The Other Sister Research Seminar: Identities on the Italian Peninsula

by Joseph George Akl

On September 29th, 2023, The Other Sister research group held a seminar on the topic of varieties of religious life on the Italian peninsula. Four invited speakers presented some of their work on the subject, which had been circulated to all 44 participants prior to the online meeting:

  • Mary Harvey Doyno, “Roman Women: Female Religious, the Papacy, and a Growing Dominican Order,” Speculum 97, no. 4 (2022): 1040–72.
  • Thomas Luongo, “Catherine of Siena’s Advice to Religious Women,” Specula 3 (2022): 99–124.
  • Ashley Tickle Odebiyi, “Betwixt and Between: The Formation of Non-Cloistered Religious Women’s Identities in Rome, 1400-1600,” 2–31. This unpublished chapter is from an upcoming monograph.
  • Thérèse Peeters, “To Overcome Distrust: Three Religious Initiatives by Genoese Women,” in Trust in the Catholic Reformation, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions 231 (Leiden: Brill, 2022), 182–229.
    • The introduction from this publication (pages 1-36) was also circulated for additional context.

Each paper focused on the question of identity using the Italian peninsula as a case study. As is often the case with non-cloistered religious women, the issue around nomenclature was central. However, the aim of the discussion was not to box-in (or, in a manner, cloister!) these women, but to uncover their multifold identities and find non-cloistered religious women in sources where they have been overlooked.

Mary Harvey Doyno, associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Religious Studies at Sacramento State University, centered her discussion on the growth of the universal convent of San Sisto envisioned by Pope Innocent III and achieved by Honorius III (with the help of Dominic of Caleruega). She argued that, by considering Cecilia of Rome’s Miracula beati Dominici alongside the extant charter evidence from Santa Maria in Tempuli, she was able to give more visibility to Roman women religious and Dominicans, albeit one that was tied to the attempt to cloister all of Rome’s women religious.

Thomas Luongo, associate professor of history and the director of Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Tulane University, focused his short presentation on the loaded question of Catherine of Siena’s identity as a woman religious. He asked what Catherine’s conception of her life and vocation was, and if we can even speak of a formal vocation when discussing Catherine’s identity – one that is completely idiosyncratic. Lunogo argued that Raymond of Capua’s life of Catherine positions her as following the Dominican order, even suggesting her as a friar, an identity that fits into Catherine’s advice of claustration to some women while never cloistering herself. Catherine’s lifestyle was an impossible one and Luongo added that if we try to make it work, pushing Catherine into the box of laity or of religious life, we ignore the tension at play.

Next, Ashley Tickle Odebiyi, assistant professor of history at Arizona State University, focused her discussion on the bizzoche of Rome and how, though each bizzoche house was associated with a different order, such as the Benedictines, Franciscans, or Dominicans, these women had networks and identities that crossed the borders of the male orders. Despite the limited extant documentation for some of these houses, Odebiyi has found commonalities between the Roman bizzoche in their clothing, affective piety, and service to the poor – a lens she believes is important to apply to the study of non-cloistered religious women in general, drawing on similarities between beguines, beatas, bizzoche and others.

Finally, Thérèse Peeters, author of Trust in the Catholic Reformation, asked what role did trust play in the post-Tridentine Church in general, a period characterised by distrust, especially of female religious. This distrust was exemplified by Genoa’s seventeenth-century magistrato delle monache which supervised and controlled female religious life in the city. Peeters examined three religious groups, the Turchine, Medee, and Brignoline, that, despite this climate, arose during the period in Genoa. She discussed the interplay between trust and freedom, with the freedom of choice, spirituality and movement increasing the women’s view of the trustworthiness of their own religious project, while similarly increasing the distrust of those whose support they needed. Peeters found that a higher level of trust was necessary for the women religious who acted publicly, while lower levels of trust were needed for religious groups who kept a lower profile.

The discussion began with Alison More asking about the interplay between identity and order. Mary Harvey Doyno answered that she is trying to understand this very thing. San Sisto is associated with the Dominican Order but it is clear that the friars did not think of it as theirs, at least not in the modern understanding of affiliation. At opportune times the friars point to San Sisto as an example of women in their order, but the relationship is never fully clear. Thomas Luongo also answered saying that, of course, Raymond of Capua did not wish to make Catherine a friar, this is impossible, but just as Mary Magdalene was a model for some, Catherine was made into a model for the friars. Luongo wished to underscore the difficulty (or the missing-the-point) of trying to clarify identities with labels.

Adrian Kammerer next asked two questions. First, he wanted more information on Amata from Cecilia’s Miracula who had spirits expelled from her by Dominic of Caleruega, as she does not seem to be cloistered even later in the writings. Second, he wondered if the charters from Santa Maria in Tempuli discussed by Doyno complicated not only the distinction between nuns and other sisters, but also the one between conversae and other sisters. Doyno answered that though she wished she had more information on Amata, it is not clear what becomes of her from the documentation. As for the second statement, she agreed that this understanding can be broadened to include semi-religious women, and how she was interested by the abbesses’ attempts to nod to a larger community of women, outside of the smaller community of nuns. The fact that this larger community was involved in guarding the convent’s patrimony is understood by Doyno as a red flag for Innocent III or Honorius III, aiding the idea of a universal convent.

Maiju Lehmijoki Wetzel asked if it was too radical to assert that the Dominican Order did not exist before women were involved. Doyno answered that, though radical, the statement identifies that the institution, and therefore perhaps the identity, is formed around a process of including everybody but giving women a clear, contained space. Luongo specified that even during Catherine of Siena’s life, the identity of the order was still being articulated. There is a clarity organisationally for men that does not exist for women. It is this lack of organisation for the women that brings these questions. However, Luongo added that if one digs deeper, there is a variety in the friars’ identities as well, which could also bring a (diverse) range of issues.

Michèle Mulchahey stated that in the discussion on the tension between the cura monialium and mendicancy, scholarship focuses on the friars’ relationships with women, but, with women being cloistered, there were also the problems linked with property and ownership. Would this not be a real stumbling block to including women into the order? Doyno agreed but added that in her reading of the situation, the convent of San Sisto really remained under the control of the papacy, who had asked Dominic for assistance. So there were no real issue of the properties of women creating a problem with the friars’ mendicancy during the thirteenth century. Luongo wondered if, by Catherine’s time, there is a sense that this concern has folded into the situation concerning the Dominican Reform. He added that it is often forgotten that during Catherine life there was a female Dominican community in Sienna that interacted with Catherine and the mantellate.

Sioban Nelson asked Doyno to explain her comment that the Church needed this universal convent to grow. Doyno responded that though there was a resource element to this need, Innocent III had the idea to create a Church for the entirety of Christendom and to be able to articulate authority in this way. This amorphous growth is what she conceptualised when stating that this was needed for the Church to grow.

Carla Thomas asked if we should think of Catherine having a vocation in her time or are we projecting a modern notion onto her when saying this. Dr. Luongo suggested that “vocation” is probably a term we are using with a modern sense and that it is not entirely applicable.

Isabelle Cochelin asked if these women were allowed to choose their confessors or spiritual advisors. Peeters answered that the smaller of the three female groups in Genoa, the Medee, had this choice and they often picked the Jesuits. The cloistered women in Genoa had this decision made for them. Odebiyi gave the example of Santa Francesca who chose two confessors in her life, neither one coming from the Benedictines of Mount Olivet with whom her house of bizzoche was affiliated. Doyno was unsure and said that the sources seem to suggest that Dominic was selected for the women rather than the other way around. Luongo answered that even though Catherine made everything seem like a choice, the choice of confessor was made for her. However, she had a close relationship to Raymond of Capua, who berated Catherine’s early confessors in his work.

Michael Hahn enquired as to when the term “Dominican” is first used as well as asking if we are perhaps imposing a modern identity onto the period when using the terms “Dominican” or “Franciscan” to speak of the orders. Doyno answered that the appellation “Order of Preachers” was used during Innocent III’s reign and that Amanda Power has dealt with this historiographical issue for the Franciscans. She answered that thinking about the historical narrative being fabricated when we connect these non-cloistered religious women to the mendicant orders is important, as Alison More has written, but this fabricated narrative also gives us the false sense that there is a coherent identity for the mendicants earlier than there was. Odebiyi added that her sources use the terms Third Order of Saint Francis and then pinzochere in the same documents, which complicates the understanding of these women’s identity. This is why she has opted to simply use the term bizzoche instead of tertiaries. Michèle Mulchahey added that the earliest use of the term ordo in relation to the Dominicans was to designate their propositum and refered to their preaching.

Delfi Nieto-Isabel summarised the major themes of this meeting’s discussion asking if we are boxing in the non-cloistered religious women when trying to categorise them and impose identities onto them. She asked if this was a heritage handed down to us by the Church authorities of the period and if, ultimately, these are useless categories, even when thinking across the north-south European border. Doyno agreed and brought to light the fact that this confusion does not happen with male groups, and Odebiyi added that this categorisation comes from the sources, which can obscure real commonalities between groups. Peeters specified that for the women she studied, categorisation depends on the type of project the women were trying to set up. Sometimes a fluid identity can serve a group. Luongo added that not all had access to Latin, through which many ideas were spread, which can lead to some of the regional divides

Marguerite Porete and the 1323 Inquisition at the Beguinage of Sainte-Élisabeth of Valenciennes: An English Summary of an Article by Huanan LU

Huanan Lu, “Marguerite Porete et l’enquête de 1323 sur le béguinage Sainte-Élisabeth de Valenciennes,” Revue du Nord 3, no. 440 (2021): 451–85.

Summarised in English by Joseph George Akl.

There have long been hypotheses on Marguerite Porete’s origins. Called a beguina de Hannonia in the inquisitional records, Marguerite is often held by historians, without prior evidence, to have had contacts with the beguinage of Sainte-Élisabeth in Valenciennes. It is in Valenciennes where Marguerite first appears when her book is burned in the autumn of 1305 or 1306 by Gui de Collemezzo, bishop of Cambrai. This article uses a fourteenth-century inquisition held at Sainte-Élisabeth to substantiate the claim that Marguerite Porete was indeed once member of this community.

The Inquisitions of Beguinal Life

The Clementine Decrees (Cum de quibusdam mulieribus and Ad nostrum), published formally by John XXII in 1317, condemned the beguinal life (status beguinarum) and call for the suppression of this lifestyle, but not where these women lived “honestly in their convents” (honeste in suis conversantes hospitiis). It appears that the investigations that resulted from these bulls were less intense in northern Europe, particularly in the southern Low Countries, than in the north-east of the Empire. Moreover, contrary to the individual nature of the German inquisitions, northern European investigations focused on entire beguinal communities. To clarify the bulls, in 1320, John XXII began sending the bull Cum de mulieribus to various bishops, in which he requested that they undertake investigations of the beguines in their jurisdictions without troubling the good beguines. In this letter he also specified that honest beguines were to be protected from harassment.

The inquisitorial records of Cambrai are more complete than those of the surrounding bishoprics. Pierre de Lévis-Mirepoix, bishop of Cambrai, received the bull Cum de mulieribus on December 30th, 1320, however he did not undertake any investigation until 1323. On the 28th of July of that year, he appointed the Premonstratensian Godefroy II de Bavay, abbot of Vicoigne as the sole investigator. Godefroy then began his investigatio on the 4th of August 1323 and then, the beguines are officially pronounced to be orthodox.

The Beguinage of Sainte-Élisabeth of Valenciennes

The beguinage was founded in 1239 and had grown steadily throughout the thirteenth century to become its own parish in 1254 with a hospital, church, convent, houses, mill, and a school. Unlike what has been claimed by Walter Simons, it does not seem that the beguines of Sainte-Élisabeth were in decline following the Clementine Decrees; They continued to call themselves “beguines” and had an increasing amount of communication with other religious and lay institutions in the city during this period. Furthermore, the count of Hainaut’s family continued to protect the community and the countess, Jeanne de Valois, reconfirmed the donation of a house to the community made by a previous countess in 1269.

The Inquisitional Records

All our information concerning the investigatio of 1323 is provided to us through one document, numbered as 40 H 552/1336, and held in the Archives départementales du Nord in Lille. The document lists all the actors and witnesses in the investigation and demonstrates the protection from which the beguinage benefitted. Moreover, all of these are local. Amongst the many named are the countess Jeanne de Valois and her two daughters, six Dominicans, four Franciscans, and the priests of the beguinage. The choice of Godefroy, the abbot of Vicoigne, as the sole prosecutor or inquisitor, is also of note as he was already the protector of the beguines of Valenciennes. This willingness to protect the beguines of Sainte-Élisabeth comes through in the rapidity of the process — he begins the investigation only a week after being told to do so by the bishop –, and through the manner in which he investigates. No individual examinations are held; instead the process seems to be more of a public meeting, in the presence of important figures, to reaffirm the orthodoxy of the beguinage. After speaking with the Dominicans and Franciscans who asserted the community’s obedience, humility, and chastity, Godefroy spoke with tres honestas mulieres (perhaps the sovereign and two mistresses of the community), duodecim alias mulieres of good reputation and then another alias viginti chosen by the former twelve. It is noteworthy that all the beguines were present at the investigatio even if not called upon.

The Mention of Marghoneta

These beguines were asked if they had ever discoursed on the Holy Trinity or on the divine essence, or if they had promulgated any beliefs contrary to the Catholic faith. They replied that there was once a certain Marghoneta, who had been executed for her beliefs, however, when she was with them, she never had the slightest follower in her beliefs.

Responderunt unanimi et supplici devotione quod non nisi solummodo de quadam que dum vivebat fuit nominata Marghoneta que ob sue culpe demerita deleta dicebatur, justicia exigente, adtamen inter ipsas illa Marghoneta nullam unquam prorsus habuit suarum sectatricem errorum.

This Marghoneta must in fact be Marguerite, which further advances the idea that the inquisition was simply a piece of theatre used to distance the beguinage from Marguerite Porete.

The name Marghoneta is not attested in contemporary sources from the Hainaut. Marguerite, however, is the name of some of the countesses of Hainaut and is very common in the region, with its variants (Margareta in Latin, or Margherite in Middle French which can be written Margrite). Marghoneta, might therefore be a diminutive of Marguerite, reserved for a woman of modest standing, while Marguerite was reserved for the beguines of higher social rank. This hypocorism adds an important element to the discussion of Marguerite’s social background.

While Marguerite’s social background may remain a mystery, what does not is Marguerite’s unwelcomeness in Valenciennes. No trace of her exists in the city archives, meaning she might have had a subaltern presence in the community and was never called upon to witness legal deeds. Furthermore, the beguines during the investigation call her “a certain woman named Marghoneta.” The absence of a family name and the phrasing place distance between the community and Marguerite. The beguines also speak about this unanimously, implying that is a commonly known fact. While we do not know how many beguines present at the investigation in 1323 would have been in the beguinage during Marguerite’s stay at the start of the fourteenth century, it is highly likely that some would have known her, such as Jeanne de Bavay, who lived in the community prior to 1299 and until 1350. Lastly, during Marguerite’s trials, her community is never by her side.

Godefroy’s Double Roles

Godefroy was not only the protector of the beguines in Valenciennes, he was also highly respected by both lay and religious institutions. He was advisor to Willliam I and William II, successive counts of Hainaut, a theologian, student of John of Tongres, represented the count in papal matters, and was called to the council of Vienne. He appears to have been sympathetic to the beguines’ cause.

Very shortly after the publication of the Clementine Decrees, prior to the investigation, the beguines of Sainte-Élisabeth elected new leaders, probably all new save Godefroy and Marie de Saint-Élier, respectively procurator and Grand Mistress. This choice demonstrates firstly that the beguines were shrewdly aware of the problems that could arise due to the decrees and hoped to stay ahead of any issues by choosing new leaders. Secondly, the choice of Godefroy, was foresighted due to his presence at the Council of Vienne.

The bishop of Cambrai also had his reasons to select Godefroy to execute the mission requested by the papacy. Cum de mulieribus speaks to rooting out bad beguines but also to protecting good beguines from any harassment. This proved to be challenging as it was not entirely clear precisely what the pope meant in the bull. The bishop was aware of the delicate situation on his hands as Marguerite’s previous presence could be an issue. He chose Sainte-Élisabeth as the first beguinage to investigate in his bishopric, three months before Brussels or Antwerp. This haste demonstrates his eagerness to settle the issue quickly. Furthermore, his choice of Godefroy as the sole investigator is also telling as in Brussels and Antwerp he relied on multiple officials from various religious institutions. Be it to please the count or the bishop, or out of sympathy for the beguines, Godefroy had no reason not to defend the beguines.

This investigation of Sainte-Élisabeth in 1323 in which over fifty people intervened, including all the beguines, their priests, members of the mendicant orders nearby, the countess and her daughters, provides us with not only a detailed model of a beguinal investigation. It also gives us the first trace of Marguerite Porete at Sainte-Élisabeth of Valenciennes, who was still being called Marghoneta.