Tag Archives: teaching

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.

Jeanne le Ber (1662–1714): A Recluse in New France

by Laura Moncion

Walking into the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Montréal, Québec, one could be forgiven for overlooking the simple marble plaque attached to the north-eastern wall. This marble slab marks the place where in 2005, amid much pomp and ceremony, were placed the mortal remains of Jeanne le Ber, the first known recluse of New France.[1]

Jeanne lived in a period when Ville-Marie was filled with non-cloistered religious women. Many of them were associated with the Hôtel Dieu hospital, or the teaching sisters of the Congrégation de Notre Dame, the foundations of which are attributed to two women, Jeanne Mance and Marguerite Bourgeoys, both non-cloistered religious for much of their lives. These women are considered today as important figures in the history of Montréal. 

Jeanne le Ber is less well-known, despite her recognition and status in her own time. Among several texts written about her, the earliest surviving is a spiritual biography written by the Sulpician Father François Vachon de Belmont (1645–1732) and sent in 1722 to his superiors in Paris as part of a report on sanctity in New France.[2]

According to Belmont’s biography, Jeanne was born into one of the more wealthy and respectable families of Ville-Marie. Her godparents were Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, the governor of the colony, and Jeanne Mance herself. She was educated at the Ursuline house in Québec City, where, Belmont writes, she developed a particular interest in penitence and devotion to the Eucharist. Around the age of fifteen, her parents brought her back to Ville-Marie in order to enter the marriage market. Rather than accept any of the proposals made to her, or join a monastery or another female religious house, Jeanne ended up living in reclusion in her father’s house for around fifteen years. At age seventeen, she took a vow of chastity, valid for five years, and at age twenty-two a vow of perpetual virginity. Belmont frames these fifteen years as a period of transition, with Jeanne moving more and more decisively away from worldly interests—although he admits that she did not give them up completely. As a key reason for Jeanne’s choice of individual reclusion over life in a monastery, Belmont cites her aversion to a vow of poverty and desire to keep her own fortune in order to continue donating to the charitable causes of her choice.

Her biography describes how she used some of this money to build a chapel next to the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre Dame, with a special cell behind the altar, where she could live in close proximity to the Eucharist. She entered that cell to live permanently in approximately 1695, at the very symbolic age of 33. On this occasion, Belmont includes a comment from Marguerite Bourgeoys, praising Jeanne’s promise of devotion. As a church recluse, Jeanne spent her time in prayer and devotional reading, conversation with the sisters of the Congrégation through her cell window, and manual work embroidering liturgical vestments, some of which still exist today.[3]

In one of several medieval hagiographical tropes carried over into this later biography, Belmont describes Jeanne as willingly suffering from physical illnesses, refusing to add a garden to her cell space for fresh air or to light a fire in her room against the cold. He also writes that she wore hair shirts and performed several food-related ascetic practices, such as fasting, eating on the ground, and refusing wholesome food while happily drinking foul-tasting medicines. In October 1714, Jeanne died of one of these illnesses. Her body lay in state for three days in the chapel of the Congrégation Notre Dame, before being buried in the family plot. Borrowing another hagiographical trope, Belmont’s biography claims that two women were healed of scrofula, and one other of a persistent migraine, after visiting her tomb. 

Much of Jeanne’s biography is engaged in the argument that she consistently turned away from the world. Belmont’s narrative, however, includes references to the ways in which religious women could be part of the colonial project of New France. Jeanne’s prayers, one of which was written on a battle standard, apparently vanquished a fleet of invading English ships. One of the women healed by Jeanne’s tomb is described as Indigenous, suggesting the complex history of colonialism and Christianity in Canada. Moreover, Belmont’s purpose for writing this biography is explicitly to show God’s favour bestowed on French settlement in the “New World”. Jeanne’s biography contains many references to European devotional cultures and themes from medieval hagiography, but it cannot be divorced from its historical and geographical context.

The life of Jeanne le Ber demonstrates the longevity and adaptability of reclusion as one of many non-cloistered options for religious women. It also suggests a broad horizon of options for women’s religious lives in New France, and an understanding of how religious women and their forms of life—from hospital and teaching sisters to recluses—are all intertwined.


[1] New France was the French colony established on Turtle Island (North America) in the mid-sixteenth century, which forms the basis of today’s Canadian province of Québec. Ville-Marie was the settlement which became Montréal, located on the traditional and unceded land of several Indigenous nations, principally the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Huron-Wendat, the Abenaki, and the Anishnaabeg (Algonquin) peoples.

[2] François Vachon de Belmont, “Éloge de quelques personnes mortes en odeur de sainteté à Montréal, en Canada, divisé en trois parties” in Rapport de l’archiviste de la Province de Québec (1929–1930) pp. 144–166. Available online here: https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2276299. For more on Jeanne le Ber, see esp. Dominique Deslandres, “In the Shadow of the Cloister: Representations of Holiness in New France” in Colonial Saints: Discovering the Holy in the Americas, 1500–1800, ed. Allan Green and Jodi Bilinkoff (2003); Françoise Deroy-Pineau, Jeanne le Ber: La recluse au cœur des combats (2000); https://margueritebourgeoys.org/jeanne-le-ber/ and https://reclusesmiss.org/wp/jeanne-le-ber/

[3] https://www.maisonsaintgabriel.ca/collection-objets/