Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society: Nunneries in France and England, 890-1215

By Bruce L. Venarde | Go to book overview

preface

Historians of women and religious life in Western Europe have seen the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries as a period of retrenchment for women's monasticism. In this view, although women participated in monastic and other forms of holy life from early medieval times, monastic women's status and visibility went into decline before the year 1000. Houses of nuns became few and socially exclusive; women were for the most part excluded from the reform movements of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries. Indeed, the new religious ideals of the period 900–1200, which affected everything from the tone of individual spirituality to the power of the papacy, acted as a check on women in monasticism. An index of the marginality of female participation in Christian life is the exceedingly small number of women saints, who comprised well under 10 percent of all saints in the two centuries following the millennium. The situation changed markedly around the turn of the thirteenth century, in a time of rehabilitation of the feminine in thought and practice—the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary, many new female saints, and the religious life of the beguines. Only then did women whose needs had been largely ignored find some measure, at least, of recognition and institutional identity both within the traditional cenobitic framework and in other kinds of religious lives and associations.

Such is the story as it has been told for some decades. This book tells a different story. In a large part of the Christian West, I will show, the number of monasteries for women grew most rapidly not after 1200 but from the 1080s through the 1160s. Since most of this growth was not di-

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