Mitchell Carroll.

Woman: in all ages and in all countries online

. (page 11 of 30)
Online LibraryMitchell CarrollWoman: in all ages and in all countries → online text (page 11 of 30)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

their elbows on the table; and as soon as they begin to
talk or to rest on their elbows, make them rise and remove
the table." After their " second labor " and on feast days
also — when seemingly the workday was not so long as
usual — they were to have another lighter repast, and in
the late evening, after all their duties were performed,
another abundant meal was served. It then devolved
upon the lady of the house or her deputy to see that the
manor was closed, and to take charge of the keys, pre-
venting anyone from going in or out; and then, having
had all the fires carefully " covered," she sent the servants


to bed and saw that their candles were extinguished to
prevent the risk of fire. The lady was always careful
as to whom she received into her house as servitors;
female servants who came to her as strangers were not
well regarded, and were not given trusts of importance,
and their characters, so far as was possible, were looked
into, as well as the circumstances of their leaving their
former place of employment.

The term "spinster," which is now confined to unmar-
ried women, was a term of consideration applied to all
women of the better class during the Middle Ages. It was
indicative of her superior rank, and was especially adhered
to by gentlewomen who married out of their station, as a
sign of their good birth and gentle breeding.

The term "gentle blood," as now understood, means
only that some persons have the fortunate circumstance
of refined parentage or ancestry; but in the Middle Ages,
when the pride of gentle blood was one of the most dis-
tinguishing characteristics of the prevailing feudal society,
it was seriously believed that through the whole extent
of the aristocratic classes there ran one blood, distinguish-
able from the blood of all other persons. So strongly was
this view entertained, that it was commonly thought that
if a child of gentle blood should be stolen or abandoned in
infancy, and then bred up as a peasant or a burgher,
without knowledge of its origin, it would display, as it
grew toward manhood, unmistakable proofs of its gentle
origin, in spite of education and example. Whatever the
fallacy of this belief, its effect upon the ladies of superior
birth was to make them prize their station highly; but it
also created a spirit of haughtiness toward those who were
below their station, and a harshness in their relation to
their domestics which was not always conformable to the
graciousness and consideration which these very ladies


often displayed where there was no question involving
their caste.

In considering the dress of the women of the Middle
Ages, we remarked upon the censure and sarcasm which
were passed upon the vanities into which women were led
by their devotion to the changing fashions of the day.
Every class of society was pervaded by a love of dress,
which expressed itself in the greatest extravagances and
absurdities. A knight of the fourteenth century compiled
for three young ladies, the daughters of a knight of Nor-
mandy, a manuscript which contains advice and directions
for the regulation of their conduct through life. It con-,
tains several very curious passages relative to dress:
"Fair daughters," says their mentor, "I pray you that
ye be not the first to take new shapes and guises of array
of women of strange countries." He then inveighs against
the wearing of superfluous quantities of furs as edging for
their gowns, their hoods, and their sleeves. After com-
menting upon the sinfulness of useless fashions and their
effect upon the lower classes, he proceeds to portray the
absurdities into which the latter were led by aping their
betters, and suggests that the furs which they wore in
profusion had better at least be dispensed with in summer,
as they served only "for a hiding place for the fleas."
The knight whose daughters are thus counselled is unable
to deter them from falling into extravagances of attire, and
has recourse to the legend of a chevalier whose wife was
dead and who made application to a hermit to know if her
soul had gone to Paradise or to punishment. The holy
man, after long praying, fell asleep, and saw the soul of
the fair lady weighed in the balance, with Saint Michael
standing on one side and the Devil on the other. The
latter addressed Saint Michael and claimed the woman as
his own on the score that she had ten diverse gowns, and


a less number than that would have sufficed to lose her
soul; besides which, with what she had wasted she might
have clothed two or three persons who for the lack of her
charity died of want. So saying, the fiend gathered up all
her gay attire, ornaments, and jewels, and cast them in
the balance with her evil deeds, which determined the
balance against her, and he bore her away to the lake of
fire. The same night, in order to deter his daughters from
painting their faces, the knight recounts a horrible legend
of a fine lady who was punished in hell because she had
" popped and painted her visage to please the sight of the

It is not by such incidentals as dress, but by the en-
during qualities of character, that the women of the higher
circles of the English Middle Ages were able to make an in-
delible impress upon the life and character of the nation.
And more especially may this be said of the women whose
lives were largely spent in the sheltered circle of a pure
domesticity, — the women of the manors.

^fiz Wiomm of tte i^onasteriess



In general, the routine of the nunnery was the same as
that of a monastery. There was the same rotation, hour
by hour, of sacred services, with monotonous regularity
and repetition; the only variety offered was that of labor
of one sort or another, with brief intervals for rest and
refreshment. The industry of the nuns usually took the
form of working in wool, for it devolved upon them to
make the clothing of the monks, who were associated with
the convents to perform the outdoor labor and to serve as
confessors for the female inmates. Great care was neces-
sary to prevent too close proximity of the nunneries and
monasteries and to limit the intercourse of the inmates of
the respective institutions to the bare necessities of their
mutual dependence.

The rules by which women were governed in the life of
the convent did not differ much from those for the men.
Some of these regulations were very rigorous: the inmates
were to have nothing of their own, nor were they allowed
to go out of the convent, and they were permitted the luxury
of a bath only in time of sickness. Continual silence, fre-
quent confessions, a spare diet, and hard labor were to be
endured uncomplainingly, on penalty of excommunication.

In the fifth century, prohibitions were issued proscrib-
ing the founding of any more monasteries for monks and


154 WOiWAN

nuns together and ordering the partitioning of those which
already existed. No man excepting the officiating clergy,
the bishop, and the steward of the convent was allowed
to enter within its walls; and, indeed, one of the rules en-
joined that the nuns were to make confession to the bishop
through the abbess. Under no pretext whatever were the
nuns to lodge under the roof of a monastery, nor was any
person who was not a monk or a cleric of high repute to be
allowed within the precincts of the convent on temporal
business; but in spite of the many rules by which they
were hedged about, in the eighth century nuns are found
admitted into the monasteries on the ground of the necessity
for their presence in sickness and similar emergencies.

Besides the nuns, strictly so called, in the eighth and
subsequent centuries there were canonesses, who differed
from the nuns in retaining more of their secular character.
Their vows were not perpetual, and they confined their
labors chiefly to the instruction of the children of the

Having cited some of the rules for the government of
those who committed themselves to the life of the nun, it
now remains to perform the delicate task of showing the
degree of success which attended the attempt to isolate a
class of unmarried women, that, by religious offices and
meditations, they might wholly dedicate their time and
their faculties to the cultivation of the Christian graces,
and serve as the benefactresses of the poor in giving alms
at the convent gate. The century that witnessed the
outbreak of the Reformation is commonly regarded as
exceptional for laxity of religious principle and perversion
of the institutional ideals of the Church; but, from the
eighth century, the ecclesiastical morality was of such a
low order as seriously to affect the moral tone of the
people and to invalidate the efficacy of the Church as a


teacher of religion. The celibacy which was enjoined
upon the clergy was largely responsible for this state of
affairs. It is unfortunately not true that the ages of faith,
so called, were ages of great moral purity. In spite of the
interdict of councils, priestly marriages were looked upon
as common events. The marriage of priests being under
the ban of the Church, concubinage was regarded as
almost a legitimate relationship, and carried less of stigma
than the proscribed marriages. It is not singular that such
impairment of moral ideas was not confined to the priests,
and that the same low moral tone invaded the convents,
many of whose inmates became the partners of the priests
in their derelictions.

"The known luxury and believed immoralities of the
wealthy monasteries" in England, says Sharon Turner,
"made a great impression on the public mind. Even
some of the clergy became ashamed of it, and contributed
to expose it, both in England and elsewhere." Nor was
the tone of morals outside the cloister of higher grade than
that of the monks. In 1212 a council commanded the
clergy not to have women in their houses, nor to suffer in
their cloisters assemblies for debauchery, nor to entertain
women there. Nuns were ordered to lie single. In Eng-
land, these and many other moral prohibitions were re-
peated at various intervals, showing that, in spite of the
prevailing corruption, there was an appreciation of pure
ideals; and in its councils the Church took cognizance of
and endeavored to stem the rising tide of unchastity.
Thus, inquiries were made in 1252 as to whether the
clergy frequented the nunneries without reasonable cause,
and a year or two afterward an inquisition was made all
over England into the character and actions of the various
religious personages. The conduct of the nuns is fre-
quently alluded to in terms of the severest censure, while

1 56 WOMAN

the ecclesiastics were enjoined not to frequent taverns or
public spectacles, or to resort to the houses of loose char-
acters, or to visit the nuns; they were not to play at dice
or improper games, nor to leave their property to their
children. The vices of the clergy were the unavoidable
consequence of the independence of their hierarchy from
civil control. The release of the clergy from secular
jurisdiction was productive of much personal depravity.
They had to fear their abbot only, and he was frequently
a mild censor of their morals. At a time when any profli-
gate woman of position might retire to a convent and, by
elevation or appointment, become abbess, it is not strange
that the moral tone of the convent was not determined by
the rules of the order, but by the standards which were
actually established.

Yet, in spite of many instances of reprehensible conduct,
the nuns as a class did not break the vows that bound
them to chastity, and within the convent walls were found
many examples of women of illustrious character. In the
Anglo-Saxon times, women of the most admirable traits
are found in charge of convents; the names of some of the
abbesses of the seventh century, and earlier, are notable
as those of women of high rank as well as of high char-
acter. Saint Werburga of Ely, the daughter of Wulfere,
King of Mercia, was made ruler over all the female reli-
gious houses, and became the founder of several convents
of note. Her qualities and character were set forth in the
following lines:

" In beaute amyable she was equall to Rachell,
Comparable to Sara in fyrme fidelyte,
In sadness and wysedom lyke to Abygaell :
Replete as Deibora with grace of prophecy,
jCqyvalent to Ruth she was in humylyte,
In purchrytude Rebecca, lyke Hester in ColjTiesse,
Lyke Judyth in vertue and proued holynesse."


But such examples of high worth among the abbesses,
while not exceptional in the early Middle Ages, are not
frequently met with in the closing centuries of the period.

The position of the abbess was not one of honor only,
but of privilege; the cloister rule was relaxed for her — she
might go and come as she pleased, and see anyone whom
she wished to see. In the early times, she is even found
taking part in synods. Thus, in 649, the abbesses were
summoned to the council at Becanceld, in Kent, and the
names of five of them were subscribed to the constitutions
which were there made, while the name of not a single
abbot appears on the document. Coming down to much
later times, abbesses were summoned to attend or to send
proxies to the king's council which was held to grant "an
aid on the knighting the Prince of Wales." Also, they
were required to furnish military service by proxy. While
they were more amenable to the clergy than were the
monks, the abbesses were nevertheless tenacious of their
privileges. They were never ordained, nor did they ever
have the right to ordain others, although they claimed the
latter as one of their privileges.

They were subject to deposition if they abused their
office. Not infrequently the nuns would carry their com-
plaints to the bishop, and seek from him redress for their
grievances. If the circumstances warranted his so doing,
the bishop would occasionally take the direction of the
nunnery into his own hands instead of appointing an
abbess, or else he might place it temporarily in the charge
of one or more of the nuns. All the affairs of the convent
were directed by the abbess — the tillage of the grounds
and the repairs to the buildings, as well as the internal
ordering of the establishment and the discipline of its
inmates. Also, she was directed to assist, by her own
labor as far as she was able, in clothing herself. When a

1 58 WOMAN

nun became refractory, she might be consigned to punisli-
ment outside of the convent. Thus, by the decree of a
council near Paris in the eighth century, it was ordered
that tiie bisiiop as well as the abbess might sund a nun
to a penitentiary. The same council prescribed that an
abbess should not superintend more than one monastery
or quit its precincts more than once a year. One of the
rules which was at one time in force prohibited abbesses
from walking alone, thus placing them under the surveil-
lance of the sisterhood. But their powers varied accord-
ing to the period and the order with which they were

Through the necessities of their office, tiie abbesses
were brought into closer relationship with the outside
world than were the other nuns. Sometimes they were
made respondents in a suit at law with regard to the
estates of the convent, or to retain the property brought
to them by some one of the sisters, who, renouncing her
vows, sought to recover her possessions, hi 1292 the
prioress of an abbey in Somersetshire had to answer in a
suit brought against her by a widow and two men in
regard to the right of common pasturage upon lands held
by the convent, and the case was decided against the reli-
gious house; but both the prioress and the widow escaped
paying their respective costs in the case, on the plea of

Not only were the abbesses sued, but they themselves
did not hesitate to institute legal proceedings in defence
of what they believed were their rights. In the reign of
Edward III., a prioress sued a sheriff for the recovery of a
pension granted during the reign of Henry III., which had
been allnwed to lapse. The case was carried to the king's
court and won for the convent. Legal difficulties fre-
quently occurred over grants made to convents without


the observance of the set formalities. An abbess had a
great many secular duties, for all the money that came
into the establishment, or was paid out, had to be ac-
counted for by her. The entertainment which the con-
vent dispensed to those who, on one pretext or another,
claimed it, furnished another occasion for the intercourse
of the abbess with the outer world. Sometimes ladies
who were temporarily in want of a home repaired to a
convent and were there received. The bishops frequently
sent friends to the priory for entertainment; though such
persons were charges upon the hospitality of the institu-
tion, they, as a rule, either paid for their entertainment
themselves or were provided for by their friends. It was
not unusual for visitors who came under the authority of
the bishop's order to bring with them a retinue of servants
and to remain a considerable time.

During the time of Henry VIII., rigid inquiries were
made with regard to the regulations and the character of
the inmates of the monasteries, especially the abbots and
abbesses. The investigations with regard to the character
of the abbots and abbesses need not concern us, as we have
sufficiently noticed the looseness of conduct which prevailed
in many of the religious houses. Among the questions asked
were inquiries as to whether hospitality was maintained,
and especially toward the poor, whether Church anniver-
saries were observed, whether proper records were kept,
whether any of the conventual property had been alien-
ated, whether the head of the house was given to sober
and modest conversation both toward the inmates and lay
persons, whether any of the inmates had been punished,
whether there had been any overlooking of the faults of a
brother or sister through favoritism, whether any novices
were received before reaching sufficient age because of
friendship and affection or the inducement of money or


any other ulterior reason. Besides these inquiries, which
were common to the abbots and abbesses, particular ques-
tions were asked the latter, looking to the abandonment of
all ornaments and superfluities of dress and the keeping in
good repair of all the accessories of divine service. They
were asked whether the sisters attended divine worship at
the proper seasons, whether they taught the novices the
rule, whether they maintained proper oversight of them,
and whether they saw that they were engaged at proper
work. Also, the abbess was to report on the character of
the nuns as to whether she suspected any of incontinence,
whether any of them slept without the convent walls or
walked abroad, and, if so, in whose company. She was
asked whether the confessor or chaplain did his duty, and
whether she had found any "ancient, sad, and virtuous"
woman as mistress of the novices.

Among the Gilbertine nuns, whom we may mention as
a typical order, there were three prioresses, one of whom
presided, the other two acting as coadjutors. It was the
duty of the presiding prioress to enjoin penance, grant all
the licenses or allowances, visit the sick, or see that they
were visited by one of her companions. The prioresses
cut, fitted, and superintended the manufacture of the
vestments of the sisters. It was the duty of the pre-
siding prioress to visit the sisters in the infirmary when-
ever they asked for her presence, unless she were
detained by urgent duties. Other rules regulated her
conduct on festival days, when she was especially to use
diligence in inquiring after the order and religion of the

The sub-prioress was under more rigid rules than those
which governed her superior; if, in the absence of the
prioress, she spoke of anything excepting labor, she con-
fessed having done so, in the chapter. If, in the absence


of the prioress, some other of the sisters failed to observe
silence, it was not she but the sub-prioress who was held
responsible and took the blame. She could not go to the
window of the gate without a "sage companion."

When the cellaress assumed oiifice, her duties were to
see what was owing to the different farmers and tax gath-
erers, to receive the sums due from the collectors on the
nunnery estates, and to take account of all the sales of
the products of the lands of the convent. Also, she was
to see to the provisioning of the house, to pay the wages,
and to attend to the mowing of the hay and to the repairs to
the buildings. She might have associated with her a lay
sister, with whom she was at liberty to talk concerning
the business affairs of their office.

Of the other convent officials, the precentrix had charge
of the library; the sacrist rose at night to ring the bell,
attended to the adornment of the church in the vigil of
Easter, lighted the lamp in the interval at lessons, had the
preparation of the coals for the censer, and performed
other duties of a like nature; and the duty of the mistress
of the novices was to see that those in her charge behaved
in an orderly manner. She was the disciplinarian of those
who had not taken the full vows of the order. If the
infirmaress desired anything, she had to indicate it by a
sign; when the want was of such a nature that it could
not be so indicated, the cellaress was summoned, for this
was the only official in whose presence the infirmaress
could speak. She never served in the kitchen when there
were any serious cases of sickness to need her attention.
There were other officials who performed special or occa-
sional duties, who need not be mentioned. All the servants
in a convent took an oath of fidelity not to reveal the secrets
of the house. They were brewers, bakers, kitcheners,
gardeners, shoemakers, and the like.


The confessor made periodical visits to the convent; and
if the prioress found it necessary that anyone should con-
fess, the latter was told to go to the place appointed, and
two "discreet sisters" sat apart from the window of the
confessional, where they could hold the nun under obser-
vation and see how she behaved. The confessor also was
under supervision as to his conduct, for he was to "shun
talking vain and unnecessary things; nor ask who she
was, whence she came, and such things."

The ceremony with regard to the taking of vows by the
nuns was threefold. The first was called the consecration
of the nun, and was made on solemn days, preferably
Epiphany or on the festivals of the Virgin. After the
Epistle was read, the virgin who was to be consecrated
came before the altar, dressed in white, carrying in her
right hand the religious habit and in her left an extin-
guished taper. After the bishop had consecrated the habit,
he gave it to her, saying: " Take, girl, the robe which you
shall wear in innocence." After assuming this, the taper
in her hand was lighted, and she intoned the words:
"I love Christ, into whose bed I have entered." Then,
after the Epistle, Gospel, and Creed, the bishop said:
" Come, come, come, daughter, 1 will teach you the fear
of the Lord." The nun then prostrated herself before the
altar, and after the Veni Creator began, she arose. The
bishop then invested her with the veil and pronounced
a curse against all those who would disturb her holy
purpose. The second ceremony related to a nun who
was to make profession, but who had before been blessed,
and the third ceremony related to the consecration of a
nun who was not a virgin. Such, in brief, is a sketch
of the convent routine and exercises. It will now be
in place to take a more general view of the nun's


As the hospitality of the convent was often extended to
strangers, it will not be without interest to give a list of
the contents of a chamber which was allotted to a "Dame
Agnes Browne" in the Priory of Minster, in Sheppey:
" Stuff given her by her friends: — A fetherbed, a bolster,
2 pyllows, a pay re of blankatts, 2 corse coverleds, 4 pare
of shets good and badde, an olde tester and selar of
paynted clothes and 2 peces of hangyng to the same; a
square cofer carvyd, with 2 bed clothes upon the cofer,
and in the wyndow a lytill cobard of waynscott carvyd
and 2 lytill chestes; a small goblet with a cover of sylver

Online LibraryMitchell CarrollWoman: in all ages and in all countries → online text (page 11 of 30)