New Research: Female Monastic Authority in Fifteen- Century Poitiers
In 1466 the canons at the church of Sainte-Radegonde in Poitiers had had enough of being subservient to the Abbess at the Abbey of Sainte-Croix. Caretakers of an important pilgrim-site holding the tomb of the Merovingian queen, St. Radegunde, they had obviously been able to lay hands on some additional income, which they had invested in (amongst other things) a new organ. Now the time had come to bolster their independence from the nearby Abbey, which had a number of traditional claims on the canons: each week the cannons were obliged to celebrate mass in the church of the abbey and each year at rogation time in May, when the dignitaries of the city went marching around the precinct and blessing the future crops, they were required to pick up the banners of the Abbey and their relics and carry them for the nuns – even walking barefoot while carrying the most precious one, a splinter of the cross itself. Further they were obliged to open the doors at the feast of Saint Radegunde when a solemn procession of all the nuns went to her tomb to celebrate mass there and honour their founder. At this time they were also obliged to let the nuns into their stalls, where the abbess took the primary seat. Finally at the election of a new abbess she was required to proceed to their church and symbolically be seated there. All these acts were at the same time practical services performed for the nuns and required to fulfill their spiritual obligations and needs, as well as distinct symbolic gestures, defining their servant status in relation to the Abbey.
Now, however, the time had come to stage a rebellion. It started in May during the rogation Day processions, when the Canons had stealthily prepared their own new banners, which they picked up in a side-street after having collected the banners of the Abbey; thus merrily carrying along both the “signs” of their superiors and their own “new” banners at the very public perambulations in which the whole city had occasion to witness the new-found status of the Canons. Later that year – and probably worse – the canons prolonged their own morning service on the 13th of August, when the nuns had walked solemnly to the door of St. Radegonde in order to take part in the commemoration of her death in 586. Here the unfortunate females were left milling about outside the door, while the males inside prolonged their liturgy by letting their new organ loose as well as pausing lengthily between prayers. Needless to say the nuns complained; a case, which they won.
The documents pertaining to these complaints (directed to the king) have recently been dissected by Jennifer Edwards in connection with her Phd. In this article they are further analyzed, illustrating that the authority of the nuns was challenged from the misogynous canons; but also that the nuns prevailed by referring to their archived privileges stemming way back. In this instance traditional authority trumped the gender-bias.
According to the work of Jennifer C. Edwards misogyny might have been theoretically widespread amongst male clerics in the late Middle Ages. However, it was not so prevalent as to undermine the traditional autonomy of the female leaders of such institutions as Abbaye de Sainte-Croix. This came somewhat later…
“Man can be Subjects to Woman”: Female Monastic Authority in Fifteen- Century Poitiers.
By Jennifer C. Edwards
In: Gender and History vol. 25, issue 1, pp. 86 – 106, April 2013.
Read more about the work of Jennifer C. Edwards: My Sister for Abbess