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.
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.
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.
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.