Category Archives: Research Seminars

Book Culture

by Devon Sherwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Julia Cole and Devon Sherwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Dissent

By Meghan Lescault

On October 27, 2023, The Other Sister held a thematic meeting on the topic of dissent among non-cloistered religious women. The following works from the four invited speakers had been circulated prior to the meeting:

  • Justine L. Trombley, “‘Against the Foundation of the Faith’: Theological Refutation in MS Vat. lat. 4953” and “Conclusion,” in A Diabolical Voice: Heresy and Reception of the Latin “Mirror of Simple Souls” in Late Medieval Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2023), 93–124 and 170–178.
  • Huanan Lu, “Marguerite Porete et l’enquête de 1323 sur le béguinage Sainte-Élisabeth de Valenciennes,” Revue du Nord 440 (2021): 451–485. The English summary of the article can be found here.
  • Sean L. Field, “Clare of Rimini: A Case Study in the Circulation of Controversial Religious Claims” (work in progress to be published in a volume edited by Delfi Nieto-Isabel and Justine L. Trombley for the Routledge series Religious Dissent and Persecution in the Pre-Modern World).
  • Delfi I. Nieto-Isabel, “Beguines, Free Spirits, and the Inquisitorial Network Conundrum,” Oliviana 7 (2023). The open access article can be found here.

The meeting commenced with the four speakers presenting their research.

Justine Trombley, Lecturer in European History, 1300–1500 at Durham University, discussed the traditional tendency to label women as spiritual and mystical, but not intellectual. In her own work she strove to emphasize that Marguerite Porete was in fact treated as an intellectual, even if anonymously, as theologians, canons, and preachers assumed the Latin Mirror of Simple Souls to be the work of a man and engaged with it on a serious intellectual level in their attacks and condemnations of it. Not only these critics, but also the supporters of the work ascribed an intellectual character to it. Trombley tied the works of all four speakers together, noting the importance of networks as a major theme and their ability to impact, both positively and negatively, the lives of intellectual women. While a figure such as Clare of Rimini could benefit from a strong network, such networks could also attract the negative attention of inquisitors.

Huanan Lu, Assistant Professor of History at Nanjing University, explained that while she was sifting through archival documents for her PhD studies, she came across the inquisitorial record of 1323 of the beguinage of Saint Elizabeth in Valenciennes. This record mentioned a beguine by the name of Marghoneta, whom she was able to identify as Marguerite Porete. Lu discussed the effect of Marguerite’s inquisitorial trial on the beguine communities at the Council of Vienne, including her own community in Valenciennes, which was the first to be investigated in the diocese of Cambrai following the council. She explained that this investigation turned out to be rehabilitative, as everyone involved identified Marguerite as an exceptional figure with no followers in the community. The beguines of Saint Elizabeth were deemed innocent and orthodox, placed under the protection of religious and secular powers, and granted a high degree of autonomy.

Sean L. Field, Professor of History at the University of Vermont, introduced his paper as a result of a larger project of an English translation of and commentary on the vita of Clare of Rimini (Jacques Dalarun, Sean L. Field, and Valerio Cappozzo, A Female Apostle in Medieval Italy: The Life of Clare of Rimini [Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022]). He explained that by being asked by Delfi Nieto-Isabel to think about the flow of controversial ideas in the text, he saw the clear trajectory of Clare’s life from a solitary penitent woman to the leader of an informal community. Moreover, by being asked to think about moments in the text in which Clare is a recipient and dispenser of ideas, he was able to notice the rhetorical machinations by which the author of the text protects her from accusations of heresy. Field noted that Clare is a good example of an understudied figure who could help shed light on important themes related to non-cloistered women.

Delfi Nieto-Isabel, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow, Lecturer in History, and Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, focused on the perennial problem of categorization, which she finds to be particularly relevant to the discussion of late medieval lay religiosity, especially in the case of women. She explained that this struggle goes back to the inquisitors themselves, who attempted to rely on categories for their detection of heresy. When they tried to fit a vast array of expressions of penitential lay religiosity into a small hole of orthodoxy, they inevitably met with failure. Nieto-Isabel noted that modern scholars still easily fall into this same mistake, and she challenged the group to move away from this tendency. Recalling the late medieval religious women who readily identified themselves both as beguines and as members of the Third Order of St. Francis, she asked why we would have a problem acknowledging this double identity if the women themselves embraced it.

As usual, a robust discussion began after the conclusion of these presentations. The theme that clearly dominated the discussion was that of networks. Emma Gabe turned the group’s attention to Trombley’s earlier point about the strong influence that networks could have on whether someone would be deemed heretical or orthodox. Nieto-Isabel elaborated on this point, illustrating the importance of networks by explaining that Na Prous Boneta (a beguine from Languedoc who was burnt at the stake in 1328) was not judged as a beguine by the inquisitors, but as a very specific type of heretic, entirely because of her network and the people in it with whom she was associated. Networks were so important that they could define boundaries and determine the categories into which people were placed. Trombley applied these ideas to Marguerite Porete and The Mirror of Simple Souls, showing how networks could either bring support or ruin depending upon the circumstances. She pointed to the ultimate failure of the networks around Marguerite to provide protection for her. In the case of The Mirror, she noted that its reception depended upon not only who was reading and interpreting it, but also the milieu in which it was being read. For example, its circulation in the Tuscan monastery of the Camaldolese Order seemed to be free from problems, while its circulation in a network in Venice resulted in trouble for those who were reading it. Courtney Barter-Colcord introduced the figure of Guglielma of Milan (d. 1282) into the discussion, remarking upon the fact that unlike Na Prous Boneta, Guglielma was already dead at the time of her inquisition (c. 1300) and that unlike Marguerite, she had a great deal of support, albeit the wrong kind of support as far as the inquisitors were concerned. Barter-Colcord posed the question of whether there were many other cases in which a network was built up around an individual who was no longer present. Nieto-Isabel discussed the persistence of social capital beyond death and tied this question to the idea of martyrdom and sainthood, explaining that in most cases of these, the individual being venerated is not living. She also demonstrated the importance of networks, discussing how Guglielma herself was never deemed suspect in her lifetime but only after her death when her network made dramatic claims about her, whereas Na Prous was considered problematic while alive.

In addition to a more general discussion of networks, closer examination of the networks specific to Marguerite took place. Isabelle Cochelin mentioned Lu’s assertion that Marguerite had no support in her own beguinage. Lu elaborated on this point, explaining that the beguines were largely responsible for their own protection. In response, Nieto-Isabel questioned whether we can truly know the nature of the relationship between Marguerite and the other beguines of Saint Elizabeth before 1310 given their obvious desire to present themselves as orthodox during the inquisition occurring after Marguerite’s execution. Lu responded by appealing to the text of The Mirror itself in which Marguerite claims that the beguines held her views to be wrong, suggesting their rejection of her. She also cited the dearth of archival documents mentioning Marguerite/Marghoneta, perhaps implying by their silence that Marguerite was poor and lacked strong social support. Field took up this particular line of discussion to emphasize the many possible interpretations of these situations for which we have no definite answer. John Arblaster moved from discussion of support for Marguerite in the beguinage to that of support for The Mirror. He noted that the three approbations given to the work by clerics must indicate a geographically wide network. To this point, Nieto-Isabel responded that the circulation of a manuscript requires a network and that Marguerite’s book would have had to be circulated in other networks before reaching those of the ecclesiastical authorities. Trombley elaborated on this, explaining that the rapid early appearance of the Latin translation of The Mirror suggests that Marguerite had introduced her original vernacular text into circulation very early. Field clarified that the words “approbation” and “approval” are not quite right here, because the clerics who commented on The Mirror did not give their full approval to it, but rather tentative praise that could be withdrawn if the work met with trouble, as happened in this case.

The networks of Clare of Rimini also arose as a topic of discussion. Mary Harvey Doyno introduced this topic by asking if there is a relationship between the idea of networks and the fact that Clare’s vita was begun while she was still alive. Field noted that a network that was physically gathered around a dying person, as in the case of Clare, would function differently from a posthumous canonization inquiry. He surmised that the former might have a stronger value in that the individuals around Clare would have to be gathered there of their own accord in a free exchange of ideas. Nieto-Isabel agreed that it is a question of the strength of the network and that the organic accompaniment of Clare in her dying moments would suggest a strength not available to a network built around an individual who had already died.

At the conclusion of this substantial conversation, Nieto-Isabel pointed out that in citing each other in their papers, the speakers had created their own network about networks. While the participants were discussing the importance of medieval networks, they were demonstrating in real time the necessity of a modern network such as The Other Sister.

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Identities on the Italian Peninsula

by Joseph George Akl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Habits and Habitual Dress

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The discussion then moved to the Cult of the Magdalene.

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Vowesses

by Emma Gabe and Laura Moncion

On 19 November 2021, The Other Sister group hosted a research seminar on the topic of vowesses. These non-cloistered women religious were usually widows who took a vow to remain chaste perpetually while living in the world. This session was organized by Isabelle Cochelin and Alison More.

The three speakers at this session, and their pre-circulated papers, were:

  • Michelle M. Sauer, “The Meaning of Russet: A Note on Vowesses and Clothing,” Early Middle English 2.2 (2020): 91-97.
  • Katherine Clark Walter, The Profession of Widowhood: Widows, Pastoral Care and Medieval Models of Holiness (CUA Press, 2018), more specifically her chapter on canon law.
  • Laura M. Wood (now Richmond), “In Search of the Mantle and Ring: Prosopographical Study of the Vowess in Late Medieval England,” Medieval Prosopography, 34 (2019): 175-205.

Laura M. Richmond addressed the interesting problem of vowesses breaking their vows, typically because of they had since married, which called their religious vows into question. As breaking vows was a serious matter, they adopted strategies in their petitions such as claiming that they had taken the vow of chastity due to grief or pressure to remarry. Katherine Clark Walter discussed the differences between available sources in Great Britain and mainland Europe, and a few notable examples of vowesses, including St Elizabeth of Thuringia and Yvette (also known as Juette/Iuetta) of Huy. She noted that liturgical texts differentiated between virgin and widowed nuns, and addressed the consecration of widows. She also observed that tertiaries seem to take the place of vowesses in mainland Europe. Michelle M. Sauer presented vowesses as one of several groups of religious women who can be considered “anchorite adjacent”, similar to recluses or anchorites in their paradoxical retreat from and engagement in the world. She also addressed how vowesses’ clothing became a visible symbol of their “renewed purity”.

The discussion afterwards touched on issues of source material by region, particularly the usefulness of bishops’ registers in Britain, and a certain lack of clear evidence for a person called the “vowess” in some other regions, such as Cologne. The conversation addressed whether or not the vowess was a distinctly English form of life. The concept of women’s “self-fashioning” was also discussed in relation to vowesses, women late in life and with relative power over their lifestyles. The clothes that they wore––or did not wear––were an important element of this “self-fashioning.” In choosing to live as vowesses, women in medieval Europe could create a space for themselves in religious life, but the expression of this religious life and how these women fit into their social surroundings depended also on local practices and customs.

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Recluses

By Laura Moncion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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,; Spiritual Landscapes,; and Monastic Landscapes,
  • 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),; 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.