The history of celibacy and the Christian religion, most specifically the Catholic faith, is well known. Christianity is a sex negative religion. But when historians write about sex, celibacy and the convents of the Medieval Era, several different viewpoints emerge, viewpoints which seem to be conflicting in many aspects. The history of women in convents during the Middle Ages appears to consist of different perspectives about nuns’ reasons for entering religious retreats and their conduct after they had taken vows of celibacy. I do not believe some of the scholars who write from different frames of reference about women and the convents are wrong. There is not one answer, but rather varied historical perspectives. Therefore, I have decided to discuss the most salient approaches and then try to reconcile the contradictions by arriving at a middle point.
The first argument, that women prized their virginity to the point of committing self-mutilation when it was threatened, is the most contested one. Most of the narratives about the heroic defense of virginity by monastic women have come down to us from the early Middle Ages. The most pressing question for contemporary historians is whether the tales are historically true. There are scholars who argue that the stories narrating the defense of virginity were not literally true. Those experts believe the stories are fictive exemplars meant to inspire women with the desire to guard their virginity at all costs.
Other researchers argue that the tales had a hagiographic intent- to elevate the saintly women and demonstrate their heroic character. Hagiographies may be defined as idealizing biographies of saints’ lives. Still other writers state that some of the narratives might be literally true.
Women had different motives for entering convents in the early Middle Ages and later. If you recall from previous lectures at AtheistScholar.org, women who remained virgins were considered superior to those who embraced marriage and child-bearing. Virgins were believed to have elevated themselves to spiritual equality with men. The Church Father, Jerome (347-420 CE), told virginal women that they had become men. Men were considered superior to women and Jerome believed he was paying virgins a compliment.
Convents offered other benefits to women than the ability to retain virginity and to reap a future of heavenly rewards. The Medieval Era was the first time women had an honorable alternative to marriage, which was often forced on them. Taking nun’s vows was a respectable way to avoid the very real pain and danger of childbirth. Depending on the convent, some nuns were able to avail themselves of the resources to attain an excellent education. Most women of that era remained in painful ignorance, unable to read or write. Nuns with strong characters were able to achieve some degree of independence, power and autonomy. Later in the lecture, I shall be discussing the social and economic advantages a noble and/or wealthy family achieved when it placed a young daughter in a convent. Such families sent their frequently unwilling young women into convents by paying “donations” to have them accepted.
Nunneries were supposedly a haven for consecrated virgins, places to protect women from “spiritual wolves.” The reality that can be gleaned from chronicles, laws, councils, charters and from saints’ lives is that the convents and the nuns who lived in them were very often vulnerable to violence, rape and plunder during the early Middle Ages. Royalty and nobility alike frequently attacked nunneries and monasteries, plundering them of valuables, killing monks and nuns, raping, and abducting nuns and burning their buildings down. Strict laws against the violence were passed, but even when the nobility was deterred from attacking convents and monasteries, there remained many outside threats. Vikings, Magyars and Saracen invaders made repeated and devastating incursions on religious establishments.
The canon laws of various areas often provided greater penalties for those who dishonored, abducted, violated or killed women who were “consecrated to god.” The Lombard laws from 713 to 735 CE carried a heavier fine for violence or abduction of a consecrated virgin. The penalty was twice the amount fined for abducting another man’s betrothed lover. The laws of Alfred, 871-99 CE, also levied twice the amount of the fine for seizing a “nun by her clothes or by her breast” than for committing the same crime against a laywoman. Since the nuns were the “betrothed or brides of Christ,” the offense was believed to be much more severe.
Another index to the precarious position of female communities was the number of convents that were moved from the outskirts of urban areas to within the city walls. Sometimes the convents were even built inside castles, or were heavily fortified. Such convents sometimes served as refuges for other nuns fleeing their besieged communities.
But nuns’ convents continued to suffer repeated attacks during the early Middle Ages. The women’s response was similar to the monks who suffered invasion of their monasteries. They fled when they could, taking their relics with them. If they were in haste and had to leave quickly, they hid or buried their relics. If they were unable to escape in time, they attempted, sometimes successfully, to hide themselves.
Jane Tibets Schulenburg has researched the data from Knowles and Haddock’s “Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales.” She has discovered that “…at least forty-one monasteries for women were destroyed by the Viking invaders.” By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE, there were only nine houses for women that were still in existence in Britain. Some of those convents had been built in unfortunate locations. One was situated at the same spot which was a favorite landing place for Danes and apparently suffered repeated attacks from the invaders.
Schulenberg explains that nuns who were killed when their convents were invaded provided the church with a new generation of martyrs. There is a list of consecrated women who were put to death by invaders in the 9th and 10th Centuries. Sources state that Barking Abbey, situated in the east of England, was destroyed by the Danes in 870 CE. Apparently, all the nuns living in that convent were burned alive along with their building. There were other convents destroyed by Danes as well during those years. The clichéd picture of nuns safely praying, working and singing in quiet cloisters is belied by the historical facts. Convents were frequently in grave danger during the early Middle Ages, particularly in England and Wales, but also in France and other nations.
There are three well known cases on record of nuns acting to protect their virginity when their cloisters were invaded and one about a virgin who did not wish to be married. The curious and extraordinary tales were related by the chroniclers of the era. The first three cases all relate to the self-disfiguration of nuns suffering armed incursions on their convents. Such invaders were not only given to violence, but of rape as well. Nuns during that era believed that the worst fate that could befall them was to lose their status as intact virgins. Their solution to what they deemed was their very real peril was to choose to die, which most likely would have been their fate in any case. However, according to the chronicles and hagiographic literature of the times, the consecrated women went to their death with their virginity intact. They achieved this by self-mutilation.
Before I discuss the nuns’ response to the threat of losing their “heroic virginity,” I would like to comment on the literature of the time. Most of the accounts of such remarkable self-harm were written less for historical accuracy than for the purpose of educating and encouraging others. The tales were meant to inspire readers with the example of saintly women who suffered extraordinary trials. It is important to keep in mind that even though there are some kernels of historic truth embedded in the stories, they are also rich in exaggeration and fantasy. Le Goff has noted that the tales are especially valuable “for providing information about the collective consciousness, the mental structures of society.” We can learn about the beliefs of those medieval societies by examining the tales that were current at the time. We can also discover the peoples’ customs, concerns and values because those structures were mirrored in their narratives.
The question that continues to give rise to disagreement in the present day is whether the alleged lengths the consecrated women took to preserve their virginity are true or simply fantasy. There must be a small kernel of reality within the tales and chronicles, but scholars remain divided about the credibility question. We cannot know for sure if any of the stories about the nuns who self-mutilated when invaded are historically accurate.
The first reported case of heroic self-mutilation was in 783 CE at the monastery of St. Cyr. St. Cyr was situated near Marseilles, France. The abbess of the nunnery was the virgin, Eusebia. When so-called infidels were on the verge of breaking into the cloister, she addressed her fellow consecrated virgins, who like her, cared much more to preserve their virginity than their lives. She planned, she said, to cut off her nose and encouraged her nuns to do the same. She told them that this self-mutilation would enrage the barbarians and quell their sexual passions. The stories claim that all the nuns cut off their noses and that the barbarians massacred all forty of them, who continued to pray to Christ until they died. It may be seen from this tale, as well as the others that follow, how important virginity was considered in the early Medieval Christian world. The story of the steadfast nuns was told to all young virgins entering the order.
The arguably best-known case of self-disfigurement to preserve virginity was that of St. Ebba and her nuns at the monastery of Coldingham. Ebba, the prioress at that cloister, came from royal blood, and was the daughter of the King of Northumbria. The abbey was situated in an isolated area of Scottish Coast which faced the North Sea. The Danish invaders were particularly active around that period, circa 870 CE.
The Danes had the reputation of cutting the throats of anyone, young or old, whom they encountered. The chronicle states that they “shamefully entreated holy matrons and virgins.”
St. Ebba gathered her nuns together, the story goes, and explained that the barbarians were very near. She told them about the savage deeds the invaders were known to perpetrate. As in the previous tales, the chronicles emphasize that St. Ebba was acting to preserve all the consecrated women’s chastity. One hagiographer stated unequivocally that the women’s act was an example to be practiced by all succeeding virgins forever. Ebba took up a razor and cut off her nose, after which all her nuns did the same. When the invaders came the next morning, they were horrified by the sight of the mutilated, blood-stained women and left quickly. Before their retreat, however, they burned the entire abbey, with the nuns inside. The chronicler ended with the statement that Ebba and her holy virgins had attained “the glory of martyrdom.”
The third case of self-mutilation was the narrative of the medieval Spanish monastery of St. Florentine, which housed about three hundred nuns. Fearful of losing the virginity they had cherished for so many years, the celibate women lacerated their faces before Saracen invaders could rape them. When the “Moors” saw those bloody faces, they became horrified and angry, ending by killing all the women with their swords. The chronicler of that incident stated that “to the halo and crown of virginity was added that of martyrdom.”
The last tale is not about a nunnery, but of a simple woman, the Blessed Oda, who died in 1158. Oda had dedicated herself to virginity and Christ, but her parents had no regard for her wishes. They made wedding arrangements for her. At the wedding ceremony, Oda stated she would not have the groom, or any man, as a husband, as she had already chosen her heavenly spouse, Christ. Leaving the upended ceremony, she returned to her home and prayed to Christ in her mother’s bedroom. The chronicler stated that Oda was very afraid of her father and what he would do to her. She took up a sword she saw hanging from the head of the bed and hacked off her nose.
The chronicler declared that Oda preferred to mar her beauty rather than live a worthless, secular life. He went on to praise other young virgins who had acted decisively when their chastity was threatened. He claimed that those young maidens killed themselves with swords, jumped from precipices, or drowned themselves. Oda lived, and became a nun and prioress of an abbey.
There was a history of facial mutilation even prior to the Middle Ages. The Germanic law codes specified cutting off the noses and lips of certain law breakers. The punishment was most often applied to women who had violated regulations concerning sexual behavior. Schulenberg argues that the penalty was sex-specific and served as a deterrent to women, as well as a punishment. The disfigurement of a woman’s beauty guaranteed she would no longer engage in adultery, promiscuity, or prostitution. During the early Middle Ages, disfiguring facial injuries were common, either through injuries or punishments. The practice would have been known to young women who were determined to preserve their threatened virginity.
The most common and obvious threat to a young virgin’s chastity was her parents’ desire to marry her to a man. The chronicles of the time are replete with miraculous tales of young women being saved from marriage and loss of virginity by the intervention of some type of disfigurement, such as loss of an eye, total blindness, leprosy, tumors and so on. When the virgins had been freed from the threat of marriage, some of them became cured of their sicknesses or disabilities.
Some young virgins, without becoming consecrated nuns, wore nuns’ veils to hide their beauty. Around 774 CE, it was said that two young Lombard sisters found an amusing and dramatic solution to their threatened rape by Avar invaders. They placed raw chickens inside the band between their breasts. The girls’ flesh and heat rendered the chickens’ bodies putrid and they gave off a horrible smell. The Avars cursed but spared the sisters, deciding that Lombard women smelled very bad.
Were any of the tales told about women preserving their virginity true? It is difficult to be sure. Schulenberg believes that there is some truth to a few of them. But what is certain is that the religious and cultural priority of that age was virginity. The women who had consecrated themselves to Christ were in deadly fear not of death, but of losing their virginity. Their motives for undertaking such drastic measures as self-mutilation must be understood.
In most cases, the nuns would have had time to think ahead before having to face their invaders. They would have been forced to come to a decision about their options to avoid rape, which were limited.
Suicide was not a choice, as a number of theologians did not believe that people were allowed to commit suicide in order to preserve their chastity. But self-disfigurement, cutting off one’s nose and sometimes the upper lip as well, was not only allowed, but praised. The women of that age had already been conditioned by being told over and over that virginity was not always possible to preserve without martyrdom. Women who mutilated their faces would also ensure their reputations by committing such drastic acts. It was certain that no one could suggest or claim that they had been willing victims to their rape.
The nuns who decided to mutilate their faces must have decided that they had little choice but to do so, as it was certain that the barbarians would act in one of two ways. They would be set upon raping and killing the nuns when they entered the convent, which was their accustomed behavior. But if they saw bloody women with their noses and sometimes upper lips removed, they would not wish to rape them, but simply become enraged and kill them immediately. If the nuns died intact, they would remain spouses of Christ, with a special place reserved for them in heaven. They had been taught that if they lost their virginity, they would not be suitable for Christ’s bridal chamber, perhaps not even be suitable for admission into heaven.
St. Jerome (347-420 CE) had warned chaste women: “…Unless you use violence, you will not take the kingdom of heaven.” He was speaking about violence to the self in order to preserve virginity. Quite typically of the era, he did not mention or seem to care what would happen in the afterlife to devout and blameless wives and husbands.
Marriage was denigrated in favor of virginity and considered to be a lower state; it was chastity and virginity that were the prized attributes of the early Christian church. Virginity was considered a “higher life,” but one that could not be attained and continued without struggle.
The question remains an open one about the stories concerning women’s self-disfigurement in the early Middle Ages. Were they fact, fiction, or as one scholar believes, hagiographic models? It is impossible to be sure. But virginity and the need to preserve it had a strong hold on the collective religious consciousness of the era. Schulenberg concludes: “Despite the cost, these brides of Christ were not to be denied the meaning of their existence, nor their just rewards for perseverance in virginal perfection. After all of their years of practice, they were not about to miss the biblical joys of singing with the 144,000 virgins the song they alone could sing.” (This passage from Revelation is controversial. Some theologians insist that the 144,000 virgins would be Jewish men.)
Now I would like to turn to a controversial topic that concerns nuns during the later Medieval Era. The fact of the immorality of many nuns who resided in convents is sometimes denied or evaded, but there is definite evidence from several sources for the accusation. This portion of the lecture will focus on English nunneries, because to expand the text to include Italy and France is beyond our time limits. As the medieval era advanced into the early Renaissance, the refined sensuality of the Italian, Spanish and French cultures became more widespread and crept into the nunneries of those countries. Young men, called monachini, actually frequented areas near convents or visited them openly, becoming the lovers of some of the willing nuns.
The convents of England were never quite so refined, but there is definite proof that there were violations of the vow of celibacy taken by all nuns. The tales of the earlier Medieval era, of nuns cutting off their noses to avoid rape, might well have been hagiographic fabrications meant to encourage young women to cherish their virginity at all costs. The truth concerning the moral state of the nunneries, whether English, our focus, or Italian or French, is well documented. The sources are (1) the literary works of the time, (2) the general statements from Church councils, and (3) most importantly, the Bishops’ Registers. The Bishops’ Registers contain the accounts of visitations they or their representatives made to the various convents and the injunctions issued that followed those visits.
In addition, the registers contain the special mandates ordering inquiry into a scandal, searches for apostates and accounts of penances placed on sinners. According to Eileen Power, if a register is particularly complete, one may form a fairly accurate estimate of the moral condition of all the nunneries in a diocese at a particular time. York and Lincoln have long and almost unbroken series of registers, so the financial condition, moral state and other particulars of those areas’ convents may be traced over many years. There are also the Papal Registers. When the Pope sent out a petition in favor of a particular nun or heard rumors about the deteriorating state of a nunnery, the facts were recorded. However, papal letters on such topics are rare.
It is impossible to garner a complete history of the convents of the later Middle Ages. We have only a small portion of the recorded cases of sexual transgression. Some transgressions were never exposed. Some were hushed up and others have been buried in unpublished or lost Registers.
At the same time, it is important not to fall into exaggeration about the extent of sexual transgressions in the nunneries of that era. The transgressors stand out, but undoubtedly, most nuns kept to their vows of chastity.
One must understand the plight of the transgressing women and regard them with sympathy. Religious hypocrisy is known to be so common that it is easy for the secular mind of the present day to dismiss the nuns’ behavior with some cynicism. But those women were faced with difficult challenges and temptations. The first challenge for them was the fact that celibacy is not a natural condition for the vast majority of humans. When the early Church adopted its stance of sex-negativity and insistence on clerical celibacy, it gave rise to many human tragedies. Celibacy is an unnatural state which is best undertaken by unusual people with unusual goals. Scholars who have researched the monastic orders have come to the conclusion that the medieval monks and nuns who comprised their numbers were for the most part, average people. The same was true for the clerics of the Church.
Quite frequently, clerics did not live a life of celibacy during that era. For several centuries, priests continued to keep mistresses and concubines in the face of Church disapproval and frequently against its rules. In addition, there were many clerks and chaplains who were unattached. Those men were sometimes connected to a church, a chantry or to a wealthy person’s chapel and formed what has been described as an “ecclesiastical proletariat.” All the men had taken a vow of chastity. But scholars who have looked into the criminal records of the Middle Ages have found how often such men were accused in cases of rape and other crimes.
There was also widespread suspicion that monks in monasteries continued to consort with women. Some nuns were easy prey for the seducers. The unchanging routine, the hardships of monasticism, and the financial difficulties of the nunneries were frustrating for some consecrated women.
Many women who kept their vows of celibacy suffered psychological difficulty. The mystical visions which gave them such intense joy and intense suffering were likely to have been sexual in nature. Even the imagery of those visions was sexually based- the brides of Christ drank from his breast, were pierced with shafts of lightening and so on. The nuns were bereft of the natural human outlet of sexual intercourse and most of them had no interests or employments that produced enjoyment for them. In the last section of the lecture, we shall be glancing at the many young and unwilling women who were forced to enter convents and take celibate vows. Their youth would have occasioned a natural tendency to have sexual desires. If women with true vocations had been the only ones to take vows to retain their virginity, there would have been far less cases of sexual transgression in convents.
There was more opportunity for nuns who wanted to stray from their vows during the Middle Ages. An important contribution to nuns’ breaking their vows was the extent of the temptations they were exposed to. Nuns during that era were not really confined to their convents, which exercised little restraint on the movements of their members. Consecrated women paid visits to their relatives and friends, went to feasts and other celebrations, heard the love songs of the wandering minstrels, and the popular songs, often sexual ditties, sung in the public streets.
The nuns might have been harrowed day and night with the praises of celibacy in their convents, but despite the Church’s verbal attacks on sex, virginity was not often praised by many laywomen or the general public. Lip service was paid to it, but ordinary people eschewed celibacy. While walking on the city streets, nuns were exposed to the rowdy behavior of the working classes, where sex, both gross and good humored, was quite often on show. They witnessed the more subtle but more tempting charms of the chivalry practiced by the upper classes. The nuns were also able to observe at close hand the life of women on the outside. Many convents had guest rooms that were full of visitors where the monastic women saw the visiting ladies’ lovely dresses, jewels, and pet dogs. They were aware that some of those fine ladies had lovers. Some of the nuns, especially the young ones, surely would have wanted to copy those ladies in all ways.
There was still danger to the virginal nuns’ chastity from forays of the Scots in the north, and from the general lawlessness and violence of the time. The grinding poverty of many nunneries, particularly in England and Northern Europe, along with the concomitant necessity of earning money, made for worldly thinking and behavior. The registers and other documents reveal the precarious financial condition of some of those convents. The convents often tried to improve their finances by accepting young women indiscriminately. The girls’ families were expected to provide a large donation when they placed their daughters in the nunneries.
To sum up, there were three important factors that tempted nuns to put aside their vows of celibacy. (1) The first factor was the glaring fact that celibacy was unnatural to most people and attempting to follow that ideal was extremely difficult. (2) Young women and some older ones, for example, widows, were often accepted, and even recruited, into convents, because of the large donations made by their families. A number of those women were not suited to the celibate life, either because of their nature or their lack of vocation. (3) Many of the convents of the time were not well enough withdrawn from the temptations and social disorder of the outside world.
I would like to relate some of the stories about nuns’ abandoning their vows. Such cases created difficulties for the forsworn nuns, their convents, the clerical authorities, and sometimes the city government. For example, the 1290 Register of Bishop Sutton of Lincoln contains a notice of excommunication passed against those who had made off with a certain Agnes of Sheen, a nun from Godstow. The bishop’s notice explained that Agnes and another nun were peacefully driving home to Godstow in a carriage that belonged to their order. But in the middle of the King’s Highway at Wycombe, certain “sons of perdition” attacked the carriage and seized the unwilling Agnes, carrying her off. However, in 1291, the bishop made a different announcement. He charged Agnes of Sheen and Joan of Carru, both nuns of Godstow, with casting off their habits, fleeing from their house and leading a worldly and dissolute life. They were scandalizing the neighborhood where they resided. The bishop not only excommunicated both nuns, but all those who had helped them!
Eileen Power is quite sure that nuns who broke their vows were always willing partners of the men they made off with.
She explains that few men would be courageous enough to rape a Bride of Christ. The first section of the lecture described the Viking and Saracen invaders’ rape of nuns, but it is important to remember that they were foreigners. British citizens would be reluctant to face the wrath of their own Church by raping an unwilling nun. The nuns and their lovers might fool a bishop for a time, but after more investigation, they were usually exposed. In the end, the bishops discovered that the so-called abducted nuns were usually part of the plot. Alleged abductions of nuns were in reality elopements of nuns.
Not all the nuns who transgressed committed such drastic acts as elopements. Some of the more discreet women would meet their lovers secretly in the convent or even outside the convent during the visits they were allowed to make. The nuns who actually threw off their habits and went to live in the outside world with their lovers had to be very brave. If one was simply caught with a lover, the penalty was a penance. But to breach their vows and leave their convents was considered apostasy, and the penalty for apostasy was excommunication. That meant the nuns’ souls, what they believed were immortal souls, were at risk in the next life.
Most nuns returned to their convents after some time. They were individuals caught in the net of church and state solidarity, as the Church did its best to bring the apostates home. The bishops would eventually learn what village or town the nun was hiding in and would call her helpers to appear before him. He would decree than any person who was helping the nun should desist within three days or receive a penance. The usual procedure was for the bishop to then order the straying nun to return to her convent within a week. But many wayward nuns would often return voluntarily, out of sheer terror at their own rebellion.
Once in a while, the nun and her helpers were adamant. Then the Church would simply turn to the state. The nun would be arrested. She would either be brought or would go voluntarily before the bishop and have to plead for his absolution. The bishop would usually grant it, and then write to the woman’s convent, ordering the authorities there to receive her as their sister, but to exact the penances laid on her. Penances might be fines, eating only bread and water for a set time, being shunned, being beaten and so on.
The prodigal nun would return to her convent, kneeling outside and begging to be admitted. This was the age of political and religious theatre, when kings who had angered popes would kneel for days outside the Vatican before receiving absolution. Not only were such spectacles a tribute and proof of the power of the Church, they were also excellent examples of what happened to disobedient rebels.
If a nun had repented breaking all her vows and voluntarily returned to her former life, the matter was generally resolved. If, however, she had been hunted down by both the religious and secular arms and forced to return to a life she had rejected, desperation was often the result. Some nuns left their convents, were forced back, and escaped again, often fleeing several times.
There was the extreme case of a consecrated woman by the name of Agnes from St. Michael’s Convent in Stamford, who left and began leading a secular life. For about ten years she was hounded and brought back to her convent, from which she continued to escape. The last record of the case occurs in about 1318 CE, when the bishop there ordered the prioress of Agnes’ convent to have her brought back and kept in custody and solitude.
He threatened the prioress with excommunication if she did not do her duty. It is fairly obvious the prioress was sick to death of the Agnes affair and did not want her back. One hopes that Agnes was able to remain living the secular life she longed for, but the story ends at that point abruptly and is never taken up again in the registers.
The records reveal that a prioress sometimes did not want a straying nun back and had to be forced to accept the reprobate because of the bishop’s threats. It is important to keep in mind that some of the rebellious women were so determined to leave that they not only escaped to the secular life several times, but with a new lover each time. Nuns who were so alienated cannot have been a good example. They had often lived in the world for two or three years before returning and experienced adventures which piqued the interest of the other nuns. There must have been a lowering of moral tone when hardened, reprobate nuns were returned, even though many were severely punished.
I previously mentioned how the clerics- the vicars, the chaplains and the chantry priests, were the men who were most often the lovers of nuns. There were stray stewards of the convents, bailiffs of manors and other lay men, married or single, who appeared in the Bishops’ Registers as seducers or lovers of nuns. But it was the clerics, even though under vows of chastity, who were the worst offenders and partners in the poor nuns’ misdemeanors and transgressions. Those clerics, even though under a vow of chastity, often were dressed in a fashionable manner, in short tunics, peaked shoes and wide silvery belts. They had an extra advantage in that they could also absolve the sins of the nuns they tempted.
During the 16th, 17th and even into the 18th centuries, the convents of France and Italy were haunted by the young gallants I have spoken of, the monachini, who delighted in love affairs with nuns. They were handsome, fashionable and difficult to resist. The convents of England, did not generally have such sophisticated visitors. But according to Power, the less sophisticated English nuns’ seducers in the 14th and 15th Centuries were the chaplains. They were sometimes the convents’ own chaplains and lived on the premises. For the nun who was interested, there were many opportunities to transgress and breech her vows.
The tales and records of the shameless clerics and romantic nuns cannot hide the human tragedies buried underneath the desire of a convent to avoid a scandal. Sometimes the love affairs of a nun were ignored or even aided by fellow sisters who did not want their convent to receive an evil reputation. But the power of the Church was sometimes not strong enough to conceal the inevitable outcome of some love affairs. In those days of unsatisfactory birth control and abortion, there were children that were born as a result of the liaisons. Sometimes the nun was allowed to stay in her convent, hidden, until she gave birth. At other times, a pregnant nun would go to any safe haven that would take her in, bear the child, and return to her nunnery.
Infant mortality was high during that era and many babies and young children died. But it was not considered a terrible dishonor to be illegitimate in that age, and surviving children often inherited in their fathers’ wills, along with legitimate children. Young men born out of wedlock were not supposed to be ordained or hold clerical positions, but dispensations could be given or bought that would allow them to hold those offices.
If a nun had money of her own through her family, she could dower a daughter. One prioress sold the goods of her convent to provide her daughter with a dowry. Obviously, prioresses that were weak or having affairs of their own were often those who had the loosest convents. It was not unknown for prioresses to give birth to children. As we know from the records, some of the women who had taken the vow of chastity gave birth to several children, sometimes with different fathers.
There was an attempt at reform in the middle of the 13th Century, but the Bishops’ Registers for the second half of that period do not seem to show much difference in recorded monastic sexual violations than during the 14th and 15th Centuries when monasticism had definitely passed its prime. There was a steady downhill movement in its last two centuries in England alone. Henry VIII, the English King, decided to emulate the Germanic countries and establish his own church when the Pope would not grant him a divorce. He also most likely coveted the Church’s riches. Henry dissolved the monasteries and nunneries of England and named himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1531 CE.
Celibacy is unnatural and living in monasteries and nunneries, sometimes unwillingly and with no vocation for it, was an unnecessary and degrading situation for people. It is part of the human condition to desire freedom and sexual pleasure. Sympathy may be found for the nuns who kept their vows virtuously and quietly, as they had been taught they were living a life of superior sanctity. One can also sympathize and admire those rebels who flouted their vows and discarded their saintly habits to find the love, liberation and worldly happiness denied them by the Church.
Now I would like to turn to Renaissance monasteries and speak a little more about the convents in other countries, such as Italy. I have given an earlier lecture about the nuns who were motivated by religious sadomasochism. (Please see “Religious Sadomasochism” at AtheistScholar.org.) Those women starved themselves, beat themselves and tortured themselves for the purported love of god. Many of those nuns are quite famous, such as Catherine of Sienna, for example. In other lectures, I have also mentioned well-read and creative nuns of the Middle Ages. They were willing, some of them very eager, to live out their lives in convents. But in this talk, I would like to continue with the enforced entrance into convents of women with no vocation for celibacy and no interest in holiness.
This part of the lecture necessitates a brief return to some customs of pagan Rome. I have mentioned before in this series of talks that the Roman father decided which of his infants should live or die. The wealth of the Roman family descended patrillineally from father to son. Too many heirs would have spread the family wealth too thin, so fathers did dispose of some sons. But they allowed more sons to live than daughters. Most Roman fathers chose two daughters to live and doted on them. Other girl children were placed for adoption to families of lower social status or left to die by exposure to the elements.
The Christian father of a later age had fewer options than a pagan Roman. Infanticide was forbidden, abandonment discouraged, and oddly enough, adoption was almost unknown. But there was often family wealth that needed consolidation. Daughters required dowries that accrued to their husband’s families. However, there were safe places where young women could reside and not drain their family’s resources.
Convents that were dedicated to the preservation of celibacy came to be considered ideal for families that did not want to or could not pay out the large sums needed for their daughters’ dowries. Fathers disposed of superfluous daughters in those convents for much of the history of Europe.
The early Middle Ages saw the creation of convents in large numbers. Young girls and widows were consigned to them. Families sent young children to them as “oblates,” and gave the nunneries a monetary donation. The donations were welcome and well-used by many convents which managed to guard their wealth. The young girls were taken care of there and were assured of a secure future. Boys, too, were sent to monasteries as oblates, but in nowhere near the numbers of girls who were sent to nunneries. Widows, wives and sisters in need of asylum were also delivered to the convents. This lecture has earlier discussed the violence of the time and some convents were fortified and safe. The system worked well, but there was always difficulty because of women who were not suited for celibacy. By the time of the Renaissance, convents in cities, built there because they were safer, added to the number of nunneries already built in agrarian areas.
According to Margaret L. King, whose statistics I am using, a great many of the Renaissance convents, very likely the most, “served the elite of the community.” The early Benedictine establishments took up the surplus young women from the royalty. Then the expanding groups of monastic orders accepted the daughters of the lesser nobles, magnates, burghers and patricians.
Most of the best-established convents of France, Germany and Italy housed nuns who came from the nobility. For example, in Florence, Italy, the monetary donation for nuns entering a convent was 435 florins, while the donation for future wives was only 417 florins.
But to marry off a large number of daughters with rather small dowries would entail marrying the girls to men of lower social status. Even though the donation was higher for a girl to be placed in a convent, noble families did not want their daughters to marry beneath them. The option of convents was chosen instead. However, the young women placed in them were forced to take vows of celibacy, and those vows were very often taken unwillingly. According to King, as many as half of the women in some elite Florentine families resided in convents by the 16th Century.
Poor women were also allowed to live in convents, but as servants and workers. The nuns themselves came from wealthy lineages. It was those families that needed to consolidate wealth, and that wealth was threatened by fertile young daughters. Therefore, they were humanely removed from the cycle of reproduction. Widows, too, whose reproductive duties had ended, were placed into the safety of convents. Venice, Italy was particularly given to the practice of sending extra daughters to convents. In the mid-17th Century, there were nearly 3,000 nuns in the city, which was 3% of the population. By 1815, about 3,789 former nuns received state pensions. In general, the numbers of nuns in southern Europe increased after a slight decline during the plague. In Northern Europe, there was a fairly continuous decline, which ended with the closing of the monasteries and convents in the German states and England, as the Protestant religion gained hegemony.
But the wealthy convents of Southern Italy had many problems as well. The morale, or esprit de corps, of earlier dedicated celibates declined as the convents filled with the luxurious conditions that were expected by nuns from wealthy families. “As with male monasteries, incomes that had sustained a hundred residents now served as few as ten, and all evidence of austerity vanished.” In Strasbourg, France, the spirit of reform began to take fire when the townspeople saw the luxurious condition of the convents and became infuriated. A wealthy mother, Christine de Pizan, visited her daughter’s convent and lived with the luxuries she was accustomed to in her own home. She ate off silver and gold plates, toured the entire nunnery, and chatted with her daughter for hours. No limits were imposed on this noble family.
But the luxury enjoyed by wealthy women who had been placed in convents was not the only cause of unrest from the population. The freedom and sometimes licentious behavior of some of the nuns gave rise to bitter criticism. The rules of claustration were completely ignored. As in England, the French and Italian nuns went out freely and mixed with the public. Visitors, especially male visitors, to the convents came and went, entertained with, and entertaining behavior, that the rules of chastity forbade. The well-known author, Boccaccio, told tales in his 1353 volume, The Decameron, about nuns’ frivolities and even worse behavior, and there was a realistic basis for his claims.
The cries against the poor morals of nuns in Italy were continual and filled with rancor.
There was a 1537 report from a city government titled: “For the Reform of the Church,” which claimed that many nunneries “performed public sacrileges with the greatest possible shame to all.” In 1538, the councilors of Milan asked the Pope to do something about a Benedictine house that they claimed had become so corrupt that far from being virgins pledged to god, the nuns “had become and were held to be lay prostitutes.”
Venice had the worst reputation of all. In 1497, the friar, da Lucca, preached in the city’s basilica and charged that the nunneries of Venice were “not convents but whorehouses and public bordellos.” A few years later, a chronicler made the same accusation about Venice’s “open convents.” He said that they were “public bordellos and public whorehouses.” Scholars agree that while such charges cannot be completely proved, statistics garnered from church and city court records support them.
According to Power, “In the 14th and 15th Centuries, thirty-three convents were involved in one or more prosecutions involving fornication with nuns. Nine of them had between ten and fifty-two prosecutions.” But the Benedictine convent of Sant’ Angelo di Contorta, the convent that housed nuns from Venice’s most illustrious families, had the worse reputation of all. Power states: “Between 1401 and 1487, it faced fifty-two prosecutions for sex crimes. The court records tell tales of ‘dissolute deeds’ performed at picnic outings and in convent cells, of illegitimate births, of jealous rages, of fugitive lovers. Those involved were not only noble nuns, but also two abbesses, who shared their favors with aristocrats and popolani alike.” In 1489, the Pope shut Sant’Angelo down. But other convents, more cautious and quiet about their misdeeds, remained open.
It is certain that many aristocratic, medieval nuns enjoyed rich food, domestic services, and conversation with foreign visitors. They played the lute and embroidered luxurious fabrics. They also entertained their lovers and gave covert birth to illegitimate children.
Behind the tales of immoral and scandalous behavior lies the human tragedy which took such gently bred girls and young women and forced them into a prison. The Church profited from the system. The families who desired to consolidate their wealth profited still more. The nuns from those families did not enter the convents because of vocations that sought spiritual contemplation.
The customs and the economy of the times did not allow the young women to find employment or to live on their own. They could not be given freedom and could not or would not marry. In many cases, the family did not choose to or could not provide them with decent dowries to marry within their class. At the same time, many of those aristocratic parents did not want their daughters to marry into a lower social status. The perfect answer in their eyes was to send the young women off to a convent.
But many were aware that the practice of forcing women into convents was unjust. Peter the Venable (1092-1156 CE) called a newly founded convent “a glorious prison.” A Venetian law actually lamented the fate of so many girls from noble families who “are imprisoned in monasteries with just tears and complaints.” In 1523, Erasmus (1466-1536 CE), the eminent philosopher, wrote about a young girl who voluntarily entered a convent for intellectual stimulation and independence, but called for her parents to take her home again in twelve days.
Erasmus himself had earlier left what he called the slavery of monasticism and rejoined the secular world.
I would like to quote from one of the very few laments voiced by nuns who spoke for many of the silenced women: “My mother wished me to become a nun to fatten the dowry of my sister, and I, to obey my Mama, cut my hair and became one.” This sad and passive statement could have been echoed by many young women who were not unaware that they were being sacrificed for family honor and family greed. The lecture has discussed the stories of some of the nuns who fled and their unsuccessful attempts at freedom. But escape was not an option for most of the women.
It was a truism of the Medieval Age that young girls should not be taught to read and write unless they were destined to become nuns. If nuns were willing, they could learn the skills needed to express themselves. So even when they did not choose or could not physically escape, some were most able to articulate their ideas, even if obliquely. It was nuns who made up a large percentage of educated women during that era and they were generally much more literate than their married counterparts. They also had leisure to read and study in the convent. Many of them wrote moral plays and devotional works in the service of the Church, but some cleverly slipped in some protest.
One of the most striking of those works, Amor di virtu, was by the nun, Beatrice del Sera (1551-1586 CE), who was housed in the Dominican convent of San Niccolo in Prato, Italy. She used the images of rock, wall, and tower to convey the unwilling confinement of women in the cloister.
One of her characters claimed that women were not born for happiness but to be “… made prisoners, slaves and subjects.” Del Sera was confined in the nunnery all her life and wrote that she put all her hopes in her future life. The fact that we now know that no life exists beyond our sojourn on earth makes the confinement of that unhappy and intelligent woman even more tragic.
Another nun, Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-1652 CE), also was not ever to escape from her prison. But for her entire thirty-two years of unwilling confinement, she protested against forced entry into convents, defended the female sex and called for freedom. She was born in 1604, sent to the convent of Santa Anna as a child, and became a nun in 1620. She began her principal work in 1644, knowing it would never be published in her lifetime, but luckily it received publication two years after her death. The title, Simplicity Betrayed, is telling. However, its original title, Paternal Tyranny, speaks for generations of daughters sent to convents, both unwilling and unsuited, to live a life of confinement and celibacy. Tarabotti wrote eloquently and movingly about young women consigned to a kind of living death by greedy fathers. She argued that the nun’s shaved head was nothing more than the sign of a slave and insisted that variety in life and not the sameness of convent life, was the natural human rule.
Tarabotti criticized the society of her era which supported the confinement of innocent girls to shore up the wealth of noble houses. She gave voice to her rage through her writing, and it is astounding how far ahead of her time she was. Women through the ages owe her a debt for her brilliant and inspired critique of the plight of women.
How many scholars did the world of the Renaissance lose when they confined obedient daughters into what was a living death for many of them?
Eventually people began to turn against such treatment of young women. Greedy parents seeking to add to the dowry of another daughter or inheritance of a son were reproached by the 17th century French Bishop, Claude Joly. The well-known playwright, Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793 CE), was disturbed by the discontent and unhappiness of his niece and ward. She was being educated in a convent, and wrote him a letter which said she was “in chains.” To her great pleasure, he released her from the nunnery and arranged a marriage for her. This happened in the century which saw the Napoleonic Revolution exported to Italy. Convents were reorganized, made more rational and less powerful.
Fathers and other relatives were urged to leave wealth to daughters as well as sons. The cynical and greedy former dispensation slowly started to come to an end. In England and Northern Europe, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century did away with convents and monasteries. Many reforms of monastic orders in other countries were undertaken by the 18th century. The history of women and the convents demonstrates that the Church had participated in the perversion of an institution which began as a place to house women with a religious vocation. For the sake of monetary donations it helped turn convents into dumping grounds for young women who did not have enough money for proper dowries. The Inquisition tortured and killed people’s bodies. The convents murdered women’s spirits.
Nuns in the present day continue to face many difficulties from the Catholic Church even though taking holy orders is voluntary. Under the previous Pope, Benedict XVI, the Vatican doctrinal office appointed three bishops in 2012 to overhaul the Nuns’ Group- the Leadership Conference of Women’s Religious. The Vatican believed the group was straying from Catholic doctrinal issues, such as criticizing the all-male priesthood, advocating birth control and sexuality, and critiquing Jesus’ centrality to the faith. Since the 2013 ascension of the new Pope, Francis, there has been a conciliatory tone on doctrinal matters. In anticipation of Francis’ visit to the United States in the fall of 2015, many of the issues have been resolved. The nuns’ groups under scrutiny have not been dissolved or taken over. The new Pope has expressed appreciation of the nuns’ work in the church schools, hospitals and charities. Since they have been administrating those institutions in the United States, he should express appreciation of their contribution and leadership.
According to a New York Times article in 2015, “the number of women religious in the United States is around 50,000, less than a third of that in 1966.” The article went on to say that there are more nuns now over the age of ninety than there are under the age of sixty.
I cannot reiterate enough the harm religion does to human lives, ambition, and progress. When it is combined with the power of the state, extraordinary human tragedies ensue. The states of the Middle Ages enforced the Church’s extraordinary meddling into the lives of ordinary people.
The lectures in this series on the Inquisition, the Crusades, homosexuality, marriage, sexual hatred, the war on reason and the forcing of young women into convents all demonstrate the cruel, ignorant, and tyrannical nature of the Church vis-à-vis the freedom of women and men. We are very fortunate to have a secular government in the United States. A secular government reigns in the excesses of religion.
Religious fundamentalists continuously attempt to convert our nation to a theocracy. But we have seen the misery and suffering theocracies produced in Europe in the past. We can also observe what comes of such governments in the present day when we observe the injustices in the Middle East. Let us resist fundamentalists’ efforts to turn back the clock to the times they and their doctrines were in power. The light of reason and secularity has banished the shadows that religion cast over human lives for centuries.
Do not forget; never forget what religion brings when it achieves ascendancy. The dark days and the burning days have been banished, but there are those who long for their return. Obscurantists lurk on the edges of our courts and other institutions and attempt to get a law passed here and another one there. They will put one foot in the door if they are allowed and follow it with an army of religious repression. We must be alert and fight the fundamentalists in the hospitals, fight them in the schools, fight them in the courthouses, fight them in the Supreme Court. It is a battle that we must wage for our liberty and for our children. If we remain vigilant and strong, we shall prevail.
Abbot, Elizabeth. A History of Celibacy. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2000. This volume contains excellent end notes for further reference.
Bullough, Vern L. “Introduction: The Christian Inheritance.” In Vern L. Bullough, Ed. Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982. 1-14.
___________. “Formation of Medieval Ideals: Christian Theology and Christian Practice.” In Vern L. Bullough, Ed. Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982. 14- 22.
Holland, Glenn. “Celibacy in the Early Christian Church,” in Carl Olson, Ed. Celibacy and Religious Traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 65-85.
King, Margaret. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Excellent Bibliography for further reference.
Kuefler, Mathew S. “Castration and Eunichism in the Middle Ages.” In Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge Press, 2010. 279-307.
McGlynn, Margaret and Richard J. Moll. “Chaste Marriage in the Middle Ages.” In Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge Press, 2010. 103-123.
McNamara, JoAnn. “Chaste Marriage and Clerical Celibacy.” In Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Eds. Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982. 22-34.
Power, Eileen. Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275-1530. London: Biblo and Tannen, 1922.
Schulenberg, Jane Tibbetts. “The Heroics of Virginity: Brides of Christ and Sacrificial Mutilation.” In Ed. Mary Beth Rose. Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986. 29-73.