benedictine nuns taking part in procession

My Sister for Abbess

New Research: fifteenth-century disputes over the Abbey of Sainte-Croix, Poitiers

In the end of the 15th century the ancient Abbey of Sainte-Croix in Poitiers became the battleground for a mixture of competing family interests, royal interventions and the monastic reforming agenda of some of the nuns. In 1491 this mixture of divided interests erupted in a regular siege of the Abbey and its community of Nuns.

Traditionally the election of a new abbess at Sainte-Croix were – as elsewhere – the prerogative of the nuns themselves, who after the death of their superior convened in order to elect a new abbess – either by a ballot among the eligible members of the convent, by scrutinium whereby three elected members chose a candidate or by the designation of “confidential persons” to represent the Abbey and choose a new incumbent. After the election the new abbess would be installed in the abbey’s church choir stall as well as be received in dependant chapters. Nevertheless the election was not official before the bishop had confirmed the elected abbess in her new role through blessing and consecration. This procedure was not only laid down by the Fourth Lateran Council 1215 but also stipulated in a series of privileges kept in the archive of the Abbey.

Between 1456 and 1484 the Abbey of Sainte-Croix was governed by a member of the local ruling family “de Couhe”. However, after 1484, the government was highly irregularly taken over by the abbess of Fontevraud, Anne d’ Orléans, sister of the king, Louis XII. At her approaching death she called upon another Fontevrist candidate, Marguerite de Vivonne. Unfortunately for “the Fontevrist party” she arrived late and the election proceeded in a presumably orderly way, electing Jeanne de Couhé.Vue cavalière de l'abbaye Sainte-Croix de Poitiers en 1699

However at this point the Abbey had already been violated by two feuding war-bands led by the respective brothers of the two contestants. All in all Jennifer Edwards estimates that more than a hundred troops were present in September 1491 during the election, harassing the nuns, eating their supplies and generally sacking the premises as well as the farmers and bailiffs in charge of the land belonging to the Abbey. All in all a huge scandal, which was even more complicated by the fact that other ruling families in the neighbourhood as well as the royal party had other agendas as well. Further, it is probable that there also existed a party of nuns, who wished for monastic reforms by which the reign of the abbess would be forced into a more communal mode. In the end Jeanne de Couhé prevailed, thus giving her ample opportunity to further the interests of her family. At her death, however, Jeanne’s successor, her niece Marie Berland, was removed from office under threat of violence and replaced by a candidate selected by the king of France. At this point the royal interest in reigning in the local centres of power, which was invested in such abbeys as Sainte-Croix, prevailed.

This story is told in a recent article by Jennifer C. Edwards, who carefully delineates the different competing interests of the local elites, the royal party and the nuns themselves as witnessed in a series of documents kept in the archives in Poitiers, la Vienne, Archives Nationales and other collections. In the abstract she sums up her conclusion: “These two shocking disputes demonstrate the growing power of the French monarchy over religious institutions, the dangerous strength of family connections to – and family politicking in – the monastery and the influence of the fifteenth-century monastic-reform movement on shifting control over institutions for religious women.”

This story – very well presented by Jennifer C. Edwards – does indeed serve to document the changed circumstances for late-medieval female religious communities. However, as a piece of micro-history we should like to read so much more about the actual conflicts and the minutiae of what took place during the scandal of 1491. How did the nuns move around in the besieged Abbey? Were they able to convene at the stipulated prayer-times? Did some of them move elsewhere during the sacking? Etc. etc.

Might it perhaps be hoped that the relevant papers, documents and letters will be edited and perhaps even translated in the future for the benefit of future students? These comments apart it should be heartily recommended.

The article is a spin-off of Jennifer Edwards’ PHD, The Sweetness of Suffering, currently being prepared for publication.


My sister for abbess: fifteenth-century disputes over the Abbey of Sainte-Croix, Poitiers
By Jennifer C. Edwards, Manhattan College – Department of History, 409 Miguel Hall, 4513 Manhattan College Parkway, Riverdale, New York 10471, United States of America
Received: 31 Oct 2012
Accepted: 9 May 2013
Published online: 05 Nov 2013


The Sweetness of Suffering: Community, Conflict and the Cult of Saint Radegund in Medieval Poitiers.
By Jennifer C. Edwards
Phd Dissertaion, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. 2008. Currently being prepared for publication under the title: Superior Women: Medieval Female Authority in Poitiers’ Abbey of Sainte-Croix.

“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.
DOI: 10.1111/gend.12001

Histoire de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix de Poitier: quatorze siècles de vie monastique.
Eds. Y Labande-Mailfert et al
Poitiers: Société des Antiquaires de l’Ouest 1986.

Read more about the work of Jennifer C. Edwards here



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