Nuns as Historians in Early Modern Germany

Nuns as Historians in Early Modern Germany

Nuns as Historians in Early Modern Germany

Nuns as Historians in Early Modern Germany


The literary history of early modern German convents is a much neglected field. Nuns' writings were rarely printed and generally only read within their institution. In this study - the first to highlight the significance of this large body of writing - Charlotte Woodford provides an overview of nuns' literary activities in this period, an examination of how the tradition of monastic history became established in convents, and the variety of ways in which it permitted women to express their creativity. Bringing together for the first time a significant collection of primary source material, Nuns as Historians in Early Modern Germany also includes a number of illuminating case studies, such as a biography of a fifteenth-century visionary, a prioress's diary, and an abbess's chronicle from the Thirty Years' War. It also offers a valuable reassessment of Caritas Pirckheimer's memoirs, written during the Reformation.


Nuns do not feature very prominently in studies of women’s writing in the early modern period. This is partly because after the Reformation, the number of nuns in the German territories was reduced, and the stricter enclosure insisted on by the Council of Trent meant that nuns withdrew more and more from the outside world. Unlike Protestant Stiftsdamen, Catholic nuns lacked that contact with the world which facilitated the writing of poetry or hymns. The writings which they owned consisted largely of liturgical books, spiritual meditations, and prayer books, which have yet to be fully explored. Nuns may have written some spiritual works themselves. They also wrote some more ‘imaginative’ works, such as the histories examined in this study, which have not yet been brought together for comparison, and so it is difficult to know how many such works exist.

It is very difficult to generalize about the extent of writing by nuns because the social and literary history of early modern convents still needs to be researched. Certainly there are many extensive studies of individual convents in the German-speaking area, and overviews of the pre-Tridentine orders to which the convents in this study belonged. However, as Brigitta Dengler-Spengler points out, in her

On the history of Damenstifte, see Hanna Dose, Evangelischer Klosteralltag: Leben in Lüneburger Frauenkonventen 1590–1710, untersucht am Beispiel Ebstorf, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur allgemeinen Geschichte Niedersachsens in der Neuzeit, 12 (Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1994). For examples of Stiftsdamen writing hymns, see Gertrud Angermann, Anna von Quernheim (vor 1520–1590): Die erste bekannte Liederdichterin Westfalens und 25 ihrer geistlichen Gesänge in niederdeutscher Sprache (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 1996); Sophie Eleonore von Braunschweig-Bevern (1674–1711), Der Rechte des Herrn / Ein Lied im Haus (Lieder und Meditationen), ed. Eberhard Finen (Braunschweig: Zilligern, 1713); Der Landgräfin Anna Sophia von Hesse-Darmstadt, Äbtissin zu Quedlinburg [1638–83], Leben und Lieder, ed. C. W. Stromberger (Halle: Fricke, 1856).

See Gisela Muschiol, ‘Die Reformation, das Konzil von Trient und die Folgen: Weibliche Orden zwischen Auflösung und Einschließung’, in Anne Conrad (ed.), ‘In Christo ist weder man noch weyb’: Frauen in der Zeit der Reformation und der katholischen Reform, Katholisches Leben und Kirchenreform im Zeitalter der Glaubensspaltung, 59 (Münster: Aschendorff, 1999), 172–98 (esp. 172–6).

See e.g. the prefaces to the volumes of the Helvetia Sacra (new series): and monographs from the Germania Sacra and Germania Benedictina, such as Maren Kuhn-Rehfus, Das Zisterzienserinnenkloster Wald, Germania sacra, NS 30. Die Bistümer der Kirchenprovinz Mainz. Das Bistum Konstanz, 3 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1992); and Ulrich Faust and Waltraud Krassnig (eds.), Die benediktinischen Mönchs- und Nonnenklöster in Österreich und Südtirol, Germania Benedictina, 3 (St. Ottilien: EOS-Verlag, 2000–).

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