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The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 387-408

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Women in the Premonstratensian Order of Northwestern Germany, 1120-1250

Shelley Amiste Wolbrink

Written sometime before 1226, Jacques de Vitry's description of the Premonstratensian order is frequently cited as evidence of the harsh treatment of women within the order. 1 Although initially celebratory, de Vitry revealed that during his lifetime negligence had infiltrated the cloister. Highlighting his own disquiet about Premonstratensian men and women living close to one another, he wrote that after the original fervor of the order had died down the narrow communicating windows were exchanged for spacious doors. 2 He twice mentioned the fact that the order had decided to no longer receive women, 3 and he linked the decline of the order to the rise of the Cistercians. 4 To what [End Page 387] degree do the comments and observations of Jacques de Vitry hold true for northwestern Germany?

The following examination provides insight into the nature of Premonstratensian women's monasteries and male-female relationships in the archbishopric of Cologne from approximately 1120 to 1250. 5 By examining foundation charters, property exchanges, and other primary source materials from twenty-three Premonstratensian monasteries, this article reveals that women's monasticism flourished within the Premonstratensian order of northwestern Germany. 6 In making this argument I demonstrate the efficacy of relying on regional monastic and episcopal records to understand the role of women in religious orders.

Recent scholarship has addressed a multitude of issues relating to twelfth-century monasticism, and these new texts have greatly added to our ability to understand women within monasticism. 7 As Penelope [End Page 388] Johnson showed in her study of religious women in medieval France, "documents of practice" (charters, letters, financial inventories) have proved infinitely more valuable than "documents of theory" (theological tracts, statutes, sermons, prescriptive narratives) for uncovering the history of the once elusive medieval nun. 8 Although the history of women's monasticism still remains to be interwoven into the broader narrative of monasticism, all serious scholars must now acknowledge that women played a significant role in twelfth-century spirituality, church life, and politics. Yet scholarship has tended to focus on England, France, and the Cistercian order, neglecting medieval Germany and the Premonstratensian order.

Despite its foundations throughout Europe and the Holy Land, the Premonstratensian order has been little studied, and rarely incorporatedinto the larger schema of monastic history. 9 Scholarly examinations on specific aspects of the Premonstratensian order have appeared recently, as well as studies that explore individual monasteries throughout their historical development. 10 However, there remains no satisfactory [End Page 389] scholarly monograph for the Premonstratensian order in continental Europe. 11

The history of women within the Premonstratensian order has not been entirely neglected. 12 Yet our understanding of women within the order remains incomplete. 13 In keeping with broader narratives of monastic history which tend to emphasize the exclusion of women within religious movements, the Premonstratensian order has been depicted as possessing a deep ambivalence toward the cura monialium. 14 [End Page 390] This assumption is based largely on statutes issued by the General Chapter of Prémontré, including a pre-1198 decree to discontinue the reception of sisters and an 1198 papal bull endorsing this decision. 15 Richard Southern claimed that the women of the Premonstratensian order were forced out of the monasteries to begin "their wanderings" and that women were no longer admitted to the order because of "anti-feminine criticisms" and "popular religious conceptions" against women. "By the middle of the century," he writes, "there were powerful influences at work to get rid of the intruders." 16 Other scholars have argued that "few houses of women" managed to survive, and that during the thirteenth century the "female order thus died out, except in Belgium." 17 Although a few studies have addressed the ineffectiveness of Premonstratensian legislation, these studies have not been incorporated sufficiently into the historiography of the period. 18 Recent analyses, for instance, place the decline of foundations for women as early as the 1130's, characterize the order as...