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.