For a woman to become a nun in the medieval world her family had to pay a grant or dowry to the nunnery. This meant that convents were comprised almost entirely of women from the upper class, and although some of these religious houses were poor and spiritual, others were a little more materialistic.
The convents were a dumping ground for unwanted and illegitimate daughters, women with disabilities, women prisoners – Christina Bruce sister to Robert I of Scotland was imprisoned in a convent by Edward I. But they were also a refuge for widows and maybe the only opportunity for a woman seeking intellectual pursuits.
Given the affluence of the inhabitants it should come as no surprise that nunneries employed servants to do the manual labor. St. Mary’s in Winchester had twenty-six nuns who were served by nine women servants, five male chaplains, and twenty male servants. To their credit they educated twenty-six children and supported thirteen poor sisters.
It sounds like a pleasant, easy life, but so much depended on the prioress. In 1442 at a convent in Catesby a prioress named Margaret Wavere had an affair with a priest named William Taylour. When word of her affair got out Margaret became violent. She tore off the veils of her charges and dragged them about by their hair. Word of her cruelty leaked out when six nuns ran away. At a bishop’s inquiry, she beat any nun who gave testimony against her, and bribed the bishop’s clerk to discover what had been said and by whom.
In most convents life was not all doom and gloom. On feasts like Christmas and the May games minstrels, harpers, and dancers performed at the nunneries. Strictly speaking the church forbade this, but it was an age when many bishops had their own personal entertainers, not to mention mistresses and families, so the rule was largely overlooked. And there was more than one story of a nun running away with a minstrel, and taking him as her lover.
Given the fact the most of the nuns were sent to the nunneries without any real regard to their suitability for convent life it’s surprising that more of them didn’t take lovers. In 1351 the commissioner for the Bishop of Bath and Wells was so shocked by the behavior of the nuns of Cannington in Somerset he accused the convent of being more like a brothel than a priory.
I wonder what it would have been like for a woman who longed for a husband and children to be forced into an institution where she was forbidden to have them. This would have been made harder by the fact that nuns didn’t live in isolation from the world as they were supposed to. Everyday they were confronted with temptation, a temptation made more alluring by the fact it was forbidden.
Nuns who took a lover and then repented were given penance and forgiven. Nuns who left their convent to marry and have children were excommunicated and their marriage cursed by the church. In a medieval world where the church controlled every aspect of daily life, and eternal torment and hell were real fears, many nuns repented and returned to holy orders.
But there were exceptions; one of them is the sad story of Agnes de Flixthorpe who ran away from St Michael’s, Stamford, in 1309. Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln seems to have taken a particular interest in her; he threatened anyone who helped her with excommunication. He then proceeded to hunt her down. A year later she was captured in Nottingham. She was dragged back to St. Michaels where she was imprisoned with her legs shackled until she agreed to wear her habit and resume her life as a nun. She refused.
Dalderby sent her to a nunnery in Devonshire and had her imprisoned in solitary confinement, hoping the isolation would break her spirit. It did. She agreed to repent and was returned to Stamford in 1314. By 1316 she had run away again. The prioress seems to have tried to keep Agnes’ escape a secret. But in a letter, penned in 1318, Dalderby threatened the prioress with excommunication if she didn’t capture poor Agnes.
In 1319 Dalderby died and Agnes disappears from the historical record. We don’t know if she was forced to return or left in peace. Personally I like to believe that once the bishop died the church forgot her, and that she married and had children.
Of course at the end of the day medieval nuns were just like everyone else. They could be ambitious, caring, spiritual, violent, spoiled, lusty and kind. But in a world where most women had very little input concerning their life choices I have to feel sorry for them.