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Golden periods

The Goleto abbesses: faith and power

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06 March 2021

A very rare case in Italy of a double monastery led by women


In the long and complex history of the relationship between the Church and women, the period between the 7th century and 1500 records the peak of female power. This was the era of the abbesses, women of faith and power, often subject only to the authority of the Pope: they ruled over the Benedictine communities, which at the time were actual fiefdoms with their own population, workers and clergy.

In this historical and spiritual setting of Conversano -and a century before the appearance of the powerful abbesses with a mitre, pastoral formation and slippers to be kissed -, an exemplary case is found at the Abbey of the Holy Savior, in Goleto in the Ofanto, in Apulia, southern Italy. Founded in 1135, by St. William of Vercelli in Irpinia, it is located in the valley between Lioni, Sant'Angelo dei Lombardi and Nusco.  This was a very rare example of a double monastery, which is one inhabited by male and a female monastic communities. What was particularly innovative there, as highlighted by Adriana Valerio’s studies, is that both communities were under a woman’s sovereignty, the abbess, who exercised both the temporal and religious power. This is an unusual example for Italy, while in the rest of central-northern Europe double monasteries led by women already existed, such as the one in Brie, founded by Saint Fara in the 7th century, and in Fontevraud (1099) in France.

The double monastery, in Goleto, was founded by Guglielmo da Vercelli -a preacher steeped in Marian devotion- and who organized the monastic life of the religious complex. He was, inspired by Mary, the mother of Jesus, of the Church, of the disciples and of the salvation of mankind. The future saint transferred to the position of abbess the Virgin's maternal authority, her strength, her ability to guide and direct, while the monks were entrusted with the liturgical service and the care of the administrative part. In 1191, the Abbey of the Holy Savior was declared independent from the Apostolic Chamber and became Nullius Diocesis , that is, legally and territorially independent from the bishop. It was governed by the abbess who had semi-episcopal powers represented by the miter and the pastoral bas-relief, as can be seen in the splendid frescoes and bas-reliefs of the Abbey which, now restored, can be visited today.  

Abilissime nel destreggiarsi tra conflitti e controversie, nella maggior parte dei casi figlie delle famiglie aristocratiche più ricche e potenti della regione, le badesse furono autentiche protagoniste della vita della Chiesa e riuscirono a resistere al tentativo di usurpare le ricchezze del monastero messo in atto da vescovi e feudatari. E furono capaci di difendere la loro indipendenza. Febronia, Agnese e Marina sono le badesse che hanno lasciato la traccia più incisiva al Goleto, facendo dell’Abbazia un monumento artistico destinato a brillare nei secoli e una potenza economica basata sul possesso di terreni e opere d’arte oltre che sul commercio di bestiame, vini, derrate alimentari. Rispettate e temute, erano loro stesse a riscuotere le tasse. E permisero che, nel corso dei secoli, l’Abbazia arrivasse a possedere ampi territori in Irpinia, Puglia e Basilicata.

The abbesses, who were often the daughters of the richest and most powerful aristocratic families of the region, were skilled in juggling conflicts and controversies.  In addition, they were genuine protagonists in the life of the Church, and managed to counter the bishops and feudal lords’ attempt to usurp the riches of the monastery. Moreover, they were able to defend their independence. The abbesses who left the most incisive mark on Goleto were Febronia, Agnese and Marina, making the Abbey an artistic monument destined to shine over the centuries. In addition, they made the abbey an economic power based on the possession of land and works of art as well as on the commerce of livestock, wine and foodstuffs.  Both respected, and feared, they were the ones who collected taxes, which permitted the Abbey to own wide stretches of territory in Irpinia, Apulia and Basilicata over time.

In 1152, Febronia had the majestic defensive tower built to ensure the nuns’ safety, who were scions of noble families. The construction of the tower reused fragments of the mausoleum of the Roman general Paccio Marcello, who commanded the Sixth Scythica Legion. This is one of the rare examples of a fortified structure attached to a religious complex. The abbess Agnese, who followed abbess Febronia, renovated the basilica and sanctified the sepulcher. This was the work of an artist called Orso, and was destined to preserve the body of the monastery’s founder, Guglielmo, and, to become the Santa Maria di Pierno church. To follow Abbess Agnese was Marina II, who was born into the powerful Riccardo di Balvano family, and had an indomitable and independent character. Abbess Marina II firmly resisted the claims of the Abbot of Montevergine who wanted to annex Goleto, and in 1515 she opposed the pope's decision to close the female monastic orders because of the dangers of rape and violence perpetrated by brigands and soldiers passing through. For this reason, she is considered an ante-litteram feminist by historians.

From 1348, which was the year of the black plague, so began the slow and inexorable decline of the Abbey, which January 24, 1506 resulted in the suppression of the monastic community by Pope Julius II. In 1515, the last abbess Maria, died. Henceforth, Goleto became an exclusively male coenobium, and dependent to the Monastery of Montevergine. In 1807, the remains of Guglielmo da Vercelli, who had died at Goleto in 1142, were transferred. Since 1990, the Little Brothers of the Jesus Caritas Community, who are inspired by Charles De Foucauld, a missionary monk in the Algerian Sahara, have been taking care of the spiritual activities of the Goletan complex. Of the abbesses’ power, only the memory remains.

by Gloria Satta