15.08.37, Johnson, Monastic Women and Religious Orders in Late Medieval Bologna

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Lezlie Knox

The Medieval Review 15.08.37

Johnson, Sherri Franks. Monastic Women and Religious Orders in Late Medieval Bologna. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. xi, 262. ISBN: 9781107060852 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Lezlie Knox
Marquette University

Scholars interested in medieval religious women probably recognize the names of two Bolognese nuns. The first is Diana d'Andalò (d. 1236), who founded the Dominican convent of Sant'Agnese and corresponded with Jordan of Saxony, second Minister General of the Order of Friars Preacher. The other is Caterina de' Vigri (d. 1463), also known as Saint Catherine of Bologna, who was a Poor Clare and first abbess of Corpus Domini. Her voluminous writings and artistic production, as well as a biography written by a fellow nun, have helped illuminate convent culture and female spirituality during a period of religious reform. Yet these two mendicant nuns were uncharacteristic examples of female monasticism in medieval Bologna, as Sherri Franks Johnson explains in her new study. Not only were their communities founded purposefully as Dominican and Franciscan convents, but even their strong spiritual affiliation with those orders was unusual. Only half of Bologna's 35 nunneries had strong ties to the centralized orders by the end of the thirteenth century (89). Moreover, many houses changed their affiliations even as others often fought successfully to maintain their own independent traditions in the face of ecclesiastical pressures to incorporate into the orders. Where possible, Johnson compares the Bolognese evidence with studies from other Italian cities and even northern Europe to show how this pattern of diversity and change was typical. Her local study thus adds to our understanding of the vitality of female monasticism during the later Middle Ages. The book is based on the careful analysis of archival documents, including over 3000 charters preserved in the Fondo Demaniale in Bologna's Archivio di Stato. Unfortunately, Bologna's medieval convents mostly lack the chronicles and devotional writings that other scholars have used to discuss the spiritual identity of religious women. However, Johnson shows that these economic records also can be used to study how religious women shaped their communities through interactions with both local officials and representatives of the orders and the papacy (Bologna was the 'second city' of the Papal States). Whereas older studies had viewed a failure to incorporate as a sign of female marginalization, or emphasized male resistance to the place of women in their orders, Johnson offers a different model based on giving agency to the women. She argues convincingly that many of these medieval nuns understood their monastic identity as based in their own community, rather than in a rule or incorporation into an order (202). The first section of the book focuses on Bologna's thirteenth-century nunneries. Through most of the twelfth century, the city had only five female houses (one associated with Camaldoli, while the others were Benedictine). Thirty new foundations would be established from 1190-1290. Chapter 1 considers how three of these houses represent a general trend of moving from independence toward regularization. Santa Caterina di Quarto and Santa Trinità di Ronzano seem to have been established intentionally as mixed communities of men and women, with the former perhaps having ties to the Humiliati movement. The other foundation, Santa Maria della Guardia began as a community of hermitesses supported by its wealthy founder. Over time, each became more like a traditional nunnery, moving from the suburbs inside the city walls and developing ties with the Dominican Order.

Their incorporation into a centralized order is significant for very few nunneries in Bologna were originally part of the Dominican, Franciscan, or Cistercian Orders. By 1250, the number of communities possessing a monastic rule had grown to nineteen from seven in 1215. But only three of these were associated with the new orders, with each incorporating one female house (including Diana d'Andalò's Sant'Agnese) and strong identification with an order was atypical. Johnson thus concludes in the second chapter that the new orders had very little to do with the growth of female monasticism in Bologna (as others have shown was also true in Florence and Milan). More critically, she challenge the idea that a lack of formal connection with an order reflected the marginal status of religious women. Chapter 3 documents the fluidity of institutional affiliations, suggesting that some nunneries preferred looser ties or to preserve their own traditions. Certainly, by the fifteenth century most houses were integrated into orders. In Bologna, it was most often into the Dominican Order, including most communities following the Augustinian Rule. However, Johnson also stresses that institutional fluidity makes this generalization difficult. Some houses began as communities of beguines and later became professed nuns, even as some others which had begun as nunneries intentionally rejected that status. A theme running throughout the study is that life outside the orders did not necessarily indicate male exclusion, but could be a positive choice for religious women.

The second half of the book turns to the local context and specifically asks how matters such as political factionalism and various forms of unrest impacted these houses. Chapter 4 examines donations and suppressions to consider nunneries' status within Bologna. Houses were more likely to prosper and receive more privileges during periods of republican governments. Papal governors during the fourteenth century, however, sometimes suppressed houses and transferred assets away from nunneries. Johnson reasonably explains that this difference reflected the ways local civic leaders saw female institutions (where perhaps their own daughters lived) as a part of the urban fabric. These relationships are a critical part of the complex networks outside the orders and outside the Church in which female monastic communities functioned.

Chapters 5 and 6 address the impact of relocation on communities. Chapter 5, aided by useful topographic maps, illustrates the pattern of women's houses moving inside the city walls over time. While some houses moved in order to compete for recruits or economic resources, others were forced to do so by violent conflict, particularly during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Johnson points out that these moves generally reflect the insecurity many houses faced. These shifts could require them to face new costs as well as demands for conformity to new standards or incorporation into an order. In other words, relocations could result in women changing their profession, a not uncommon situation chapter 6 considers in more depth. Johnson's evidence suggests that changing profession between orders generally did not result from a crisis and rarely was the result of reform necessitated by moral laxity. Instead, the charters show how religious women were involved throughout the process, negotiating for their own desired ends and thus expressing their own sense of religious identity.

This overview does not do justice to some of the nuggets Johnson has unearthed from the charters. For example, records of some donations to female houses suggest they may have been intended primarily for their male ministers whose vows of poverty prevented them from receiving direct support (76). She points out that this situation reveals how contemporaries might associate a female house with an order even if we lack evidence for its formal incorporation. But it also raises intriguing questions about these networks connecting lay and religious Bolognese as well as about donor intentions.

This book is thus recommended as both a local study of Bologna's female monastic institutions as well as a challenge to the persistent idea that the status of religious women declined in the later Middle Ages. It also foregrounds our understanding of the diversity of female monasticism. While other scholars who have taken regional approaches to convent culture have focused on evidence from mainly the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (e.g. K.J.P. Lowe's Nuns' Chronicles and Convent Culture in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy (2003) or Sharon Strocchia's Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence (2009), Johnson has shown that even during the height of the movement toward regularization through the centralized orders, diverse customs and changing affiliations were not atypical. A future study that extends her questions into lay or semi-religious groups of women would be welcome.

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