Dark Age Nunneries. Detail from an illustration of Cesarius of Arles offering his rule to the religious at Niedermeinster. From Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. Lit. 142, f. 65r © Bamberg Statsbibliothek

Dark Age Nunneries and Female Monasticism

Nunneries in the Carolingian and Ottonian World 800–1050 were vibrant and creative lifeworlds

Dark Age Nunneries. The Ambiguous Identity of Female Monasticism, 800–1050
By Steven Vanderputten
Ithaca, Cornell University Press 2018

In Dark Age Nunneries, Steven Vanderputten dismantles the common view of women religious between 800 and 1050 as disempowered or even disinterested witnesses to their own lives. It is based on a study of primary sources from forty female monastic communities in Lotharingia—a politically and culturally diverse region that boasted an extraordinarily high number of such institutions. Vanderputten highlights the attempts by women religious and their leaders, as well as the clerics and the laymen and -women sympathetic to their cause, to construct localized narratives of self, preserve or expand their agency as religious communities, and remain involved in shaping the attitudes and behaviors of the laity amid changing contexts and expectations on the part of the Church and secular authorities.

Rather than a « dark age » in which female monasticism withered under such factors as the assertion of male religious authority, the secularization of its institutions, and the precipitous decline of their intellectual and spiritual life, Vanderputten finds that the post-Carolingian period witnessed a remarkable adaptability among these women. Through texts, objects, archaeological remains, and iconography, Dark Age Nunneries offers scholars of religion, medieval history, and gender studies new ways to understand the experience of women of faith within the Church and across society during this era.


Steven Vanderputten is Professor in the History of the Early and Central Middle Ages at Ghent University. He is the author of Monastic Reform as Process: Realities and Representations in Medieval Flanders, 900–1100 and Imagining Religious Leadership in the Middle Ages: Richard of Saint-Vanne and the Politics of Reform, both from Cornell University Press.




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