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History

When the monasteries were rich and powerful

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02 October 2021

Small courts with servants and goods of which the abbesses were the governers?


Away from the world, but inevitably mirroring it, there was a time when women’s monasteries were a piece of the feudal economy. Therefore, they were rich and powerful. The historian Don Giancarlo Rocca, of the Society of St Paul, director since 1969 of the Dictionary of Institutes of Perfection, clarifies, “The general rule was not to found monasteries of any kind unless subsistence funds were guaranteed. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, and in part also in modern times, this was easy, because kings, dukes or counts were very willing to donate land, rights of way, rights to transport salt, woods, houses to rent etc. In addition, there was the noble girls’ dowry of those who entered the convent. The contemplative and cloistered life, in fact, needs a fixed income”.

The monasteries at that time were small courts, with servants and landed properties, of which the abbesses were the ladies with the privileges of the time, including the court of justice. For example, the sister of Emperor Charlemagne, Gisela, a princess of royal blood, was a nun and abbess of the prestigious abbey of Chelles, near Paris. However, there was also the case of Conversano, in Apulia, where the abbess of the local monastery had the rank of bishop, with full power over the local clergy. This happened in 1266 with the arrival of a group of Cistercian nuns, who inherited a not at the time so uncommon power granted to male abbeys, and that ended only in 1800, with the dissolution of the monastery. As a sign of power, they imposed the kissing of the abbess by the secular clergy twice a year. And when some bishop tried to oppose this privilege, the fierce abbesses reacted harshly, backed by the powerful noble families from which they came.

It was common practice, in fact, among the nobles, that only the firstborn inherited the patrimony. For younger brothers, there was a career in arms or religion. For the daughters, arranged marriages or the monastery. In one way or another, these were strategies to increase the power of the family. It was quite normal for nuns of aristocratic origin to live in single cells, well furnished, with personalized meals and just a few rules to observe. The socio-economic structure of the feudal age was also reflected in the monastery in the division between the chorister nuns, daughters of the local noble families, destined to have positions of responsibility in the monastery, and the converse nuns, from humble families, mostly illiterate, dedicated to manual labor. The economy of the monastery revolved around the feudal rights and especially the landed properties, which accumulated over the centuries due to continuous donations and wise management.

The exception to this was the Poor Clares, founded by St  Clare, who imposed Franciscan poverty on her sisters. However, its particularity confirms precisely what the rule was. The same history of the Poor Clares, with the subsequent division between damianites (no one could force them to accept donations) and urbanites (who could own goods in common), speaks of the objective difficulty of the nuns to survive without being able to count on work outside the monastery and not even on the income. The Council of Trent fell on this almost millenary structure like a meteorite. Mariella Carpinello, in her book Il monachesimo femminile [Female Monasticism] (Mondadori, 2002), reminds us that on December 3, 1563, during the last session, the Council imposed strict seclusion on everyone. From then, nuns were no longer allowed to leave the monastery, nor receive visitors. Contact with their families was severed. Even the architecture was changed. Every monastery had high walls built, a wheel at the door, bars at the windows, closed cloisters, the end of personal property, and the prohibition to take donations. Everything really changed. Even the monastery’s economic system changed.

In order to guarantee the future of the nuns, any activity other than contemplation was prevented, and a dowry was made obligatory for new arrivals, slightly lower than the marriage dowry. It was an inevitable choice because the nuns also fell ill or grew old, and since they could no longer count on their own strength or on the wealth of the monastery, they had to survive.

The advent of a new economy and a new society, however, with the growth of the mercantile and bourgeois class, was about to sweep away the old world, which was at the height of pomp and wealth. Mariella Carpinello recounts how lavish ceremonies were held at the beginning of the 18th century, following princely etiquette. “The profession of Miss de Rastignac, a beautiful twenty-year-old, described by another grand dame, Elena Massalka, future princess of Ligne, is luxurious and spectacular. A lady of the beautiful world, Miss de Guignes, is her godmother, while the Count of Hautefort holds the candle for her during the ritual. Mademoiselle de Rastignac takes her place in the church in a white silk dress edged in silver and studded with diamonds. When the service is over, the Count takes her by the hand and leads her inside the cloister, then the door is closed with a crash behind her”.

By a paradox of history, the imposition of the cloister turned primarily against religious women. The ideology of the Enlightenment considered contemplative life a harmful relic of the past. In 1782, Joseph II of Habsburg suppressed female religious communities in Austria, with the exception of those dedicated to teaching and caring for the sick. With the French Revolution of 1789 and then the Napoleonic season, France and its satellites also applied a policy of suppressing monasteries, with confiscation of property. This policy of confiscation continued in the Kingdom of Italy throughout the nineteenth century. Almost everywhere in Europe, an extraordinary patrimony of churches, buildings, works of art, lands, woods, farms and mills suddenly changed hands. And nothing was ever the same again.

Sister Grazia Loparco, professor of Church History at the Pontifical Faculty Auxilium, “The suppressions impoverished many monasteries; some did not rise again, other communities found much more modest accommodations. Certainly, secularization caused a change in the model of women’s religious life. With the new men’s and women’s institutes occurring in the nineteenth century, the economic organization changed, as members offered services with renumeration from the municipality, the city, entrepreneurs, or even families, for the work they carried out. The poorest were assisted thanks to the austere life of the communities and to benefactors”. Today, the sisters dedicate themselves to apostolic activity; for example, they teach, educate, help, and assist for which they earn a salary for themselves and their sisters. However, this is already another story.

by Francesco Grignetti
Journalist for the Italian national newspaper “La Stampa”


Royal Abbey


The abbey of Chelles, in the Île-de-France, was founded in Merovingian times. Around 788, Gisela, Charlemagne’s sister, became its abbess. Under her rule, it was an important center for copying and restoring manuscripts, many of which were lost in a fire in the thirteenth century, and then finally dispersed with the French Revolution.