Nails in the Wall: Catholic Nuns in Reformation Germany

By Palmer, Nigel F. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Nails in the Wall: Catholic Nuns in Reformation Germany


Palmer, Nigel F., The Catholic Historical Review


Nails in the Wall: Catholic Nuns in Reformation Germany. By Amy Leonard. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 2005. Pp. xiv, 218. $45.00.)

This study, which is based on a Georgetown University dissertation, offers a valuable addition to the increasingly extensive literature by American scholars on Reformation Strasbourg, whilst at the same time mediating between German-language and English-language scholarship on the history of late-medieval and Reformation nuns in the south-west of the German lands. Its title is derived from Luther's remark that woman is "like a nail driven into the wall," hammered into the structure of the household: "For just as a snail carries its house with it, the wife should sit at home and look after the affairs of the household. . . ."The notion that women are the bedrock of society because of their central and essential role in the domestic sphere, but with no part to play in the world outside, sits uneasily alongside Amy Leonard's findings regarding the Strasbourg nuns whom the city councU, which from 1524 was committed to the Protestant cause, allowed to continue throughout the sixteenth century. By contrast with other parts of Europe, for example England, the three Strasbourg convents which were saved from secularization got away with ignoring the city council's rulings and found that their persistence in Catholic religious practices was hardly ever seriously challenged. They changed in function, and could justify themselves as "useful" in a secularized society, no longer in terms of their contribution to the spiritual well-being of the city through their prayers, but primarily through their role as schoolteachers who were supposedly preparing young women to be the "nails in the wall" of Strasbourg family life (but many of whom rebelled and stayed in the convents as nuns).

Chapter one provides an excellent overview of the social history of the preReformation Dominican convents in Strasbourg and discusses their place in the observant reforms of the fifteenth century, making good use of German scholarship which has not been extensively reported in English publications. Chapter two addresses contemporary theories of the utility of convent life (not just concentrating on Strasbourg), which was often held up as an example of "selfishness" and as morally offensive, and establishes a bridge between these positions and the views of social historians such as Max Weber, Lyndal Roper, and Bernd Moeller.With chapter three the author moves on to a narrative of the Protestant Reformation as it struck Strasbourg in 1524, with particularly good material on the financial arrangements for former nuns that were sanctioned by the city council. …

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