The last angry nun in Sant Joan de Ripoll

From thriller titles to Western echoes, although I don’t think Sant Joan de les Abadesses is really the west of anywhere. Nonetheless, it’s back there we go once more, because I have been revising the book again (now in second draft) and come across this snippet that makes for a story such as I like to tell you all.

Cloister of the abbey of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Cloister of the abbey of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Stop a minute in this cloister and I’ll tell you about someone who used to live here, back in the day, when the abbesses still ruled and a dominant Castile was still a glint in Fernán González’s eye. But first I need to set you up with some background. You probably remember Abbess Emma? Well, her end is obscure; no-one knows where she’s buried, and we don’t know exactly when she died. The last mention of her dates from 942, then there aren’t many documents for a bit and then in 949 there was a big meeting at Sant Joan whose matter makes it clear that she’d been dead for a while.1 The meeting was attended by various great and good of the area, including the deacon Miró Bonfill, one of Emma’s nephews, Bishop Guadamir of Vic, Archdeacon Ató of Vic who would be the next bishop, Viscount Guadall of Osona and Bishop Godmar II of Girona, but it was headed by two more of Emma’s nephews, Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, fairly new to the job and probably about 19 years old, and by his elder cousin Count Sunifred of Cerdanya. Neither of these two exactly ruled Sant Joan, because the area had since 899 been technically under royal immunity (King Charles the Simple‘s signature on the document that says so is the blog header up there), but Sant Joan’s properties were mainly split between Osona and Cerdanya, so it was these counts that problems at Sant Joan mostly affected.2

And problems there were, because as the scribe reports, after Emma’s death Borrell’s since-deceased father Sunyer had, ‘out of cupidity’, imposed an abbess of his own choosing, ‘an unsuitable woman, as later became clear’. These dark words are all we know about Emma’s immediate successor, a catspaw for the greedy count who had also acquired a more or less controlling interest in the valley immediately overlooking the monastery from the south, which was now held by Borrell.3 She was also dead now, however, or otherwise removed, and the meeting was to decide on a successor. Sunyer’s malpractice had apparently caused him great remorse in his final years as a monk at Notre Dame de la Grasse, but the counts weren’t letting go of the wealthy convent for all that, and the successor was the recently-widowed dowager countess of Urgell, Adelaide, Borrell’s and Sunifred’s aunt-in-law. She doesn’t seem to have taken the job seriously, goes on appearing as countess and by 956 had been replaced by one Ranló, though as Adelaide had married the counts’ uncle Sunifred II of Urgell in 907, she may well have been dead by the time we first see Ranló (though Ranló, too, was at least 63 by this time and probably older; long-lived religious women is a bit of a theme round here).4

The record of the meeting of 949 over the succession to Sant Joan

The record of the meeting of 949 over the succession to Sant Joan

But it’s not Adelaide I want to tell you about. Here is a scan of a photograph of the record of this meeting, and under it there should be linked a full-size version which blows up rather better. From the full-size version, if not from this small one, you can probably see that there are a lot of autograph signatures, Borrell’s dead centre in splendid capitals probably being by the scribe Guillad, and Sunifred conspic. by his a. but Gentiles, who had been Emma’s chief notary, appearing in the full-size glory of his own hand, above left of Borrell’s, for the last time ever. Never mind him, though, he’d had his share of the limelight; the really interesting thing is that four of the nuns also sign, apparently in their own hands. Guillad either didn’t know they could write, or thought they needed help, as he put their names in himself, but their own signatures appear also, above and to the right of Gentiles’s rather up-and-down rustic capitals hemmo d~o dicata (you see, Emma was a popular name in this area by now…), immediately above her RIHELDES D~O DIcata, Riquilda, to her right Chindiberga, right over to the left again on the next line Carissima, ‘dearest’, and back up again, just to the right of the younger Emma, ELO †. I mention Elo last because she’s the subject of the post (at last, you say!). The nuns Bellúcia and Aldècia are also made to sign by Guillad, but they apparently didn’t or couldn’t write so I shan’t locate their signatures for you (can’t actually see Bellúcia’s, I admit). On to Elo.

We know a little bit about Elo because she goes on appearing after the others. The writing nuns also turn up as witnesses to a couple of big exchanges with Count Sunifred and the deacon Miró, and also their brother Count Oliba Cabreta, in 962 that effectively set up the new comital monastery of Sant Pere de Camprodon on land that Abbess Fredeburga gave in exchange for land that had once been Sant Joan’s, but got taken over after Emma’s death.5 As I’ve observed before, it’s tough to be up against The Man in late-Carolingian Catalonia. Anyway, the same four signed one of the three documents from that deal too, but thereafter we don’t see Carissima, Riquilda, Chindiberga or the younger Emma any more, whereas Elo turns up again. This is mainly because her father, whose name is Asner, seems to have had no other heirs, so kept granting her extra land. As she got older, in her turn she granted this to Sant Joan, which is how come we have the documents.6

The nave and apse of the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

The nave and apse of the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

But times had changed at Sant Joan during Elo’s lifetime, as I’ve mentioned before. You can see from the mess that Sunyer left behind and how his successors dealt with it that the counts were keen on clipping Sant Joan’s wings. In 1017 this came to a head when Abbess Ingilberga and her nuns were appealed before Pope Benedict VII by a load of Catalan dignitaries, who said that the convent was populated by ‘parricides and whores of Venus’ and obtained its dissolution. Elo did do quite well out of her father, but she doesn’t appear to have needed to kill him for this to happen, and Ingilberga certainly didn’t kill her father, who was Oliba Cabreta, because he had died a monk in Monte Cassino in 990. What their personal morals were like I couldn’t say, except that Elo didn’t acknowledge any heirs in her charters. So we might suspect a stitch-up, and even if we didn’t the fact that the abbey immediately became part of a new bishopric of Besalú into which the leading count’s son was installed as bishop kind of clinches the deal. So poor Elo was out on her ear, reputation besmirched and sanctity imperilled, although Bishop Oliba of Osona, perhaps somewhat bothered by having sworn before the pope that his half-sister was a father-murdering whore, did at least establish that the nuns all got an allotment of land to support themselves on before the remainder went to the new bishopric. The ousted abbess got to live in the episcopal palace, even, it’s not exactly righteous hatred is it?7

Anyway, I bet Elo was OK. She amassed quite a lot of land from her father, and she last appears in 1028. So let’s just do the arithmetic there: first appearance in 949, last in 1028, that’s an eighty-year career more or less! She can’t have been very old when she first appeared; no wonder her script is so child-like, she was in fact a child… And since she presumably wasn’t age zero in 949, she’s quite likely to have been ninety or more by the time she died: not a bad run! Which tells us first that Sant Joan were schooling their nuns from an early age, and secondly that that meeting was a bone of contention, because at this rate they got pretty much everyone with an interest in the nunnery, from the oldest (old Gentiles the notary) to the youngest (Elo and Carissima and so on) to make their marks and endorse it. I wonder how bitterly Elo might have remembered that in 1017 when she was turfed out of the cloister where she’d spent the previous, what, sixty-eight years from child to venerabilis femina, and ‘devoted to God’ throughout. I don’t suppose she was cheerful about it.

On the other hand, she must have had a huge fund of stories to tell anyone who listened. The place was being called Sant Joan de les Abadesses, ‘St John’s of the Abbesses’, by then (before then it was just, you know, Sant Joan de Ripoll) and she’d known those abbesses, at least the last four, probably five, might even just have remembered the first and greatest of them all, Emma the elder. None of the other nuns can have lived on so long after the dissolution, she really must have been the very last nun of Sant Joan. She could have answered the question “did Count Arnau really ravish the abbess, Auntie Elo?” with the correct reply, “No, little Quixilo, because Count Arnau was not real,” *whap* and so on,8 because she was there at the time (the Comte Arnau legend is later, but so very annoying that I’d like Elo to have quelled it anyway). She must also have been a figure of renown, of course, a relatively wealthy and extremely old woman with a long career of religious service behind her and the guilty respect of most of the local churchmen. Whether that made her complain any the less or feel better about things, I doubt, but unlike some people she had some basis for thinking that things had been better in her youth, no? So there you go, ladies and gentlemen: Elo, the last angry nun of Sant Joan de Ripoll.


1.Last mention in Frederico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 120; this meeting is no. 128, and the picture below comes from the facsimile in that volume.

2. The immunity is Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 11, and edited in a few other places too.

3. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of London 2005, pp. 126-131 & 143-146; the episode will also be covered in the publication of this as Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming).

4. One subsequent appearance in Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 130 still calls her Countess, not Abbess. On Ranló see Jaume Marqués Casanovas, “Domna Ranlón, ilustre dama gerundense de mil años atrás” in Anales del Instituto de Estudios Gerundenses Vol. 15 (Girona 1962), pp. 317-329.

5. Ibid. docs nos 162 & 163, plus also Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, S. Riera i Viader, Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica LXI (Barcelona 2005), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, 2 vols, doc. no. 360.

6. Her appearances are: Udina, Archivo Condal doc. nos. 128 & 163, Gaspar Feliu & Josep María Salrach (eds), Els Pergamins de l’Arxiu Comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I, Diplomataris 19-21 (Barcelona 1998), doc nos. 62, 117 & 187 & Miquel Sants Gros i Pujol, “L’arxiu del monestir de Sant Joan de les Abadesses: notícies històriques i regesta dels documents dels anys 995-1115″ in Eufèmia Fort i Cogul (ed.), II Col·loqui d’Història del Monaquisme Català, Sant Joan de les Abadesses 1970 Vol. II, Scriptorium Populeti 9 (Poblet 1974), pp. 87-128, with English summary pp. 423-424, doc. no 29.

7. The documents here are Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari i Escrits Literaris de l’Abat i Bisbe Oliba, ed. Anscari M. Mundó, Memòries… XLIV (Barcelona 1992), Diplomatari nos 10 & 49; for commentary see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època (Barcelona 1948; 2nd edn. 1948; 3rd edn. 1962), 3rd edn. repr. as “L’Abat Oliba i la seva època” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. J. Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents XIII-XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), II pp. 141-277, or in English Adam J. Kosto, “Oliba, Peacemaker” in I. Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 135-149 or indeed Jarrett, “Pathways”, pp. 152-153.

8. I don’t hit children, least of all my relatives, just so you know. And Elo was probably too frail or too holy or both to do so either. It’s just artistic licence OK? As long as we’re clear. Good.

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7 responses to “The last angry nun in Sant Joan de Ripoll

  1. I’ll look them up myself when I get a chance, but I’m curious if you know: is there a list of the ousted nuns anywhere? I wonder where the rest of them ended up…

  2. It would have to be assembled from the charters, there’s no actual list. My guess is that the congregation such as was is pretty much all on that charter, and several of them recur in later ones, plus which there are a couple of later oblations, but Elo’s the only one who really makes repeated appearances. That said, I haven’t gone looking for the others. If they’re anywhere identifiable they’ll be in the editions cited above; but if they got married and/or moved, you’d never know it was the same woman alas.

  3. Jonathan — how do I get you to contribute some of your data on S. J. de les A. to Massive Medieval Monasticism Website? E-mail me at notoriousphd at mac?

  4. Er, you’ll have to be less obscure in your contact details, this scholar is running on very little sleep. Try mailing me at the address on this page. Trouble is of course, you say “my data” but I got it all from editions, there may be copyright implications. But let’s discuss it…

  5. Pingback: A retraction: last angry nun neither so angry nor as last as advertised « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. Pingback: Seminar CXII: ladies love generalisations based on gender | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. Pingback: Settling the sins of your father: when counts lost in court | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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