Academic journal article Parergon

'The Hours That They Ought to Direct to the Study of Letters': Literate Practices in the Constitutions and Rule for the Dominican Sisters

Academic journal article Parergon

'The Hours That They Ought to Direct to the Study of Letters': Literate Practices in the Constitutions and Rule for the Dominican Sisters

Article excerpt

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the monastic life underwent some remarkable and enduring changes. The extraordinary efflorescence of the religious movements of the period drew some women to ways of life that engaged with traditional monasticism, while others were attracted to alternative religious expressions. As part of the rethinking of communal religious life, women were drawn to the spiritualities that informed the advent of the Friars Preachers (Dominicans) and Friars Minor (Franciscans). The Order of the Dominican Sisters came into being alongside the earliest formation of the Preachers. Over the period 1220 to 1259, various recensions of the Sisters' order-specific constitutions were written for them. St Dominic provided the first of these and it was to be observed in conjunction with the Rule of St Augustine. (1) The assigning of the Augustinian Rule was unusual for a women's enclosed monastic order at that time, and was a choice that aligned the Sisters' vocation with that of the Friars. (2) There are three contextual factors that must be understood before an informed assessment of the requirements for the Dominican Sisters, as formulated in their constitutions, can be properly appreciated. The first is the variety of literate practices in operation during the Middle Ages. The second is the implications of applying the Augustinian Rule to the enclosed monastic life for women and the possibilities for learning that this enabled. (3) The third is the difference between the restricted literate practices formulated for the Preachers in their Constitutions and the more liberal provisions for the Sisters. In the light of these conditions, an analysis of the requirements for learning and reading in the constitutions for the Sisters reveals the possibilities that were available to them, and that underpinned the literate achievements of Dominican nuns that have come to light in recent years. (4)

The communal lives that were fashioned for women's groups in response to the religious movements and monastic revivals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have been studied from a variety of standpoints. However, scholarly attention to the foundational Rules and constitutions that formulated women's communal lives has been directed towards the lived experience of nuns, or to assessing the degree to which rules were ignored or creatively subverted. It is not the purpose of my study to elicit the real, lived experiences of medieval nuns. Rather, the focus is on the formulatory texts for the Dominican Sisters as 'documents of theory' that responded to particular vocations, and that were intended to define praxes and spiritualities for women in monastic environments. Rules and order-specific constitutions were the theoretical frameworks for women's monastic lives, and hence a study of these texts can offer a basis against which the study of the real lives of the Dominican Sisters might be more satisfyingly accomplished.

The development of the texts that shaped the religiones of the Dominican Preachers and Sisters took place in the years between the establishment of Dominic's early mission in the Languedoc after 1206, and the ratifications of the final versions of the Sisters' constitutions at the General Chapters of 1256 and 1259. From the first, the cathedral canons accompanying Dominic Guzman and their bishop, Diego of Osma, lived according to the Augustinian Rule. It seems most likely that the first Sisters settled by Dominic at Fanjeaux and Prouille would likewise have lived an Augustinian form of religious life. (5) When Dominic's preachers undertook to form the new Order of Preachers in 1216, they chose the Augustinian Rule as their required Rule, and developed the earliest version of their constitutions. These order-specific constitutions were augmented and refined through a number of General Chapters until that of 1256 when the modifications, developed under the auspices of the Master General, Humbert de Romans, were endorsed as the authoritative text. …

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