The Daughters and Sisters of Odelind – a Network of Non-Cloistered Religious Women

By Letha Böhringer

Religious women who were not cloistered were called beguines in the north of the German-speaking countries, and sisters or Seelfrauen in the south of this region. These women were found in almost every town and even in the countryside. One of their characteristics was that they did not establish overarching institutions or joint leadership, neither on a local nor on a supra-local level.

Two Beguines. Church St Agnes of the Beguinage, Sint-Truiden (Belgium), detail of a fresco. Picture taken by Letha Böhringer

However, there is an exception to every rule. It has been known for quite a while that the sisters of an independent community in Schweidnitz (in medieval Silesia, today Świdnica in Poland) formed a network with convents at Breslau/Wrocław, Erfurt and Leipzig; the sisters moved between the houses, and they seem to have supported each other by transferring money in case of need. The Schweidnitz sisters were interrogated by a committee of inquisitors in 1332, and the inquisition protocol reveals many aspects of the community’s inner life and the attitude of the sisters. One detail, though, remained obscure: the sisters refer to themselves as the daughters of Udyllindis. They had no explanation of who she was; she does not seem to have been the foundress of the convent, but rather an inspirational charismatic figure.

Preparing a new edition of the inquisition protocol, the editors contacted me in order to check the prosopographic material of my database which contains more than 2100 names of beguines living in Cologne between 1223 and ca. 1400.

Cologne. Kölnisches Stadtmuseum, Koelhoffsche Chronik (1499), fol.140.

Cologne housed a great number of beguines and convents during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and its citizens produced a huge amount of written record. In addition to testaments and charters, the citizens kept so-called Schreinsbücher (official record books kept in cabinets, i.e. Schreine) which resemble modern land registers. Apart from transactions concerning real estate, they also contained donations to and foundations of beguine convents.

Example of a Schreinsbuch. Website of the École des Chartes.

My database documents thousands of such entries and evidence from charters and other sources. After publishing about a dozen articles from this material, I am currently writing a monograph on the beguines of Cologne supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The grant also provides for assistance from the Cologne Center for eHumanities, especially the help of a post-graduate specialist, Jan Bigalke, who modulates the database to make it open access on the internet.

My data provides key material for the identification of the Schweidnitz figure of Udyllindis. In 1291, a woman who called herself Odelindis from Pyritz (in the medieval duchy of Pomerania, today Pyrzyce in Poland), founded her own convent in Cologne which she headed as the Magistra. This convent was the first of about a dozen communities which were quickly singled out by their contemporaries as different from earlier beguinages: these beguines were called swesteren/swestrisse/ swestriones in the German vernacular, and they exercised strict poverty in their convents. Therefore, they were also called willige Arme, the “voluntary poor”. As third time’s the charm, another trace of Udyllindis/Odelindis was found via a research network which I co-founded (Agfem). Preparing her thesis on the beguines of Eastern Swabia, Barbara Baumeister discovered a similar name in charters of around 1350: a community of poor sisters called themselves the sisters of Udelhild.

Not only the obvious similarity of the names, which are not very common ones, but also characteristic features of the convents point to common origins. We know of quite a few women who travelled great distances in order to join one of these convents. The houses in Cologne and Augsburg were acquired from their own money, without patrons or benefactors. All the women organized themselves as associations based on an oath (Schwurverband) called unio in Latin or Einung in German. The novices pledged allegiance to the ideals of strict poverty and obedience. The sisters were well respected by their neighbors and received donations. We do not know why, suddenly, they were persecuted in Schweidnitz and, it seems, their house was dissolved; there was obviously some internal strife which might have instigated the inquisition. The convent in Cologne eventually became a member of the Cellite order, and the Augsburg sisters became Dominican sisters around 1700, whose monastery exists to this day.

The discovery of Odelind’s network of voluntary poor sisters gives insight on how a “movement” was formed and spread over great distances. Her congregation is a phenomenon never described before: independent women travelling the trade routes from city to city, forming convents according to their own rules and ideals, from their own money, distanced from local clergy and authorities, and respected by their contemporaries. They constitute an intriguing group and show what women in the later Middle Ages were capable of self-governance and independence, and could have the determination to live lives according to their own desires and designs.

 

Forthcoming:

Letha Böhringer, “The Swesteren of Piritz and of Cologne and their European Context,” in The Beguines of Medieval Świdnica: the Interrogation of the ‘Daughters of Odelindis’ in 1332, ed. by Tomasz Gałuszka and Paveł Kras (Heresy and Inquisition in the Middle Ages). York, 2023.

In German:  Letha Böhringer, “Die Schwestern und Töchter der Odelind von Pyritz. Ein überregionales Netzwerk von Beginen im Reich wird sichtbar,” in Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung (2023).

Barbara Baumeister, “Schwestern der Udelhild. Eine geistliche Gemeinschaft in Augsburg mit europäischen Verbindungen,” Zeitschrift des historischen Vereins für Schwaben 151 (2023).

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Habits and Habitual Dress

On November 7, 2022, The Other Sister research group held a seminar on the topic of Habits and Habitual Dress. Four invited speakers presented some of their work on the subject, which had been circulated to all participants prior to the meeting:

  • Alejandra Concha Sahli, “Habit Envy: Extra-Religious Groups, Attire, and the Search for Legitimation Outside the Institutionalised Religious Orders,” in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 15 (2019):137-56.

For additional information, we also sent: Alejandra Concha Sahli, “Habit Envy: Extra-Religious Groups, Attire and the Search for Legitimation Outside the Institutionalised Orders”, 3rd chapter of “The Meaning of the Habit: Religious Orders, Dress and Identity, 1215-1650”, PhD thesis, UCL, 2017.

  • Kirsty Schut, “Death and a Clothing Swap: An Unusual Case of Death and Burial in the Religious Habit in Fourteenth-Century Naples,” Viator (2019): 185-226.

 

  • Thomas M. Izbicki, “Nuns Clothing and Ornaments in English and Northern French Ecclesiastical Regulations,” in Refashioning Medieval and Early Modern Dress, ed. Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Maryn Clegg Hyer (Boydell and Brewer, 2019), p. 237-54.

 

As befits the subject, our discussion on habits was comprised of many threads. The issue of what constituted religious dress, what (and whether) it conveyed authority were addressed along with more practical concerns such as sewing and purchasing garments. In all, it seems that both the growing fields of material history and study of The Other Sister are rich areas for further study.

The work of Dr. Alejandra Concha Sahli, who teaches medieval history and works in public policy in Chile, explores identity and issues of legitimation connected with the visual appearance of beguines. By adopting aspects of the appearance of more traditional nuns, newer religious movements could more easily secure a legitimate role in the social and religious landscapes. They were, however, also often accused of borrowing the habits of others, and thus coming under attack. Dr Concha Sahli mentioned Nathan Joseph’s 1986 book Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication through Clothing, as useful to understand that, in the Middle Ages, the “habit made the monk”.

Dr. Kirsten Schut, a Mellon Fellow at the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, focused her discussion on the new directions for research explored in her article, other articles in progress as well as her book project on entrance ad succurrendum and lay death and burial in religious habits. In particular, she mentioned the taking of the habit on the deathbed as sometimes representing the final stage in the journey of a tertiary. While the majority of cases of lay individuals choosing to be buried in a religious habit in her rather extensive bibliographical catalogue involve habits of traditional orders, mainly Dominican and Franciscan, Dr. Schut identified cases of women wanting to be buried in the habit of a ‘beguine,’ ‘vestita,’ ‘mantellata,’ ‘pinzochera,’ or third order. These cases were largely from Italy and Southern France, but this might be more reflective of the sources than practices. Overall, donning a religious habit on one’s deathbed demonstrates another unofficial way individuals could be linked to a religious order after their death.

Professor Thomas Izbicki, a historian of Canon Law, now retired from Rutgers, who is also active in DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics and Fashion), began his presentation by pointing out that the subject combined two of his major interests, clothing and the value of religious visitations. Differences in wealth among the nuns were often expressed in difference in clothing, even within one house. He also raised the issue of textiles produced in houses of women for non-liturgical purposes. Women’s houses were generally not given the same kind of financial support as the houses of their male counterparts. Before the seventeenth century, nuns were not allowed to teach. More attention should therefore be given to the ways these houses were able to produce goods (such as sweets or sewing works) to survive financially and stay afloat.

Professor Gabriella Zarri, now retired from the University of Florence, who is responsible for some of the foundational work on non-traditional women religious, focused on the role and purpose of a habit. Pointing out that many major rites of passage are marked by ceremonies of clothing or unclothing (from birth to death), she traced the ways this manifested itself in female religious life with reference to marriage iconography, and the cult of Mary Magdalene. Zarri touched upon the meaning of some elements of profession, such as the reception of a crown of thorns to be transformed into the afterlife into a crown of glory. She also discussed the Dimesse, an order of widows, whose habits were simple, but retained elements of the elegance associated with the social status of women in the world (see fig. 8 in the English summary of her article).

The discussion began with the issue of tertiaries, and the significance of the change of habit as the final stage in the journey of a tertiary. Kirsten Schut pointed to the frequency of burial in religious habits. The habits were often switched from tertiary to monastic habit. Delfi Nieto raised the issue of queens who were buried in religious habits, sometimes even tertiary habits; there is certainly a need for further exploration of this practice. Joseph Akl asked if the religious habits donned at death were always specific to a religious group to which Kirsten Schut answered positively, at least until the 19th century/early 20th century, when secular undertakers used more generic clothing.

The discussion then moved to the Cult of the Magdalene.

The issue of what constituted religious dress was also mentioned. Alejandra Concha Sahli elaborated on when the “clothing” of beguines became official. Kirsten Schut also raised the issue of veils. There does not seem to be much clarity on when “official” decisions were made about clothing, but Gabriella Zarri pointed out that it was stable in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Meghan Lescault asked about if/when habits were officially designated as “sacramentals”. It is a theological category that was not very clearly defined, at least in the Middle Ages. Prof. Izbicki referred to Cordelia Warr’s 2010 book, Dressing for Heaven: Religious Clothing in Italy, 1215-1545. Dr Schut pointed out that a link was often made between baptism and taking a habit. Again, the ceremony of veiling seems to be key. Katherine Walter Clark pointed out that there were comparable practices for the veiling of widows.

Fr. Augustine Thompson mentioned that habit was a key part of Dominican penitential identity. He added that, curiously, by the fifteenth century, women associated with the Dominican penitential movement were increasingly portrayed as cloistered nuns rather than as tertiaries.

As well as a liturgical dimension, there were many practical concerns related to the habit. Eva Cersovsky asked who was making them. Answers to this question were diverse: some female communities might have taken care of making their own habits but it does not seem to have been the norm. Parallels with the recluses were discussed in the chat.

Isabelle Cochelin asked if there was a clear distinction between the habits of nuns and the ones of non-cloistered religious women. She also asked who was the woman in black beside Mary-Magdalene in the 1582 painting by Francesco Cavazzoni of Christ’s Sermon to Mary Magdalene presented by Professor Zarri during her presentation (see fig. 6 in her article and the English summary of her article). Professor Zarri answered that it could be a widow as the clothing of widows was similar to that of nuns. Dr. Concha Sahli pointed out that the difference between beguines’ habits and nuns’ remains an open question.

Consecration and Conversion between Rite and Symbol: an English Summary of an article by Gabriella Zarri

 

Gabriella Bruni Zarri, “Consacrazione e conversione tra rito e simbolo,” in Vestizioni: Codici normativi e pratiche religiosae, ed. Sofia Boesch Gajano and Francesca Sbardella (Rome: Viella Libreria editrice, 2021), p. 13-36.

Summarized in English by Mary Maschio

When a young woman entered a convent in Early Modern Italy, her vocation was symbolised by the acceptance of monastic dress, including the veil, but also by the rejection of secular clothes. Zarri’s bipartite study focuses first on dressing, the accoutrements received by girls as they entered the nunnery, and then on undressing, the discarding of the clothes and jewels associated with a certain social status in order to signal an abhorrence of worldly vanity. These two acts were associated respectively with St Catherine of Alexandria (fig. 1) and St Mary Magdalene (fig. 2 of the article).

  1. Mystical marriage of Saint Catherine. Bologna, Fototeca Zeri. Anonymous Ferrarese of the sixteenth century.

The first part of the article discusses the clothing and objects given to a novice as she entered the monastery for the first time and then, more briefly, the corresponding items of dress that were conferred when a nun made her permanent vows and the variations in clothing between convents. Whilst the rite of consecration was inspired by ancient marriage ceremonies, the ceremony of dressing and the entry of the novice into the convent were more closely modelled on baptism. Each item and piece of clothing represented an aspect of the spiritual journey that the postulant was undertaking. In some rituals, we find a crown of thorns. An anonymous Lombard painting from the first half of the sixteenth century, probably commissioned to commemorate a novice’s entry into a convent, follows the model of St Catherine and the Child Jesus, but the ring is replaced with a crown of thorns (fig. 3 of the article). The words to which the Child Jesus points are also found in the Dominican rite of dressing from Genova (fig. 4 of the article).

A document from the second of half of the sixteenth century describing the ritual as it took place in the Augustinian convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Bologna is particularly interesting for the level of detail it includes about the ceremony of dressing. Following the council of Trent, the process for entering a nunnery became far more rigorous: a postulant would spend a year at the monastery, followed by a month-and-a-half at home. During this period, she was expected to dress modestly and refrain from partaking in worldly pleasures. If accepted as a novice, she would be sent a small crown of thorns and a copy of the rule of St Augustine. In contrast to the grand processions of the preceding century, it was stipulated that the entry to the convent should not resemble a marriage procession. The girl should arrive simply, accompanied only by her family. Mass was celebrated in the exterior chapel, followed by the ceremony of dressing. The priest blessed each item in turn: first the girdle, the chain of perfection, then the veil, the sign of humility and submission to the lord. The novice’s hair was then cut. The collar and wimple followed. The dressing proper then commenced: she removed her secular clothes, the priest dressed her in a black habit, to remind her of Christ’s suffering, girded by a sash to guard against the temptations of the flesh, a scapular as a shield against adversity, a white veil, a sign of continence and purity, and finally a crown of thorns, for Christ. She was handed a cross to signify her rejection of the world and a candle. The last step was the bestowal of a new name. Unusually, in this convent it was the celebrant rather than the girl herself who chose this name. After a final blessing, she was led to the grille to greet her family and friends. These celebratory meetings could continue for up to three days, during which time the girl often received precious objects or artworks to commemorate the ceremony.

The common practice of demanding a dowry for novices meant that entry into convents was usually restricted to girls from wealthier families and that institutions became linked to specific important households within a city. Ceremonies of dressing therefore varied between convents. The portrait of Caterina de’ Pazzi made before her entrance into the convent depicts her in secular clothes (fig. 5 of the article), indicating a desire to preserve her worldly and familial identity even as she supposedly renounced them upon entry into religious life.

In all convents, the rite of profession was shorter than that for entry as a novice. The most important of these was the black veil, but there is no mention of the ring that is commonly found in other rites of profession. Afterwards, the sister was once again permitted to meet family and friends at the grille for three days.

In all convents, nuns were given two types of clothing: one set for work and private prayer, and another for prayer in the chapel. Nuns’ habits also reflected the varying economic fortunes of their convents and differed between rural and urban institutions. The convent of San Giovanni Battista di Bologna, a wealthy Dominican foundation, included detailed descriptions of rather luxurious clothes in its rule. This document confirms that nuns’ habits did follow contemporary fashions to some degree, that there were different clothes for novices and fully professed sisters, and that exceptions could be made in the case of illness or other pressing circumstances. Another document from a Bolognese convent, that of San Ludovico e Alessio, testifies to the personal goods a nun had in her cell.

The second part of the article looks at the rejection of secular clothes. This normally marked entry into a convent but was also relevant in a number of other situations. It is no coincidence that this practice went hand in hand with the increasing popularity of the cult of St Mary Magdalene and the rising number of convents for reformed prostitutes at the end of the fifteenth century. Wealthy women would also signal their conversion to a more spiritual life by their rejection of luxurious clothes. The most famous case is that of Vittoria Colonna, who became a contemplative in her widowhood. At the urging of numerous preachers, many women abandoned their finery without necessarily entering convents. This practice was encouraged by written texts and images, as well as by preaching. A translation of a sermon by Pedro Chavez from 1561 on the conversion of St Mary Magdalene describes her casting off her fine clothes. A visual representation of such a scene is found in the altarpiece designed by the Bolognese painter Francesco Cavazzoni for the parish church of St Mary Magdalene in Strada San Donato in 1582 (fig. 6 & 7).

  1. Francesco Cavazzoni, Preaching of Christ to the Magdalene, 1582. Bologna, Parish Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, High Altar.
1580, chiesa priorale e parr. Maddalena Bologna
  1. Detail from Francesco Cavazzoni, Preaching of Christ to the Magdalene, 1582. Bologna, Parish Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, High Altar.

A possible inspiration for this painting is that by the Milanese artist Gaudenzio Ferrari in San Cristoforo di Vercelli, from around 1530. A later example by a Brescian painter, perhaps Francesco Ricchino or perhaps Agostino Galeazzi, was created in the context of the growing popularity of the Compagnia di Sant’ Orsola which included many charitable matrons. The position of Cavazzoni’s painting, above the main altar of an urban parish church, ensured that the message was widely transmitted in Bologna. The Franciscan Antonio Pagani was particularly interested in women’s spiritual life and frequently used St Mary Magdalene as an example. In response to the spiritual needs of the day, he championed the idea of secular women living in community, not bound by vows but subject to a rule. Entrance into this community was made not by a liturgical rite, but by the rejection of fine clothes as a mark of distinction from other women.

Zarri’s consideration of dressing and undressing highlights the importance of clothing in the construction of religious identity in Early Modern Italy. The examples from written and visual sources highlight the symbolism imbued in the clothes and objects given to novices and newly professed nuns, but also reveal the concessions to practicality, and even to fashion. This acceptance of religious dress had its counterpart in the rejection of secular and luxurious clothes, which came in itself to signify the adoption of a more devout life in lay women’s communities (fig. 8).

 

  1. Mulier dicta DIMESSA. Filippo Bonanni, Ordinum religiosorum in ecclesia militanti catalogus eorumque indumenta in iconibus expressa et oblata, 1738.