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Nuns in the Middle Ages |
Of noble birth and firm resolve

Nuns in the Middle Ages is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 34, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Nuns in the Middle Ages - Of noble birth and firm resolve

Nuns in the Middle Ages - Of noble birth and firm resolve
HILDEGARD On the glory of God reflected in nature: The loft and length of the winds and the sweet moisture of the air, and the sharp greenness of the trees and plants, which are dependent upon the strength of what is above, in which God is at work producing and sustaining them, show forth His glory. For God is glorified through the mysteries of His creatures.

The people of the little town of Marcigny in the Grosne Valley of French Burgundy would long remember that frightening night, and history would remember it longer still. Fire, so amply fueled by timber houses, thatched roofs, straw beds and open hearths, was a terrifying, ever present peril in medieval town life. On this occasion, late in the eleventh century, it was approaching the roof of the Cluniac convent, imperiling the whole building. “Fire! Fire! Get out! Get out!” screamed the horrified townspeople as they hurried to rouse the nuns and assist their escape. At first, however, no sound at all was heard within the cloister.

But wait! From behind the locked door, a small, calm voice made itself heard. “We cannot leave the cloister,” it said. “We have made the vow.” Some recognized the voice of Prioress Giselda.

“Quick!” somebody shouted. “The papal legate’s in town. Bring him! Have him tell these women they must get out.”

He was already coming, so the story goes. Making his way through the engulfing smoke, he presented himself at the cloister door, announced his identity, and in the name of Pope Gregory VII commanded that these women now leave this building. The crowd fell silent to hear the response.

“We are under obedience to remain,” said the prioress. “Only the abbot of Cluny himself can revoke the rule.” There was an appalled gasp from the crowd. “But perhaps,” continued the prioress, “Your Excellency might exercise your authority over the fire, and tell it to go away.”

The baffled cleric threw up his hands in dismay, then clasped them in prayer, and asked that the flames be turned away. And behold, whether through a change in the wind, divine intervention, or both, the fire turned away from the convent–proving, people said, that it was easier to command fire than the iron will of the Marcigny nuns.1

However factual or fanciful this particular story may have been, there is no doubt whatsoever that nuns took their vows very seriously indeed. At that place and time, one must necessarily add, for in practice, the rigor of monastic life varied as widely among nuns as among monks. There were “good” eras of strict observance, and “bad” eras of neglect so chronic that papal admonitions came forth. About two hundred years later, for instance, Pope Boniface VIII found cause to officially decry the “perilous and detestable state of certain nuns, who, having slackened the reins of decency, gad about outside their monasteries.” One bishop, ordered to enforce that particular decree, found himself assailed by the rebellious sisters of Markyate nunnery, near St. Alban’s, England, who hurled the enclosure statute at his head as he fled their convent.

Enclosure–meaning staying put in the convent, no “gadding about”–was certainly more stringently applied to nuns than to monks, though both were bound by the Benedictine Rule to observe stability in their chosen institution, and a willing embrace of chastity, personal poverty and obedience. Hildegard of Bingen, the renowned head of Rupertsberg Abbey, considered the Benedictine model moderate, and as ideal for women as it was for men.

On the other hand, Heloise, abbess of the small Oratory of the Paraclete, near Troyes in France, pleaded for modification of the rule. “No one would lay on an ass a burden suitable for an elephant,” she wrote to her mentor and former lover, Peter Abelard, the brilliant and controversial scholar who for a time was abbot of St. Gildas monastery in Brittany. Abelard disagreed. The great problem, he maintained, was to curb “gossip,” and the only known remedy for it was perpetual silence–“at prayer, in the cloister, the dormitory, refectory, and during all eating and cooking, and from Compline onwards”–in other words, most of the day. The nuns, like the monks, developed an elaborate system of hand signals to observe the letter, if not the spirit, of the Rule.2

But the medieval nun was not the timid, compliant female of popular notion. She was often of noble birth, independent and spirited, commonly a widow, or a wife encouraged to enter religious life for some reason of family expediency. Such women frequently possessed excellent leadership qualities. Then too, nunneries were convenient places to dispose of unattached female relatives; they probably attracted their share of brokenhearted lovers, women fleeing marriage, and lonely widows looking for security in their old age. Young girls, some of them infants, some handicapped, some illegitimate, were brought to the convent and remained there for life. And while medieval poetry likes to lament the tragedy of the reluctant nun, many women embraced the life fervently, the willing and devout brides of Jesus Christ.

Nunneries had small populations, twenty to one hundred women. Marcigny, for example, was never to exceed ninety-nine, while the Virgin Mary was the presumed hundredth, with a place set for her at table and a seat reserved for her in chapel. Most were established by wealthy patrons or modest local landowners who pooled their funds, with the papacy and church playing a surprisingly negligible financial role. Humorously, the names of some of these humbler patrons are not particularly indicative of piety: Jerorius Fat Lips, Ogerius Sword-Rattler and Raginald Who Folds Up Peasants. These benefactors enjoyed some privileges: Prayers would be said on their behalf by the nuns, a home and care provided for their aging widows, and they could be buried in the convent cemetery.

By the eleventh century, English and continental nunneries had largely recovered from the hideous Viking and Magyar invasions of the ninth and tenth.3 More than four hundred new communities for women were established in France and England. Some dual monasteries (side-by-side communities for men and women) still existed in the eleventh century, and not infrequently were headed by an abbess. Dual monasteries offered certain advantages; the men could provide liturgical services and perform heavy chores while the women provided domestic assistance, sewing clothing and baking bread.

Convents could be extremely wealthy or devastatingly poor. Highborn women entering nunneries brought sizable entry gifts (dowries) of land, mills, houses, or vineyards. Hildegard’s monastery was clearly a wealthy community, owning twenty houses, several vineyards, land and servants in various locations, as well as extensive property around Bingen. The financial solvency of any religious house depended on property acquired, other gifts and the “dowries” that accompanied wealthier entrants. Poor communities could be truly destitute–their buildings derelict, with unrepaired roofs, at constant risk of fire or collapse, and the nuns relying on friends for their basic needs. Desperate measures were sometimes called for, pawning liturgical silver, renting out land, the nuns themselves begging.

Monastic hospitality could be also ruinous. Given that any stranger in need must be viewed as Christ himself (Matt. 25:31—46), the king, noble families or a bishop could require monasteries or convents, in exchange for one lump sum, to provide lodging and board to certain persons for the rest of their lives, a practice known as corody. Since some of these pensioners proved unexpectedly long-lived, eating far more food than envisioned, and seriously overcrowding the available accommodation, corody could be problematic. In one instance, a man acquired one corody, then moved into the convent with his wife, three children and a maid.

Not all nuns lived in community; renewed interest in the eremitic life found some living as recluses in huts, caves and rooms attached to churches. Christina of Markyate typifies this life. When very young, she made a vow of virginity, which was put severely to the test by her forced betrothal to a nobleman. Disguised as a man, she fled and spent many years in hiding, living first with an anchoress, then with a hermit. (Much later, Christina was able to return to Markyate, where she became prioress.) Women living as recluses or anchorites were more likely to observe extreme ascetic practices. In the late thirteenth century, Mechthild of Magdeburg, who practiced flagellation as well as extended fasting and vigils, declared: “These were the weapons of my soul with which I conquered my body so successfully that for twenty years there was never a time when I was not tired, sick and weak.”

The cloister, however, was also the point of convergence for medieval women with scholarly or artistic aspirations. The abbess Heloise vividly expressed the difficulty of living a scholarly life anywhere other than a convent: “What harmony can there be between pupils and nursemaids, desks and cradles, books of tablets and distaffs, pen or stylus and spindles?” she wrote to Abelard. “Who can concentrate on thoughts of Scripture or philosophy and be able to endure babies crying, nurses soothing them with lullabies, and all the noisy coming and going of men and women about the house?”

Another nun of talent was the tenth-century abbess and writer Hroswitha of Gandersheim, raised in the convent from her youth, who wrote Latin poetry and was the first known European post-classical dramatist.4 Elisabeth of Schönau and Mechthild of Magdeburg are remembered for their mystical writings. But Hildegard is the most notable example of a woman whose myriad gifts in writing, theology, music, art, science and medicine were able to find full expression in the monastic milieu.

Scholarship and learning were not prerequisites for an abbess, however. It was much more important that she demonstrate an exemplary life, and possess the holiness and wisdom to guide the women committed to her charge–and who, if the rule was followed, elected her to this lifelong office. She must also, of course, be capable of managing a large establishment, of ensuring the material well-being of all its residents, lands and buildings, and of dealing shrewdly and competently with the outside world. Thus an abbess was generally a mature woman, of noble birth, born in wedlock, preferably previously married, and well practiced in the rule.

The position carried high prerogatives as well as heavy responsibilities. Well-connected abbesses were able to use their influence to enrich the holdings of their houses. A rare few actually presided over courts of their own, struck their own coins, and influenced church councils and national assemblies. On a personal level, senior churchmen, monarchs and even popes sought the advice on occasion of abbesses noted for their spiritual and prophetic wisdom.

The abbess of a large nunnery relied on many assistants. The treasuress received and disbursed funds; the chantress was responsible for books, music and singing instruction; the infirmarian cared for the sick. The wardrober managed the shearing of sheep, the provision of linens and sewing tools, and the making of clothing (“shapynge, sewynge, makyng, repayryng and kepyng them from wormes” in the words of one rule). The cellaress controlled all cultivation and harvesting of food, including animals and bees, the hiring and firing of servants, the purchase of supplies and the sale of crops, hides and wool. The portress (doorkeeper) not only received guests, but also washed the feet of poor women if required. The sacristan tended to church furnishings, and hired candlemakers. Laundry, cooking and the brewing of ale was often done by the nuns themselves, though wealthier houses could afford servants to perform such household tasks. Laborers were hired for the farm work.

The daily offices, as in the men’s monasteries, were central to the nuns’ life and work. When not in chapel or doing chores, they prayed, read, studied, and did needlework and weaving, including the sewing of vestments. A typical day allowed for eight hours of sleep, four hours of prayer, four hours of study and eight hours of work, the Benedictine combination of routine and variety. Simplicity governed their needs. Their meals were prepared from locally available produce (nothing exotic) and they slept in dormitories. The nun’s habit consisted of an undergarment and a robe, a cloak for cold weather, shoes and stockings and a white band around a shorn head covered by the black veil. The veils of consecrated virgins were to be marked with a white cross “as a deterrent to any of the faithful against burning with desire for them,” as instructed by Abelard in a letter to Heloise.

Cloistered nuns, of course, were nonetheless subject to the frailties of human nature. Overindulgence in food or drink may have been common, along with gossip. Other infractions concerned the wearing of secular clothing, visiting with outsiders or keeping pets. More serious consequences still could follow from sexual temptation. Too often, observed Aelred of Rievaulx, the sisters might “think it enough to confine the body behind walls while the mind roams at random.” And in some cases the body followed, so that some nuns bore children from illicit liaisons with clergy or eloped with itinerant craftsmen or passing minstrels. “Nothing is less under our control than the heart,” wrote Heloise in one tormented letter to Abelard.

By virtue of their vocation, however, most nuns went about their quiet lives of work and prayer anonymously; only a few names are remembered for individual accomplishments in scholarship or artistic endeavor. But the compassionate care dispensed at every convent in the name of Christ, to travelers, abandoned children, and to the sick, elderly or troubled, were the precursors of the hospitals, almshouses and hospices that would become the fundamental social network of modern life.

This is the end of the Nuns in the Middle Ages category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 34, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Nuns in the Middle Ages from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at