restricted access The Poor Sisters of Söflingen: Religious Corporations as Property Litigants, 1310–1317
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The Poor Sisters of Söflingen:
Religious Corporations as Property Litigants, 1310–1317

The convent of sisters of the Order of St. Damian and St. Clare of Söflingen, initially established just outside the city of Ulm in what is today the state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany, moved to the village of Söflingen, slightly west of its first home, sometime in the early 1250s, and survived there until 1814 when it was finally dissolved.1 During the centuries of activity, the convent maintained a large archive of documents including charters, privileges, and other letters. The history of the foundation was already discussed in 1488 in the work of a local Dominican, Felix Fabri.2 But the modern historian responsible for cataloging much of the extant documentation was Max Miller (1901–1973).3 Miller, a Catholic priest and the director of the Staatsarchiv Stuttgart from 1951 until his retirement in 1967, produced a register of the Söflingen documents starting with the earliest land donations and continuing to 1550. He organized and numbered all of them according to date and included brief descriptions and abbreviated notes concerning their location in his register. It is still used as the finding tool, or Findbuch, for Söflingen’s documents at the state archive in Ludwigsburg, and Miller’s numbering [End Page 327] system gives most items their current call number. Many of the items he listed can be found at the Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg as well.4

The key source for this essay is located under the call number B509 U175. Recently digitized and made available through the website of the Staatsarchiv, it is a transcript of all court documents produced during a property suit held in Zurich and brought in 1310 against the sisters by the Benedictine monastery of Reichenau. The text is written in one hand, in Latin, and by a named scribe, on a roll of parchment 406 cm long and 23.5 cm wide, of which the text column covers 19.5 cm. The inner five of the seven folios of parchment making up the roll have a series of slits at the top and bottom. The slits on the adjoining sheets were aligned and tied together by lacing a strip of scrap parchment through the openings. Seals were appended to the ends of the strips that bound each sheet to the next, connecting them and also ensuring the authenticity of the transcripts. On the left side of the document roll the seals of the cantor of the cathedral of Zurich, one of the judges subdelegated to hear the suit, were affixed, and, on the right side, the seals of the treasurer of the cathedral of Zurich, the other subdelegated judge, were appended.5 Additional court records, found in the Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg and in the Generallandesarchiv Karlsruhe, help retrace the trajectory that led to the final resolution of the conflict in 1317.6

Examination of the document roll and related materials allows for an in-depth exploration of three closely related matters. The first concerns the judicial wrangling between Reichenau and Söflingen, which illustrates in revealing detail the typical procedural formalities and tactics of monastic property suits. The litigation went forward in accordance with the rules of late medieval church law, and a close description and thorough technical analysis of the original Latin record (fully transcribed in Appendix Two) will offer the English reader a rare glimpse of how ownership quarrels were handled by the ecclesiastical judges of the period. The painstaking reconstruction of the respective lines of juristic argument shows, secondly, the extraordinary focus that plaintiffs and defendants [End Page 328] placed on what might otherwise appear as a minor legal issue, namely, the religious affiliation the nuns of Söflingen would claim for their particular mode of collective existence: Were they Clares? Were they from the order of Saint Damian? Or could they simultaneously be both? As late as 1312, the corporate self of the enclosed sisters was adversely affected by uncertain naming practices.

Third and last, the examination will suggest that it was frequently mundane factors and especially the desire to protect rights to property and income that prompted women...