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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 This unpublished chapter is from an upcoming monograph.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

2023 International Conference

The Other Sister: New Research on Non-Cloistered Religious Women (1100-1800)

CHARBONNEL LOUNGE

St Michael’s College. University of Toronto

May 18–20, 2023

You can find a summary of the conference here.

Mary and other young women in the Temple (1325-1350), Johannes de Caulibus, Meditatione de la uita del nostro Signore Ihesu Christo, Paris, BnF, Ital 115, f.7v.

Throughout Christian history, there have been groups of women who lived recognizably religious lives but outside of traditional monastic structures. Despite leaving a substantial documentary and (in some cases) visual record, they are conspicuously absent from the dominant scholarly tradition. By defining and contextualizing the experiences of these women, we can begin to understand the ways they fit into the ecclesiastical and lay landscape of the worlds in which they lived. Our conference focuses on new research on non-cloistered women religious including (but not limited to) beguines, bizzoche, tertiaries, pinzochere, canonesses, and house ascetics. By looking beyond the limitations generally imposed by geography or time period, we can begin to think of the connections that existed between these women and society, cloistered nuns, or clerics. 

This conference is a collaborative and international endeavour with, besides the University of Toronto team of The Other Sister (Isabelle Cochelin, Alison More and graduate students Joseph Akl, Emma Gabe, Meghan Lescault and Laura Moncion), Professors Mary Doyno (California State University Sacramento) and Patricia Stoop (University of Antwerp).

Detail from Mechelen’s beguines at work (17th cent.). Museum Hof van Busleyden (Mechelen, Belgium).

The conference will take place at the University of Toronto, in person, May 18–20, 2023. Those who cannot be present in Toronto on these days may attend the conference virtually and ask questions through chat. In order to attend the conference via Zoom or in person, please email us at tos2023conference@gmail.com.

May 18th

10:30 am Welcome

Augustine Thompson, PIMS Praeses

Alison More (St Michael’s College, University of Toronto) and Isabelle Cochelin (University of Toronto)

11am-12:30pm Interactions with the Church I – Session 1 : the Frederick Charles Furlong Memorial Lecture

Melissa Moreton (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton), Romite del Ponte: Pinzochere, Anchorites, and Spiritual Women on Florence’s Ponte alle Grazie

Tanya Stabler Miller (Loyola University, Chicago), The Beguinage of Cantimpré: A Sponsored Emergence

Meghan Lescault (University of Toronto), Appealing to a Higher Power: Episcopal Interventions in the Conflicts of Nivelles

Lunch 12:30-2pm

2-3pm Interactions with the Church II – Session 2

Ashley Tickle Odebiyi (Arizona State University), Partners not Servants: The Religious Networks of Fifteenth-Century Roman Bizzoche

Sarah Joan Moran (independent scholar), Reforming the Low Countries: The Beguines, the Clerics, and the Archduchess Isabella

Coffee 3-3:30pm

3:30-5pm Their Voices – Session 3

Michael Hahn (Sarum College, Salisbury), Angela of Foligno within Franciscan (mystical-)theological genealogies

Mary Harvey Doyno (California State University, Sacramento), Shout-Outs to the Friars: Catherine of Siena’s Daughters and the Search for Institutional Identity

Silvia Giovanardi Byer (Park University, Parkville, MO), Mystical Journeys in Post-Tridentine Italy: Caterina Paluzzi’s Laborious Writings

Detail from Mechelen’s beguines at work (17th cent.). Museum Hof van Busleyden (Mechelen, Belgium).

May 19th

9:30-11am Dissidence – Session 4

Courtney Barter-Colcord (Princeton University), Woman as Savior: Guglielma of Milan, Na Prous Boneta, and the Holy Spirit Incarnate

Delfi Nieto-Isabel (Queen Mary University, London), Central Outliers: Women, Intellectual Contributions and Beguinal Dissident Networks in the Fourteenth-Century Mediterranean

Joseph George Akl and Isabelle Cochelin (University of Toronto), Sisters to Sister: New Perspectives on the Painting Mechelen’s Beguines at Work (Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen, 17th Century)

11-11:30am Coffee

11:30am-12:30pm Liturgy – Session 5

Samantha Slaubaugh (University of Notre Dame), Teaching the Liturgy through Ecstasy: Douceline of Digne’s Vida as Liturgical Source

Katherine Clark Walter (SUNY Brockport), Pious Widowhood in Text and Image: Widows’ Consecrations in Illuminated Pontificals of the Later Middle Ages

Lunch 12:30-2pm

2-3pm The Lower-Status Ones – Session 6

Kate Bush (College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA), Ut pedissequa ministrare: Service and Serving Sisters in Early Clarissan Hagiography

Kim Main (University of Toronto), “Among the Number of His Spouses”: Ursuline Converse Nuns in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Quebec

Coffee 3-3:30pm

3:30-5pm Production and Transmission of Knowledge – Session 7

Patricia Stoop (Universiteit Antwerpen), Non-Cloistered Religious Women and their Contributions to Literary Culture in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Low Countries

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (University of Notre Dame), Not So Silent After All: Anchoresses and Other Sisters in the Virtual Intellectual Communities of Medieval Oxford

Sergi Sancho Fibla (Università degli Studi di Padova), Women, religion and education: types of sources and perspectives of study (Southern Europe, 14th-15th Centuries)

Detail from Mechelen’s beguines at work (17th cent.). Museum Hof van Busleyden (Mechelen, Belgium).

May 20th

10-11am In Hagiographical Sources – Session 8

Alicia Smith (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto), Harlots and Hermits: Thais as Intertext for Twelfth-Century Eremitic Experiments

Laura Moncion (University of Toronto), A Recluse in New France: The Life of Jeanne Le Ber (1662-1714)

Coffee 11-11:30am

11:30am-12:30pm Problems of Definition, Questions of identity – Session 9

Fiona Griffiths (Stanford University), Clerics’ Wives as “Other” Sisters

Michelle M. Sauer (University of North Dakota), Noble Women Attached to the Minoresses in England

Lunch 12:30-2pm

2-3:30pm (Non-)Enclosing – Session 10

Alison Beach (University of Saint Andrew’s), Hermits, Inclusae, and Other Freelancers:  Women in Germany’s Apostolic Awakening (11th-12th Centuries)

Letha Böhringer (Universität zu Köln), The Beguines of Cologne, a Social History

Adrian Kammerer (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen), An Order and its Consequences: Effects of the Dominican Third Rule on Non-Cloistered Religious Women

Coffee 3:30-4pm

4-5pm Conclusion by John Van Engen (University of Notre Dame)

Detail from Mechelen’s beguines at work (17th cent.). Museum Hof van Busleyden (Mechelen, Belgium).

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