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  • Religious Women in Golden Age Spain: The Permeable Cloister
  • Alison Weber
Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt . Religious Women in Golden Age Spain: The Permeable Cloister. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2005. x + 241 pp. index. bibl. $89.95. ISBN: 0–7546–5023–5.

The twenty-fifth session of the Council of Trent in 1563, which mandated claustration for all solemnly professed nuns, is often represented as a watershed moment for female monasticism. Tridentine enclosure appears to support the "spatial discipline" theory in early modern history, according to which church and state combined forces to segregate women into private, powerless spaces. With rich and persuasive detail, Elizabeth Lehfeldt challenges this paradigm, arguing that Spanish nuns were active participants in the financial, social, and religious lives of their communities. The cloister was permeable, both before and after Trent; although the physical separation of nuns from secular society was a widely-acknowledged ideal, nuns and their patrons continued to adapt prescriptive demands to their particular needs and circumstances.

Drawing on extensive research in Spanish archives, Lehfeldt focuses on the religious life of Valladolid between 1450–1650 in order to examine how religious reform was negotiated within a civic microclimate. The citizens of Valladolid were generous patrons of female monasticism, supporting twenty-three convents. In chapter 1, Lehfeldt describes how nuns and patrons were bound together through complex ties. In exchange for financial support, the laity could expect a variety of rewards: intercessory prayers, companionship in time of crisis, a home for widows, and the prestige of association with a holy enterprise. Lehfeldt does not believe that Valladolid families used convents as dumping grounds for extra daughters — monastic dowries were not significantly lower than marriage dowries. Rather, she argues that a complex matrix of practical and pious motivations tied families to religious foundations.

In chapters 2 and 3, Lehfeldt describes the role of early modern convents as financial institutions. Abbesses not only managed property; they acted as lending institutions and, evading prohibitions against usury, fulfilled a critical role in the local economy. Despite requirements to renounce future inheritance, some nuns used the renuncia as a kind of will, thus maintaining a degree of control over family wealth. Disputes over dowry payments and renuncias could lead to litigation.

The Tridentine mandate for enclosure was only one chapter in continuing debates over female monastic discipline. As Lehfeldt explains in chapter 4, the papal directive Pericoloso (1298), which demanded enclosure of all solemnly professed nuns, had been unevenly enforced in Valladolid and even challenged as unworkable. Nuns resisted restrictions on the mobility they needed for their activities as estate managers and, furthermore, families and patrons demanded access to the nuns, who provided solace in times of crisis. Lehfeldt takes a moderate stance on the question of laxity in monastic life. Scandalous events did occur; Lehfeldt argues, nevertheless, that it is a mistake to assume that monastic communities resisted reform in order to protect a lax lifestyle. In some cases, reforms [End Page 548] were willingly embraced; scandal, after all, was bad for attracting patronage. Overall, during the second half of the fifteenth century, the trend was toward a greater acceptance of the need to separate sacred and secular spaces. Juan I went so far as to recommend enclosure for male monastics, a unisex model that was abandoned by the end of the century.

Chapter 5 addresses the climate of religious ferment and renewal during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel. Lehfeldt argues that monastic reform was a particularly urgent concern for the Catholic monarchs, who linked it to their goal of restoring order and asserting legitimacy after the civil war that had placed Isabel on the throne. In Valladolid, active enclosure (prohibitions against leaving the convent) proved more acceptable than passive enclosure (prohibitions against visitors' entrance into the cloister), as patrons continued to expect entrée to the foundations they had bankrolled. Although enclosure became the ideal feature defining female monasticism during what is sometimes called the Catholic Pre-Reform, the ecclesiastical elites proved to be surprisingly tolerant of non-cloistered tertiaries and female visionaries.

Given royal support for enclosure and the success of the observant monastic movements in Spain...


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pp. 548-550
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Archived 2009
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