Contumacious Nuns? Anger, Fear and the Reform of Religious Women in Late Medieval Germany

Nuns' choir, Cistercian monastery of Mariensee, c. 1220 - 1250

Contemporary accounts of introducing religious reform into women's monastic communities in fifteenth-century Germany record nuns’ often fierce, and sometimes violent, resistance to the efforts of clerics and secular lords to impose spiritual, institutional and communal change. Recent historical analyses have elucidated the different visions of religious life at the heart of the contest over reform, how nuns’ place in local political and social constellations and their ability to leverage these networks influenced the process and outcome of reform attempts, and also the extent to which women could influence the resulting outcome, whether as proponents or opponents of reform. Yet the compelling emotional dimension of enforced religious and institutional change in this period remains largely overlooked.

In this paper I examine one particular method of nuns’ resistance — the act of liturgical cursing — to explore some medieval understandings and representations of anger and fear. The accounts of liturgical cursing performed by the nuns at the monasteries of Wenningsen and Mariensee (in modern-day Lower Saxony), depicted by the  Augustinian canon and monastic reformer Johannes Busch (c. 1400–1479) in his treatise on his reform activities, offer insight into the social functions of anger and fear in nuns’ resistance to reform. As scholars attentive to how emotion creates, maintains and reproduces social and power relations have shown, the expression and enactment of emotions are conditioned by cultural rules that shape how an emotion is expressed and by whom. By analysing the role of anger in liturgical cursing and its ability to produce fear — or not — I aim to show how Busch’s representation of this emotional performance is revealing of relations of gender and power between nuns, clerics and secular reformers in the late fifteenth century.

Julie Hotchin is a School Visitor in the School of History and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her research interests centre on the devotional, emotional and intellectual cultures of religious women in medieval Germany. She has published on medieval religious women and book history, and is co-editor (with Fiona Griffiths) of Partners in Spirit: Women, Men and the Religious Life in Germany, 1100–1500 (2014). Her current projects include editing a collection of essays (with Merridee Bailey and Tania Colwell) on Women and Work in Premodern Europe: Experiences, Relationships and Cultural Representation (contracted with Ashgate).

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Wed 14 Oct 2015, 4.15–5.30pm


McDonald Room, Menzies Library, ANU

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School of History


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