Roving Nuns and Cistercian Realities: The Cloistering of Religious Women in the Thirteenth Century

Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM
Room 305 (Hynes Convention Center)
Erin L. Jordan , University of Virginia
While scholars differ on their view of when cloistering was first established as an element of monastic life in western Europe, they generally agree that as time passed, rules attempting to impose it become increasingly strict. Legislation passed by the Cistercian General Chapter in the 13th century is often cited as evidence for this view. As early as 1213, the General Chapter prohibited the Order’s nuns from leaving their abbeys without express permission from their father abbot. At the same time, the Cistercians demanded that any abbey seeking incorporation possess the necessary resources to be fully cloistered. Restrictions on the nuns’ movement became increasingly rigid and defined in 1228, when the General Chapter required that all abbeys belonging to the Order adhere to strict claustration within three years. Those that refused were to be expelled. What was the purpose of such legislation? The consensus is typically that such policies stemmed from post Gregorian reform fears of female pollution. Like all women, female religious could not be trusted to move freely within society without tempting men or falling prey to temptation themselves. Nuns who left their cloisters in spite of the Order’s prohibitions are understood by scholars as engaging in transgressive behaviour. However, to what extent what this view shared by their contemporaries? Consideration of the Cistercian statutes along with the actual charter evidence suggests an alternative understanding of the Order’s legislation and view of the nuns’ actions. Not only did the cloister walls remain more permeable than previously believed, belying the tendency to characterize nuns moving outside of their abbeys as “transgressing”, but the impulse behind the Order’s legislation can only be fully understood if evaluated within the broader context of the various religious movements of the period, most notably that of the beguines.
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