Tag Archives: Sainte-Croix de Poitiers

Bunch of cross-dressing skinheads the lot of them

Between 1975 and 1978 a chap by the name of Jean Verdon who has subsequently become quite important in the field—Regesta Imperii counts 23 books, produced at a fairly Pratchett-like rate—and who had at that stage only a couple of articles out suddenly came out with about ten more, of which a fair bunch were on nuns, one or two more on monasticism and the remainder either on women or the Chronicon Sancti Maxentii, of which he was then finishing an edition.1 I presume that this must have been his thèse d’état, broken up into papers, but in those I’ve so far tracked down, the nuns ones mainly because of finishing a paper, this is certainly never said. Tracking them down is quite an effort though. I’m lucky, in as much as just down the road from my current location is a library which has all of Revue Mabillon, Annales du Midi and Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale and probably some of the others too on open shelves, but that can’t be true of many places. Some of the articles are really close analysis of social contexts, and some are little more than lists of recorded houses of female monastics with some generalised (and now badly dated) history attached.2 But tucked into one of the latter I find this piece of Carolingian conciliar legislation which made my eyes widen rather:3

Si quae sanctemoniales causa religionis, ut eis falso videtur, vel virilem habitum sumunt vel crines adtondent, quia ignorantia magis, quam studio eas errare putamus, admonendas castigandasque decernimus…

Which, if I’m getting it correctly, Englishes roughly as:

If nuns for the cause of religion, as it falsely seems to them, either put on a male habit or shave their hair, since we suppose them to err more from ignorance than from zeal, we decree that they are to be admonished and castigated…

I’m afraid this made me think, irreverently I suppose but not uselessly, of the women’s colleges here in Cambridge when I was an undergraduate. Most people in these institutions were completely usual, and I don’t mean to suggest that the other colleges were any less weird in their various ways—some more—but the parallel of all-female institutions invites comparison. Because of their segregated environment, it was my sense then that the women’s colleges tended to pick up more than their share of two extremes, new undergraduates who didn’t feel ready or whose parents didn’t think them ready for the world outside their all-girls school, and radical ‘nu-feminists’ who wanted an environment from which men were mostly excluded. Some of the latter, indeed, wore male or ungendered clothing by policy and some shaved their heads; I fell half in love with one of the latter who later got back in touch with me only to invite me to her wedding, but that’s another story. The point I’m going to make with this, badly perhaps but stay with me, is that the sheer range of experience early medieval women’s monasticism is made to contain, from the teacher Abbess Hild of Whitby through Hrotsvita of Gandersheim and her poetry to the Merovingian rebel princesses of Poitiers and the many many denunciations for lust, laziness, disorder or plain old ignorance (on which Verdon mainly concentrates on in at least one article, sad to say), was kind of all there; earnest religious afraid of the dangers of the world, angry women keen to have power in an all-female space, dedicated teachers (of both girls and boys, I was supervised in Newnham College for a couple of years), and those who were fonder of close company than their agreed code of conduct might have permitted.

Eleventh-century capital from Poitiers showing two men squaring up to fight, with a woman behind each trying to pull them apart

Eleventh-century capital from Poitiers showing two men squaring up to fight, with a (veiled?) woman behind each trying to pull them apart, from the Musée de Saint-Croix, Poitiers; somehow appropriate...

Of course these colleges are bigger than most nunneries would have been; for the simile to work one really needs the colleges to contain several variant congregations, which as I say, it seemed to me that they did. In the medieval case, an awful lot presumably depended on the abbess and other sources of prescription and enforcement. An effective abbess maybe wouldn’t have let this sort of thing happen, but on the other hand one also has to consider the nuns themselves and their station before one decides what ought to have been possible for an abbess: Gregory of Tours tells us that despite a future saint as abbess and a Mother Superior whom she had appointed, despite the entreaties of him as bishop and of other senior churchmen and orders from the king, yet, already, it still took actual military force to make the princesses at Ste-Croix de Poitiers, and the scratch group of bandits and soldiers they’d gathered, stand down from their revolt: “We are of royal blood,” he has them say, “and we will not set foot inside our nunnery until the Mother Superior has been dismissed.”4 Enforce an observance on that! An early medieval nunnery might have been any of these places, depending on who had founded it, who was recruited and who was in charge and how those factors interacted: a retreat for the pious, a family estate with liturgical cladding, a school for the local nobility, a hospital for travellers… it’s not surprising that despite the Carolingians’ best efforts, one Rule never really fitted all.

So there must necessarily have been a range of responses to standards of female monasticism, depending on who was involved. The article of Verdon’s that set this post off stresses, in its very closing pages, that there were many ‘good’ houses among the ‘bad’, accepting the contemporary moral binary of his sources, but this council extract seems to show a more nuanced treatment; acting weird out of zeal might have been different (OK? or more punishable? I don’t know) but plain ignorance was to be corrected, the girls to be set back on track and allowed to continue more properly. To me, you see, that seems more like the academic college than a carefully-sealed-off zone of exclusion designed to protect purity at all costs. So let’s be prepared for flexibility of standards, I suppose. This may not be a very good analogy, but I hope there’s a point in there somewhere that doesn’t completely succumb to wilful anachronism…


1. The ones I’ve caught so far are J. Verdon, “Recherches sur les monastères féminins dans la France du nord aux IXe-XIe siècles” in Revue Mabillon Vol. 59 (Ligugé 1976), pp. 49-96, “Les moniales dans la France de l’Ouest aux XIe et XIIe siècles. Étude d’histoire sociale” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 19 (Poitiers 1976), pp. 247-264 and idem, “Recherches sur les monastères féminins dans la France du Sud aux IXe-XIe siècles” in Annales du Midi Vol. 88 (Toulouse 1976), pp. 117-138, and I guess I also need to get through idem, “Notes sur le rôle économique des monastères féminins en France dans la seconde moitié du IXe et au début du Xe siècle” in Revue Mabillon 58 (1975), pp. 329-343. The edition I mention is idem (ed.), Chronique de Saint-Maixent, 751-1140 (Paris 1979). For the rest, you can hit up Regesta Imperii as easily as I could

2. Verdon, “Notes sur la rôle économique”, is definitely the former, and idem, “Recherches sur les monastères féminins de la France du nord” and “Recherches sur les monastères féminins dans la France du Sud” are definitely the latter. That said, though in any individual case you would have to do further research since the sources tend to be hagiography or the Gallia Christiana which is not really that much better for accuracy and critique, just having a reasonably-full list of all recorded houses is quite useful, whether they’re dodgy or not.

3. Concilium Vernense (December 844), ed. Alfred Boretius & Victor Krause in eidem (ed.), Capitularia regum francorum Vol. II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges sectio II: Capitularia Regum Francorum) II (Hannover 1897), online here, no. 291, cap. 7, quoted from Verdon, “Recherches sur les monastères féminins dans la France du nord”, pp. 64-65 & n. 305.

4. Gregory of Tours, Libri historiarum francorum decem, transl. Lewis Thorpe as History of the Franks, capp. IX.39-43, quote at IX.40.