The convent and the community in the diocese of Norwich from 1350 to 1540

Marilyn Oliva, Fordham University


Late medieval English nuns have rarely commanded the attention of historians. Most scholars concentrate exclusively on the male religious houses and claim that the nuns were so poorly documented that little about them can be known. Information about the late medieval female religious is either inferred from what historians have discovered about monks and canons or dismissed as unimportant. As a result of this bias toward the male religious, most of what we know about late medieval English nuns relies solely on Eileen Power whose 1922 pioneering work remains the most comprehensive study of nuns in medieval England. This thesis attempts to redress the imbalance in the historiography and to re-examine the status of the nuns in late medieval England by focusing on the eleven female monasteries in the diocese of Norwich from 1350 to 1540. Utilizing gender as a category of analysis, this study surveys the social rank of the nuns, their numbers throughout this later period, and their household administration and organization. The ties which bound these female monasteries to the parish and county communities of which they were a part also are examined through the religious and social services which the nuns provided, and the patronage they garnered in return. These eleven female houses are well documented. Monastic household accounts survive for several of these convents as do cartularies, poll tax returns, and documents from the Suppression of the monasteries. These sources detail the variety of services which the convents provided to their local communities. The wills of local testators yield information on the nuns' families and social backgrounds as well as illuminate the bequests local testators made to the female houses in the diocese. The rich variety of documents allows for several quantitative analyses. A prosopographical study of the 572 nuns who lived in the diocese of Norwich from 1350 to 1540 shows that a substantial majority of nuns were from middle ranks of medieval society. An extensive analysis of the wills demonstrates that this patronage of the nuns by local testators was consistent throughout this later period and that the number of bequests to the nuns were second only to that made to the friars. Finally, this dissertation demonstrates that the convents offered an alternative to the traditional roles of wife and mother; they also gave the nuns an opportunity to develop management skills and be rewarded for them by assignment to monastic offices. The nuns' abilities were honed and tested by the numerous long- and short-term lay residents who relied on them for food, lodging, and significant spiritual services.

Subject Area

Middle Ages|Womens studies|Clergy

Recommended Citation

Oliva, Marilyn, "The convent and the community in the diocese of Norwich from 1350 to 1540" (1991). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9127041.