- "Going against some forcible wind":Writing and Reform in Medieval and Early Modern Convents
In the 1640s a nun in the cloister of English Benedictines at Cambrai in the Spanish Netherlands wrote of her personal struggle to reform her ways, dedicate herself entirely to God, and achieve spiritual satisfaction through prayer and meditation. Amidst expressions of frustration with her own failings, Barbara Constable criticized the woefully inadequate direction she and her sisters received from the priests responsible for their spiritual progress. She likened her quest to "lead a true spiritual life in this age" to struggling against a strong wind which constantly forced one backwards.1 Constable's evocative motif might well be applied to the experience of religious women across the centuries. From women who embraced observant reforms in fifteenth-century Germany, to French Ursulines in the seventeenth century, to charismatic founders in the New World, and nuns in eighteenth-century France, women religious faced daily battles against not only their own failings, but also the expectations and interference of confessors, church leaders, families, and even local and national political bodies, all of whom attempted to impress their own vision of the religious life upon those in the cloister. Like Constable who wrote against this "tyranny," other women similarly voiced their concerns, fears and hopes in [End Page 135] letters, spiritual diaries, chronicles and, occasionally, in published works. Their determination to follow the paths they believed most beneficial to salvation often resulted in conflict and condemnation, but they nonetheless persevered. In so doing the convent was cemented as a vital religious and civic resource in medieval and early modern communities.
Each of the four books examined in this review shows the potency of the nun and her cloister. Anne Winston-Allen's analysis of the fifteenth-century Observant movement in German- and Dutch-speaking cloisters in the Low Countries, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland uses the nuns' writings to show that women were active in both implementing and resisting the reforms which aimed to restore the original spirit of their religious rules and constitutions. Winston-Allen argues that far from being pawns in masculine Church politics, nuns actively reconfigured monastic life and participated in the late medieval "conversation on spirituality" through their extensive collection, consumption, transmission, and production of religious literature (232). Over a century later, during another era of reform, Antoinette Micolon founded six Ursuline houses in the Auvergne, and recorded her struggles to solicit the necessary financial, ecclesiastical, and local support, as well as an appropriate religious rule for her sisters to follow. Linda Lierheimer's edition of Micolon's autobiography highlights women's importance in implementing the principles of the Catholic Reformation in France through their work as catechists, teachers, and missionaries, and it shows how they combined practical skills with spiritual inspiration to garner respect and attain their objectives.
An ecstatic religiosity propelled Francisca de los Ángeles from an early age into positions of religious leadership within her family, beaterio, and the wider community in late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth-century Querétaro, Mexico. Although her mysticism and missionary activities brought her before the Inquisition, Francisca's spiritual determination and her ability to muster the support of her city's ecclesiastical and secular elites led to the evolution of her beaterio from a refuge for poor local girls to an establishment patronized by the upper echelons of Querétaro society. Moreover, she became a respected religious figure in the city (200–203). Yet Francisca...