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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Sister

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

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

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

The main goal of our research project is twofold:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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