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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

Preface to Part V: Religious Women in Leadership, Ministry, and Latin Ecclesiastical Culture


Distinguishing religious women from lay came naturally in a world that looked upon those consecrated to the church or to God as set apart from this world's society spiritually and physically. That observation is only partially true, however, and will take us only a little way toward understanding all the human and social realities. In truth, interactions abounded, and complementarities were self-evident. Queens came to be consecrated for office, as abbesses were into theirs, each a figure of public female authority with their respective duties and powers blessed by these rites. The women in both also came, with few exceptions, from the upper reaches of society, social distinctions arguably being as important, or more so. In this case, the authority of an abbess was in principle more autonomous and absolute than that of a queen – except when a king was away, or she came to serve in a regent capacity as queen-mother. In social and political practice, abbesses worked with lay benefactors or advocates reporting ultimately to her on abbatial lands. Future queens in turn may well have been reared partly in convents, where they learned there a little Latin, or a lot, and they might also return as widows to retire, while abbesses might well find themselves on occasion in court circles. Below these highest levels of leadership, sisters in convents also mostly retained contact to varying degrees with their families (a regular complaint of reformers), and lay women might well visit monastic complexes, male or female, on special feast days or to pray at particular shrines.

But what then of obedience: the profession sworn by a sister to her mother superior and those marriage vows pledging a woman to her husband? This was a culture inclined to hierarchies, usually male hierarchies, but in practice nonetheless much came down to persons and communities. For medievalists, despite some revealing accounts scattered through the centuries of relationships both hopeful and cruel, all this is not so easy to get at in practice, also despite satirical writings full of naughty nuns, unfaithful queens, and shrewish wives. Wives may well have found somewhat more space to look after themselves, or even on occasion to take the lead, than did sisters subject to a rule and bound to the community disciplines of cloister and choir. Exceptions there were and especially in the grandest convents housing the truly elite.