University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The History Collection

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

View all of CONVENTS AMONG THE FRANKS, A.D. 550--650.

Next subsection Next


At the Frankish Invasion.[1*]

THE great interest of early monastic life among the Franks lies in the conversion of this hardy and ferocious people to Christianity just at the moment of their emergence from a state of barbarism. Fierce, warlike and progressive, the Franks were brought face to face with cultured Latinity. The clerical student who claimed direct descent from the Gallo-Roman rhetorician, and the bishop who was in possession of the municipal government of the town, found themselves confronted by shaggy-haired, impetuous men from forest wilds. At the outset an all but immeasurable distance separated the social and intellectual development of the Gallo Roman from that of these strangers. Compared with the cultivated man of letters and with the veteran, grown grey in imperial service, the German invader was little more than a savage; nevertheless he succeeded in holding his own. At first his standards of life and conduct gave way before those of the Gallo-Romans. The Jives of early Frankish princes, as their contemporary, the historian Gregory of Tours, depicts them, are marked by ceaseless quarrels and feuds, by numberless instances of murder, perjury and violence. The bonds of union among them were forcibly relaxed, as often happens in those periods of history when restraint and responsibility are broken through by a sudden and overwhelming inrush of new ideas. A prey to intemperance and greed, the descendants of the   [p. 46]   great Merovech dwindled away. But other men of the same race, stronger than they in mind and less prone to enervating luxury, pressed in from behind. And after the temporary mental and moral collapse which followed upon the occupation of Gaul by the Franks, the race rose to new and increased vigour. New standards of conduct were evolved and new conceptions of excellence arose, through the mingling of Latin and German elements. For the great Roman civilization, a subject of wonder and admiration to all ages, was in many of its developments realized, appropriated, and assimilated by the converted Germans. Three hundred years after their appearance in Gaul, the Franks were masters of the cultivated western world; they had grasped the essentials of a common nationality and had spread abroad a system of uniform government.

The Franks at first showed a marked deficiency in the virtues which pagan Rome had established, and to which Christianity had given a widened and spiritualized meaning. Temperance, habitual self-control and the absorption of self in the consciousness of a greater, formed no part of this people's character. . These virtues, together with peaceableness and a certain simplicity of taste, laid the groundwork of the monasticism which preceded the invasion. Persons who were vowed to religion were averse to war, because it disturbed study and industry, and they shrank from luxury of life, because it interrupted routine by exciting their appetites. An even tenor of life was the golden mean they set before themselves, and in some degree they had realized it in Roman Gaul before the barbarian invasion.

The Frank at first felt little tempted in the direction of monastic life. His fierce and warlike tendencies, love of personal predominance and glory, and impatience of every kind of restraint, were directly opposed to the uniform round of devotion and work to which the religious devotee conformed.

The attitude of Frankish men towards monasticism was at best passive; on the other hand convent life from the first found sympathy among Frankish women. Princesses of pure German blood and of undisputed German origin left the royal farms, which were the court residences of the period, and repaired to the religious houses, to devote themselves to religion and to the learning of cultured Latinity. Not one of the princes of the royal Frankish race entered a convent of his own accord, but their wives, widows, and daughters readily joined houses of religion.

Meekness and devotion, self-denial and subservience are not the   [p. 47]   most prominent features in the character of these women. The wives and daughters of men to whom Macaulay attributes all vices and no virtues, are of a temper which largely savours of the world. What distinguishes them is quick determination and clear-sighted appreciation of the possibilities opened out to them by the religious life. Fortunately the information which we have concerning them is not confined to the works of interested eulogists. Accounts of women whom posterity estimated as saints lay stress on those sides of their character which are in accord with virtues inculcated by the Church. But we have other accounts besides these about women who had taken the vows of religion, but whose behaviour called forth violent denunciations from their contemporaries. And over and above these, passages in profane literature are extant which curiously illustrate the worldly tone and temper of many women who had adopted religion as a profession.

These women were driven to resort to convents chiefly as the result of their contact with a great civilization, which threw open unknown and tempting possibilities to men, but raised many difficulties in the way of women.

The resources of the districts acquired by the Franks were immeasurably greater than those of the lands they had left. Wealth and intemperance readily join hands. The plurality of recognised and unrecognised wives in which the Frankish princes indulged resulted in great family difficulties. The royal farms and the ancient cities, where these petty kings resided, were the scenes of continual broils and squabbles in which royal wives and widows took the leading parts. From the chequered existence which this state of things implies, convent life alone afforded a permanent refuge. Sometimes a princess left home from a sense of the indignities she was made to suffer; sometimes a reverse of fortune caused her to accept, willingly or unwillingly, the dignified retirement of the cloister.

During the centuries preceding the Frankish conquest the development of religious and monastic life in Gaul had been considerable, for the Church had practically appropriated what was left of the Roman system of organization, and since this system had been chiefly municipal, the municipal bodies were largely composed of bishops and clerks.

The monastic life of men in Gaul had a number of independent centres in the western provinces, due to the enthusiastic zeal of St Martin of Tours († 400), to whom reference has been made.

  [p. 48]  

In the beginning of the 6th century a settlement of nuns was founded in the south, where monasteries already existed, perhaps as the result of direct contact with the east. A rule of life was drafted for this convent shortly after its foundation.

Caesarius, bishop of ArIes (501--573), had persuaded his sister Caesaria to leave Marseilles, where she dwelt in a convent associated with the name of Cassian. His plan was that she should join him at Aries, and preside over the women who had gathered there to live and work under his guidance.

Caesarius now marked out a scheme of life for his sister and those women whom she was prepared to direct. He arranged it, as he says himself, according to the teachings of the fathers of the Church and, after repeated modifications, he embodied it in a set of rules, which have come down to us.[2*] Great clearness and directness, a high moral tone, and much sensible advice are contained in these precepts of Caesarius. Since the Lord,' he says, addressing himself to the women, 'has willed to inspire us and help us to found a monastery for you, in order that you may abide in this monastery, we have culled spiritual and holy injunctions for you from the ancient fathers; with God's help may you be sheltered, and dwelling in the cells of your monastery, seeking in earnest prayer the presence of the Son of God, may you say in faith, "we have found him whom we sought." Thus may you be of the number of holy virgins devoted to God, who wait with tapers alight and a calm conscience, calling upon the Lord--Since you are aware that I have worked towards establishing this monastery for you, let me be one of you through the intercession of your prayer.

Caesarius goes on to stipulate that those who join the community, whether they be maidens or widows, shall enter the house once for all and renounce all claims to outside property. Several paragraphs of the rule are devoted to settling questions of property, a proof of its importance in the mind of Caesarius. There were to be in the house only those who of their own accord accepted the routine and were prepared to live on terms of strictest equality without property or servants of their own.

Children under the age of six or seven were not to be received   [p. 49]   at all, 'nor shall daughters of noble parentage or lowly-born girls be taken in readily to be brought up and educated.'

This latter injunction shows how the religious at this period wished to keep the advantages to be derived from artistic and intellectual training in their own community. They had no desire for the spread of education, which forms so characteristic a feature of the religious establishments of a later date.

After their safe housing the instruction of the nuns at Aries was the most important matter dealt with in the 'rule.' Considerable time and thought were devoted to the practice of chants and to choir-singing, for the art of music was considered especially fitted to celebrate God. In an appendix to the rule of Caesarius the system of singing is described as similar to that adopted in the ceonobite settlement at Lerins.[3*] Apparently following Keltic usage, the chant was taken up in turn by relays of the professed, who kept it up night and day all the year round in perpetual praise of the Divinity. At this period melody and pitch were the subjects of close study and much discussion. The great debt owed by the art of music to the enthusiasm of these early singers is often overlooked.

The women who joined the community at ArIes also learned reading and writing ('omnes litteras discant'). These arts were practised in classes, while domestic occupations, such as cooking, were performed in turns. Weaving, probably that of church hangings, was among the arts practised, and the women also spun wool and wove it into material with which they made garments for their own use.

There are further injunctions about tending the infirm, and stern advice about the hatefulness of quarrels. Intercourse with the outside world is restricted, but is not altogether cut off.

'Dinners and entertainments,' says the rule, 'shall not be provided for churchmen, laymen and friends, but women from other religious houses may be received and entertained.'

In the year 506 Caesarius, the author of this rule, was present at the synod of Agde at which it was decreed that no nun however good in character should receive the veil, that is be permanently bound by a vow, before her fortieth year.[4*] This decree, taken together with the rule, proves the sober and serious spirit of   [p. 50]   these early settlements and the purpose which their founder set before him.

The teaching of Caesarius generally reflects the spirit of cautious reserve characteristic of the rule instituted by the great St Benedict of Nursia for the monks he had assembled together on Monte Casino in Central Italy. His efforts like those of Caesarius were directed to the creation of conditions favourable to the devoutly disposed, not to the leavening of the outside world by the spread of Christian doctrine.

It was part of the plan of Caesarius to secure independence to the communities he had founded; for in his capacity as bishop he addressed a letter to Pope Hormisda († 523) in which he asked the Pope's protection for his monasteries, one of which was for men and one for women, against possible interference from outside. He also begged that the Pope would confirm the grants of property which had already been made to these establishments. In his reply to this letter the Pope declared that the power of the bishop in regard to these settlements should be limited to visitation.[5*]

It must be borne in mind that Arles and the southern parts of Gaul were overrun by the Goths, who inclined to Arianism and opposed the Church of Rome. Fear of this heresy induced the prelates of the Church to favour Frankish rule. After the alliance of the Frankish kings with the Church the religious establishments in the land remained undisturbed, and numerous new monasteries were founded.

It is evident from what we know of the nuns at Arles, and of other bands of women whom the Church took under her protection, that they readily accepted life on the conditions proffered and were content to be controlled and protected by men. It is only when the untamed German element with its craving for self-assertion came in, that difficulties between the bishops and heads of nunneries arose, that women of barbarian origin like Radegund, Chrodield, and others, appealed to the authority of ruling princes against the bishop, and asserted an independence not always in accordance with the usual conceptions of Christian virtue and tolerance.


[1*] Fustel de Colulanges, L'invasion germanique, 1891; Gérard, P.A.F. Histoire de Francs d'Austrasie,1864; Ozanam,Civilisation chretienne chez les Francs,1855.

[2*] A.SS.Boll.St. Caesaria, Jan.12, Regula,pp. 730-737; alsoA. SS. Boll.,St. Caesarius episcopus, Aug.27.

[3*] A. SS. Boll., St Caesaria, Jan. 12 Regula, c. 66.

[4*] Guette, Histoire de l'èglise de France, 1847, vol. 2, 46; Labbe, Sacr. Conc. Collectio, Conc. Agathense, canon nr. 19.

[5*] Guettee, Histoire de l'èglise de France,1847, vol. 2, p. 109.

Next subsection Next

Go up to Top of Page