Ever since the first flowering of scholarship on women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, convents have occupied a central place in historians' estimate of the position of women in medieval and early modern Europe. In 1910, Emily James Putnam, the future dean and president of Barnard College, wrote enthusiastically in The Lady, her path-breaking study of medieval and renaissance aristocratic women, “No institution in Europe has ever won for the lady the freedom of development that she enjoyed in the convent in the early days. The modern college for women only feebly reproduces it.” In equally pioneering works published in the same period, both Lena Eckenstein and Eileen Power recognized the significance of the nunnery in providing a socially acceptable place for independent single women.
Many contemporary historians share this positive view of convents. In Becoming Visible, one of the most widely read surveys of European women's history, for example, William Monter wrote approvingly of convents as “socially prestigious communities of unmarried women.” Similarly, Jane Douglass praised nunneries for their importance in providing women with the only “visible, official role” allotted to them in the church, while Merry Wiesner, sharing Eckenstein and Power's perspective, has observed that, unlike other women, nuns were “used to expressing themselves on religious matters and thinking of themselves as members of a spiritual group. In her recently published study of early modern Seville, to give a final example, Mary Perry criticized the assumption that nuns were oppressed by the patriarchal order that controlled their institutions; instead, she emphasized the ways in which religious women “empowered themselves through community, chastity, enclosure and mystical experiences.”