Tertiaries Related to the Devotio Moderna: Toward an ‘Inclusive’ Approach of Late Medieval Book Ownership in the Low Countries,” Quaerendo, 51 (3), 219–48.

As is customary, the four speakers first spoke for a few minutes.

John Van Engen (University of Notre Dame) discussed his 2020 publication, Women Intellectuals and Leaders in the Middle Ages (co-edited with Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Katie Ann-Marie Bugyis). He explained that the recent turn to inclusion in the history of women and a significant emphasis on the struggles of women inspired the editors to consider the roles of all women in religious history – those who struggled and those who did not. He highlighted the theme of “belonging” within religious communities as central to the study of women religious, emphasizing cultural, social, and religious inclusion. He concluded his introduction by sharing that Women Intellectuals focuses on this narrative of inclusion and development of community over time. Some similar themes have been highlighted in a recent review of the volume by Annette Volfing, in Speculum (2023), 898-899.

Barbara Newman (Northwestern University), discussed how the perspective explored in the volume Women Intellectuals focuses on the intellect of women religious. Her presentation emphasized how much fantastic research has come from approaching women religious in this way. Her chapter employs this lens to study Mechthild of Magdeburg, who, going blind, was invited to enter the Helfta monastery to complete the last book of her magnum opus, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, in dictation. Newman suggested that to be a writer was to work within a literary tradition. How, then, she asked, did women use their sources? What were their influences, how did they rebel, how did they influence others, and how did they understand and work within genres? Such questions are now givens serious consideration and new insights can come from an examination of how women writers responded to each other and to their predecessors: for example, Elizabeth of Schönau and Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Antwerp and her unnamed disciple, “Hadewijch II,” and Birgitta of Sweden and Margery Kempe have recently been studied. Newman’s chapter considers the “Two Mechthilds”: the visionary Mechthild of Magdeburg and her younger contemporary, Mechthild of Hackeborn, whom the elder Mechthild’s writing had inspired. Their cases are important because we rarely know so much about the contexts and conditions for medieval women’s writing. Newman explained that Low and High German are complex and that it can be difficult to trace discernible influences, such as remnants of court poetry, between texts written in the vernacular. For example, Mechthild of Magdeburg used the Goddess figure in her writing. While Mechthild of Hackeborn also used the same figure, she employed it via Latin masculine conventions, as with “love (amor) in the figure of a beautiful virgin,” thus obfuscating a direct link to the Goddess. Newman also referenced the possible influences of bridal mysticism, which has a long history of use and is significantly different from men’s mysticism, in Mechthild of Magdeburg’s texts. Differences are apparent between what Newman terms “servile-filial-bridal love” used in men’s mystic writing, in which God remains stable, and bridal mysticism in Mechthild of Magdeburg’s and Mechthild of Hackeborn’s texts, which depict God as filled with fierce desire. Mechthild of Magdeburg had to be moderated by the Helfta nuns due to her perceived excessive, erotic, and heterodox language. Her mysticism is very individual; theirs is communal. Newman also problematized the question of external virtues – while Mechthild of Magdeburg sheds them, the nuns of Helfta do not. Finally, Newman made a comparison between Mechthild of Magdeburg and Alijt Bake, the subject of the second speaker’s research. Both women lived extra-religious lives prior to entering nunneries. While Mechthild of Magdeburg did not know Latin and functioned exclusively in the vernacular, however, Bake was rebellious against the prospect of institutional learning and favoured prophetic revelation and book learning. Mechthild of Magdeburg needed assisted living; Bake was younger and drew concern about heresy, which she met with ferocity.

Diana Denissen (Université de Lausanne) discussed how her ideas since writing “Literacies, Learning, and Communal Reform: The Case of Alijt Bake” have evolved with her current research. She explored plural literacy as a continuum (e.g. oral vs. written, vernacular vs. Latin) and suggested that it is difficult to discuss literacy within women’s communities because of its many forms. The sister-books of Engelthal and Diepenveen contain evidence about how female religious translated or interpreted Latin texts during table readings, making texts available to all, regardless of levels of literacy.  Alijt Bake’s life further problematizes the concept of literacy and expresses a paradox about learning related to the tension between her intellectual skepticism/anti-intellectuality and her desire to read specific titles quickly to absorb as much information as possible. Denissen further considered the question of how books entered and left the convent, stating that both women religious and lay women moved books between communities. Her book chapter has become part of a broader project on spiritual autobiographies and biographical sketches incorporating interesting aspects of hagiography in sister books, and particularly on the relationship between social and intellectual networks that cross linguistic boundaries.

Patricia Stoop (Universiteit Antwerp) reiterated the previous speakers’ emphasis on collective and diverse forms of literacy and then discussed her co-authored article (with Anna Dlabačová), which grew out of Dlabačová’s research on ownership inscriptions from a printer in the Low Countries and Stoop’s similar work in Brussels. She contextualized their research by relating that, at the end of the eighteenth century, when the convent of Jericho was dissolved, a huge collection of books was discovered. Several incunabula were sold to other women, as mentioned in other contemporary archival documents. Yet, there is a massive gap between the claimed number of books and what remains. Early-modern book ownership needs to be studied as it is not as clear-cut as in the modern era. Certain Dutch lists of book ownership, copying, and transmission exist, but not for early printed books or manuscripts. The Devotio moderna movement had a huge impact on book production in the Low Countries. How did books come into convents? Were they purchased, bequeathed, or borrowed? What kind of texts were included? Were they new texts or copies? Stoop stated that the issue with this kind of research is that books are not systematically inventoried with ownership marks. She has begun to inventory books related to women religious in the Low Countries in the 1600s and researches how women were involved in the circulation of books, whether as authors, illuminators, or in other roles. She hopes that this will eventually lead to a broader understanding of intellectual culture across convents and institutions.


Joseph Akl moderated the Q&A period. The first question was from Isabelle Cochelin, who asked Newman and Denissen whether the women whom they study seem to have been sensitive to the issue of enclosure vs. non-enclosure. Newman answered that women often transitioned between groups (e.g. from being beguines or anchoresses to cloistered nuns). “We tend to build walls between orders,” she stated, “based on history written by religious men, but women tended to be more fluid and moved around much more than men or what men expected, but where you placed them wasn’t the question that mattered the most to these women.” Denissen added that Alijt Bake had a full life before entering a convent, and there seems to have been a text about her life before this point. She had friends among other groups, and Denissen wonders if she could have been an anchoress if she had been advised differently. Bake also appears to have experienced anxiety related to which convent would have suited her best – how did she want to express and live her spirituality? These tensions, preserved in her writing, reveal choice in the different paths for women religious.

Van Engen offered some additional contextual information about Bake’s life. She came from a privileged family and, after experiencing a deeply unpleasant unknown event in Utrecht, was directed to start over in a religious community further to the South. The section of her writing describing the event is missing (and was possibly confiscated from her at some point), but contextual information suggests that she wanted to teach, preach, and write and had already started doing this, potentially without permission. These threads are picked up in later sections of her writing as she explains how she became a woman religious, and she is reprimanded repeatedly for engaging in certain kinds of reading. Bake asserted herself as an intellectual figure whose writing could not be understood by some of her superiors. Van Engen suggested that it is possible she was deposed and exiled from Utrecht – letters written to friends ask for suggestions for her defence and bring up the possibility of an exile to Antwerp. Denissen asked Van Engen why Bake chose to relocate to Ghent and why she settled on this particular convent. Van Engen answered that Johannes Eckhart’s house was turned into a convent and that they offered to take Bake in. In fact, she was eventually made prioress (possibly by Eckhart himself) at a young age. Her removal from the position most likely occurred after his death. Stoop added that Bake suggests that she is unconvinced of the importance of texts and that spirituality should be learned elsewhere. Denissen responded that, on the contrary, texts were quite important to Bake. She also suggested that Bake’s commentary was a rebellion against certain forms of authority and possibly perceived as dangerous due to her visionary nature of textual production and drive to share knowledge with others, whether acceptable or not. Yet, she also had non-textual visionary experiences.

Next, Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski discussed the trajectory of Colette of Corbie’s vocational shift from anchoress to Observant Clarissan. She also considered the process of transition between manuscripts, incunabula, and early printed books, when texts were sometimes transcribed back into manuscripts. She asked Stoop’s opinion of this phenomenon. Stoop responded by considering why people began to copy printed books in manuscript forms. As an example, she brought up copying for annotation and as a spiritual exercise, also noting that some people might not have been able to afford a printed book, though she thinks that this is unlikely. Anna Dlabačová added other possibilities for manual transcription, such as the desire for a luxurious manuscript copy. She suggested that scholarship is only beginning to form understandings of these transitions since the trajectory from manuscript to printed book is often (wrongly) perceived as linear. Newman reiterated what other speakers had responded, focusing on what is lost in the transition from manuscript to printed book: hand-copying books is useful for intellectual and spiritual growth and to deeply internalize texts.

Bruce Venarde asked Newman about her evocation of a sanitization of Mechthild of Magdeburg’s writing. Who did Mechthild think would be reading her novel ideas, which incorporated so much originality? Newman responded that there was certainly an element of subversion at work since Helfta nuns were known to be proponents of the cult of the Sacred Heart. Newman suggested that Mechthild of Magdeburg’s book was for internal consumption since writing was a communal process. Dominican confessors also had a huge network, and Newman thinks that this is how the book was circulated, primarily in an abridged, Latin form, which allowed it to spread early beyond regional locations and outside purely religious contexts.

Akl asked, related to Venarde’s question, whether the symbolism of the heart as a door was used in the two Mechthilds’ texts. Newman responded that the cult of the Sacred Heart spread widely and that piety centred around the heart as a symbol of the interiority of Jesus and the Trinity, but she is unsure of whether illustrated copies exist and whether they are directly connected to the Helfta texts.

Michael Hahn asked Newman whether the shifts in bridal mysticism were part of a broader trend or specific to Helfta. Newman answered that the Helfta texts were particularly visible due to how prolific the nuns were in their writing. There was also a crossover between secular and religious ways of perceiving love and significant influence from courtly romance and troubadour poetry. This is shown in the notion of both parties as desiring love and becoming enmeshed in a turbulent relationship instead of as the soul making progress towards a stable and immovable God. John Arblaster evoked William of Saint-Thierry’s exposition on the Song of Songs: the mutuality between the heavenly bride and bridegroom, such as in the passage about the flowery bed, does not discuss desire, but points to a significant mutual passion expressed as kisses and joy. He also noted that the copying of texts was a devotional practice in itself and not only to familiarize oneself with the text.

Next, Cochelin returned to the issue of different denominations for women, suggesting that thinking in terms of orders is too limiting for women religious. Newman added the example of Juliana of Cornillon, who spent time in a leprosarium, which she tried to turn into an Augustinian priory, was exiled and moved between Cistercian monasteries without taking vows, then ended her life as an anchoress, suggesting that these transitions were more common than we might think. Stoop also specified that texts circulated easily across religious orders.

Stoop then asked Newman how far Mechthild of Magdeburg’s texts had circulated. Newman answered that her texts circulated much less than others at the time and that they mainly circulated in translation, reiterating that Latin texts enabled wider circulation.

Mercedes Pérez Vidal added an example to Stoop’s discussion of the circulation of texts between different religious communities. She mentioned a particular manuscript, a book on the Passion, copied by (and for) a Portuguese nun, which can be compared with manuscript copies of the Tleven ons Heren Ihesu Cristi, which circulated widely among communities of religious women in the Netherlands. As was the case in these communities, the Cistercian nuns of Lorvão also used incunabula alongside manuscripts.

Barbara Walters thanked Newman for her work and help with others’ research and mentioned Anneke Mulder-Bakker whose work was also instrumental.

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Book “Medieval Religious Women”

by Julia Cole and Devon Sherwood

On Friday, December 15th, The Other Sister met for a discussion of Medieval Religious Women, c. 800-1500, ed. Kimm Curran and Janet Burton (Boydell, 2023). Kimm Curran, Janet Burton, Cate Gunn, and Alison More joined us to discuss their contributions (listed below) to this exciting new publication. The thematic session was organized by Delfi Nieto-Isabel and Mary Doyno.

  • Kimm Curran and Janet Burton, “Introduction,” p. 1-21.
  • Alison More, “Change and Renewal: Mendicants and Tertiaries in Later Medieval Europe,” p. 61-75.
  • Cate Gunn, “On the Fringes: Anchorites,” p. 76-89.

Janet Burton, Professor of Medieval History at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter, and co-editor of the volume, was the first speaker. She recalled how she and Kimm Curran commissioned essays for the volume after the initial rejection of their proposed volume topic. This disappointment galvanized them and allowed them to rethink traditional narratives as they pertain to medieval religious women. The texts themselves includes an extensive temporal range, beginning with the councils of Aachen (816-17), and ending c. 1500. Burton points out, however, that movements differed regionally and that the same thematic approaches cannot be applied to all geographic regions in the same way.

Next, Kimm Curran, an independent researcher based in Scotland, and co-editor of the volume, echoed Burton in sharing their desire to produce a book that would break down barriers between those in formal institutional communities and those who existed outside of them but who still lived a religious lifestyle. She noted commonalities between the two groups in addition to acknowledging women’s search for identity within the environments of new orders and transition between groups, illustrating the issues inherent in anachronistic categorization. Decisions about the choice of words were at the forefront of their minds as they worked on the volume, with a preference for ‘women religious’ or ‘sister’ over ‘nun’. Similarly, Curran emphasized their avoidance of the term ‘nunnery’. Alongside their contributors, they navigated the challenging issue of language and adjusted to more inclusive terminology. In its final form, the multi-disciplinary book represents topics such as women’s agency, authority, identities, literacies, and materialities, and reflects the diversity of its multi-disciplinary contributors.

Alison More, Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of St Michael’s College, University of Toronto, added to the discussion on terminology. She pointed out that terms themselves do not mean anything other than what you choose them to mean. Her chapter discusses the emergence of a spiritual revolution, which people sought out and participated in with fervor. She highlighted the diversity of religious women, even within the category of ‘tertiary’, a label that she suggested warrants further investigation. Finally, Professor More spoke about the fact that many of the women in her study do not fit neatly into institutional parameters; rather, they sought out ‘do-it-yourself religion’.

Next, Cate Gunn, an independent researcher with a focus on medieval English literature, religious literature, and medieval devotional culture, spoke. She explained that the question, ‘how do we talk about female anchorites?’ guided her study. She sought to question their marginality and explore where and how they lived. During her talk, she, too, returned to the issue of medieval categorization and specific identity. She paints the anchorites that she studies as spiritually, textually, and physically impactful to their landscapes, even given the extreme form of religious life carried out in such as small cell. Serving this role, anchorites were necessary to their communities since they served as proxies for spiritual matters and carried out meaningful functions through prayer while also generally reflecting the values of medieval society by means of anchoritic life.

The Q&A period touched upon a number of themes including further inquiry into the classification, organization, and self-identification of specific groups, the problematization of terminology as related to translation in different languages, evidence of cultural exchange and similarities between disparate groups, and transitions between groups over time. Furthermore, speakers and participants discussed relationships within and between groups, leading to a broader discussion about the social practices of anchorites and different experiences of liminality and marginality. In addition, the speakers answered several questions specific to their contributions, providing essential context for ongoing discussions about the experiences of women religious in a variety of geographical regions.

Mary Doyno posed the first question to Alison More, asking if she felt that there is use in employing terminology used by the historical women that she studies. More expressed similar sentiment as to wanting to use these terms, but explained the jigsaw-like puzzle of sources that her work has drawn from can make it difficult. Rather, she explained, women seemed to focus more on what needed to be done than issues of self-identification and classification. Cate Gunn also responded, pointing out that some women felt anxiety associated with the uncertain status of not being under a rule, and therefore adopted a rule to quash this anxiety.

Remaining on the topic of terminology, Renate Blumfield-Kosinski then brought up the challenge posed by different languages both in sources and in modern scholarship. She pointed out that as much scholarship has been focused on Italy and England, many of these terms are familiar, but that a multitude of terms exist in other languages. This poses the question; do we define every term when we use it? Agreeing, Cate Gunn echoed that definitions can be very different, even between scholars working in the same field.

Devon Sherwood wonderedunder if there is evidence of women shifting between different groups over time. This question brought to mind a common misconception for Cate Gunn, who shared that many think that anchorites ended up transitioning to communal living, but that this is not true. Rather, anchorites connected through their beliefs and lifestyles but did not live communally. Instead, they would transition from communities to the more isolated lifestyle that an anchorhold provided.

Kimm Curran returned to the anxiety over terminology that she had as an editor: she felt trapped by publishing norms that focused on certain categories of religious women and sought a broader and more inclusive category for women religious. For Curran, this issue was embodied in the complex identity of Saint Hedwig, who graces the cover of the volume. Curran also discussed the issue of male authors writing about these women, making it difficult at times to find the voices of the women directly. Alison More brought up transitions of religious life, whether reforming or moving to a stricter form of life. The associations of women religious with a specific order poses challenges for perceived identity, which could either change or simply appear to have changed from the sources based on who was providing pastoral care. Within this topic, she concluded, there is much to explore.

Lucy Barnhouse returned to Alison More’s chapter, wondering how women were in part defined by their relationships (with other women, bishops, confessors). Janet Burton agreed as to the centrality of women’s relationships, highlighting the importance of locating women within their wider communities. This included their relationships with their orders, the secular community, patrons, and others. Delfi Nieto-Isabel pointed out that often the locality of the women studied lies in different terminologies, an issue of the modern day, not the sources. Turning back to Cate Gunn’s chapter, she then asked about the difference between liminality and marginality, claiming that what was liminal in the period under study has only been made marginal through modern study. Though Gunn pointed out that the anchorites in her chapter did not use either term, their position on the threshold between life and death posed a serious challenge, but the value in their role made it easier. Alison More agreed, stating that women did not choose to be liminal, but rather filled the positions that they saw as necessary, waiting for their institutions to catch up with them. Janet Burton added that being liminal did not mean one was unimportant. Bruce Venarde agreed that liminal, marginal, and identity are our modern words and shared Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper’s 2000 article, “Beyond ‘Identity’”.

Sister Carla Thomas sought clarification from Cate Gunn on her mention of vows, wishing to know who received the vows of the women in her study. For lay anchorites, Gunn answered, they made vows to a bishop and were usually linked to a specific church not living under a rule. There was, however, an earlier practice of women transitioning from a monastic community to an anchorhold. Making an oath to a bishop was part of an attempt to control this practice (of lay women becoming anchorites) but was also practical as it allowed the church to check that the women had the financial means to support themselves and were connected toa church that could administer the sacraments. Kimm Curran agreed, giving a Scottish example of a nun moving from an enclosed community to an anchorhold.

Next, Letha Böhringer connected the ongoing discussion of terminology to the context of practices and social spaces. She asked Cate Gunn about her experience regarding the social practices of anchorites as opposed to those of other women. Gunn answered that the main difference was that anchorites lived in isolation, enclosed on their own, even when connected to others via letters. Isabelle Cochelin commented that recluses in England were perhaps more solitary, but those on the continent were very social and played a vital role in society. Some women even applied for the job of recluse through their local government. Gunn agreed that though a recluse’s life was solitary, they played an important role in their communities.

Barbara R. Walters Doehrman brought up the impacts of geographical and economic milieu on the practices of anchoresses, even though daily practices could be quite similar place to place. Cate Gunn responded that work in this area is beginning to be done, highlighting the similar nature of the spirituality of women in different regions.

Minlib Dahl posed the final question, asking Alison More to explain Raymond of Capua’s influence on and relationship with Catherine of Siena. More explained that he wrote in a way that sought to highlight the links she had with the Dominican Order as a tertiary.

Concluding a fruitful and lively discussion, the chat continued with encouraging and complimentary messages for the speakers from participants until the very end of the meeting. The important themes of terminology (both that in sources and modern scholarship), identities of religious women, and the ties that they had with each other and their wider community drove the conversation. Thank you to all contributors and those who posed thoughtful questions and comments.

Sad News – Fr. Mike Blastic

It is with great sadness that we must announce the passing of Michael W. Blastic, OFM, a valued member of our community.

A renowned scholar of the Franciscan tradition, Fr. Blastic (1949-2023), Mike for most, served as colleague, mentor, confrère, and teacher, and was thought of with both affection and admiration. For his 70th birthday, Fr. Blastic’s confrères edited a volume, “Non enim fuerat Evangelii surdus auditor… The title was chosen as it reflected Fr. Blastic’s commitment to living the gospel, as illustrated by his scholarship and pastoral ministry.

Mike attended many of our Other Sister virtual meetings including the last one (Dec. 2023). He saw women, particularly Clare of Assisi, as active participants in intellectual, theological and social history, and his work did much for bringing this into mainstream Franciscan dialogue.

A celebration of Fr. Blastic’s life will take place at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in San Diego on January 8, 2024. It is also possible to attend online.

He will be missed by all who knew him.

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Identities on the Italian Peninsula

by Joseph George Akl

On September 29th, 2023, The Other Sister research group held a seminar on the topic of varieties of religious life on the Italian peninsula. Four invited speakers presented some of their work on the subject, which had been circulated to all 44 participants prior to the online meeting:

  • Mary Harvey Doyno, “Roman Women: Female Religious, the Papacy, and a Growing Dominican Order,” Speculum 97, no. 4 (2022): 1040–72.
  • Thomas Luongo, “Catherine of Siena’s Advice to Religious Women,” Specula 3 (2022): 99–124.
  • Ashley Tickle Odebiyi, “Betwixt and Between: The Formation of Non-Cloistered Religious Women’s Identities in Rome, 1400-1600,” 2–31. This unpublished chapter is from an upcoming monograph.
  • Thérèse Peeters, “To Overcome Distrust: Three Religious Initiatives by Genoese Women,” in Trust in the Catholic Reformation, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions 231 (Leiden: Brill, 2022), 182–229.
    • The introduction from this publication (pages 1-36) was also circulated for additional context.

Each paper focused on the question of identity using the Italian peninsula as a case study. As is often the case with non-cloistered religious women, the issue around nomenclature was central. However, the aim of the discussion was not to box-in (or, in a manner, cloister!) these women, but to uncover their multifold identities and find non-cloistered religious women in sources where they have been overlooked.

Mary Harvey Doyno, associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Religious Studies at Sacramento State University, centered her discussion on the growth of the universal convent of San Sisto envisioned by Pope Innocent III and achieved by Honorius III (with the help of Dominic of Caleruega). She argued that, by considering Cecilia of Rome’s Miracula beati Dominici alongside the extant charter evidence from Santa Maria in Tempuli, she was able to give more visibility to Roman women religious and Dominicans, albeit one that was tied to the attempt to cloister all of Rome’s women religious.

Thomas Luongo, associate professor of history and the director of Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Tulane University, focused his short presentation on the loaded question of Catherine of Siena’s identity as a woman religious. He asked what Catherine’s conception of her life and vocation was, and if we can even speak of a formal vocation when discussing Catherine’s identity – one that is completely idiosyncratic. Lunogo argued that Raymond of Capua’s life of Catherine positions her as following the Dominican order, even suggesting her as a friar, an identity that fits into Catherine’s advice of claustration to some women while never cloistering herself. Catherine’s lifestyle was an impossible one and Luongo added that if we try to make it work, pushing Catherine into the box of laity or of religious life, we ignore the tension at play.

Next, Ashley Tickle Odebiyi, assistant professor of history at Arizona State University, focused her discussion on the bizzoche of Rome and how, though each bizzoche house was associated with a different order, such as the Benedictines, Franciscans, or Dominicans, these women had networks and identities that crossed the borders of the male orders. Despite the limited extant documentation for some of these houses, Odebiyi has found commonalities between the Roman bizzoche in their clothing, affective piety, and service to the poor – a lens she believes is important to apply to the study of non-cloistered religious women in general, drawing on similarities between beguines, beatas, bizzoche and others.

Finally, Thérèse Peeters, author of Trust in the Catholic Reformation, asked what role did trust play in the post-Tridentine Church in general, a period characterised by distrust, especially of female religious. This distrust was exemplified by Genoa’s seventeenth-century magistrato delle monache which supervised and controlled female religious life in the city. Peeters examined three religious groups, the Turchine, Medee, and Brignoline, that, despite this climate, arose during the period in Genoa. She discussed the interplay between trust and freedom, with the freedom of choice, spirituality and movement increasing the women’s view of the trustworthiness of their own religious project, while similarly increasing the distrust of those whose support they needed. Peeters found that a higher level of trust was necessary for the women religious who acted publicly, while lower levels of trust were needed for religious groups who kept a lower profile.

The discussion began with Alison More asking about the interplay between identity and order. Mary Harvey Doyno answered that she is trying to understand this very thing. San Sisto is associated with the Dominican Order but it is clear that the friars did not think of it as theirs, at least not in the modern understanding of affiliation. At opportune times the friars point to San Sisto as an example of women in their order, but the relationship is never fully clear. Thomas Luongo also answered saying that, of course, Raymond of Capua did not wish to make Catherine a friar, this is impossible, but just as Mary Magdalene was a model for some, Catherine was made into a model for the friars. Luongo wished to underscore the difficulty (or the missing-the-point) of trying to clarify identities with labels.

Adrian Kammerer next asked two questions. First, he wanted more information on Amata from Cecilia’s Miracula who had spirits expelled from her by Dominic of Caleruega, as she does not seem to be cloistered even later in the writings. Second, he wondered if the charters from Santa Maria in Tempuli discussed by Doyno complicated not only the distinction between nuns and other sisters, but also the one between conversae and other sisters. Doyno answered that though she wished she had more information on Amata, it is not clear what becomes of her from the documentation. As for the second statement, she agreed that this understanding can be broadened to include semi-religious women, and how she was interested by the abbesses’ attempts to nod to a larger community of women, outside of the smaller community of nuns. The fact that this larger community was involved in guarding the convent’s patrimony is understood by Doyno as a red flag for Innocent III or Honorius III, aiding the idea of a universal convent.

Maiju Lehmijoki Wetzel asked if it was too radical to assert that the Dominican Order did not exist before women were involved. Doyno answered that, though radical, the statement identifies that the institution, and therefore perhaps the identity, is formed around a process of including everybody but giving women a clear, contained space. Luongo specified that even during Catherine of Siena’s life, the identity of the order was still being articulated. There is a clarity organisationally for men that does not exist for women. It is this lack of organisation for the women that brings these questions. However, Luongo added that if one digs deeper, there is a variety in the friars’ identities as well, which could also bring a (diverse) range of issues.

Michèle Mulchahey stated that in the discussion on the tension between the cura monialium and mendicancy, scholarship focuses on the friars’ relationships with women, but, with women being cloistered, there were also the problems linked with property and ownership. Would this not be a real stumbling block to including women into the order? Doyno agreed but added that in her reading of the situation, the convent of San Sisto really remained under the control of the papacy, who had asked Dominic for assistance. So there were no real issue of the properties of women creating a problem with the friars’ mendicancy during the thirteenth century. Luongo wondered if, by Catherine’s time, there is a sense that this concern has folded into the situation concerning the Dominican Reform. He added that it is often forgotten that during Catherine life there was a female Dominican community in Sienna that interacted with Catherine and the mantellate.

Sioban Nelson asked Doyno to explain her comment that the Church needed this universal convent to grow. Doyno responded that though there was a resource element to this need, Innocent III had the idea to create a Church for the entirety of Christendom and to be able to articulate authority in this way. This amorphous growth is what she conceptualised when stating that this was needed for the Church to grow.

Carla Thomas asked if we should think of Catherine having a vocation in her time or are we projecting a modern notion onto her when saying this. Dr. Luongo suggested that “vocation” is probably a term we are using with a modern sense and that it is not entirely applicable.

Isabelle Cochelin asked if these women were allowed to choose their confessors or spiritual advisors. Peeters answered that the smaller of the three female groups in Genoa, the Medee, had this choice and they often picked the Jesuits. The cloistered women in Genoa had this decision made for them. Odebiyi gave the example of Santa Francesca who chose two confessors in her life, neither one coming from the Benedictines of Mount Olivet with whom her house of bizzoche was affiliated. Doyno was unsure and said that the sources seem to suggest that Dominic was selected for the women rather than the other way around. Luongo answered that even though Catherine made everything seem like a choice, the choice of confessor was made for her. However, she had a close relationship to Raymond of Capua, who berated Catherine’s early confessors in his work.

Michael Hahn enquired as to when the term “Dominican” is first used as well as asking if we are perhaps imposing a modern identity onto the period when using the terms “Dominican” or “Franciscan” to speak of the orders. Doyno answered that the appellation “Order of Preachers” was used during Innocent III’s reign and that Amanda Power has dealt with this historiographical issue for the Franciscans. She answered that thinking about the historical narrative being fabricated when we connect these non-cloistered religious women to the mendicant orders is important, as Alison More has written, but this fabricated narrative also gives us the false sense that there is a coherent identity for the mendicants earlier than there was. Odebiyi added that her sources use the terms Third Order of Saint Francis and then pinzochere in the same documents, which complicates the understanding of these women’s identity. This is why she has opted to simply use the term bizzoche instead of tertiaries. Michèle Mulchahey added that the earliest use of the term ordo in relation to the Dominicans was to designate their propositum and refered to their preaching.

Delfi Nieto-Isabel summarised the major themes of this meeting’s discussion asking if we are boxing in the non-cloistered religious women when trying to categorise them and impose identities onto them. She asked if this was a heritage handed down to us by the Church authorities of the period and if, ultimately, these are useless categories, even when thinking across the north-south European border. Doyno agreed and brought to light the fact that this confusion does not happen with male groups, and Odebiyi added that this categorisation comes from the sources, which can obscure real commonalities between groups. Peeters specified that for the women she studied, categorisation depends on the type of project the women were trying to set up. Sometimes a fluid identity can serve a group. Luongo added that not all had access to Latin, through which many ideas were spread, which can lead to some of the regional divides

Marguerite Porete and the 1323 Inquisition at the Beguinage of Sainte-Élisabeth of Valenciennes: An English Summary of an Article by Huanan LU

Huanan Lu, “Marguerite Porete et l’enquête de 1323 sur le béguinage Sainte-Élisabeth de Valenciennes,” Revue du Nord 3, no. 440 (2021): 451–85.

Summarised in English by Joseph George Akl.

There have long been hypotheses on Marguerite Porete’s origins. Called a beguina de Hannonia in the inquisitional records, Marguerite is often held by historians, without prior evidence, to have had contacts with the beguinage of Sainte-Élisabeth in Valenciennes. It is in Valenciennes where Marguerite first appears when her book is burned in the autumn of 1305 or 1306 by Gui de Collemezzo, bishop of Cambrai. This article uses a fourteenth-century inquisition held at Sainte-Élisabeth to substantiate the claim that Marguerite Porete was indeed once member of this community.

The Inquisitions of Beguinal Life

The Clementine Decrees (Cum de quibusdam mulieribus and Ad nostrum), published formally by John XXII in 1317, condemned the beguinal life (status beguinarum) and call for the suppression of this lifestyle, but not where these women lived “honestly in their convents” (honeste in suis conversantes hospitiis). It appears that the investigations that resulted from these bulls were less intense in northern Europe, particularly in the southern Low Countries, than in the north-east of the Empire. Moreover, contrary to the individual nature of the German inquisitions, northern European investigations focused on entire beguinal communities. To clarify the bulls, in 1320, John XXII began sending the bull Cum de mulieribus to various bishops, in which he requested that they undertake investigations of the beguines in their jurisdictions without troubling the good beguines. In this letter he also specified that honest beguines were to be protected from harassment.

The inquisitorial records of Cambrai are more complete than those of the surrounding bishoprics. Pierre de Lévis-Mirepoix, bishop of Cambrai, received the bull Cum de mulieribus on December 30th, 1320, however he did not undertake any investigation until 1323. On the 28th of July of that year, he appointed the Premonstratensian Godefroy II de Bavay, abbot of Vicoigne as the sole investigator. Godefroy then began his investigatio on the 4th of August 1323 and then, the beguines are officially pronounced to be orthodox.

The Beguinage of Sainte-Élisabeth of Valenciennes

The beguinage was founded in 1239 and had grown steadily throughout the thirteenth century to become its own parish in 1254 with a hospital, church, convent, houses, mill, and a school. Unlike what has been claimed by Walter Simons, it does not seem that the beguines of Sainte-Élisabeth were in decline following the Clementine Decrees; They continued to call themselves “beguines” and had an increasing amount of communication with other religious and lay institutions in the city during this period. Furthermore, the count of Hainaut’s family continued to protect the community and the countess, Jeanne de Valois, reconfirmed the donation of a house to the community made by a previous countess in 1269.

The Inquisitional Records

All our information concerning the investigatio of 1323 is provided to us through one document, numbered as 40 H 552/1336, and held in the Archives départementales du Nord in Lille. The document lists all the actors and witnesses in the investigation and demonstrates the protection from which the beguinage benefitted. Moreover, all of these are local. Amongst the many named are the countess Jeanne de Valois and her two daughters, six Dominicans, four Franciscans, and the priests of the beguinage. The choice of Godefroy, the abbot of Vicoigne, as the sole prosecutor or inquisitor, is also of note as he was already the protector of the beguines of Valenciennes. This willingness to protect the beguines of Sainte-Élisabeth comes through in the rapidity of the process — he begins the investigation only a week after being told to do so by the bishop –, and through the manner in which he investigates. No individual examinations are held; instead the process seems to be more of a public meeting, in the presence of important figures, to reaffirm the orthodoxy of the beguinage. After speaking with the Dominicans and Franciscans who asserted the community’s obedience, humility, and chastity, Godefroy spoke with tres honestas mulieres (perhaps the sovereign and two mistresses of the community), duodecim alias mulieres of good reputation and then another alias viginti chosen by the former twelve. It is noteworthy that all the beguines were present at the investigatio even if not called upon.

The Mention of Marghoneta

These beguines were asked if they had ever discoursed on the Holy Trinity or on the divine essence, or if they had promulgated any beliefs contrary to the Catholic faith. They replied that there was once a certain Marghoneta, who had been executed for her beliefs, however, when she was with them, she never had the slightest follower in her beliefs.

Responderunt unanimi et supplici devotione quod non nisi solummodo de quadam que dum vivebat fuit nominata Marghoneta que ob sue culpe demerita deleta dicebatur, justicia exigente, adtamen inter ipsas illa Marghoneta nullam unquam prorsus habuit suarum sectatricem errorum.

This Marghoneta must in fact be Marguerite, which further advances the idea that the inquisition was simply a piece of theatre used to distance the beguinage from Marguerite Porete.

The name Marghoneta is not attested in contemporary sources from the Hainaut. Marguerite, however, is the name of some of the countesses of Hainaut and is very common in the region, with its variants (Margareta in Latin, or Margherite in Middle French which can be written Margrite). Marghoneta, might therefore be a diminutive of Marguerite, reserved for a woman of modest standing, while Marguerite was reserved for the beguines of higher social rank. This hypocorism adds an important element to the discussion of Marguerite’s social background.

While Marguerite’s social background may remain a mystery, what does not is Marguerite’s unwelcomeness in Valenciennes. No trace of her exists in the city archives, meaning she might have had a subaltern presence in the community and was never called upon to witness legal deeds. Furthermore, the beguines during the investigation call her “a certain woman named Marghoneta.” The absence of a family name and the phrasing place distance between the community and Marguerite. The beguines also speak about this unanimously, implying that is a commonly known fact. While we do not know how many beguines present at the investigation in 1323 would have been in the beguinage during Marguerite’s stay at the start of the fourteenth century, it is highly likely that some would have known her, such as Jeanne de Bavay, who lived in the community prior to 1299 and until 1350. Lastly, during Marguerite’s trials, her community is never by her side.

Godefroy’s Double Roles

Godefroy was not only the protector of the beguines in Valenciennes, he was also highly respected by both lay and religious institutions. He was advisor to Willliam I and William II, successive counts of Hainaut, a theologian, student of John of Tongres, represented the count in papal matters, and was called to the council of Vienne. He appears to have been sympathetic to the beguines’ cause.

Very shortly after the publication of the Clementine Decrees, prior to the investigation, the beguines of Sainte-Élisabeth elected new leaders, probably all new save Godefroy and Marie de Saint-Élier, respectively procurator and Grand Mistress. This choice demonstrates firstly that the beguines were shrewdly aware of the problems that could arise due to the decrees and hoped to stay ahead of any issues by choosing new leaders. Secondly, the choice of Godefroy, was foresighted due to his presence at the Council of Vienne.

The bishop of Cambrai also had his reasons to select Godefroy to execute the mission requested by the papacy. Cum de mulieribus speaks to rooting out bad beguines but also to protecting good beguines from any harassment. This proved to be challenging as it was not entirely clear precisely what the pope meant in the bull. The bishop was aware of the delicate situation on his hands as Marguerite’s previous presence could be an issue. He chose Sainte-Élisabeth as the first beguinage to investigate in his bishopric, three months before Brussels or Antwerp. This haste demonstrates his eagerness to settle the issue quickly. Furthermore, his choice of Godefroy as the sole investigator is also telling as in Brussels and Antwerp he relied on multiple officials from various religious institutions. Be it to please the count or the bishop, or out of sympathy for the beguines, Godefroy had no reason not to defend the beguines.

This investigation of Sainte-Élisabeth in 1323 in which over fifty people intervened, including all the beguines, their priests, members of the mendicant orders nearby, the countess and her daughters, provides us with not only a detailed model of a beguinal investigation. It also gives us the first trace of Marguerite Porete at Sainte-Élisabeth of Valenciennes, who was still being called Marghoneta.

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

by Isabelle Cochelin


One day will come, I can feel it, when these documents [on the Chapter of Remiremont] will be looked for and collected with care, and when people will even be astonished that they had been neglected for so long.[1]


One would expect that the best literary sources to teach us about secular canonesses would be their memoirs. It is telling of the way late eighteenth-century Chapters functioned, however, that not all such memoirs are informative. For a variety of reasons, some secular canonesses spent very little, if any, time in their communities.

Such was the case for Madame de Chasteney, a canoness (in name) at Épinal from age 14 in 1785 until the Chapter’s dissolution during the French Revolution. It is also true of the Baroness of Oberkirch, who expected a position in one of the three German Protestant Chapters by age 4 (in 1758) and was admitted by 1766; she mentions her admission en passant in her memoirs, merely to explain why someone called her a comtesse in 1769 – the title (and a stipend) had come with her (symbolic) admission.[2] At times, therefore, the title was purely honorary and financially rewarding, with no requirement to live in the Chapter.

This is not true of the memoirs of the Comtesse Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle (1778-1854): even though she never became a canoness in Remiremont, where she spent her childhood, she discusses life within the Lorraine Chapter at length in her roughly twenty-five-page-long work. Another motivation for writing was that the history of Remiremont in the second half of the eighteenth century was intertwined with the glory of the Duchy of Lorraine and three generations of her family’s women. When the French Revolution forced her and the canonesses of Remiremont to leave the Chapter, she became at some point a secular canoness in Munich, but does not even mention the fact. Her link to the Munich Chapter was probably only honorary and financially advantageous.

I know of two editions of her memoirs. The one used by most (if not all) scholars was compiled by a specialist of local religious history, the canon Charles Chapelier (d. 1924), under the erroneous title of Memoirs of … ex-canoness of Remiremont (abbreviated from now on as « Chapelier »).[3] There is also an anonymous and undated printed booklet, titled Deux chapitres-nobles et deux chanoinesses (Fig. 1), that focuses on her family, the Messeys, and includes the family genealogy at the end. It must have been published some fifteen years later, as the most recent date the editor mentions is 1902 (p. 65).

Fig. 1: anonymous and undated printed booklet with a revised version of of the Comtesse’s memoirs Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 8o Lm3 3228

The so-called Souvenirs occupy pages 11-33; I will refer to them from now on as « the Messey ». I believe these two editions were based on two distinct manuscripts of the memoirs, and the most recent (used for the second edition) presents a slightly updated version by the memorialist herself, the Comtesse.[4] The texts are available through Gallica and I will cite them when a passage is available in both editions, each easily distinguishable by its page numbers, in the 200s for Chapelier.

The Comtesse was writing (at least in the older version) for a niece, whom she addresses as “my dear child” (ma chère enfant: p. 11, 14, and 25; 243, 247 and 259). Chapelier suggests it was the wife of her nephew Gustave, as the latter is mentioned on p. 30 of the newer version, a section absent from Chapelier – and that the work is an “intimate talk” (intime causerie: p. 260, a sentence taken out of the most recent version, p. 25).

The Souvenirs are tinged with nostalgia for a disappeared world, and it is unlikely that pre-Revolutionary life at Remiremont was as idyllic as she portrays it. There were complex politics and social inequalities at play that would have been invisible to a child’s eyes. It is, nevertheless, a rich source of information, giving us a point of view at the threshold, between the inside and the outside, of the life of secular canonesses. The Comtesse’s situation was liminal because her aunt – who was a Remiremont canoness, and was planning to make her her Dame-niece – raised her in her own house within the Chapter (see Fig. 2). The Comtesse was there when she was about four years old – she remembers Princess Charlotte of Brionne who stayed for few months at Remiremont in 1782 when she became abbess – and perhaps even earlier.

Fig. 2: House of a secular canoness in Remiremont. Found on the website “Au Pays de Mes Ancêtres

The Comtesse was being trained for a succession that never took place. In 1786, when the future Comtesse was eight years old, her aunt had to “adopt” the Prince de Condé’s daughter as her Dame-niece instead, so that the latter would become the new (and the last) abbess of the Chapter (p. 22-26 and p. 255-61). Her aunt’s sense of duty for her community (esprit de corps, p. 24 and p. 258) and the politics of Lorraine took precedence over family ties!

We find in the Souvenirs many of the themes already raised in an earlier blog. The magnificent performance of the secular canonesses’ liturgical celebrations, due to their striking clothing and the angelic looks of their younger members, is praised by the Comtesse, as Françoise Boquillon and Corinne Marchal (among other scholars) have already mentioned. The Comtesse’s point of view is here an external one, completing Guénard’s (whose novel was discussed in the earlier blog): she shows us the canonesses arriving in their choir with valets holding their long ermine-trimmed capes, and then the grille closing behind them without hiding them (p. 18-19 and p. 252-53): so close and magnificent, and yet untouchable…

She explains also how a very young voice sometimes sang unaccompanied, the child canoness moving alone, effortlessly, with her long cape, between the altar, the stalls, and the lectern while singing (p. 19 and p. 253-54). The future Comtesse obviously hoped for years to become one of these young voices behind the grille. It is also telling that she speaks of the liturgical activities of the canonesses frequently, already insisting upon it by the second page of her memoirs, when giving a historical and then structural overview of the Chapter and its activities. Here, the Comtesse’s point of reference is that of an insider. Obviously, her aunt attached importance to her religious activities as a Dame and transmitted this sentiment to her niece. Not all the canonesses necessarily viewed their positions in this religious light, but this text shows that at least some did.

Another key sentiment in the Souvenirs, possibly inherited or at least shared with her dear aunt, is one of “patriotism”: the Comtesse is very much attached to the distinct identity of Lorraine, first annexed to the Kingdom of France in 1738 and more definitely incorporated by 1766. Even though the memoirs were written decades after these events, they still resonate with the sadness of the Lotharingian nobility that had lost its independence from the French king.

The best example concerns the medallions that usually adorned the habits of all secular canonesses (seen in the illustrations of the previous blog). The Comtesse wrote that this adornment – acquired as recently as 1774 by Remiremont, thanks to a non-Lotharingian abbess – was resented by the canonesses, as it reminded them of the “new domination of France over the Chapters of the whole Lorraine” (p. 20). Indeed, the editor of the Messey explains in a note that the name of Louis XV was engraved on it; not something one would want to wear on one’s bosom if one was a patriot of Lorraine!

This fact brings us to an important theme within the Souvenirs and probably in the life of secular canonesses, at least in Remiremont: politics at all levels, not only regional (as we just saw two examples in relation to the Prince of Condé and the medallions), but also, to a lesser extent, European (for instance p. 16 and p. 249). It is worth highlighting this point: some of these women of the highest aristocracy were deeply interested in politics and played a role when necessary and possible.

Fig. 3: Portrait of Anne Charlotte de Lorraine, abbess of Remiremont (1738-1773), copy from the studio of Bernard Verschooten (1728-1783). Carlo Bonte’s auctions website.

The canonesses were also very concerned with the politics of the Chapter itself. The anonymous author who introduced the Messey considers collegiality (with the free election of the abbess) as one of the main characteristics of the noble Chapters:

The essential principle of the constitution of the aristocratic abbeys (insignes abbayes) remained intact throughout the ages: the government of chapters remained elective; the abbesses governed under the control and with the participation of the Chapter; their election was approved by the pope and their power moderated by collegiality.[5]

This is something of an exaggeration, since some Chapters did not control the election of their superior. Nevertheless, many passages of the Souvenirs demonstrate that the canonesses did have a significant say in the internal administration of the Chapter, including the admission of newcomers (p. 16-18 and p. 250-52), with the later edition adding an “in Chapter” (en plein Chapitre), as a key point in the description of the admission process, to avoid any ambiguity on the decision process. The Comtesse also took pains to explain what she meant by “Chapter” (the noble agrégation, which she calls elsewhere the “corporation”, p. 18 and p. 252) and “chapter”, the meeting space, reworking these passages between the two editions (p. 12 and p. 244, and p. 23 and p. 257), all proof that this collegial aspect was fundamental in her eyes. She insists as well on the significant territory it oversaw (Fig. 4) and the power the Chapter exerted, remaining silent on the prerogatives of the abbess (by choice or by ignorance, as her aunt had been a simple canoness):

[The Chapter] owned numerous lordships that depended solely on it and extended over a significant part of Lorraine. The French king did not send a garrison into the city of Remiremont, and his troops could not even cross the territory. The Chapter had high justice, that is, right of life and death. It had its police lieutenant, its civil officers, in one word, full and total jurisdiction… All matters of importance were deliberated by the Dames assembled in Chapter and resolved by them.[6]

Fig. 4: Map of the territories controlled by the Chapter (in blue) within the Duchy of Lorraine (pale yellow), in 1683. Drawn by Brostoler — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 4.0

Politics were always at play in these communities, with the canonesses always on their guard, always fighting for their rights.

I would like to end with what struck me the most in the Souvenirs: the Comtesse’s love for and pride in the way of life of the Chapter of Remiremont, sentiments she must have inherited from her aunt and ones that many canonesses likely felt for their own communities. This community (which she joined so young) was her family and her world; it is clear she would also have very much liked for it to have been her future.

She specifies that she called her aunt Mère (“Mother”, p. 13 and p. 246) and that the latter had “adopted” her (p. 15 and p. 248). Admission during childhood (likely leading to a strong sense of identity with the Chapter) may have been common: the only aunt of the author from whom we have a definitive date of birth, 1736, the eldest of all her aunts, had a stipend at Remiremont by 1744 (see the family tree in Messey, p. 62) and was, therefore, seven or eight at the oldest, when she joined. The Comtesse mentions as well “little Dames” aged between seven and twelve (p. 12 and p. 245); in fact, the last Remiremont canoness alive at the time she was writing was one who had been seven at the outbreak of the Revolution (p. 33 and p. 268).

Once a canoness had a stipend and her own house within the Chapter, she could adopt a Nièce de prébende (p. 17-18 and p. 251): the Comtesse’s aunt was no more than twenty-seven when she became a Mère for the Comtesse (even though the latter never became a Nièce de prébende in the end); these adoptions created one more tie between these women and their communities.[7] The same aunt also had three sisters in Remiremont (p. 14 and p. 247), and the memoirs mention a cousin (p. 13 and p. 246) and one “intimate friend … to whom she confided all her thoughts” (p. 23 and p. 257, p. 24 and p. 258).

We must, therefore, imagine a group of women of all ages, many close to each other by various ties, biological or not. The pride of the Comtesse for this way of life can be seen in her exclamation that of her five aunts who became canonesses, only one left to get married, and this was the one who went to Maubeuge, not Remiremont (p. 14 and p. 247)! She comes back to this issue later in her memoirs, saying: “in general, these Dames of Remiremont did not get married or only rarely; their status was so agreeable (agréable) and beautiful that they were little disposed to change it for another” (p. 20 and p. 254). As was the case with her aunt, her love for the Chapter was greater than the one for her biological family: her mentions of her father and uncles are sparse.

I hope these few lines will have convinced you to read the Comtesse’s Souvenirs, especially in its latest rendering, as it offers an unparalleled foray into the life of secular canonesses in the late eighteenth century. We can see the little Comtesse playing alone in a room on the ground floor of her aunt’s house while the latter, unwell, is saying her canonical hours at home (p. 22 and p. 256), or imagine them taking strolls in the countryside outside the Chapter (p. 11 and p. 243). I know many women today who could project themselves easily in such a world, but alas almost none would have the necessary pedigree!

[1]  “…un jour viendra, je le pressens, où ces documents [sur le Chapitre de Remiremont] seront précieusement recherchés et recueillis, où l’on s’étonnera même de les avoir négligés aussi longtemps.” Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle, Souvenirs, in Deux chapitres-nobles et deux chanoinesses (Besançon: Impr. de l’Est. S.d.), p. 11.

[2] Madame de Chasteney. Mémoires de Madame de Chasteney, ed. A. Roserot. Paris, 1896; see Françoise Boquillon, “La religion des chanoinesses nobles à travers leurs écrits”, L’écriture du croyant 125 (2005) 93. Henriette Louise (von Waldner) baronne d’Oberkirch. Mémoires de la baronne d’Oberkirch sur la cour de Louis XVI et la société française avant 1789, ed. Suzanne Burkard. Paris: Mercure de France, 1970.

[3] « Mémoires de Mme la Comtesse Marie-Antoinette de Messey, ancienne chanoinesse de Remiremont », Bulletin de la Société philomatique vosgienne, 1888, p. 241-68.

[4] A good example of the differences between both texts concerns the descriptions of the two highest in hierarchy after the abbess: the doyenne and the secrète. The passage in the Messey (p. 11) clarifies the tasks of the latter in comparison to the same passage in Chapelier (p. 245-46). One proof that the changes were made by the Comtesse is her comment about her father, which is present only in the most recent version (mon père, p. 15). The overall differences are not major, except in the last pages dedicated to the French Revolution, which are laden with anguish. In the later version, many sections have been moved around, and additional family and military details added. In one case, it was a conscious choice on the part of Chapelier not to cite a specific episode; he inserted instead two sets of three points (p. 29 vs 264). The absence of such signal of omission for the other missing passages indicates, I think, that they were absent from the manuscript used by Chapelier. Except for the first and last two pages, the informative footnotes in the two editions are also different. Probably, the second editor knew of Chapelier’s text, but created a new version, specifically for the extended Messey family, based on a different manuscript.

[5] “Le principe essentiel de la constitution des abbayes insignes demeura intact dans le cours des âges: le gouvernement des chapitres resta électif; les abbesses gouvernèrent sous le contrôle et avec le concours du Chapitre; leur élection était approuvée par le Saint-Siège et leur pouvoir modéré par la collégialité.” (Messey, “L’Abbaye de Remiremont”, p. 5-6).

[6] “Il possédait de nombreuses seigneuries qui ne relevaient que de lui seul et s’étendaient sur une forte partie de la Lorraine. Le roi de France n’envoyait point de garnison dans la ville de Remiremont, et ses troupes ne pouvaient même passer sur le territoire. Le Chapitre avait la haute justice, c’est-à-dire droit de vie et de mort. Il avait son lieutenant de police, ses officiers-civils, en un mot, une pleine et entière juridiction… Dans toutes les affaires importantes, les délibérations étaient tenues par les Dames assemblées en Chapitre et résolues par elles” (p. 16 and p. 249). There is an interesting footnote in Messey (p. 16), absent from Chapelier, explaining how the abbess could exercise pardon over some prisoners, for Easter, Rogations and the vigil of the Saint-Barthelemy; they would then join the barefoot procession to the collegial church.

[7] I calculated that the aunt had turned fifteen at the earliest in 1770 when her own aunt died (p. 15 and p. 248).

The Daughters and Sisters of Odelind – a Network of Non-Cloistered Religious Women

By Letha Böhringer

Religious women who were not cloistered were called beguines in the north of the German-speaking countries, and sisters or Seelfrauen in the south of this region. These women were found in almost every town and even in the countryside. One of their characteristics was that they did not establish overarching institutions or joint leadership, neither on a local nor on a supra-local level.

Two Beguines. Church St Agnes of the Beguinage, Sint-Truiden (Belgium), detail of a fresco. Picture taken by Letha Böhringer

However, there is an exception to every rule. It has been known for quite a while that the sisters of an independent community in Schweidnitz (in medieval Silesia, today Świdnica in Poland) formed a network with convents at Breslau/Wrocław, Erfurt and Leipzig; the sisters moved between the houses, and they seem to have supported each other by transferring money in case of need. The Schweidnitz sisters were interrogated by a committee of inquisitors in 1332, and the inquisition protocol reveals many aspects of the community’s inner life and the attitude of the sisters. One detail, though, remained obscure: the sisters refer to themselves as the daughters of Udyllindis. They had no explanation of who she was; she does not seem to have been the foundress of the convent, but rather an inspirational charismatic figure.

Preparing a new edition of the inquisition protocol, the editors contacted me in order to check the prosopographic material of my database which contains more than 2100 names of beguines living in Cologne between 1223 and ca. 1400.

Cologne. Kölnisches Stadtmuseum, Koelhoffsche Chronik (1499), fol.140.

Cologne housed a great number of beguines and convents during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and its citizens produced a huge amount of written record. In addition to testaments and charters, the citizens kept so-called Schreinsbücher (official record books kept in cabinets, i.e. Schreine) which resemble modern land registers. Apart from transactions concerning real estate, they also contained donations to and foundations of beguine convents.

Example of a Schreinsbuch. Website of the École des Chartes.

My database documents thousands of such entries and evidence from charters and other sources. After publishing about a dozen articles from this material, I am currently writing a monograph on the beguines of Cologne supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The grant also provides for assistance from the Cologne Center for eHumanities, especially the help of a post-graduate specialist, Jan Bigalke, who modulates the database to make it open access on the internet.

My data provides key material for the identification of the Schweidnitz figure of Udyllindis. In 1291, a woman who called herself Odelindis from Pyritz (in the medieval duchy of Pomerania, today Pyrzyce in Poland), founded her own convent in Cologne which she headed as the Magistra. This convent was the first of about a dozen communities which were quickly singled out by their contemporaries as different from earlier beguinages: these beguines were called swesteren/swestrisse/ swestriones in the German vernacular, and they exercised strict poverty in their convents. Therefore, they were also called willige Arme, the “voluntary poor”. As third time’s the charm, another trace of Udyllindis/Odelindis was found via a research network which I co-founded (Agfem). Preparing her thesis on the beguines of Eastern Swabia, Barbara Baumeister discovered a similar name in charters of around 1350: a community of poor sisters called themselves the sisters of Udelhild.

Not only the obvious similarity of the names, which are not very common ones, but also characteristic features of the convents point to common origins. We know of quite a few women who travelled great distances in order to join one of these convents. The houses in Cologne and Augsburg were acquired from their own money, without patrons or benefactors. All the women organized themselves as associations based on an oath (Schwurverband) called unio in Latin or Einung in German. The novices pledged allegiance to the ideals of strict poverty and obedience. The sisters were well respected by their neighbors and received donations. We do not know why, suddenly, they were persecuted in Schweidnitz and, it seems, their house was dissolved; there was obviously some internal strife which might have instigated the inquisition. The convent in Cologne eventually became a member of the Cellite order, and the Augsburg sisters became Dominican sisters around 1700, whose monastery exists to this day.

The discovery of Odelind’s network of voluntary poor sisters gives insight on how a “movement” was formed and spread over great distances. Her congregation is a phenomenon never described before: independent women travelling the trade routes from city to city, forming convents according to their own rules and ideals, from their own money, distanced from local clergy and authorities, and respected by their contemporaries. They constitute an intriguing group and show what women in the later Middle Ages were capable of self-governance and independence, and could have the determination to live lives according to their own desires and designs.



Letha Böhringer, “The Swesteren of Piritz and of Cologne and their European Context,” in The Beguines of Medieval Świdnica: the Interrogation of the ‘Daughters of Odelindis’ in 1332, ed. by Tomasz Gałuszka and Paveł Kras (Heresy and Inquisition in the Middle Ages). York, 2023.

In German:  Letha Böhringer, “Die Schwestern und Töchter der Odelind von Pyritz. Ein überregionales Netzwerk von Beginen im Reich wird sichtbar,” in Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung (2023).

Barbara Baumeister, “Schwestern der Udelhild. Eine geistliche Gemeinschaft in Augsburg mit europäischen Verbindungen,” Zeitschrift des historischen Vereins für Schwaben 151 (2023).

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Habits and Habitual Dress

On November 7, 2022, The Other Sister research group held a seminar on the topic of Habits and Habitual Dress. Four invited speakers presented some of their work on the subject, which had been circulated to all participants prior to the meeting:

  • Alejandra Concha Sahli, “Habit Envy: Extra-Religious Groups, Attire, and the Search for Legitimation Outside the Institutionalised Religious Orders,” in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 15 (2019):137-56.

For additional information, we also sent: Alejandra Concha Sahli, “Habit Envy: Extra-Religious Groups, Attire and the Search for Legitimation Outside the Institutionalised Orders”, 3rd chapter of “The Meaning of the Habit: Religious Orders, Dress and Identity, 1215-1650”, PhD thesis, UCL, 2017.

  • Kirsty Schut, “Death and a Clothing Swap: An Unusual Case of Death and Burial in the Religious Habit in Fourteenth-Century Naples,” Viator (2019): 185-226.


  • Thomas M. Izbicki, “Nuns Clothing and Ornaments in English and Northern French Ecclesiastical Regulations,” in Refashioning Medieval and Early Modern Dress, ed. Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Maryn Clegg Hyer (Boydell and Brewer, 2019), p. 237-54.


As befits the subject, our discussion on habits was comprised of many threads. The issue of what constituted religious dress, what (and whether) it conveyed authority were addressed along with more practical concerns such as sewing and purchasing garments. In all, it seems that both the growing fields of material history and study of The Other Sister are rich areas for further study.

The work of Dr. Alejandra Concha Sahli, who teaches medieval history and works in public policy in Chile, explores identity and issues of legitimation connected with the visual appearance of beguines. By adopting aspects of the appearance of more traditional nuns, newer religious movements could more easily secure a legitimate role in the social and religious landscapes. They were, however, also often accused of borrowing the habits of others, and thus coming under attack. Dr Concha Sahli mentioned Nathan Joseph’s 1986 book Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication through Clothing, as useful to understand that, in the Middle Ages, the “habit made the monk”.

Dr. Kirsten Schut, a Mellon Fellow at the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, focused her discussion on the new directions for research explored in her article, other articles in progress as well as her book project on entrance ad succurrendum and lay death and burial in religious habits. In particular, she mentioned the taking of the habit on the deathbed as sometimes representing the final stage in the journey of a tertiary. While the majority of cases of lay individuals choosing to be buried in a religious habit in her rather extensive bibliographical catalogue involve habits of traditional orders, mainly Dominican and Franciscan, Dr. Schut identified cases of women wanting to be buried in the habit of a ‘beguine,’ ‘vestita,’ ‘mantellata,’ ‘pinzochera,’ or third order. These cases were largely from Italy and Southern France, but this might be more reflective of the sources than practices. Overall, donning a religious habit on one’s deathbed demonstrates another unofficial way individuals could be linked to a religious order after their death.

Professor Thomas Izbicki, a historian of Canon Law, now retired from Rutgers, who is also active in DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics and Fashion), began his presentation by pointing out that the subject combined two of his major interests, clothing and the value of religious visitations. Differences in wealth among the nuns were often expressed in difference in clothing, even within one house. He also raised the issue of textiles produced in houses of women for non-liturgical purposes. Women’s houses were generally not given the same kind of financial support as the houses of their male counterparts. Before the seventeenth century, nuns were not allowed to teach. More attention should therefore be given to the ways these houses were able to produce goods (such as sweets or sewing works) to survive financially and stay afloat.

Professor Gabriella Zarri, now retired from the University of Florence, who is responsible for some of the foundational work on non-traditional women religious, focused on the role and purpose of a habit. Pointing out that many major rites of passage are marked by ceremonies of clothing or unclothing (from birth to death), she traced the ways this manifested itself in female religious life with reference to marriage iconography, and the cult of Mary Magdalene. Zarri touched upon the meaning of some elements of profession, such as the reception of a crown of thorns to be transformed into the afterlife into a crown of glory. She also discussed the Dimesse, an order of widows, whose habits were simple, but retained elements of the elegance associated with the social status of women in the world (see fig. 8 in the English summary of her article).

The discussion began with the issue of tertiaries, and the significance of the change of habit as the final stage in the journey of a tertiary. Kirsten Schut pointed to the frequency of burial in religious habits. The habits were often switched from tertiary to monastic habit. Delfi Nieto raised the issue of queens who were buried in religious habits, sometimes even tertiary habits; there is certainly a need for further exploration of this practice. Joseph Akl asked if the religious habits donned at death were always specific to a religious group to which Kirsten Schut answered positively, at least until the 19th century/early 20th century, when secular undertakers used more generic clothing.

The discussion then moved to the Cult of the Magdalene.

The issue of what constituted religious dress was also mentioned. Alejandra Concha Sahli elaborated on when the “clothing” of beguines became official. Kirsten Schut also raised the issue of veils. There does not seem to be much clarity on when “official” decisions were made about clothing, but Gabriella Zarri pointed out that it was stable in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Meghan Lescault asked about if/when habits were officially designated as “sacramentals”. It is a theological category that was not very clearly defined, at least in the Middle Ages. Prof. Izbicki referred to Cordelia Warr’s 2010 book, Dressing for Heaven: Religious Clothing in Italy, 1215-1545. Dr Schut pointed out that a link was often made between baptism and taking a habit. Again, the ceremony of veiling seems to be key. Katherine Walter Clark pointed out that there were comparable practices for the veiling of widows.

Fr. Augustine Thompson mentioned that habit was a key part of Dominican penitential identity. He added that, curiously, by the fifteenth century, women associated with the Dominican penitential movement were increasingly portrayed as cloistered nuns rather than as tertiaries.

As well as a liturgical dimension, there were many practical concerns related to the habit. Eva Cersovsky asked who was making them. Answers to this question were diverse: some female communities might have taken care of making their own habits but it does not seem to have been the norm. Parallels with the recluses were discussed in the chat.

Isabelle Cochelin asked if there was a clear distinction between the habits of nuns and the ones of non-cloistered religious women. She also asked who was the woman in black beside Mary-Magdalene in the 1582 painting by Francesco Cavazzoni of Christ’s Sermon to Mary Magdalene presented by Professor Zarri during her presentation (see fig. 6 in her article and the English summary of her article). Professor Zarri answered that it could be a widow as the clothing of widows was similar to that of nuns. Dr. Concha Sahli pointed out that the difference between beguines’ habits and nuns’ remains an open question.

Consecration and Conversion between Rite and Symbol: an English Summary of an article by Gabriella Zarri


Gabriella Bruni Zarri, “Consacrazione e conversione tra rito e simbolo,” in Vestizioni: Codici normativi e pratiche religiosae, ed. Sofia Boesch Gajano and Francesca Sbardella (Rome: Viella Libreria editrice, 2021), p. 13-36.

Summarized in English by Mary Maschio

When a young woman entered a convent in Early Modern Italy, her vocation was symbolised by the acceptance of monastic dress, including the veil, but also by the rejection of secular clothes. Zarri’s bipartite study focuses first on dressing, the accoutrements received by girls as they entered the nunnery, and then on undressing, the discarding of the clothes and jewels associated with a certain social status in order to signal an abhorrence of worldly vanity. These two acts were associated respectively with St Catherine of Alexandria (fig. 1) and St Mary Magdalene (fig. 2 of the article).

  1. Mystical marriage of Saint Catherine. Bologna, Fototeca Zeri. Anonymous Ferrarese of the sixteenth century.

The first part of the article discusses the clothing and objects given to a novice as she entered the monastery for the first time and then, more briefly, the corresponding items of dress that were conferred when a nun made her permanent vows and the variations in clothing between convents. Whilst the rite of consecration was inspired by ancient marriage ceremonies, the ceremony of dressing and the entry of the novice into the convent were more closely modelled on baptism. Each item and piece of clothing represented an aspect of the spiritual journey that the postulant was undertaking. In some rituals, we find a crown of thorns. An anonymous Lombard painting from the first half of the sixteenth century, probably commissioned to commemorate a novice’s entry into a convent, follows the model of St Catherine and the Child Jesus, but the ring is replaced with a crown of thorns (fig. 3 of the article). The words to which the Child Jesus points are also found in the Dominican rite of dressing from Genova (fig. 4 of the article).

A document from the second of half of the sixteenth century describing the ritual as it took place in the Augustinian convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Bologna is particularly interesting for the level of detail it includes about the ceremony of dressing. Following the council of Trent, the process for entering a nunnery became far more rigorous: a postulant would spend a year at the monastery, followed by a month-and-a-half at home. During this period, she was expected to dress modestly and refrain from partaking in worldly pleasures. If accepted as a novice, she would be sent a small crown of thorns and a copy of the rule of St Augustine. In contrast to the grand processions of the preceding century, it was stipulated that the entry to the convent should not resemble a marriage procession. The girl should arrive simply, accompanied only by her family. Mass was celebrated in the exterior chapel, followed by the ceremony of dressing. The priest blessed each item in turn: first the girdle, the chain of perfection, then the veil, the sign of humility and submission to the lord. The novice’s hair was then cut. The collar and wimple followed. The dressing proper then commenced: she removed her secular clothes, the priest dressed her in a black habit, to remind her of Christ’s suffering, girded by a sash to guard against the temptations of the flesh, a scapular as a shield against adversity, a white veil, a sign of continence and purity, and finally a crown of thorns, for Christ. She was handed a cross to signify her rejection of the world and a candle. The last step was the bestowal of a new name. Unusually, in this convent it was the celebrant rather than the girl herself who chose this name. After a final blessing, she was led to the grille to greet her family and friends. These celebratory meetings could continue for up to three days, during which time the girl often received precious objects or artworks to commemorate the ceremony.

The common practice of demanding a dowry for novices meant that entry into convents was usually restricted to girls from wealthier families and that institutions became linked to specific important households within a city. Ceremonies of dressing therefore varied between convents. The portrait of Caterina de’ Pazzi made before her entrance into the convent depicts her in secular clothes (fig. 5 of the article), indicating a desire to preserve her worldly and familial identity even as she supposedly renounced them upon entry into religious life.

In all convents, the rite of profession was shorter than that for entry as a novice. The most important of these was the black veil, but there is no mention of the ring that is commonly found in other rites of profession. Afterwards, the sister was once again permitted to meet family and friends at the grille for three days.

In all convents, nuns were given two types of clothing: one set for work and private prayer, and another for prayer in the chapel. Nuns’ habits also reflected the varying economic fortunes of their convents and differed between rural and urban institutions. The convent of San Giovanni Battista di Bologna, a wealthy Dominican foundation, included detailed descriptions of rather luxurious clothes in its rule. This document confirms that nuns’ habits did follow contemporary fashions to some degree, that there were different clothes for novices and fully professed sisters, and that exceptions could be made in the case of illness or other pressing circumstances. Another document from a Bolognese convent, that of San Ludovico e Alessio, testifies to the personal goods a nun had in her cell.

The second part of the article looks at the rejection of secular clothes. This normally marked entry into a convent but was also relevant in a number of other situations. It is no coincidence that this practice went hand in hand with the increasing popularity of the cult of St Mary Magdalene and the rising number of convents for reformed prostitutes at the end of the fifteenth century. Wealthy women would also signal their conversion to a more spiritual life by their rejection of luxurious clothes. The most famous case is that of Vittoria Colonna, who became a contemplative in her widowhood. At the urging of numerous preachers, many women abandoned their finery without necessarily entering convents. This practice was encouraged by written texts and images, as well as by preaching. A translation of a sermon by Pedro Chavez from 1561 on the conversion of St Mary Magdalene describes her casting off her fine clothes. A visual representation of such a scene is found in the altarpiece designed by the Bolognese painter Francesco Cavazzoni for the parish church of St Mary Magdalene in Strada San Donato in 1582 (fig. 6 & 7).

  1. Francesco Cavazzoni, Preaching of Christ to the Magdalene, 1582. Bologna, Parish Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, High Altar.
1580, chiesa priorale e parr. Maddalena Bologna
  1. Detail from Francesco Cavazzoni, Preaching of Christ to the Magdalene, 1582. Bologna, Parish Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, High Altar.

A possible inspiration for this painting is that by the Milanese artist Gaudenzio Ferrari in San Cristoforo di Vercelli, from around 1530. A later example by a Brescian painter, perhaps Francesco Ricchino or perhaps Agostino Galeazzi, was created in the context of the growing popularity of the Compagnia di Sant’ Orsola which included many charitable matrons. The position of Cavazzoni’s painting, above the main altar of an urban parish church, ensured that the message was widely transmitted in Bologna. The Franciscan Antonio Pagani was particularly interested in women’s spiritual life and frequently used St Mary Magdalene as an example. In response to the spiritual needs of the day, he championed the idea of secular women living in community, not bound by vows but subject to a rule. Entrance into this community was made not by a liturgical rite, but by the rejection of fine clothes as a mark of distinction from other women.

Zarri’s consideration of dressing and undressing highlights the importance of clothing in the construction of religious identity in Early Modern Italy. The examples from written and visual sources highlight the symbolism imbued in the clothes and objects given to novices and newly professed nuns, but also reveal the concessions to practicality, and even to fashion. This acceptance of religious dress had its counterpart in the rejection of secular and luxurious clothes, which came in itself to signify the adoption of a more devout life in lay women’s communities (fig. 8).


  1. Mulier dicta DIMESSA. Filippo Bonanni, Ordinum religiosorum in ecclesia militanti catalogus eorumque indumenta in iconibus expressa et oblata, 1738.