All posts by Meghan Lescault

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

By Isabelle Cochelin

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

Fig. 1: École française du XVIIIe siècle. Marie Suzanne de Bremond d’Ars, with the insignia of a canoness. https://www.invaluable.com/auction-lot/ecole-francaise-du-xviiie-siecle-marie-suzanne-de-22-c-5814f27b05#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Other Sister research seminar: secular canonesses

By Meghan Lescault

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

  • Sigrid Hirbodian, “Religious Women: Secular Canonesses and Beguines,” in The Oxford Handbook of Christian Monasticism, edited by Bernice M. Kaczynski. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020;
  • and “Weibliche Herrschaft – männliche Herrschaft? Stiftsdamen und –herren im Vergleich,” in Frauenstifte – Männerstifte (Schriften zur südwestdeutschen Landeskunde), edited by Oliver Auge, Sigrid Hirbodian, and Friederike Schnack. Ostfildern: Thorbecke Verlag, forthcoming in 2022. (An English summary of the secondary article can be found here.)
  • Eva Schlotheuber, “Pilgrims, the Poor, and the Powerful: The Long History of the Women of Nivelles,” in The Liber ordinarius of Nivelles (Houghton Library, MS Lat 422): Liturgy as Interdisciplinary Intersection, edited by Jeffrey H. Hamburger and Eva Schlotheuber, 35–96. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020.
  • Steven Vanderputten, “They Lived Under That Rule as Do Those Who Have Succeeded Them: Simultaneity and Conflict in the Foundation Narratives of a French Women’s Convent,” The Downside Review 139, no. 1 (2021): 82–97.
  • For more information on the topic, please refer to Vanderputten’s new book: Steven Vanderputten, Dismantling the Medieval: Early Modern Perceptions of a Female Convent’s Past (Turnhout: Brepols, 2021). Open access link: https://www.brepolsonline.net/action/showBook?doi=10.1484/M.STMH-EB.5.122603.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Iberian Non-Cloistered Religious Women

By Gustave Ineza and Meghan Lescault

On May 7, 2021, The Other Sister research group hosted a seminar on the topic of Iberian non-cloistered religious women. Three invited speakers presented their research and discussed some of their specific projects which the participants had the chance to examine prior to the meeting:

  • Núria Jornet Benito, Claustra, http://www.ub.edu/claustra/eng/info; Spiritual Landscapes, http://www.ub.edu/proyectopaisajes/index.php; and Monastic Landscapes, https://www.ub.edu/proyectomonastic/en/.
  • Pablo Acosta-García, “Radical Succession: Hagiography, Reform, and Franciscan Identity in the Convent of the Abbess Juana de la Cruz (1481–1534),” Religions 12, no. 3 (2021), https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030223; and “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): 143–172. (An English summary of the second article can be found here.)
  • Amanda L. Scott, The Basque Seroras: Local Religion, Gender, and Power in Northern Iberia, 1550–1800 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020).

Núria Jornet Benito, Professor of Library Science and Documentation at the Universitat de Barcelona, presented the results and challenges of a series of collaborative projects undertaken by a team of researchers interested in feminine spirituality. The work on the topography of feminine spirituality led to the Claustra project, the principal result of which was a map that catalogued spaces of female spirituality between the twelfth and the fifteenth century in the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula and southern Italy. The points on the map give access to a catalogue file containing historical, archaeological, and architectural data about different religious groups through these centuries, including groups of non-cloistered women. Jornet Benito then discussed how a second project, Spiritual Landscapes, provided a new framework for engaging with the spatial turn in the study of female spirituality. It places monasteries in terms of their surroundings with a broad cartographic focus. The use of digital tools played a major role, as the team was able to pinpoint the exact locations of monasteries and their estates, analyze trends in their properties, and use geographical information systems (GIS) to systematize methodologies for the analysis of monastic documents, such as cartularies. The project allowed the researchers to recreate the internal topography of monasteries and to analyze objects and their functions in relation to spaces. They have also been able to engage in the analysis of networks, for example, the networks between mother houses and reformed monasteries. The third and current project, Monastic Landscapes, engages with the performative turn through the study of the ritual, liturgical drama, and processions of monasteries. It also focuses on the study of monastic sites and excavations of monasteries from an archaeological perspective.

Pablo Acosta-García, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, unfortunately was unable to attend to meeting. His presentation was read by Sergi Sancho Fibla, postdoctoral researcher at the Université catholique de Louvain. Acosta-García explained that the articles that he shared for this meeting are part of a larger project (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Late Medieval Visionary Women’s Impact in Early Modern Castilian Spiritual Tradition, Grant Agreement 842094), the second and current phase of which involves evaluating the impact that writings had on religious communities and on reforms promoted by Cardinal Cisneros. He noted that certain penitential and devotional characteristics of the Castilian religious women include the development of an extreme religious phenomenology, including the production of new mystical literature, and he argued that their reliance on previous models of sanctity indicates the medieval dissemination of hagiographic narratives and religious writing by European women in Castile. What Acosta-García did was to show that Cisneros worked to disseminate these models for female religious at the same time that he was promoting his reform of female religious houses. When Cisneros implemented his reform, he had some of those works by or on mystical women, such as Catherine of Siena, Angela of Foligno, and Mechthild of Hackeborn printed and made available to a larger audience. Acosta-García noted the use of specific narratives taken from Catherine of Siena’s hagiography in writings on Iberian women. Moreover, he discussed the first instance of hagiography on the Franciscan abbess Juana de la Cruz as a good example of what Gabriella Zarri called “scrittura communitaria.” In this account the community of the Convent of Santa Maria in Cubas de la Sagra (Toledo) created their own chronicle of the convent from the point of view of the reform. In this sense their abbess is seen not only as a charismatic figure, but also as a model of extreme penance. Issues about the identity of these “cloistered tertiaries” were also mentioned.

Amanda L. Scott, Assistant Professor of History at the Pennsylvania State University, spoke about her research on Early Modern Basque seroras, women who were neither married nor nuns and were hired to care for church property and to assist with the liturgy. Uncloistered seroras typically served in pairs. Although these women numbered in the thousands, even surpassing the numbers of male secular clergy in the same area, they have received little attention from scholars. Scott explained that the seroras led celibate lives but took no vows and could leave their positions at any time. She noted that they had more autonomy and independence than other women as a result of compromises made between them and church officials regarding acceptable places for women. Their compromises also allowed them to last into the eighteenth century and beyond in some cases. Scott described their distinct role, which was well established and prestigious in the Basque dioceses: the seroras went through a process of examination and licensing and received clerical immunity, housing, and a competitive stipend paid in alms or by the priest of the parish where they served. Scott gave an overview of her book on the subject and discussed the following themes that the topic of the seroras can help us to navigate: the impact of local circumstances on the development of the devout lay life, the impact of religious and secular reforms on female religious life, compensation for women’s work, and instances of inconsistency in the application of religious reform. She also presented pictures of the houses in which the seroras lived, called serorias, which were located very close to the churches where they worked.

A stimulating discussion followed these presentations. The very familiar topics of terminology and identity, which have animated previous seminars, returned as prominent themes in the conversation, this time in relation to Iberian non-cloistered women. In response to a question about the potential problems involved in the identification of communities of beatas who became nuns, Jornet Benito explained that difficulties arose in the creation of the atlas because there was no documentation when a group of women made such a transition and because a plurality of names existed for some groups. Delfi Nieto, a fellow member of the project with Jornet Benito, elaborated on this point, adding that one individual woman could be called a beguine, tertiary, or other names depending on who is writing and how she is known. Nieto explained that for this reason, the team decided to refer to these kinds of women collectively as mulieres religiosae and to assign a specific group identity only to those who were explicitly identified as such. Scott related the confusion of terminology to the seroras, noting that they were described as beatas or even nuns in some documents. She clarified, however, that this discrepancy may have been the product of an on-the-spot translation from Basque to Castilian by bilingual notaries.

One particular facet of identity, that of canonical status, was addressed by Alison More. Expressing an interest in the topic of Tridentine reform and its importance for the seroras, More asked Scott if they had a status in canon law, what authority they had, and from whom they would have received such authority. Scott explained that while localities and dioceses both claimed to have authority over the seroras, it remains an unresolved conflict. She noted that the seroras, did, however, have ecclesiastical immunity.

Related to the question of identity is the question of influence, and this topic, a notable aspect of Acosta-García’s work, was introduced to the discussion when Isabelle Cochelin asked about the current of influence moving from Italy to Spain in terms of the beatas who existed prior to Cisneros’ reform. Sancho Fibla answered with reference to Acosta-García’s article that the living figures of the Observant Movement were greatly influenced by Italian models due to Cisernos’ promotion of them. He added that besides this he cannot see the clear influence of Italian spirituality before the early fifteenth century. Jodi Bilinkoff reminded the group about the possibility of an intermediate translation of a text such as Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue: given Valencia’s proximity to Italy, perhaps the text was first translated from Italian to Valencian and subsequently brought westwards and translated into Castilian. Nieto offered the clarification that the first current of influence flowed southwards from the Occitan territories across the Pyrenees into Spain. She explained that the Catalan sources of southern France spoke of beguines but simultaneously called them beatas and that this term crossed over into Iberia. Nieto specified that the Italian influence did not appear until the later Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Sylvie Duval further clarified that the influence of Italy, and specifically of Catherine of Siena, on the Castilian women must be understood in the context of the Observant reform in which Cisneros was paradoxically using the life of Catherine, a mantellata, as a model for the reform of the Spanish convents.

The discussion regarding the seroras, on the other hand, touched on their role as the influencers rather than the influenced. In response to a question about whether the seroras could be used as instruments of the Church to promote reform, Scott noted that parishioners citing Tridentine reforms as justification in conflict with their priests (despite general ignorance of what the decrees actually said) were likely repeating what they had heard from the seroras, who would have picked up on some aspects of the reform from the documents of the synods of Navarre that were sent to every parish. She clarified that despite their possible function as a mouthpiece for reform, the seroras were more of a stabilizing, rather than reforming, presence. Scott discussed how it would have been regarded as a disruption to reform the seroras due to the nature of their positions. For example, the seroras had an advantage in being well-informed about the misbehavior of priests and were often called upon by dioceses to testify in cases involving clerical misconduct. Moreover, in describing how the seroras were able to survive as a group, Scott explained that rather than being seen as unattached religious women with spiritual associations, the seroras were considered as diocesan employees with a “normal, boring job,” one, however, that would be destructive to the church if removed.

While the seroras may have embraced normal, boring jobs, this discussion further proved that the other sister, specifically in her Iberian form, is far from normal and boring.

An English summary of an Article by Pablo Acosta-García

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): 143–172.

A Summary in English by Camila Walls Castillo

If citing the following summary, please give this reference:

Pablo Acosta-García, “En viva sangre bañadas: Caterina da Siena y las vidas de María María de Ajofrín, Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo y otras santas vivas castellanas” Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà, XXXIII (2020) 143-72. English Summary by Camila Walls Castillo. https://othersisters.hypotheses.org/239

In this study, Pablo Acosta-García investigates representations of female holiness on the Iberian Peninsula during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By engaging in a detailed comparative analysis of hagiographic texts, the author’s principal objective is to analyse the extent to which late-medieval Italian models of sanctity influenced the phenomenology and narration present in early modern Hispanic mysticism. As his principal point of comparison, Acosta-García looks to the work of Raymond of Capua, confessor and biographer of Catherine of Siena, and contextualizes his Legenda major as a fundamental hagiographic text, whose structure, narrative patterns, and mystic phenomenology served as a model for the written histories of later women-religious in Castile. The author takes into account a multitude of specific narrative elements, but places a particular focus on two stages in the holy woman’s lifecycle: childhood and maturity — emphasizing during this latter category the penitential traits of a saint’s life, specifically looking for codified hagiographic themes through their expressions of stigmata, and their discussion of the  process of stigmatization. The author then discusses the reliability of hagiographic influence through oral tradition, and further supports the dissemination of earlier traditions by assessing the connections these women had with their contemporary Italian counterparts. Ultimately, through a detailed review of temporal setting, physical phenomenon, and narrative arrangement, he successfully establishes the appropriation of a late medieval tradition in early modern Castilian hagiographic literature, and makes further evident the ways in which this model had evolved, diversified, and been reformed by Hispanic mysticism. 

Puella senex: Models of Saintly Childhood

Acosta-García begins by contextualizing Italian models of female sanctity through the example of beloved fourteenth-century mystic, Catherine of Siena (pg. 146). He proposes that the narrative framework of her vita, which hinges upon the division between stages of her life, provides a structural basis for later hagiographic work, the influence of which is best understood through Castilian portrayals of santa niñez (sacred childhood) and madurez (maturity) (pg. 148-149).

The narrative elements in Raymond’s telling follow a distinct pattern within each cycle.

In childhood, a holy woman is first introduced by her status, then by emphasizing the moral character of her parents, and finally, by highlighting the abundance of her family’s temporal goods (pg. 150). In this way, the author suggests that the holy child is cast in one of two roles, each representing distinct models of sacred childhood distinguished by the period in which the vitae were written: the noble child who is understood as having inherited her sanctity from birth, which is typical in narratives from the seventeenth century onward; or the secular child or puella senex (the old girl), who becomes sacred through the renunciation of worldly life at a young age, typical from earlier models of sanctity (beginning in the sixteenth century). Of these two categories, María García de Toledo (1340-1426), Beatriz da Silva (1424/1437-1492), and María de Toledo (1437-1507) represent the noble women-religious. Acosta-García remarks that the hagiographer’s insertion of noble holy women within larger late histories of the mendicant orders, suggests a “distinct aristocratic genealogy, which highlights their roots,” and echoes late medieval conceptions about the sanctity of their lineage (pg. 151). 

            The latter category therefore represents secular holy women, the group to which Catherine of Siena belongs, who is described as being “from a humble generation, but abounded in temporal goods.” (pg. 150).  This narrative element is later adopted in the lives of Hispanic secular mystics, such as María de Ajofrín (1455-1489) with respect to her parents, who “feared the Lord greatly, always walking in his commandments, and had an abundance of temporal goods,” (pg. 153) and is subsequently echoed in the description of Juana de la Cruz (1481-1534), who was said to be “… of good and Christian parents, virtuous and clean in customs, and people of an average way” (pg. 153).

Acosta-García uses the analogy of the puella senex to describe these women, who faced with an inability to claim inherited sanctity as a natural justification for their path towards holiness, must instead come to it episodically, through a development of virtues that indicated the maturity of their faith exceeded the capacities of their age. The author argues that the path of the puella senex can be understood through four distinct phases: the confirmation of one’s holy vocation through a vision; the appropriation of penitential traits in imitation of the desert fathers; the vow of virginity; and the development of virtuous habits (temperance in dressing, abstinence in eating and drinking, and sobriety in her sleeping habits) (pg. 154).

In the life of Catherine, this development of virtue is largely related to her struggle to maintain her status as a virgin. Her Legenda states that upon realizing the expectation for her to marry, Catherine cut off her hair in an act of rebellion. This narrative element is reiterated in the life of María de Ajofrín, who faced with familial pressures to marry was said to have “valiantly resisted both the world and her relatives,” (pg. 155) as well as in the life of María de Toledo, who “did not delight in boasts, nor consent to dirty her ears with them… attributing everything she had to God” (pg. 156). Acosta-García pointedly remarks that these worldly marital renunciations underscore two important features of the sacred soul, the physical (beauty) and the moral (virtue), suggesting that “these two themes are linked, since physical attractiveness, on the one hand, platonically reflects the cleanliness of the soul, and on the other, reinforces at the narrative level the denial of worldly life in favour of adopting a life related to penitential ideals” (pg. 154).

Regardless of their status at birth, Acosta-García concludes that the path towards holiness in childhood culminated in divine betrothal. This mystical union signified a solidification of the holy woman’s vows, representing a crucial turning point in the life of a saint. Raymond of Capua establishes this in his Legenda major by detailing a visionary exchange of a diamond ring between Christ and Catherine (pg. 158). We can see this exchange echoed in the life of Juana de la Cruz, where the Virgin Mary serves as espousal intermediary: “Our Lady the Virgin Mary took a ring from her precious finger and gave it to the sacred son so that he could give it, from his hand, to his wife. And so it was done, that the Child Jesus himself gave it to her, and put it in her hand” (p. 158).  The visionary’s betrothal as narrative element thus marks the young woman’s transition from holy child, to Bride of Christ — a pattern that is clearly reflected in hagiographies of the Iberian Peninsula during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  

The Mature Holy Woman: Penitence, Ecstasy, Stigmata

Acosta-García suggests that at a basic level, two distinct features of later medieval piety are clearly reflected in the biographies of Castilian holy women as they narrate their adulthood: the intermediary nature of sacred images, and a clear Christocentric devotion, with a strong eucharistic focus (pg. 158). The Legenda major by Raymond presents these elements several times throughout Catherine’s short life (her vocation for a life of faith as a result of her vision of Christ; her stigmata occurring while before a crucifix; the miracle of the Host flying towards her mouth), and it is subsequently evident in the lives of Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo,  María de Ajofrín (pg. 159).

Yet, in order to truly assess the dissemination of an earlier hagiographic tradition in early modern Spain, the author looks to the more penitential aspects of these women’s lives, particularly their experiences of stigmata. He begins this portion of the analysis by underscoring a distinction made by Jacques Dalarun, between the stigmatization (the “cause” or process by which marks are received) and the stigmata (the “effect,” or wounds, free from casual narrative). Acosta-García reminds us that only in the lives of María de Ajofrín and Juana de la Cruz are we presented with an account of the stigmatization process. In these examples, we see a stark resemblance to the Catherinian model, which can once again be understood through the replication of distinct narrative themes: first, the stigmata occur during a highlighted sacred period of time on the liturgical calendar (Holy Thursday/Good Friday); second, it makes the location of the wounds explicit (side of body, under ribs, hands and feet); third, it speaks of witnesses which can attest to the stigmata’s authenticity, in some cases through notarized documents (pg. 161).

However, Acosta-García notes that the Hispanic tradition departs from the Catherinian model in the raw and graphic physical representation of these women’s blessed wounds. The stigmatization process (at least in the earliest, original account which was most disseminated in Castile at the time of these Castilian “sante vive”), for example, clearly emphasizes the imperceptibility of Catherine’s wounds. Catherine is said to have experienced the pains of the passion while standing before the crucifix, in areas highlighted by rays of light which radiated off the holy symbol (pg. 161). In contrast to this invisible portrayal, in the life of María de Ajofrín we see that “there appeared such a deep gash, that it seemed to have been cut open with a razor… which remained open for twenty full days, her blood flowing more on Friday’s than on any other day.” The integration of carnal suffering with the repeated holy significance of Friday, is also echoed in the life of Juana de la Cruz, where it is said “[s]he possessed the glorious marks and increasing pains from the morning of Good Friday to the Day of Ascension” (pg. 166). The author notes that these narrative patterns, while ostensibly maintaining a Catherinian framework, more closely resemble narrative patterns seen in the lives of their contemporary Italian tertiaries, such as Lucia Brocadelli da Narni (1476-1544), who also bled on Fridays (pg. 166). Moreover, with respect to witness testimony, in the life of Lucia we see a rigorous notarial procedure that is echoed in the life of María de Santo Domingo. María who hosted judges which, in the process of their verification, confirmed precisely the location, shape, and blood flow of the wound, in order to “inspire faith of its factuality” (pg. 164). Much like the parallels which can be drawn between Lucia and María, so too can they be drawn between another Italian contemporary, Domenica Narducci da Paradiso (1473-1553), whose influence is perhaps present in the life of Juana de la Cruz with respect to her experience of ecstasy, prior to stigmatization. It is said of both these women, that their confessors found them strewn on the floor in the form of a cross, representing their visions of the crucifixion amidst their rapture, a narrative element which also serves to “surpass” the Catherinian model by placing a heightened emphasis on the physicality of stigmatization (pg. 170).

Ultimately, Acosta-García establishes that Catherinian models of holiness, integrated into larger models of late medieval Italian feminine piety, may have become known to these Hispanic mystics through an oral tradition that was facilitated by their connections to contemporary Italian holy women and their confessors.

Conclusion

As he concludes his argument, Acosta-García proposes that we bear in mind how these texts deliberately prevent us from knowing “where the narration of biographical facts end, and where the codification of hagiographic tradition begins” (p. 171).  Furthermore, he leaves us to ponder: are these coincidences indicative of an explicit imitation by these women of a known model? Or, is it instead the specific interests of the author, often a confessor or historian of mendicant orders, which informs the creation of these histories? His analysis nevertheless confirms, through the narrative structures of santa niñez and madurez, that these histories represent a knowledge of earlier Italian models of holiness —not simply of the fourteenth-century Catherinian model, but also of models created by holy women living contemporaneously with them in the fifteenth century; “that group of women which Bartolomei Romagnoli would call the ‘spirituale milizia femminile’” (pg. 171). This knowledge is particularly evident in the descriptions of Castilian stigmatics, who elevate their status beyond the Catherinian model through the graphic nature of their stigmatizations, such that they do not simply communicate a likeness to Christ, but instead, a total assimilation with Christ in his passion. In addition to pointing out these transgressive appropriations, he asserts the importance of looking to the models laid down by contemporary Italian women for future hagiographic comparison, such as Lucia Broccadelli da Narni and Domenica Narducci da Paradiso, who facilitated in “the negotiation of new forms and significances of the stigmata” among the female-religious of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (p. 172).

Does Purple Preclude Piety?: Jacques de Vitry’s Disapproval of Secular Canonesses

By Meghan Lescault

In looking for clerical supporters of medieval non-cloistered religious women, the name of Jacques de Vitry (c. 1160–1240) may come to mind. Jacques, a regular canon, bishop, scholar, preacher, and author was a vocal promoter of the beguines, a role which may be seen in his sermons and his Vita of Marie d’Oignies. His enthusiasm for the non-cloistered, however, did not extend to all such women, and certainly not to the secular canonesses.

Secular canonesses were women from noble families who held prebends attached to collegiate churches where they had liturgical duties. They could renounce their prebends at any time and leave the community, usually in order to marry. They have received little attention in modern religious historiography, partly because they have been associated with a lack of traditional piety, a view that has its roots in the minds of some of the canonesses’ medieval contemporaries. As Jacques de Vitry holds such a view, a piece of his writing offers an early example of rigid disapproval of their form of life. Other ecclesiastical figures took issue with the canonesses,[1] seemingly because they were not nuns despite bearing some resemblance to them, but Jacques’ disdain is more surprising at first sight given his support for the beguines. It may be the case, however, that Jacques’ admiration for the modest life of the beguine was the cause of his apparent distaste for the wealthy canonesses.

Jacques devoted several chapters of his Historia occidentalis to various religious groups. A brief glance at the titles of these chapters may well reveal his view of the “ideal” religious life. Straightforward explanations such as De cysterciensibus and De canonicis Sancti Victoris stand in contrast to the title of the thirty-first chapter: De irregularitate secularium canonicarum. While “irregularity” in the ecclesiastical context means that the secular canonesses did not follow a rule, one cannot help but notice the pejorative sense it has for Jacques when reading what follows.

In describing the canonesses, Jacques paints a picture of opulence, laxity, and immodesty. He places secular nobility and religious piety in contrast to each other and elaborates on the canonesses’ material comfort:

Hee siquidem adeo personas accipiunt, quod non nisi filias militum et nobilium in suo collegio uolunt recipere, religioni et morum nobilitati et seculi nobilitatem preferentes. Purpura autem et bysso et pellibus grisiis et aliis iocunditatis sue uestibus induuntur, circumdate uarietatibus cum tortis crinibus et ornatu pretioso circumamicte ut similitude templi, gaudentes cum gaudentibus, liberales ualde et hospitales.[2]

If indeed they do accept people, they do not wish to receive anyone except daughters of knights and nobles into their society, preferring the nobility of the world to religion and nobility of mores. Moreover, they wear purple cotton and gray fur and other garments that delight them. They are enveloped in clothing of various colors with their hair curled and are covered in costly embellishment like a temple. They rejoice with the joyful and are very generous and hospitable.[3]

While this last aspect of his description has a potentially positive tone, Jacques quickly makes his overall position clear by discussing the sumptuous nature of their feasts and their freedom to leave the community for a time and to visit with their families and friends. He disapproves of their liturgical partnership with secular canons and portrays its apparent dangers in no uncertain terms:

Ipse uero, uelut sirens in delubris uoluptatis uocem iocunditatis annuntiantes, ipsos canonicos, dum superari nesciunt, fessos et fatigatos frequenter reddiderunt. Similiter et in processionibus, composite et ornate, canonici ex una parte et domine ex alia parte concinentes, procedunt.[4]

Indeed, just as Sirens proclaiming their call of delight in temples of pleasure, they have frequently wearied and tired the canons who are not aware that they are overcome. And similarly in processions, they proceed in an orderly and splendid manner while singing together, the canons from one side and the ladies from the other.

As if their status vis-à-vis the clerics was not enough, Jacques goes on to discuss the canonesses’ ability to leave their positions and marry, likely holding this in contrast to forms of life that required a permanent commitment. If his view of these women was not clear by this point, he lays all of his cards on the table with the following statement near the end of the chapter:

Aliquas autem ex ispsarum congregatione uidimus, que, saniori use consilio de Hur chaldeorum et de medio Babylonis fugientes, postquam mundi incendia euaserunt, sumpto cysterciensis ordinis habitu, ad magnum perfectionis cumulum peruenerunt.[5]

We have seen some of them who have taken sounder advice and have fled from Ur of the Chaldees and from the middle of Babylon, and after they have escaped the fire of the world, they have taken the habit of the Cistercian Order and have reached the high height of perfection.

Jacques clearly does not condone what he regards as the too worldly life of the secular canoness, and he goes so far as to promote the Cistercian Order as the salvific antidote. His identification of female monasticism with “the high height of perfection,” however, stands in contradiction to his admiration for the beguines, whose lives certainly differed from those of the Cistercians in many aspects. It seems to be the case that Jacques has a vision of ideal female piety that incorporates characteristics of cloistered women and beguines alike but does not accommodate the customs of the canonesses. This leaves the question of whether curled hair, abundant food, and coed liturgical processions can truly determine the presence or absence of piety and religious devotion. This is an important question for scholars to raise when revisiting such groups of women.


[1] Examples include the French Cluniac canonist Guilelmus de Monte Laudano, the Italian canonist Johannes Andreae, and the Italian canonist Cardinal Franciscus Zabarella. See Elizabeth Makowski, A Pernicious Sort of Woman: Quasi-religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), especially chapter 1.

[2] Jacques de Vitry, Historia Occidentalis, chapter 31. All Latin text is from Jacques de Vitry, The Historia Occidentalis of Jacques de Vitry, trans. John Frederick Hinnebusch, O.P. (Fribourg: University Press, 1972).

[3] Translations are my own.

[4] Jacques de Vitry, Historia Occidentalis, chapter 31.

[5] Ibid.

THE OTHER SISTER RESEARCH SEMINAR: Naming The Other Sister: Tertiary, Lay, or Penitent?

By Gustave Ineza and Meghan Lescault

On February 8, 2021 the Other Sister research group held its fourth thematic meeting entitled Naming the Other Sister: Tertiary, Lay, or Penitent? The meeting’s goal was to discuss the problems behind the nomenclature and the status of groups of religious laywomen in the Middle Ages, especially those attached to the Dominican and Franciscan orders.

The following chapters had been pre-distributed and read by all the participants:

Augustine Thompson, “Dominican Penitents to 1286” and “The Penitents of St. Dominic, 1286–1415” in Secular Dominicans: Penitents, Tertiaries, and Laity of the Order of Preachers (unpublished work in progress).

Mary Harvey Doyno, “Envisioning an Order: The Last Lay Saints” in The Lay Saint: Charity and Charismatic Authority in Medieval Italy, 1150-1350 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019).

Alison More, “Penitents and the Institutionalization of Penitential Life in the Thirteenth Century” in Fictive Orders and Feminine Religious Identities, 1200-1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Alison Weber, “Introduction: Devout Laywomen in the Early Modern World: The Historiographic Challenge,” in Devout Laywomen in the Early Modern World, ed. Alison Weber (London; New York: Routledge, 2016).

The meeting commenced with Fr. Augustine Thompson, Mary Harvey Doyno, and Alison More presenting their research. Unfortunately, Alison Weber was unable to attend.

Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., Professor of History and Theology Department Chair at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California remarked that he had already noticed problems with the so-called Rule of Munio of Zamora, Master of the Dominican Order in the thirteenth century, when writing his book Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125–1325. Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner’s discovery of what Munio actually wrote explained the anachronisms in the old Rule, which we now know dates to the early 1400s.Thompson’s new book project on penitents is connected to his book Dominican Brothers: Conversi, Lay, and Cooperator Friars. He demonstrated the importance of collaboration on these topics, as Mary Harvey Doyno’s research reminded him of the need to be aware of hagiographic stereotyping and the possibility of subjects’ lives being rewritten by the hagiographers, while Alison More’s project alerted him to the danger of assuming that normative documents identify lived practices.

Mary Harvey Doyno, Associate Professor in the Humanities and Religious Studies Department at California State University, Sacramento, explained that her chapter was trying to make sense of the disappearance of lay civic sanctity in the fourteenth century. The civic saint had often become male, while women were being more closely associated with an internal spiritual struggle. Indeed, women’s participation in civic sanctity had created a need for more precise regulatory measures for lay penitents and had resulted in definite gender roles for the ideal religious life. From there Doyno came to the broader question of the connection between the building of an institution and women’s involvement in it. She looked to Thomas Caffarini’s work on Catherine of Siena and asked how the writings of the Observant Reform Movement allowed for the institutional growth of the Dominican Order. She also pointed to San Sisto, the “universal convent” for all the female religious of Rome, as an instance of institutional growth accompanied by an attempt to define religious women.

Alison More, Assistant Professor and holder of the Comper Professorship of Medieval Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, and one of the co-investigators in the Other Sister research project, discussed the difficulties involved in studying women (and men) who wanted to live religious lives outside of the established boundaries. She noted the tendency of medieval canonists and modern scholars alike to try to fit them into neat categories, and she reminded the group that the ideas of “order” and “identity” remain open questions and that it is necessary to start “coloring outside the lines” in order to depart from the traditional narrative. These groups who did not fit into precise categories were more common than those who did. In fact, More has found that the “other sister” has always been with us and urged the meeting’s participants to embrace all of her anomalies and to engage in an ongoing conversation in order to hear her voice.

Thankfully, a piece of this ongoing conversation immediately followed. As More pointed to the question marks attached to the notions of “order” and “identity,” it is no surprise that these topics were among the main subjects of discussion. On the topic of the various names of these groups of women, such as beguines, bizzoche, pinzochere, and mantellatae, Doyno and More answered that we do not know exactly how these names arose. More noted that some names refer to the activities performed by the women—the coquenune being “nuns” who cooked—while Thompson spoke about the relationship that sometimes existed between the name of the group and the clothing of its members, as in the case of the mantellatae, meaning “veiled women.” More added that the women themselves did not create these names, and she pointed to Jacques de Vitry’s description of beguines as women who are commonly called beguines (by others) rather than women who call themselves beguines.

Related to the question of terminology is the question of definition. Doyno used the example of thirteenth-century Santa Maria in Tempuli in Rome where sources indicate the presence of laywomen in addition to the nuns there. She spoke of her attempt to understand how an effort was made to define all of these women as nuns. Noting that the Observant Reform Movement had the effect of monasticizing tertiaries, she explained that we generally have to take a “both…and” rather than an “either…or” approach with respect to tertiaries and nuns.

Not far from the topic of identity is the topic of community, another theme that significantly shaped the conversation. Greti Dinkova-Bruun asked at what point a community is made, if it is defined by numbers, and what prompts these regularizing impulses in the first place. Doyno mentioned the listing of names of members as one potential indicator of the legitimate existence of a community, while Thompson answered that the group can function independently as a community when at least one member has sufficient resources. More tied these “regularizing impulses” to the ideas of crisis and institutionalization. Although there were women living religious lives outside of traditional monastic settings for centuries, a tendency towards categorization was more pronounced in the thirteenth century. At that point, there were enough of these women to give rise to questions about their identity.

When discussing such women, the topic of cura mulierum often arises. Isabelle Cochelin asked how confessors were chosen by these women, if they were chosen at all. Doyno discussed the particular case of Margaret of Cortona for whom a confessor was chosen by the local Franciscans as a way of monitoring her and ensuring that she was free from heresy. F. Thomas Luongo spoke about Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua: it seems that Raymond was attached to Catherine because of her lofty reputation and her diplomatic missions. Thompson added his thought that Raymond was assigned to Catherine as a handler rather than a confessor. According to him, the situation with confessors changed considerably over time with religious orders becoming more involved in assigning confessors to different groups by the time of the institutionalization of the penitents in the fourteenth century. More noted the complexity of the situation, explaining that the confessor-penitent relationships seem to have as many varieties as the penitents themselves. When Gustave Ineza asked how a confessor could be a handler if he could not violate the seal of confession, More responded that the interactions between these confessors and penitents were akin to spiritual direction in modern parlance rather than sacramental confession. Thompson added that even in the case of sacramental confession, the seal was not absolute if the penitent gave permission for the confessor to reveal what she had said.

While the conversation about the “other sister” must go on, this meeting proved to be a good stop along the road.