In last week’s post I talked a bit about medieval women in Russia and the lands to its west. I thought I’d exhausted that subject. But while conducting my next New Books in Historical Fiction interview (on which, more next time) and in conjunction with finishing Anya Seton’s Katherine, which I mentioned in that prior post, I realized that I had completely omitted another option available to medieval Christian women, both Catholic and Orthodox—one that the Reformation, for all its benefits, took away. This option was life as a nun or an anchoress.
The appeal of the religious option may not be obvious at first glance. Did nuns not swear obedience to their order? Did they not endure the dominance of the male clergy, all of whom had greater prestige and religious authority simply by virtue of bearing a Y chromosome (not that anyone in the Middle Ages had ever heard of a chromosome)? Did they not live in poverty and chastity as well as obedience?
Yes, they did, at least some of the time. But in a world where marriages existed to secure economic and political alliances, people thought nothing of wedding a teenage girl to an elderly roué, affection appeared after the ceremony if at all, the absence of reliable contraception ensured a steady stream of infants, and about half the married female population died in childbirth or from complications of pregnancy and labor, the attractiveness of life in a convent—surrounded by and under the immediate rule of other women, free from the everyday demands of men and infants—could not be denied.
Moreover, medieval convents were a good deal laxer than the modern variety. The Church as a whole was a good deal laxer in Catholic Europe, where sinners could buy their way out of Purgatory through indulgences and donations to the right saints and shrines. Convents were places for stashing the unmarriageable daughters and unwanted wives of the nobility. Nuns brought dowries to their future homes. That was how convents maintained themselves, together with donations of land and cash from grateful supporters. The better the dowry, the better a nun’s chances for admission to the convent and advancement afterward. Some convents refused to accept women of moderate or limited means. And although nuns tended to prize their vows of chastity more highly than priests and monks, romantic interludes (and the resultant scandals) were not unheard of.
Convents also entertained exalted female guests—ladies who did not take the veil but retreated for a bit of peace and quiet (and, no doubt, relief from importunate husbands and rowdy children). Women could undertake pilgrimages, like the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—a lesser commitment than donning a nun’s habit, perhaps, but no less heartfelt. The rare woman might choose to become an anchoress, shutting herself away from the world in a small cell and living on the bounty of those around her. Perhaps the most famous of these in the English context is the 14th-century Dame Julian of Norwich (pictured above), the author of Revelations of Divine Love. She appears in Seton’s Katherine, guiding the heroine along the essential part of her journey toward self-realization and mature love. The journey itself may not perfectly encapsulate a 14th-century sensibility, but Katherine’s focus on salvation and repentance gives an intriguing glimpse into a path to self-fulfillment not often embraced by modern Western culture.
None of this is intended to undercut the true vocation of nuns and other religious women then and now. No doubt the lives of anchoresses, pilgrims, and nuns contained many hardships and much testing of faith. But it is also worth remembering that convents and even the isolated cells of anchoresses offered a rare opportunity in the pre-modern world for women to acquire an education, define a mission for themselves, and exercise power and responsibility over their daily lives.
This post wraps up my mini-survey of medieval women, on and off the steppe. Next week, on to something new!
Image of Dame Julian of Norwich © 2007 Evelyn Simak, reused under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. From the Church of SS Andrew and Mary, photographed as part of the Geograph Project.