Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Redefining Female Religious Life: French Ursulines and English Ladies in Seventeenth-Century Catholicism

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Redefining Female Religious Life: French Ursulines and English Ladies in Seventeenth-Century Catholicism

Article excerpt

Redefining Female Religious Life: French Ursulines and English Ladies in Seventeenth-Century Catholicism. By Laurence Lux-Sterritt. [Catholic Christendom, 1300-1700.] (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company. 2005. Pp. viii, 236. $99.95.)

The historiography of religious women has come a long way. Shaking off the victimhood described by Diderot and passing through the status of near-invisibility accorded it in official church histories of the past, it emerged into daylight as women's history took hold. Nuns, it was discovered, were not all sad little persons of limited import; indeed, some of them, like Teresa of Avila and Mary Ward, were veritable Amazons in the faith. The fact that they opened new horizons for religious women proved that feminism could take root, even within the convent.

It is frustrating, though, that the enhancement of our empathy for these women of the past takes place at the very time when our understanding of the values inherent in their way of life has dwindled almost to zero. It means that we have difficulty in seeing where they are coming from. As Lux-Sterritt points out, "Since cloistered piety has all but disappeared from modern life, physical isolation and immobility have, on the whole, come to represent passivity and inactivity, notions the twenty-first century is quick to dismiss as useless" (p. 178). In the early seventeenth century, however, the contemplative life was still highly prized. The intense activism of the Counter-Reformation did not diminish respect for the monastic tradition; if anything, it enhanced it.

This is the point that the author is making. Various groups of women appeared on the scene, anxious to do their part in the re-Catholicization of the world. The difficulty was that the work they chose to do required them to be present in that world-and this offended all sorts of sensibilities, both ecclesiastical and societal. …

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