Abbess, Defender of Her Faith, and Humanist
In the early years of the Reformation, Caritas (or Charitas) Pirckheimer, German abbess of the convent of Saint Clare in Nuremberg, courageously resisted efforts by city officials, religious leaders, and citizens with Protestant sympathies to close her convent. She used her reputation as a pious and exceptionally learned woman to defend the religious beliefs and practices of her Catholic community. In doing so, Caritas deployed her impressive humanist training in a more public way than European humanist teachers or writers, almost all of them men, considered appropriate for women.
As an intellectual movement, humanism looked to classical Greece and Rome, particularly its philosophy and literature, as models for contemporary Europe, and it emphasized the study of classical writings as the best means to produce educated, virtuous men for service to the state. Hence, many debated the value of such intellectual training for women, who were barred from nearly, all public offices or careers because of their sex. Yet some, including perhaps Caritas's father, felt that humanist studies were appropriate for women, because they furthered personal virtue, even if women had little practical outlet for their studies. Caritas Pirckheimer, however, did put her learning to public use as she defended her institution from its earliest opponents and left a remarkable written history of that crisis.
Caritas was born in 1467 into an affluent and powerful Bavarian family with a commitment to humanist learning, for both daughters and sons received an impressive education. Her father, Johannes Pirckheimer, served as legal advisor to the Nuremberg city council. The oldest child, Caritas entered the convent of Saint Clare at age twelve. The convent was highly regarded throughout Germany for both its learning and piety; a wealthy institution, it boasted an im-