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The Other Sister Research Seminar: Recluses

By Laura Moncion

On 20 April 2022, The Other Sister group hosted a thematic session on the topic of recluses. We had four speakers, presenting on their two jointly edited recent publications. This session was organized by Laura Moncion, in collaboration with Alison More, Isabelle Cochelin, Sylvie Duval, and Kendall Sneyd, with the question period moderated by Michael Hahn. The four speakers presented aspects of their ongoing work in relation to their recent edited collections, the introductions and tables of contents of which had been pre-circulated to the group:

  • Frances Andrews and Eleonora Rava, “Introduction: Approaches to Voluntary Reclusion in Medieval Europe (13-16th Centuries),” in Quaderni di storia religiosa medievale, 24/1 (2021) and table of contents. 
  • _____. “Defining Reclusion: An Introduction with Presentation of the Papers in this Issue,” Quaderni di storia religiosa medievale, 24/2 (2021) and table of contents. 
  • Michelle M. Sauer and Jenny C. Bledsoe, “Bodies, Objects, and the Significance of Things in Early Middle English Reclusion: and Introduction,” in The Materiality of Middle English Anchoritic Devotion, ed. Michelle M. Sauer and Jenny C. Bledsoe (Amsterdam University Press: 2021) and table of contents.

For our thematic meeting, Eleonora Rava (University of St Andrews) presented elements of her research in the context of the joint project on voluntary reclusion conducted by herself and Frances Andrews. Rava highlighted in particular her edition of Johannes Nider’s section on recluses in his work, Tractatus de secularium religionibus, and how Nider’s text challenges the idea that clerics and Church officials tended to repress recluses or channel them into monastic life. Rava also spoke about additional workshops, editions of liturgical sources, and maps relating to the project, Inside Speaker’s Corner: Late-medieval Italian Anchoresses in European Context (

Frances Andrews (University of St Andrews) spoke about their project’s aims in addressing on the one hand the types of sources, and on the other the broad geography relating to reclusion, and their development of a typology of “the ideal recluse” in order to discuss reclusion. Andrews also addressed the interactions which she and Rava had had with today’s prisoners about medieval reclusion. Their conversations with two long-term prisoners, charged with political crimes, on the subject of medieval reclusion, and these prisoners’ comments on passages from medieval texts about recluses, forms the basis for an article in the second Qrsm volume.

Michelle M. Sauer (University of North Dakota) addressed the subject of her co-edited volume with Jenny C. Bledsoe, namely, materiality as it relates to anchorites (a term used more in English sources). Sauer offered an expanded concept of materiality, especially through the integration of sound and voice into the study of manuscripts and shrines in churches. She also provided an update on her own mapping project of anchorholds and hermit locations in Britain. Finally, Sauer invoked the concept of “anchoritic adjacent” and its usefulness not only in describing historical people or phenomena but also in sharpening and defining the qualities of the “anchoritic” or “reclusive”.

Jenny C. Bledsoe (Northeastern State University, Broken Arrow) elaborated on the idea of the “anchoritic adjacent”, and addressed this concept especially in relation to manuscript studies. The “anchoritic adjacent” in this context are primarily texts circulating alongside anchoritic texts, for example in miscellanies. Building on the idea of anchoritic textual communities, Bledsoe discussed how the circulations of these groups of texts beyond their immediate anchoritic contexts suggest the influence of recluses in their societies. 

These presentations were followed by lively discussions over video and in the Zoom chat, a portion of which is summarized here: Isabelle Cochelin asked about the geographical distribution of sources, especially the normative sources, such as spiritual guides, customaries, and rules for recluses, the latter being a difficult category considering that these texts may not have had the same place in recluses’ lives as a monastic rule would for monks and nuns.[1] We discussed further the “anchoritic adjacent”, following a comment made by Laura Moncion concerning people who were recorded as spending a short period of time in a reclusorium (e.g. Christina of Markyate or Juliana of Mont-Cornillon). Alicia Smith and Eddie A. Jones suggested here that such instances of temporary reclusion might challenge the idea of reclusion as being a form of death to the world, despite the forbidding language of some profession documents. Rava pointed out that many recluses found in the Italian sources were “temporary”, and stayed in their enclosure for only a short period. The question of reclusorium over monastery was raised, as well as a recluse or anchorite’s enclosure with or without a proper ritual. Elizabeth Lehfeldt asked about socio-economic and communal reasons for reclusion, which prompted reflections on the relative wealth which some recluses could have. Andrews and Cochelin both added that our ability to answer this question may come down to a question of sources: wealthier recluses may be likely to have left more sources than poorer ones. Jones brought the discussion back to maps, and the various decisions involved in mapping reclusoria and anchorholds based on documentary and archaeological evidence. Andrews and Rava pointed to Rava’s recent work on the topic, showing the movement of recluses between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.[2] Kirsty Schut asked about early modern recluses, and Alicia Smith pointed to several examples of texts relating to these later recluses, edited in Jones’s recent volume.[3] Kate Bush invited the speakers to discuss the restriction and expansion of women’s speech in the context of reclusion. Bledsoe reflected on Ancrene Wisse’s instructions to recluses to teach their servants, as well as the dissemination of anchoritic literature, while Rava offered an example of a recluse acting as witness in a court case, suggesting the value placed on her voice in this context.

We thank all of the participants who attended this session for their attention, participation, and collaboration—and we extend special thanks to Andrews, Rava, Sauer, and Bledsoe for presenting their work.

[1] Bella Millett, “Can There Be Such a Thing as an ‘Anchoritic Rule’?” in Anchoritism in the Middle Ages: Texts and Traditions,ed. Catherine Innes-Parker and Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013): 11–30.

[2] Eleonora Rava, “Eremite in città. Il fenomeno della reclusione urbana femminile nell’età comunale : il caso di Pisa” Revue Mabillon 21 (2010): 139–62. 

[3] E. A. Jones, Hermits and Anchorites in England, 1200–1550 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).

Jeanne le Ber (1662–1714): A Recluse in New France

by Laura Moncion

Walking into the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Montréal, Québec, one could be forgiven for overlooking the simple marble plaque attached to the north-eastern wall. This marble slab marks the place where in 2005, amid much pomp and ceremony, were placed the mortal remains of Jeanne le Ber, the first known recluse of New France.[1]

Jeanne lived in a period when Ville-Marie was filled with non-cloistered religious women. Many of them were associated with the Hôtel Dieu hospital, or the teaching sisters of the Congrégation de Notre Dame, the foundations of which are attributed to two women, Jeanne Mance and Marguerite Bourgeoys, both non-cloistered religious for much of their lives. These women are considered today as important figures in the history of Montréal. 

Jeanne le Ber is less well-known, despite her recognition and status in her own time. Among several texts written about her, the earliest surviving is a spiritual biography written by the Sulpician Father François Vachon de Belmont (1645–1732) and sent in 1722 to his superiors in Paris as part of a report on sanctity in New France.[2]

According to Belmont’s biography, Jeanne was born into one of the more wealthy and respectable families of Ville-Marie. Her godparents were Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the governor of the colony, and Jeanne Mance herself. She was educated at the Ursuline house in Québec City, where, Belmont writes, she developed a particular interest in penitence and devotion to the Eucharist. Around the age of fifteen, her parents brought her back to Ville-Marie in order to enter the marriage market. Rather than accept any of the proposals made to her, or join a monastery or another female religious house, Jeanne ended up living in reclusion in her father’s house for around fifteen years. At age seventeen, she took a vow of chastity, valid for five years, and at age twenty-two a vow of perpetual virginity. Belmont frames these fifteen years as a period of transition, with Jeanne moving more and more decisively away from worldly interests—although he admits that she did not give them up completely. As a key reason for Jeanne’s choice of individual reclusion over life in a monastery, Belmont cites her aversion to a vow of poverty and desire to keep her own fortune in order to continue donating to the charitable causes of her choice.

Her biography describes how she used some of this money to build a chapel next to the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre Dame, with a special cell behind the altar, where she could live in close proximity to the Eucharist. She entered that cell to live permanently in approximately 1695, at the very symbolic age of 33. On this occasion, Belmont includes a comment from Marguerite Bourgeoys, praising Jeanne’s promise of devotion. As a church recluse, Jeanne spent her time in prayer and devotional reading, conversation with the sisters of the Congrégation through her cell window, and manual work embroidering liturgical vestments, some of which still exist today.[3]

In one of several medieval hagiographical tropes carried over into this later biography, Belmont describes Jeanne as willingly suffering from physical illnesses, refusing to add a garden to her cell space for fresh air or to light a fire in her room against the cold. He also writes that she wore hair shirts and performed several food-related ascetic practices, such as fasting, eating on the ground, and refusing wholesome food while happily drinking foul-tasting medicines. In October 1714, Jeanne died of one of these illnesses. Her body lay in state for three days in the chapel of the Congrégation Notre Dame, before being buried in the family plot. Borrowing another hagiographical trope, Belmont’s biography claims that two women were healed of scrofula, and one other of a persistent migraine, after visiting her tomb. 

Much of Jeanne’s biography is engaged in the argument that she consistently turned away from the world. Belmont’s narrative, however, includes references to the ways in which religious women could be part of the colonial project of New France. Jeanne’s prayers, one of which was written on a battle standard, apparently vanquished a fleet of invading English ships. One of the women healed by Jeanne’s tomb is described as Indigenous, suggesting the complex history of colonialism and Christianity in Canada. Moreover, Belmont’s purpose for writing this biography is explicitly to show God’s favour bestowed on French settlement in the “New World”. Jeanne’s biography contains many references to European devotional cultures and themes from medieval hagiography, but it cannot be divorced from its historical and geographical context.

The life of Jeanne le Ber demonstrates the longevity and adaptability of reclusion as one of many non-cloistered options for religious women. It also suggests a broad horizon of options for women’s religious lives in New France, and an understanding of how religious women and their forms of life—from hospital and teaching sisters to recluses—are all intertwined.

[1] New France was the French colony established on Turtle Island (North America) in the mid-sixteenth century, which forms the basis of today’s Canadian province of Québec. Ville-Marie was the settlement which became Montréal, located on the traditional and unceded land of several Indigenous nations, principally the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Huron-Wendat, the Abenaki, and the Anishnaabeg (Algonquin) peoples.

[2] François Vachon de Belmont, “Éloge de quelques personnes mortes en odeur de sainteté à Montréal, en Canada, divisé en trois parties” in Rapport de l’archiviste de la Province de Québec (1929–1930) pp. 144–166. Available online here: For more on Jeanne le Ber, see esp. Dominique Deslandres, “In the Shadow of the Cloister: Representations of Holiness in New France” in Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 1500–1800, ed. Allan Green and Jodi Bilinkoff (2003); Françoise Deroy-Pineau, Jeanne le Ber: La recluse au cœur des combats (2000); and


Partial Bibliography of Publications on Non-Cloistered Religious Women, 2020–21

Please see the summaries of The Other Sister Research Seminars for discussions of other recent works and works in progress. 

Another bibliography post of this kind will be forthcoming in early 2022; please contact or a member of our graduate student team if you have suggestions for this list. Suggestions for additional titles from 2020-21 may also be appended to this blog post in the comment section below.

Partial Bibliography of Publications on Non-Cloistered Religious Women, 2020-21

Pablo Acosta-García, ‘En viva sangre bañadas: Caterina da Siena y las vidas de María de Ajofrín, Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo y otras santas vivas castellanas’, Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà 33 (2020), 143–72. English summary available here.

_____, ‘Radical Succession: Hagiography, Reform, and Franciscan Identity in the Convent of the Abbess Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534)’, in Religions 12, 223 (2021). Discussed in The Other Sister Research Seminar on Iberian Non-Cloistered Religious Women.

Cristina Andenna, ‘Female Religious Life in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, in Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin World vol. 2, ed. A. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 1039–56.

Lucy Barnhouse, ‘Disordered Women? The Hospital Sisters of Mainz and Their Late Medieval Identities’, in Medieval Feminist Forum 55, 2 (2020), 60–97.

Nancy Ann Bauer, ‘“Moniales et sorores”: La distinción canónica entre monjas y hermanas con particular referencia a las benedictinas’, in Nova et vetera: pensamiento y mundo monástico 90 (2020), 109–43.

Giulia Barone, ‘Vivere la propria vocazione religiosae dentro e fuori dal chiostro’, in Vivere la Città: Roma nel Rinascimento, ed. I. Ait and A. Esposito (Viella, 2020), 189–204.

Alison I. Beach and Isabelle Cochelin, ‘General Introduction’, in Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West vol. 1, ed. A. I. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 1–16.

Marie Brassel, ‘Le cas des repenties à la fin du Moyen Âge entre la France et l’Italie’, in La fama delle donne. Pratiche femminili e società tra Medioevo ed Età moderna, ed. Vincenzo Lagioia, Maria Pia Paoli, and Rossella Rinaldi (Viella, 2020), 57–75.

Angela Carbone, Ritirate dalle cose del mondo. Donne e istituzioni nel Mezzogiorno moderno. Guida Editori, 2020.

Paula Cardosa, ‘Unveiling Female Observance: Reform, Regulation, and the Rise of Dominican Nunneries in Late Medieval Portugal’, in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 12 (2020), 365–82.

Megan Cassidy-Welch, ‘Lay Brothers and Sisters in the High and Late Middle Ages’, in Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West vol. 2, ed. A. I. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 1027–38.

Eva-Maria Cersovsky, ‘Ubi non est mulier, ingemiscit egens? Gendered Perceptions of Care from the Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries’, in Gender, Health and Healing, 1250–1550, ed. S. Ritchey and S. Strocchia (Amsterdam University Press, 2020), 191–214. Discussed in The Other Sister Research Seminar on Charity, Caregiving, and Female Social Roles from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period.

Elisa Novi Chavarria, Accogliere e curare. Ospedali e culture delle nazioni nella Monarchia ispanica (secc. XVI-XVII). Viella, 2020.

Eloise David, ‘Catherine of Siena: a Dominican Political Thinker in Fourteenth‐century Italy’, in Renaissance Studies: Journal of the Society for Renaissance Studies 35 (2021), 237–54.

Sylvie Duval, ‘Vierges et dames blanches. Communautés religieuses féminines à Milan, XIIe-XIVe siècles’, in Revue Mabillon 31 (2020), 81–107.

Anna Esposito, ‘Le donne in ospedale nell’Italia centro-settentrionale (fine XIV-inizio XVI secolo)’, in Alle origini del welfare: Radici medievali e moderne della cultura europea dell’assistenza, ed. G. Piccinni (Viella, 2020), 427–45.

Lucia Ferrante, ‘“Essendo massime avvezza a stare rinchiusa…”: Fama e segregazione di genere (Bologna, secc. XVI-XVII)’, in La fama delle donne. Pratiche femminili e società tra Medioevo ed Età moderna, ed. Vincenzo Lagioia, Maria Pia Paoli, and Rossella Rinaldi (Viella, 2020),  259–77.

Jeffrey Hamburger and Eva Schlotheuber, eds, The Liber ordinarius of Nivelles (Houghton Library, MS Lat 422): Liturgy as Interdisciplinary Intersection. Mohr Siebeck, 2020.

Isabel Harvey, ‘Braccio di ferro tra una terziaria domenicana e un convento maschile visto attraverso l’Inquisizione napoletana. Il processo per affettata santità contro suor Giovanna Cesarea di Napoli (1672-1682)’, in Donne e Inquisizione ed. Marina Caffiero and Alessia Lirosi (Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2020), 97-127.

Michelle Marie Herder, ‘Scandal and the Social Networks of Religious Women’, in Women and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia, ed.  M. Armstrong-Partida, A. Guerson, D. W. Lightfoot (University of Nebraska Press, 2020), 214–29.

Sigrid Hirbodian, ‘Religious Women: Secular Canonesses and Beguines’, in The Oxford Handbook of Christian Monasticism, ed. B. M. Kaczynski (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Laura Ingallinella, ‘The Canonization of Piccarda Donati’, in Forum Italicum (2021), 1–22.

Thomas Forrest Kelly and Martin Klöckener, eds. The Liber Ordinarius of the Abbey of Saint Gertrude at Nivelles : Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Lat. 422. Aschendorff Verlag, 2020.

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Katie Anne-Marie Bugyis, and John Van Engen, eds., Women Intellectuals and Leaders in the Middle Ages. Boydell and Brewer, 2020.

Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Hildegard of Bingen: Gospel Interpreter. Fortress Academic, 2020.

Racha Kirakosian, The Life of Christina of Hane. Yale University Press, 2021.

Lezlie S. Knox and David B. Couturier, Franciscan Women: Female Identities and Religious Culture in the Middle Ages. Franciscan Institute Publications, 2020. 

Vincenzo Lagioia, ‘“Sotto pretesto di riforme”: le monache di Santa Maria delle Convertite, tra infamia e santità (Bologna, sec. XVI)’, in  La fama delle donne. Pratiche femminili e società tra Medioevo ed Età moderna, ed. Vincenzo Lagioia, Maria Pia Paoli, and Rossella Rinaldi (Viella, 2020), 239–57.

Paulette L’Hermite-Leclercq, ‘Reclusion in the Middle Ages’, in Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin World vol. 2, ed. A. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 747–65.

Eliana Magnani, ‘Female House Ascetics from the Fourth to the Twelfth Century’, in in Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin World vol. 1, ed. A. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 213–31.

Corinne Marchal, Un âge d’or des chapitres des chapitres nobles de chanoinesses en Europe au XVIIIe siècle: le cas de la Franche-Comté. Brepols, 2021. 

Maya Maskarinec, ‘Nuns as “Sponsae Christi”: The Legal Status of the Medieval Oblates of Tor de’Specci’, in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 72 (2020), 280–99. 

Karen McLuskey, New Saints in Late Medieval Venice, 1200-1500. Routledge, 2020.

Julia I. Miller, ‘Eve, Mary, and Martha: Paintings for the Humiliati Nuns at Viboldone’ in Speculum 96 (2021), 418–65.

Tanya Stabler Miller, ‘Reviled and Revered: The Importance of Marginality in the Pastoral Care of Beguines’, in Rethinking Medieval Margins and Marginality, ed. A. E. Zimo, T. D. Van Sprecher, K. Reyerson, and D. G. Blumenthal (Routledge, 2020), 146–63.

Alison More, ‘Lay Piety and Franciscan Tertiary Identity’, in Non enim fuerat Evangelii surdus auditor, ed. M. Cusato and S. McMichael (Brill, 2020), 334–47.

Alison More and Anneke Mulder-Bakker, ‘Striving for Perfection in the Lay World of Northern Europe’, in Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin World vol. 2, ed. A. Beach and I. Cochelin (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 1057–73.

María Morrás, Rebeca Sanmartín Bastida, and Yonsoo Kim, eds., Gender and Exemplarity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain. Brill, 2020. 

Silvia Nocentini, ‘Una nuova Caterina o un nuovo Raimondo?: Elsbeth Achler (1386–1420), l’eccezione che conferma la regola’, in Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà 33 (2020), 25–41.

Mary Elizabeth Perry, ‘Chapter 5: Chastity and Danger’, in Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville (Princeton University Press, 2021), 97–117. 

Pierantonio Piatti, ed., Caterina da Siena e la vita religiosa femminile: un percorso domenicano. Campisano, 2020. 

Sara Ritchey, ed., Acts of Care: Recovering Women in Late Medieval Health. Cornell University Press, 2021.

Rebeca Sanmartín Bastida, ‘La emergencia de la autoridad espiritual femenina ‘ortodoxa’: El modelo de María de Ajofrín’, in Hispania Sacra, 72 (2020), 125–35. 

_____, ‘María de Santo Domingo, desde Aldeanueva’, in Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà, 33 (2020), 119–41. 

_____, ‘Performing Authority through Iconography: On Iberian Visionary Women and Images’, in The Routledge Hispanic Studies Companion to Medieval Iberia, ed. M. Gerli and R. Giles (Routledge, 2021), 600–20. 

Amanda Scott, The Basque Seroras: Local Religion, Gender, and Power in Northern Iberia, 1550–1800. Cornell University Press, 2020. Discussed in The Other Sister Research Seminar on Iberian Non-Cloistered Religious Women.

Jörg Voigt, ‘Paulerregelnonnen und Barfussenschwestern: Beginen im Umfeld der Dominikaner und Franziskaner in Leipzig im 15. und 16. Jahrhundert’, in Neue Forschungen zu sächsischen Klöstern. Ergebnisse und Perspektiven, ed. E. Bünz, D. M. Mütze, and S. Zinsmeyer (Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2020), 563–75.

Elise Watson, ‘The Jesuitesses in the Bookshop: Catholic Lay Sisters’ Participation in the Dutch Book Trade, 1650–1750’, in Studies in Church History 57 (2021), 163–84.

Alison Weber, ‘Espacio conventual postridentio: Clausura, disciplina, y caritas en dos comunidades de Carmelitas Descalzas’, in Lo spazio e i luoghi. Cultura Materiale, Storia religiosa, Patrimonio, ed. E. Marchetti. (Longo Editore, 2020), 151–67.

_____. ‘Chapter I: Little Women: Counter-Reformation Misogyny’, in Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity(Princeton University Press, 2021), 17–41.

Dream Vision and Butter Miracle: Non-Cloistered Religious Women in the Vita of Haseka the Recluse

by Laura Moncion

Often, small footnotes can lead to interesting discoveries. In her chapter on “Anchorites in German-speaking Regions” in Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe (2010), Gabriela Signori mentions a recluse named Haseka in passing, as one of two recluses commemorated by the secular canons of Böddecken, Westphalia, in the fifteenth century.[1] Intrigued by Signori’s description of Haseka’s vita as “remarkably unremarkable”, I followed this footnote and found a vita (or spiritual biography) which, though brief, offers some interesting and suggestive information regarding the situation of recluses and other types of non-cloistered religious women.[2] This vita offers an example of a female recluse, and it also shows other types of non-cloistered religious life for women.

Recluses—also often known as anchorites or solitaries—were people who lived religious lives enclosed in dwellings, known as reclusoria (singular reclusorium), cells, or anchorholds. Any scholarly defintion of this form of life must be slim enough to account for the wide variation in reclusion which existed throughout the Middle Ages, from solitary monks to forest hermits to house ascetics and more. The type of reclusion discussed in this blog post, and on which I focus my research, is one which involves living in some form of enclosure in or near an urban area, often in or beside a church, a form of life which became increasingly common among women in the later Middle Ages. 

The vita of Haseka is an example of this type of urban female reclusion. Her story appears as part of a martyrology compiled in the mid-fifteenth century by Hermann Greven, a Carthusian monk, based on the ninth-century martyrology of Usuard. Haseka is one of the new and local saints whom Greven added to his volume. According to the vita, she had lived in a cell attached to the church of Schermbeck, Westphalia, and died in 1261.

Regarding Haseka, the vita tells us that she came from the Rhineland region and lived for thirty-six years as a recluse attached to this church, where she devoted herself assiduously to prayer. One miracle is recorded, as well as Haseka’s death, and a struggle between two monasteries—one Cistercian, and one Benedictine—over the right to bury her body. The local bishop apparently got involved, and Haseka was disinterred and reburied in front of an audience of monks and laypeople. Finally, the vita narrates that after she had died, Haseka appeared to a pious widow in a dream vision, encouraging her in her faith. The author ends the vita by asserting that the cult of Haseka is alive and well in the region. 

Remarkably unremarkable? Perhaps. But there is more that can be said. This vita depicts a typical urban recluse in Haseka: she lives attached to a church, she is shown concentrated first and foremost on prayer, and yet there are also suggestions that she interacted with a variety of people, from laypeople to monks.

It is worth noting that this vita shows a tension between two monasteries attempting to seize control of the body and the possible cult of a holy female recluse. Further, as Signori’s original footnote indicates, Haseka was commemorated by secular canons in Böddecken, and Greven himself was a Carthusian in Cologne. Haseka, an obscure figure to twenty-first-century medievalists, was at least somewhat important to these various groups which included and claimed her.

The vita of Haseka also shines a light on other forms of non-cloistered religious life, including in the narration of her single miracle: one day, Haseka and her attendant, Berta, receive a pot of butter as a pious donation, which is unfortunately “stinking and rancid because of its old age” (butyrum prae vetustate sua foetidum ac corruptum). Eventually, Berta can no longer stand the stench, and tries to throw it out. Haseka apprehends her and, rather than dispose of the butter, beseeches God to make it palatable again. Miraculously, the butter is returned to a freshly-churned state.

Berta, the recluse’s attendant, is a key figure in the narration of this butter miracle. I use the term “attendant” here, because, like many non-cloistered religious women sought by this project, her status is somewhat unclear. The precise terms used for her in the text are conservaministra, and soror. There are suggestions that Berta’s status is in some way equal to the recluse’s: Haseka herself is also referred to as soror, and they apparently eat together, at the same table. However, Berta is not called a recluse herself, and may be placed outside the reclusorium rather than inside it: when they eat together, it is “one inside, and the other outside” (una intra, altera vero extra). Sister Berta suggests an interesting model of the non-cloistered religious woman, that of a recluse’s attendant who is also recognizable as a spiritual figure in her own right.

In the final section of the vita, the author describes Haseka appearing to a woman in a dream. The author describes this woman as “a certain noble and devoted widow” (cuidam nobili ac devotae viduae), who receives a sort of devotional pep talk from the departed recluse, telling her not to doubt or fear but to remain firm in her belief. Her designation as devota vidua suggests a certain spiritual status, along with her appearance as the privileged recipient of Haseka’s postmortem spiritual advice. This woman calls to mind the life of pious widowhood, another non-cloistered religious option for medieval women. Her connection to Haseka further suggests that these types of non-cloistered life were not isolated from one another, but rather existed as distinct but related elements of the medieval religious landscape.

The vita of Haseka is useful for the study of recluses, a form of non-cloistered religious life often undertaken by women. It is also a source for the history of non-cloistered religious women more broadly in its depiction of Berta and mention of a pious widow. This discussion has, I hope, provided an example of a text which opens a window onto the lives and representations of non-cloistered religious women—and further shown that where one such woman is found, many more are bound to appear.

[1] Gabriela Signori, “Anchorites in German-speaking regions” in Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe, ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2010) note 32 p. 48. This book—a collection of chapters on recluses, divided by geographic region—is an informative and fruitful source for the study of medieval recluses and much recommended to anyone interested in the topic.

[2] I contributed a translation of this vita to the Stanford Global Medieval Sourcebook project, which was published in January 2020. This translation was based on “De beata Haseka virgine reclusa in Westphalia” in AASS 26 January, vol. 3, 373–4. All quotations from the vita here are taken from the same edition.