Women and Monastic Reform in the Medieval West, c. 1000 – 1500

What do we know about how reform in religious communities happened? 

Women religious did not respond to calls for monastic reform in a uniform way. The aims, methods and outcomes of reform varied greatly in scope, nature and intensity across time and place. Moreover, the processes of institutional transformation were contingent and variable, dependent upon local circumstances and the constellations of actors involved. Monastic reform is thus perhaps best characterized as highly differentiated, diverse and even messy. One common theme that stands out however is that reform was a negotiated reality. Women religious, their families and supporters managed a complex balance of competing demands that could extend over years as each monastic community navigated a path between its social context, religious identity, economic ties and its distinct manner of living to remain spiritually relevant and socially viable. 

It can be difficult to understand what might have occurred in practice because of the evidence that has survived. We know little about the debates that took place within particular communities, how the internal dynamics played out between different interests or how accommodations were reached. Many of the sources that preserve accounts of reform, or relate to the introduction of institutional change in some way, were produced by churchmen and have served as the basis for studies by later historians . Written from the perspective of reformers, much reformist historiography frequently presents nuns as passive subjects of reform, rather than active participants in debates about their form of religious life. While we know very little about how reform in women’s monasteries unfolded, as contributors to this volume show, it is possible to piece together insights from a range of different perspectives. 

Did women’s religious communities negotiate reform in a different way to male communities?

Women responded to reformist initiatives in much the same way as their male counterparts. Nuns and monks were drawn from similar social elites, their monasteries were embedded within similar socio-political contexts and they navigated the same complex demands. Nuns and monks also adopted comparable strategies in response to reform: they employed legal recourse such as appeals to Rome or local authorities, delayed for time to draw on familial or external assistance, refused to cooperate, or embraced the spiritual ideals and new social, economic and political configurations that reform could entail.

While women utilised similar strategies as men, the gendered expectations of enclosure for women often forced them to rely upon male monastic officials and externals to conduct business on their behalf (which was not unlike monks in some respects). Women’s strategies to negotiate reform were also strongly shaped by familial interests. As one of nuns’ primary liturgical duties was to provide commemorative activities for their kin, familial and dynastic aims could be decisive factors in how negotiations to introduce reform into a monastery played out. A family’s orientation to reform could determine the outcome of the process for their female kin, possibly at times overriding any notion of individual choice for the women involved. 

Another significant difference for women is how ideas about women’s spiritual authority tended to exclude them from assuming roles in leading and implementing reformist activities beyond their own monastery. Nuns were prohibited from participating in the centralised means of decision-making or administration such as general chapters that emerged in some religious orders from the twelfth century, although nuns could be called upon by churchmen to implement reform within individual communities. Rare examples of women leading and administering smaller congregations of female monasteries such as Fontevraud or Santa Maria Annunziata in Lombardy are examined in the volume. These exceptions to the rule show how talented nuns could garner support from ecclesiastic and secular authorities to leave their cloister and to introduce their observance into other female communities in a region. 

You use ‘snapshots’ of reform from across Western Europe over a period of about 400 years. How much did the experiences of women vary across these contexts? 

The experiences of women religious during monastic reform varied greatly over the period addressed in this volume. The changes wrought by reform could be empowering for some women while at same time being restrictive for other women. A woman’s status, personality, stage of life, devotional preferences and so on affected an individual’s ability to influence the outcomes that affected her life. How women navigated overlapping entanglements – politics, family or convent relations – could enable some women to assert their decisions or gain authority while others adjusted by acquiescing to new circumstances. We thus adopted the idea of ‘snapshots’ to provide insights into our key question about how women participated in debates about the models of collective religious life and how they were realised. 

Despite the diversity of women’s experiences across this period, certain recurring themes emerge from the case studies examined in this volume. Religious women confronted similar pressures across the medieval period to conform to shifting ideals of feminine religiosity, to adapt to societal expectations of monastic life and to adapt to broader social, economic and religious changes to ensure their institutions remained spiritually relevant and socially viable. The case studies examined in this volume show how nuns, individually and collectively, displayed considerable political agility to navigate these fluctuating circumstances and to assert their preferred manner of religious observance.

Did you face any challenges in developing a picture of women’s agency in reform based on the surviving texts?

Debates about reform generated a huge volume of documentary, visual and material sources that yield evidence into how women responded. Unfortunately, not all of this material has been preserved, obscuring our view on how change unfolded in medieval monastic communities. Moreover, the nature and variety of sources differ markedly across the chronological breadth of the volume, from the more limited material in the early period to the richer availability of evidence produced by and for women in later centuries. Contributors to this volume therefore had to piece together insights into women’s experiences and responses through scattered references and careful contextualisation. 

Textual sources produced by women document how they justified their manner of living, provide evidence of their actions and offer evidence of female self-image. Careful examination of devotional and liturgical manuscripts foreground the devotional concerns of communities. Changes influenced by shifting reform ideals also generated a rich visual and material legacy in female communities. A close contextualisation of objects such as textiles and built remains yields insights into ideas about women’s roles, how nuns projected their (self) image and into gender relations. This is especially the case when the documented traces of these arguments no longer exist.  

Finally, we can learn a lot about women’s reactions to reform and their decisions by examining normative or male-produced sources ‘against the grain’. Sources such as monastic rules, charters, treatises and advice literature can reveal traces of female action and how this, in turn, shaped responses from various authorities. Women religious emerge from this variety of sources as active participants in shaping the institutional ideals and forms of religious life governing their lives. It is by combining different types of sources, developing new methodologies and asking new questions of familiar material that we can uncover how nuns encountered monastic reform. 

What do you think the stories of individual women or communities have to teach us about creating, influencing, and flourishing through change?

Examining how reform unfolded reinforces that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to change; it is highly differentiated and its outcomes are uncertain. Too often women in narratives of change in religious institutions have been represented as passive; as being limited by ecclesiastical authorities from pursuing their own interests, vision of religious life or institutional aspirations. Contributors to this volume demonstrate how far this is from the reality of events. 

How women religious, individually and collectively, responded to monastic reform offers many parallels with experiences of organisational change today. One aspect that stands out across time and place is the importance of building strong networks and managing relationships through change. Medieval religious women led or were part of large, complex organisations that needed to adapt to shifting social, economic and political conditions. Medieval nuns carefully cultivated relations with family and benefactors to ensure the long-term viability of their community through new recruits and financial endowments, and to provide spiritual services that met the needs of their local communities. How they managed these interactions could be crucial to women’s ability to marshal support for their aims, whether to embrace or resist reforming efforts. The flip side of this is that when families and circles of supporters pushed for changes opposed by nuns, it often left them with little room to maneuver.  

Finally, as navigating large-scale transformation can be protracted, troublesome and emotionally draining, medieval nuns can teach us about the importance of resilience, perseverance, and adaptability to guide us as change unfolds. Some women displayed great self-confidence and commitment to and belief in the ideals of their institution, which galvanized them as they fought for or against reformist interventions. In particular, nuns’ responses underscore the importance of adaptability in how people respond to change. Not all women or their communities were able to influence the nature, scale or methods of change in the ways they might have preferred. At times monastic reform could be forceful, even violent, which could generate considerable grief and loss for some or all members of a community. In these situations, some women had opportunities to transfer to another monastery. Others chose to stay, motivated by their commitment to the traditions of their institutions, their family ties, or their bonds with the other sisters that outweighed their reluctance to adopt new practices. Such decisions remind us that the emotional and social demands of change can be harsh for many people forced to accommodate transitions that are unwelcome. Individual women’s resources (material, social, emotional and spiritual) to adapt were key in their ability to accommodate changes and perhaps survive such a transformation, or even flourish. 

Part of the series
Studies in the History of Medieval Religion
Boydell Press

Offer ends 31 Mar 2024

JULIE HOTCHIN is an Honorary Lecturer in the School of History at the Australian National University.

JIRKI THIBAUT is interested in female religious life in the Early and High Middle Ages.