Category Archives: Research Seminars

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.

the other sister research seminar: Medieval and Early Modern Beguines, from Provence to Northern Europe

By Emma Gabe and Laura Moncion

The Other Sister held its fifth thematic meeting on 15 March 2021 on medieval and early modern beguines from Provence to Northern Europe. The four speakers very generously shared their unpublished, forthcoming work with the group. This session was organized by Alison More and Isabelle Cochelin, with the question period moderated by Gustave Ineza. Our guests included a number of beguine specialists who engaged in a lively discussion and provided significant insights. 

The following chapters were pre-circulated and discussed during in this seminar:

  • Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, “German Beguine Communities: Origins and Emergence,” chapter from Sisters Among: Beguine Communities in Germany c. 1200-1600, forthcoming.
  • Tanya Stabler Miller, “’More Useful in the Salvation of Others’: Beguines, Religio, and the Cura Mulierum at the Early Sorbonne” in J. Deane and A. Lester, eds. Between Orders and Heresy, forthcoming with University of Toronto Press.
  • Sergi Sancho Fibla, “Reading in community, writing a community. Douceline’s Vida and the beguines of Roubaud,” in D. Nieto-Isabel, and L. Miquel Millan, eds. Transgression, Exclusion and Persecution in the Middle Ages, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022.
  • Sarah Joan Moran, “Inside Beguine homes: material culture, devotion, and family ties.” Chapter 4 in Unconventual Women: Visual Culture at the Court Beguinages of the Habsburg Low Countries, 1585-1794, forthcoming with Amsterdam University Press

Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane (University of Minnesota Morris), studying beguines in German-speaking regions, pushed back against the idea of beguines as liminal figures by discussing how they were connected to their communities, families and authorities around them. To this end, the tentative title for her upcoming book, from which this chapter was drawn, is Sisters Among, emphasizing that beguines were integral and close to the people and institutions amongst which they lived. Deane’s contribution discussed the various ways in which German beguine communities originated, and the points at which these communities begin (or stop) self-consciously calling themselves “beguines”. This intervention is in part historiographical; Deane problematized early approaches to the study of beguines, noting that binary way in which scholars have approached the topic.

Tanya Stabler Miller (Loyola University Chicago) also addressed the historiographical context of beguine history in her contribution, seeking to balance the local context of medieval Paris with the broader trends of religious movements. Miller noted that historians have often overlooked how supportive the local clergy were to the beguines on the ground. She focused on Robert of Sorbon, the founder of the Sorbonne university, and his writings and lectures to correct this scholarly oversight. Robert provided pastoral care to beguines and, in his lectures to those training to be secular clergymen, promoted pastoral engagement with them. In the context of medieval Parisian discussions on how best to live a religious life, Robert promoted beguine piety as an example, and particularly as an example of pastoral care.

Sergi Sancho Fibla (UC Louvain) studied the beguine community of Roubaud in France through one manuscript, the vita of the community’s foundress, Douceline. He argued that the vita was used by the beguines to define and support the community’s collective identity. Revisiting some scholarly commonplaces surrounding Douceline’s Vida and the manuscript which contains it, including questions about the Vida’s authorship and date of completion, Sancho Fibla presented the idea that the manuscript was used as “the book of the house” rather than “the book of the foundress”, a document legitimizing the community’s existence and network of relationships between the community, their families, and friars, and which hoped to claim this legitimacy for future generations. The community disappears from the historical record by the end of the fifteenth century.

Sarah Moran (Universiteit Utrecht) spoke about the art and architecture of court beguinages in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Low Countries. Her forthcoming book Unconventional Women: Art and Architecture of the Court Beguinages of the Hapsburg Low Countries, 1585–1794 looks at the architecture of court beguinages, the art and iconography owned by beguines, their portraits, material culture, and art and furnishings of their churches. Speaking in particular to the material culture, she concluded that the decoration of beguine homes conformed to Tridentine ideology, as Christ and the Virgin received a central place in their homes, but that the material culture of beguinages also reflected the spiritual and artistic trends of the wider community. 

A long and lively discussion followed with questions that touched on free will, numbers, diverse sources, age of entry, processions, and sermons or exhortations by the beguines, amongst other topics. The four speakers agreed that beguines seem to have all chosen this way of life, unlike the nuns who were sometimes constrained by their family to enter a monastery. Moran explained that, as beguines kept her own wealth and inherited normally, their families had nothing to gain by force them into beguinages. Interestingly, the speakers and other participants indicated that beguines outnumbered nuns, at least in some cities across Europe, although exact numbers are difficult to ascertain: Walter Simons mentioned a ratio of ten beguines to one nun in the Low Countries; Moran reached a similar conclusion for her period in Ghent; Sigrid Hirbodian also confirmed that beguines were more numerous in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Strasbourg; and Letha Böhringer affirmed the same for Cologne where she knows the names of 2,100 beguines for the period 1320–1400. In general, beguines joined communities at various ages in the Middle Ages, and some houses refused women below 40. Nevertheless, this was not universal as it appears that by the early modern period in the Low Countries at least, women usually joined in their late teens or early twenties. Most remained beguines for the remainder of their lives.

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.

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”.