Medieval Studies Female Monasticism to 1100
Lisa Bitel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0307


By 500 CE, Christian women monastics lived in almost all the corners of the former western Empire and beyond, in places like Frisia and Ireland. These religious communities were not guided by the same rules. They differed in size, number and sex of inhabitants, wealth, architecture, and many other ways. However, all women’s religious communities faced gender-specific difficulties. Women were disenfranchised and unlikely to inherit property upon which to build monasteries, so they typically depended upon gifts from family and donors to maintain their communities. Hence, some small communities might last only as long as their foundresses’ lifetimes. Like male monastics, vowed women battled with both kin and local bishops for control of their monasteries. Unlike monks, they needed bishops and priests to perform the principal rituals of their religion. They also required male laborers to help till their fields and shepherd their animals, maintain their buildings, and protect them against violence. Women’s communities were always under the cura monialum—churchmen’s care or oversight of nuns. Despite the disadvantages, the documentary record suggests that women found satisfying ways to practice Christian monasticism, whether living in large communities, in family homes, or dwelling in isolation. Letters, religious treatises, saints’ vitae, and monastic rules, among many other documents, reveal the astonishing variety of women’s monastic practices and spiritualities across medieval Europe and Byzantium. Annals and chronicles, as well as charters and individual wills, attest to the wealth of some women’s monasteries. Archaeological evidence supports the documentary picture of monastic women and their communities. However, most of the written evidence for women’s monasticism comes from men’s pens, as monastic women were less likely to be literate and their communities were often too poor to support a scriptorium. Male authors typically wrote about women monastics in selected genres of texts, such as saints’ vitae; or in particular situations, as when advising vowed women on monastic rules or imposing canonical or conciliar decrees. These writers emphasized what religious women should do or did not do, rather what they did every day as vowed monastics. Critical re-revaluation of the documents, along with recent archival discoveries of women-authored books, has helped scholars sketch a positive and more authentic counter-narrative of women’s monastic history.

Historical Surveys

The scholarly study of women’s monasticism began at the end of the nineteenth century and helped spur the development of women’s history. Eckenstein 1896, Bateson 1899, and Power 1922 were among the first to analyze the plentiful records of women’s monasteries—mostly drawn from later medieval England and France—and to produce historical overviews. These works set the model for later analyses of European women’s monasticism by feminist scholars who emphasized women’s agency. McNamara 1996 is the most comprehensive survey of women monastics to date. Schulenburg 1998 is based on a series of pathbreaking articles published over twenty years. Most of the scholarship has been published as collections of articles by experts in various periods and regions of women’s monastic history. Shank and Nichols 1984–1995, by two pioneers in collecting conference proceedings for publication, includes both thematic arguments and highly focused studies of particular communities or individuals. Melville and Müller 2009 is a more thematically focused collection but articles range from Late Antique Egypt to 12th-century Wales. The latest and most extensive collection is Beach and Cochelin 2019. No one has yet written a history that examines early medieval male and female monastics equally and together within the larger phenomenon of Christian monasticism. General surveys of European monasticism, such as Lawrence 2015 and Dunn 2003, include women, but maintain a traditional structure based on the teleology of men’s monasticism.

  • Bateson, Mary. Origin and Early History of Double Monasteries. London: Royal Historical Society, 1899.

    DOI: 10.2307/3678130

    Bateson’s was the first attempt at a survey of integrated or partnered male-female communities. Recent scholarship does not observe such rigid categories of gender-integrated communities.

  • Beach, Alison I., and Isabelle Cochelin. The Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    An extensive collection of sixty-plus articles, most of which pertain to the early Middle Ages and religious women. The volume includes articles on regions not usually covered by surveys, including Iberia, Ireland, and Italy.

  • Dunn, Marilyn. Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470754580

    Survey of monasticism from early Christian period through Middle Ages. Dunn sets monastic communities in their social, political, and economic contexts.

  • Eckenstein, Lina. Woman under Monasticism: Chapters on Saint-Lore and Convent Life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1896.

    Eckenstein, an amateur scholar, argued that the convent gave women a sanctuary from marriage and a place to gain an education.

  • Lawrence, C. H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. 4th ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315715667

    A concise history of monasticism through the Middle Ages, Lawrence devotes a chapter to women.

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

    Survey stretching from the earliest Christian generations to the twentieth century. McNamara proposed a theory of Christian syneisactism that flourished in the earliest Middle Ages, but gave way under pressure of ecclesiastic reforms to the cloistering of monastic women.

  • Melville, Gert, and Anne Müller, eds. Female vita religiosa between Late Antiquity and the High Middle Ages: Structures, Developments and Spatial Contexts. Eichstätt, Germany: Forschungsstelle für Vergleichende Ordensgeschichte, 2009.

    Chronologically broad, comparative approach, and thematically organized around social, economic, and material aspects of women’s communities.

  • Power, Eileen. Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922.

    Power focused on elite communities and their restriction of noblewomen.

  • Schulenburg, Jane T. Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, 500-1100. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226518992.001.0001

    Schulenburg purposely avoided relying on prescriptive sources such as rules and canons, instead using a database compiled from hagiography to probe women’s spiritualities and attitudes toward religious women in and outside of the convent. Many chapters were previously published as articles.

  • Shank, Lillian Thomas, and John A. Nichols. Medieval Religious Women. 3 vols. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984–1995.

    Volume 1 (Distant Echoes, 1984) is focused on English and French communities. Volume 2 (Peaceweavers, 1987) focuses on later female mystics, but also features a few articles on early medieval women. Volume 3 (Hidden Springs, 1995) covers Cistercian monastic women.

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