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This paper charts both the wide variety of Christian women’s experiences of their faith in the early modern period, especially in context of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, and the way in which the historiography of this phenomenon has developed throughout the twentieth century. Through examples from a wide range of pious women, lay and cloistered, Protestant and Catholic, European, American and Asian, the similarities and differences between their reactions to religious change, everyday piety and other types of religious involvement become clear. Some nuns protested their forced veiling, while others lamented being removed from their convents during the Protestant reformation, maintained enclosure while traveling great distances and fought with their confessors for more personalized attention. Similarly, lay women acted as benefactresses for Jesuit schools and defied laws in order to support their faith, but also changed confessors when they felt their needs were not being met. 

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1When I was an undergraduate in the late 1950s the idea of « gender history » had yet to emerge and the history of religion was in large part an institutional history or one concerned with papal politics directed from Rome, the European capital of international diplomacy. The dramatis personae of this history might be national leaders, churchmen irritated by Vatican abuses who saw change as a needful precursor of purification or others who simply wished to emasculate Vatican power. Entire national populations were divided in the sixteenth century by the doctrinal changes which fractured Catholicism and gave birth in northern Europe to varying forms of Protestantism. Confessional change was usually imposed from above and if, doctrinally, this was the work of reforming clerics, in any given national or urban environment acceptance of such change was dependent upon the endorsement of significant elites either promoting or resisting the authority of Rome. However, the attitudes and responses of differing kinds of ordinary people to religious change, or of those in institutions such as convents who found their way of life threatened, were generally conspicuously absent issues in the narratives of religious change.

  • 1 Editorial note : Zemon Davis 1986 and 1995 and Roper 1989.

2Radical changes occurred in approaches to the study of religious history in the second half of the twentieth century when the writing of history diversified as a new generation of scholars asked very different questions and, to answer them, probed the possibilities of different kinds of evidence. There were new preoccupations with class analysis and family structures in determining religious roles and the reception of new ideas. Some concerns were socio-economic and some culturally and geographically diverse. Above all, in relation to this short study, the history of women from the late sixties became a new and pioneering field, reaching out into many branches of enquiry prompted by the desire to identify a distinctive experience between the sexes in a given set of circumstances. Religious conflict and confessional change in the early modern period soon came under scrutiny, as in the early work of Natalie Zemon Davies or Lyndal Roper on Protestant women, and of recent years has continued to expand1. What follows addresses, perforce briefly, some of the complex issues raised in pursuit of widening an understanding of the qualitative experience of religious change for women in the two Reformations and attempts to generalise upon some of the developing historical approaches which have furthered an understanding of their reactions to and participation in the unfolding narrative of religious change. 

  • 2 Le Bras 1955.

3Perhaps, however, we should start with what were in the 1950s some new directions pioneered by the two great religious sociologists, Gabriel le Bras and Chanoine Fernand De Boulard, whose work provided a new set of questions transforming how religious participation might be viewed. Le Bras turned to history to find out why, and at what particular moment in time, religious observance had moved into slippage, a slippage which could be mapped from visitation records which aimed at informing the bishops of defaulting parishioners by noting individual absences from mass or locating a restricted participation at certain key periods of the liturgical year. He discerned general conformity in attendance before the Revolution, though there were areas where certain males demonstrated indifference. He identified, using the visitation lists of earlier centuries, the decades preceding the Revolution as the historical moment when certain male occupations – which included viticulteurs, and indeed the drink trade generally, and soldiers – were most precocious in departing entirely from the formal observation of their faith. Speculatively, in the case of the soldiers, this could be attributed to them leaving their communities and becoming part of groups specifically antagonistic to religious authority as they plundered and killed.2 The soldiers were perhaps also distant from community rituals which endorsed religious belief. In contrast, however, women of all social classes apparently clung to the observance of their faith, and in the mid 1790s in France when the Revolutionary governments promoted dechristianisation, women – in particular peasant women – would secure Republican obloquy for their dogged resistance to state attempts at secularisation They thus initiated a significant social dichotomy between the sexes and religious observance which persisted in large part into the twentieth century. Republican politics in the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth launched an attack on the religious orders as instruments of female acculturation through their schools and progressively denied the orders concerned the right to teach. The result was an exodus of French teaching orders to America and the wider world. 

  • 3 Stone 1979.
  • 4 Editorial note : Delumeau 1983. See also Cuchet 2010. 

4In the writing of religious history in the 1970s and 1980s there were many other important developments. Cultural historians such as Philippe Ariès and Jean-Louis Flandrin, both historians of the family and of private life, sought to understand the degree of influence of religious prescription on the behaviour of the family prompted by the two confessional Reformations. They examined the content of sermons, good conduct books and prescriptive literature as well as wills, which in the Catholic case left resources to pay for masses for the repose of the soul.3 Others writing in the last quarter of the twentieth century, such as Jean Delumeau, were also concerned to understand psychological phenomena, such as concepts of sin and fear conspicuous in religious developments, and they drew graphically not only upon prescriptive writing but also upon evidence pertaining to the controlling relationship existing between confessor and penitent now increasingly, particularly in towns, sited in sixteenth century Catholic Europe in the newly provided confessional box, which proved a particular attraction to women4. Flandrin pointed out that the church fathers themselves feared that if the confessional exercise became associated with the feminine this would alienate the menfolk and thus would waste the time of the priest himself.

5A new generation of women historians, however, initially located most notably in Italy, asked a different and very important question. Why did women embrace the confessional experience so enthusiastically? Their answer was essentially that the confessional should be seen as the first site of an important new development for women, encouraging them to reflect upon and put into words their own experiences and hence the phenomenon was a critical step in developing self-awareness (autocoscienza) amongst devout women.

  • 5 Editorial note : Spufford 1974.

6Indeed, the development of women’s history from the 1970s conspicuously expanded the boundaries of understanding of many aspects of both Reformations. Natalie Z. Davis and her graduate students in French history explored how new developments on the Protestant side of the divide, such as hymn singing and the gradually acquired capacity for bible reading, attracted women. Margaret Spufford studying Quaker women identified the same incentive to learn to read among groups of English village women5.  Reading the word of God, it soon became apparent, was an important factor in the growth of female literacy. Moreover, and to acknowledge a truism, whereas men who were able to read did not necessarily impart that skill to their children, a reading mother has almost invariably produced a literate child, so that the number of individuals able to read multiplied more quickly.

7More generally, the concern with religious change must also be interpreted with reference to a constant set of considerations. On both sides of the religious divide the concerns of women have to be read with reference to a very basic set of factors. For both men and women, religious beliefs constituted a set of structures involving a calendar of public devotions, but also one which marked the entire life-cycle experience of every individual from baptism to death. Religion shaped the week and the season : the sociability it offered in collective rituals had particular resonances for the majority of women, for whom the church and religious traditions in the form of Sunday devotions, holidays for special feasts and individual ceremonies provided the unique focal point of their lives outside the home, which was in large part their working environment. Unlike their men folk, respectable women did not use the hostelry. For them, the well and the wash-place offered social contact, but the church and its celebrations belonged to the personal and leisured moments of life, to Sundays, religious festivals and the significant ceremonies surrounding life and death which were given public expression. For families, varying according to national or local custom, festivals were marked by special meals cooked by women. The Sunday mass meant the provision of clean clothing washed by the housewife. Festivals and kermesses took everyone outside the house to partake of collective celebration. In addition, religion was in the business of solace and provided a veritable pantheon of holy helpers to deal with threatening eventualities. Thus, for example a popular cult Italian which survived attempts at remodelling was that of Saint Rita, officially the saint of healing and suffering but more popularly the saint of the battered wife, who was on the side of the victim and whose cult still in twentieth century Italy outstripped that of the Virgin. In sixteenth century Protestant societies a pragmatic official reasoning process placed a ceiling on the creation of new saints, but very generally left popular beliefs largely untouched.

8At a different level, both confessions were concerned to regulate the practice of marriage and to locate the institution firmly within the church, where banns were read publicly in advance of the wedding and public knowledge of the ceremony confirmed the legal and religious status of the couple. In all instances, Catholic and Protestant Reformations sought more carefully to enhance awareness of rules and they produced many textbooks on issues such as the allowable degrees of affinity of the contracting couple and the need to know the consent of both parties to a particular union before marriage took place.

  • 6 Delumeau 1990.

9In all these societies, adherence to a particularly stringent moral code made sexual behaviour outside marriage a particularly heinous category of sin. Indeed, in parts of Britain an offending unmarried couple could be obliged to don penitential garb and, thus attired, do penance before a church congregation for any apprehended licentious act. Perhaps because of such vigilance, the seventeenth century was remarkable for a conspicuous fall in illegitimacy rates in northern Europe. Among elites for whom marriage meant the transfer of significant economic resources, resistance occurred to a totally free choice of spouse for the contracting parties. The Catholic Church approved sexual activity between those married only if the desired end of the activity was procreation. Attempts to avoid impregnation were sinful although self-denial of sexual activity as a penitential exercise could be lauded.6

10Taken together, a close examination of cultural behaviour in both confessions reveals a similarly prescriptive, controlling religion with a heavy emphasis on the avoidance of sin. Penitential exercises chosen by individuals were still lauded by confessors though excessive practices were decried. However, whatever the gloom of prescription, it co-existed in the Catholic case with an important emphasis upon the visual and a religion made real through the senses. Within the larger urban churches paintings of the joys of heaven, the exultation of the holy and the triumph of the martyr were intended to provide sensual immediacy. Music was also a significant development in the great churches of Italy and Germany and in the Protestant case, robust hymn singing also figured. Processions in both confessions with banners and statuary gained in complexity and polychrome sculpture developed a new intensity and refinement. In this visual exercise, the sacred was made real. Catholic congregations were also informed and edified by the information that their faith was converting peoples overseas. 

Female convents

  • 7 Pfanner 1962, p. 79.
  • 8 Evangelisti 2007, p. 5. This work is a significant foundation text for the transitions of reform.
  • 9 Evangelisti 2007. 

11The schism within the Church began in Germany around 1518 and its influence spread over northern Europe in particular and prompted a geographical and cultural divide over key issues intrinsic to traditional Catholic religious orthodoxy. Manifestations of difference were, almost immediately, highly gender specific and change was most marked in a Protestant context by attacks on the regular religious life, which meant in a short space of time the closure of monasteries and convents. Although male establishments also experienced closure, ex-monks had more alternatives than did nuns and it followed that the voice of riposte was both louder and more desperate when coming from the female convents. The German nun Caritas Pirkheimer complained bitterly when her convent was closed with brute force by « ravening wolves » because she saw beliefs and rituals intrinsic to her cloistered life severed, her vows compromised and her way of life rejected.7 Pirkheimer’s experience of expulsion was traumatic, but by the 1560s even Catholic Reform was turning its attention to a stringent reform of what it interpreted as laxity within convent life. The convent of the Catholic Reform was seen as an institution to be closely invigilated, purified and brought under closer control in the name of that Reform. Italy was to be the initial site of action to eliminate perceived abuses which had crept into convent life – a state of affairs which has been superbly researched and brought to life by Italian women historians such as Gabriella Zarri and Lucia Scaraffia. The overarching problem was that the convent itself, allegedly the site of religious virtue, had in the course of late Middle Ages been used by Italian elite society in the interests of family fortunes. Concerned to keep wealth within a limited elite structure, families employed a careful strategy whereby per generation considerable family assets were invested in one or at most two daughters to secure prestigious marriage alliances marking the standing of the family. The remaining daughters were consigned to convents in which the family invested by the furnishing of cells and so on. If unenthusiastic and without a burning spiritual flame, the Italian convent population was numerically impressive. Milan, for example, had 3000 women in the religious life. Another very arresting statistic compiled for Florence is that 46% of women from elite families entered a convent where they joined sisters and cousins, so that many of the nuns were actually related in an enlarged family.8 Sisters became sisters in religion ; nieces joined aunts so that entire families elected to be together. Many of the novices may have been resentful of their fate. Silvia Evangelisti located a Florentine unreformed convent with a list of rules for novices which included a reminder that a red « bustier » could not be worn outside the cell. It was possible to go back home to take holidays.9 The door was open : visitors were frequent and were expected to pay for their sojourn and thus augment convent income. Convents kept careful account books and a nun’s record at the end of the day accounted for what was left of her dowry input at death. Visitors brought gifts, particularly of food, which could be important to the economy of the convent as well as the comfort of the nuns. One important aspect of Catholic reformational change was that the diet of nuns was much impoverished when the grilles went up in the last 40 years of the sixteenth century.

  • 10 In addition to Evangelisti, for more specific microhistories and aspects of convent life see Scara (...)

12Less abundant food was not the only deprivation. Some Milanese and Bolognese convents have been shown to have specialised in public musical performances. These were terminated under the changed conditions. One Florentine Dominican convent had produced the first well-known female painter, Plautilla Nelli (who enjoys the singular distinction of being just one of two women painters acknowledged by Giorgio Vasari and who appears to have learnt her craft within the convent). She embellished her convent’s walls with at least one major work, a very striking Last Supper which is now in the refectory of San Domenico. In her time she paid into the convent coffers the product of her talents, which were most probably commissioned by visitors to the convent. She also seems to have run a small painting workshop. The subject matter of her paintings was religious, not profane. The attraction of her convent may have been its openness. People who came to visit their relations could be persuaded to commission paintings.10

  • 11 Creytens 1965.
  • 12 Creytens 1965. 

13Drastic change followed the papal bull Circa pastoralis of 1566, which imposed upon all professed nuns, wherever they existed, strict enclosure within the convent where they professed their vows, and whether or not this was laid down in their rule or denied in the traditions of their convent that change was felt.11 Not only were grilles to be put in place, but doors were to be kept locked and the nuns were to be made invisible to outsiders except for short, regulated visits from family, separated by the grille and limited in the time span permitted. The prioress of Santa Caterina in Florence told the bishop’s visitor who came to impose enclosure « we never had it and we do not want it ».12 The grilles went up notwithstanding and for Santa Caterina the financial loss on an annual basis was very considerable­. Thereafter their commerce seems to have been limited to herbs passed to a clerical agent to sell. It is very clear that after the grilles were erected and relatives denied visitation, there was less money to make the sisters more comfortable. Where public musical performance had taken place it was generally banned. Whole convents were closed and the nuns were moved elsewhere. The Nuns of Santa Felice in Naborre at Bologna have left a poignant complaint – one of many letters forwarded to Rome on this theme.

  • 13 Archivio segreto vaticano, Sacra Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regulari (1586).

The nuns […] express to your holiness with all humility their miseries and misfortunes that notwithstanding that most of them were shut up in this place by their relatives against their will, for all that they have borne it with considerable patience, and during a time when they have been so tormented with various statutes and orders that they no longer have the strength to endure it. […] Now most recently, besides having removed the organ from here the doctor has been denied them, so that nobody except their father and mother can see and speak with them. Their old servants who were accustomed to serve them in the convent cannot speak to any nun …] Wherefore we fear that being deprived with such strictness and abandoned by everyone, we have only hell, in this world and the next.13

  • 14 Weaver 1994.
  • 15 Medioli 1990.

14Some literary output of a purely religious nature may still have been possible. Elissa Weaver has followed the fortunes of a Florentine playwright nun whose manuscripts reached the outside world and gained her (in absentia) membership of the Florentine Accademia.14 Arcangela Tarabotti’s texts in some cases were circulated in Venice. The first volume by this talented nun on the convent as paradise stated the case of the nun who wanted to freely develop her spirituality and found her incarceration perfectly acceptable. A more radical work subtitled « The convent as Hell » (Inferno monacale) depicts the nun as incarcerated with a group of people she hates more and more for their pettiness. This particular volume had to wait until the 20th century for publication.15

  • 16 Kennedy 2007.

15Musical development in the convent in particular suffered conspicuously post-Trent and several North Italian convents known for performance were closed or were amalgamated. It would appear that the Jesuits acquired the scores of the musical convents in order to enhance musical performance in Latin America. Indeed, some of their music manuscripts found their way to Paraguay and were recently discovered under a bishop’s bed.16

16Aristocratic families which had used the convents to promote their dynastic interests did not cease to direct their « surplus » daughters in this direction. The selection of the children who would be the family nuns was made with reference to family need and possibly the lack of stamina or good looks of a particular daughter. Some entered with family servants who themselves became lay nuns. Although the numbers of convents were reduced in the late sixteenth century and amalgamations occurred, revenues fell. Reductions in the actual number of aristocratic girls in religion, however, were not immediately perceptible before the early eighteenth century. At that time, aristocratic families did not marry off more of their daughters but retained the unmarried ones at home as old maids, who often turned to good works. Not all religious, of course, were aristocratic. In promoting Convertite the Jesuits inspired institutions – ones usually based in disused convents – for ex prostitutes to become penitents behind heavily grilled windows and locked doors. The prostitute population was hardly diminished by this exercise, because convent space was limited and the incarceration period was lengthy, so that there was little turnover.

  • 17 Editorial note: Laqua-O'Donnell 2014 see also Lacqua-O'Donnell in this issue.

17In summary, we must conceptualise the newly « reformed » convent by the late sixteenth century as existing at a number of levels. It contained those who sought to develop their spirituality through the only outsider acceptable to the new rules, the confessor priest. A second part of the constituency was comprised of those who were able to rub along without undue hardship or reflection and whose anonymity is only breached by a record in a convent chronicle and a third group, one limited to a very narrow range of illustrious urban institutions, was composed of women who still managed to sustain something of a public image and who were usually from very grand families of public significance.17

18War and civil disturbance could interrupt and severely modify the experience of enclosure as evinced in Germany during the Thirty Years War, and the Italian example may have been different from developments elsewhere. Whilst prescription remained the rule in Italy, in the second half of the seventeenth century in France a new model of the female religious life evolved very differently from this enclosed Italian aristocratic mode. The Daughters of Charity were forged with appropriate help from active churchmen and an inspired female founder, Louise de Marillac. They provided a new model of service drawing upon the efforts of good village girls to organise help for struggling rural families and subsequently to serve a new establishment, the hôpital général founded in towns at the order of the government. This offered indoor relief and care to limited numbers of decrepit, old or deformed persons, usually ones who could bring some frail assets to the institution or could be put there at the expense of a patron. Even so, these institutions put into the hands of the religious performing the work of institutional care or those who worked in communities to circulate worn clothing and footwear or to organise the visits of poor children to more substantial houses for bread and milk a new dimension to the frail structures of organised relief. Moreover, in France from the last quarter of the seventeenth century this model encouraged, where episcopal permission was given, the development of groups of women who took simple vows and offered services to some of the poor and afflicted.

Religious culture and female knowledge

  • 18 There is a considerable bibliography on this theme in Bilinkoff 1995.

19Let us return to the elite enclosed nun and the spiritual experience she was required to embrace. A major historiographical growth industry of our time has been the examination of the relationship of confessor and penitent through the printed texts of devout lives which the confessor and penitent together produced. Such works were not confined to convents but convent texts constitute the majority of those presently studied.18 The ones which have survived (and they are constantly being discovered) were published as « edifying lives ». Faced with a penitent perhaps on a weekly basis or even more if she could get it, the confessor encouraged the writing down of her internal spiritual musings and examinations. The relationship between confessor and penitent could be full of tension with signs on both sides of impatience. On the side of the nun there was often a struggle to formulate her mental state and on that of the priest some impatience with her verbal inadequacies, which could prompt him to lose patience and be dismissive of her efforts. Or, she could be chronically dissatisfied with the service her soul was getting from an individual she found less than encouraging. She might then get another confessor in the hope of receiving more attention, though this was, unless she was a distinguished personage, easier said than done. Teresa of Avila, perhaps the person who had the most influence on the evolution of the most austere regular religious life for women in the sixteenth century, the discalced Carmelites, said that the right confessor was an imperative, as the soul must come first. She was also a protagonist of writing down the personal spiritual narrative between the priest and his penitent and if need be, changing a confessor if he did not suit the nun’s expectations. It is difficult to know how typical such activity might have been and how often this might have happened.

  • 19 Poutrin 1995. 
  • 20 Koorn 1992.
  • 21 Editorial note : Molina 2013.

20Isabelle Poutrin has uncovered over a hundred of these written spiritual narratives in Spain alone.19 Jodi Bilinkoff has given us a sample of 42 printed ones (Spain 20, South America and Italy six each, France and French Canada four each and Portugal two). Overall, 27 of the 42 were written by nuns and the rest were produced by pious laywomen, who were mostly widows. It looks as though the second group, the laywomen, had more opportunities to change confessors than did those in convents. Dutch historiography has for example produced Elizabeth Strouwen, a holy woman of Maastricht who looked after abandoned children and appears to have had over the years a number of sequential confessors (most of whom she considered to a greater or lesser degree inadequate for her spiritual needs).20 Such flexibility may have been more difficult to achieve in the convent. Michelle Molina is examining many of the complexities of the relationship between two Spanish religious and a Jesuit father, Padre Marquez, as revealed in their letters.21 The two nuns had undertaken a study of the Spiritual Exercises with their Jesuit confessor and this was probably normative practice for their relationship. Their letters reveal concern about tensions between body and soul, agency, resistance to instruction, submission and mastery of self. The self is prone to sin and must be shaped to a spiritual journey. The letters between spiritual daughter and confessor aimed to smooth the journey to perfection, but there were certainly tensions between the two sides of the discourse. Several women reminded their priests of his obligations and the penitent’s need for attention, perhaps all the more particularly if the confessor failed to keep an appointment and thus caused her frustration and clearly did not recognise the paramount importance of the development of her soul.

  • 22 Sarti 2001.
  • 23 Puccini 1970.

21Jesuits, it would seem, were sought out as confessors and were deemed a gifted priesthood, able to lead souls to God. They also had access to printing presses and their mission work in rural parishes was an important distribution factor for edifying lives emanating from a confessional relationship. Or they carried with them saints’ lives rewritten so as to address topical demands. In short, the exercise served different purposes. Raffaella Sarti has examined the Jesuit reworking of Santa Zita, a maidservant who, the story went, gave away food from her master’s cupboard to the poor. The story was altered to suggest an act of collusion with the master so that a maidservant should not get wrong ideas.22 In fact, some of the edifying lives were highly edited for public consumption, but were immensely popular and ran in multiple print runs. Puccini’s life of his penitent Maria Maddalena di Pazzi, who died in 1607 and was canonized in 1669, was based on nine volumes of writings about her conversations with Christ and the Saints, which sustained her as she was virtually totally paralysed.23 Such works obviously appealed to different age groups and levels of spiritual interest. Shorter works might be carried on mission to villages in the packs of the visiting priests. 


  • 24 Sanchez Torres 2000.

22All the holy women I have encountered in print were ascetics, fasting and inflicting a high level of physical pain on themselves, but the Jesuits were said to be careful to limit these excesses whilst lauding controlled mortification for both religious and lay individuals. Saint Teresa herself was very condemnatory of nuns who claimed spiritual ecstasy when they were simply delirious from food deprivation, and ordered that her companions give them food. She saw such women as imposters. The austerities of her reformed convent, however, attracted much attention and prompted an international call for emulation. Indeed, a contradiction of kinds soon imposed itself on the life experiences of certain enclosed nuns, in particular the Carmelites emanating from the Iberian Peninsula. Called upon to carry the example of the holy life by founding new convents in the Spanish Netherlands and the Latin American colonies, these strictly enclosed and regulated women, whose lives were subject to every stricture, found themselves in an unusual situation. On the one hand, they were to become agencies of a newly defined convent austerity (strict claustration) and in the context of the Spanish dominions, they were to be interpreted as agents of a particularly fitting Spanish religious statement, whose presence in the New World would endorse a spirit of religious conformity and discipline. However, on the other hand, the women had to reconcile their extensive physical movement across Europe from Spain to Belgium or over the Atlantic to Latin America with a commitment to strict enclosure and did so with some improvisation. For example, the band of Five Carmelites of Salamanca at the king’s behest embarked on a journey first to Paris and then to Brussels in a carriage which they pretended was their convent cell others would do the same with their cabin when they crossed the Atlantic. What happened when a wheel fell off the carriage (as it did on at least one recorded occasion while crossing France) or when the English prevented landing in Central America passed into convent lore and such episodes were recounted over subsequent generations to explain how they kept enclosure intact – by conceptualising the coach interior as a cell so that their environment was structurally unchanged in their imaginations.24

Female Catholicism in a worldwide Context

  • 25 Sampson Vera Tudela 2000.
  • 26 Burns 1999.
  • 27 Sampson Vera Tudela 2000; Burns 1999 are just two examples of a burgeoning field.

23A great deal of recent work has focussed on the Latin American context of these extraordinary transitions. Two examples can be given which use different approaches, one by Katherine Burns and the other by Elisa Sampson. Both stress that the full nuns were of European origin but lesser ones were Gachupinas of mixed race. The founding convent sisters brought martyr relics in abundance from Europe, which were paraded through the streets on feast days and exposed in their churches. Sampson shows the nuns imported literary forms from their native Spain.25 The main categories of such work were first the vida (life) of their founder or of a particularly significant nun, second the convent chronicle itself. The chronicle was possibly constructed by several sequential nuns. There were also attempts at poetry. All these European forms of literature resonate differently in Latin American context and were made to embody racy stories of miracles engineered by religious to preserve unfaithful wives from the violence of their husbands. Burn’s study of Cuzco shows how the convents rapidly became banks.26 The nuns’ dowries were accumulated and money was lent out to local farmers against formal investment terms. The sisters appear to have been very capable business managers. Evidently, strict enclosure for some members was somewhat eroded in these circumstances and convents became microcosms of social mixing as servants were imported who were either of mixed race or Indian descent.27

  • 28 Editorial note : Eusebius of Emesa, Homily 7.6, p. 179 quoted in Brown 1988, p. 271.
  • 29 Sampson Vera Tudela 2000.

24However, to move from this situation to one in which convents could accept Indian women as nuns in their own right was a very slow process which revealed many of the contradictions implicit both in the catholic church’s views of women and, even more, their views of the native Indian. Theologically, woman was understood as inferior to man by nature (vide Eve) but equal to him by divine grace, as in the case of the Virgin. Generally, nuns due to their profession were to be regarded as exceptional because of their overarching virtue, which was to live outside the rule of nature. In the religious conquest of the New World, Indian women were given access to the regular religious life before men in a confused debate on natural law. But it would take 200 years or so to achieve this and the double bind of sex and race would operate to inhibit progress. As Peter Brown has argued, the female body when consecrated to virginity « could appear like an untouched desert in itself : it was the furthest reach of human flesh turned into something peculiarly precious by the coming of Christ upon it ».28 But it took until 1728 for the first convent for Indian noble women to be founded in Mexico after two centuries of debate in which the double impediment of sex and race were used in arguments to inhibit the development.29 Interestingly, the Franciscans were to emerge as protagonists of this development, not the Jesuits, who were deeply divided on this issue.

  • 30 Couplet 1691.
  • 31 Greer 2004.

25Nonetheless, the Jesuits were far from blind to the general interest in native holy women and their spiritual progress in particular ethnic contexts and were prepared to promote them in very popular edifying lives which also drew attention to their own influence. Two examples can be given. The first was written in China by the Jesuit priest, Philippe Couplet, and was entitled « Historia de una Gran Senora Christiana de la China, llamada Dona Candida Hiu » (Madrid, 1691).30 The second retails the devout life of Tekkawitha, a Mohawk in New France, and was also written by her confessor, Chauchetiere, after her death in 1680.31 Apart from some of the conspicuous differences implicit in their contexts, these texts have much in common and are worth considering together. The first was used as a good example of Christian lay piety in a highly cultured society and the second presented a woman living in a common long hut in the Canadian forest and thus proposes a primitivizing context. Both the women, it was stressed by the Jesuit authors, were inseparable from their rosary beads, proclaiming special devotion to Mary. Candida appears to have had more access to relics, blessed palm fronds and more of the accoutrements of the pious. Indeed, both are shown to manifest a firm commitment to the outward signs of Christian piety such as crosses and holy water. Both practised flagellation, the first in her home, perhaps accompanied by other devout women and the second in the woods, but also in a group. Both confessors claimed they tried to moderate the activities of their penitents in this practise. Couplet claimed he did so because of the advanced age of his penitent ; Chauchetiere because he knew of her ill health dating back to her childhood (she would die at about 24). 

26One factor distinguished the Chinese woman from the native Indian. She was very rich and thus able to be extremely generous in her promotion of the faith. For twenty years (1650-1670) she paid for new editions of Jesuit writings, for rosary beads to be given to new Christians as well as devotional images. In areas surrounding Shanghai where Christian churches existed and for the main church in the city she bought the best pictures she could commission from Shanghai painters. She also gave Couplet when he left for Rome in 1650 a gold chalice for the Chapel of Saint Ignatius in the Roman Il Gesù church. 

27Neither woman is presented by her confessor as typical, yet each of them is made to summarize or even embody a particular version of holiness common to themselves and perhaps their people, which could be developed by a sensitive priest and which would find resonances among a European reading public. It is very clear that this public, which was made up predominantly, perhaps, of women and girls to whom these devout lives were often given, could not get enough of this kind of material. It served to validate missionary activity and to enhance the reputation of confessors in distant fields. It also showed that though there were environmental differences, there also existed considerable consonance in piety. In addition, the stories were compiled to generate excitement and pride at the progress of mission work and the clear manifestation of the impact of the Christian message. 

28Tekkawitha was shown to be a poor Mohawk largely shunned by some of her own people for her Christian beliefs. She deprived herself of food and went into the forest to mutilate herself in furtherance of religious commitment. Her relationship with her confessor as recounted by Allan Greer was one in which she, in her blessed simplicity, endorsed his religious beliefs. She was attributed post mortem with cures and since the 1930s has been emphatically promoted for sainthood, an activity inhibited by lack of formal evidence. However, in 1980 she was pronounced « Blessed » and remains a candidate for sainthood in a Church now deeply aware of ethnic differences and pressures.

  • 32 O’Brien 1990.

29There were many manifestations other than the devout lives of Catholic women in « exotic » environments. The divided confessionalisation of Europe in the sixteenth century prompted a number of women of the gentry who wished to remain Catholic to leave Britain for Continental Europe, for Belgium in particular. Some intended to prepare to take vows ; others were perhaps simply concerned to enrich their faith. Les Dames Anglaises were largely the daughters of the Catholic English gentry whose families wished to hold onto the faith. In England itself, the Catholic faith was preserved by elite women who, even if they were suspected of priest-harbouring, were not arrested if their husbands were away from home. This was an important loophole in English legislation. Their daughters aspiring to a religious life had to do so in exile and became copiers of new Catholic works and music which were to be transmitted back home. Some brought musical instruments into exile. One Mary Scudamore arrived from England with an organ valued at £45 and she not only gave performances in the English women’s churches (presumably buildings made available to them) but also gave music lessons to girls with the aim of raising money. Such women became deeply concerned with the need to foster educational opportunities for women and this was also one of the imperatives which primed the activities of Mary Ward (1585-1645). She and five companions formed a group committed to an active apostolate for women based on Jesuit principles (they founded houses at Saint Omer in 1606 and then in Liège, Cologne and Vienna) and in 1629 went to Rome to seek recognition from the Pope who – predictably – refused and when Mary persisted she was imprisoned in Munich in 1629. She wished to establish a female branch in imitation of the Jesuits of mobile women who could keep the Catholic faith alive and of whom some could specialise in the education of girls. Returning to England, she opened a school which settled finally at the Bar in York where it has continued into our times.32

  • 33 Monteiro 1996, p. 400-408 offers a good English summary.

30The study of the push of women for an active apostolate is now a very productive branch of early modern gender religious history. Dutch historiography brings us the kloppen, groups of spiritual virgins devoted to a sober religious life, not bound by vows though guided by poverty, obedience and chastity, who lived in hiding and emerged to teach children their catechism and to do what they could for suffering Catholics through an active if secret mission.33 After 1581, Catholic worship was prohibited in the northern Netherlands. However, the kloppen, whose very existence contradicted the formal prescription about female associations laid down in Rome, worked in support of the forbidden religion, raised money, opened their houses to clandestine masses, engaged in poor relief and taught children their catechism. They thought of themselves as « sisters » of the Jesuits and may have been ignorant of the opposition of that Society to women in the Society of Jesus. All in all, they did a considerable amount of underground activity in the seventeenth century in an effort to preserve catholic practise. 

31Important themes now emergent in the examination of elite women in the social initiatives of the Catholic reform underscore a number of concerns which would seem to be absolutely basic to understanding women’s perceptions of social needs. Clearly the poor needed help and that need had to be addressed, but important research has over the past decade also discerned a clearly perceived imperative among groups of elite women to address the educational formation of tomorrow’s world. The goals were in first instance the production of better husbands and better sons who would aspire to a more ordered and godly way of life, which would improve the ordering of families and would better the institution of marriage. The experience of the Italian Wars had circulated syphilis throughout Europe and many virtuous wives were victims of the sexual relationships of the brothel. 

32There are many examples all over early modern Europe, both in Catholic and Protestant societies, of elite women concerned to initiate a reformation of manners. An English example is Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, who had been impregnated at the age of twelve by her husband Owen Tudor en route to war and was thereafter barren. Such women were clearly concerned to operate what we might call a reformation of manners (behaviour) through the promotion of the Cambridge Colleges. However, the most outstanding example of a concern amongst a truly international range of elite women to effect a change in the manners of men is the early backing that Italian and Spanish elite women gave to the college initiatives promoted by the Society of Jesus. Moreover, the international marriage market carried women across national boundaries, thus exporting the college model. Two such case histories can be found in the case of Marie de Medici, wife of Henri IV of France, who was a fervent protagonist of the Jesuits and the earlier encouragement given by the daughters of Charles V to the college model in Madrid and Bohemia. 

Elite Woman Patrons and the Society of Jesus

33In 1540 the Jesuits were newcomers – a mere ten original members – though they were working on an expansion process which over the next 250 years would produce 600 colleges and international bases in Asia, Latin America and Canada. Their earliest endorsement came in the court environments of Rome from individual and groups of elite women who gathered perhaps initially in the Spanish ambassadorial environment of the Palazzo Madama. Here Ignazio di Loyola and his early companions impressed a wealthy set of Spanish expatriates occupying highly important positions in a peninsula where Spanish influence was considerable. Amongst these expatriates was the wealthy Leonor Orsorio da Vega, married to Juan de Vega, the Spanish Viceroy to be installed in Sicily. A woman of extraordinary vitality and sense of purpose, she was to be a major agency in the foundation of the first Jesuit colleges to open in Sicily, initially at Messina, which gave the fledgling Order its first base. Others colleges followed on the island, some of these financed by other members of the same family. Messina, though full of problems from the vestiges of the old university, was counted the most important, and some of the earliest distinguished scholars of the Order such as Clavius taught there.

  • 34 Zarri 1988, p. 119-125.
  • 35 Valone 1994; Kirkham 2002.
  • 36 A bibliography of the funding of early foundations can be found in Hufton 2006, p. 5-23.

34The history of the early spread of the Jesuit ideal was slow and full of problems. The men involved were initially few in number and unknown. At Loyola’s death they were still conspicuously underfunded. Even so, their early supporters and donors were in large part elite women. Analysis of this endorsement in individual cases through micro-histories of a college and its founders in an Italian context was significantly advanced through the work of Gabriella Zarri, who in the mid 1970s produced a study of Bologna where a group of aristocratic women formed a cartel, first to raise the means to provide a church and living accommodation for a Jesuit presence and then to build a college.34 Her work however was soon followed by studies from art historians, some American (Carolyn Valone, Victoria Kirkham), who followed the establishment of some of the first colleges whose records revealed an analogous investment from elite women.35 There were 34 colleges, none yet purpose-built and some no more than a house, at Loyola’s death and some of these were in dire financial straits and had to be closed and others were still very fragile.36 The women who supported these early initiatives in question were from the elite and they were in large part at the time of their marriages the victims of dynastic family strategies. Endowed with large dotal funds invested with their fathers-in- law against a usufruct which provided an annual sum for their expenses, if widowed or estranged they could in some cases command impressive resources. If she had no children and she was young, the dowry was returned to her family of origin and another marriage could be negotiated for her (sometimes even if she had children they were left behind). It was therefore more mature widows – with or without issue – who potentially could repossess her family’s input. It was expected that if such a woman had children the money would go to them, but in many cases she could make her own decisions as to the disposal of her wealth. In any case and whether or not her husband was dead, she had both her jewels and the in vivo interest on the usufruct of her dowry and although less extensive, it was this money which could help to foster Jesuit initiatives. 

  • 37 Hufton 2001.

35What might prompt them to put money into Jesuit schools and how might they be drawn in to their work?37 We have to think about a number of points which may have prompted or inspired them to foster the Jesuit college ideal. One such consideration may have been weariness of a culture of violence evinced in Italy by the Sack of Rome but conspicuous in most of Europe. For example, to read some of the initial requests to Marie de Medici for the establishment of a Jesuit school in a particular locality where a civil authority was dragging its feet and needed prompting one becomes conscious of a difference of approach to the establishment of a college among women from among men. The women prompting such a move and those offering resources justify their interest in a college in terms of the promotion of « piété et bonnes mœurs » while the male donors and municipal governments talk in terms of « piété et belles lettres »The women have a vision of a regulated society of good behaviour which has recourse to structural argument rather than to the sword.

  • 38 Conelli 2007, p. 123.

36Amongst the earliest female protagonists of the Jesuits in Rome were elite women who had a limited degree of allegiance to their family of origin which might have constructed for each one of them a dynastic marriage which was far from satisfying in order to promote what they saw as family interests. This seems to have been particularly the case for marriages arranged between Italian noblemen like the Italian Colonna and della Rovere whose brides could be Spanish in origin and who were deeply resentful of the violence of their husbands towards themselves and their children. Individual case histories such as that of Isabella della Rovere, who financed the Neapolitan Gesù Nuovo and also contributed substantially to the Jesuit Novitiate in Rome and sought as only exchange for her adolescent son, who died as many syphilitic children do in puberty, burial near the high altar in the Neapolitan Gesù, reveal some of the depths of despair of such women who looked for solace beyond the grave.38 Such women had little loyalty to their families of origin but found the Jesuit educational model attractive because it promised a new man, one of letters and verbal argument rather than violence and the brothel where syphilis could be contracted. They had little reason to feel obliged to return their money to their family of origin. Certainly the Jesuits encouraged donations from women and dealt out certificates (paid for by the donor) attesting to the title of Mother of the Church to those who made the most substantial investments.

  • 39 The Constitutions 486-4 (324).

37A further « push » factor for pious women could be an appreciation of the content and aims of the Jesuit educational package as it evolved, let us say, in the Rules of Modesty or yet more, the principles of teaching which sought to shape an individual capable of articulate reasoning. For example, teachings focussed on the techniques of the Aristotelian disputation in which pupils argued verbally the merits or demerits of a case. It was a « talking » model which contrasted strongly with the « fighting » model which was discarded. Such disputations were held at certain times of the year in front of parents and the intent was both to develop reasoning and also consciousness of moral habits and thus to help the pupil to grow in purity and virtue. They were hugely popular events and indeed were emulated in Germany by Jewish schools. The Constitutions of the Society lay down that « in schools no curses nor words or deeds nor anything immoral […] should be allowed .The masters should make it their special aim […] to inspire the students to the love and service of God our Lord and to a love of the virtues by which they will please Him […] ».39

38Once established, the college or residence brought with it priests who organised charitable sodalities and social outreach. The Jesuits always believed that problematic or simply poor women and children were best left to the attention of other women. The existence of a college transformed the social year of the town in which it was located. There were performances of plays which eschewed the secular immoralities of much lay drama and which reinforced messages of appropriate order and allegiance. Music and spectacle, processions and disputations, debates among pupils and prize-givings were also a part of the calendar. It was a very socially active environment intended both to accentuate the talents of the performers and to impress audiences with the paramount importance of moral values even, as it were unto death, which was usually the leitmotif of the production, and to confirm the principles of gentlemanly acculturation.

39The Order sought to distance itself from the reputation of giving attention to wealthy women under the generalship of Aquaviva after the publication of the « Monita Secreta » (1611), written by a disaffected Polish Jesuit. This claimed the Order deliberately singled out heirs to family fortunes and widows to whom they paid particular attention intending to divert family wealth to themselves. By then, of course, there were other directions for the widow’s wealth, in the form of the unenclosed female religious orders. 


40There are without doubt many other alleyways through which new generations of historians might pursue the religious experience of women in the early modern period. The subject is important not only in the history of individual women and the history of religion but in that of the entire civilising process.

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Note

1 Editorial note : Zemon Davis 1986 and 1995 and Roper 1989.

2 Le Bras 1955.

3 Stone 1979.

4 Editorial note : Delumeau 1983. See also Cuchet 2010. 

5 Editorial note : Spufford 1974.

6 Delumeau 1990.

7 Pfanner 1962, p. 79.

8 Evangelisti 2007, p. 5. This work is a significant foundation text for the transitions of reform.

9 Evangelisti 2007. 

10 In addition to Evangelisti, for more specific microhistories and aspects of convent life see Scaraffia and Zarri 1996. On Plautilla Nelli and her world see Nelson 2000.

11 Creytens 1965.

12 Creytens 1965. 

13 Archivio segreto vaticano, Sacra Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regulari (1586).

14 Weaver 1994.

15 Medioli 1990.

16 Kennedy 2007.

17 Editorial note: Laqua-O'Donnell 2014 see also Lacqua-O'Donnell in this issue.

18 There is a considerable bibliography on this theme in Bilinkoff 1995.

19 Poutrin 1995. 

20 Koorn 1992.

21 Editorial note : Molina 2013.

22 Sarti 2001.

23 Puccini 1970.

24 Sanchez Torres 2000.

25 Sampson Vera Tudela 2000.

26 Burns 1999.

27 Sampson Vera Tudela 2000; Burns 1999 are just two examples of a burgeoning field.

28 Editorial note : Eusebius of Emesa, Homily 7.6, p. 179 quoted in Brown 1988, p. 271.

29 Sampson Vera Tudela 2000.

30 Couplet 1691.

31 Greer 2004.

32 O’Brien 1990.

33 Monteiro 1996, p. 400-408 offers a good English summary.

34 Zarri 1988, p. 119-125.

35 Valone 1994; Kirkham 2002.

36 A bibliography of the funding of early foundations can be found in Hufton 2006, p. 5-23.

37 Hufton 2001.

38 Conelli 2007, p. 123.

39 The Constitutions 486-4 (324).

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Riferimento elettronico

Olwen Hufton, « Faith, hope and gender. Women’s religious experiences in the early modern period », Mélanges de l’École française de Rome - Italie et Méditerranée modernes et contemporaines [Online], 128-2 | 2016, Messo online il 22 agosto 2016, consultato il 23 agosto 2017. URL : http://mefrim.revues.org/2673 ; DOI : 10.4000/mefrim.2673

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Olwen Hufton

University of Leicester ?- email ?

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