In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Convent Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Bibliographies
  • Enclosure
  • Nuns as Patrons of Art and Architecture
  • Nuns as Visual Artists
  • Musical Arts
  • Books and Libraries
  • Convent Rituals and Cultural Practices

Renaissance and Reformation Convent Culture
Sharon Strocchia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0036


The study of women living in organized religious communities in late medieval and early modern Europe has emerged as a field in its own right, owing mainly to the growing interest in women’s history since the 1980s. Many of the questions and theoretical perspectives driving studies of convent life were first developed by feminist scholars working in the social sciences and various humanistic disciplines. The bulk of scholarship since the late 20th century has been dominated by Italy, which had the highest percentage of nuns relative to the lay population anywhere in Europe, and by investigations of nuns’ cultural activities.

General Overviews

There are relatively few studies of the long-term development of female monasticism compared to male religious orders. Important themes of these works are the changing nature of female religious expression and women’s spiritual work; institutional relations between convents and male clergy; the cultural products of communal life; and the lived experiences of women housed in convents. McNamara 1996 is an essential starting point that touches on all these themes over the span of two millennia. Ranft 1996 provides a more cursory examination focusing on female religiosity from the 4th to the 17th centuries. Leonard 2004 compares the experiences of different female religious orders during the Catholic and Protestant Reformations. Evangelisti 2007 emphasizes early modern convent culture and links monastic experiences in Europe and the New World. Rapley 2001 vividly captures the daily rhythms of monastic life in the teaching congregations of Old Regime France.

  • Evangelisti, Silvia. Nuns: A History of Convent Life. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Valuable synthesis treating the cultural aspects of convent life such as theater and music, literary texts, and the visual arts in communities ranging from Italy and Spain to the New World.

  • Leonard, Amy. “Female Religious Orders.” In A Companion to the Reformation World. Edited by Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, 237–254. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    Evaluates the comparative experiences of female religious orders during the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.

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

    Highly readable account of long-term continuities and crucial watersheds in organized female religious life since the advent of Christianity, written by one of the founders of the field. Especially useful for understanding the interplay between women’s religious convictions and their sociopolitical context.

  • Ranft, Patricia. Women and the Religious Life in Premodern Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.

    Brief synthetic overview of women religious from early Christianity to the end of the 17th century, intended for a broad audience.

  • Rapley, Elizabeth. A Social History of the Cloister: Daily Life in the Teaching Monasteries of the Old Regime. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

    Fascinating study of everyday life in the teaching convents of 17th- and 18th-century France, utilizing letters, chronicles, and other writings produced by nuns for and about themselves.

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