Convents: the Religious Life of Medieval Women 3/3

Convent secrets, medieval women

As part of the research for my new book I want to learn about convents and the religious life of Medieval women. So far we saw why women would join a convent as well as the amazing curriculum a convent offered. Surprised? Still, there is more to find out. Read on…

Convents – their unknown, ugly truths

Although a safe haven from married life and death through childbirth, a place where one could pursue intellectual interests, convents were often under attack especially during the Early Middle Ages mostly due to their unfortunate location – too secluded or near a landing place for invaders. Nuns were raped or killed, sometimes even burned alive within the walls of their convent.  One way to prevent rape was self-mutilation, often facial, as suicide was not a choice and martyrdom was already associated with the merit of keeping one’s virginity.

convents religious life medieval women. viking attacks

Living the secluded, routine life of a convent filled with hardships and often uncertainty, it is hard to find nuns without faults. A sexual misdeed was occasionally present. Very much like today, during the Middle Ages celibacy was not a natural condition for the vast majority of humans, only for extraordinary ones with higher goals. After the first half of the Middle Ages, nuns often underwent activities outside the convent’s walls mingling with the communards, exposed to the minstrel’s immoral songs, the laywomen’s teasing, or the savoury charms of the upper class. Often, even the wealthy ladies lodging in the convents’ guest rooms were a temptation to younger nuns through their wealth and immorality.

In the 13th century, two nuns of Godstow were excommunicated for “casting off their habits, fleeing from their house and leading a worldly and dissolute life,” as written in the Register of the Bishop.

Recent archaeological findings at Little Priory in Oxford, an 1110-1525 medieval convent, shows clear evidence of sinner nuns. British archaeologist Paul Murray and his team uncovered a woman buried outside the church grounds in a face-down position: “perhaps a penitential act to atone for her sins,” says Murray. She could be the last prioress, Katherine Wells, removed from the head of the convent by the powerful Cardinal Wolsey for a number of misdeeds, some of which might be true, some not, as Cardinal Wolsey desired to dissolve the nunnery. Wells was accused of giving birth to an illegitimate child fathered by a priest from Kent and of stealing the convent’s belonging to provide a dowry for her daughter. 

convents religious life medieval women

By the 13th century Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull decreeing that convents must be enclosed with cloisters and nuns should never see the secular world again, thus live more holy lives. But by then convents were self-sufficient and abbesses controlled enormous properties, holding more power than any other contemporary woman.

Love, above all. But which love?

Let’s remember that many of those who found themselves committed to a religious life while in their youth were sent to convents or monasteries by their families, and at a much younger age. They can’t be held responsible for not taking to the religious life.

A Juliet – like nun who faked her own death

Recently, medieval historians from the University of York discovered that a nun even faked her own death to escape convent life and built her own family. A Latin marginal note dating from 1318, written by archbishop William Melton in a convent’s register condemns the acts of Joan, a Benedictine nun, who “out of a malicious mind simulating a bodily illness, she pretended to be dead not dreading for the health of her soul, and with the help of numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful and she had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space amongst the religious of that place.” (source).

Nuns, very much like priests, had to perform a dangerous job during Medieval times as once outside the fake safety of their rocky religious walls they were exposed to a harsh, turbulent life of wars, killings, deadly diseases (Black Death), painkiller-free physical pain and no human rights or law-enforcement whatsoever. A job that certainly not everyone was cut for.

Convents and their influence on the Anthropocene

Sprouting between towns, halving distances, convents became outposts of civilisation. They encouraged the development of more towns, the creation of roads -both contributing to deforestation in Medieval Europe. By the 13th century, the geographical layout of Europe was greatly altered.

Medieval Europe deforestation. convents religious life medieval women
Medieval Europe deforestation-sharing-the-planet-humanitys-greatest-challenge-43-Sir Mark Walport-The Guardian

Not all women or young girls with a religious calling chose to become a nun and join a convent. Some became hermits, living a solitary life in the wilderness, others took only temporary vows as beguines; some became tertiaries, joining various orders while the most determined ones became anchoresses, taking a vow of living a solitary life in a cell. What ties them all is the variety of lives they chose to lead, so unlike the battered existence of medieval women, their confidence in the purpose of their relationship with God and their stoic approach in pursuing it, embracing all sacrifices.

Looking back through time and space we can certainly say that these women, through their quiet yet not silent humanity, were the true leaders of the medieval religious life. There is so much more to learn beside convents and the religious life of medieval women and I’ll return with more shared knowledge.

Sign-up to my newsletter and never miss a post. No spam, promise.
Until then you might enjoy:
Looking at Skulls in the Catacombs of Paris
A Resultant Force, Women Writing about War

Follow this blog:

Convents: the Religious Life of Medieval Women 2/3

Glastonbury Abbey - convent curriculum Medieval women

I hope you enjoyed the first part of my research to learn why convents were so thought after, why the religious life (and not only) of Medieval women was so tightly connected with them.

A convent’s curriculum

Of a very high standard, a convent’s curriculum covered Latin reading and writing, religion, morals and manners. Painting, weaving, spinning, and embroidery were also taught, with the latest involving deep knowledge of geometry and design, allegories, Bible stories and even Greek mythology – all needed to create those intricate designs.

Religious themed tapestry - convents religious life medieval women

This implies that history and literature were also part of a convent’s curriculum, besides the knowledge of making and mixing colours. Some convents even studied classical writers and the seven Greek Liberal Arts: grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, rhetoric and music. Less prevalent during the Early Middle Ages was transcribing. Much later, though, some convents became renewed for their libraries and their manuscripts were circulated even outside the convent’s walls.

As was expected during a time when men went to fight wars most of the time and pursue crusades during the remainder of the time, the need for women skilled in medicine and surgery was on the rise so convents covered these too.

crusade tapestry.

Music as part of the convent life of medieval women

Promoters of Christianity, convents taught music, chants and choir songs essential to glorifying God. But music was also the means of raising funds for the cloister through donations for benefactor’s weddings or by charming wealthy women in pursuing their intellectual interests.

According to Professor Laurie Stras from Huddersfield University, during the 15th century, 20 percent of the female population of Catholic Europe lived in convents, translating into 50 percent of women of noble birth. Saint Hildegard of Bingen, a German Benedictine abbess, author, and composer, left us 11th-century musical compositions of sacred music in the simple style of the troubadours, some of the most-recorded music of its kind in modern history.

Since convents were often self-sufficient entities, a deep knowledge of the law was needed, some abbesses proving extremely skillful on this matter.

The decline in convent life starts here

By Late Middle Ages, due to the rise in the vernacular and the apparition of castle school (in 8th century due to Charlemagne), court schools, church and village public elementary schools (seeing a rise in the 12th – 13th century), or of religious guilds (in Late Middle Ages) the academic standard of the convents lowered.

As a result, the nuns become less and less skilled in numeracies and math, thusin record-keeping and so many nunneries went into debt.

Mount Saint Mitchel abbey

Convents – their daily rituals

Most convents followed the Rule of the Benedictine order: daily prayers, readings, and work, the power of a nun’s prayer often sought after and perceived as equal to that of a monk.

An abbess with absolute authority led the nuns, assisted by a prioress and a few senior nuns, obedientaries. Unlike monks, a nun could not perform a church service, thus the visit of a male priest was required. Expected to show their devotion through their simple attire, the nuns’ veil symbolised their role as “Bride of Christ”.

I hope you enjoyed this close-up in Medieval convent life and the curriculum taught. Return for the last installment of convents, the religious life Medieval women, when we will uncover a few unknown facts, some far from pretty. Why not subscribe to my newsletter?

Until then: Scarlet Autumn and Chestnuts

Follow this blog:

Convents: the Religious Life of Medieval Women 1/3

Convents - religious life of Medieval women

I am researching again, a task both exhilarating and overwhelming as I have to sieve such fascinating information and only retain the story bits that I need. I want to learn about Medieval women, especially, in the belief that women can write about war as well as take part in it. Mark Twain said: “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Hmm. So, here’s a bit of my research: Convents, the religious life of Medieval Women.

While most of us live in an era where women have freedom of speech, the right to education, to own a property, to a fair and equal wage and a life free from slavery and discrimination, let us remember that this wasn’t always the case.

After centuries-old prejudice against education for women the beliefs that women were not capable of learning or likely to use an education, medieval women had few choices and little support with regards to their own lives. When the average life expectancy was only 31 years, girls as young as 14 years were considered ripe for marriage, having no say no matter their intellectual or religious aspirations. Still, a few women resisted.

Convent of Christ in Tomar convents religious life medieval women
Convent of Christ in Tomar

Why Convents?

Convents were the first institutions to rise in the Early Middle Ages, mimicking closely the rise of monasticism in the West of Europe, from a desire to enhance celebrations of God and to expand Christianity. They came at the right time to meet the women’s need for education or for furthering their religious aspirations.

Saint Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedict, dedicated herself to God from an early age. She spent her life in the company of other religious women and is considered the founder of the first convent during the 5th century, the women’s branch of Benedictine Monasticism. Scholastica came from a wealthy family, having the means to support herself while pursuing her religious dreams without the shadow of a forced marriage looming over her youth.

Benedict and Scholastica, Klosterkirche Elchingen. Wikipedia.  convents religious life medieval women
Benedict and Scholastica, Klosterkirche Elchingen. Wikipedia

Two centuries later the Canon laws, a set of ordinances made by the Church leadership, supported furthering the education for girls and women, directing the abbesses and the abbots to cultivate a love of reading in their communities and all members of its religious societies, male and female, to be literate in Latin.

Why join a convent?

During the Middle Ages, girls of seven years of age were sent by their families to a nunnery to gain an education until the age of 14 when they were expected to get married. Few girls dedicated their life to God to pursue a calling, like Christina of Markyate, a 12th century religious Englishwoman with visionary powers who, having made a vow of virginity in her youth and determined to resist marriage, fled to the protection of local hermits. A community of virgins grew around her, while through her spiritual and managing abilities she became the prioress of a flourishing Benedictine convent.

Some women saw in convent life the only way of pursuing their learning interests. There were also those who joined a convent to escape the dreary prospect of death through childbirth backed by marriage, often denigrated in favour of virginity. A virgin was respected more like a man than a married woman was.

And convents didn’t disappoint.

Scholarly nuns who rose to the rank of an abbess were treated as equals by men and their social class. Their voice, once silenced in their whisper, was suddenly heard through writings of treaties on logic or rhetoric, through music, even as advisors to popes, kings, and emperors, such as Hildegard of Bingen.

Yvonne Seale compiled a list of books for those who’d like to know more about the lives of medieval nuns.

Behind this door we will discover more about convents and the religious life of medieval women, like a convent’s curriculum. Soon. Stay tuned by subscribing to my blog posts.

Follow this blog: