Dangerous Liaisons? Nuns, Monks, and the Sexual Indiscretions of Monastic Life

Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:40 PM
Room 305 (Hynes Convention Center)
Michelle Armstrong-Partida , Emory University, Los Angeles, CA
Celibacy was seen as an integral part of religious life, one that preoccupied religious leaders with protecting their brothers and sisters in Christ from sexual temptation by insisting on the strict separation of the sexes in religious houses and minimal contact with the lay world. Yet monastic life in Catalunya shows signs that the boundaries between lay and religious life remained quite permeable. Records of fourteenth-century episcopal visitations to monastic houses in the diocese of Girona reveal that a significant number of monks not only kept their families in nearby villages but also received their women and children in the monastery. Although visitations for women’s religious house are far fewer in number, evidence suggests some nuns received male visitors, as well as defying enclosure to travel. At least two nuns, Felipa de Soler and Constancia de Palau, had sexual relationships with men but were permitted to remain in their communities even after their transgressions came to the attention of the bishop. Indeed, Felipa de Soler eventually gained the position of abbess in the monastery of Vilanera, and Constancia retained her position as subprioress at the monastery of Sant Daniel.

This paper explores how episcopal officials responded differently to the sexual transgressions of monks and nuns. It examines the surprisingly lenient treatment of Felipa and Constancia’s situation and suggests that, in the eyes of episcopal officials, the social status of Felipa and Constancia was more important than their gender. It also considers how the consequences of their indiscretion affected nuns more severely than monks. Constancia had to surrender her newborn child to a foundling hospital, while Felipa was transferred to another religious community to ensure that her relationship ended. This a strategy, interestingly enough, was not applied to break up the families of monks.

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