All posts by Isabel Harvey

Call for papers, RSA 2022 – Dublin. Non-Cloistered Religious Women: Between World and Church

Beguines are trendy: many websites and novels are dedicated to them. But who were they? Their rediscovery created an upheaval in the long-accepted binary scheme of the female condition in the past: the convent or the house, aut virum aut murum. The beguines were, in fact, only the tip of the iceberg, that of non-cloistered female religious life. The works of Gabriella Zarri about the “terzo stato” in the 1990s demonstrated the importance of this third way of religious celibacy outside religious enclosure. The non-cloistered sisters represented a perpetually changing reality throughout Western Christendom, and the multiplication of female congregations in the nineteenth century was based in large part on this phenomenon, long ignored by historiography. In fact, these sisters were probably much more numerous than cloistered nuns, but they have been the subject of very few studies.

 The Sorores and The Other Sister projects, supported respectively by the École française de Rome and the Canadian governement SSHRC, is planning a series of panels for the upcoming RSA conference in Dublin (31 March-2 April 2022) about women who publicly lived non-cloistered religious lives in Europe and the colonies between 1400 and 1800. Possible topics include:

  • Comparative historiography and historiographical issues about non-cloistered forms of women’s lives
  • Enclosure and its definitions
  • Forms and experiences of women’s non-cloistered religious lives
  • The structures of these communities
  • The social role and presence of non-cloistered religious women in cities
  • Community (Societies, Third Order, Dimesse…) vs individual (bizzochemonache di casa…) experiences
  • Permanency and mutation throughout long time periods 
  • Relations with ecclesiastical and secular authorities
  • The spirituality of non-cloistered religious women
  • Networks of people and groups
  • Sources and methodology

Papers should be 15-20 minutes. 

Please email your abstract by August 5, 2021, to Sylvie Duval (duvalsylvie@hotmail.com), Isabel Harvey (harvey.isabel@courrier.uqam.ca) and Sergi Sancho Fibla (ssfibla@gmail.com), with your full name, current affiliation, and email address; a paper title (15-word maximum), and an abstract (150-word maximum). 

Non-Cloistered Religious Women Communities in Apulia in the Early Modern Period: Research in Progress

by Angela Carbone 

The doctoral program in Sciences of Human Relations (University of Bari Aldo Moro, Department of Education, Psychology and Communication Sciences), where I have worked for many years, is divided into three branches: History and Social Policy, Formative Dynamics and Political Education, and Psychology: Cognitive, Emotional and Communicative Processes. I have supervised many doctoral students in the History program including, most recently, Domenico Uccellini. In his recent article, he has brought new elements to the research on communities of non-cloistered religious women in the Terra di Bari (countryside around the city of Bari) between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (D. Uccellini, Benefattrici e beneficate. Conservatori femminili in Terra di Bari nella prima età moderna, in E. Ivetic, a cura di, Attraverso la storia. Nuove ricerche sull’età moderna in Italia, Editoriale Scientifica, Napoli 2020, pp. 197-208).

From the historiographical background in which many research trends in the Church’s history and the history of local powers intersect, the originality of the Uccellini’s contribution lies in the fact that he looks both at the female role in charity and at the charitable practices: women acting as benefactors and women as beneficiaries.

As evidenced by exemplary female promoters of praiseworthy charitable initiatives in Naples between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Maria Lorenza Longo, founder of the Ospedale degli Incurabili (1521), Maria d’Ayerbe, founder of the Monastery of the convertite (1537), Elena Aldobrandini, founder of the Ritiro per matrone e vergini nobili (1655), there was significant female activity in the foundation of conservatories dedicated to the assistance of women “on the margins”.

In particular, there were noteworthy initiatives undertaken by noble women belonging to the Acquaviva family, one of the seven great noble families of the Kingdom of Naples to which King Ferdinand I of Aragon granted, in the second half of the fifteenth century, the right to add the name “d’Aragona” to their surname. The Conservatorio di Santa Maria delle Abbandonate was founded in 1573 in Casamassima (Bari) in fulfillment of a testamentary bequest of Dorotea Acquaviva d’Aragona, daughter of Giovanni Antonio Donato and Isabella Spinelli, with the aim of welcoming orphan and poor girls. About twenty years later, Archbishop Riccardi mentioned the hospitium in his Report ad limina of 1594, stating that there were young girls who had not made solemn profession of monastic vows but lived religiously, and that the structure was guarded and administered very properly.

The conservatory’s book of Rules, the Regule, statuti et consuetudini d’osservarsi inviolabilmente con la Divina grazia dalle M.R. figliole di Santa Maria dell’Abandonate – on which we are still working – precisely describe the everyday life of the girls and establish a whole series of behavioral norms.

In 1660, the archbishop of Bari, Diego Sersale, transformed the conservatory into a monastery of Poor Clares. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, there were still “thirty choir nuns, and ten converse nuns, who lived in a perfect common life under the rule of St. Clare as reformed by Pope Urban.”

Another important female figure linked to the Acquaviva family was Isabella Filomarino dei Principi della Rocca, wife of the Count of Conversano Gian Girolamo II Acquaviva d’Aragona (“the one-eyed men of the Apuglia (guercio delle Puglie)”) and niece of the archbishop of Naples Ascanio Filomarino.

Isabella was a cultured, devout and imperious woman (not by chance called the “asp of Apulia”); she supported with conviction the political project of her family, which aimed at using patronage and charity as effective instruments of power. In the 1640s, she established the Conservatorio di S. Leonardo in Conversano (Bari). The institute welcomed “mujeres in honestas” who wore the habit of the Dominican Third Order and who did not profess solemn vows: they led an intense “religious life”, but were free “to leave and choose another state”. 

A new female congregation was founded, again in Conversano, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, by Caterina Acquaviva d’Aragona, mother of Gian Girolamo II and mother-in-law of Isabella Filomarino. The conservatory, called “Casa Santa” (Holy House), welcomed – in addition to a pre-existing community of Discalced Capuchin nuns called “cappuccinelle” – “some spinsters, daughters of dishonest mothers” so that they might be prevented from “following the life of their mothers with the danger of losing their honor and becoming victims of the devil.” 

When Caterina Acquaviva of Aragon died, in the early 1630s, Gian Girolamo II and Isabella Filomarino put an end to this experiment by founding, in the place of the Casa Santa and of the contiguous church of S. Matteo, a convent dedicated to the saints Cosma and Damiano, which housed Franciscan tertiary sisters.  

These are only some examples of the ongoing research made possible by the study of the rich archival documentation. It is interesting to highlight the leading role assumed by some women of one of the most important families of the Kingdom of Naples, the Acquaviva of Aragon, together with the role played by the Church. These women were, on one hand, moved by an deep religious convictions. They sought spiritual purification and renewal, often following family bereavements and, in particular, the entrance into the state of widowhood. On the other hand, these charitable institutions became an expression of the Acquaviva family’s strategies for the control of the territory, the display of family prestige, and the management of their patrimony.

Lay Sisters in Johannes Meyer’s Buch der Reformacio Predigerordens

By Emma Gabe

In the course of my work on lay sisters in late-medieval German-speaking areas, I have wrestled with the meaning of the term “lay sister” (conversa in Latin; Konversin or Laienschwester in German). “Lay sister” can refer to a converse sister––a nun who was responsible for domestic tasks inside the monastery such as cooking and gardening. But it can also refer to pious women living in the external courtyards of a monastery who had given themselves and their property to the service of the community in exchange for lifelong keep. 

The fluidity of terms and the variety of people attracted to this religious life is evident in the Buch der Reformacio Predigerordens, which chronicles the spread of the late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Observant reform in Dominican female monasteries in Teutonia (present-day Germany). The author of the Buch der Reformacio, Johannes Meyer, was an influential confessor and reformer who wrote many texts for the nuns under his care promoting the Observant way of life. The Buch der Reformacio survives in four manuscripts. Benedict Maria Reichert published a diplomatic edition of one of these manuscripts in 1908–09, and Claire Taylor Jones recently published an English translation of Meyer’s text under the title Women’s History in the Age of Reformation: Johannes Meyer’s Chronicle of the Dominican Observance (Toronto: PIMS, 2019). 

One of the tenets of the Observant reform was the strict enclosure of female monastic communities. In the Buch der Reformacio, it appears that Meyer uses the term “lay sister” to refer to sisters who lived inside the enclosure with the choir nuns, because he often distinguishes these women from people who lived in the external courtyards. The first Observant female community in Teutonia was the convent of Schönensteinbach in Alsace. According to the Buch der Reformacio, three of the original 13 women who joined this new community were laysisters (book II, ch. 6). One of them, Margaretha of Basel, had formerly worked as a maidservant (dienstmagt) in the convent of Klingental (book II, ch. 7). Among her many pious behaviours, Meyer records that Margaretha kept the monastic rule of silence so well that she even admonished other sisters who broke the silence, no matter their birth (book III, ch. 31–32). Adelheid Voigt, who had been the maid of a noblewoman, joined as a lay sister even though she could read Latin and German. She was not a friendly or popular person, but she was noted for her cooking skills (book III, ch. 40–41).

Meyer also wrote about lay sisters from noble backgrounds who joined Schönensteinbach and materially enriched the community (book II, ch. 11). Katharina of Bruges, from a noble background, took care of the kitchen and the garden, and gave herself to such humble tasks as washing the sisters’ undergarments (book III, ch. 33). Magdalena Bechrer, who insisted on entering Schönensteinbach as a lay sister despite her birth and wealth, commissioned books for the community’s confessors (book III, ch. 39). Lay sister Katharina Holtzhauser copied books for the community (book III, ch. 42). 

Meyer also tells us about family groups that joined monastic communities. For example, widow Anna Griss brought her ten-year-old daughter Elisabeth to Schönensteinbach, where the daughter was received as a lay sister (book III, ch. 34–37). Anna, however, lived in the external courtyards where she became the mistress of the secular maids and experienced much trouble keeping them in line. Eventually, she entered the cloistered community as a lay sister (book III, ch. 38). Despite being physically separated from her daughter by the community’s practice of strict enclosure, it could be that giving her daughter to the community and living in the external courtyards was a way for Anna to stay with her daughter.  

Meyer also provides an example of a married couple and their daughter who joined Schönensteinbach. The wife, Susanna of Masmünster, became one of the first three lay sisters (book II, ch. 7). Her husband Johannes, a knight, became a lay brother in the community’s external courtyards (book III, ch. 31; book IV, ch. 11). Their daughter, Ursula of Masmünster, was four years old when she came to Schönensteinbach. A choir nun, she eventually became prioress at Schönensteinbach and helped to reform other female monasteries (book III, ch. 24). 

Of course, Meyer’s aim in writing the Buch der Reformacio was to reinforce Observant values by presenting role models for others to follow, so we should not take Meyer’s writing at face value. It could be that the enclosure of lay sisters was less strict in reality than Meyer implied, particularly for those with family members also living in the community. The large number of lay sisters from noble backgrounds that Meyer writes about might have been proportionally lower in reality, because stories of lay sisters from noble backgrounds choosing to live humble lives served as compelling exempla. However, the range of backgrounds of lay sisters, both in social status but also age and marital status, suggests that the position of a lay sister was flexible and varied. 

Between spaces of control and autonomy. Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy.

By Isabel Harvey

            On March 8, 2021, on the occasion of the International Women’s Rights Day, Professor Angela Carbone (collaborator on the project “The Other Sister”), the Archivio di Genere of Bari and the Università degli studi di Bari – Aldo Moro (Italy) organized an online seminar to present and discuss various experiences of non-cloistered religious women’s life between the Middle Ages and the early modern period. This seminar was part of a series of meetings entitled ArchiviAzioni. Angela Carbone opened the seminar by introducing the mission of the Archivio di Genere, a multilingual and interdisciplinary documentation center that collects publications about women: from feminist to LGBTQ movements, from women’s writing to visual arts, from gender studies to postcolonial studies, from political and social testimonies to translation works. The aim of the Archivio di Genere is to preserve the words and actions of women and to make them available to researchers. This was the purpose of the March 8 seminar, which, through the presentation of three types of case studies, took an overall look at women’s religious experience outside the monasteries in Italy. In addition to a presentation of Angela Carbone’s recently published book, Sylvie Duval and Isabel Harvey also presented case studies from their ongoing research.

            Sylvie Duval opened the discussion with a presentation of her work about the Sorores humiliate of the Milanese suburb Porta Ticinese, between 1220 and 1350. Three communities existed in the Porta Ticinese suburb during this period: the Signore bianche dette Vetteri, the Signore bianche de Supra Murum and the Vergini. These three groups were generally called the Humiliate, a common term for penitents. These communities were spontaneous foundations, fruits of the association and the work of the women. The objective of Sylvie Duval’s intervention was to explore the strategies deployed by these communities during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and their social roles in relation to the changing contexts they faced. At the beginning of the period, these three groups, which were under the protection of the archbishop, did not define themselves as nuns. When enclosure was officially imposed on all professed nuns by the 1298 Periculoso decree of Boniface VIII, they found themselves de facto assimilated to the category of nuns, without immediately changing their way of life. The question of cura animarum or spiritual direction of these nuns also demonstrates the fluidity of institutional affiliations relative to these groups of religious women: initially close to the preachers, they were then subject to the cura of the local secular clergy for an extended period, before returning, in the fifteenth century, to the spiritual direction of the preaching friars of St. Eustorge. However, when the Observance brought about a new stregthening of norms, some of them (the Signore bianche de Supra Murum) asked to return to the spiritual direction of the seculars. The economic and social interests of these communities were evident in the daily life of the neighborhood surrounding them. For example, adult oblation was a fairly common practice in the thirteenth century: a person, man or woman, gave all his or her possessions to the community in exchange for its protection. The community thus acted as a place of refuge in continuity with the neighborhood. Sylvie Duval’s intervention thus makes it possible to rethink both the identities – too often plastered onto a rigid ecclesiastical structure by the historiography – and the social roles of women’s communities in light of a determining element in women’s religious experience, that is, the immediate context. 

            Isabel Harvey continued the discussion with the analysis of a curious Venetian case: the female charity institution of the Immacolata Concezione di Maria Vergine during the second half of the sevententh century. In 1669, the rich Venetian noble Francesco Vendramin removed the management of one of his charitable works, the Seminario della Immacolata Concettione di Maria Vergine, from the oversight of the pious woman Cecilia Ferrazzi after the Inquisition condemned her on the charge of a pretense of holiness. The Seminario welcomed girls and young women who were abandoned or were under the risk of falling into prostitution. When the Inquisition condemned Cecilia Ferrazzi, a female community of Capuchins received the mission of administrating of the Seminario. During the same years when Cecilia Ferrazzi constructed and improved her Seminario, the tertiary Franciscan sister Suor Lucia Ferrari founded a series of female monasteries and pious institutions for women in six northern Italian cities: Guastalla, Treviso, Mantua, Como, Parma, and Venice. According to a hagiography dedicated to her, in 1668 she had founded and written the Rule – of Capuchin obedience – for an institution devoted to the education of young girls in Venice, sponsored by the noble Francesco Vendramin. The institution was named the Colleggio dell’Immacolata concettione. The similarities between the institutions of Cecilia Ferrazzi and Suor Lucia Ferrari are striking: same charitable activities, same sponsors, similar names, concurrent dates. Based on Venetian administrative sources, normative literature, hagiographic accounts and, above all, Roman inquisitorial documents, Isabel Harvey has shown that this was a single institution, headed by not two but three women of power with social origins ranging from poverty to nobility, who created a space of freedom for themselves at the limits of the social acceptability and the orthodoxy of the Roman Church. 

            Angela Carbone presented her work on the issue of female participation in charity in southern Italy during the early modern period, presenting her book Ritirate dalle cose del monde. Donne e istituzioni nel Mezzogiorno moderno. The point of view adopted by Angela Carbone in this work is quite innovative: she is looking for the experience and the voices of women who built living environments for other women who were on the margins of two possible female life-paths: marriage or convent. Angela Carbone’s book is organized around three main categories of women’s institutions, covering all social classes, urban and rural. The starting point of Angela Carbone’s reflections is the orphan girls, those deprived from any family support. In the period between the late Middle Ages and the beginning of early modern period, new structures of assistance for orphan girls emerged, founded by lay associations: confraternities, monti di pietà, parishes, and dioceses. The second part of the book addresses the assistance given to a group of women who were even more marginalized: repentant prostitutes, those who were unhappily married or abandoned by their husbands, and all those women whose honor was already compromised. In the institutions that were founded for these women, charitable intervention took on a moral and redemptive character, through work and spiritual exercises. The third and final part of the book analyzes the noble women, who were the protagonists in the founding of many semi-religious institutions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The history of women’s charitable institutions goes hand in hand with the social representations of women and their bodies. The identity that was assigned to them, as either a reserve of purity to counterbalance the sins of the world if they were keeping chastity, or as a sinner who drew God’s wrath on Earth if they were not, was at the root of charitable institutions, as all of them place the preservation of women’s honor at the heart of their mission.

            The seminar ended with a question period where the issue of possible sources in which to see the experiences of these women emerged.  

THE OTHER SISTER RESEARCH SEMINAR: Charity, caregiving and female social roles from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period

By Laura Moncion and Emma Gabe.

On 17 December, The Other Sister group held its third research seminar, discussing charity, caregiving, and gender history in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. In particular, the session concentrated on female charity organized by and aimed at women. The goal was to investigate continuities and discontinuities in female charity between the medieval and early modern periods, which saw the development of charitable institutions exclusively for women. Research questions included the religious status of caregivers, whether or not charity was a gendered activity, the type of people that female charity targeted, and the types of assistance (spiritual, material, etc.) that women offered. This session was organized and moderated by Sylvie Duval and Isabel Harvey and featured the discussion of three articles by invited speakers. The seminar was attended by over 30 participants. 

The articles discussed in this session were:

Angela Carbone and Annamaria Gaetana de Pinto, “Spaces of power between nobility and clergy: St Anne’s Conservatory in Lecce in the modern age,” in Giovanna Da Molin (ed.), Research in Progress. Population, Environment, Health, Bari: Cacucci Editore, 2017. 

Letha Böhringer, “Beginen und Schwestern in der Sorge für Kranke, Sterbende und Verstorbene. Eine Problemskizze,” in Arthur Dirmeier (ed.), Organisierte Barmherzigkeit: Armenfürsorge und Hospitalwesen in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit, Regensburg: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 2010 (with an English abstract).

Eva-Maria Cersovsky, “Ubi non est mulier, ingemiscit egens? Gendered Perceptions of Care from the Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries,” in Sara Ritchey and Sharon Strocchia (eds.), Gender, Health and Healing, 1250-1550, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020.  

Angela Carbone’s contribution presented the case of St Anne’s Conservatory (Conservatorio Sant’Anna) in Lecce, one of many charitable institutions founded in early modern Italy first and foremost by women for the ostensible aid of other women. Carbone’s work on St Anne’s, and other conservatories of this kind, can also be found in her newly published book, Ritirate dalle cose del mondo. Donne e istituzioni nel Mezzogiorno moderno (2020). In the meeting, Carbone discussed her book and the different types of conservatories, and the women for whom they were intended. Conservatories could offer help to, for example: orphan girls (in the form of education and dowry); repentant sex workers (women who, in other words, had had their honour compromised); and noble women (such as the example cited by Carbone of a woman who had been married for seven years and, failing to conceive a child, separated from her husband and went to live in St Anne’s); women fleeing from domestic abuse; women who intended to dedicate their lives to God; and women who only spent a short time in the conservatories before returning to secular society. Women entered these institutions either as a means to escape families or due to family pressures in order to maintain social status.

In Southern Italy, it is interesting to underline the foundation of repentant institutions especially when great calamities altered the common lives of the community, for instance on the occasion of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the seventeenth century. In this instance, the role of religious orders and the repentant process of women, which by definition embodied material pleasure and sin, served to alleviate divine wrath, with a subsequent benefit to the entire society. 

Using rich archival records––including foundation documents, rules and regulations, reclusion requests and administrative documents––Carbone presented these conservatories as places of conflict between the clerical and secular powers, between women and families, and between women inside these houses themselves.

Letha Böhringer’s presentation drew on both the depth and breadth of her knowledge on the beguines of Cologne, in particular the early period of beguine life in this city in the thirteenth and fourteenth  centuries. Despite the early historiographical assertions that beguines performed hospital work, Böhringer demonstrates that her Cologne sources do not show a systematic, institutional link between beguines and hospital work; if beguines worked in hospitals, this was done on an individual, ad hocbasis. While beguines did sometimes live in hospitals, as the Cologne sources show, it is unlikely that they worked there; they were more like boarders than live-in nurses. In the realm of saintly examples, the example of St Elisabeth of Thuringia (aka Elisabeth of Hungary), while a powerful image of a saintly hospital worker, was more of an ideal to admire than a practice to emulate for the everyday beguine. Böhringer’s talk also touched upon the important theme of historiography, by asking why the beguine living the active life is such a popular figure in research today, even when primary sources do not always back this up. A certain lack of appreciation for the contemplative life of nuns and other women religious can sometimes be found on both sides of the Atlantic. Beguines are sometimes cast as a prototype of the modern “working woman” or, as portrayed in Hollywood films such as Sister Act, the active life is shown as more appealing and meaningful than the contemplative one. This provokes an important question for our research, but also all historical research more broadly: How do historians’ own cultural matrices and biases influence their views of beguines, religious women, or other historical subjects?

Eva-Maria Cersovsky also commented on the historiography of care work in her paper: pushing against the notion that women became viewed as ideal caregivers in the nineteenth century, she demonstrated that learned men in the Middle Ages used and manipulated discourses of care and caregiving to implicate women. Her presentation shared some of her PhD work on care workers in Strasbourg between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Similar to Böhringer’s research, Cersovsky noted that while beguines in Strasbourg could perform nursing care, this was still an informal, case-by-case situation. One example concerned how the city council of Strasbourg tasked a community of lay brothers, sometimes also called “begards,” with visiting and nursing the sick at home during the fifteenth century. Charters also show that male and female confraternity members paid single beguines to visit and nurse the sick within the city’s biggest hospital on a regular basis, and they may have provided care to private homes as well. The work of female nurses tending to patients in their homes often involved cooking, taking care of linens, and cleaning—all important according to the Galenic medical system, but also gendered as female work. Only after the Protestant Reformation did the city council order the four surviving beguine communities to become nursing communities first and foremost––as well as Protestant. At this time, the council also specified the number and marital status of male and female nurses. In particular, they wanted to employ married men and female widows—thus ensuring that the male nurses had an outlet for their physical passions (and would not take them out on a female patient), and that the female nurses would not be distracted by the demands of their own households.

Contributions by these participants, particularly Dr. Böhringer’s talk, raised important issues of historiography in the study of non-cloistered religious women. While the historiographical focus, following the Protestant Reformations, has often been on beguines’ and non-cloistered women’s active lives, they could also have lived and valued leading contemplative lives. This conversation, among others, is helping to readjust and test the lenses through which we view premodern religious women, keeping our own biases and agendas in mind as we aim to study their lives.

THE OTHER SISTER RESEARCH SEMINAR: Working in Premodern Hospitals

By Gustave Ineza and Meghan Lescault

On October 27, 2020, the Other Sisters research group hosted a research seminar on the topic of women working in premodern hospitals. Three chapters written by the invited speakers were circulated beforehand: 

Adam Davis’ “‘In Service of the Poor:’ Hospital Personnel in Pursuit of Security” from his book The Medieval Economy of Salvation: Charity, Commerce, and the Rise of the Hospital (Cornell University Press, 2019).

Lucy Barnhouse’s “Mainz’s Hospital Sisters and the Rights of Religious Women” from her forthcoming book Houses of God, Places for the Sick: Hospitals in Communities of the Late Medieval Rhineland.

Sharon T. Strocchia’s “Care and Cure in Renaissance Pox Hospitals” from her book Forgotten Healers: Women and the Pursuit of Health in Late Renaissance Italy (Harvard University Press, 2019).

Alison More began by introducing the three speakers, who proceeded to elaborate on their research as presented in these chapters. 

Adam Davis, Professor of History and Director of the Lisska Center for Scholarly Engagement at Denison University, spoke about the emerging commercial economy of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, stressing the symbiotic aspect of charity and commerce with the hospitals of Champagne as a case study. He pointed out that work in medieval hospitals went beyond healthcare and noted that the role of the sisters working in the hospitals extended to cleaning work, gardening, and agriculture. Davis introduced the multiple relationships that existed between hospital staff members who lived in community, and he discussed the permeable boundaries between the hospital workers and those for whom they cared as well as the spiritual and social web of need and assistance in which they were all entwined.

Lucy Barnhouse, Assistant Professor of History at Arkansas State University, discussed the religious identities of hospital sisters in Mainz. She presented hospitals as total entities in evolving urban areas and underscored the manipulation of the identity of those healthcare institutions. Barnhouse noted that the sisters originally belonged to a mixed-gender community but later were pushed to join the Cistercian Order. They resisted this pressure and formed an independent community dedicated to Saint Agnes in which they continued to serve as hospital sisters. These women combined charitable and practical services, for example, acquiring properties nearby that would allow them to create bakehouses for food production.

Sharon T. Strocchia, Professor of History at Emory University, focused on women working at the Florentine pox hospital called the “Incurabili” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a topic that she approaches through the lens of labor, rather than religious, history. Strocchia discussed the silences in her sources that prevent us from knowing how skills were acquired and transmitted. She noted the methodological issues that have arisen due to historians’ prioritization of cure over care, and she emphasized the idea of approaching the topic of care through sensory regimes. Strocchia concluded by noting that historians have been occupied with investigating the precise juridical status of non-cloistered religious women and by asking our group to think more about the “in-betweenness” of such women. She posed two specific questions about these women working in premodern hospitals: 1. Does this in-betweenness allow hospital sisters to tend the bodies of strangers publicly? 2. Does this in-betweenness serve them well in administering to these strangers? 

It was this idea of in-betweenness that primarily animated the subsequent conversation, launching a robust discussion on the topic in terms of the women’s relationship to religion and canon law, the hospitals, and wider society and culture.

Appropriately for a meeting sponsored by a group devoted to the study of women who straddle the boundaries between the religious and the laity, these female hospital sisters often had ambiguous or fluid religious and canonical statuses. Barnhouse highlighted the religious fluidity exhibited by the hospital sisters of Mainz, explaining that while the sisters opted to form their own independent community rather than join a Cistercian house, as was suggested by the city council and religious men of Mainz, they nevertheless did not shy away from calling themselves Cistercians when making requests to archbishops. Moreover, they followed neither their own rule nor the Rule of Benedict, but—at least in theory—the Rule of Santo Spirito, a papally approved rule for a religious community serving in a hospital. While these women of Mainz straddled the boundaries between religious orders, the Florentine women studied by Strocchia straddled the boundaries between the religious and the laity. Strocchia explained this by noting that while these women took a pledge rather than vows, that pledge was based on a monastic model, as it was a promise of chastity and stability. Moreover, although the women were secular, they were called “sisters” by 1600.

Davis highlighted yet another ambiguity that revealed the idea of in-betweenness within the hospitals—the unclear line between who is caring and who is receiving care. He noted that there were some brothers and sisters who likely saw the hospital as a safety net where they could live and receive care if the need arose. Strocchia reinforced this idea, noting that these caregivers knew that they would eventually be taken care of by the institution to which they had devoted their lives.

Although the hospital sisters may have pledged and planned stability within the hospital, this did not preclude continued contact with the outside world. Rather, they needed to maintain a position between the hospital and wider society. Strocchia discussed the disruptive nature of visitors that appears as a theme in her sources. Davis, however, presented a more positive view of visitors, referring to thirteenth-century papal indulgences that encouraged people to visit hospitals and make donations. This need for donations relates to the idea of contact with various societal forces being required for survival and development, as noted by Isabelle Cochelin. She noted the need especially for women, whether cloistered or not, to navigate negotiations with bishops, powerful lay families, and local kings. Barnhouse illustrated this phenomenon in her comments on the Mainz hospital sisters’ relationship with the local laity. The sisters were able to garner lay support when they were resisting affiliation with the Cistercians, but they also were forced to relocate due to a struggle, likely a competition for land, with the laity. Strocchia attested to the presence of this societal in-betweenness in her own sources and attributed to the hospital sisters the function of “cultural brokerage.”

This theme of in-betweenness tied in very nicely to the overall project of the Other Sisters in its attention to women who cannot be placed easily into one category. 

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Women Serving Enclosed Women

By Emma Gabe and Laura Moncion

The research group “The Other Sister” hosted its first (virtual) research seminar on 29 September 2020. The subject was “Women Serving Enclosed Women”. We discussed four papers about servants and service in various medieval religious contexts for women. 

The papers discussed were: 

  • Laura Moncion, “Between Servant and Disciple: Recluses’ Attendants in Three Medieval Rules for Recluses”
  • Kate E. Bush, “Maids of the Handmaidens: Serving Sisters in Clarissan Community, c. 1250–1550”
  • Emma Gabe, “Lay Sisters and the Discourse of Service in Late-Medieval Sister-Books”
  • Isabel Harvey, “From Servants to Converse Nuns: Tridentine Enclosure and Economic Reform of Convents in the Papal States of Clement VIII”

These four papers are forthcoming in the conference volume for We Are All Servants: The Diversity of Service in Premodern Europe, edited by Isabelle Cochelin and Diane Wolfthal, soon to be published by CRRS, Essays and Studies.

This meeting was likely the first event where international scholars of the medieval and early modern world discussed women serving enclosed women. These women have rarely been studied, even though their numbers would have been significant in the premodern world. A recluse, for instance, would often have had two servants, and between one quarter to one half of female monasteries would have been composed of female servants and conversae.  

Each of these papers brought out different nuances in the relationships between religious women and the women serving them. Also, each touched on the degree to which the servants could have been considered religious themselves. Could some have been motivated by faith when choosing this occupation? Did the social status of women prior entering a community affect whether they would become lay sisters/converse nuns or choir nuns? It appears that there were several inconsistencies. In one case, involving biological sisters: one became a lay sister and the other a choir nun. Most importantly, the diversity––and ambiguity––of terms used to refer to servants of religious women, as well as to non-enclosed religious women themselves were discussed. 

Moncion’s work centred on the representations and roles of attendants to recluses in three medieval rules. It suggested that life as a recluse’s attendant could be considered another non-cloistered religious option for medieval women. Bush’s article focused on the somewhat surprising presence of servants and serving sisters in the monastery of Clare of Assisi and other female monasteries associated with the Franciscan order up to the Observant movement. This was particularly unusual considering the importance given by Clare to poverty and to her self-presentation as ancilla Dei.  Gabe’s paper explored the roles and representations of lay sisters in late-medieval German monasteries, as recorded in the sister-books. Harvey’s article on converse nuns in female monasteries in the Papal States adopts a new approach to Tridentine reform, moving the focus from enclosure to improved organizational and economic structures. The three last papers complemented one another in their focus on converse or lay sisters, that is, members of a female monastic community who lived alongside but separate from the typically upper-class choir nuns, across different periods and regions. 

After the presentations of each of the papers, a lively discussion over Zoom ensued, attended by scholars from Canada, Italy, the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. We hope to have many such discussions in the future on the subject of non-cloistered religious women, or “Other Sisters”.

The Other Sister

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

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

This project is focused on non-cloistered religious women between the twelfth and eighteenth century, from Italy to New France. By defining and contextualizing the experiences of these women, the research project, The Other Sister, will establish a necessary corrective to the standard historiographical picture. In this way, it will help to clarify the place of religious women in the Church and society.

The main goal of our research project is twofold:

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

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

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

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

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

This collaborative blog presents the various stages of the project and tracks the progress of the research. It features the following:

  • Postings concerning the work of the researchers involved
  • Discussions of historiographical issues
  • Presentations of archival findings
  • Case studies of non-cloistered women
  • Interactive maps illustrating the geographical locations of groups of non-cloistered religious women and tracking the development of specific movements

In the long term, we also plan to include a comprehensive searchable bibliographic database of scholarship concerning non-cloistered women.

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