Medieval Lay Brothers and Sisters

Emma Gabe, University of Toronto

When we think of medieval nuns, we tend to imagine a group of women living in seclusion and dedicated to prayer. In reality, medieval nuns were surrounded by a wide range of people, including lay sisters and brothers. The lay sisters and brothers performed some of the physical and manual work of the convent, and their religious duties were consequently reduced. Lay sisters worked in the kitchen and gardens, while lay brothers toiled in the fields. Although lay sisters and brothers took monastic vows like the choir nuns, they slept and ate separately from them, and even worshipped in certain sections of the church (Margit Mersch, 2008). They were also discouraged from learning to read, as this could distract from their work (Ehrenschwendtner, 2004). On the other hand, certain lay brothers assumed powerful administrative posts in convents, serving as the procurator, or overseer, responsible for looking after the economic activities of the nuns, especially for communities where the nuns could not leave their cloister. The names of these lay brothers are often affixed as witnesses to charters and financial documents, as they represented the nuns in legal and economic matters. 

Their work supported the livelihoods and spiritual work of medieval nuns, but both medieval sources and modern scholarship are largely silent about these members of the monastic community. One reason that lay brothers and sisters have received such little consideration is the nature of the surviving sources. Often assumed to be illiterate and of lower social status, these members of the monastic community left fewer written records. Another complication is the difficulty of medieval terms: often called merely ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, it is often impossible to distinguish between a lay brother and a preacher or a lay sister and a choir nun. 

This project focuses on lay sisters and brothers in convents in German-speaking areas, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. In studying these liminal members of the monastic community, my research addresses the complexities of monastic organization and the links between the convent and the lay world. My research is guided by the following questions: We know that lay brothers and sisters participated in religious duties, but to a lesser extent than the choir nuns—what form did their spiritual activities take? Although often assumed to be lower class and illiterate, I have found references to lay sisters and brothers with a wide range of social backgrounds. What were the social backgrounds of lay brothers and sisters, and how did this influence their status within the community? Furthermore, what was the position of lay sisters and brothers in relation to monastic servants? Another important question is the extent to which the Observant reform of the late fourteenth and fifteenth century, which enforced strict enclosure in convents, impacted the lives of lay brothers and sisters. The stricter enclosure of monastic institutions likely forced nuns to rely more on men to safeguard their interests, at the same time as it limited nuns’ interactions with these men. 

My sources include monastic rules and constitutions, hagiographical texts about exemplary lay sisters and brothers written by both the choir nuns and their male confessors, and financial documents from various religious orders. I hope to show that the position of lay sisters and brothers within their convents and their relationships to the outside world were much more varied than historians have previously thought, as well as trace any regional or order specific peculiarities. This research will help to nuance our understanding of women’s daily lives, religiosity, and the intersections of gender and class in medieval Europe.