In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Female Lay Piety

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and State of the Question
  • Reference Databases and Finding Aids
  • Collections
  • The Early Institutional Landscape
  • The Later Institutional Landscape
  • The Institutional Landscape after Trent
  • Heresy and Heterodoxy
  • Marriage, Sexuality, and Holiness
  • Preaching, Sermons, and Devotional Texts

Renaissance and Reformation Female Lay Piety
Alison More
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0513


The following discussion focuses on women whose devotional expressions were shaped by and conformed to their worlds. They created and lived religious expressions that played out wholly in the world. As these female lay devout held a liminal position between the secular and ecclesiastical worlds, they did not entirely belong to either. As they are difficult to categorize, they have often been excluded from mainstream scholarship. This is slowly changing, but more work remains to be done. While traditional, institutional histories have often focused on sources written by, for, and about male clerics, closer examination reveals a world in which many women lived active and engaged vocations that often fluctuated between the cloister and the secular world. Such groups were not recognized as legal “religious” but cannot be called altogether lay. The “lay piety” lived by these groups must be carefully distinguished from a “domestic piety,” which was also characteristic of many laywomen but has been omitted from this bibliography, which focuses on female devout, or non-cloistered religious women.

General Overviews and State of the Question

A concise overview of female lay piety and its institutional forms has yet to be written, but the stage was set many years ago. The Grundmann 2005 study that both brought the women’s movement to the forefront and discussed the intertwined links between heresy, mendicancy, and mysticism was first published in 1935 and translated into English in 1995. This work appeared at a time when works such as Vauchez 1993 were exploring lay piety and popular devotion. At around the same time, the idea of gendered religious devotion or feminine piety was also being examined and tested in works such as Bynum 1987 and Newman 1995. Patterns soon emerged, allowing new work to be done on quasi-religious groups such as anchoresses, vowesses, and recluses, beguines, and tertiaries (discussed in the individual sections with those titles). At the same time, separate work was being carried out for these women in the early modern world in works such as Rapley 1992 and Diefendorf 2004. An overview of female devout in Renaissance Italy is presented in Zarri 2007. There is still much to be done, particularly in breaking down the fixed temporal and geographic boundaries. As More 2018 points out, there is still considerable difficulty stemming from the fact that there is no single rubric under which these women can be discussed, and areas of overlap are only recently being examined. Beach and Cochelin 2021 made an explicit call for a reconsideration of female religious life to include nontraditional expressions of devotion that has yet to be answered.

  • Beach, Alison I., and Isabelle Cochelin. “Introduction.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West. Vol. 1. Edited by Alison Beach and Isabelle Cochelin, 1–16. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

    Presents an overview of the study of forms of religious life. One of the issues that it highlights, is the problematic paradigm that dominates the study of female religious life. Essays in the two volumes show some of the ways that this is being achieved. At the same time, the introduction presents a comprehensive overview of recent scholarship.

  • Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkley: University of California Press, 1987.

    Paradigm-shifting study of the role of food and physicality in the religious devotion of both laywomen and women religious. Its particular focus are forms of theological or devotional expression that convey women’s experience, rather than the institutional church.

  • Diefendorf, Barbara B. From Penitence to Charity: Pious Women and the Catholic Reformation in Paris. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    This archivally based study shows the ways in which women’s vibrant new forms of devotion were often a direct response to their changing social world. It highlights both innovation and connection with the past. This work also contains a biographical appendix of women in Paris.

  • Grundmann, Herbert. Religious Movements in the Middle Ages: The Historical Links between Heresy, the Mendicant Orders, and the Women’s Religious Movement in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Translated by Steven Rowan. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

    This translation of Grundmann’s 1935 study of nonmonastic and heterodox religious life provides a framework for the religious movements developing in the High Middle Ages.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198807698.001.0001

    A study exploring the religious behaviors of laywomen and the forms of categorization placed on them. Its focus is the development of a narrative of institutionalization that seems to have continually affected women who lived new devotional expressions and is explored here from the 13th through the early 17th centuries.

  • Newman, Barbara. From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812200263

    A collection of essays treating both women religious and pious laywomen in a meticulous and thorough manner using historical analysis, literary theory, and feminist critique.

  • Rapley, Elizabeth. The Dévots: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France. Kingston, ON: McGill-Queens University Press, 1992.

    A comprehensive look at the creation of new forms of religious life for women and the roles they came to occupy in the New World. Rapley transcends the idea that women were merely passive and examines women’s active roles in shaping their devotional worlds.

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

    DOI: 10.1515/9781501715976

    A study of feminine religious life that includes the plurality of nonmonastic devotional expressions.

  • Vauchez, André. The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices. Edited by Daniel Bornstein and translated by Margery J. Schneider. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1993.

    A study of the forms of religious life that emerged and flourished outside of traditional institutions.

  • Zarri, Gabriella. “Female Sanctity, 1500–1660.” In The Cambridge History of Christianity: Reform and Expansion. Vol. 3. Edited by R. Po-chia Hsia, 180–200. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Chapter outlining the evolution of female sanctity from the early 16th century through the Protestant Reformation and period of Catholic renewal. The paradigms proposed here are supported with examples of women, including some examples of female sanctity in the New World.

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