Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Middle Ages - Go thee to a Nunnery, go...

......the father said to his daughter or the brother to his sister. In the Middle Ages were the unmarried daughters often sent to a nunnery. A young girl, Elisabeth, said to her brother, the duke of Pommeranian that he might better marry her to the poorest knight than burying her in the nunnery. The fathers of those surplus daughters were mainly rich landlords, who paid for the kloster buildings and gave the klosters the sources of income, which were the material base of their existence. It was mostly noblemen's widows and unmarried daughters who entered a convent.

The nuns in the Benedictine convents were surplus women of the aristocracy; but there was a difference between the nuns and the old widows. The widows entered the convent freely; they might have a safe and comfortable old age here. To a young nun the kloster life could be terribly depressing and lonesome, she had been placed in the convent by her parents ever since she was a little girl or a young girl, who was still dreaming about a life with husband and children. But a normal life was not for her. As a nun she had to resign and obey the discipline; the world outside was forbidden land.

Usually was paid a rather large entry-sum by the parents. The convents had also a good income from the inheritance of the personal property of the deceased nuns. And they had yet another income in receiving the old women, who were not subjected to the discipline; those women or widows transferred their estate to the kloster, which in return undertook to give them food and care. A lady, Bodil Hemmingsdatter, gave farms and land in 12 villages to the kloster, besides a large forest. In return she demanded to have as much food as 3 monks were entitled to, and some good clothing like lamb skin, a skin-robe every second year, and two pairs of night-slippers each year. Most convents became gradually very rich institutions.  The medieval documents from Ringkloster by Skanderborg was examined in the 1970s, and the extent of the estate at the reformation was about 10.000 tønder land (acres) plus mills and eel-farms. The estate was spread over large parts of East Jutland. 

Sebber kloster
All sisters were equal in the convent. The same clothes, the same terms, they slept in a common dormitory with simple beds or in small Spartan equipped cells - and they had their meals in a common dining doom. Only the leader, the prioress, was above the sisters. She had her own apartment and was allowed to have guests at her table. If the ordinary nun had visitors, the conversation took place through a grated window. The nun was not allowed to visit the world, and the world was not allowed to enter the convent. 

The novice made three vows, before she entered the holy society. In a ceremony in the convent she took off her secular clothes in front of the audience and was dressed in the usual simple dress of a nun. She solemnly promised to stay inside the walls of the convent, to live her life in poverty and chastity all her life and to submit to the will of the prioress with unconditional obedience. The intention with these promises was that  the nun renounced all connection to the world. It would not be accepted if she got some new impressions from outside the kloster; no secular possessions or connection to other people or to her co-sisters must lead her mind away from the only significant : the constant and devoted occupation with the Divine. The obedience towards the leader of the convent had to secure orderly conditions and peace in the convent. It brought peace to everybody's soul that decisions were made by someone else.

Helsingør Kloster
The pious sisters had to spend their day with prayers, church services and practical work - and in complete silence. Several times a day common worship and prayers were held in the church. The first service was at midnight, then two daily masses followed, there were confessions every fortnight and communion at least once a month. The convent had its own priest; he might also be the prior - a man who together with the prioress took care of the outwards functions of the convent and managed its estates.  The prioress was a woman, and women were not allowed to meet on the Thing or make business on behalf of the kloster. It became gradually common to let business-experienced seculars  function as managers of the convents. In the time close to the reformation the king gave often the kloster as a vasalry to a nobleman. These vasals unraveled the necessary funds for the daily operations of the kloster, but they often put the profit in their own pocket.

The sisters had to do the housework, but the rough work was undoubtedly taken over by servants. The Benedictine-nuns came mostly from the highest strata of society, and they had probably no wish for cleaning and washing. The convents abroad were often education places. There is no testimony about any education among the Benedictine-nuns in Denmark, but they read the Holy Scripture over and over again, and texts and songs were rehearsed for the church service. Several nuns worked as teachers for the children, who were placed in the kloster to be brought up. This was a learning with a religious purpose, but the children had both reading and writing and maybe music and drawing.
Scissors and needles from Ringkloster
The nuns spent much time doing fine needlework , magnific embroideries with gold and silver thread, especially biblical scenes and the life of the saints. This was also a way to honor God, and this was the most noble duty of the sisters. At the convent Ringkloster by Skanderborg was in excavations found a thimble, two little fine scissors and several embroidery needles.

The supervision of the various functions was shared among the sisters, but the prioress was the highest instance in all matters, both spiritual and temporal. She supervised the work of the nuns, encouraged the pious and diligent, punished the thoughtless and negligent. She decided who was allowed to have a visit or make a journey. The rules were later not that strict. Abesses and prioresses went to church meeting and on pilgrimage. People could meet ordinary nuns in the city-streets or in the country road, often to visit their families. But this created an outrage, and in 1447 the king commanded that a building should be raised by the convent in Ålborg, where the nuns could follow the rules and do their church service, locked up like before, so they could neither go out or be in company with anyone else than church people.

The promise of poverty was not kept either. The Benedictine nuns in Denmark were not poor. A nun's testament from 1292 concerns several monks and nuns, and her own sister Margrethe, who was a nun in Ringkloster. In 1365 two other nuns in Ringkloster inherited a large sum of money. The aristocratic nuns owned probably both fur and silk. The record is probably held by a prioress in Easebourne in England, who in the 1400s brought her convent on the verge of bankruptcy by lavish sociability . She was told by the bishop to sell her furs in order to correct the economy of the kloster.

The ascetic life was softened. The Benedictine rules told the nuns not to eat meat. This rule changed, and they were now allowed to eat meat from two-feet animals. But more happened along the way - also the four-feet animals ended on the dinner table. The finds of animal bones in the excavations at Ringkloster show that the nuns loved pork. From a convent in Lund (Skåne) is a list of what the prior in the late 1400s had to deliver to the nuns:  (usually 12 nuns in a convent) : Beer, four barrels a week; bread, barley, butter, herrings, fish, pork, peas, beans, beef, porpoise-pork, onions, cheese, barley- and oatmeal, salt. Milk from six cows, oil for the Lent, free cabbage-land , barley and oat for the geese. It was not different from what people had outside the convent, if they lived well. (The beer must be seen in connection to the bad drinking water).

The nuns lived like other classy people. They wore furs. They had linen instead of rough underwear , and on cold days they were cosying in the warm room with their needlework. Some of them adorned with fine jewelry.  The rule of silence was forgotten. While sewing and embroidering they might have told each other tales which were not always from the Holy Scripture, and some little kloster virgin might have dreamt about a handsome young knight.    

Stubber kloster
                                                                                   In the middle og the 1400s was made an attempt to bring the kloster life back to the serious earlier ideals. A strong reform movement was established in Germany, and a monk was sent to Denmark. In a convent - probably at Sebber kloster in North Jutland  -  he was received as an angel from heaven, and the convent at Gudum joined him too. But in all other places the nuns were not interested in any changes back to the old rules. They kept under water until the storm was dead and over. But the nuns were not non-religious. They were still very religious people. People in the Middle Ages were religious. The religion was a very important part of daily life - and this crucial importance is difficult to understand by people of today.The whole heavenly hierarchy was a present reality to medieval people. Not only monks and nuns, but common people went to mass or to prayers each day.

At the reformation in 1536 the Saga of the klosters was over and out; their estates and manors were confiscated by the State, and the monks were without mercy kicked out from their klosters and persecuted in every way. But the nuns were noble ladies, and they lived unchallenged in their convents. The noblemen ,who were royal vasals at the klosters, were ordered to provide properly for them by the king. In Stubber kloster in Jutland the vasal had to take care of 12 nuns in 1547. And when Frederik II in 1581 sold Hundslund kloster, the buyer had to provide for two die-hard ladies until their last day.

Some klosters were allowed to continue , a continued practical possibility in order to get rid of the surplus daughters and the troublesome widows. The Birgittine kloster in Maribo at the island Lolland was re-established in 1556 into a Lutheranian convent, where the ladies like their predecessors should live a withdrawn life with strict discipline. But it was not possible to go back to the old kloster rules in the protestant Denmark.  The kloster was plagued by scandals and was abandoned in 1621.
New foundations were established later for women from nobility in Roskilde, Gisselfeld, Odense, Støvring, Vemmetofte and Vallø. But with a free life.

Source: Archaeological Magazine Skalk Nr. 6, 1972: Nonneliv, Rikke og Olaf Olsen.
photos and sketch: grethe bachmann 
images of nuns; scissors and needles from Ringkloster: Skalk.


Wanda..... said...

So many traditional ideas have their roots in unfairness in some manner...and usually it's the women and the poor that were affected most...and sometimes in the name of religion. It still seems to be an unbalanced world...for everyone that benefits, someone else seems to pay.

Thyra said...

Yes, who said that power corrupts?
We'll have an election here on 15th September and I have almost given up listening to them. They fight like wolves. I don't remember they were that bad in my youth. Maybe loss of memory!
Grethe ´)

Bill said...

All of this seems so ancient, and yet some of these practices carried forward to the 20th century. These lost rituals had purpose at one time, and perhaps some still would.

Humans need centering. I think formal religion satisfies this need.

A wonderful post and very educational. Thank You.

Thyra said...

Hello Bill, thank you very much for your comment. What is difficult when writing something about the Middle Ages and the Viking period is that there are so little sources about ordinary people. The sources about common people are mostly from archaeology, while the aristocracy and the clericals are described in written sources, (written by church people).
I try to avoid my personal opinions, but they might shine through occassionally! Religion has caused so many bad things, and it still does. I'm glad that you liked the article. I like to dig down in the Past! Next time will be the Vikings and their beard!
Have a nice Sunday!
Grethe `)