Category Archives: Work in Progress

Dream Vision and Butter Miracle: Non-Cloistered Religious Women in the Vita of Haseka the Recluse

by Laura Moncion

Often, small footnotes can lead to interesting discoveries. In her chapter on “Anchorites in German-speaking Regions” in Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe (2010), Gabriela Signori mentions a recluse named Haseka in passing, as one of two recluses commemorated by the secular canons of Böddecken, Westphalia, in the fifteenth century.[1] Intrigued by Signori’s description of Haseka’s vita as “remarkably unremarkable”, I followed this footnote and found a vita (or spiritual biography) which, though brief, offers some interesting and suggestive information regarding the situation of recluses and other types of non-cloistered religious women.[2] This vita offers an example of a female recluse, and it also shows other types of non-cloistered religious life for women.

Recluses—also often known as anchorites or solitaries—were people who lived religious lives enclosed in dwellings, known as reclusoria (singular reclusorium), cells, or anchorholds. Any scholarly defintion of this form of life must be slim enough to account for the wide variation in reclusion which existed throughout the Middle Ages, from solitary monks to forest hermits to house ascetics and more. The type of reclusion discussed in this blog post, and on which I focus my research, is one which involves living in some form of enclosure in or near an urban area, often in or beside a church, a form of life which became increasingly common among women in the later Middle Ages. 

The vita of Haseka is an example of this type of urban female reclusion. Her story appears as part of a martyrology compiled in the mid-fifteenth century by Hermann Greven, a Carthusian monk, based on the ninth-century martyrology of Usuard. Haseka is one of the new and local saints whom Greven added to his volume. According to the vita, she had lived in a cell attached to the church of Schermbeck, Westphalia, and died in 1261.

Regarding Haseka, the vita tells us that she came from the Rhineland region and lived for thirty-six years as a recluse attached to this church, where she devoted herself assiduously to prayer. One miracle is recorded, as well as Haseka’s death, and a struggle between two monasteries—one Cistercian, and one Benedictine—over the right to bury her body. The local bishop apparently got involved, and Haseka was disinterred and reburied in front of an audience of monks and laypeople. Finally, the vita narrates that after she had died, Haseka appeared to a pious widow in a dream vision, encouraging her in her faith. The author ends the vita by asserting that the cult of Haseka is alive and well in the region. 

Remarkably unremarkable? Perhaps. But there is more that can be said. This vita depicts a typical urban recluse in Haseka: she lives attached to a church, she is shown concentrated first and foremost on prayer, and yet there are also suggestions that she interacted with a variety of people, from laypeople to monks.

It is worth noting that this vita shows a tension between two monasteries attempting to seize control of the body and the possible cult of a holy female recluse. Further, as Signori’s original footnote indicates, Haseka was commemorated by secular canons in Böddecken, and Greven himself was a Carthusian in Cologne. Haseka, an obscure figure to twenty-first-century medievalists, was at least somewhat important to these various groups which included and claimed her.

The vita of Haseka also shines a light on other forms of non-cloistered religious life, including in the narration of her single miracle: one day, Haseka and her attendant, Berta, receive a pot of butter as a pious donation, which is unfortunately “stinking and rancid because of its old age” (butyrum prae vetustate sua foetidum ac corruptum). Eventually, Berta can no longer stand the stench, and tries to throw it out. Haseka apprehends her and, rather than dispose of the butter, beseeches God to make it palatable again. Miraculously, the butter is returned to a freshly-churned state.

Berta, the recluse’s attendant, is a key figure in the narration of this butter miracle. I use the term “attendant” here, because, like many non-cloistered religious women sought by this project, her status is somewhat unclear. The precise terms used for her in the text are conservaministra, and soror. There are suggestions that Berta’s status is in some way equal to the recluse’s: Haseka herself is also referred to as soror, and they apparently eat together, at the same table. However, Berta is not called a recluse herself, and may be placed outside the reclusorium rather than inside it: when they eat together, it is “one inside, and the other outside” (una intra, altera vero extra). Sister Berta suggests an interesting model of the non-cloistered religious woman, that of a recluse’s attendant who is also recognizable as a spiritual figure in her own right.

In the final section of the vita, the author describes Haseka appearing to a woman in a dream. The author describes this woman as “a certain noble and devoted widow” (cuidam nobili ac devotae viduae), who receives a sort of devotional pep talk from the departed recluse, telling her not to doubt or fear but to remain firm in her belief. Her designation as devota vidua suggests a certain spiritual status, along with her appearance as the privileged recipient of Haseka’s postmortem spiritual advice. This woman calls to mind the life of pious widowhood, another non-cloistered religious option for medieval women. Her connection to Haseka further suggests that these types of non-cloistered life were not isolated from one another, but rather existed as distinct but related elements of the medieval religious landscape.

The vita of Haseka is useful for the study of recluses, a form of non-cloistered religious life often undertaken by women. It is also a source for the history of non-cloistered religious women more broadly in its depiction of Berta and mention of a pious widow. This discussion has, I hope, provided an example of a text which opens a window onto the lives and representations of non-cloistered religious women—and further shown that where one such woman is found, many more are bound to appear.


[1] Gabriela Signori, “Anchorites in German-speaking regions” in Anchoritic Traditions of Medieval Europe, ed. Liz Herbert McAvoy (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2010) note 32 p. 48. This book—a collection of chapters on recluses, divided by geographic region—is an informative and fruitful source for the study of medieval recluses and much recommended to anyone interested in the topic.

[2] I contributed a translation of this vita to the Stanford Global Medieval Sourcebook project, which was published in January 2020. This translation was based on “De beata Haseka virgine reclusa in Westphalia” in AASS 26 January, vol. 3, 373–4. All quotations from the vita here are taken from the same edition.

An English summary of an Article by Pablo Acosta-García

Pablo Acosta-García, “En viva sangre bañadas: Caterina da Siena y las vidas de María de Ajofrín, Juana de la Cruz, María de Santo Domingo y otras santas vivas castellanas,” Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà, 33 (2020): 143–172.

A Summary in English by Camila Walls Castillo

If citing the following summary, please give this reference:

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

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

Puella senex: Models of Saintly Childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mature Holy Woman: Penitence, Ecstasy, Stigmata

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

by Angela Carbone 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lay Sisters in Johannes Meyer’s Buch der Reformacio Predigerordens

By Emma Gabe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Meghan Lescault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Translations are my own.

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

[5] Ibid.

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

By Isabel Harvey

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

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

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

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

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