Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Convents and Change: Autonomy, Marginalization, and Religious Affiliation in Late-Medieval Bologna

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Convents and Change: Autonomy, Marginalization, and Religious Affiliation in Late-Medieval Bologna

Article excerpt

The histories of two Bolognese monastic houses, Santa Maria del Monte della Guardia and Santa Caterina, reveal the complex relationships between some religious women's communities and monastic orders. They began as communities in small, regional congregations; became Augustinian in the mid-thirteenth century due to papal intervention; and were Dominican by the fifteenth century. Amid these changes, both communities attempted to retain elements of their early status and practices rather than accepting integration into larger orders. Whereas much scholarly attention rightly has been paid to convents that strove for incorporation into the religious orders, examinations of communities with more fluid affiliations can complement these studies and provide a fuller picture of medieval religious women's lives.

Keywords: Bologna; cura monialium; Dominican nuns; monastic orders; religious women

A historical problem in the study of religious women in the high and late Middle Ages is the nature of their relationship to religious orders. As large, centralized monastic orders began to develop in the twelfth century, the place of women in these orders and the role of monks and friars in providing the care of nuns (cura monialium) became a subject of debate. Modern scholars have scrutinized the records of general chapters, personal letters, bulls and decrees, petitions to legates and popes, and other sources for clues that can indicate the degree of integration of religious women into religious orders.

Historians of religious movements and institutions such as Herbert Grundmann and Micheline de Fontette have posed this relationship as a problematic one, contrasting an increase in the number of women who desired to engage in the religious life with religious men's reluctance to commit to providing care for nuns, resulting in nuns remaining on the margins of religious orders.1 These and other scholars focus on the gradual expulsion of women from the Premonstratensian Order in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries;2 the tenuousness of nuns' place in the emerging Cistercian Order;3 and the periodic rejection of the duty to care for nuns on the part of several orders, including the mendicant orders established by Ss. Dominic and Francis of Assisi, in the thirteenth century.4 Summarizing trends in literature on the status of nuns, one scholar has noted recently that "the leitmotif for religious women within orders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is as succinct as it is familiar: decline."5

Whereas studies of the negotiations between religious women and male authorities in religious orders elucidate an important dynamic affecting many convents, a focus on the problems of religious women in securing the cura monialium from monks and friars emphasizes religious men's ability to determine the identity and status of nuns rather than the nuns' own ideas about their place in religious life. It is difficult to know the percentage of women's monastic houses that identified so strongly with a religious order that they pressed for incorporation. There were houses that followed the practices of large orders such as the Cistercians or Dominicans, although they were not recognized by the leaders of those orders, but rather remained under the care of their bishop. Such convents probably relied on local priests to administer the sacraments.6 This may have happened because of the unwillingness of monastic men to accept the responsibility of caring for their sisters. Alternatively, it may indicate that these communities did not seek incorporation, but rather defined themselves in other ways- for example, by rule and habit; patron saint; a pious founder or abbess; or papal privileges.

By examining religious houses with looser ties to monastic orders, we can gain a better understanding of the fluidity and complexity of monastic women's lives in the later Middle Ages. Two cases from Bologna, Santa Maria del Monte della Guardia and Santa Caterina di Quarto, illustrate the competing forces that sometimes drove communities of religious women to solidify their relationship with their male counterparts in religious orders and at other times led them to emphasize their autonomy and unique status rather than seeking incorporation into a large, centralized religious order. …

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