03.12.31, Berman, ed. and trans., Women and Monasticism in Medieval Europe

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Fiona J. Griffiths

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.031


Berman, Constance H., ed. and trans.. Women and Monasticism in Medieval Europe: Sisters and Patrons of the Cistercian Reform. Series: Documents of Practice Series. Kalamazoo MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002. Pp. xi, 134. ISBN: 1-58044-036-3.

Reviewed by:
Fiona J. Griffiths
Smith College

Constance Berman's Women and Monasticism in Medieval Europe introduces students and scholars to a subject that has long been neglected: the involvement of women in the Cistercian reform movement. By compiling a selection of primary materials, mainly charters, Berman seeks to provide documentary evidence for women's religious activity during the reform movement that spanned the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and to demonstrate that women were a "strong and valuable presence" as sisters and patrons of the Cistercian Order (5). This presence, which Berman explored in a recent article "Were There Twelfth-Century Cistercian Nuns?", provided the starting point for her inquiry into the origins of the Cistercian Order, the results of which appeared in The Cistercian Evolution (2000). It is now also the subject of her forthcoming book, The White Nuns: Abbeys for Women and Their Property Management in the Cistercian Order. The present volume, though designed principally for classroom use, nevertheless offers a valuable contribution to Cistercian scholarship and challenges a host of insufficiently examined assumptions about women's involvement in religious reform.

Unlike many primary source books, Women and Monasticism is inspired by a clear thesis, which will make it both easier to teach (the topics for class discussion are clear and engaging) and more difficult to assign (it is not easily adaptable to more than one particular theme). Berman has selected charters which "prove or demonstrate" (6) the activities and existence of Cistercian nuns. To this end, she has structured the first two sections of the collection as strands of evidence explicitly supporting the case for Cistercian women. Part I (pp. 17-73) is entitled "Charters for Houses Clearly Those of Cistercian Nuns" and presents charters related to women's monasteries that have been widely accepted as Cistercian. With the exception of Las Huelgas, which was founded in 1187 by Alphonse of Castile and his wife Eleanor and has been treated as an unusual case by most historians of the Cistercian Order, these are thirteenth-century charters, drawn from a period for which the existence of Cistercian nuns is largely uncontested. Part II (pp. 77-96), "More Problematic Examples", presents evidence for such houses as Coyroux, Le Tart, and Jully, which were associated with men's communities at Obazine, Citeaux, and Molesme during the twelfth century. Although these charters do not describe women as part of a Cistercian "Order," they do indicate that houses associated with Citeaux counted both men and women among their numbers in their early years--a pattern that is typical of several other reform communities during the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries.

A second purpose of the volume is to challenge the traditional depiction of medieval religious women as poor economic managers. Charges of poverty or financial instability, which appear often in contemporary male-authored sources, have been seen by many scholars as evidence that women's monasteries fell into decline even as men's communities experienced unprecedented growth during the reform period. This is a model that Berman contests; in the charters that she presents women appear as powerful patrons both of nuns and monks, efficient managers of their monastic estates, and resolute defenders of their possessions and rights. An entire chapter devoted to the patronage of Queen Blanche of Castile and Isabelle of Chartres, both granddaughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine, shows women's generous support for Cistercian monasteries (pp. 56-73), while the rent roll (ca. 1260) of the Parisian abbey of Port-Royale, included in Part III, "Statistical Sources" (pp. 99-111), reveals the nuns' able record keeping.

The fourth and final section, "Narrative and Normative Sources" (pp. 115-124), is less clearly integrated into the main body of the volume, perhaps because the sources in it were not generated by the nuns themselves and therefore deviate from the previous emphasis on documents of practice. Instead the sources in this section include excerpts from Herman of Tournai and James de Vitry, the visitation report of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln (1209-35), and notes from the 1243 Cistercian General Chapter. These few sources represent the 'other' side of the story, that is to say they comprise materials most often cited as proof that Cistercians did not accept women in their early years, or that women, once accepted, were rebellious and irregular. In her short introduction to this chapter, Berman explains that these sources, taken out of context, can easily be misunderstood. Here, it seems, is an important part of the debate concerning women's involvement in the Cistercian Order. Yet Berman does not elaborate on how these sources might be misunderstood, and the paucity of the footnotes and bibliography, a feature of the series as a whole and a function of its purpose to make available affordable translations for classroom use, prevents students from exploring this side of the debate more fully.

Despite its modest appearance (and equally modest price), Women and Monasticism in Medieval Europe is an ambitious collection that provides ample material for further research. The canards of medieval scholarship that Berman seeks to challenge--women's absence from the exciting reform movements of the twelfth century and the poor financial management of their monasteries--have important implications beyond the boundaries of Cistercian scholarship. As the most prominent and successful of the twelfth-century reform movements, the Cistercians and their response to women have tended to set the tenor for discussions of women's monasticism more generally. By concentrating her examination on the assumption of Cistercian opposition to women, Berman offers an important corrective to the history of all religious women, not simply Cistercians, during the period of reform.

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Fiona J. Griffiths

Smith College