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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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  [p. 477]  

Mv task has drawn to its close. In a series of chapters, incompletely no doubt but I trust not superficially, the position of woman under monasticism has been brought before the reader, and some account has been given of the various aspects of convent life. In conclusion it seems well to pause and look back over the ground traversed, to take in at a glance what Catholic tradition, convent-life and saint-lore have done for women in the past. The area over which the reader has been taken is a wide one, and the ground in many directions remains unexplored. Still some of the most prominent landmarks have been noted, and some districts carefully examined. Thus while further information might be sought concerning many special points, it still seems legitimate to form a general survey and to draw certain conclusions.

Turning back to the earliest period when Christianity with its new conceptions first came into contact with beliefs dating from a distant heathen era, we have seen how many sentiments and associations of ideas peculiar to pre-Christian times lived on and were absorbed into the new religion. The early representatives of Christianity, with a keen-sighted appreciation of the means by which a change of religion is most successfully effected, treated the older conceptions with tolerance, and by doing so made possible the establishment of new ideas in the old heathen setting. The legends and the cult of the saints contain a mine of wealth as yet little explored by the student of primitive civilization and folk-lore, a mine which has here been tapped at one vein only,-- namely for the information it yields on the antiquity of beliefs which attach to certain women who are reckoned among the saints.

Passing from the ground of tradition to that of history we have seen how the convent was looked upon with favour by women of the newly converted barbarian races, and how readily they availed themselves of the protection which the Christian religion held out   [p. 478]   to them. This development also needed to be studied side by side with previous social conditions in order to stand out in its true light, and it gained a new meaning when considered in connection with the elements of older folk tradition which it absorbed. The representatives of Christianity, profiting by a surviving love of independence among womankind, turned the energies of women into new channels, and giving scope to their activity in new directions, secured their help in the cause of peaceful progress. The outward conditions of life were such that the woman who joined the convent made her decision once for all. But provided she agreed to forego the claims of family and sex, an honourable independence was secured to her, and she was brought into contact with the highest aims of her age. At a period when monasteries, placed in the remote and uncultivated districts, radiated peace and civilization throughout the neighbourhood, many women devoted themselves to managing settlements which in the standard they attained, vied in excellence with the settlements managed by men.

At the outset many married women left their husbands for the purpose of founding and governing convents; sometimes they founded convents the management of which they left to others and themselves retired to them later in life. The prestige and advantages enjoyed by the heads of religious settlements were such that kings and queens frequently installed their daughters as abbesses in preference to seeking for them matrimonial alliances, and these princesses were joined by many daughters of the most influential families, who gladly availed themselves of the opportunity of embracing the religious vocation. Through their close contact with high-born women, convents maintained a high tone in manners, morals and general behaviour, and grew into important educational centres, the beneficent influence of which was generally recognised.

The career open to the inmates of convents both in England and on the continent was greater than any other ever thrown open to women in the course of modern European history; abilities might raise the nun to the rank of abbess, a position of substantial authority. In the Kentish charter, to which reference has been made, the names of the abbesses as representatives of religion follow those of the bishops. In Saxony it fell to an abbess to act as representative of the emperor during his absence. As independent landowners, who held their property of and from   [p. 479]   king and emperor, the abbess took rank with the lords temporal and spiritual in the right of jurisdiction which they exercised, and in the right of being represented in Parliament or at the Imperial Diet as the case might be.

While fulfilling the duties which devolved on them in virtue of their station, abbesses did not neglect their opportunities of keeping in touch with culture and of widening their mental horizon. In Anglo-Saxon England men who attained to distinction received their training in settlements governed by women. Histories and a chronicle of unique value were inspired by and drafted under the auspices of Saxon abbesses. For nuns Ealdhelm wrote his most famous treatises, and several valuable contemporary biographies, such as those of Sturmi and of Robert of Fontevraud, were written at the express desire of nuns. And while eager in encouraging productiveness in others, they were not slow in trying to develop their own literary powers. In the 6th century Radegund was writing epistles in verse under the tuition of an exiled Latin poet; to an Anglo-Saxon nun whose name is not recorded we owe one of the earliest and most interesting accounts extant of a journey to Palestine. In the 8th century the nun Lioba was trying her hand at Latin verse in a convent in Thanet; in the 10th century the nun Hrotsvith in Saxony was composing Latin dramas on the model of Terence. The contributions of nuns to literature as well as incidental remarks show that the curriculum of study in the nunnery was as liberal as that accepted by monks, and embraced all available writing, whether by Christian or profane authors. While Scripture and the writings of the Fathers of the Church at all times formed the groundwork of monastic studies, Cicero at this period was read by the side of Boethius, Virgil by the side of Martianus Capella, Terence by the side of Isidor of Sevilla. From remarks made by Hrotsvith we see that the coarseness of the later Latin dramatists made no reason for their being forbidden to nuns, though she would have seen it otherwise; and Herrad was so far impressed by the wisdom of the heathen philosophers of antiquity that she pronounced this wisdom to be the 'product of the Holy Spirit also.' Throughout the literary world as represented by convents, the use of Latin was general, and made possible the even spread of culture in districts that were widely remote from each other and practically without intercourse.

The educational influence of convents during centuries cannot   [p. 480]   be rated too highly. Not only did their inmates attain considerable knowledge, but education in a nunnery, as we saw from the remarks of Chaucer and others, secured an improved standing to those who were not professed. The fact that a considerable number of women's houses after the monastic revival of the 11th and 12th centuries were founded largely at the instigation of men, proves that the usefulness of these institutions was generally recognised.

While devoted to reading and study which pre-eminently constituted the religious vocation, nuns during their leisure hours cultivated art in several of its branches. Spinning and weaving were necessarily practised in all settlements during many centuries, for the inmates of these settlements made the clothes which they wore. But weaving and embroidery, always essentially woman's work, found a new development in the convent, and works of marked excellence were produced both in England and abroad. The painstaking industry, which goes far in the production of such work, was reflected in the activity of women as scribes and illuminators, and the names of several nuns who were famous for their writing have been handed down to posterity. In the twofold domain of learning and art the climax of productiveness was reached in the person of Herrad, in whom a wide range of intellectual interests and a keen appreciation of study combined with considerable artistic skill and a certain amount of originality.

Side by side with literary and artistic pursuits nuns were active in the cause of philanthropy. Several women who had the sufferings of their fellows at heart are numbered among the saints; and under the auspices of Hildegard a book was compiled on the uses of natural products in health and disease, which forms a landmark in the history of mediaval medicine.

With the consciousness of the needs of others came too a keener power of self-realisation. The attention of nuns was turned to the inner life, and here again their productiveness did not fail them. The contributions to mystical literature by nuns are numerous, and their writings, which took the form of spiritual biography, legendary romance, or devotional exercise, were greatly appreciated and widely read by their contemporaries. Even nowa-days they are recommended as devotional works by the Catholic Church.

We have seen that the position of the convent was throughout influenced by the conditions of the world outside it; changes in outside political, intellectual and social life necessarily made them-   [p. 481]   selves felt in the convent. Consequent upon the spread of the feudal system of land tenure, which in the interest of an improved military organisation reserved the holding of property for men, women forfeited their chance of founding and endowing independent monasteries, and the houses founded after the monastic revival never attained a position comparable with that of those dating from the earlier period. As monasteries were theoretically safe against infringement of their privileges by prince or bishop owing to their connection with Rome, the relation of the Pope to temporal rulers and to the greater ecclesiastics directly affected them, and when the power of the Pope was relaxed they were at the mercy of prince and bishop. We have seen how kings of England appropriated alien priories, and how wilfully princes abroad curtailed the privileges of nunneries, the support of their prelates giving countenance to these changes. At a later period a considerable number of women's convents were interfered with by churchmen, who on the plea of instituting reforms took advantage of their position to appropriate the convent property.

A change of a different kind which affected the convent in its educational and intellectual standing was the growth of university centres, and the increased facilities afforded to the student of visiting different centres in succession. In the 9th century Bede who never stirred from his convent might attain intellectual excellence; such a course was impossible in the 13th and 14th centuries when the centre of education lay in the disputations which animated the lecture room. Some of the progressive monasteries of men lessened the loss they felt by securing a house at the university to which they sent their more promising pupils, but the tone at the mediaeval university was such that one cannot wonder that no attempt was made in this direction by the convents of women. As a natural result their intellectual standard for a time remained stationary, and then, especially in the smaller and remoter settlements, it fell. This led to a want of interest in intellectual acquirements among nuns, and it was accompanied by a growing indifference in the outside world to the intellectual acquirements of women generally.

Not that the desire to maintain a high standard had passed away from women's convents. The readiness with which many houses adopted the chance of betterment held out to them by the congregations of the 15th century, goes far to prove that nuns continued to identify the idea of salvation with a high moral   [p. 482]   tone and an application to study. But study now ran along a narrow groove, for the monastic reformers favoured devotional study only. The nuns, who were impressed by the excellence of the reformers' motives, and prevented by circumstances from forming opinions of their own in the matter, showed an increasing readiness to adopt their views. The friars led the way in this direction by cutting off the nuns, given into their care, from the management of outside affairs; they were followed by the order of Sion, and by the congregations of Bursfeld and Windesheim, all of which alike urged that the primary duty of a nun was sanctification of self. The interest of this movement lies in the voluminous devotional literature it called forth, a literature full of spiritual beauty, but in the production of which nuns, so far as we know, took no share. By writing out oral sermons they helped, however, to preserve and spread them. The change which had come over the convent life of women cramped rather than stimulated their intellectual vitality, and the system of which they made part was apparently beyond their control. The author of 'Holy Maidenhood' in the 13th century called the nun the free woman, and contrasted her with the wife who in his eyes was the slave. But Erasmus at the beginning of the 16th century urged that the woman who joined the convent by doing so became a slave, while she who remained outside was truly free. Erasmus also insisted on the fact that there was no reason why a woman should enter a convent, as she might as well stay in the world and remain unmarried if she so preferred. In point of fact social conditions had so far changed that society no longer called to the Church for protection of its daughters. For a time the convent ranked high as an educational establishment; then this use began to pass away also, and it was largely on account of the provision religious houses made for unmarried women that they still continued in favour with a portion of the community.

Many historians have advocated the view that the Protestant reformers discovered the abuses of the monastic system, and finding these intolerable, swept the whole system away. The evidence adduced above in connection with the dissolution shows that matters were far otherwise, that the dissolution of convents was accompanied by many regrettable incidents, and that as far as England is concerned, it may confidently be called premature. For many years those who sought progress by peaceful educational means seemed to be confronted only by hopeless and sanguinary con   [p. 483]   fusion; they passed away with the belief that the whole movement they had witnessed was opposed to real progress, holding the view that the Protestants were innovators of the worst and most dangerous kind.

However, as far as convents are concerned, it seems as though the Protestant reformers, far from acting as innovators, had done no more than give violent and extreme application to forces which had for some time been at work. The dissolution was led up to by a succession of conventual changes, and before the outbreak of the Lutheran agitation; at least one well-wisher of the system in Germany, Tritheim, had despaired of putting this system to new and effective uses. Not that monasticism can be said to have generally outlived its purposes at the time of the Reformation. In some countries, as in France and Spain, it subsequently chronicled important developments. But where German elements were prevalent, convents were either swept away, or put to altogether different uses by the Protestants, or else allowed to continue on a very much narrowed basis by the Catholics. Many convents fell utterly to decay in course of time and ceased to exist at the beginning of this century, others again still linger on but are mere shadows of their former brilliant selves.

The reason for these changes lay not altogether with those who professed religion in convents, they were part of a wider change which remoulded society on an altered basis. For the system of association, the groundwork of mediaeval strength and achievement, was altogether giving way at the time of the Reformation. The socialistic temper was superseded by individualistic tendencies which were opposed to the prerogatives conferred on the older associations. These tendencies have continued to the present with slight abatements, and have throughout proved averse to the continuation of monasticism which attained greatness through the spirit of association.

'Repelled through the violence and aggressiveness of the reformers, and provoked by the narrowness of Protestantism generally, some modern writers take the view that the Reformation was throughout opposed to real progress, and that mankind would have been richer had the reformers left undisturbed many of the institutions they destroyed. The revenues of these institutions would now have been at the disposal of those who would put them to public and not to personal uses. As far as convents, especially those of women, are concerned, I cannot but feel sceptical on both   [p. 484]   points. Granting even that these houses had been undisturbed, a possibility difficult to imagine, experience proves that it is hardly likely they could now be used to secure advantages such as they gave to women in the past. Certainly it is not in those districts where women's convents have lived on, securing economic independence to unmarried women as in North Germany, nor where they have lingered on along old lines as in Bavaria, that the wish for an improved education has arisen among women in modern times, nor does it seem at all likely that their revenues will ever be granted for such an object. It is in those countries where the change in social conditions has been most complete, and where women for a time entirely forfeited all the advantages which a higher education brings, and which were secured in so great a measure to women by convents in the past, that the modern movement for women's education has arisen.

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