In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nuns and Abbesses

  • Introduction
  • General Surveys and Discussions of the State of the Art
  • The Institutional Landscape
  • Founders, Patrons, and Social Profiles
  • Early and High Medieval Norms and Practices
  • Integration and Order Formation
  • Leadership and Governance
  • Engagement and Service
  • Monastic Spaces and Enclosure
  • Spiritual Cultures and Gendered Experiences
  • Education and Book Production
  • Liturgy, Music, and Art

Medieval Studies Nuns and Abbesses
Steven Vanderputten
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0277


Although a substantial number of religious communities in the medieval West consisted partially or entirely of cloistered women, in traditional surveys of monastic history these individuals and their leadership received but scant attention. Until deep into the 20th century, the prevailing view among historians was that the role of nuns and abbesses in driving forward the development of monastic ideology and institutions had been negligible. Many believed that the purpose of female convent life had been only to provide an environment where veiled women would be shielded from the secular world and where their agency could be entirely directed toward intercessory prayer service and commemoration of the dead. With few exceptions, so they argued, those who accessed this existence spent their life in a state of discreet withdrawal, seldom leaving a lasting impression on those who shared their fate or drawing much notice from those living beyond the cloister walls. While a number of earlier specialists had already criticized this view, it was a feminist “wave” in scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s that altered the perception of cloistered women as a marginal, mostly inconsequential offshoot of a monastic phenomenon shaped by male paradigms and actors. These early studies allowed a first glimpse of the scope of the phenomenon, geographically, quantitatively, and in terms of its spiritual and intellectual achievements and its impact on society. However, they did little to change the view that cloistered life for women was a “marginal” phenomenon. This was partly because traditional views took a long time to die out, but also partly because of the tendency of pioneering studies to focus on instances of oppression or emancipation. In the last three decades, these perspectives have been replaced by a wide range of thematic interests that have allowed historians to highlight different aspects of female monasticism in the Middle Ages, including the immense diversity of female monastic experiences; practitioners’ intense involvement in spirituality, intellectual life, and artistic production; their complex interactions with male monastics and clerics, ascetic women living outside of cloistered contexts, and the secular world; and the dynamics behind recruitment and patronage. Much work remains to be done to synthesize paradigm-shifting insights in these studies before we can arrive at a fundamentally revised narrative of female cloistered life, let alone insert it into a new one of medieval monasticism generally. This bibliography omits discussion of “private” monastics such as anchoresses and house ascetics, and of “semi-religious” phenomena such as that of the Beguines and Penitents.

General Surveys and Discussions of the State of the Art

An up-to-date account of the history of female monasticism in the late antique and medieval West is currently lacking. The principal introduction, McNamara 1996, is now over two decades old and offers a narrative that differs, sometimes subtly but sometimes drastically, from the current state of the art. General surveys of monastic history such as Lawrence 2000 and Melville 2016 dedicate a number of pages to the subject, but describe the forms and experiences of cloistered life for women as deriving essentially from male models. They thus offer limited insight into current trends in research. This lacuna is partly filled by a number of collective volumes and single-authored publications, such as Melville and Müller 2011, Helvétius 2017, Griffiths 2016, More 2018, and Vanderputten 2018.

  • Griffiths, Fiona J. “Women and Reform in the Central Middle Ages.” In The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe. Edited by Judith M. Bennett and Ruth M. Karras, 447–463. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Succinct discussion of current perspectives on the involvement of female monasticism in the 11th- and 12th-century church reform. Makes a strong case for the active contribution of cloistered women, ideologically and otherwise.

  • Helvétius, Anne-Marie. “Le monachisme féminin en Occident de l’Antiquité tardive au haut Moyen Age.” In Monachesimi d’oriente e d’occidente nell’alto medioevo: Spoleto, 31 marzo–6 aprile 2016. Vol. 2, 193–230. Spoleto, Italy: Fondazione Centro Italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo, 2017.

    A very recent, outstanding discussion of the current state of the art for Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Highlights the immense diversity of monastic experiences, the problematic nature of categories and definitions in older scholarship, and the various thematic interests that have surfaced over the last few decades.

  • Lawrence, C. H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. 3d ed. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000.

    There is much to recommend in this well-written general survey of monastic history in the medieval West, which deserves to be read alongside the more recent one by Melville. Various chapters contain references to key institutions and events in female monasticism, while a separate one succinctly addresses the role of women in the emerging orders.

  • McNamara, Jo Ann. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

    Attractively written and erudite survey of female monastic history in the Catholic Church from the beginning of Christianity until the near present. However, the chapters up to c. 1100 present a narrative that should no longer be used as a reliable synthesis of the current state of the art.

  • Melville, Gert. The World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of Life. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.

    Offers succinct perspectives on female monastic development, with a strong emphasis on the inclusion of cloistered women in various monastic orders of the later Middle Ages.

  • Melville, Gert, and Anne Müller, eds. Female “vita religiosa” between Late Antiquity and the High Middle Ages: Structures, Developments and Spatial Contexts. Vienna: LIT Verlag, 2011.

    Contains several essential chapters on the observance, identity, and societal embedding of religious in the late antique and early medieval periods.

  • More, Alison. Fictive Orders and Feminine Religious Identities, 1200–1600. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198807698.001.0001

    Provocatively challenges the traditional view that the institutional and spiritual identity of female communities of the later Middle Ages can be adequately reconstructed on the basis of their affiliation to an order or congregation.

  • Vanderputten, Steven. Dark Age Nunneries: The Ambiguous Identity of Female Monasticism, 800–1050. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.7591/9781501715976

    Discusses forms and experiences of female monastic life in the 9th to early 11th centuries. Argues that limits imposed on the freedom of women religious shifted the focus from individual agency to that of entire communities. Such communities continued to play a significant role in both the church and the secular world.

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