Q&A with Dr. Constance Hoffman Berman, author of The White Nuns

I am delighted to expand on my brief review of The White Nuns: Cistercian Abbeys for Women in Medieval France (University of Pennsylvania Press 2008) by interviewing the author, Dr. Constance Hoffman Berman to celebrate Women’s History Month.

First, so that you need not page back, here’s my initial impression: The first three chapters upend all I thought I knew about Cistercian convents—i.e., that they were few and far between, poor, and badly managed. All wrong. Why? Here’s the jacket copy: “Modern studies of the religious reform movement of the central Middle Ages have often relied on contemporary accounts penned by Cistercian monks, who routinely exaggerated the importance of their own institutions while paying scant attention to the remarkable expansion of abbeys of Cistercian women. Yet by the end of the thirteenth century there were more houses of Cistercian nuns across Europe than of monks. [!] …[Berman] charts the stages in the nuns’ gradual acceptance by the abbots of the Cistercian Order’s General Chapter and describes the expansion of the nuns’ communities and their adaptation to a variety of economic circumstances in France and throughout Europe. While some sought contemplative lives of prayer, the ambition of many of these religious women was to serve the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Focusing in particular on Cistercian nuns’ abbeys founded between 1190 and 1250 in the northern French archdiocese of Sens, Berman reveals the frequency with which communities of Cistercian nuns were founded by rich and powerful women, including Queen Blanche of Castile, heiresses Countess Matilda of Courtenay and Countess Isabelle of Chartres, and esteemed ladies such as Agnes of Cressonessart. She shows how these founders and early patrons assisted early abbesses, nuns, and lay sister by using written documents to secure rights and create endowments, and it is on the records of their considerable economic achievements that she centers her analysis.” I love this book! The women are so remarkable and inspiring that it’s astonishing to me that they were almost forgotten. Fascinating reading.

Of course I wanted more, and Dr. Berman kindly obliged. Enjoy!

Q: What prompted this project?

A: At the time I began the work no one believed there were Cistercian nuns, but in order to show that there were I found myself querying a sacred narrative of the early Cistercians.  I was attacked viciously for suggesting that institution evolved gradually and for asserting that problems were not resolved before they had occurred. That was paralyzing for a time, but I did not altogether lose sight of how much good material I had, and I did not lose sight of the fact that the story I wanted to tell was not a composite of various instances or anecdotes from different communities, but one in which I could present different sorts of founders, of abbeys, and of management styles by abbesses. I wanted to argue for the variety of foundations for Cistercian nuns and their economic practices, but also for the diversity of female founders and leaders of such abbeys throughout a substantial region that included growing cities and sparse wastelands. This was all very slow going. While my research could have resulted in a series of shorter books about single dioceses or the like, what would have been lost was the story of how these abbeys, particularly those in the vicinity of Paris had histories that were interlocked in some ways, but that also had carefully delineated zones of influence.

Q: Aside from the discovery of this lack in the literature, what struck you most in your research?

A: I’ve been most struck not just by how many abbeys of Cistercian nuns there were and how many of their records survive, but how much those documents shed light on secular women who had sufficient power and authority to be involved in these religious foundations at a time when the traditional narratives would tell us that neither monastic nor secular women had much influence.  If those nuns were lost to history because someone else controlled the narrative, so were many of their female founders and supporters who exercised their access to property to encourage prayers for souls.  If many of those women had no “power” or authority, they nonetheless used their access to property to exercise what a recent author has called “agency.” That’s important, even if you might think that medieval religious women are just a big bore.  The nuns themselves resisted the depredations of monks and clerics, but also collaborated with secular women who remained outside the monastic enclosure because if they became religious women, their property rights would have been lost.

Q: In popular media nuns are too often depicted as unworldly, indeed a bit simple. Yet in your book and elsewhere in my research I’ve seen instead a wealth of evidence to the contrary. They are instead efficient and ambitious in their property acquirement and management. As were their female benefactors. What are some of your favorite examples of this?

A: Many of the women in this study had some tie to Blanche of Castile, Queen of France,14420 but one who is less known, Blanche’s half-cousin Alice of Mâcon, who became the first abbess of Notre-Dame of Lys (1248-1259), Blanche’s second foundation for Cistercian nuns near Melun, east of Paris. and it was she who brought nuns from Maubuisson (Blanche’s first foundation) to establish Lys in 1248. (The jacket illustration is from le Lys.) Alice and her husband had sold her inheritance of the county of Macon to the King and after she was widowed in 1240 become a Cistercian nun at Maubuisson. She must have established many of the details of construction and provisioning at Lys in the 1240s when Blanche was preoccupied with her son’s Crusade and with taking over the regency. But surviving documentation from le Lys is sparse and has sometimes been misinterpreted with regard to the relationship between Blanche and her son. Details of acquisitions made by Alice in the 1250s survive only for the grange of Mâlay near Sens where Alice seems to have given particular attention to viticulture. In 1252 when Abbess Alice paid 194 livres tournois to Felix of Pontarlier and his wife Isabelle, for rights in a house, cellar and its appurtenances in the parish of Saint-Hilaire of Sens. That she was using livres tournois suggests that these funds were coming from the income from the sale of her county that she was still paid in that currency even after she became a nun. The urban property for storing wine, possibly before shipping it down-river to Paris was matched by properties acquired in 1253 at Mâlay itself when Alice paid 665 livres tournois to the bourgeois Peter of Châteauvieux of Sens and his wife Felicia for a house, barn, barnyard, vineyards and other rights in the censive and lordship of the Lord King at Mâlay-le-Roi. This village in the Vanne River valley east of Sens had already had a religious presence for some years, with a hospice or cell belonging earlier to the monks of Val-des-Choux. Until her death in 1259 Alice expended additional livres tournois for rights in the parish of Mâlay. Her managerial abilities in property acquisition were probably matched by her leadership of the community of nuns itself. Managerial activity further east, at Notre-Dame-des-Prés, near Troyes, is seen in viticultural acquisition is seen in a single year (1282) by that community’s Abbess Isabelle and her purchases paying a total of 62 livres at Chaumont, Moussey and Rivières. She is described as acting in these charters and sealing them with her seal, although a brother John, conversus, occasionally acted in her stead.

To the west of Paris, we see Matilda of Amboise, the daughter of one of Blanche’s cousins,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Isabelle countess of Chartres, engaged in support of at least four communities of Cistercian nuns. Her mother had supported houses of Cistercian nuns at Lieu les- Romorantin and Eau-lez-Chartres and a smaller community near Tours on the Loire at Moncy. In the 1240s, Matilda of Amboise also had become associated with yet a fourth community of nuns that the abbey of the Cistercian nuns of Perray-aux-Nonnains to replace an earlier community of monks that had been founded there circa 1190. In 1249 Matilda of Amboise became the new countess when her mother Isabelle died. She confirmed to the nuns of Lieu their rights in the woods near the abbey and its great pond where they could make ditches to limit access, have rabbit warrens and rights to hunt small animals for feeding the sick, where the nuns could “guard, sell, give, uproot and reduce to agriculture.” This was to fund anniversaries for herself and for the souls of her father, Sulpice of Amboise, her mother, Isabelle of Chartres, and her husband Richard of Beaumont. The direct line died out with Matilda’s death in 1256 and so did the single-minded patronage that Cistercian nuns had received at these four houses from Isabelle and Matilda. Given that both of them had been heiresses in their own right, but without any direct heir after Matilda, they were able to be particularly beneficent patrons of Cistercian nuns for most of their careers. Perhaps here we see something about elderly women without surviving children.

Finally, three women associated with the abbey of Saint-Antoine-des-Champs located just outside the walls of Paris.  Most striking is Blanche of Paciac, a bourgeoise and the daughter of Raoul of Paciac, citizen and possibly notary of Paris, and his wife Sedilia who made a donation to Saint-Antoine at the time of Blanche’s entrance as a nun at Saint-Antoine circa 1259/1260. In 1277 the properties purchased with the cash brought when Blanche entered the abbey were recorded by the abbess of Saint-Antoine and the abbot of Cîteaux in 1277: “In order that Blanche may be remembered perpetually and especially that after her death she be included in the prayers of the nuns serving the Lord at this house.” In 1259 just before she became a nun Blanche had given 400 livres parisis to Saint-Antoine; she gave an additional 1500 livres tournois in 1260. These funds allowed Saint-Antoine’s abbesses to consolidate rights at major rural centers at Aulnay, north of Paris, at Beaumont to the northeast and at Montreuil to the east of the city.

Property at Aulnay was given by Lady Agnes of Cressonessart, whose Cressonessart husband and son, and her brother Robert of Mauvoisin had been Crusaders who turned back from the Fourth Crusade and became leaders of the Albigensian Crusade. Lady Agnes made and facilitated others’ early gifts to Saint-Antoine at Aulnay and was clearly a leader of the early community of Saint-Antoine.  Although she probably took the nuns’ habit in 1212, she never became abbess of that monastery. Instead she retreated to her own property to live out her life, establishing that half of that property’s produce would support her as a lifetime annuity and making a post-mortem gift of the whole to Saint-Antoine to pray for her soul and that of her two late husbands.  Later acquisitions at Aulnay came from Blanche of Paciac’s funds as did some of those at the viticultural property east of Paris at Montreuil.

 At Beaumont-sur-Oise half a century later, the entire estate at Champagnes was acquired in 1264 using the funds that had been brought by Blanche of Paciac. In that year the nuns paid 280 livres to the widow and children of the late owner, the knight Thibaut of Champagnes. The family retained some nearby property and in 1269 Saint-Antoine paid 74 livres to the eldest son, John and his wife, for six arpents and additional 50 livres an additional three arpents when their daughter entered the abbey. In 1284 this son was an executor for his late mother, who is described as “the late Jeanne of Faisiac, once wife of lord Thibaut of Champagnes, knight.” In 1267 she had used other property at Beaumont to establish with Saint-Antoine a life-rent for herself, describing herself as Lady Jeanne, widow of the late Lord and Knight Thibaut of Champagnes, and now wife of the Knight, Lord William Eschalez of Montreuil-sur-Vincennes (where the nuns had their third grange east of Paris). She transferred to Saint-Antoine all rights she still had at Champagnes in return for twenty livres paid quarterly. Like Lady Agnes of Cressonessart in 1212, Lady Jeanne of Faisiac or Champagnes in 1267 had established an annuity with the nuns of Saint-Antoine. Unlike Lady Agnes, who became a sister or nun of Saint-Antoine, Lady Jeanne had chosen to remarry. What is most striking is how far across Paris (from Beaumont to Montreuil) were the properties of first and then second husband.

Q: You’ve opened the floodgates for future research. How would you encourage scholars interested in pursuing this?

6a21f0cfc30f69e020fcd0de044fe169A: For those looking for models for further research, or just looking for better understanding of how the documents were gradually focused into this story, I offer references here to some of the tables that are included, which provide valuable evidence about management of property, record-keeping and recruiting.  In Chapter 4, table 1: Voisins: Widows as Donors, ca, 1217-26, provides the argument for the foundation of a house of Cistercian nuns not by a single famous woman of power or her family, but by a coalition of widows, many of them widows of knights. Chapter 4, table 3: Port-Royal provides different examples of evidence from a censier or rent roll created by the nuns of Port-Royal; it lists rents owed by the nuns as well as rents paid to them. Chapter 5, table 6: Lieu-Notre-Dame, provides examples of many more lists of payments on newly reclaimed land. Extracts from an entire volume of accounts for Blanche of Castile’s foundation at Maubuisson are found in Chapter 6, tables 12 and 13, Maubuisson, while table 11: Maubuisson, provides a partial list of the contents of that volume. Chapter 7, table 19: Saint-Antoine provides lists of holdings purchased by Saint-Antoine using the monetary gifts from a single woman donor and entrant. Chapter 7, table 21: Saint-Antoine, provides a list of individual holdings that were part of a larger property west of Paris purchased by those nuns. Elsewhere tables for Saint-Antoine show the nuns of that abbey consolidating holdings both inside Paris and beyond, using sophisticated contracts called augmentations of rent, and recording losses in income after 1348.  Appendix Four provides valuable documentation on the size of certain houses of nuns.  Any of this might enrich an author’s or a reader’s understanding of medieval women and the considerable opportunities that could be enjoyed by many more of them than was once thought.

Thank you so much, Dr. Berman!

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