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Searching for Secular Canonesses in Modern Literary Sources (Part II)

by Isabelle Cochelin


One day will come, I can feel it, when these documents [on the Chapter of Remiremont] will be looked for and collected with care, and when people will even be astonished that they had been neglected for so long.[1]


One would expect that the best literary sources to teach us about secular canonesses would be their memoirs. It is telling of the way late eighteenth-century Chapters functioned, however, that not all such memoirs are informative. For a variety of reasons, some secular canonesses spent very little, if any, time in their communities.

Such was the case for Madame de Chasteney, a canoness (in name) at Épinal from age 14 in 1785 until the Chapter’s dissolution during the French Revolution. It is also true of the Baroness of Oberkirch, who expected a position in one of the three German Protestant Chapters by age 4 (in 1758) and was admitted by 1766; she mentions her admission en passant in her memoirs, merely to explain why someone called her a comtesse in 1769 – the title (and a stipend) had come with her (symbolic) admission.[2] At times, therefore, the title was purely honorary and financially rewarding, with no requirement to live in the Chapter.

This is not true of the memoirs of the Comtesse Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle (1778-1854): even though she never became a canoness in Remiremont, where she spent her childhood, she discusses life within the Lorraine Chapter at length in her roughly twenty-five-page-long work. Another motivation for writing was that the history of Remiremont in the second half of the eighteenth century was intertwined with the glory of the Duchy of Lorraine and three generations of her family’s women. When the French Revolution forced her and the canonesses of Remiremont to leave the Chapter, she became at some point a secular canoness in Munich, but does not even mention the fact. Her link to the Munich Chapter was probably only honorary and financially advantageous.

I know of two editions of her memoirs. The one used by most (if not all) scholars was compiled by a specialist of local religious history, the canon Charles Chapelier (d. 1924), under the erroneous title of Memoirs of … ex-canoness of Remiremont (abbreviated from now on as « Chapelier »).[3] There is also an anonymous and undated printed booklet, titled Deux chapitres-nobles et deux chanoinesses (Fig. 1), that focuses on her family, the Messeys, and includes the family genealogy at the end. It must have been published some fifteen years later, as the most recent date the editor mentions is 1902 (p. 65).

Fig. 1: anonymous and undated printed booklet with a revised version of of the Comtesse’s memoirs Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 8o Lm3 3228

The so-called Souvenirs occupy pages 11-33; I will refer to them from now on as « the Messey ». I believe these two editions were based on two distinct manuscripts of the memoirs, and the most recent (used for the second edition) presents a slightly updated version by the memorialist herself, the Comtesse.[4] The texts are available through Gallica and I will cite them when a passage is available in both editions, each easily distinguishable by its page numbers, in the 200s for Chapelier.

The Comtesse was writing (at least in the older version) for a niece, whom she addresses as “my dear child” (ma chère enfant: p. 11, 14, and 25; 243, 247 and 259). Chapelier suggests it was the wife of her nephew Gustave, as the latter is mentioned on p. 30 of the newer version, a section absent from Chapelier – and that the work is an “intimate talk” (intime causerie: p. 260, a sentence taken out of the most recent version, p. 25).

The Souvenirs are tinged with nostalgia for a disappeared world, and it is unlikely that pre-Revolutionary life at Remiremont was as idyllic as she portrays it. There were complex politics and social inequalities at play that would have been invisible to a child’s eyes. It is, nevertheless, a rich source of information, giving us a point of view at the threshold, between the inside and the outside, of the life of secular canonesses. The Comtesse’s situation was liminal because her aunt – who was a Remiremont canoness, and was planning to make her her Dame-niece – raised her in her own house within the Chapter (see Fig. 2). The Comtesse was there when she was about four years old – she remembers Princess Charlotte of Brionne who stayed for few months at Remiremont in 1782 when she became abbess – and perhaps even earlier.

Fig. 2: House of a secular canoness in Remiremont. Found on the website “Au Pays de Mes Ancêtres

The Comtesse was being trained for a succession that never took place. In 1786, when the future Comtesse was eight years old, her aunt had to “adopt” the Prince de Condé’s daughter as her Dame-niece instead, so that the latter would become the new (and the last) abbess of the Chapter (p. 22-26 and p. 255-61). Her aunt’s sense of duty for her community (esprit de corps, p. 24 and p. 258) and the politics of Lorraine took precedence over family ties!

We find in the Souvenirs many of the themes already raised in an earlier blog. The magnificent performance of the secular canonesses’ liturgical celebrations, due to their striking clothing and the angelic looks of their younger members, is praised by the Comtesse, as Françoise Boquillon and Corinne Marchal (among other scholars) have already mentioned. The Comtesse’s point of view is here an external one, completing Guénard’s (whose novel was discussed in the earlier blog): she shows us the canonesses arriving in their choir with valets holding their long ermine-trimmed capes, and then the grille closing behind them without hiding them (p. 18-19 and p. 252-53): so close and magnificent, and yet untouchable…

She explains also how a very young voice sometimes sang unaccompanied, the child canoness moving alone, effortlessly, with her long cape, between the altar, the stalls, and the lectern while singing (p. 19 and p. 253-54). The future Comtesse obviously hoped for years to become one of these young voices behind the grille. It is also telling that she speaks of the liturgical activities of the canonesses frequently, already insisting upon it by the second page of her memoirs, when giving a historical and then structural overview of the Chapter and its activities. Here, the Comtesse’s point of reference is that of an insider. Obviously, her aunt attached importance to her religious activities as a Dame and transmitted this sentiment to her niece. Not all the canonesses necessarily viewed their positions in this religious light, but this text shows that at least some did.

Another key sentiment in the Souvenirs, possibly inherited or at least shared with her dear aunt, is one of “patriotism”: the Comtesse is very much attached to the distinct identity of Lorraine, first annexed to the Kingdom of France in 1738 and more definitely incorporated by 1766. Even though the memoirs were written decades after these events, they still resonate with the sadness of the Lotharingian nobility that had lost its independence from the French king.

The best example concerns the medallions that usually adorned the habits of all secular canonesses (seen in the illustrations of the previous blog). The Comtesse wrote that this adornment – acquired as recently as 1774 by Remiremont, thanks to a non-Lotharingian abbess – was resented by the canonesses, as it reminded them of the “new domination of France over the Chapters of the whole Lorraine” (p. 20). Indeed, the editor of the Messey explains in a note that the name of Louis XV was engraved on it; not something one would want to wear on one’s bosom if one was a patriot of Lorraine!

This fact brings us to an important theme within the Souvenirs and probably in the life of secular canonesses, at least in Remiremont: politics at all levels, not only regional (as we just saw two examples in relation to the Prince of Condé and the medallions), but also, to a lesser extent, European (for instance p. 16 and p. 249). It is worth highlighting this point: some of these women of the highest aristocracy were deeply interested in politics and played a role when necessary and possible.

Fig. 3: Portrait of Anne Charlotte de Lorraine, abbess of Remiremont (1738-1773), copy from the studio of Bernard Verschooten (1728-1783). Carlo Bonte’s auctions website.

The canonesses were also very concerned with the politics of the Chapter itself. The anonymous author who introduced the Messey considers collegiality (with the free election of the abbess) as one of the main characteristics of the noble Chapters:

The essential principle of the constitution of the aristocratic abbeys (insignes abbayes) remained intact throughout the ages: the government of chapters remained elective; the abbesses governed under the control and with the participation of the Chapter; their election was approved by the pope and their power moderated by collegiality.[5]

This is something of an exaggeration, since some Chapters did not control the election of their superior. Nevertheless, many passages of the Souvenirs demonstrate that the canonesses did have a significant say in the internal administration of the Chapter, including the admission of newcomers (p. 16-18 and p. 250-52), with the later edition adding an “in Chapter” (en plein Chapitre), as a key point in the description of the admission process, to avoid any ambiguity on the decision process. The Comtesse also took pains to explain what she meant by “Chapter” (the noble agrégation, which she calls elsewhere the “corporation”, p. 18 and p. 252) and “chapter”, the meeting space, reworking these passages between the two editions (p. 12 and p. 244, and p. 23 and p. 257), all proof that this collegial aspect was fundamental in her eyes. She insists as well on the significant territory it oversaw (Fig. 4) and the power the Chapter exerted, remaining silent on the prerogatives of the abbess (by choice or by ignorance, as her aunt had been a simple canoness):

[The Chapter] owned numerous lordships that depended solely on it and extended over a significant part of Lorraine. The French king did not send a garrison into the city of Remiremont, and his troops could not even cross the territory. The Chapter had high justice, that is, right of life and death. It had its police lieutenant, its civil officers, in one word, full and total jurisdiction… All matters of importance were deliberated by the Dames assembled in Chapter and resolved by them.[6]

Fig. 4: Map of the territories controlled by the Chapter (in blue) within the Duchy of Lorraine (pale yellow), in 1683. Drawn by Brostoler — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 4.0

Politics were always at play in these communities, with the canonesses always on their guard, always fighting for their rights.

I would like to end with what struck me the most in the Souvenirs: the Comtesse’s love for and pride in the way of life of the Chapter of Remiremont, sentiments she must have inherited from her aunt and ones that many canonesses likely felt for their own communities. This community (which she joined so young) was her family and her world; it is clear she would also have very much liked for it to have been her future.

She specifies that she called her aunt Mère (“Mother”, p. 13 and p. 246) and that the latter had “adopted” her (p. 15 and p. 248). Admission during childhood (likely leading to a strong sense of identity with the Chapter) may have been common: the only aunt of the author from whom we have a definitive date of birth, 1736, the eldest of all her aunts, had a stipend at Remiremont by 1744 (see the family tree in Messey, p. 62) and was, therefore, seven or eight at the oldest, when she joined. The Comtesse mentions as well “little Dames” aged between seven and twelve (p. 12 and p. 245); in fact, the last Remiremont canoness alive at the time she was writing was one who had been seven at the outbreak of the Revolution (p. 33 and p. 268).

Once a canoness had a stipend and her own house within the Chapter, she could adopt a Nièce de prébende (p. 17-18 and p. 251): the Comtesse’s aunt was no more than twenty-seven when she became a Mère for the Comtesse (even though the latter never became a Nièce de prébende in the end); these adoptions created one more tie between these women and their communities.[7] The same aunt also had three sisters in Remiremont (p. 14 and p. 247), and the memoirs mention a cousin (p. 13 and p. 246) and one “intimate friend … to whom she confided all her thoughts” (p. 23 and p. 257, p. 24 and p. 258).

We must, therefore, imagine a group of women of all ages, many close to each other by various ties, biological or not. The pride of the Comtesse for this way of life can be seen in her exclamation that of her five aunts who became canonesses, only one left to get married, and this was the one who went to Maubeuge, not Remiremont (p. 14 and p. 247)! She comes back to this issue later in her memoirs, saying: “in general, these Dames of Remiremont did not get married or only rarely; their status was so agreeable (agréable) and beautiful that they were little disposed to change it for another” (p. 20 and p. 254). As was the case with her aunt, her love for the Chapter was greater than the one for her biological family: her mentions of her father and uncles are sparse.

I hope these few lines will have convinced you to read the Comtesse’s Souvenirs, especially in its latest rendering, as it offers an unparalleled foray into the life of secular canonesses in the late eighteenth century. We can see the little Comtesse playing alone in a room on the ground floor of her aunt’s house while the latter, unwell, is saying her canonical hours at home (p. 22 and p. 256), or imagine them taking strolls in the countryside outside the Chapter (p. 11 and p. 243). I know many women today who could project themselves easily in such a world, but alas almost none would have the necessary pedigree!

[1]  “…un jour viendra, je le pressens, où ces documents [sur le Chapitre de Remiremont] seront précieusement recherchés et recueillis, où l’on s’étonnera même de les avoir négligés aussi longtemps.” Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle, Souvenirs, in Deux chapitres-nobles et deux chanoinesses (Besançon: Impr. de l’Est. S.d.), p. 11.

[2] Madame de Chasteney. Mémoires de Madame de Chasteney, ed. A. Roserot. Paris, 1896; see Françoise Boquillon, “La religion des chanoinesses nobles à travers leurs écrits”, L’écriture du croyant 125 (2005) 93. Henriette Louise (von Waldner) baronne d’Oberkirch. Mémoires de la baronne d’Oberkirch sur la cour de Louis XVI et la société française avant 1789, ed. Suzanne Burkard. Paris: Mercure de France, 1970.

[3] « Mémoires de Mme la Comtesse Marie-Antoinette de Messey, ancienne chanoinesse de Remiremont », Bulletin de la Société philomatique vosgienne, 1888, p. 241-68.

[4] A good example of the differences between both texts concerns the descriptions of the two highest in hierarchy after the abbess: the doyenne and the secrète. The passage in the Messey (p. 11) clarifies the tasks of the latter in comparison to the same passage in Chapelier (p. 245-46). One proof that the changes were made by the Comtesse is her comment about her father, which is present only in the most recent version (mon père, p. 15). The overall differences are not major, except in the last pages dedicated to the French Revolution, which are laden with anguish. In the later version, many sections have been moved around, and additional family and military details added. In one case, it was a conscious choice on the part of Chapelier not to cite a specific episode; he inserted instead two sets of three points (p. 29 vs 264). The absence of such signal of omission for the other missing passages indicates, I think, that they were absent from the manuscript used by Chapelier. Except for the first and last two pages, the informative footnotes in the two editions are also different. Probably, the second editor knew of Chapelier’s text, but created a new version, specifically for the extended Messey family, based on a different manuscript.

[5] “Le principe essentiel de la constitution des abbayes insignes demeura intact dans le cours des âges: le gouvernement des chapitres resta électif; les abbesses gouvernèrent sous le contrôle et avec le concours du Chapitre; leur élection était approuvée par le Saint-Siège et leur pouvoir modéré par la collégialité.” (Messey, “L’Abbaye de Remiremont”, p. 5-6).

[6] “Il possédait de nombreuses seigneuries qui ne relevaient que de lui seul et s’étendaient sur une forte partie de la Lorraine. Le roi de France n’envoyait point de garnison dans la ville de Remiremont, et ses troupes ne pouvaient même passer sur le territoire. Le Chapitre avait la haute justice, c’est-à-dire droit de vie et de mort. Il avait son lieutenant de police, ses officiers-civils, en un mot, une pleine et entière juridiction… Dans toutes les affaires importantes, les délibérations étaient tenues par les Dames assemblées en Chapitre et résolues par elles” (p. 16 and p. 249). There is an interesting footnote in Messey (p. 16), absent from Chapelier, explaining how the abbess could exercise pardon over some prisoners, for Easter, Rogations and the vigil of the Saint-Barthelemy; they would then join the barefoot procession to the collegial church.

[7] I calculated that the aunt had turned fifteen at the earliest in 1770 when her own aunt died (p. 15 and p. 248).

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.