In the Shadows of the Archives: Monastic History and Writing Religious Women into the Medieval Church


Cistercian nuns in chapel, detail from frontispiece, Pierre de Blois, La Sainte Abbaye, Central France (possibly Maubuisson) or North Eastern France (Lorraine), ca. 1290. The British Library Board, BL Yates Thompson MS 11, fol. 1v. Reproduced with kind permission

by Anne E. Lester

To call it a parchment page does not capture what it is. More a scrap, almost a mere tag that could be pinned to something, to define it, name it, give it a history. In crabbed, but not unclear handwriting, a scribe – perhaps a cleric or confessor – recorded the simple donation: alms of oats in return for women’s prayers offered up annually on the anniversary of a death. While such gifts of alms for salvation were by no means unusual in the Middle Ages, this one written in four scant lines seemed to convey an urgency, a need and a sense of movement. Moreover, it has been overlooked for so many centuries it seemed to me to need some explanation, both of its context and its neglect. By the standards of medievalists, such a document is a small and rather banal announcement of one person’s piety. Yet it is far from a singular text. It is one of hundreds of such records, all small donations given to small groups of women who had come to adopt a life of ordered devotion outside the formal definitions of the hierarchical church. In their sum, these donation documents – charters as they are most commonly known – bespeak a women’s religious movement, a collective and unofficial endeavor to recast a life in religion devoted to service to God, service to others and a remaking of the self. Such communities, as became clear the more time I spent collecting in the archives, were spread thickly throughout northern France and especially the region of Champagne, which until 1284 lay beyond the legal jurisdiction of the kings of France. There was a history here that needed to be told, that spoke to the active role of medieval women in the formal institutional making of the medieval church.

Those who have taken action in the Occupy Wall Street movement, whether by squatting in Zuccotti Park, protesting in Denver or being arrested and abused in Oakland, were moved to take part in something larger than themselves and their own personal needs. This impulse for collective action, which quickly yields to collective identity, took different shapes in the past, but as historians have conceived of the thirteenth century, it had clear leaders and scions to sharpen its mission and its voice. Although certainly a later reconstruction, the image of St. Francis served just such a focal point. Like those standing up or sitting in for the 99%, Francis was motivated not by an intellectual tract or manifesto, but out of a sense of the gross injustice and inequity around him that seemed to fly in the face of the New Testament’s mandate of social justice. Francis’ story has been told many times over and has also been given an intellectual history spin even during this own lifetime, which makes it particularly clear and appealing. Yet what has been absent from a broader understanding of the shape of the medieval church are all the many nameless who also took part in the religious revival of the thirteenth century predicated on a return and reinterpretation of the New Testament and the sense that the Apostolic life – the vita apostolica – was very much an ideal model worth adopting and living out in the fullest sense. The focus on Francis is even more striking when it is clear that many more women were involved in this movement than previously imagined.

It is this collective sense and the participation in a movement of social and religious action and reform that became the focus of my book, Creating Cistercian Nuns: The Women’s Religious Movement and Its Reform in Thirteenth-Century Champagne. The women I follow lived in northern France and Champagne and their actions – a turn toward devotion, care of the poor and sick in their midst, and a critique of traditional ecclesiastical institutions and channels – mirror other movements throughout Europe during the thirteenth century. What is striking about Champagne, and what resonates with our own contemporary movements for social change, is that it persisted without a learned church sponsor and thus without an intellectual history. No religious scion – a Francis or Clare or Hildegard or Aquinas – wrote for this group. In turn, this side of religious history and its reform has been largely overlooked. For it does not possess a clear intellectual history and intellectual history has been the traditional lens through which modern scholars have come to view and understand (albeit quite one-sidedly) the history of religion and particularly the medieval Christian tradition.

But how does one recover and write about – how do you narrate and not simply describe – a movement with no leader and no clear platform? What to do with parchment slips no larger than post-it notes barring grants of alms inscribed with little more than a date and a name long since devoid of connection? This was one of the first questions I had to face as I began to read through the archival material I uncovered. Rather like Georges Seurat’s paintings, it became clear that each point when set against another like but not identical point, offered something larger, a general trend and sense of dissatisfaction with the religious status quo by about 1200. It was precisely this dissatisfaction that had cast this history to the side, for these women and their benefactors did not fit within the traditional narrative of the medieval church. They were reformed, often reluctantly, within the Cistercian order but did not in most cases persist as Cistercian convents after the end of the Middle Ages. As a consequence the archival collections that contained the records of their growth, their assets, their abbesses and benefactors, were relegated to the shadows, subsumed within the larger collections of neighboring male houses or under great heaps of texts that accounted for episcopal jurisdiction. We did not know much about these women and their ideas or actions because we simply did not see them in the records and few scholars before the 1970s thought to seek them out.

La Cour Notre-Dame-de-Michery, exterior of the abbey church, east end of nave. Photo by the author

During the first four decades of the thirteenth century the Cistercian order – the paragon of reform monastic orders by 1200 – incorporated small independent communities of religious women in northern France in unprecedented numbers. By 1239, forty new female convents appeared between the Rhine and Seine rivers. Creating Cistercian Nuns is the first book-length study of Cistercian convents in northern France and the first to analyze their function across medieval society. Although in many parts of Europe the women’s religious movement gained acceptance as semi-religious communities of beguines in Flanders or penitents and humiliatae in northern Italy, in Champagne groups of unregulated women dedicated to the ideals of the vita apostolica, living together and tending informally to hospitals, leper houses and domus-Dei (small hospices) were incorporated into the Cistercian order. Yet, even after becoming Cistercian institutions the majority of these communities continued to care for the poor and sick, to administer the small hospitals and leper houses from which they grew and thus to cultivate a distinctive form of Cistercian female spirituality.

The Cistercian convents founded in Champagne were the product of the institutionalization of the women’s religious movement, and through my research, I uncovered the dynamics of reform that resulted from the combined ideals and efforts of local bishops and abbots in northern France, bourgeois and aristocratic patrons and the religious women themselves. While previous scholarship has focused on the growth of the Cistercian order and its relationship with women as articulated in the Cistercian statutes, monastic legislation, and hagiographical texts, I focused on the intersection of religion and society by uncovering the lives, actions, piety, and social worlds of the women who were part of this process of institutionalization that saw a religious movement integrated into the hierarchical church. In turn, my book offers a revision of previous arguments, specifically Herbert Grundmann’s work on the role of religious movements, for it argues that the Cistercian order did not close its doors to women at the beginning of the thirteenth century, but rather was one of many reform-minded orders, like the Franciscans and Dominicans, that accommodated and transformed the religious impulses of the vita apostolica into religious orders within the church. The ways this process occurred among religious women in northern France offers new insights into the role of gender, social class, and the ideals of the religious life within an institutional setting. It also demonstrates that the scholarly tendency to write about the religious life in the Middle Ages as one divided between obedient religious holy men and women who serve as the exemplars of a well-organized and powerful church and those who were outside that institution, persecuted as heretics and unbelievers is much too simplistic, even if it remains a compelling narrative device. Men and women who had much in common with the heretics of southern France, or with the later Lollards in England, and Brethren of the Common Life in Germany and the Netherlands, during the thirteenth century could and did become part of the church even as they mediated their way of life to suit their own original goals and ambitions. In this sense, the church itself could be a far more flexible institution than has been portrayed. And ultimately, as many historians know, such flexibility – which encompasses both resistance and collaboration – produces a far more human and circumspect story.

Reconstructing the women’s religious movement in northern France through a careful reading of the earliest charters of the Champagne nunneries, it can be put forward as to why it has often been overlooked and how it was connected with other religious movements in Flanders, southern France and Italy. The charter evidence makes clear that for the most part these were not exclusively aristocratic foundations, but rather drew significant support from women of the bourgeoisie and the lower aristocracy and their families. The nunneries were often founded in suburban granges and personal chapels owned by local townsmen, artisans and knights. Thus, the initial support for the women’s religious movement came from urban men and women acting in a milieu similar to that of Francis and Clare of Assisi. The reading of the type of support given to the nunneries also offers an excavation of middle class piety, which aimed not to create great buildings and legacies, but to secure what was needed for a good life and a good death and perhaps most importantly a long and prayerful remembrance. The location and economic life of Champagne was also crucial for their development as the Champagne region fairs formed the hub of the European trade and credit networks that thrived during the first decades of the thirteenth century. The women who made up these movements would eventually become the first Cistercian nuns.

Tracing the transformation of these female communities as they were reformed and institutionalized as formal Cistercian convents and incorporated into the juridical framework of an established monastic order, I discovered that the Cistercian legislation concerning women finds echoes in the earliest regulations of women in the Franciscan and Dominican orders. This demonstrated that the papacy and the ecclesiastical hierarchy generally worked comparatively and comprehensively in considering how and why women should be regulated. What is remarkable about these new houses, however, is that in many cases they remained poor, humble institutions rigorously committed to their original ideals of charity and the imitation of Christ.

Through the nuns’ service in leper houses and hospices, commitment to the care of the poor, sick and leprous was sustained in many of the Cistercian nunneries. The penitential nature of female Cistercian piety is can be put in the context of broader religious changes like the foundation of hospitals, the rise of heresy and the crusade movement. One of my most surprising findings was that the new Cistercian nunneries fostered an intimate connection with crusader families, many of whom hailed from Champagne, who were also members of the lesser aristocracy and patronized these nunneries. Cistercian nuns prayed for their crusader kin, buried them in their convents and shared the ideal – albeit it practiced quite differently – of imitating Christ in his redemptive suffering. Finally, by sustaining relationships with crusaders and their families, Cistercian convents came to play an important role as credit institutions that capitalized land into currency, and in turn took part in the transformation of the urban and suburban landscapes of Champagne.

Eventually, Cistercian nunneries functioned as formal institutions in the religious landscape: they managed and acquired new lands after their foundation and the abbesses of these houses exercised authority. Many of the nunneries came to privilege rental properties from which they could collect money to support their charitable endeavors. Yet, the effects of this type of economic management were devastating when the full exigencies of the fourteenth century took hold. The demise of the Cistercian convents followed the destruction wrought by the Hundred Years’ War, with a clearly defined end-point in the mid-fifteenth century. Beginning in 1399, the order began the process of suppressing the Cistercian nunneries founded in Champagne: their buildings were converted into male priories and the few remaining nuns were dispersed to other convents and protected cities nearby.

Detail, rental list (censive) from Clairmarais for properties in Reims. AD Aube, 3 H 3783 (undated, probably mid to late thirteenth century). Photograph by the author

Writing the history of a movement brings to the fore some of the fundamental challenges and fascinations inherent in the reconstructive work of historians. Movements of almost any variety, whether political, social, religious, are powerful and effective because they are protean and adaptable. Often responsive, it is the work of contextualization that brings their ideals and make-up to life. History as a discipline, hatched as it was from the goals of enlightened romantics who believed that it was possible to write of a world as it “actually was” can in turn be so easily seduced by the most well-placed, articulate texts and their authors. The women who became Cistercian nuns had plenty of detractors, but no one to write of their own goals and religious ambitions, or to give voice to the critiques they may have harbored about the institutions they eventually became part of; such comments if ever written down were either excised or suppressed. What has survived, however, are records that make reference to the actions of these women as they gathered together to pray, tend to the sick and leprous, give up families, possessions, houses, to live an ideal that did affect a social good, did align with their conception of the life of Christ and the apostles. The great challenge and joy of this book has been to imagine and reconstruct this world as it emerged from each parchment fragment. One is left to wonder how our own contemporary movements for social justice will be recorded and reconstructed, especially if and when they gain institutional coherence. What is lost in the process that is left without record? Where will those critiques and grievances scrawled on cardboard and foolscap find a history?

About the Author:

Anne E. Lester is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Boulder where she teaches courses on Medieval Europe, the Crusades, Religion and Society, and Material Culture. She has published several articles on religious women, lepers, urban space and the crusade
movement and is a co-editior with Caroline Goodson and Carol Symes of Cities, Texts, and Social Networks, 400-1500: Experiences and Perceptions of Medieval Urban Space (Ashgate, 2010). She is the author of Creating Cistercian Nuns: The Women’s Religious Movement and Its Reform in Thirteenth-Century Champagne.