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.