Female Power – Male Power? Canonesses and Canons in Comparison: An English summary of an article by sigrid hirbodian

Sigrid Hirbodian, “Weibliche Herrschaft – männliche Herrschaft? Stiftsdamen und –herren im Vergleich,” in Frauenstifte – Männerstifte (Schriften zur südwestdeutschen Landeskunde), ed. by Oliver Auge, Sigrid Hirbodian, and Friederike Schnack. Ostfildern: Thorbecke Verlag, forthcoming in 2022.

Summarized in English by Emma Gabe

A thirteenth-century Weistum (legal text) showed that the abbess of Andlau exercised power and authority at various levels in her demesne in Breisgau: she ruled over lands that incorporated several villages, and her rule included the wielding of authority over the demesne’s legal courts. As a feudal mistress, she was sometimes represented by a noble bailiff who was enfeoffed to her, but she often exercised her power and authority in person.

Communities of canons wielded similar power and authority over their lands. Legal sources do not indicate any differences in the exercise of power by houses of canons or houses of canonesses, nor in the perception and acceptance of their power by the villeins over whom they ruled.[1] Therefore, we must approach the study of the authority of male and female houses in a different ways: 1) through a comparison of the different types of male and female houses, following Peter Moraw’s classification; 2) through an analysis of the similarities and differences in the statutes and ways of life for canons and canonesses; 3) through an analysis of the structure of their properties and assets (Besitzstruktur); and 4) through an analysis of the practices of rulership in houses of canons and houses of canonesses. This analysis focuses on houses of canons and canonesses in south-west Germany, mainly in the triangle between Mainz, Alsace, and Buchau am Federsee, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

1) In 1980, Peter Moraw identified three types of male Chapters[2]: those affiliated to a monastery, those connected to a bishopric, and those associated with secular rulers. The first type is not relevant for houses of canonesses as there are no known houses founded by a monastery. That said, many houses of canonesses alternated between leading a monastic form of life and functioning as houses of canonesses over the course of their histories. These were not formal, legal changes of status. Rather, the canonesses had to contend with recurring pressure from the papacy and bishops to conform to a monastic, i.e. an enclosed, form of life, which they resisted by invoking their traditional customs and statutes. Indeed, after the papal decretal Periculoso in 1298, there was no formal recognition of the canoness’ way of life in church law, but it continued in practice.

Moraw’s second classification––collegiate Chapters such as Domstifte bound to a bishop––is not relevant for canonesses, because the canonesses could not fulfill the spiritual offices required to support the bishop and his power. However, Moraw does include Augustinian canons and Premonstratensians in this category, which does touch on women, because many of these Chapters were founded as double communities.

Moraw’s last classification concerns houses founded by secular powers. For canons, he identifies the royal houses founded by kings in the early Middle Ages, as well as Chapters in royal residences and universities (Residenzstifte and Universitätsstifte) in the later medieval period. Here again, the situation is different for houses of canonesses. All the houses of canonesses established by secular authorities had been founded in the early or high Middle Ages (before the thirteenth century). Their function was to look after the memoria of their founders, to provide for their female family members and those of their allies, and to secure their authority over lands and out of the grasp of competing rulers by transferring these lands to spiritual institutions while retaining certain legal rights (Vogteirechte) and the power to chose the abbess. By the late medieval period, secular powers chose Cistercian monasteries, and later Dominican or Clarissan houses and even beguinages when they wanted to support a community of women religious.

2) There are also notable differences in the structure of male and female houses. Unlike in male Chapters, which were headed by a provost and then a dean in the second position of power, houses of canonesses were invariably led by an abbess, and deans were uncommon. This demonstrates again the similarities that houses of canonesses shared with female monasteries. Another difference is that female houses always had a certain number of prebends for canons, who preformed sacramental duties for the canonesses. These canons initially had little influence, being greatly outnumbered by canonesses and lacking a voice in chapter meetings and the election of the abbess. By the late medieval period, however, as the number of canonesses declined in many communities, the canons accumulated more rights and power. At the same time, the power of the chapter increased in the late medieval period. In the fifteenth century, for example, the abbess of Buchau had to swear an oath of obedience to the chapter’s decisions right after her election. The increasing power of the chapter led to increasing conflicts with abbesses and hindered the abbesses’ ability to govern. For example, one noble canoness from St Stefan in Strasbourg wanted to build her own house in the community in the 1320s and mobilized her networks for support when the abbess refused permission. The bishop threatened the abbess with excommunication, even though this violated the abbess’ supervisory rights as laid out in the community’s statutes. The abbess, meanwhile, enjoyed the support of a group of canonesses deriving from the lower nobility. The fight eventually ended in a compromise, with the noble canoness being allowed to have her own apartment in an existing building with the community, and the creation of new statutes.

This example clearly shows that the social background of participants played an important role in conflicts, and that the contents of and changes to statutes was a constant process of negotiation between the abbess, the canonesses, their families and their networks. The abbess’ power, then, was not dissimilar to that of the provost in male Chapters.

One way in which the power of abbesses differed from provosts, however, was that abbesses often had the title of imperial princess (Reichsfürstin), like some of their monastic counterparts. Another difference between canons and canonesses concerns the communal life (vita communis), which played a larger role in communities of canonesses. Canons, on the other hand, often had multiple prebends (and therefore responsibilities in multiple churches) and employed vicars to undertake some of their duties. While canonesses had many similarities with canons including freedom of movement, the possibility for long absences, individual dwellings and secular clothing outside of choir, the vita communis played a more important role in their communities. Even education was internal to the community: canonesses were often raised and educated in the community, unlike canons who studied at universities.

3) Similarly to male houses, the finances of houses of canonesses can be classified in three parts. Firstly, prebends financed the living costs of canonesses and canons (Pfründen). Secondly, attendance at mass and choir was financially rewarded (Präsenzgeld). Canons, who were more likely to have multiple prebends, often employed vicars to fulfil some of their duties, however. Thirdly, communities also had funds and possessions for the maintenance of the community’s church and buildings (Kirchenfabrik). These properties and possessions, with multiple and diverse rights and privileges, formed a complex structure of income for female communities.

4) Abbesses had to defend and secure their power in various ways, often through long and expensive legal challenges. The abbesses of St Stefan in Strasbourg, for example, had to defend against repeated attempts of other lords to usurp the abbess’ rights and possessions in Wangen in Alsace. In order to secure the community’s rights and possessions, it was often necessary for the abbess of St Stefan to represent her institution herself. She had property registries drawn up and legal texts copied, and she regularly travelled to the community’s lands to inspect them. Facing costly legal challenges, she lobbied the bishop and city council for help, and she even imprisoned her enemies when necessary. For the people over whom the abbess ruled and for those who challenged her authority, however, it did not matter that she was a woman: similar challenges to a community’s rights can be observed in houses of canons. Ultimately, the exercise of power was the same for male and female religious, although there are differences in the histories of their communities and forms of life.


[1] English lacks a ready translation for the German term Stift. I have translated Stift as “house of canons/house of canonesses” or “Chapter” (with a capital C).

[2] Peter MORAW, “Über Typologie, Chronologie und Geographie der Stiftskirche im deutschen Mittelalter,” in Untersuchungen zu Kloster und Stift. Göttingen, 1980, p. 9–37.