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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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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.[1*] 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.[2*] 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,[3*] 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.[4*] 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.[5*] 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.[6*] 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.[7*] 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.[8*] 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.[9*] At Heiningen the nuns pleaded poverty as an excuse for staying away from home.[10*] Many settlements complained of poverty and insufficient revenue, among which was Frankenberg, near Goslar.[11*] The nuns of Dorstad earned money by taking pupils from outside the precincts,[12*] 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,[13*] 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,[14*] 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[15*] 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.[16*]

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;[17*] the story of the other, Sophie, an illegitimate daughter of Wilhelm, duke of Brunswick, reads like a romance.[18*] 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.[19*]

The historian of the reforms undertaken in the diocese of Trier notifies many important changes.[20*] 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).[21*]

We have detailed accounts of reforms in South Germany from the pen of another contemporary writer, Felix Fabri († 1502), a Dominican friar of Ulm.[22*] 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,[23*] 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.[24*] 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[25*] ) 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.[26*]

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. [27*] 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,[28*] 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,[29*] 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.[30*] 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[31*] 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[32*] 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,'[33*] 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[34*] shows how masterfulness in a wife destroyed all possibility of domestic peace and happiness; yet another[35*] 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.[36*] 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,[37*] 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*] Mohier, J. A., Kirchengeschichte, edit. 1867, vol. 2, pp. 612 ff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17*] Ibid. pp. 664 ff.

[18*] Ibid. pp. 659 ff.

[19*] 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.

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

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

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

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

[24*] 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).

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

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

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

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

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

[30*] 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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