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The White Nuns

The White Nuns considers Cistercian women and the women who were their patrons in a clear-eyed reading of narrative texts and administrative records. In rejecting long-accepted misogynies and misreadings, Constance Hoffman Berman offers a robust model for historians writing against received traditions.

The White Nuns
Cistercian Abbeys for Women in Medieval France

Constance Hoffman Berman

2018 | 368 pages | Cloth $89.95
History / Religion / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Reform Monasticism and Cistercian Nuns in Western Europe
Chapter 2. Visitation of Nuns and Their Regularization
Chapter 3. Cistercian Nuns and the Order's Economic Practices

Chapter 4. Women Regents, Cistercian Nuns, and Feudal Crisis: Clairets, Villiers, Voisins, and Port-Royal
Chapter 5. Cistercian Nuns and the Great Heiresses of Chartres, Blois, and Auxerre
Chapter 6. Blanche of Castile (1188-1252) and Cistercian Abbeys for Nuns
Chapter 7. Saint-Antoine-des-Champs Outside Paris
Chapter 8. Nuns and Viticulture in Champagne

Chapter 9. Cistercian Nuns and Their Predecessors

1. Ad Medium, Amortissement, Augmented Rents, Measures, Money, Names
2. The Evidence: Cistercian Nuns' Charters and Charter Books
3. Specific Charters and Other Materials for This Study
4. Size Limits of Abbeys for Cistercian and Other Nuns
5. Numbers of Cistercian Nuns' Houses According to Selected Historians


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Modern descriptions of the religious reform movement of the central Middle Ages have often depended on accounts written by monks from the Cistercian Order, who were in many ways the great winners in that reform movement. Those accounts made central the Cistercian monks in the history of monasticism. Reliance on those monks' accounts, indeed, has led modern historians to remark on the rapid expansion of the Cistercians in the first half of the twelfth century. In contrast, historians have given almost no attention to the equally remarkable expansion of abbeys of Cistercian women, primarily in the first half of the thirteenth century. This is so, despite the facts that by circa 1300 the number of houses of Cistercian nuns would come to nearly equal that of the order's monks and that abbots in the General Chapter had begun to legislate about those Cistercian nuns by early in the thirteenth century.

When I began this study, historians of monasticism still argued that abbeys of Cistercian nuns did not exist—either denying their appearance altogether or suggesting that abbeys claiming to be of Cistercian nuns were "only imitating" the order's practices, or asserting that only a tiny number of houses of Cistercian nuns were ever incorporated by the order and then only during the first decades of the early thirteenth century. This study, based on a large number of archival sources, contradicts those conclusions. It goes so far as to suggest that by the thirteenth century, Cistercian nuns were becoming more prominent because they were replacing Cistercian monks in popularity. The early history of such abbeys for Cistercian women has had to be established from the ground up: foundation dates and founders, abbey and grange locations, and their very existence as Cistercians.

To demonstrate the presence of such abbeys of Cistercian nuns within the order and to show their early appearance have required a considerable rethinking of the early history of the order itself, one that posits a gradual process through which one of the most important innovations of the twelfth century appeared: the religious order. The earlier consensus (drawn from triumphalist Cistercian accounts) was that late eleventh- and early twelfth-century reformers, including those who came to be Cistercians, had moved away from earlier monastic groups. Many earlier monasteries had become extremely wealthy, were organized in hierarchical or monarchical form, and had members who were almost entirely elites. In the twelfth century reformers sought to recapture notions of asceticism, poverty, and equality that had been present at monasticism's origins. The reformers eventually organized themselves into more democratic congregations of monastic communities in which all abbeys (at least all abbeys of monks) were equal. Cistercian monks were often seen as the leaders of such a movement, founding a universal and mandatory general chapter of all abbots who met annually at Cîteaux: it was they who established the Cistercian Order. Such a religious order was a distinctly new institution, what might be called an organizational "umbrella group" that oversaw many houses of monks and nuns.

Through my attempts to incorporate women's communities into the early history of the Cistercians, I came to conclude that although the creation of a religious order had been attributed to the very early twelfth century, its development was more gradual. Over the course of the twelfth century the developing institution, the religious order, was characterized by an exchange of ideas from one group to the next. There is no clear reference to a Cistercian General Chapter (as opposed to local chapter meetings) from earlier than the 1150s. What had once been piecemeal papal grants of exemption from tithes "on their own labor and management" to individual abbeys of monks like Clairvaux were only extended across the order in the 1180s along with exemption from local episcopal visitation. In place of visitation by bishops, internal visitation by father abbots was instituted by the Cistercians by the early to mid-thirteenth century when the General Chapter finally resolved disputes about where individual abbeys or groups of abbeys fit into the filiations, the five family trees used to organize such visitation, but also used to establish precedence in ceremonial entrances into General Chapter meetings. That process was described in my earlier book, The Cistercian Evolution. Only once it has been established that the religious order and the Cistercian Order were evolving twelfth-century institutions does the "narrative space" become accessible for an account of the Cistercian Order that includes its women's communities.

But as this study shows, Cistercian nuns and their communities and the economic basis of their lives were much like those of Cistercian monks. There were differences. Only nuns recruited lay sisters. Nuns appear to have recruited fewer lay brothers, depending instead on hired or tenant cultivators. Perhaps more significant is that visitors for the order's early communities of nuns could vary both formally and informally. Many houses of nuns were formally visited by bishops, but informally visited by mother abbesses. It was only circa 1240 that the Cistercian General Chapter began to regularize the visitation of these nuns' communities, asserting that it was to be undertaken solely by father abbots and that mother abbesses were not to contradict those father visitors.

Still, confirmations of the founding of such communities of nuns by popes and bishops that describe communities "following the Rule of Saint Benedict and the customs of the brothers of Cîteaux" were in words identical to those used in confirmations for the order's monks, like this for Clairvaux: "Ut ordo monasticus, qui secundum Deum et beati Benedicti regulam et cistercensium fratrum institutionem." There were rich and poor houses of Cistercian nuns as well as of Cistercian monks. Some foundations were made de novo. In other cases, communities of religious women becoming Cistercians, like the order's men's houses, had originated in anonymous, semi-eremitical religious groups. The new Cistercian communities of women thus shared in the same larger reform movement as Cistercian monks; they were not a separate women's movement. Like houses of monks, most abbeys of nuns soon acquired endowments of associated granges and properties, sometimes in numbers equal to those for the order's abbeys of monks. Like abbots and other officials, abbesses and other female officers could leave the monastic enclosure to negotiate their abbeys' business. Like abbots receiving lay brothers, abbesses might recruit lay brothers who then took their monastic vows directly from those abbesses.

This study is not primarily about the religious motives or the spirituality of those women who became Cistercian nuns but about their economic successes. Several of its important findings may be mentioned. First, this study shows that women made positive choices to enter new communities of Cistercian nuns, as asserted by the bishop Jacques de Vitry in his Historia Occidentalis: "These were women, often young ones, who had given up their wealth and fineries to pursue a celestial future." Second, moreover, it shows that population increase freed twelfth-century women to live religious lives. More women were free to follow their religious inclinations and enter religious communities because economic expansion and population growth meant that a much smaller portion of the female population of western Europe was required for reproduction than in the early Middle Ages. In the period from A.D. 1050 to 1250 better harvests and diet, lower infant mortality and that of mothers in childbirth improved the gender ratio in favor of women. Those with religious inclinations could enter religious life as young girls, as widows with grown children, or just before death, ad succurrendum.

Third, an unanticipated finding of this study is that the documents for new abbeys of Cistercian nuns often reveal the existence of secular women of considerable power and authority, the dominae, or lady/lords, who were founders and supporters of such communities of nuns. It was to provide themselves with surrogates in prayer that those powerful secular women most often sponsored religious women. Many such secular women rulers would have lost wealth and power if they had entered religious life before their deaths and many entered their own foundations only near or after death for burial. Those secular women might have wholly escaped our notice were it not for their appearance as founders and patrons in the documents used in this study.

Fourth, this study confirms what other recent studies have shown, that nuns used written records to organize their own rule and were rarely wholly illiterate, even if sometimes they did not compose in Latin, and it finds no evidence that abbeys and priories of Cistercian women were used to house unwanted, disabled, or superfluous daughters. This was once thought to be the case by Eileen Power: "The novice who entered a nunnery, to live there as a nun for the rest of her natural life, might do so for very various reasons. For those who entered young and of their own will . . . might take the veil because it offered an honourable career for superfluous girls." Recently Emilie Amt has returned to the evidence cited by Power of English convents' "poverty of learning," identifying it as coming from a Middle English translation in the 1460s of an earlier Latin cartulary, made by a "poor brother" who described why he made this translation: "For as much as women of religion, in reading books of Latin, are excused of great understanding" (cited by Power), but as Amt points out, the poor brother continued, describing those nuns as "for the most part in English books well learned." Power's arguments about the evidence of the bishop's registers have also been shown to be distorted and overstated.

This study contradicts assumptions that nuns did not use written documents to manage property and shows that, despite the fact that there were few large stretches of unoccupied land to be granted to new religious communities, Cistercian nuns actively acquired the substantial endowment necessary to become self-sufficient religious communities. It shows that despite assumptions that women's inability to celebrate mass would have been detrimental to nuns' ability to attract patronage, medieval populations believed strongly in the efficacy of those nuns' prayers, hastening to make gifts to those nuns for their own and others' souls (see in particular, Chapter 7 on Saint-Antoine). It also shows that the misogynous language used by Cistercian monks to describe the nuns in their midst, particularly after 1400, often derived from attempts by those Cistercian abbots to take over the property that had been given to support the nuns. The abbots justified their actions by attacking those nuns using ill-founded, misogynous clichés about religious women's failures.


This study of Cistercian nuns is divided into two main parts, and a third that consists of conclusions, followed by various appendices. Part I uses a wider lens to turn a more European-wide gaze on Cistercian nuns. In this first part, Chapters 1 and 2 describe recent historiography on Cistercian nuns and how the Cistercian General Chapter's abbots came to recognize and regularize those nuns. Chapter 3 considers how nuns' communities adapted Cistercian economic practices to a variety of environments across Europe.

Part II provides a more focused account of Cistercian nuns in a single ecclesiastical province in northern France in the thirteenth century, the ecclesiastical province of Sens. In the Middle Ages that archbishopric comprised seven dioceses stretching from Chartres and Orléans to Auxerre, Troyes, and Meaux, including in the center those of Paris (not a separate archbishopric until 1622) and of Sens itself. About twenty-five communities of Cistercian nuns were founded there between the 1190s and 1250, a number similar to that of the earlier foundations for Cistercian monks in the same region—most of them founded two or three generations earlier. The communities of Cistercian nuns founded in the archbishopric of Sens ranged in size from as few as 20 to as many as 140 nuns (see Map 1 and Appendix 4).

Part II treats individual abbeys or groups of abbeys in chapters arranged primarily according to the identities of their women founders and only secondarily according to foundation dates and geography. Such an organization of the material, at first sight not compelling, turns out to underline the importance of those thirteenth-century noble women founders whose histories have for too long been ignored and whose presence in this story might otherwise have been missed.

Chapter 4 considers houses of nuns founded in the western parts of the archbishopric, several of them founded by widows whose husbands died before fulfilling crusader vows. These widows made such foundations as dowagers, using assets specified by husbands and income from their dower lands. In some cases the Crusade in question was one launched against Albigensian heretics. Chapter 5 considers great heiresses, women like Isabelle, Countess of Chartres, and her daughter, Matilda of Amboise, who had inherited familial land and titles after the deaths of cousins or nephews. For these two countesses of Chartres, considerable documentation reveals their generosity in founding houses of Cistercian nuns and their considerable transfer of lands from secular elites in the countryside into the hands of Cistercian nuns. Less well documented are foundations made to the east of Paris by another equally important heiress, Matilda of Courtenay, Countess of Auxerre, Nevers, and Tonnerre, often called "the Great." Surviving documents for her foundations are sparse, although there are some for the foundation made at Pont-aux-Dames for the soul of Matilda's daughter, Agnes, who had married into the family of the lords of Saint-Pol.

Chapter 6 turns to Blanche of Castile, queen of France, and her foundations for Cistercian nuns at Maubuisson, begun in 1236 and dedicated in 1242, and at Lys, begun in 1244 and dedicated in 1248. Her two abbeys for nuns are compared to that for Cistercian monks at Royaumont, which was begun in 1228 for the soul of her late husband Louis VIII and with the participation of their young son, King Louis IX. The large expenditures to acquire consolidated properties that were made by Louis IX for Royaumont are compared to his mother's more piecemeal acquisitions at Maubuisson. For Blanche's foundation for nuns at Maubuisson many small claims even to the abbey site itself had still to be acquired after the nuns arrived. Thus, John of Maubuisson received sixteen livres for an arpent of meadow located just behind the abbey wall; he may also have received two livres for a house located next to the abbey's well; Dreux of Maubuisson and Aiceline, his wife, received twenty livres for their claims to a nearby quarry. The knight Lord Thibaut and his wife Martaria were paid for a bridge located next to the abbey; two women from Aulnay were paid two and a half livres for land next to the abbey's garden and a right-of-way; Richard Borin was paid nearly thirteen livres for his holdings there. Roger Redbeard and his wife received three and a half livres for land located next to the abbey wall, which they held from the church of Saint-Lazare; Gerald of Saint-Ouen received eight livres for a single arpent of land, but one located inside the nuns' enclosure, which he held from the prior of Saint Peter of Pontoise. Part of the point of such listing of the slowness of acquisitions is to suggest that Blanche had to approach the founding and endowment of her abbeys very much like other widows discussed in Chapter 4, using dower/dowry income to purchase rights. Chapter 6 also examines the record book Achatz d'héritages, made for Blanche's construction at Maubuisson as evidence for construction as well as of the acquisition of endowment.

Chapter 7 is devoted to a single abbey, that of Saint-Antoine-des-Champs founded just outside the walls of thirteenth-century Paris. Begun circa 1198 by a group of male and female penitents inspired by Fulk de Neuilly, preacher of reform, Saint-Antoine came to be among the most important abbeys of Cistercian nuns. Its abbesses ruled the Faubourg-Saint-Antoine right up to the French Revolution, and even in the thirteenth century they had begun to amass both important granges in the countryside and a considerable endowment of rental houses in the city of Paris itself.

Chapter 8 considers the more suburban abbeys of nuns founded in the eastern parts of the ecclesiastical province, some of them in the county of Champagne. Among founders and supporters were contenders for the countship of Champagne during an early thirteenth-century comital minority, bourgeois and citizens of towns and cities associated with the international Champagne fairs, and the archbishop of Sens. While some of these abbeys appear at first glance to be associated with leprosariums, a second glance suggests that this was often only an issue of proximity. It was in this region of Champagne that some of the abbeys of nuns were suppressed beginning circa 1400.

Finally, Part III and Chapter 9 open with a query about the province of Sens. Were the paltry numbers of foundations for Cistercian women made in the twelfth century attributable to the presence of rival reform groups that included women: Fontevraud, Prémontrée, and the abbess Heloise's Paraclete? Did those other twelfth-century reform groups that included women occupy the same societal "niche" in the province of Sens that Cistercian nuns did elsewhere? How similar were economic structures between those other groups and those of Cistercian nuns? What a brief overview of the available studies suggests is a shared competency among the female leaders of all such communities.

Thus, my conclusions in this study show abbeys of Cistercian nuns that were not poor and not unable to manage property. The findings about how very successful they were may be extended not only to other regions but beyond the Cistercian Order to medieval nuns more generally. Medieval authors' biased and self-serving rhetoric should not be taken at face value for medieval nuns. Such conclusions about evaluating medieval statements about nuns according to the contexts in which they were produced bear more widely on our considerations of medieval women, secular and religious alike. They should challenge a hyperromanticized view of the Middle Ages as consisting only of strong and knightly men fighting dragons.

Please note that all translations of non-English works are my own unless otherwise specified and that Appendix 1 provides definitions of technical terms and some of the more obscure legal practices with regard to land-ownership. Abbreviations are listed at the start of the notes.

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