Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Actives and Contemplatives: The Female Religious of the Low Countries before and after Trent

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Actives and Contemplatives: The Female Religious of the Low Countries before and after Trent

Article excerpt

The study of religious women in early modern Catholicism is now indisputably a growth-industry.(1) It is a good time, therefore, to confront a lingering problem in the generally healthy enterprise: the relative development and importance of active and contemplative orders.

Three themes stand out in my reading of the historical literature on this subject: (1) that the first significant and lasting emergence of an "active" spirituality or apostolate among women religious occurred during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, (2) that this type of spirituality was characteristic of early modern religious sensibilities, and (3) that the decrees and agents of the Council of Trent successfully militated-at least for many decades--against the involvement of women in an active apostolate and insisted that they submit to long-approved contemplative forms. My intent is not altogether to refute these themes, but to suggest possibilities for refinement and further research, especially through illustration d conditions in the Catholic Low Countries--an area where none of the themes is very useful at all.

I. The Emergence and Endurance of Medieval Active Orders

It is well known that there were plenty of medieval precedents--some of them born in the Low Countries--for the active orders that rose up in early modern Catholicism: the quasi-religious Beguines and Beghards of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the Friars of the thirteenth century, the lay Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life in the fourteenth, It is also known that the female sides of the extramural Franciscans and Dominicans were rapidly transformed into cloistered nuns, and that Beguines and others Like them were pressured to join more structured orders.(2) Less clear, however--at least among early modernists--is that various active female orders in the Low Countries not only left a foundation for later groups to build upon, but persisted conspicuously themselves, throughout the later Middle Ages and beyond.(3) Arguably the most significant of these enduring orders were the Augustinian Hospital Sisters, the regularly rejuvenated Beguines, the Franciscan Grey Sisters, and the Augustinian Black Sisters.(4)

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a boom time for women religious in much of Europe.(5) For the Low Countries, one historian has called it an "explosion of female convents and beguinages." In the light of my purposes, it is not necessary to enter the debate among medievalists over whether this explosion was an expression of female self-consciousness in a male-dominated society, or whether it was a consequence of urban upheaval. But it is necessary to know that women established convents by the hundreds, often in the face of opposition from the males of the very orders they wished to join. This growth was manifest in contemplative orders--nearly sixty female Cistercian convents were founded in the Low Countries between the twelfth century and 1360, along with several houses of Clares--as well as in such new active orders as the Filles-Dieu (imported from France), the Penitents of Mary Magdalene, the famous Beguines,(6) and the less-renowned, gradually evolving Hospital Sisters (who began as "Cell-Sisters" in quite loosely arranged organizations, often working right alongside "Cell-Brothers").

The fourteenth century produced few new orders, but instead much argument over existing versions of religious life--these were the hard-fought observant controversies. What was the true version of this order or that, or the true calling of religious women generally? Among many other landmarks, we can point to Boniface VIII's bull Periculoso, issued in 1298, which proclaimed explicitly what had been suggested before and what would prevail as the theory for centuries: to be a true female religious required the taking of solemn vows, and living under strict clausura. Yet the bull did not put an end to the many faces of religious life; even though the Beguines of the Rhineland died out as they obediently became members of approved groups (often the Franciscan third order), the majority of Beguines in the Low Countries appear to have survived in their idiosyncratic fashion, thanks to the support of local bishops. …

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