12.11.07, Lester, Creating Cistercian Nuns

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Constance H. Berman

The Medieval Review 12.11.07

Lester, Anne E.. Creating Cistercian Nuns:The Women's Religious Movement and Its Reform in Thirteenth-Century Champagne. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011. Pp. xxii, 261. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4989-8.

Reviewed by:
Constance H. Berman
University of Iowa

When I began working on Cistercian nuns, I had to begin by showing that those Cistercian nuns actually existed and that they were really part of the Order. A dear friend in Cambridge insisted that R.W. Southern had shown that they did not exist. [1] Her insistence and that of others led me on a long detour to establish just how those religious women could have fit into an Order whose modern successors were often intent on denying their existence. [2] So it is a great delight to see how much easier treating Cistercian nuns is now in this new book on those nuns, Creating Cistercian Nuns, by Anne E. Lester. [3]

Lester presents a compelling and accessible tale of some of those women in the apostolic movement who were affiliated with the Cistercian Order in early thirteenth century Champagne. As I have demonstrated, such women who became Cistercians had been part of the Cistercian movement since early in the twelfth century. Lester argues that in Champagne in the early thirteenth century women seeking to lead the apostolic life and who emphasized service to others came to be associated with the Cistercians at the time. The documentation is fragmentary and uneven as to its reliability, but I think she is correct that many houses of "caring" women formed one subset of the enormous expansion of houses of Cistercian women of the time.

The reasons are many, but they stem primarily from the exhortation of the ecumenical Church Council Lateran IV that all religious communities be associated with an identifiable religious practice or group--the term used in the legislation is religio. Moreover, the participants in that Council held up the Cistercian Order as the model for organization into such groups. Bishops who may have once willingly tolerated or even encouraged such houses of religious women who would answer only to the bishop himself, saw in the Cistercians the solution to the problems posed by the new edict in their dioceses. Likely many of them simply started declaring these houses of nuns to be part of the Cistercian Order, describing them as "following the practices of the rule of Saint Benedict according to the customs of the ordo cisterciensis;" the terms are commonplace.

Only in mid thirteenth century did the Order regularize these many houses of "Cistercian nuns" by wresting them from episcopal visitation and associating them formally with a father-visitor, often from a neighboring house of monks. Indeed many of the seemingly contradictory notes from the first half of the thirteenth century taken home by certain abbots among the Order's ruling General Chapter that mention their discussions about nuns show the confusion among popes, bishops, local abbots and abbesses, not to mention the communities of women themselves, in asserting Cistercian affiliation for houses of nuns, including those originating in such "caring" sisters as were associated with various hospitals and leprosaria founded throughout Europe in the thirteenth century. These were a significant sub-set of the many new houses of Cistercian nuns founded at the time.

The rise of so many new penitential women's religious groups was once attributed to the fact that there was a women 's problem in the later Middle Ages--what German historians called the Frauenfrage, that is too many women and not enough husbands forced many women to become nuns or extra-regular sisters like the Beguines. The earliest of those historians saw only a social problem, however, and tended to deny those women any spiritual vocation. In such a view such excess women became nuns or beguines only because there was no other option. Following in the footsteps of Herbert Grundmann, Walter Simons, Anneke Mulder-Bakke and many others, Lester restores religious motivation to those women. Whether or not they could have found husbands and often by bargaining for a chaste life after marriage, these women had been inspired by the preaching of reform in their day to seek to lead the religious life.

The famous preacher and bishop of Acre, James of Vitry, writing c. 1220 in his Historia Occidentalis, explains this in a section:

"On the increase in Cistercian women: The reverend religious men of the Praemonstratensian Order, wisely attending to the assertions of experts within their own family that it was burdensome and dangerous to guard such charges, decided that they should henceforth not receive women into the houses of their Order. Thereafter abbeys of nuns of the Cistercian Order multiplied like the stars of heaven and increased enormously, blessed by God as it is said, 'Increase and be multiplied and replenish the sky'." [4]

It is such communities of such "caring" women that are the center of Lester's study of Champagne.

Lester's description of such women in their various guises ranges far beyond Champagne. She provides us with a compelling picture of various humble, "caring," penitent women from across Europe leading religious lives and often working to support themselves with the labor of their own hands. She makes clear the immediacy of the apostolic reform movement to women as well as men, in the thirteenth as well as the eleventh and twelfth centuries. But it is important to recognize that the conversion of such religious women to the penitent and "caring" life tended to be locally-generated. They stemmed from the preaching of reform throughout western Europe in this period, but there was no European-wide movement in which all such women's reform notions can be traced to a single origin. This was just as untrue as it has turned out that it is untrue heresies spread from a single origin, according to recent studies. [5] Indeed if there were reform ideas that spread of these ideas from Liege to Troyes by Arnulf of Villers and the blessed Ida who came to Champagne to be abbess of Argensolles at the request of Blanche of Navarre, Countess of Champagne, this was an exceptional case, and not the norm.

Lester presents a lively picture of the growing trade and economy of urban centers in Champagne where a regular cycle of international trade fairs was established by its rulers. She also describes how often women came to rule provinces or found religious houses because of the loss of men on Crusades and discusses the ways in which written records were increasingly used by countesses and counts. Champagne was a region in which abbeys of Cistercian monks had run rampant and Cistercian abbots sometimes become bishops, in which Cistercian production of wool may be an important aspect of the growth of its town industries, and in which the power of the Cistercians as preachers of the Albigensian Crusades may have influenced many foundations of abbeys for Cistercian nuns in the thirteenth century. It was near these towns that many of the houses of Cistercian nuns she discusses were founded--often beginning as a group of unaffiliated religious women, like those of Chichéry near Troyes, which was objected to by the nearby Benedictine monks, whose story opens one chapter.

Other inspiring women introduce other chapters. The well-known Beguine, Yvette of Huy, whose life was written by the Praemonstratensian canon, Hugh of Floreffe, and a woman named Gila charged with heresy. Most striking is the story of the middle-aged English woman Margaret of Beverley or Margaret of Jerusalem. Her suffering in the East where she had been caught up in the Crusades in the 1180s is an exciting story told after she became a sister at the nearby house of Cistercian nuns at Montreuil-les-Dames near Laon by a Cistercian monk, her sibling, Thomas of Froidmont. Lester uses two donation charters that were issued by a women named Beatrix as examples of support for such Cistercian foundations by bourgeois women. Beatrix made a gift in October 1224 when her daughter Sara entered the new abbey of Cistercian nuns just being established at Clairmarais outside Reims; that charter is hemmed about (as are many gifts made to newly-founded abbeys of monks or nuns) with clauses about contingencies--what would happen if the community should fail, who would place her daughter elsewhere and who would get the income granted. Five years later in 1229 Beatrix apparently was no longer worried about such issues when she made another gift to that house when her other three daughters also entered Clairmarais.

Inspired, flamboyant, almost fantastical in its adjectives, the care with which Lester has selected such vignettes supports a compelling story of multiple intersections in the thriving region of thirteenth-century Champagne between religious women, suburban space, bourgeois patrons, lesser nobility under threat and increasing clerical hegemony and papal interference in local religious life, along with the increased power of the abbots of the Cistercian Order. Indeed Lester describes with great skill is the rise of Cistercian nuns in a very specific region at a specific time. It is important, however, not to universalize from her lively treatment; there are other stories to tell, which will show different patterns than these.

Indeed, there are a few caveats. Lester describes the appearance of houses of Cistercian nuns in a Champagne that is not clearly defined. Moreover, at least as far as one can judge, the data in the appendix does not support the assertion that at least half of the houses of nuns were founded by such "caring sisters." [6] Moreover, it is not always clear that such groups of women sought to care for hospitals or leprosaria, any more than it is clear that they sought an affiliation for themselves to the Cistercians in any avid way. Such ties may not always have been their choice and some may have been of proximity alone. The example of the women who came to found la Joie near Soissons, for instance, might be read as one in which the lepers refused the care of the nuns who took over their site. Moreover, we cannot assume that such women were always pounding on the gates of the Order to be let in. Cistercian affiliation may not have been the women's choice--and there are examples of houses of nuns who attempted to lock out father-visitors or to secede from the Order. Episcopal expediency was probably more of an issue than Lester opines; in the example of Voisins near Orleans (which is missing from her appendix) abandoned churches were granted to women who became Cistercians by a bishop concerned that religious obligations attached to those churches continue to be fulfilled. But such niggling issues are the exception in a book that brings a sense of time and place and even personality to religious women in thirteenth-century Champagne, who are a sub-set of the whole expansion of Cistercian women in the thirteenth century, but an exciting one nonetheless. There is much to applaud in this fine first book.



1. See R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1970), 315-317.

2. Constance H. Berman, The Cistercian Evolution: The Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

3. See also Ghislain Baury, Les religieuses de Castille: Patronage aristocratique et ordre cistercien: XIIe-XIIIe siècles (Rennes: Presses universitaires, 2012).

4. See The "Historia Occidentalis" of Jacques de Vitry: A Critical Edition, ed. John Frederick Hinnebusch (Fribourg, 1972), p. 6 for date, text on p.117.

5. On the latter see Mark Pegg, A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom (New York: Oxford, 2008) and R. I. Moore, The War Against Heresy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2012).

6. Midway through the volume a list of dioceses is mentioned, but these do not coincide with those cited in the appendix and not all houses of Cistercian nuns in those dioceses are cited in that appendix; for instance, Voisins in the province of Sens and diocese of Orleans is not included, but one house of white nuns, Saint-Loup, in that same diocese long been considered to have become Cistercian only in the early modern period. If this is no longer the case, evidence needs to be cited. My reading of the often-cited foundation document for Pont-aux-Dames, the only document in which a maison-Dieu is mentioned, suggests that it is a retrospective act which has considerably garbled the situation there.

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Constance H. Berman

University of Iowa