Renaissance and Reformation Ursulines
Querciolo Mazzonis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0040


The Ursulines’ history began in 1535 in Brescia (in northern Italy), when Angela Merici established the Company of St. Ursula, a very innovative secular form of consecration for women without vows and common life, free from male supervision, which offered women spiritual and material independence. After the Council of Trent Merici’s rule was significantly altered and the Company developed in many cities in northern Italy where it took different forms (secular, conventual, and congregated). At that time the Ursulines began to educate poor girls in the schools of Christian doctrine and wealthy young women in their convents or colleges. At the end of the century the Company spread to France, where the members increased in numbers and the institute was gradually transformed into an enclosed teaching religious order. Both in Italy and France the Ursulines became a pioneering institute for female education, overcoming the limitations imposed on women’s active roles. The Company’s development took place in connection with the Tridentine bishops’ aspirations for the re-Christianization of society and with women’s longing for a devout life that combined active service with contemplative spirituality. From France, the Ursulines began their missions in Europe and in the wider world, where they continued to pursue their educational duty toward women. From the beginning of the 19th century the Ursulines reinforced their missionary spirit and increased their presence both in Europe and around the world. Although the conventual form was the most common, the Ursulines were still living in a variety of forms of life at this time (including congregated and secular), and they had never been unified centrally (a partially successful attempt to do so took place with the creation of the Roman Union in 1900). After the Second Vatican Council many groups of conventual Ursulines decided to return to forms of life closer to that of the founder. The history of the Ursulines is thus quite complex, because the institute adopted different forms of life, models of organization, and religious rules, as well as pursued a variety of spiritual objectives. Many of the historiographical works listed here—often composed by members of the order—include collections of documents and present accurate reconstructions of the evolution of specific convents and groups. Scholarship providing social and cultural perspectives of the Ursuline history focus on Merici and the early Ursulines, the order in Early Modern France, and the missions in Canada and in New Orleans.

Primary Sources

The most relevant sources regarding Merici’s spirituality and the Company of St. Ursula consist in the writings directed to the Company (Rule, Counsels, and Testament), which the founder dictated to her “secretary”: Gabriele Cozzano. The most important document regarding Merici’s life is the so-called Processo Nazari, a recollection of testimonies given by some of Merici’s friends in 1568. Useful insights on Merici’s spirituality and on the first steps of the Company are in the three letters written by Cozzano in the early 1540s to the Ursulines. Ledóchowska 1968 was the first book to publish the main documents of the Company (but not the original rule). The work that presents the most complete collection of documents about Merici is Mariani, et al. 1989 (including the oldest edition of the rule and several documents regarding the Brescian Ursulines). Waters 1994 offers English translations of Merici’s writings for the Company, while Rio 2001 provides English translations of the Processo Nazari and of Cozzano’s letters. One example of writings composed by Italian Ursulines after Angela Merici is Morello 2005. Sources regarding the French order are abundant. The most important is Pommereuse 1673, which, with its detailed chronicle of the foundation and development of the Ursuline convents and portraits of significant Ursulines, became a point of reference for later generations of Ursulines. Waters 1994 translates the constitutions and rule of the Parisian Ursulines of 1705, which shaped the identity of the nuns in the convents affiliated to the congregation of Paris. Sources regarding the Ursuline missions include the writings by Marie Guyart (see Biographies of Ursulines): the most complete collection is the voluminous edition by the Benedictine Dom Albert Jamet (Marie de l’Incarnation 1929–1939). Clark 2007 provides another example of missionary Ursulines’ writings, through the correspondence of the members of the order in New Orleans.

  • Clark, Emily, ed. Voices from an American Convent: Marie Madeleine Hachard and the New Orleans Ursulines, 1727–1760. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.

    Collection of letters composed by five 18th-century Ursulines—and in particular by Marie Madeleine Hachard, who traveled from France to New Orleans. The letters especially testify of the Ursulines’ attitudes toward their educational mission and several aspects of colonial life.

  • Ledóchowska, Teresa. Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula according to the Historical Documents. 2 vols. Rome and Milan: Ancora, 1968.

    Originally published in French (Rome and Milan: Ancora, 1967). This book has a useful appendix of documents, including Merici’s writings for the Company (with English translations), the Nazari Process and Cozzano’s letters. The rule of the Company published here, however, was composed in 1569 and presents significant linguistic alterations.

  • Mariani, Luciana, Elisa Tarolli, and Marie Seynaeve. Angela Merici: Contribution towards a Biography. Milan: Ancora, 1989.

    Originally published in Italian (Milan: Ancora, 1986). It presents the most complete collection of sources regarding Merici’s life and writings, including the oldest edition of the rule and several documents pertaining to the first members of the Company.

  • Marie de l’Incarnation, Mère. Ecrits spirituels et historiques. 4 vols. Edited by Dom Albert Jamet. Paris: Desclèe de Brouwer, 1929–1939.

    The most complete collection of writings by Marie Guyart. It includes her spiritual autobiography that she sent to her son (2nd volume), her correspondence (3rd and 4th volumes) and other spiritual writings (1st volume).

  • Morello, Brigida. Diario spirituale 16421648. Vol. 1 of Opere complete. Edited by Guido Mongini. Piacenza, Italy: Fondazione di Piacenza e Vigevano, 2005.

    New edition of the spiritual diary of the mystic and founder of the Ursulines in Piacenza, Brigida Morello.

  • Pommereuse, Marie de. Les Chroniques de l’Ordre des Ursulines recueillies pour l’usage des religieuses du mesme ordre. Partie I-III. Paris: Jean Henault, 1673.

    Chronicles of the Ursuline order composed by a Parisian Ursuline. Based on convent memoirs and on letters regarding the lives of deceased Ursulines, the work is divided into three books: the first is dedicated to the founding figures, the second to the foundation of the French convents, and the third to significant Ursulines who lived in monasteries. Read often by generations of Ursulines, it offers a collective identity rooted in the founding figures.

  • Rio, Marie-Bénédicte, O.S.U. Angela Merici: The Scribe and the Witnesses. Rome: Roman Union of the Order of Saint Ursula, 2001.

    Translation of the main sources about Merici’s life: the Processo Nazari of 1568 and three letters by Merici’s “secretary,” Gabriele Cozzano.

  • Waters, Peter Maurice. The Ursuline Achievement: A Philosophy of Education for Women: St. Angela Merici, the Ursulines and Catholic Education. Victoria, Australia: Colonna, 1994.

    It presents a useful appendix of sources translated into English, which includes Merici’s writings for the Company (Rule, Counsels, and Testament) and a 1705 reprint of the 1652 rule and constitutions of the Ursulines of Paris. By focusing in particular on the teaching activity of the French Ursulines, the book evaluates the impact of Merici’s pedagogical ideas until the French Revolution.

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