Between the law and the world: Defining women's religious identity in the later middle ages

Heidi L Febert, Fordham University


This investigation of women's religious identity in the later middle ages focuses on issues that arose in the context of an early fourteenth-century lawsuit involving the Clarissan convent of Söflingen, Germany concerning nomenclature, categories of existence like poverty and enclosure, and the relationship between female and male orders. Using the unpublished records of the legal suit brought against the sisters by the Benedictine monastery of Reichenau, extant charters recording transactions in which the convent played a part, and various rules promulgated for the Order of St. Damian and the Order of St. Clare, this study demonstrates that women's religious identity was evolving and often locally-mediated in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and that this fluidity could be exploited in order to challenge ownership of important sources of income. While spirituality and personal agency were factors in the creation of women's religious identity, more worldly concerns about material circumstances also played a pivotal role in shaping identity and institutionalizing women's communities. Although the convent employed and responded to a variety of appellations to express its identity, towards the end of the thirteenth century increasing standardization in naming is evident. Use of the adjective poor disappears from descriptions of the community as well, suggesting that poverty may have been a spiritual aspiration, but did not reflect the actual circumstances of the convent or the sanctioned means of support for female communities outlined in the order's rules. Underscoring their relationship with the Order of Brothers Minor may have provided the sisters with spiritual care, but it also enabled them to claim papal privileges granted to the brothers which could be used to protect rights and property. The broader context for the suit and these issues is the developing definition of what it meant to be a religious woman which took place over the course of the thirteenth and into the fourteenth centuries. While significant to the ecclesiastical hierarchy and religious women themselves, this development was equally important to secular powers intent on exerting greater control over religious institutions and limiting the number of people who could claim exemption from their authority.

Subject Area

Religious history|Canon Law|Womens studies|Medieval history

Recommended Citation

Febert, Heidi L, "Between the law and the world: Defining women's religious identity in the later middle ages" (2012). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3544395.