On Women Religious Crossing between Cloister and the World

Nuns and sex: rumour or fact? Did nuns stay in touch with the outside? Despite ecclesiastical authorities insistence on enclosure, were nuns truly isolated? How did nuns in observant convents administer their possessions outside the enclosure without leaving it? Which women can really be considered as “Dominican”? Those who were officially linked with the Order or those who perceived themselves as Dominican? Has Fountevraud’s identity as the order in which women lead and men serve medieval origins? Which evidence do we have of transatlantic ties before the arrival of the first European nuns in New Spain in 1620? How could Afro-Latin American women embody saintly virtues? These are some of the questions asked by the essays gathered here.

This book conducts a long-term inquiry regarding the differences and similarities, the continuities and discontinuities in various aspects of the active role of women in monastic and religious life during a long chronological framework (c. 1200-1700). Such a transhistorical approach highlights the continuities between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Traditional periodization with a strict division between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period has not only made it difficult to understand these continuities, but has also led to the attribution of early modern features to the earlier period, as happened with Fontevraud’s identity (Müller). This volume also explores the transregionality and the fluidity of transatlantic exchange of models between Europe and America, and the continuities and connections between several geographical areas. Finally, the interdisciplinary dialogue established between scholars from different backgrounds allows a more comprehensive approach to seeing religious women organizing their life inside their communities and their relationship with the world.

The main issues of this book are two: the transatlantic paradigm in the study of religious women; and the fluidity or permeability of enclosure and the relationship between these monasteries and the social milieu of their era. In both cases, spatial considerations are a significant element of the analysis, and the common thread of the different studies here presented. 

The transatlantic paradigm has opened a fruitful discussion on studying the communities and territories on both sides of the Atlantic beyond national or imperial histories. This has problematized the traditional centre/ metropole versus periphery/ colony dichotomy that has been recomposed into a more multipolar interpretative framework. In the particular case of the Iberian world, historians have advocated for a wider perspective avoiding nationalistic approaches. Cultural exchange between these territories was bi- or even multi-directional. Although female monasteries founded in the Americas were clearly heirs of their European counterparts in many aspects of monastic life, their role in transatlantic exchanges deserves further exploration, offered here by Bieñko and Pérez Vidal.

Regarding the monastic enclosure, studies from recent decades have focused on documents of practice rather than on normative ones, and therefore have demonstrated the fluidity of female religious communities’ relationships with authority and society of their time. Although legislation on enclosure marked a gendered difference in the use of spaces, these regulations have to be considered critically and in comparison with the reality of each religious community. Its enforcement varied significantly from place to place and enclosure was far from always being observed. As the contributions of García Fernández and Sutter in this volume discuss, the monastic walls were quite permeable, even after the implementation of the Observant reform and the Council of Trent. This was particularly true in those monasteries ruled by aristocratic and powerful abbesses, who were involved in different religious and social networks, either in late medieval Galicia (García Fernández), or in the Order of Fontevraud (Müller). Many of these “elite” female monasteries worked as bastions of dynastic familial memory and political power (Müller). Not seldomly, nuns negotiated a more flexible interpretation of enclosure (Pérez Vidal), or they confronted the reformers (García Fernández). This had consequences not only in the nuns’ relationship with the outside world, but also inside the cloister. Indeed, liturgical and theatrical performances continued to be celebrated in many female monasteries in both New Spain and Peru until the eighteenth century (Pérez Vidal)

Gender had an impact on women’s religious encounter, starting with their religious identity (Duval’s contribution in this volume), with the observance of enclosure (García Fernández), and, related to this, with reform movements (Duval, Sutter, Pérez Vidal), with transatlantic exchanges, and also with the ethnic differences established in America (Benoist). The concept of “intersectionality”, that is to say, gender’s relationship with other markers of difference such as status, race, place, religious order as defined by Butler was therefore useful for our analysis. Neither indigenous women nor African women were considered to possess the qualities needed to become nuns and female monasteries in New Spain. Peruvian sixteenth-century convents were slightly more flexible, as they accepted indigenous women as novices, although not as professed nuns. Only a very few Afro-descendant women were accepted as nuns, and even classified as beatas (blessed), due to their extraordinary and exemplary life, a first step towards sanctity. Two of these exceptional Afro-descendant women are studied by Benoist in her chapter in this volume.

Although nuns did not travel between the two continents during the sixteenth century, intense cultural interaction did operate through different networks and different agents and objects. Doris Bieñko analyzes the presence of books on European religious women or even female saints, such as St. Gertrude the Great, in New Spain’s nunneries. She also discusses their reception and reinterpretation among creole religious women with different political and religious purposes. The circulation of books, images, and other artistic objects were a means of transferring culture across the Atlantic, in both directions. Indeed, although less known, several examples prove that Spanish nuns were commissioning or acquiring artworks from America, such as the so-called imágenes de caña, a syncretic product obtaining through the amalgamation of native religious and manufacturing techniques with Catholic beliefs and European imagery.

The contributions in this volume not only enhance our global understanding of female monasticism, but it also aims at better integrating the history of religious women into cultural history at a global scale. They should contribute to animating current debates on the role of women in international religious and political networks, as well as in cultural transfer. Finally, this volume is an invitation to continue dialogue among international scholars from both sides of the Atlantic, to open new horizons, and to raise new research questions that will inspire future scholarship.

By Mercedes Pérez Vidal

“Introduction,” by Mercedes Pérez Vidal

Chapter 1. “Dominican Women. Dominican Identity for Women during the First Centuries of the Order of Preachers (1200-1500),” by Sylvie Duval

Chapter 2. “Being in Touch with the Outside. Economic Exchanges of the Observant Dominican Convent St. Catherine in St. Gall (Switzerland),” by Claudia Sutter

Chapter 3. “Beyond the Wall. Nuns, Power, Celebrations, and Sex in Late Medieval Galicia,” by Miguel García Fernández

Chapter 4. “Reform and Reforms in Dominican Nunneries in Spain and Latin America,” by Mercedes Pérez Vidal

Chapter 5. “Transatlantic Ties: The Circulation of Objects, Books, and Ideas in Mid-Seventeenth Century Mexican Nunneries,” by Doris Bieñko de Peralta

Chapter 6. “Estefania de San Joseph and Esperanza de San Alberto: Dual Discourse in the Lives of Two Exemplary Afro-Women Religious in Early Modern Spanish-America,” by Valérie Benoist

Chapter 7. “Le monachisme bourbonien et la fabrication de l’autorité au féminin à Fontevraud au XVIIᵉ siècle,” by Annalena Müller

Browse By Month