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Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)

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[chapter xi]

  [p. 398]  


'For sum (nunnes) bene devowte, holy, and towarde,
And holden the ryght way to blysse;
And sum bene feble, lewde, and frowarde,
Now god amend that ys amys!'
(From 'Why I cannot be a nun,' l. 311.)

Visitations of Nunneries in England.

THE changes which came over convent life towards the close of the Middle Ages and modified its tenor can be studied in the efforts made to reform monastic life in the centuries preceding the Reformation. Both in England and abroad the heads of many houses were zealous in removing abuses which their predecessors had suffered to creep in, and in checking tendencies the deteriorating effect of which now first came to be realized. The bull promulgated by Pope Benedict XII in 1336 with a view to reforming the Benedictine order had been accepted with a reservation in England and had left matters in Germany practically untouched. But in the 15th century a movement in favour of reform was inaugurated within the religious orders themselves; it was increased by pressure brought to bear on monastic houses from without. For the prelates of the Church as well as others were eager to interfere with monastic settlements, all the more as such interference frequently tended to the increase of their own prerogative. But in spite of the devoted earnestness of many individuals and the readiness of convents to accept correction, the movement failed to restore its former glory to an institution which in common with other influential institutions of the Middle Ages appeared doomed to decay.

The attempts of the monastic orders to restore vigour to themselves, and the efforts of the Church to promote monastic   [p. 399]   reform, were largely furthered by the desire to counteract the dangers to the established religion which threatened from the spread of heretical teaching.

In England a critical attitude towards monastic institutions and the Church was the outcome of Wyclif's († 1384) influence. It was checked for the time being by the alliance of the Church with the Lancastrian kings (after 1399) in favour of a reactionary policy. Several monasteries were endowed by these kings, among them houses of Carthusian monks and Sion, as mentioned above. Reforms were instituted and the prelates of the Church eagerly resumed their powers of visitation. By so doing they succeeded in checking monastic abuses, which continued to exist for a longer period on the Continent and there assumed much greater proportions.

In Germany, owing partly to its scattered provinces, partly to the want of concerted action between the dignitaries of Church and State, monasteries throughout the 14th century were left to drift in the way they listed, often in the direction of indifferentism, often in that of positive evil. The abuses of convent life at the beginning of the 15th century were far greater there than in England, and the efforts at reform were proportionally greater and more strenuous. In Germany also the effort to counteract the effect of heretical doctrines by way of reform was decisive. For, as we shall see later on, monastic reforms on a large scale were instituted immediately after the Church Council at Constance (1415) which condemned Hus to the stake.

The accounts of visitations instituted by the diocesan give us an insight into the abuses which threatened life in the nunnery at different periods. The diocesan was bound to visit the religious settlements situated within his diocese periodically, with the exception of those which had secured exemption through the Pope. For some time before the movement in favour of monastic reform began, these visitations appear to have taken place at irregular intervals and at periods often many years apart. But afterwards they became frequent, and called forth injunctions which give us an idea of the abuses which needed correction. Later still these powers of visitation of the diocesan were extended by means of special permits secured from Rome. Towards the close of the 15th century we find the prelates of the Church eager to interfere with monasteries, and regain a hold on those which had been removed from their influence.

  [p. 400]  

The visitation of a religious house in all cases was so conducted that the diocesan previously sent word to the convent announcing his arrival. After assisting at mass in the chapel, he repaired to the chapter-house and there severally interrogated the superior of the house and its inmates as to the state of affairs. Their depositions were taken down in writing and were discussed at headquarters. A list of injunctions rectifying such matters as called for correction was then forwarded in writing to the superior of the house.

Among the earliest injunctions forwarded to a nunnery which I have come across are those sent to Godstow after a visitation held in 1279 by John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury.[1*] The first part treats of the celebration of the divine offices and of the part novices are to take in the singing. The feast of St John which is celebrated by childish festivities (puerilia solemnia), no doubt in accordance with an ancient folk custom, is not to be extended to a second day. Directions are then given about going outside precincts and staying away on business. The nuns are directed not to converse with the neighbouring students at Oxford (scholares Oxonii) unless they have permission to do so from the abbess, and to knit no bonds of friendship with them, 'because such affection often brings harmful thoughts.'

The attraction which the students at Oxford exerted on the nuns of Godstow has a counterpart at a later date in the effect which intercourse with the students at Cambridge had on the nuns of St Radegund's. When John Alcock, bishop of Ely († 1500), proposed the dissolution of this nunnery he urged that the nearness of the university had led to the demoralisation of the prioress and the nuns.[2*]

In the directions forwarded to Godstow we also find it enjoined that secular and religious visitors shall dine in the guest-house (hospitalaria communi) or in the chamber of the abbess, and on no account within the convent precincts with the nuns. Directions are also given as to the wearing of simple clothes, in which matter 'the rule of Benedict' (sic) shall be observed. These directions are not easy to understand. 'Linings of dyed woollen (imposterum burneto),'[3*] say they, 'shall not be worn; nor red dresses (rugatas tunicas) nor other unseemly clothes wide at the sides.'

Archbishop Peckham, who reformed abuses at Godstow, ad-   [p. 401]   dressed a mandate to the abbess of Romsey in 1286 against a certain prebendary William Shyrlock, who seems to have been one of the residential canons of the place. He is not to presume to enter the cloister or the church while suspicions are entertained against him, and the nuns are not to converse with him in the house or elsewhere, for he is accused of living a dishonest and dissolute life.[4*] No aspersion in this case is cast on the doings of the nuns.

A serious scandal is said to have occurred about the year 1303 in the Cistercian nunnery of Swine in Yorkshire, but details concerning its nature are not forthcoming. In consequence of an enquiry into the state of the house the prioress resigned, and her successor also absented herself, it is alleged, on account of some scandal.[5*]

The nunneries which were cells to abbeys of men were exempt from the visitation of the diocesan; they were inspected by the abbot of the parent house, who enquired into abuses and enjoined corrections. A mandate of this description which was forwarded to Sopwell nunnery, a cell of St Alban's, by the abbot in 1338 is in existence. The nuns are directed to observe silence in the church, the cloister, the refectory, and the dormitory. No sister shall hold converse with secular persons in the parlour unless she is wearing a cowl and a veil; and tailors and others who are employed shall work in some place assigned to them outside the convent precincts.[6*]

Among the injunctions sent to Chatteris in Cambridgeshire in the year 1345 the following are worth noticing: Nuns shall not keep fowls, dogs or small birds (aviculae) within the convent precincts, nor bring them into church during divine service, and they shall not, from a wish to reform them, take into their employ servants who are known for their bad ways.[7*]

In April of the year 1397 a visitation of the nunnery of NunMonkton in Yorkshire was conducted by Thomas Dalby, archdeacon of Richmond, who acted for the archbishop of York.[8*] He accused the prioress Margaret Fairfax of allowing various kinds of fur to be worn in her house, especially grey fur. He also objected to the wearing of silk veils and to the prioress herself acting as treasurer (bursaria) of the house, and charged her with having   [p. 402]   alienated its property to the value of a hundred marks. He censured her for entertaining John Munkton, and inviting him to dinner in her chamber, and for allowing the use of unusual vestments and clothes; for too readily receiving back nuns who had disgraced their profession (lapsae fornicatione); and for allowing nuns to receive gifts from friends to support them. He also complained that John Munkton behaved badly, had dallied (ludit) with the prioress at meals in her chamber, and had been served there with drink.

Injunctions were forwarded in the following July to rectify these matters, and directing the prioress to have no communication with Dominus John Munkton, William Snowe or Thomas Pape, except in the presence of the nuns. The usual vestments were to be worn in church, and the nuns were enjoined not to wear silk garments (paneis), silk veils, precious furs, finger rings, and embroidered or ornamental jupes, in English called gowns, like secular women. They were not to neglect the commemoration of the dead under penalty of being deprived of special clothes (carentiae camisarum?) for two whole weeks.

The general tenor of these injunctions argues a want of management on the part of the lady superior and a tendency to luxury among the nuns. As time wore on complaints about mismanagement of revenues became more frequent, but they were accompanied by evidence of increasing poverty, especially in the smaller houses, which shows that the lady superior was labouring under difficulties for which she was not altogether responsible.

A serious blow was dealt to the monastic system by the Black Death, which began in 1349. It produced a temporary collapse of discipline and indifference-to religion,[9*] and resulted in changes in the state of agriculture and the position of the labourer, which affected the poorer and smaller houses in a disastrous manner.

Thus we read about Thetford, a small Benedictine nunnery in Norfolk,[10*] that the nuns' revenues had much decreased through mortality and inundation since 1349, and that when Henry V levied a tax on religious houses, Thetford, which consisted at the time of a prioress and nine nuns, was excused on the plea of poverty. The increasing poverty of the house is evident from accounts of visitations between 1514 and 1520.[11*] On one occasion   [p. 403]   the nuns declared they were short of service books; on another that the prioress received illiterate and deformed persons (indoctae et deformes) into the house; and again that there was great poverty and that the few novices had no teacher.

Again we read of Mailing in Kent that it was excused from payments in 1404; in 1349 the bishop of Rochester had found it so decayed as to be hardly. capable of restoration.[12*] Two abbesses had died of the pestilence; there were only eight inmates left in the house, four of whom were professed and four non-professed.

Mailing recovered itself, but not so Wyrthorp in Northampton-shire, where Emma de Pinchbeck and many of the Austin nuns fell victims to the pestilence.[13*] The archbishop appointed Agnes Bowes as prioress, but the convent was beyond recovery. In 1354 Sir Th. Holland, the patron of the house, petitioned that it should be united to the nunnery at Stamford, to which its prioress and the one remaining nun removed.[14*] In the royal licence which secured this change it is stated 'that the convent being poorly endowed was by the pestilence which lately prevailed reduced to such poverty that all the nuns but one on account of penury had dispersed.' In the course of the 14th century other nunneries complained of insufficient revenue and poverty, among them Seton in Cumberland,[15*] St Sepulchre's at Canterbury in 1359,[16*] and Rusper and Easebourne which were both situated in Sussex.

In a few cases accounts are preserved of successive visitations to the same nunnery extending over a number of years, which afford a valuable record of part of the life-history of the house. The visitations conducted between 1442 and 1527 at Rusper and at Easebourne are most instructive as showing the gradual collapse which many of the smaller houses experienced.

The chief complaint made during the visitation of Rusper in 1442 was that the prioress of the house had failed to render account to the sisterhood during the term she had held office.[17*] She was consequently enjoined by the bishop of Chichester to produce an account year by year and submit it to him and to the sisterhood. Some thirty years later in 1478 upon enquiry it was found that   [p. 404]   the convent was in debt, and the bishop asked for an inventory of the house, which was drawn up for him. The community at this time consisted of the prioress and five nuns, four of whom are entered as professed, one as non-professed.

Again in 1484 the bishop visited Rusper, and three nuns were consecrated on this occasion. But the house had entered on a downward course of poverty and decay. In 1485 Rusper was exempted from paying subsidy on the plea of poverty. During the visitation of 1521 the nuns referred their pecuniary poverty to the onerous expenses caused by the too frequent visits of friends and relations who came to stay with the prioress, while the prioress herself referred the poverty to other reasons, but agreed that the house was fast going to ruin. No complaints were made at the visitation three years later (1524), except against a certain William Tychen, who sowed discord. Again in 1527 the prioress and nuns deposed that all was well in the house, but that its poverty was extreme and that it was on the brink of ruin.

The accounts of the visitations to Easebourne[18*] are even more instructive, for there the deteriorating effects of mismanagement and poverty were increased by want of discipline and quarrelsomeness among the nuns. In 1414 the community consisted of the prioress and six or seven nuns. In 1437 and 1439 its poverty was already so great that letters patent were secured on the plea of insufficient revenue, exonerating the prioress and her convent from certain payments called for by the clergy. In 1441 the house was in debt to the amount of £ 40, and here also the convent cast the blame of mismanagement on the head of the house, referring the debts to 'costly expenses of the prioress, who frequently rides abroad, and pretends she does so on the common business of the house, though it is not so, with a train of attendants much too large, and tarries long abroad, and she feasts sumptuously both at home and abroad... And while she does so the members of the convent are made to work like hired workwomen, and they receive nothing whatever for their own use from their work, but the prioress takes the whole profit.'

In reply to their complaints the bishop forbade the prioress to compel the sisters to continual work; 'and if they should wish of their own accord to work, they shall be free to do so, but yet so that they may receive for themselves the half part of what   [p. 405]   they gain by their hands; the other part shall be converted to the advantage of the house and unburdening its debts.' But discharging those debts was no easy matter. The prioress was commanded to sell her costly fur trimmings for the advantage of the house, and if she rode abroad to spend only what was needful, and to content herself with four horses. The administration of temporal goods was taken from her altogether and given to 'Master Thomas Boleyn and John Lylis, Esquire.' But under their management the debt of £ 40 had increased in nine years to £ 66; and in 1475, as again in 1485 and 1489, the house had to be excused from payments. Rumours of an unfavourable character about what went on in the house now reached the bishop, and before the next visitation in 1478, the prioress Agnes Tauke was summoned to Chichester, where she promised on her oath before the bishop and others to resign her office if called upon to do so.

The deposition made by her nuns during the ensuing visitation confirmed the unfavourable rumours; two nuns had left the priory ostensibly for their health and were abroad in apostasy. One nun referred this conduct to neglect on the part of the prioress, another to that of the chaplain, John Smyth, who confessed to having sealed or caused to be sealed a licence to one of the nuns to go out of the priory after having had criminal intercourse with her. Other complaints were made against the prioress, 'that she had her kinsmen staying with her for weeks at the priory and gave them the best food, while the nuns had the worst' also that she was herself of bad character. But these recriminations were not accepted by the bishop. The desire of Agnes Tauke to improve matters was accepted as genuine and she was not called upon to resign.

Discontent however remained a standing characteristic of the nuns at Easebourne. At the visitation of 1521 the prioress deposed that the nuns lived honestly and religiously according to the rule of St Augustine (sic) and were sufficiently obedient to her, but the nun sexton blamed the prioress for not making up any account annually as she ought in presence of the sisters concerning her administration of goods,' and another nun deposed that she neglected to provide for the sisters the sum of thirteen shillings and four pence in money to which they were entitled. Again in 1524 the prioress deposed that all was well, but the sub-prioress complained of disobedience, both among the professed and the non-professed nuns, who on their side complained of harshness of treatment. The bishop believed the complaints of the latter   [p. 406]   and blamed the behaviour of the sub-prioress, who submitted to correction.

The recriminations of the nuns at Easebourne recall a picture drawn about this time by Langland (c. 1390) in the Vision of Piers the Ploughman, in which Wrath personified as a friar describes how he stirred up quarrels in a nunnery. In its earliest version the poem omits these passages; and Langland, so ready to abuse and ridicule monk and friar, is chary in his references to nuns. In the later versions of his poem (text B and C) 'Wrath' is described as acting first as gardener and then as cook in a nunnery, where in the character of 'the prioress' potager and of other poor ladies,' he 'made them broths of various scandals.' Among the stories he set going was

'that Dame Johane was a bastard
And Dame Glance a knight's daughter, a cuckold was her sire,
And Dame Purnell a priest's concubine, she will never become prioress,
For she had a child in cherry time, all our chapter it wist.'

In consequence the nuns fall to quarrelling among themselves and end with attacking one another bodily. The picture, even if overdrawn, proves, in conjunction with the temper of the nuns at Easebourne, that peaceableness no longer formed the invariable concomitant of convent life during the 15th century.

Various particulars in the history of men's houses corroborate the fact that considerable changes were going on inside the monastic body during the 15th century.

Reference has been made to the fluctuations in the history of alien priories. Some of the foreign houses, aware of the dangers to which their English colonies were exposed, advocated the sale of their property in England. Numerous grammar-schools and colleges profited by the change or owed their foundation directly to it. As early as xo William Wykeham bought estates of alien priories for New College, his foundation at Oxford. Waynfleet, bishop of Worcester, who in 1415 founded St Mary Magdalen College at Oxford, annexed to it Sele, an alien priory which had been admitted to denizenship.[19*] It is noteworthy that some religious houses about this time dissolved of their own accord. Thus the master and brethren of St John's hospital at Oxford obtained leave from Henry VI to convey their house to Wayn   [p. 407]   fleet.[20*] The Austin priory of Selborne, which 'had become a desert convent without canons or prior,' was likewise annexed to St Mary Magdalen College, a change which was ratified by a bull from Innocent VIII in 1486.[21*]

It has already been said that a change of attitude towards religious institutions on the part of the public was the direct outcome of the spread of Wyclif's teaching. In 1410 Sir John Old-castle, the so-called leader of the Lollards, who was burnt for heresy eight years later, made a proposal in the House of Commons which is curious in various ways. It was to the effect that their temporalities should be taken from bishop, abbot and prior, and the revenues of their possessions employed to pay a standing army, to augment the income of the noblemen and gentry, to endow a hundred hospitals and to make small payments to the clergy.[22*] No notice in this case was taken of the donors or representatives of the settlement, to whom land and tenements upon default, or neglect of those to whom they were granted, otherwise reverted. The proposal was accompanied by a list of monasteries which might be appropriated, but the proposal was summarily quashed.

The Church Council held at Basel (from 1418), at which English prelates also were present, was emphatic in urging the need of monastic reform. It would be interesting to ascertain if this was prompted solely by the feeling that the recognised abuses of convent life lowered religion in general estimation, or if suspicions were entertained that religious houses might be harbouring unorthodox elements. Great efforts at reform were made within the Benedictine order; chapters were held by the abbots at regular intervals and the system of visitations formulated for mutual supervision and control by the various monasteries once more received attention. We shall see this system in full operation on the Continent. In England we have accounts of several chapters of Benedictine abbots held between 1422 and 1426, in which reports of extensive visitations were given.[23*] The chapter of 1473 appointed the abbot of St Albans (Alboin, 1464--1476) to visit at Glastonbury, and the abbot of Eynsham to visit at St Albans.[24*]

Churchmen on all sides were eager to promote monastic reforms   [p. 408]   and interfere with monastic privileges. In 1418 Pope Martin V sent a bull to the archbishop of Canterbury bidding him hold visitations regularly.[25*] But the story of the gradual encroachment of the Church on monastic privilege and property is less striking in England than abroad, for the independent spirit of individual houses was less strong, and convents generally, especially those of women, seem to have yielded without opposition to the claims made by energetic churchmen. Some monasteries of men, however, resented interference and maintained their rights. An episode in this struggle deserves attention, as it reflects unfavourably on two nunneries which were dependencies of the abbey of St Albans. There was a long-standing jealousy between the lord abbot of St Albans and the lord primate of Canterbury, renewed by a quarrel between Abbot Wallingford and Archbishop Bourchier, which had been decided in favour of the former. The abbey enjoyed exemption from episcopal visitation, not only for itself but for its dependencies or cells, among which were the nunneries of Sopwell and St Mary Prée. In 1489 Archbishop Morton of Canterbury secured a Papal bull[26*] which empowered him to visit all the monasteries of his diocese, those subject to his visitation and those exempt from it. And this, as the document says, 'not only because the former strictness of life is abandoned.. .but also because life is luxurious and dissolute.'

In consequence of the authority conferred by this bull the primate penned a letter[27*] to the abbot of St Albans containing charges of a serious nature. After a few opening sentences it continues in the following strain:

'.... Moreover, among other grave enormities and wicked crimes of which you are accused and for which you are noted and defamed, you admitted a certain married woman named Elena Germyn, who some time ago wrongfully left her husband and lived in adultery with another man, to be sister and nun in the house or priory of Prée, which you hold to be in your jurisdiction; and there you appointed her prioress notwithstanding her husband was living and is alive now. Further, brother Thomas Sudbury, your fellow-monk, publicly and notoriously and without inter   [p. 409]   ference or punishment from you, associated and still associates with this woman on terms of intimacy, like others among your brethren and fellow-monks who had access and still have access to her and to others elsewhere as to a brothel or house of ill fame. And not only in the house of Pré but also in the nunnery of Sopwell, which you contend is under your jurisdiction also, you change the prioresses and superiors (praesidentes) again and again at your will and caprice, deposing good and religious women and promoting to the highest dignity the worthless and wicked, so that religion is cast aside, virtue is neglected, and many expenses are incurred by reprehensible practices through your introducing certain of your brethren who are thieves and notorious villains to preside there as guardians to manage the goods of the priories, which more correctly speaking are wasted, and those places which were religious are rendered and reputed profane and impious, and so far impoverished by your doings and the doings of those with you as to be brought to the verge of ruin.

'Similarly in dealing with other cells of monks which you say are subject to you within the monastery of the glorious protomartyr Alban, you have dilapidated the common property in its possessions and jewels; you have cut down, sold and alienated indiscriminately copses, woods, underwood, oaks and other forest trees to the value of 8000 marks and more; while those of your brethren and fellow-monks, who, as is reported, are given over to all the evils of the world, neglecting the service of God, and openly and continually consorting with harlots and loose women within the precincts and without, you knowingly defend instead of punishing them; others too you protect who are covetous of honour and promotion and bent on ministering to your cupidity, and who steal and make away with chalices and other jewels of the church, going so far as to extract sacrilegiously precious stones from the very shrine of St Alban.'

This letter is dated 1490, and is addressed to William, presumably William Wallingford, as he became abbot in 1476; it is however confidently asserted that he died in 1484. But this date may need revision. For he was succeeded by his prior Thomas Ramryge, who was not elected till 1492; 'at all events this period of eight years is very obscure,' says the historian of St Albans.[28*] Concerning William Wallingford we know that the   [p. 410]   chapter of Benedictine abbots held at Northampton in 1480 appointed him to visit all the monasteries situated in the diocese of Lincoln, but that he deputed two of his convent to do so.[29*] His successor Ramryge wrote a book 'on the doings of the abbots, monks and benefactors of the monastery of St Albans' in which Wallingford appears of a character very different from that suggested by Morton's letter. 'Prudent and wise in the management of his abbey and resolute in the defence of its rights,' says Dugdale on the authority of Ramryge, 'he was successful too in resisting the claims of Archbishop Bourchier (Morton's predecessor) which upon appeal to Rome were decided in his favour.' He completed the high altar at St Albans and set up a printing-press in his monastery between 1480 and 1486.

In face of this evidence the language used by Morton appears somewhat violent. Unfortunately no additional information is forthcoming from the nunneries of St Mary Pre and Sopwell. We have an account rendered by the prioress Christina Basset of Prée for the year 1485--1486, four years previous to the date of Morton's letter, entries in which show that Christina Basset had succeeded Alice Wafer, who had been deposed for mismanagement of the revenues, but continued to live in the convent.[30*] About Sopwell we only know that Wallingford appointed a commission in 1480 to set aside the prioress Joan Chapell on account of old age and infirmity in favour of Elizabeth Webb, one of the nuns.[31*]

It were idle to deny that the state of discipline in many houses was bad, but the circumstances under which Morton's letter was penned argue that the charges made in it should be accepted with some reservation.

It remains to cast a glance on the views expressed on the state of monasteries in general literature in the 15th century, from which we gather that the religious settlement was fast sinking in popular estimation. Two poems in this connection deserve especial attention, the 'Land of Cockayne,' a spirited satire on monastic life generally, written about 1430, and a poem of somewhat later date preserved in fragments only, which has been published under the title, 'Why I cannot be a nun.

  [p. 411]  

The 'Land of Cockayne'[32*] describes in flowing rhyme a country of joy and bliss,' where flow rivers of oil, milk, honey and wine, and where stands a fair abbey of white and grey monks. Their house in accordance with the popular fancy is a delightful abode constructed out of food and sweetmeats with shingles of 'flourcakes,' and the cloister is of crystal with a garden in which spices and flowers grow. The monks dwell here in the greatest comfort; some are old, some are young; at times they are engaged in prayer, at times they seek diversion away from home. Another abbey, 'a fair nunnery,' stands at no great distance, the inmates of which live in the like ease and carelessness. Here too there is a river of milk, the nuns wear silken clothing, and when it is hot they take a boat and go to bathe in the river. They here meet the monks and disport themselves together, throwing off all restraint.

Clever and much to the point as this poem appeared to the laymen who had come to look upon convent life as a life of idleness and self-indulgence, its historical importance is exceeded by the poem, 'Why I cannot be a nun.'[33*] It is generally spoken of as the production of a woman on the ground of its reflecting a woman's experiences, but there is no direct evidence on the point; its author writes as one unattached to a nunnery, and by the remark that he knows more than he chooses to tell is perhaps concealing his ignorance.

It consists of an adaptation to a different purpose of the story of the 'Ghostly Abbey,' which was peopled with personified Virtues,[34*] and to which reference has been made in previous chapters of this work. Here personified Vices are described as having taken possession of the abbey. The poem is divided into two parts, of which it seems doubtful through the state of the manuscript which ought to come first. As it stands printed it begins abruptly with a description of how commissioners received the charge to ride all over England to seek out nunneries and enquire into their state. They visited the houses of Kent and are represented as returning to the father of the writer, who asks them how they have sped and how the nuns fared   [p. 412]   (L. 28). When he has heard their report he tells his daughter, who wishes to become a nun, that he will have none of it. The girl is sore aggrieved; she deplores her ill-luck and continues in this strain:

'Then it befell on a morn of May
In the same year as I said before,
My pensiveness would not away
But ever waxed more and more.
I walked alone and wept full sore
With sighings and with mourning.
I said but little and thought the more
But what I thought no man need hear.
And in a garden I disported me
Every day at divers hours
To behold and for to see
The sweet effect of April flowers.
The fair herbs and gentle flowers
And birds singing on every spray;
But my longing and sadness
For all this sport would not away.

She kneels to Jesus, the king of heavenly bliss, and tells Him how she is destitute of good counsel and would commit her cause to Him. She then falls asleep and a fair lady appears to her, who calls her by name (Kateryne, 1. 122), and who on being asked says her name is Experience, and that she has come with the help of Christ Jesus, adding 'such things as I shall show thee I trust shall set thy heart at rest.' She takes the girl by the hand and leads her through a meadow fair and green to a house of 'women regular,' a cloister, 'a house of nuns in truth of divers orders old and young, but not well governed,' for here self-will reigns instead of discipline. 'Perhaps you would like to know who was dwelling here; of some I will tell you, of others keep counsel; so I was taught when I was young,' says the writer. The first lady they encounter in the house is Dame Pride, who is held in great repute, while poor Dame Meekness sits alone and forsaken. Dame Hypocrite sits there with her book, while Dame Devout and her few companions have been put outside by Dame Sloth and Dame Vainglory. In the convent remain Dame Envy 'who can sow strife in every state,' Dame Love-Inordinate, Dame Lust, Dame Wanton and Dame Nice, all of whom take scant heed of God's service.   [p. 413]   'Dame Chastity, I dare well say, in that convent had little cheer, she was often on the point of going her way, she was so little beloved there; some loved her in their hearts full dear, but others did not and set nothing by her, but gave her good leave to go. Walking about under the guidance of Experience the writer also comes upon Dame Envy who bore the keys and seldom went from home. In vain she sought for Dame Patience and Dame Charity; they were not in the convent but dwelt outside 'without strife' in a chamber where good women sought their company. Meanwhile Dame Disobedient set the prioress at nought; a fact especially distressing to the writer, 'for subjects should ever be diligent in word, in will, in deed, to please their sovereign' (1. 273). Indeed she declared, when she saw no reverence, she would stay in the house no longer. She and Experience left and sat down on the grass outside the gates to discuss what they had seen. Experience explained that for the most part nuns are such as they have seen (1. 310); not all, she adds; 'some are devout, holy and blessed, and hold the right way to bliss, but some are weak, lewd, and forward; God amend what is amiss.' She passed away and the writer awakes convinced that she certainly does not care to go and live in a nunnery. 'Peradventure,' the writer adds, some man will say and so it really seems to him that I soon forsook the perfect way for a fantasy or a dream, but dream it was not, nor a fantasy, but unto me welcome information (gratius mene).'

The other part of the poem advises the 'ladies dear,' who have taken the habit which is a holy thing, to let their lives correspond with their outward array. The writer enlarges on the good conversation and the virtues of the holy women who were professed in the past, and enumerates as models of virtuous living a number of women saints chiefly of English origin.

Productions such is this clearly show in what direction the estimation of religious houses and their inmates was tending. The nature of devotional pursuits and keeping the houses was not yet called into question, but apart from its religious significance the nunnery had little to recommend it. As places of residence these houses still attracted a certain number of unmarried women, and as centres of education still exerted some influence, but the high standard they had at one period maintained was a thing of the past.

  [p. 414]  

Reforms in Germany.

The history of monastic reform on the Continent previous to the Reformation supplies us with many interesting particulars both of the position of monasteries generally and of the convent life of women. Though religious settlements had been little interfered with before the Church Council at Constance, extensive reforms were undertaken subsequent to it in order to secure a return of discipline. The movement was inaugurated from within the religious orders, and led to the union of different houses into so-called congregations. But its peaceable character was soon marred by the introduction of political and party interests. Thirty years after the first convent reforms, it was no longer a question of how far the well-being and right living of monk and nun should be secured, but how far religious settlements could be made amenable to external interference and who should have the right of interfering with them.

For this complication the instability of political life is partly responsible. The authority of the Pope had greatly decreased, and, at the beginning of the 15th century, the Emperor no longer kept the balance between the contending parties. The prelates of the Church, many of whom were independent temporal princes, had succeeded in allying themselves to the impoverished, but influential, nobility. In South Germany especially the Church was becoming more and more aristocratic; birth, not merit, secured admission and promotion in the ecclesiastical body. The townships were generally opposed to the Church and the nobility; they emphatically insisted on their rights, but their combined efforts to make their influence felt in the constitution had signally failed. Apart from them stood the princes and minor potentates, who tried to coerce the nobility, in many cases succeeded in depriving their prelates of their rights, and availed themselves of the general relaxation of authority to promote their own selfish ends.

To these different representatives of power the monastery became debatable ground, where the diocesan, the township and the prince of the land in turn claimed the right of interference and where in many instances their interests clashed. The greater settlements, which held directly from the Emperor, were not drawn into the conflict; it was round the lesser ones that contention chiefly raged.

One of the most interesting movements in the direction of mon   [p. 415]   astic reform is associated with the Benedictine monk Johannes von Minden († 1439) who, as representative of the abbot of the house of Reinhausen near Gottingen, was present at the general chapter of Benedictine abbots held near Constance in 1417.[35*] Johannes returned to his convent burning with reformatory zeal, which his abbot and fellow-monks would not countenance. He left his convent and after many hardships was enabled by the help of a rich patroness to settle at Bursfeld, where he realized some of his ideas.[36*] His views agreed with those of Johannes Rode († 1439), a Carthusian, who had become abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St Matthias at Trier, and the joint efforts of these men resulted in a scheme of mutual supervision and control of different houses by means of periodical visitations undertaken by members of the Benedictine order. The settlements which agreed to the innovation joined in a union or so-called congregation, to which Bursfeld gave its name. The union or congregation of Bursfeld was eventually joined by one hundred and thirty-six monasteries of men and sixty-four of women. The purpose of the union was not to attempt any new departure, but to guarantee the maintenance of discipline as a means of securing the return of prosperity.

The nunnery of Langendorf, near Weissenfels in Saxony, was incorporated into the union of Bursfeld, and a comprehensive scheme of rules,[37*] which gives us an insight into the tone and tendency of the German mediawal nunnery on the reformed plan, was drawn up for its use. The rules recall those contemporaneously drafted for the monastery of Sion in England. We have in them similar directions concerning an elaborate ritual, similar exhortations to soberness of living and gentleness of manner; the information on convent life and daily routine is equally explicit; and we hear of the different appointments inside the convent, and of the several duties of its members. There is also an exhaustive list of possible failings and crimes, followed by directions as to correction and punishment. Cats, dogs and other animals are not to be kept by the nuns, as they detract from seriousness; if a nun feels sleepy during hours, she shall ask leave to withdraw rather than fall asleep; if a nun dies of an infectious disease, her   [p. 416]   corpse shall not be carried into church, but the burial service shall take place outside. No member of the convent shall be chosen abbess unless she has attained the age of twenty-nine,--a provision which I have not come across elsewhere. The abbess has under her the same staff of officers whose duties have already been described. There is the prioress, the sub-prioress, the teacher of the novices, the cellaress, the chauntress, the sub-chauntress, the sexton, the keeper of books, the chambress, the infirmaress, the portress and others. We are told how novices made profession and how the hours of the Virgin were to be kept. We are also informed of the occupations of the nuns between hours, and learn that they were active in many ways. There are references to the transcribing of books, to binding books, to preparing parchment, and also to spinning and weaving; but the transcribing of books is pronounced the more important work, since it is more akin to spiritual interests. Further we hear about visits paid by the nuns, and about the reception of visitors.. Only professed religious women were to be received on a visit inside the convent precincts; other visitors were to dwell and take their meals outside.

In the case of this nunnery it is unknown how far the convent showed readiness to join the congregation of Bursfeld, or how far it was persuaded or coerced into doing so. The movement in favour of monastic reform entered on a new stage with the advent of the zealous and influential reformer, Johann Busch († after 1479), the promoter of the congregation of Windesheim. The work of Busch is the more interesting as he has left a detailed account of it. His book 'On monastic reform' describes the changes he advocated and the means by which he effected them during a contest of over thirty years.[38*] He was a native of Zwolle in the Netherlands and entered the Austin convent of Windesheim, where he attracted so much attention that he was summoned to Wittenberg in Saxony (1437), and there conducted monastic reforms at the desire of the prior. He remained in Saxony for many years, residing sometimes at one place, sometimes at another, and pursued his plans so ardently that he occasionally transcended the limits of his authority.[39*] His success in persuading convents to reconsider their tenor of life and in inducing lay princes and prelates to assist him in his efforts was so great that Cardinal Cusanus, of whom we shall hear   [p. 417]   more, pronounced him especially fitted to act as a monastic reformer (1451). His book contains a detailed account of his work in connection with about twenty nunneries. His great merit and that of the congregation of Windesheim was the introduction of German devotional books.

From these and other descriptions we gather that many nunneries willingly accepted the proposed changes in so far as they were designed to raise the standard of teaching and to improve the system of discipline, but that opposition was made where the changes tended to interfere with the position and prestige of the settlement. In some cases a compromise was effected by the energetic and intelligent conduct of the lady superior; in others the direct refusal of the nuns to conform resulted in open force being brought to bear on them. Scenes were enacted which recall the turbulence of early Christian times, and show how strong a sense of independence still lived in some convents.

Among the Austin nunneries which gave Busch endless trouble was that of Derneburg, near Hildesheim, where he was appointed to visit as father confessor between 1440 and 1442.[40*] The nuns there were in the habit of dining out continually, and when exception was taken to this, gave as an excuse that relatives and friends were always ready to entertain them at meals, but refused to furnish contributions in kind towards the support of the convent. Busch got over this difficulty by pleading with the lay people, but his action in the matter still further roused the rebellious spirit of the nuns. On one occasion his life was attempted at their instigation; on another, when he went to inspect their cellar, they locked him in and left him there. As a consequence of this he refused from that time forward to be the first to go on any tour of inspection. His efforts to impress these nuns were in vain, and finally he asked for the assistance of the bishop of Hildesheim and the abbot of the Cistercian house of Marienrode; as a consequence the rebels were conveyed away from Derneburg to other convents, and their house was given into the hands of Cistercian nuns. Similar difficulties occurred at Wennigsen, at Mariensee and at Werder, where the Duke of Hannover interfered in the most arbitrary manner.[41*] At Wienhausen the abbess and convent refused to conform to the rule of St Benedict, though the additional authority of their diocesan and of Duke Otto of Brunswick was   [p. 418]   brought to bear on them.[42*] Forcible measures were resorted to in this case also. The abbess was deposed and she and her nuns were carried away in a chariot to other nunneries, and nuns from the reformed house of Derneburg were installed in their place.

At the Cistercian nunnery of St Georg, near Halle, the nuns at first declared that they were exempt from the visits of the diocesan, and refused admission to the delegates. After prolonged opposition they yielded to Busch.[43*] At Heiningen the nuns pleaded poverty as an excuse for staying away from home.[44*] Many settlements complained of poverty and insufficient revenue, among which was Frankenberg, near Goslar.[45*] The nuns of Dorstad earned money by taking pupils from outside the precincts,[46*] and other houses, among them that of Neuwerk, received girls and boarded and educated them. Busch however forbade their doing so on the ground that intercourse with secular interests was harmful. At Neuwerk, which was a Cistercian nunnery at Erfurt,[47*] the wealth of the community in vessels, vestments, and books was quite a revelation to Busch. The house owned thirty books of devotion (the convent at the time consisted of thirty inmates), a number which appeared to Busch so considerable that he did not insist on the nuns adopting the service-book in use at Windesheim, as this change would have rendered their books useless to them.

The nuns at Neuwerk readily accepted the proposed reforms, and received nuns from the reformed nunnery of Heiningen who dwelt with them for three years and helped them to restore their system of religious discipline and teaching. The abbess Armengard von Rheden, of the wealthy Benedictine nunnery of Fischbeck on the Weser,[48*] also agreed to receive nuns from a reformed house into her establishment as teachers.

Full details are preserved of the reform of the nunnery of Marienberg[49*] near Helmstadt in Saxony, the prioress of which, Helena von Iltzen, hearing of the work of Busch, sought his assistance in matters of reform. Her house is said to have belonged to no order in particular. When she applied to Busch he was resident provost (after 1459) of the Austin canonry of Sülte near Hildesheim. He travelled to Bronopie, a nunnery   [p. 419]   situated outside Campen on the confines of Holland, to consult with the prioress, who accordingly deputed two nuns of her convent, Ida and Tecla, and one lay sister Aleydis, to repair with him to Marienberg. Of the two nuns Ida had been chosen for her knowledge of religious service, Tecla for her powers of instruction. Busch describes how he travelled across Germany with these women in a waggon drawn by four horses, and how on their arrival at Marienberg Ida was appointed to act as sub-prioress, and Tecla as teacher, and how the prioress of the house reserved to herself the management of temporal affairs only. Tecla is described as well versed in grammar (grammatica competenter docta); she instructed the inmates of the house in scholastic knowledge (scientiis scholasticalibus) with such success that her pupils after three years were able to read Holy Writ, and readily composed letters and missives in correct Latin (litteras sive missas in bona latina magistraliter dictarent). 'I have seen and examined these myself' says Busch.

After three years the illness of Ida made the nuns desirous of returning to their own convent, and Busch again undertook to escort them. A proof of the affection they had won during their stay and of the regret that was felt at their departure is afforded by the letters which passed between them and their friends. They were staying for some nights at the nunnery of Heiningen on their journey home when two letters reached them. In one the nuns wrote describing their grief. 'When we see your empty places in the choir, the refectory, and the dormitory, we are filled with sorrow and weep.' And they wish that the distance which separates them were not so great, then at least they might go to visit their friends. When Tecla's pupils (the letter says) entered the schoolroom for their lessons on the Saturday, they wept so much that the prioress, who was in great grief herself, was constrained to try to comfort them. The other letter, a short one specially addressed to Tecla, was written by these pupils: this accompanied the longer letter, and in it they assured her of their continued admiration and devotion. Ida, Tecla and Aleydis in reply sent two letters to Marienberg. A longer one was addressed by them to the convent collectively, and a shorter one by Tecla to her pupils, in which she praises them for having written such a good Latin letter and assures them that she is glad to think of her stay with them, since it has been productive of such good results.

  [p. 420]  

The nunnery of Marienberg, which had so readily accepted reforms, acted as advocate of similar changes to other houses. Busch tells us that the nunnery of Marienborn situated not far from it, and the nunnery at Stendal in Brandenburg, accepted reforms at its instigation.[50*]

In the records of Busch comparatively few charges of a coarse nature are brought against nunneries, but he adds an account of two nuns who were in apostasy, and who were persuaded by him to return to their convents. One had left her convent and had adopted lay clothing;[51*] the story of the other, Sophie, an illegitimate daughter of Wilhelm, duke of Brunswick, reads like a romance.[52*] The girl had been stowed away in the convent of Mariensee by her relatives for convenience, but indifferent to vows unwillingly accepted, she ran away and for seven years lived in the world, tasting few of the sweets of life and much of its bitterness. At last, broken in spirit by the loss of her child, she was persuaded by Busch to come and live in the convent of Derneburg, the members of which received her with tender pity for her sufferings and treated her with loving care. Finally she agreed to return to the nunnery she had originally left, glad of the peace which she found there.

Some of the nunneries on which pressure was brought to bear by the monastic reformers altogether ceased to exist. The historian of the diocese of Speyer (Rheinbayern) tells us that the Benedictine nunnery of Schönfeld was interfered with in 1443 and fell into decay, and that its property was appropriated; that the Cistercian nunnery of Ramsen also ceased to exist, owing to feuds between Count Johann II of Nassau and the abbot of Morimund, who both claimed the right of interference; and that the dissolution of Kleinfrankenthal, a settlement of Austin nuns situated in the same diocese, was declared in 1431 by Pope Eugenius IV on account of the evil ways of the nuns.[53*]

The historian of the reforms undertaken in the diocese of Trier notifies many important changes.[54*] He considers that the nuns in many convents had drifted away from the former strictness of   [p. 421]   discipline and lived as Austin canonesses, returning to the world if they chose to get married. Many of these settlements now accepted stricter rules of life, and among them were the nunnery of Marienberg (diocese of Trier), the abbess of which, Isengard von Greiffenklau († 1469), had come under the influence of Johannes Rode--and Oberwerth, which owed reform to its abbess Adelheid Helchen (1468--1505).

On the other hand Elisabeth von Seckendorff, abbess of the time-honoured nunnery of St Walburg at Eichstätt, refused to see that a changed condition of things demanded reform. The bishop of Eichstätt made his power felt; she was deposed, and Sophie was summoned from the nunnery of St Maria at Cöln, and made abbess in her stead (145-1475).[55*]

We have detailed accounts of reforms in South Germany from the pen of another contemporary writer, Felix Fabri († 1502), a Dominican friar of Ulm.[56*] He tells us how Elisabeth Krelin († 1480), abbess of the important Cistercian nunnery, Heggbach, a woman of great intelligence and strong character, effected reforms in her house on her sole responsibility. These changes were productive of such good results that many nuns left the houses to which they belonged and came to live under her. Gredanna von Freyberg († 1481), abbess of the ancient and wealthy Benedictine nunnery of Urspring, hearing of these changes, came on a visit to Heggbach, where she made friends with the abbess, and when she left she was bent on carrying out similar changes in her own convent. But here she met with opposition. Her nuns, who were members of the nobility, aware that the changes advocated meant interference with the liberty they enjoyed, divided for and against her, and those who were against her appealed to their relatives for support. Gredanna in vain asked for help from the abbot of the monastery of St Georg in the Black Forest to which her house was allied; he dared not interfere, and it was only when the archduchess Mechthild of Austria called upon him to do so, that he summoned nuns from the reformed nunnery of St Walburg at Eichstätt and with them and some monks came to Urspring. But the rebellious nuns, nothing daunted, shut themselves up in the outlying buildings of the infirmary, which they barricaded; the soldiers were called out but from a religious dread refused   [p. 422]   to attack them. Nothing remained short of placing these' amazons' as Fabri calls them in a state of siege; the pangs of hunger at last forced them to yield. The reforms which Gredanna then effected were productive of such beneficial results that the house regained a high standing.

The reform of Söflingen near Ulm,[57*] an account of which we also owe to Fabri, affords one more of many examples of the tyranny of interference. This house belonged to the order of St Glare, and like all the houses of this order was subject to the Franciscan friars, who had the exclusive right of control over them.

The Franciscans of Ulm having accepted reforms in consequence of the papal bull of 1484, the town authorities of Ulm called upon the nuns to do the same, and Fabri relates how 'a number of burghers accompanied by religious doctors of various orders, by noblemen, their followers, and by members of the town-gilds, armed and unarmed, marched upon Soflingen in a great crowd, as though to fight for the glory of God.' They conveyed with them a new abbess and a number of nuns of the reformed order of St Glare, whom they meant to instal at Söflingen. But here they were met by open defiance. The lady superior, Christine Strölin († 1489), shouted that she could not and would not be deposed, and her nuns vented their indignation in threats and blasphemy. Not by promises, not by threats, could they be persuaded to leave their lady superior. They rushed through the buildings, snatched up coffers and boxes, and followed Christine out of the house. Their loyalty and unanimity in defending their rights awaken feelings in their favour which are confirmed when we find the bishop of the diocese disapproving of the forcible measures resorted to by the citizens; endless quarrels and discussions ensued. The abbess Christine, after staying at various places, returned to Söflingen and was reinstated in her rights, on condition of adopting certain reforms; some of her nuns came back with her, but others refused to do so and went to live in other nunneries.

Details concerning the 'reform' of one other nunnery are worth recording because they show how a representative of the Church openly attempted to curtail the privileges of a powerful nunnery. The struggle of the nunnery of Sonnenburg in the Tyrol with the Cardinal Legate Nicolas Cusanus († 1464), bishop of Brixen, has been the subject of close historical enquiry, as its importance far   [p. 423]   exceeds the interests of those immediately concerned.[58*] In this struggle the representative of the Pope came into open conflict with the prince of the land, Sigmund, archduke of Austria and duke of Tyrol, who defied the Cardinal and obliged him to flee the country and seek refuge at Rome. The quarrel which began over the nunnery ended with the ban of excommunication being pronounced against Sigmund, and with his appeal to a Church Council against the authority of the Papal Curia.

Sonnenburg was the wealthiest and most influential Benedictine settlement of women in the land. It was in existence as early as the 11th century and had extensive powers of jurisdiction which repeatedly brought its abbess into conflict with her rival in power, the bishop of Brixen. Against him she had sought and secured the protection of the archduke; but at the time of the appointment of Cusanus as bishop, the settlement of a matter of temporal administration between herself and the bishopric was pending. Cusanus had obtained from Rome exceptional powers of monastic visitation, powers such as were conferred at a later date on the Cardinal Legate Ximenes in Spain and on the Cardinal Legate Wolsey in England. By virtue of these powers Cusanus at once transferred the affair with the abbess from the temporal domain to the spiritual, and in his character of monastic visitor and reformer sent a manifesto to the abbess and nuns to the effect that after the coming festival of Corpus Christi they were on no account to absent themselves from the convent or to receive visitors. The abbess, Verena von Stuben, and her convent, which consisted at the time of seven nuns, ignored this command, obedience to which would have cut off intercourse with the archduke and made attention to the pending matter of business impossible. More closely pressed, the abbess gave an evasive answer and lodged a complaint with Sigmund, in which she and the convent declared themselves ready to accept the desired change (p. 66[59*] ) but said that they were convinced that such a course at the present moment would be fatal to their position. It was clear to them that Cusanus was bent on their ruin. The archduke to whom they appealed declared that the prelate was transgressing the limits of his authority, and intimated to him that he would not have the temporalities of the   [p. 424]   house interfered with,--a decision to which Cusanus for the moment deferred.

The documents relating to the further progress of this quarrel are numerous. A kind of chronicle was kept at Sonnenburg written partly by the nuns, partly by the abbess, into which copies of over two hundred letters and documents were inserted. It bears the title 'On what occurred between Cardinal Cusanus and the abbess Verena,' and is now in the library at Innsbruck.[60*]

Foiled in his first attempt to gain control over Sonnenburg, Cusanus now devoted his attention to other religious communities. He took under his protection a number of recluses, called sylvan sisters, 'Waldschwestern' (p. 63), and having secured further powers from Rome, attempted to interfere with the convent of Minoresses or Poor Clares at Brixen (p. 87). But these nuns, though they were low-born and uneducated, were as stubborn as their high-born and learned sisters on the Sonnenburg; Verena's conduct may have given them the courage to oppose the Cardinal. Their lady superior was forcibly removed at his instigation, but they appealed against him at Rome, and though their opposition was censured, Cusanus was directed to place the matter in the hands of the Franciscans at Nürnberg, who declared themselves willing to institute the desired reforms. Nuns from the convent of St Clare at Nürnberg were despatched to Brixen, and the tone of the house was raised without its privileges being forfeited.

On the strength of his increased visitatorial powers Cusanus (1453) returned to the charge at Sonnenburg, but its inmates would give no official declaration of their intentions (p. 90). Accordingly the bishop of Eichsätt was summoned to hold a visitation there, but he was refused admission by the nuns. However a second deputation came which could not be warded off, and the convent gave the desired information; the result of which was that injunctions were forwarded confining the authority of the abbess to the control of the nuns, and practically despoiling her of her property. Strict seclusion was to be observed, and the house was to be furnished with a key, which was to be given to a person appointed by Cusanus. The management of the monastic property was to be in the hands of a bailiff who was to render account to the bishop direct, not to the abbess. Scant wonder that the abbess Verena, indignant at the order and despairing of help from without, offered to resign. Her offer delighted   [p. 425]   the legate, who forthwith despatched Afra von Velseck to undertake the management of affairs at the convent, with the command that she was to take no step without previously consulting him (p. 94). It seems that Cusanus entertained the idea of appropriating the temporalities of the nunnery altogether, and transferring them to the use of monks, who were to be subject to his friend and ally, the abbot of Tegernsee (p. 95). He afterwards gave up the plan, 'since the nobility,' as he wrote (p. 127), 'look upon this house as a home for their daughters and are opposed to my plan.'

At this juncture things took an unexpected turn. Verena consulted with her friends in the matter of the pension on which she was to retire (p. 109); and Cusanus was angered by the objections they raised to his proposals. There was a stormy interchange of letters between him and the abbess (p. 124), which ended in Verena's resuming her authority, and in Afra's deposition. Cusanus sent an armed escort to fetch away his protégée and threatened excommunication to the convent. In vain was a complaint against him sent by the nuns to Rome; Cusanus had anticipated them. The Pope censured the nuns' conduct, affirmed Cusanus' authority, and cast imputations on the character of the abbess, which were indignantly resented in a second letter forwarded to the Pope by the nuns.

The archduke Sigmund now tried to interfere in the interest of peace. A second visitation was undertaken, and a list of injunctions was drawn up for the nuns (p. 133). Among these we note that nuns from a reformed convent were to come and live as teachers at Sonnenburg; the abbess was henceforth to have no separate household, she was forbidden to go out without asking leave from the diocesan, she was not to go on pilgrimages or visit health resorts, and she was not to be present at weddings.

But the abbess and the convent refused to accept these injunctions, and they were accordingly placed under an interdict. The hospital belonging to the house and its property were confiscated, the chaplains were forbidden to celebrate mass, and the ban of excommunication was pronounced against the nuns and was reiterated by the priest of the nearest church on feast days and on Sundays. This was a great humiliation to the nuns and helped to lower them in general estimation.

Sigmund was absent at the time. Soon after his return Pope Nicolas V, the patron of Cusanus, died (1455), and his successor Calixtus III warned the Cardinal against pushing things to   [p. 426]   extremes (p. 161). Sigmund also pleaded in favour of the nuns that they were staying within precincts, and that Verena was an estimable woman. Cusanus in answer contended that what he had done, he had done with the sanction of Rome, and that he had excommunicated and deposed Verena solely on account of her disobedience; and he then acknowledged that she was a thoroughly honest and excellent manager. In his letters to the abbot of Tegernsee, written about the same time, he speaks of Verena as a very Jezebel who is full of wiles against him (p. 153). 'Maybe she will pretend obedience to deceive me,' he wrote among other things, 'but the devil of pride has her soul in his possession and will prevent her from really humbling herself.' But the relations between Sigmund and his bishop were becoming strained in other respects. The first breach of the peace occurred when the abbess came to Innsbruck to seek support. Cusanus despatched a deacon to prevent her being received, and Sigmund had the deacon cast into prison.

The nuns on the Sonnenburg were in a sorry plight. They dared not leave the house, the usual tithes were not brought to them and there had been no ingathering of the produce of their own harvest, for Cusanus threatened excommunication to anyone having intercourse with them or looking after their interests. They were nigh upon starvation (p. 277), and had recourse to an unlawful step. They took a band of armed men into their service and directed them to gather the tribute due to them. But the soldiers sent by the archbishop put these men to flight and then stormed the cloister. The nuns fled into the adjoining woods and found refuge in a house. 'But we were betrayed and had to fly again,' they wrote in their chronicle; 'during three days we were pursued and sought by the troops, repeatedly we were so near to them that we saw them and they saw us. But the Virgin Mary helped us to escape from them.' Afra von Velseck had been put in possession of their empty house, but Cusanus could not support her; fearful of Sigmund he had fled from his bishopric and repaired to Rome. The archduke conducted the nuns back and begged Verena to resign, offering her a house near Innsbruck (p. 309). An envoy was accordingly despatched to Rome to proffer terms of submission to Cusanus if only he would take the ban of excommunication from the nuns. The bishop at last yielded to the Pope's command, though with a sufficiently bad grace. 'I send you a copy of Verena's letter to me,' he wrote to the envoy Natz, 'she tells   [p. 427]   lies as usual.' And on the margin of her letter, as a comment on her declaration that she had repeatedly sought absolution, he added the words, 'this is a lie.'

Penance in its extreme form was undergone by the convent (p. 311), but as Cusanus persistently denied to Sigmund the right of appointing a new abbess, many letters passed before the conditions of peace were settled and ratified. The correspondence, as Jiger remarks (p. 315), throws an interesting light on the character of the women concerned. Verena, who throughout maintained a proud dignity, retired from the convent on a pension; Afra, who had resorted to various intrigues, finally renounced all claims, and Barbara Schondorfer came over from Brixen and was installed as abbess.

Thus ended the quarrel about the privileges of Sonnenburg, which lasted six years and led to the curtailment of many of its rights. The story proves the inability of convents to preserve their independence, and shows how their weakness was made the excuse for interference from without to the detriment of the abbess in her position as landowner.

It remains to enquire how far the improvements effected in monastic life by peaceful and by forcible means were lasting, and in what position the nunnery stood at the beginning of the 16th century.

Some valuable information is given on the general state of monasticism by a number of addresses delivered by Tritheim, abbot of Sponheim († 1516), before the assembled chapter of Benedictine abbots between 1490 and 1492. [61*] Tritheim takes high rank among the older humanists; he was an enlightened man according to the notions of his age, and collected a wonderful and comprehensive library of books in many languages at Sponheim. His interest in necromancy afterwards brought reproach on him and he left his convent, but at the time when he pleaded before the assembled abbots he was full of enthusiasm for his order and full of regrets concerning it. In his address 'on the ruin of the Benedictine order,' he pointed out how effectually the Bursfeld and other congregations had worked in the past, but the beneficial results they effected had passed away and little of their influence remained. If only those who are vowed to religion, says Tritheim, would care more for learning, which has been made so much more   [p. 428]   accessible by the invention of printing, the outlook would not be so utterly hopeless.

In these addresses Tritheim takes no account of nunneries, but we can discover his attitude towards nuns in an address to a convent,[62*] the keynote of which is that the women assembled there should cultivate love, lowliness and patience under tribulation. The address is gentle and dignified, but it shows that Tritheim, in common with other men of the time, attached importance to nunneries chiefly for the piety they cultivated. His belief in this respect is shared by the zealous reformer Geiler von Kaisersberg († 1500), who preached many sermons before the nuns of the convents of St Mary Magdalen (Reuerinnen), and of St Stephan at Strasburg, and who likewise saw the beauty of a nun's vocation only in her devotional and contemplative attitude. We gather from his sermons, many of which are preserved in the form in which they were written out by nuns,[63*] that a clear line of demarcation existed in his mind between reformed and unreformed convents, and that while emphatic in denouncing the ungodly ways of the inmates of unreformed houses, life in a reformed house was comparable in his eyes to Paradise. Geiler's efforts as a reformer were so far crowned by success that the convent of St Mary Magdalen to which he had devoted his efforts, outlived the attacks to which it was exposed at the time of the Reformation.

The fact that Tritheim insists only on the devotional attitude of nuns is the more noticeable as he visited at the convent of Seebach, the abbess of which, Richmondis van der Horst, was equally praised for her own abilities and the superior tone she maintained in her convent. For instances were not wanting which show that intellectual tastes were still strong in some nunneries and that women living the convent life were themselves authors and took a certain amount of interest in the revival of classical learning, as we shall see later.

Thus Butzbach (called Premontanus, († 1526), a pupil of Hegius, who became a monk at Laach and was an admirer of Tritheim, was in correspondence with Aleydis Ruyskop († 1507), a nun at Rolandswerth, who had written seven homilies on St Paul in Latin and translated a German treatise on the mass into Latin. He dedicated to her his work on 'Distinguished learned women,' which he took from the work of the Italian Benedictine Jacopo of Ber   [p. 429]   gamo, but from delicacy of feeling he omitted what Jacopo had inserted in praise of women's influence as wives and mothers.[64*] In this work Butzbach compares Aleydis to Hrotsvith, to Hildegard and to Elisabeth of Schönau. He also wrote to Gertrud von Büchel, a nun who practised the art of painting at Rolandswerth, and he refers to Barbara Dalberg, niece of the bishop of Worms, who was a nun at Marienberg, and to Ursula Cantor, who, he declares, was without equal in her knowledge of theology But in spite of these instances and others, a growing indifference is apparent, both among the advocates of the new culture and in the outer world generally, to the intellectual occupation of women, and the training of girls. In their far-reaching plans for an improved system of education the humanists leave girls out of count, and dwell on their qualities of heart rather than on their qualities of mind. That the training of the mental faculties must be profitable in all cases for women does not occur to them, though the idea is advanced with regard to men.

At the close of the 15th century Wimpheling († 1528) wrote a work on matters of education entitled Germania. It is a conception of ideal citizenship, and in it he insists that the burghers of Strasburg must let their sons receive a higher education and learn Latin in the 'gymnasium,' of which he gives his plan, regardless of the vocation they intend to embrace. Only a short chapter[65*] of the book refers to the training of girls. Their parents are cautioned against placing them in nunneries, which in the writer's mind are little better than brothels. He advises their being trained at home for domestic life and made to spin and weave like the daughters of Augustus.

Similar tendencies are reflected in the works of Erasmus († 1536). His Colloquies or Conversations introduce us to a number of women under various aspects; and the want of purpose in convent life, the danger of masterfulness in wives, the anomalous position of loose women, and the general need there was of cultivating domestic qualities, are all in turn discussed.

Two Colloquies turn on the convent life of women. In the first[66*] a girl of seventeen declares herself averse to matrimony, and   [p. 430]   expresses her intention of becoming a nun. The man who argues with her represents to her that if she be resolved to keep her maidenhood, she can do so by remaining with her parents and need not make herself from a free woman into a slave. 'If you have a mind to read, pray or sing,' he says, 'you can go into your chamber as much and as often as you please. When you have enough of retirement, you can go to church, hear anthems, prayers, and sermons, and if you see any matron or virgin remarkable for piety in whose company you may get good, or any man who is endowed with singular probity from whom you can gain for your bettering, you can have their conversation, and choose the preacher who preaches Christ most purely. When once you are in the cloister, all these things, which are of great assistance in promoting true piety, you lose at once.' And he enlarges on the formalities of convent life, 'which of themselves signify nothing to the advancement of piety and make no one more acceptable in the eyes of Christ, who only looks to purity of mind.' The girl asks him if he be against the institution of monastic life. He replies, 'By no means. But as I will not persuade anyone against it who is already in it, so I would undoubtedly caution all young women, especially those of a generous temper, not to precipitate themselves unadvisedly into that state from which there is no getting out afterwards, and the more so because their chastity is more in danger in the cloister than out of it, and you may do whatever is done there as well at home.

His arguments however are in vain; the girl goes into a convent. But the next Colloquy, called the 'Penitent Virgin,'[67*] describes how she changed her mind and came out again. She was intimidated by the nuns through feigned apparitions, and when she had been in the house six days she sent for her parents and declared that she would sooner die than remain there.

Another Colloquy[68*] shows how masterfulness in a wife destroyed all possibility of domestic peace and happiness; yet another[69*] how a woman of loose life was persuaded to adopt other ways on purely reasonable grounds. Again we have a young mother who is persuaded to tend her child herself, since the promotion of its bodily welfare does much towards saving its soul.[70*] The most striking   [p. 431]   illustration however of the fact that in the eyes of Erasmus the position of woman was changing is afforded by the 'Parliament of Women,[71*] in which a great deal of talk leads to no result. Cornelia opens and closes the sitting, and urges that it is advisable that women should reconsider their position, for men, she says, are excluding women from all honourable employments and making them 'into their laundresses and cooks, while they manage everything according to their own pleasure.' But the assembled women dwell on irrelevant detail and harp on the distributions of class in a manner which shows that those qualities which made their participation in public affairs possible or advisable were utterly wanting among them. Erasmus passes no remarks derogatory to women as such, and yet he leaves us to infer that they cannot do better than devote their attention exclusively to domestic concerns.

Judging by his writings and those of others who were active in the cause of progress, there was a growing feeling that the domestic virtues needed cultivation. A change in the position of women was not only imminent but was felt to be desirable, and probably it was in conformity with what women themselves wished. Both in England and on the Continent the idea that virginity was in itself pleasing to God was no longer in the foreground of the moral consciousness of the age; it was felt that the duties of a mother took higher rank, and that the truest vocation of woman was to be found in the circle of home. This view, as we shall see presently, tallied with the views taken by the Protestant reformers and prepared the way for the dissolution of nunneries.


[1*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Godstow,' vol. 4, p. 357, Charter nr 16.

[2*] Ibid. 'St Radegund's,' vol. 4, p. 215, Charter nr 3.

[3*] Ducange, 'burnetum, pannus ex lana tincta confectus.'

[4*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Rumsey,' vol. 2, p. 507, footnote p.

[5*] Ibid. 'Swine,' vol. , p. 493.

[6*] Ibid. 'Sopwell,' vol. 3, p. 362, charter nr 7.

[7*] Ibid. 'Chatteris,' vol. 2, p. 614, charter nr 11.

[8*] Ibid. 'Nun-Monktofl,' vol. 4, p. 192, charter nr 2.

[9*] Gasquet, A., The Great Pestilence, 1893, Introd. p. xvi.

[10*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Thetford,' vol. , p. 475.

[11*] Jessopp, A., Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich, 1492--1532, pp. 90, 155.

[12*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Mailing.' vol. 3, p. 382; Gasquet, A., The Great Pestilence, 1893, pp. 104, 106.

[13*] Gasquet, p. 137.

[14*] Dugdale Monasticon, 'Wyrthorp,' vol. 4, p. 266.

[15*] Ibid. 'Seton,' vol. 4, p. 226, charter nr 2.

[16*] Ibid. 'St Sepulchre's,' vol. 4, p. 413, footnote 1.

[17*] Way, A., 'Notices of the Benedictine Priory of St Mary Magdalen at Rusper,' Sussex Archeol. Collections, vol. 5, p. 244; Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Rusper,' vol. 4, p. 586.

[18*] Blaauw, W. H., 'Episcopal Visitations of the Priory of Easebourne,'Sussex Archeol. Collections,vol. 9, pp. 1-32; Dugdale, Monasticon,'Easebourn,' vol. 4, p. 423.

[19*] Dugdale, Monasticon'Sele,' vol. 4, p. 668.

[20*] Dugdale, Monasticon, St. John's,' vol. 6, p. 678.

[21*] Ibid. 'Selbourne,' vol. 6, p. 510.

[22*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII. and the English Monasteries, 1888, vol. I, p. 52.

[23*] Wilkins, D., Concilia, 1737, vol. 3, pp. 413, 419, 462.

[24*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'St Albans,' vol. 2, p. 205.

[25*] Wilkins, D., Concilia, 1737, vol. 3, p. 390.

[26*] Ibid. 1737, vol. 3, p. 630.

[27*] Ibid. Year 1490, vol. 3, p. 632. Froude without taking into consideration the circumstances under which this letter was penned takes its contents as conclusive eviaence of the abuses of the monastic system at the time of the Reformation. Comp. History of England, 1893, vol. 2, p. 304; Life and Letters of Erasmus, 1894, p. 18.

[28*] Newcome, P., History of the Abbacy of St. Albans,1793, p. 399.

[29*] Dugdale, Monasiticon, 'St. Albans,' vol. 2, p. 206, footnote c; 'the Book of Ramryge,' MS. Cotton. Nero D. VII.

[30*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'St Mary de Pree,' vol. 3, p. 353, charter nr 9.

[31*] Ibid. 'Sopwell,' vol. 3, p. 363.

[32*] 'Land of Cockayne,' in Early English Lives of Saints, etc., Philological Society, 1858, p. 156.

[33*] 'Why I cannot be a nun,' in Early English Lives of Saints, etc., Philological Society, 1858, p. 138.

[34*] Comp. above, pp. 339, 377.

[35*] Mohier, J. A., Kirchengeschichte, edit. 1867, vol. 2, pp. 612 ff.

[36*] Comp. Leuckfeld, Antiquitates Bursfeldenses, 1713; Pez, Bibliotheca ascetica, vol. 8, nrs 6 ff.

[37*] Discussed in Klemm, G. F., Die Frauen, vol. 4, p. 181, using Ordinarius preserved at Dresden (Ms. L. 92).

[38*] Busch, J., Liber de reformatione monasteriorum (written between 1470--1475), edit. Grube, 1887.

[39*] Deutsche Allgemeine Biographie, article 'Busch, Joh.'

[40*] Busch, Liber de reformatione monasteriorurn, 'Derneburg, p. 588.

[41*] Ibid. 'Wennigsen,' 'Mariensee,' 'Werder' pp. 555 ff.

[42*] Busch, Liber de reformatione monasteriorum, 'Wienhausen,' p. 629.

[43*] Ibid. 'St Georg in Halle,' p. 568.

[44*] Ibid. 'Heiningen,' p. 600.

[45*] Ibid. 'Frankenberg,' p. 607.

[46*] Ibid. 'Dorstad,' p. 644.

[47*] Ibid. 'Neuwerk,' p. 609.

[48*] Ibid. 'Fischbeck,' p. 640.

[49*] Ibid. 'Marienberg,' p. 618.

[50*] Busch, Liber de reformatione monasteriorurn, 'Marienbom,' 'Stendal,' p. 622.

[51*] Ibid. pp. 664 ff.

[52*] Ibid. pp. 659 ff.

[53*] Remling, F. X., Urkundl. Geschichte der Abteien und Klöster in Rheinbayern, 1836, 'Schönfeld,' vol. I, p. 165; 'Ramsen,' vol. I, p. 263; 'Kleinfrankenthal,' vol. 2 p. 79.

[54*] Marx, J., Geschichte des Erzstifls Trier, 1860, vol. 3, p. 466 (Benedictine nunneries, pp. 457--511, Cistercian nunneries, pp. 579--593).

[55*] Brusch, C., Chronol. Mon. Germ., 1682, p. 508.

[56*] Fabri, F., De Civitate Ulmensi, edit. Veesenmeyer, Liter. Verein, Stuttgart, 1889, pp. 180 ff.

[57*] Fabri, F., De Civitate Ulmensi,pp. 202 ff.

[58*] Jäger, A., Der Streit des Cardinals N. von Cusa mit dem Herzoge Sigmund von Oesterreich, 1861, 2 vols. (the struggle over Sonnenburg is in vol. 1).

[59*] Ibid. vol. 1 (page references in the text throughout this section are to the above account).

[60*] Jäger, A., Der Streit des Cardinals N. von Cusa etc., 1861, Vorwort, p. x.

[61*] Tritheim, Opera pia et spiritualia,edit. Busaeus, 1604, 'Orationes," pp. 840-916.

[62*] Tritheim, Opera,etc., Epist nr 3, p. 921 (written 1485)

[63*] Geiler, Predigten Teutsch,1508; Seelen-Paradies,1510, etc.

[64*] Information on those works of Butzbach which are not published is given in the second supplementary volume, pp. 439 ff. of Hutten, U. v., Opera, edit. Böcking, 1857.

[65*] Wimpheling, Germania, transl. Martin, E., 1885, ch. 77.

[66*] Erasmus, Colloquies, transl. Bailey, edit. Johnson, 1878, 'The Virgin averse to Matrimony,' vol. 1, p. 225.

[67*] Erasmus, Colloquies, 'The Penitent Virgin,' vol. I. p. 237.

[68*] Ibid. 'The Uneasy Wife,' vol. I p. 241.

[69*] Ibid. 'The Young Man and Harlot,' vol. I, p. 291.

[70*] 'Ibid. 'The Lying-in Woman,' vol. 1, p. 441.

[71*] Erasmus, Colloquies,'The Assembly or Parliament of Women,' vol. 2, p. 203.

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