As early as the time of St. Paul it had been the custom, in Christian communities, for widows and other lonely or devout women to give some of all of their days and their property to charitable work. In the fourth century some women, emulating monks, left the world and lived the life of religious in solitude or in communities, under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. About 530 St. Benedict’s twin sister Scholastica established a nunnery near Monte Cassino under his guidance and rule. From that time Benedictine convents spread through Europe, and Benedictine nuns became almost as numerous as Benedictine monks. The Cistercian Order opened its first convent in 1125, its most famous one, Port Royal, in 1204; by 1300 there were 700 Cistercian nunneries in Europe.72 In these older orders most of the nuns came from the upper classes,73 and nunneries were too often the repository of women for whom their male relations had no room or taste. In 458 the Emperor Majorian had to forbid parents to rid themselves of supernumerary daughters by compelling them to enter a convent.74 Entry into Benedictine nunneries usually required a dowry, though the Church prohibited any but voluntary offerings.75 Hence a prioress, like Chaucer’s, could be a woman of proud breeding and large responsibilities, administering a spacious domain as the source of her convent’s revenues. In those days a nun was usually called not Sister but Madame.
St. Francis revolutionized conventual as well as monastic institutions. When Santa Clara came to him in 1212, and expressed her wish to found for women such an order as he had founded for men, he overlooked canonical regulations and, though himself only a deacon, received her vows, accepted her into the Franciscan Order, and commissioned her to organize the Poor Clares. Innocent III, with his usual ability to forgive infractions of the letter by the spirit, confirmed the commission (1216). Santa Clara gathered about her some pious women who lived in communal poverty, wove and spun, nursed the sick, and distributed charity. Legends formed around her almost as fondly as around Francis himself. Once, we are told, a pope
went to her convent to hear her discourse of divine and celestial things…. Santa Clara had the table laid, and set loaves of bread thereon that the Holy Father might bless them…. Santa Clara knelt down with great reverence, and besought him to be pleased to bless the bread…. The Holy Father answered: “Sister Clare, most faithful one, I desire that thou shouldst bless this bread, and make over it the sign of the most holy cross of Christ, to which thou hast completely devoted thyself.” And Santa Clara said: “Most Holy Father, forgive me, but I should merit great reproof if, in the presence of the Vicar of Christ, I, who am a poor, vile woman, should presume to give such benediction.” And the Pope answered: “To the end that this be not imputed to thy presumption but to the merit of obedience, I command thee, by holy obedience, that thou … bless this bread in the name of God.” And then Santa Clara, even as a true daughter of obedience, devoutly blessed the bread with the sign of the most holy cross. Marvelous to tell! forthwith on all those loaves the sign of the cross appeared figured most beautifully. And the Holy Father, when he saw this miracle, partook of the bread and departed, thanking God and leaving his blessing with Santa Clara.76
She died in 1253, and was canonized soon afterward. Franciscan monks in divers localities organized similar groups of Clarissi, or Poor Clares. The other mendicant orders—Dominicans, Augustinians, Carmelites—also established a “second order” of nuns; and by 1300 Europe had as many nuns as monks. In Germany the nunneries tended to be havens of intense mysticism; in France and England they were often the refuge of noble ladies “converted” from the world, or deserted, disappointed, or bereaved. The Ancren Riwle—i.e., the Rule of the Anchorites—reveals the mood expected of English nuns in the thirteenth century. It may have been written by Bishop Poore probably for a convent at Tarrant in Dorsetshire. It is darkened with much talk of sin and hell, and some blasphemous abuse of the female body;77 but a tone of fine sincerity redeems it, and it is among the oldest and noblest specimens of English prose.78
It would be a simple matter to gather, from ten centuries, some fascinating instances of conventual immorality. A number of nuns had been cloistered against their wills,79 and found it uncomfortable to be saints. Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury and Bishop Egbert of York deemed it necessary to forbid the seduction of nuns by abbots, priests, and bishops.80 Bishop Ivo of Chartres (1035–1115) reported that the nuns of St. Fara’s Convent were practicing prostitution; Abélard (1079–1142) gave a similar picture of some French convents of his time; Pope Innocent III described the convent of St. Agatha as a brothel that infected the whole surrounding country with its evil life and repute.81 Bishop Rigaud of Rouen (1249) gave a generally favorable report of the religious groups in his diocese, but told of one nunnery in which, out of thirty-three nuns and three lay sisters, eight were guilty, or suspected, of fornication, and “the prioress is drunk almost any night.”82 Boniface VIII (1300) tried to improve conventual discipline by decreeing strict claustration, or seclusion from the world; but the decree could not be enforced.83 At one nunnery in the diocese of Lincoln, when the bishop came to deposit this papal bull, the nuns threw it at his head, and vowed they would never obey it;84 such isolation had probably not been in their vows. The prioress in Chaucer’s Tales had no business there, for the Church had forbidden nuns to go on pilgrimage.85
If history had been as careful to note instances of obedience to conventual rules as to record infractions, we should probably be able to counter each sinful lapse with a thousand examples of fidelity. In many cases the rules were inhumanly severe, and merited violation. Carthusian and Cistercian nuns were required to keep silence except when speech was indispensable—a command sorely uncongenial to the gentle sex. Usually the nuns attended to their own needs of cleaning, cooking, washing, sewing; they made clothing for monks and the poor, linen for the altar, vestments for the priest; they wove and embroidered hangings and tapestries, and depicted on them, with nimble fingers and patient souls, half the history of the world. They copied and illuminated manuscripts; they received children to board, and taught them letters, hygiene, and domestic arts; for centuries they provided the only higher education open to girls. Many of them served as nurses in hospitals. They rose at midnight for prayers, and again before dawn, and recited the canonical hours. Many days were fast days, on which they ate no food till the evening meal.
Let us hope that these hard rules were sometimes infringed. If we look back upon the nineteen centuries of Christianity, with all their heroes, kings, and saints, we shall find it difficult to list many men who came so close to Christian perfection as the nuns. Their lives of quiet devotion and cheerful ministration have made many generations blessed. When all the sins of history are weighed in the balance, the virtues of these women will tip the scale against them, and redeem our race.