A prioress corrects a laybrother

By Emma Gabe

Scholars have long studied the relationship between religious women and clergymen in terms of gender, but class and social standing also interact with questions of gender and religious authority. One episode from the Unterlinden sister-book illustrates how social status could elevate the roles and responsibilities of religious women. A sister-book is a collection of hagiographical stories written by Dominican nuns in the first half of the fourteenth century recording the mystical experiences of the nuns in their convent. Even though they are hagiographical texts that describe religious visions, among other experiences, from an historical perspective we can still catch glimpses into the daily lives and responsibilities of the nuns in the contexts of these experiences.

Founded in the first half of the thirteenth century in Colmar, France, Underlinden grew into a wealthy convent that boasted a high level of education and sanctity. In one episode, Adelheid de Rivelden, the second prioress, learned of the misbehaviour of one of the convent’s laybrothers and corrected him. Fearing for his soul, she prayed and received a vision of Jesus as a baby in which she was assured of the laybrother’s eternal salvation. The prioress exercised temporal authority over the laybrothers and the discrepancy in their social statuses likely heightened her authority: despite being elected, prioresses usually derived from powerful aristocratic families, while the laybrother, although he could come from a variety of social backgrounds, he was likely below the prioress’ social standing. Educated laybrothers helped run the convent’s estates, while others worked the fields and provided manual labour. Nevertheless, all laybrothers, in their profession oaths, swore obedience to the prioress. Interestingly, in this episode we see how the prioress’ authority over the laybrother extended to his spiritual wellbeing. Despite her gender, she was expected to supervise and guide his religious and spiritual behaviour. In fact, his behaviour and the way she responds to it affect her own salvation.

Tempore prioratus sui eadem soror beata in perturbatione animi fuit aliquando posita et timore propter cuiusdam conuersi nostri excessum, quem inprimis aliquantulum remissius restrinxerat neglienciusque correxerat, quam censura forte iusticie exigebat. Hinc ergo periculum sibi grauiter pertimescens, et fratrem, nisi cicius respisceret, in anima periturum. Quapropter in vigilia gloriose natiuitatis Domini tota deuocione conuersa ad deprecandum pro eo Dominum, ut illum de precipio illius ruine clementer eripere dignaretur, sibique pie culpam huius negliencie relaxaret…

In the time of her prioress-ship that same blessed sister (Adelheid de Rivelden) was placed once in distress of the mind and fear on account of the deviation of a certain laybrother of ours, whom she had constrained at first in a fashion a little bit more relaxed and had corrected him more negligently than perhaps the judgment of justice called for. From that point, therefore, she grew seriously fearful of the danger to herself, and that the brother was going to perish in soul unless she took care of him quickly. For this reason, in the vigil of the glorious birth of the Lord, she turned with complete devotion to the Lord for the purpose of begging the Lord for him, that He might deem worthy to snatch him mercifully from the precipice of his ruin, and that she might release herself piously from the error of her negligence…

At this point, she receives a vision of Jesus as a child, and the sight of the child filled her with joy and comfort. In this vision, she knew that the laybrother would be saved.

Hausit quoque ex illius beatissimi paruuli consorcio et conspectu inmensam diuine consolacionis dulcedinem et gratiarum habundanciam magnam ualde, certificata etiam per diuinam reuelacionem in eadem uisione de salute eterna superius memorati fratris conuersi, pro quo sollicite et deuote Domino supplicarat. Quem in gratia Dei sancteque religionis perseueraturum proposito et saluandum in spiritu preuidit, certissimeque deinceps tenuit, nullatenus de salute illius dubitans, etiam si ipsum post letalis criminis admissum conspexisset protinus spiritum exalare…

Also she drank from the company and sight of this most blessed little one the immense sweetness of divine consolation and the especially great abundance of graces, having been assured also through the divine revelation in the same vision about the eternal salvation of the abovementioned laybrother, for whom she had prayed to the Lord anxiously and devotedly. She foresaw, in the grace of God and holy religion, that he was about to persevere in conduct and was about to be saved in spirit, and then she understood certainly, by no means doubting his salvation, even if, after the admission of his deadly crime, she had seen him die (breath out his spirit)…

Through her prayer, the prioress saves the laybrother, which further reveals her religious authority as an intercessory power. In fact, in witnessing the admission of his crime and subsequently securing his salvation, the prioress arguably takes on the role of confessor to the lay brother. Despite her gender, her spiritual authority mirrors her temporal authority.

Source: Colmar, Bibliothèque municipale, Cod. 0926 (508), ff. 53r–54r. For an edited version, see Jeanne Ancelet-Hustance, “Les ‘vitae sororum’ d’Unterlinden: Édition critique du manuscript 508 de la bibliothèque de Colmar” Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge 5 (1930): 403–04.

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