The Daily Life of Medieval Nuns

The Daily Life of Medieval Nuns

Monasteries were an ever-present feature of the Medieval landscape and perhaps more than half were devoted solely to women. The rules and lifestyle within a nunnery were very similar to those in a male monastery. Nuns took vows of chastity, renounced worldly goods and devoted themselves to prayer, religious studies and helping society's most needy. Many nuns produced religious literature and music, the most famous amongst these authors being the 12th century CE abbess Hildegard of Bingen.

Nunneries: Origins & Developments

Christian women who vowed to live a simple ascetic life of chastity in order to honour God, acquire knowledge and do charitable work are attested to from the 4th century CE if not earlier, just as far back as Christian men who led such a life in the remote parts of Egypt and Syria. Indeed, some of the most famous ascetics of that period were women, including the reformed prostitute Saint Mary of Egypt (c. 344-c. 421 CE) who famously spent 17 years in the desert. Over time ascetics began to live together in communities, although they initially continued to live their own individualistic lives and only joined together for services. As such communities became more sophisticated so their members began to live more communally, sharing accommodation, meals and the duties required to sustain the complexes which formed what we would today call monasteries and nunneries.

Nunneries were able to support themselves through donations of land, houses, money & goods from wealthy benefactors.

The monastic idea spread to Europe in the 5th century CE where such figures as the Italian abbot Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 543 CE) formed rules of monasterial conduct and established the Benedictine Order which would found monasteries across Europe. According to legend, Benedict had a twin sister, Saint Scholastica, and she founded monasteries for women. Such nunneries were often built some distance from monks' monasteries as abbots were concerned that their members might be distracted by any proximity to the opposite sex. Monasteries such as Cluny Abbey in French Burgundy, for example, prohibited the establishment of a nunnery within four miles of its grounds. Nevertheless, such separation was not always the case and there were even mixed-sex monasteries, especially in northern Europe with Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England and Interlaken in Switzerland being famous examples. It is perhaps important to remember that, in any case, the medieval monastic life for men and women was remarkably similar, as the historian A. Diem here notes:

…medieval monastic life emerged as a sequence of “uni-sex” models. The long-lasting experiment of shaping ideal religious communities and stable monastic institutions created forms of monastic life that were largely applicable to both genders (albeit usually in strict separation). Throughout the Middle Ages, male and female monastic communities largely used a shared corpus of authoritative texts and a common repertoire of practices. (Bennet, 432)

Like male monasteries, nunneries were able to support themselves through donations of land, houses, money and goods from wealthy benefactors, from income from those estates and properties via rents and agricultural products, and through royal tax exemptions.

Convents

From the 13th century CE, there developed another branch of the ascetic life pioneered by male friars who rejected all material goods and lived not in monastic communities but as individuals entirely dependent on the handouts of well-wishers. Saint Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1260 CE) famously established one of these mendicant (begging) orders, the Franciscans, which was then imitated by the Dominicans (c. 1220 CE) and subsequently by the Carmelites (late 12th century CE) and Augustinians (1244 CE). Women also took up this vocation; Clare of Assisi, an aristocrat and follower of Saint Francis, established her own all-female mendicant communities which are known as convents (as opposed to nunneries). By 1228 CE there were 24 such convents in northern Italy alone. The Church did not allow women to preach amongst the ordinary population so the female mendicants struggled to gain official recognition for their communities. In 1263 CE, though, the Order of Saint Clare was officially recognised with the proviso that the nuns remain inside their convents and follow the rules of the Benedictine order.

Monastic Buildings

A female monastery had much the same architectural layout that a male monastery had except that the buildings were laid out in a mirror image. The heart of the complex was still the cloister which ran around an open space and to which were attached most of the important buildings such as the church, the refectory for communal meals, kitchens, accommodation and study areas. There might also be accommodation for pilgrims who had travelled to see the holy relics the nuns had acquired and looked after (which could be anything from a slipper of the Virgin Mary to a skeletal finger of a saint). Many nunneries had a cemetery for nuns and another for lay people (men and women) who paid for the privilege of being buried there after a service in the nun's chapel.

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Recruitment of Nuns

Women joined a nunnery primarily because of piety and a desire to live a life which brought them closer to God but there were sometimes more practical considerations, especially concerning aristocratic women, who were the principal source of recruits (much more so than aristocratic men were a source for monks). A woman from the aristocracy, at least in most cases, really had only two options in life: marry a man who could support her or join a nunnery. For this reason, nunneries were never short of recruits and by the 12th century CE they were just as numerous as male monasteries.

Young girls were sent by their parents to nunneries in order to gain an education – the best one available.

Young girls were sent by their parents to nunneries in order to gain an education – the best one available to girls in the medieval world – or simply because the family had such a number of daughters that marrying them all off was an unlikely possibility. Such a girl, known as an oblate, could become a novice (trainee nun) sometime in her mid-teens and, after a period of a year or so, take vows to become a full nun. A novice might also be an aged person looking to settle down to a contemplative and secure retirement or wanting to enroll simply to prepare themselves for the next life before time ran out. As with male monasteries, there were also lay women in nunneries who lived a slightly less austere life than full nuns and performed essential labour duties. There might also be hired female and even male labourers for essential daily tasks.

Rules & Daily Life

Most nunneries generally followed the regulations of the Benedictine order but there were others from the 12th century CE, notably the more austere Cistercians. Nuns generally followed the set of rules that monks had to but some codes were written specifically for nuns and sometimes these were even applied in male monasteries. The nuns were led by an abbess who had absolute authority and who was often a widow with some experience of managing her deceased husband's estate before she joined the nunnery. The abbess was assisted by a prioress and a number of senior nuns (obedientaries) who were given specific duties. Unlike monks, a nun (or any woman for that matter) could not become a priest and for this reason services in a nunnery required the regular visit of a male priest.

Virginity was an integral requirement for a nun in the very early medieval period because physical purity was considered the only starting point from which to reach spiritual purity. However, by the 7th century CE, and with the production of such treatises as Aldhelm's On Virginity (c. 680 CE), it was recognised that married women and widows could also play an important role in monastic life and that having the spiritual fortitude to live an ascetic life was the most important requirement of vowed women.

A nun was expected to wear simple clothing as a symbol of her shunning of worldly goods and distractions. The long tunic was typical attire, with a veil to cover all but the face as a symbol of her role as a 'Bride of Christ'. The veil hid the nun's hair which had to be kept cut short. Nuns could not leave their nunnery and contact with outside visitors, especially men, was kept to an absolute minimum. Even so, there were cases of scandal, such as in the mid-12th century CE at the Gilbertine Watton Abbey in England where a lay brother had a sexual relationship with a nun and, on discovery of the sin, was castrated (a common punishment of the period for rape, although in this case the relationship seems to have been consensual).

The daily routine of a nun was much like a monk's: she was required to attend various services throughout the day and say prayers for those in the outside world – in particular for the souls of those who had made donations to the nunnery. Generally, the power of a nun's prayer was regarded as equally efficient in protecting one's soul as a monk's prayer was. Nuns also spent a lot of time reading, writing and illustrating, especially small devotional books, compendiums of prayers, guides for religious contemplation, treatises on the meaning and relevance of visions experienced by some nuns, and musical chants. Consequently, many nunneries built up impressive libraries and manuscripts were not just for internal readers as many were circulated amongst priests and monks and even lent to lay people in the local community. One of the most prodigious such authors was the German Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179 CE)

Unlike monks, nuns performed tasks of needlework such as embroidering robes and textiles for use in church services. The art was no trifle as at least one medieval nun was made a saint because of her efforts with a needle. Nuns gave back to the community through charitable work, especially distributing clothes and food to the poor on a daily basis and giving out larger quantities on special anniversaries. Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, England (founded in 1232 CE by Ela, Countess of Salisbury), for example, gave out bread and herrings to 100 peasants on each anniversary of the founder's death. Besides giving out alms, nuns often acted as tutors to children, they looked after the sick, helped women in distress and provided hospice services for the dying. Nunneries thus tended to be more closely related to their local communities than male monasteries were and nunneries were often actually part of urban settings and less physically remote places. Consequently, nuns were perhaps much more visible to the secular world than their male counterparts.


The Middle Ages - Daily Life of Medieval Nuns

This is a 17 slide, highly animated, power point presentation on The Middle Ages: Daily Life of Medieval Nuns. All the slides are editable so you can modify the slides if you need to.

The daily life of Medieval nuns in the Middle Ages were based on the three main vows: The Vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. Medieval nuns chose to renounce all worldly life and goods and spend their lives working under the strict routine and discipline of life in a Medieval Convent or Nunnery.

The Daily life of a Medieval nun during the Middle Ages centered around the hours. The Book of Hours was the main prayer book and was divided into 8 sections, or hours, that were meant to be read at specific times of the day in the convent. Each section contained prayers, psalms, hymns, and other readings intended to help the nuns secure salvation for herself. Each day was divided into these 8 sacred offices, beginning and ending with prayer services in the convent church.

The food of the nuns was generally basic and the mainstay of which was bread and meat. Daily work and chores included: washing and cooking for the monastery, raising the necessary supplies of vegetables and grain, providing medical care for the community, providing education for novices, spinning, weaving and embroidery, and illuminating manuscripts.

There were also lay sisters who were female members of the convent who were not bound to the recitation of the divine office and spent their time occupied in manual work.

The presentation covers the following:

Three Primary Vows
Jobs and Occupations
Daily Chores
Daily Religious Activities
Daily Prayers
Expectations
Mandatory Participation
What was a Convent?
What was its Purpose?
Property Layout (2)
Room Descriptions (2)
End of Presentation

This is one of several power point presentations that I offer in my store on. the Middle Ages.


A Medieval Nun, Writing

On a research trip last summer, I found a previously unidentified thirteenth-century manuscript in a library in Poznan, Poland, and recognized that it contains the writings of a late twelfth-century monk named Engelhard of Langheim. One of the Latin texts in this manuscript is the saintly biography of a religious woman named Mechtilde of Diessen. The following story, found only in this one Polish manuscript, appears as a postscript:

Saint Mechtilde, as was said earlier, was in the habit of writing. She did so to avoid eating the bread of leisure, and in this especially she believed she greatly pleased her God. She frequently brooded like a mother hen over the writing of missals and psalters because she thought – or rather she hoped – to serve the divine more earnestly in doing this. Her hope did not betray her. For one day, when she still had work remaining, she wished to repair a blunt pen, but she did not succeed. The pen was very troublesome to prepare. She was knowledgeable about cutting quills, but once cut, this quill did not respond when tested. This caused in her not a little disturbance of her spirit. “Oh,” she said, “if God would only send me his messenger, who could prepare this pen for me, for I have rarely suffered this difficulty, and it is now greatly troubling me.” As soon as she said this, a youth appeared. He had a beautiful face, a shining robe, and sweet speech. He said, “What troubles you, O beloved?” And she said, “I spend my time uselessly, I toil for nothing, and I do not know how to prepare my pen.” He said, “Give it to me, and perhaps you will not be hindered anymore by this knowledge when you wish to prepare it.” She gave it to him, and he prepared it in such a way that it remained satisfactory for her until her death: she wrote with it for the many years that she lived. After this miracle, when she spent time writing, no one could write so well, no one so quickly, no one so readily, and no one so correctly, nor could anyone imitate in likeness her hand. The pen’s preparation, as I said, was permanent, but the preparer disappeared and appeared in the work of which he was the maker. I have reported this just as the daughter of the duke of Merania, herself a holy virgin, has testified. She, reading this little work on the life of Mechtilde, asked to add what was missing.[1]

This brief little anecdote tells us a great deal about the literacy of medieval nuns. First, it reminds us that nuns as well as monks copied manuscripts. In recent years, our understanding of medieval literacy has become more nuanced. Scholars have separated the ability to read, to write, and to compose texts into discrete aspects of what we now call “literacy.” We know that many nuns and many aristocratic women could read: noble women in the later middle ages commissioned elaborate prayer books called Books of Hours, mothers were pictured reading to their daughters, and convents sometimes had extensive libraries. We also know women composed texts, but they often did so with the cooperation of male scribes who wrote down what the women dictated. Female scribes, however, are hard to locate. Scribes did not always sign their names to their work, and women may have been particularly reticent to do so. But we are beginning to realize that writing was a form of work for nuns as well as for monks and that, at times, religious men and women even worked together to produce manuscripts. Monks also sent drafts of their compositions to nuns to be copied. As one twelfth-century monk told the abbess of a convent, “having no scribe at my disposal, as you can see by the irregular formation of the letters, I wrote this book with my own hand.” As a result, he asked to have his text “copied legibly and carefully corrected by some of your sisters trained for this kind of work.”[2]

This is a 15th century image of Christine de Pisan (1363 – c. 1430), one of the best known authors of medieval Europe. She is shown writing her own book, but she is using the same tools that Mechtilde would have employed: she has a pen in one hand and a scraper in the other

Mechtilde probably did not copy texts that she herself composed. The story depicts writing as a form of spiritual labor that prevented a dangerous leisure: Mechtilde’s irritation that she wasted her time trying to fix her pen demonstrates her concern for purposeful work. But the content of the books still mattered.

A second interesting element of this story is that Mechtilde associated her careful copying of missals and psalters with serving God, a phrase more frequently used to describe the prayers and rituals that these texts depicted. The Psalms formed the fundamental prayers for monks and nuns in praying six times a day and once at night, monks and nuns sang the entire psalter every week and repeated some Psalms daily. By copying psalters, Mechtilde could pray while she wrote. Copying missals, however, had a different implication, for the missal was the liturgical book for the mass. Mechtilde could not perform the mass, but the story suggests a parallel between her writing and the actions of a priest. Although Mechtilde asked God to send his messenger to assist her, the young man’s appearance and his reference to Mechtilde as his “beloved” suggest that he was Jesus. Just as a priest, using the prayers and instructions laid out in a missal, transformed the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, so Mechtilde, in copying missals with devotion, filled those books with the presence of Jesus: “he appeared in her work of which he was the maker.” As a woman, Mechtilde was unable to serve at the altar, but she had found another way to participate in the performance of the mass.

Finally, the transmission of the story is noteworthy. The author of Mechtilde’s life, the monk Engelhard of Langheim, never met Mechtilde, but he knew members of her family: they were important patrons of his monastery. In the saint’s life, Engelhard had mentioned briefly that Mechtilde was a scribe but he did so only to emphasize her willing obedience to put down her pen immediately when summoned. He learned the story about the pen from Mechtilde’s niece. The niece, a daughter of a duke, was also a nun, and she placed more emphasis on her aunt’s writing. Her memories of her aunt suggest that in the middle ages, as today, family histories were often the preserve of women and that tales were often recounted orally from one generation to the next. The niece’s story, as Engelhard recorded it, gives us a brief glimpse into the family legends of this one aristocratic lineage.

For more information on women as scribes and as readers, see

[1] Engelhard of Langheim, “De eo quod angelus ei pennan temperavit.” Posnan, Biblioteka Raczynskich. Rkp156, 117r-v.

[2] “A Dialogue between a Cluniac and a Cistercian” in Cistercians and Cluniacs: The Case for Cîteaux, trans. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1977), p. 22.


Secret life of nuns: a look behind convent walls – a photo essay

Photographer Valeria Luongo’s long-term project explores the daily life of nuns at the Holy Hearts of Jesus and Mary convent in Rome. It was born out of a fascination with the women who choose to eschew conventional modes of living. What exactly does a nun’s life entail, and what happens in their tight-knit community?

Last modified on Thu 26 Mar 2020 14.27 GMT

A nun during a quiet moment of prayer

In 2015, I began what was to become a long-term project exploring the lives of nuns in the Holy Hearts of Jesus and Mary convent in Rome. My interest was focused on stories of people who live “radical” lives, those who decide to exist outside standard modes of living and make choices that influence their entire way of being. I would often walk around Rome, my hometown, and see nuns going about their daily lives. Though they are a common sight in the city, their existence within the walls of the convent had remained relatively obscured from public view. What exactly does a nun’s life entail? And what is life like inside their community? With more than 750 female religious institutes based in the city, Rome was the ideal location to find answers to these questions.

Ravasco nuns singing together

Left: for Easter at Ravasco, nuns and novices reenact the Passion of the Christ right: after more than 20 years working as a nun mainly in Bogotá, Sister Martha is now being sent to Albania

Ravasco nuns chat with young Catholic girls who have been sent by their families to study in Rome

The community I visited for more than three years is also known as Sisters Ravasco House in honour of its founder, Eugenia Ravasco, and it is famous for its commitment toward pedagogy. Sister Ravasco convents can be found all over the world, though its main headquarters is in Rome, near the Vatican. The community is composed of approximately 20 women of various nationalities. Some have spent the majority of their lives in the community, as in the case of Sister Odilla, who is in her 80s and started her process to become a nun when she was 13. The community becomes the principal family of these women because once they join they are permitted to visit their relatives only once a year if they are Italian. If a nun is from a foreign country they can visit family once every three years.

Sister Pina shows novices photos of the Easter Passion

These women must learn how to adapt and live together. Many have never left their towns before joining the convent, and now they have suddenly found themselves living intimately with people from different countries and of various ages. Those who are physically able are moved to different headquarters around the world approximately every two to three years, sometimes in countries in which they do not speak the language. Elderly nuns are more likely to remain in the same convent and then retire to a specific house in the mountains of Abruzzo, where they will spend the rest of their lives.

Sister Odilla shows photos of her youth as a nun. She joined the convent when she was 13 and is now in her 80s

Sisters Annunziatina and Erminia read in the meeting hall

Sister Erminia and Sister Pina in the community car on their commute to feed the homeless

In 2018 I met Sister Martha, a Colombian nun in her 40s who was staying in Rome while awaiting her new documents to move to Albania, after more than 20 years of living in the Ravasco convent in Colombia. Martha was worried as she could not speak Albanian and she knew she would have to pass through a process of integration.

Łowicz, Poland, July 2016. An intense moment of prayer with Catholic devotees and nuns from across the world. Right: Italians celebrating mass in Łowicz during World Catholic Youth Week in 2016

I wanted to understand the different activities the nuns performed beyond prayer and how their typical day was shaped. They would wake up, pray and then begin their individual routines. Everyone within the community has a specific role. There is a nun responsible for the garden, one who takes care of the expenses and the administrative issues, one who is in charge of the laundry. The nuns would take time each day to ensure they have performed their particular individual role, while also performing their daily communal activities. On Mondays they go to feed the poor, every Thursday they all meet for a discussion, and so on. From time to time, they also join religious events, both nationally and abroad.

Above: Sister Francesca poses in the wooden village of Maurzysce, Poland, during World Catholic Youth Week. Francesca was one of the youngest nuns inside the community. In 2017, she abandoned the community to return to a secular life. Below: Nuns in Łowicz play basketball with a group of young Catholics. Sometimes they practise sports together or with other people related to the church

In 2016, the nuns attended World Youth Week, a festival for young people organised by the Catholic church that takes place every two to three years. They were excited by the idea of travelling outside Italy and meeting people from all over the world.

That year the festival took place in Poland and more than 3 millions pilgrims celebrated the event. The week was filled with a series of religious meetings and group activities that concluded with the Pope’s public appearance in Kraków. For the nuns, this was a rare chance to spend time away from their strict routine. “The best thing was to walk around and meet people from everywhere. Even if we couldn’t speak the same language we were all there for the same purpose and it was good to stay together,” said Sister Francesca.

Between the frequent sessions of prayer, the nuns took the opportunity to interact with young people and other nuns from around the world, playing sports and sightseeing.

St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, from the convent laundry room

A nun gets ready early in the morning. Nuns are obliged to wear their ecclesiastic clothes at all times. The only time they do not wear their tunics is when they are sleeping

As the years passed and I became more familiar with the intricate details of the nuns lives, I started to see beyond the surface level – a life characterised by prayer and strict routine – and gained a deeper understanding of their journey. Once they have joined the convent, the women cast aside their individual desires and begin to live a communal, collectivist life based on a shared devotion to God. However, the responsibility and motivation for being there always lies with the individual.

At the end of every year, each nun must present a written report that underlines their desire and motivation to continue living in the community. If the nun understands that she no longer wants to continue on that path she will return to the secular life after a process of consultation with the Mother Superior.

Sister Beatriz celebrates her 30th birthday

During these years, I met only one nun who chose to interrupt her religious path. When I asked her about this choice she said: “I would repeat the experience of being a nun, because I grew spiritually, personally and as a human and I learnt how to see things from a different perspective, I learned how to see the deepest aspects of human life, the ones you don’t normally stop to notice.”

The bond created inside the community, that of women helping and supporting each other, seems to be a source of strength to continue this journey.


The Daily Life of Medieval Nuns - History

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a treasure that has guided the spiritual lives of many sisters for centuries. Various editions have in the past included the Office of the Dead and additional prayers. The content of the offices probably developed as a monastic devotion over one-thousand years ago, perhaps by the Benedictines. The history of the office is fascinating, described in detail on its Wikipedia page.

The monastic edition for nuns is in Latin and includes a ceremonial. Most printed editions in English are designed for private use, recited in Latin or the vernacular. There is a partial indulgence granted to those reciting the Little Office (cf. the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, no. 22).

I recommend this affordable edition in Latin and English that is available here from our good friends at St. Bonaventure Publications. It is based on a popular 1904 edition in Latin and English that was produced for English-speaking Catholics. This edition is free of the reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope St. Pius X in 1911. The Little Office itself was last revised by the Holy See in conformity with the norms of the typical edition of the Roman Breviary that was published in 1961. It is therefore today technically part of the 1962 edition of the Roman Breviary.

As a simplified and abbreviated version of the Breviary, the Little Office offers a much simpler cycle of psalms, hymns, scripture readings and other prayers. The daily variations occur in Matins. The text of the other offices remain mostly the same from day to day with slight seasonal variations such as in Advent and Christmastide. The Gospel antiphons also change in Eastertide. The Little Office was once historically a core text of the medieval book of hours.

Young nuns were typically introduced to the Little Office during their postulancy. There they would become accustomed to the rhythm of the community, with its hours prayed together and in private. Below is a general example of the horarium for the recitation of the Little Office in convent life:

Matins: 2 am (or previous evening or in the morning)

It must be emphasized the Little Office is already part of the Divine Office. It is therefore perfect for many communities of sisters for obvious reasons as a substitute for the breviary. It is still part of the public prayer of the Church, a public act of the whole Mystical Body. It is nice to see various traditional convents of nuns that are rising up again, some perhaps bound by their Rule to pray the Little Office daily, together with the entire Church as members of a Divine Society. Laity are also encouraged to pray the Little Office alone or in the context of daily family prayer an easy and proven method of prayer that has survived the centuries.

The above photo if of my old friend Sr. Mary Louise Matt, CSJ. She was the daughter of Alphonse Joseph Matt (1903-1973), the editor of famous Catholic weekly, The Wanderer. Her brother Alphonse Joseph Matt, Jr. (1931-2019), later became editor in 1973. Mary Lou was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and grew up in the corner house at 1943 Palace Ave. She attended Nativity of Our Lord elementary school, Derham Hall high school and the College of St. Catherine. She was granted special permission through the good graces of her pastor at Nativity, Bishop Byrne, to enter the convent of the CSJ sisters at the age of seventeen before her high school graduation. She had been in Fr. Richard Schuler's girls choir at Nativity. She was a faithful nun who prayed the Little Office her entire life. She is dearly missed. May her example and perseverance inspire many young women to the consecrated life and may her memory be eternal. In Paradisum!


Do nuns swear?

Nuns are typically, like the rest of us, not allowed to swear. We have rules of social public decorum, and one of those is eliminating the use of swear words from our vocabulary.

Do nuns swear?

Nuns follow the same social construct regarding this pattern of speech. However, there is nothing to say that a nun will not, on accident and in the privacy of their own room, accidentally let out a curse word or two when they stub their toe.


Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages

Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages - Life in the Middle Ages - History of Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages - Information about Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages - Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages Facts - Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages Info - Middle Ages era - Middle Ages Life - Middle Ages Times - Life - Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages - Medieval - Mideval - Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages History - Information about Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages - Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages Facts - Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages Info - Middle Ages era - Middle Ages Life - Middle Ages Times - Information - Facts - Dark Ages - Medieval - Mideval - Feudal system - Manors - Middle Ages Times - Information - Facts - Dark Ages - Medieval - Mideval - Feudal system - Manors - Daily Life of a Noble Lord in the Middle Ages - Written By Linda Alchin


The rise and fall of one medieval nunnery

Medieval nuns have traditionally been given short shrift in English scholarship. All too often, they&rsquove been dismissed as pale imitators of their male counterparts. This isn &rsquo t a view I share. In fact, there &rsquo s a mountain of evidence showing that nuns were a vibrant and successful component of monastic life in medieval England. A shining example is Denny Abbey, Cambridgeshire .

The monastery has a fascinating history and between the 12 th and 16 th centuries was successively occupied by three different religious orders: Benedictine monks, followed by Knights Templar and finally Franciscan nuns, or as they are also known, the Poor Clares.

They took their name from St Clare (d.1253), who founded a religious order deeply influenced by St Francis of Assisi. Like Franciscan friars, they wore distinctive grey-brown habits and lived a life dedicated to poverty. But unlike their brethren who went out into the world to minister to Christ &rsquo s poor, the Clares lived a strictly cloistered life, their only interaction with the indigent was via the charity distributed at their gatehouses. Given the order &rsquo s name it might come as something of a surprise to hear that its most enthusiastic supporters were often the poshest of the posh.

Denny was no exception, having as its founder Mary St Pol, the countess of Pembroke. A deeply pious widow, she had ambitions to live among the company of holy nuns and in 1333 she received papal approval to do so. Her plans received a boost when the king granted her in perpetuity the empty monastery at Denny, vacated a quarter of a century earlier due to the suppression of the Knights Templar. By 1339, a community of nuns was settled at the site, the pope subsequently issuing an indulgence granting spiritual privileges, such as remission from harsh penances, to benefactors who visited the abbey on the feasts of St Clare and various other saints.

The monastery&rsquos church, originally built for the Benedictines 200 years earlier and then modified by the Templars, was extended, making space for the stalls where the 40 or so nuns gathered to say the services that punctuated their day. The 12 th -century nave was divided into two storeys, the upper floor proving apartments for the countess of Pembroke, who could watch in comfort the services celebrated below through a specially built window, or &ldquo pew &rdquo . She died in 1377 and was buried before the high altar of the church wearing the habit of a Poor Clare. The nuns remembered their founder in their daily prayers.

A cloister with a garden at its centre was located to the north of the church, and at its northern end was the refectory where the nuns ate together as a community. Although battered over the centuries, it remains largely intact vividly evoking the grandeur of the monastery, the in situ tiled pavement providing a rare glimpse of its long lost decoration. Archaeological excavations unearthed fragments of the 14 th -century stained glass that once filled the abbey&rsquos windows and also uncovered intriguing evidence of the nuns diet. The nuns may have been Poor by name, but this didn &rsquo t necessarily extend to their foodstuffs. The fruits consumed by the nuns were every bit as luxurious and expensive as those scoffed in aristocratic households.

This comes as no surprise when you realise that the Denny nuns, like their monastic sisters at convents across England, and indeed Europe, were from the upper strata of society. The Denny community largely consisted of the daughters of the East Anglian gentry, though at the end of the 14 th century their number also included Thomasine Philpot, daughter of the Lord Mayor of London. Most of the nuns had a genuine monastic vocation. However, not all were there willingly, convents often used as refuges (or dumping grounds) for the unmarriagable daughters of the elite. In 1535 six Denny nuns tearfully begged the commissioners of Henry VIII to be released from their vows.

The abbesses of Denny cut a substantial figure in local society. Abbess Joan Keteryche, for example, was a kinswoman of John Paston , the Norfolk lawyer, gentleman and famous letterwriter, and in 1459 wrote to him asking for alms for Denny. The nuns were occasionally in need of such friends in high place. For example a legal spat with a local gent at the end of the 15 th century left the monastery seriously out of pocket.

The religious welfare of the nuns was entrusted to the fellows of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and resident chaplains (who lived in strict separation from the nuns) sang the daily Mass. This didn &rsquo t mean that the nuns lacked religious agency of status. Noble ladies from across the realm sought the spiritual counsel of the Denny community, and the monastery was among the many religious houses graced with a visit by Margery Kempe, the 15 th -century pilgrim and mystic. Her trip didn &rsquo t get off to the best of starts, Margery missing the ferry across the watery landscape surrounding the abbey. Whether this occasioned one of her frequent bouts of &ldquo boisterous weeping &rdquo isn &rsquo t recorded.

Men and women entrusted their spiritual salvation to the nuns, leaving bequests to the monastery in return for prayers for their souls. Its patronage circle extended as far as northern England, Agnes Stapleton, a Yorkshire gentlewoman, making a bequest to Denny in 1448. Other patrons included Sir Richard Sutton, one of the founders of Brasenose College, Oxford, who bequeathed £ 2 (believe me, that was quite a sum back then) to the abbey in 1524

Intellectual life at Denny also appears to have been lively. The nuns entered into a correspondence with Erasmus, one of the greatest thinkers of Renaissance Europe. Dame Elizabeth Throckmorton, who was elected abbess in 1512, even owned one of Erasmus &rsquo s works in an English translation made by William Tyndale, who also translated the New Testament into English, an accomplishment that led to his execution in Antwerp for heresy.

But Dame Elizabeth was no supporter of Protestantism. Religious life came to an end at Denny in 1539. This was something that the redoubtable abbess could not tolerate. She therefore retired to her family manor at Coughton Court, Warkwickshire, where in the company other Denny nuns, she continued to wear the habit of the Poor Clares and live according to the rule of the order. Medieval nuns were a force to be reckoned with until the very end.

More about life in a convent in the Middle Ages and up to the Dissolution: Anchored in the past: Anchorwycke and the nuns who suffered there.


Children

For most children growing up in medieval England, the first year of life was one of the most dangerous, with as many as 50% of children succumbing to fatal illness during that year. Moreover, 20% of women died in childbirth. During the first year of life children were cared for and nursed, either by parents if the family belonged to the peasant class, or perhaps by a wet nurse if the family belonged to a noble class.

By age twelve, a child began to take on a more serious role in family duties. Although according to canon law girls could marry at the age of twelve, this was relatively uncommon unless a child was an heiress or belonged to a family of noble birth. Peasant children at this age stayed at home and continued to learn and develop domestic skills and husbandry. Urban children moved out of their homes and into the homes of their employer or master (depending on their future roles as servants or apprentices). Noble boys learned skills in arms, and noble girls learned basic domestic skills. The end of childhood and entrance into adolescence was marked by leaving home and moving to the house of the employer or master, entering a university, or entering church service.


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