Nuns and the Forgery of Their Accounts

By Isabel Harvey, 18/06/2020

Protagonists: Nuns from the eight poorest monasteries of Perugia. 

Sources: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones, 1605, Lett. M-P. Perugia, Tutti i monasteri. (See the sources here)

Clement VIII (1592–1605) marked his pontificate by enacting reform measures according to the Tridentine decrees, especially regarding the finances of the Church. These reforms also targeted women’s convents. In fact, it was only under Clement VIII that the decree De regularibus et monialibus, adopted in 1563 during the twenty-fifth and last session of the Council of Trent, became an imperative in the dioceses of the Pontifical States. The Tridentine decree addressed the accusations of Martin Luther and his followers about the dissolute life of the regular clergy who took advantage of social and religious spaces as well as the economy of the sixteenth century. The solution adopted in Trent was largely an economic reform: Chapter Two of the decree reminded the regular orders about their vow of poverty; Chapter Three obliged all monasteries to own property from which they could draw rental income in order to eradicate the need for mendicancy; and Chapter 16 prohibited the acceptance of novices – and their dowries! – before they were of age to enter the convent.

Therefore, beginning in 1599–1600, Clement VIII, assisted by the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, started a wide-scale undertaking of reform and consolidation of the finances of women’s monastic communities. Because their land and real estate holdings were far from sufficient to feed all the nuns and support the proper daily life of the convents, the nuns had created a system allowing them to compensate for their low incomes; but this system quickly became a vicious circle. The nuns were accustomed to accept their recruits several years before they were old enough to take their vows at 16 years old. The convent received the dowry at the time of the agreement and it as often used immediately to buy food instead of being invested in a property that could bring a stable income for the future without damaging the initial capital. Later, nuns found themselves in the position of having to accept a girl without sufficient means to feed her. To overcome this problem, convents had a secondary solution: to accept supernumerary girls. The number of nuns per convent was fixed by papal decree, but it was possible to take in more girls if they paid a double dowry. This provision helped to relieve debts permanently, as half of the dowry was used to repay debts while the other half could be invested in stable properties. But it became so widely used that monasteries often counted double, or even triple, residents. Consequently, overpopulation was chronic, as in Perugia’s female monasteries.

So, towards the end of the sixteenth century, the financial situation of most women’s monastic community was critical: the convents of the Papal States were increasingly entangled in debt and overpopulation. The situation was further aggravated by a series of disastrous harvests that reduce the profitability of their patrimony. On 1 May 1592, the Bishop of Perugia summed up the situation of the women’s monasteries of his diocese as follows: “having consumed all the alms that they got for the whole year by the ordinary distribution, they remain without any allocation or credit to be able to maintain themselves.”(1) This difficult spring in Perugia was not a unique situation. The secular and ecclesiastical authorities in the cities were aware of difficult financial situation of convents and had sought over the years to diminish the deficits as best they can by putting in place emergency solutions. For example, in 1574 in Perugia, confraternities were forced to give help to the eight poorest convents of the city. The idea was to give sporadic help to the nuns, for a few years, until their numbers were reduced. But a generation later, in 1600, the situation only got worse, and the confraternities are still obliged to pay a contribution to the convents every year.(2)

In Perugia, the economic reform began in December 1599, at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Povere, when the bishop abruptly refused to give the veil to two new recruits, who had already paid their dowries: “which he says, having claimed the command of Your Most Illustrious Lord, in forbidding that no mendicant monastery can accept girls.”(3) The principle behind this reform was simple: to reduce the number of nuns in every monastery, so that the rents provided by their patrimony became sufficient to meet their needs. But with the ban on accepting new girls, the situation was catastrophic: nuns would have to repay dowries that had already been spent. 

In moments of panic and incomprehension, some nuns did not hesitate to go beyond the limits of acceptability or legality in seeking a survival strategy during this process of reform. This was the case with several convents in Perugia that chose to manipulate their accounts. In 1601, at the request of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, the Bishop of Perugia obliged all convents to provide the episcopal see with the details of their accounts, stating their patrimony and the annuities they produced each year, other revenues in money or goods, debts to repaid, and the expenses necessary for the everyday life, according to the number of nuns. The abbesses took this step without fully understanding the logic behind the economic reform, but “thinking that they should arrange it to their best interest.”(4) Consequently, many convents voluntarily provided erroneous figures. This was what the Episcopal administration of Perugia discovered in 1605: in 1601, the nuns of several convents had voluntarily reduced their income, so as to force the confraternities to give them subsidies: “in the book of the incomes of nuns’ monasteries of Perugia, sent to this sacred Congregation in the year 1601, there is an important error, caused by the nuns who did not give the right numbers.”(5) However, the consequence of such falsification was the opposite of what nuns were looking for: new recruits were completely blocked in order to reduce the number of convents’ inhabitants. The nuns had not foreseen such a consequence: they thought that the previous solutions would be reactivated and that they would obtain financial help from the confraternities. But the ecclesiastical authorities were rigid, symbolizing the new economic discipline that Clement VIII chose to impose on the monasteries of his lands.

(1) Vatican Apostolic Archive (ASV), Congregation of Bishops and Regulars (CVR), Positiones (POS), 1592, Lett. M-P. Perugia, 1 May 1592. “havendo consumati tutti quell’elemosine, che per ordinaria distributione gli toccavano per tutto l’anno, restano senza alcuno assignamento, e credito da potersi mantenere

(2) ASV, CVR, POS, 1600, Lett. M-P. Perugia, 26 January 1600.

(3) ASV, CVR, POS, 1600, Lett. M-P. Perugia, Convent of Santa Maria delle Povere. 17 December 1599. “il quale dice, haver havuto ordine dalle Signorie Vostre Illustrissime e prohibitione, che nessuno Monasterio mendicante accettar zitelle.

(4) ASV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. M-P. Perugia. “pensando di fare le conditioni loro migliori

(5) ASV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. M-P. Perugia. “Perche nella notola dell’intrate de’ Monasterij di Monache di Perugia, mandata à cotesta sacra Congregazione l’anno 1601, si pretende siano errore di molta consideratione, cagionati massime dalle Monache istesse, le quali non ne diedero la giusta assegna”

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.

From Bahia to Parma, 1735

By Eva Dal Canto 28.05.2020

Protagonist: Romualdo da San Donnino

Sources: Archivio di Stato di Parma in Raccolta Manoscritti B 49

The late 18th century was undoubtedly characterized by the presence of a great number of missionaries in the colonies that had been established in the newly conquered areas of the New Continent. Such is the case of Brazil, that had been subjected to the dominance of the Portuguese Crown for more than one century when the letters of Romualdo da San Donnino, Capuchin friar, reached his patroness in the Duchy of Parma. In his communications, the missionary frequently addressed the matter of femininity and the approach of women to Christian values; in this post we will analyze his account on free European women and their everyday lives in the colony.

In the first of his two letters Romualdo da San Donnino proceeds in giving the Duchess of Parma, Dorotea, some general information regarding the travel and the asset of the mission; after discussing the local agriculture and dietary habits, he moves on to describing how European women dealt with the geographical and cultural change:

” […] Le donne bianche portano sottana, camicia ed un manto sulla stessa che si stende fino ai piedi. Di giorno non escono se non rarissimo, la maggior parte va a sentire messa innanzi giorno o se ne assolvono totalmente sotto pretesto di non avere serpentina, negri e negre e manto da uscire propriamente: la superbia regna non in sign(o)re ma in donnicciuole che in casa stanno quasi nude e fanno digiuni in mandioca a misura scarsa e acqua fangosa […]”

In this first passage, the Capuchin starts with the description of the most common clothing style among white women, consisting of a skirt, a shirt, and a cloak. It is important to notice that in all his writings, da San Donnino tries to operate a differentiation between white and black women, openly implying that the first were embodying all the characteristic of modesty inspired by Catholicism whilst the second, as “Heretics”, were deemed to be immoral by nature:

“[…] Da sì abominevole immodestia e dalla totale mancanza di Dottrina Cristiana e quasi totale di Predica, non è da stupire se proviene un costume più da infedele che da cristiano […]”

Discussing the status of European women, the missionary reflects on the reciprocal influence between them and the others. He states that the first might be suffering the influence of the second, being prompted to behave in reproachable manners. In this extract he says that not only do European women neglect their religious duties, they also seldom appreciate dressing less and dieting. Then he continues by giving his account on the rather luxurious lifestyle led by them:

” […] La signoria benestante e ricca vive con lusso moderato nel vestire, accompagnandosi di Preti e Prete e preciosità di Rede o Serpentine, che sono le carrozze del paese levate sulle spalle di due negri. La V(ostra) Alt(ez)za Ser(enissi)ma potesse vedere la preziosità degli abiti, la quantità di diamanti e dell’oro, il numero delle schiave con che compariscono in pubblico alle volte queste signore le riputerebbe gran principesse, eppure non giungono alla condizione di nobiltà […]”

It appears to be clear that what the missionary is trying to convey is an analysis of what he encounters under a double dichotomy: he doesn’t, in fact, divide what he sees merely under the category of “Christian” and “Heretics”, but also compares the New and the Old Continent using his interlocutor, the Duchess, as a set example of Christian nobility. Similar comparisons might be found in missions from other geographic areas, such as Angola, and often give us a perspective on matters such as childbirth. Further on in his letter, which I will analyze in other posts, Romualdo da San Donnino explores the practice of marriage between enslaved females and their owners, confirming his point of view on women’s sexuality and proclivity to sin.

Note on the source: the letters will be uploaded and transcripted soon.

A Note of Terminology: Prostitutes or Sex Workers?

By Adrina Schulz, 01/05/2020

The word Prostitution in German is anachronistic: it does not appear in the medieval or early modern Zurich sources, although Peter Schuster did find it in a Nurnberg source in the sixteenth century (Schuster 1992, p. 19). The words used instead were numerous, context-dependent, and variable. In fact, almost any word meaning woman could be used to denote a prostitute when combined with certain adjectives. For example, in the case of Kaspar Bleuler from 1566, the term weib or woman was used to discuss prostitutes – “gmein wyber” –and to speak sympathetically of a wife – “wyb unnd kindt” (STaZH A 8.1, Nr. 93). Furthermore, words that today are strongly associated with prostitution, such as Dirne, could be used for different kinds of women, from a maid to a prostitute to a woman in general. Thus, there is a terminology problem. Some scholars have stuck with modern terms such as prostitute (Schuster 1992, among others). Others have used contemporary terms such as the German Dirne or the English whore to highlight these ambiguities (Schuster 1995; Karras 1996). This project will examine the various source words using historical semantics in order to differentiate them and track their changes over time, but will use the word prostitution as an umbrella term in order not to blur these differences.

The modern, self-chosen term for a prostitute is sex-worker (see for instance the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, among many others). However, even the concept of prostitution or sex work cannot be applied one-to-one to the medieval and early modern periods, as contemporary theologians and law-makers focused far more on a woman’s promiscuity – how many men she had sex with – than whether she was paid. Thus, since the word sex worker emphasizes aspects of labor and money, it does not fit with these conceptions of prostitution, as well as the women’s legal status: they were punished for adultery or fornication, as there was no specific charge of prostitution. Thus, this project will continue to use prostitute and prostitution for now, although I am of course open for comments and suggestions.

The Pastor and the Prostitute: Part I: Sources.

By Adrina Schulz, 01/05/2020

Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich (STaZH) A 9.2, Nr. 3.

(working transcription, there may be errors)

27. herr Hans Göldi pfarers zu Mur ärgewöhnisches a{uo}fführen, mit einer dirn auf dem helmhauß 1587

den 19 te [Septem]bris 1587


herr Hannsen Gölldi pfharherr z{uo} Mhur belanngende wiewol man gloubt es syge mit den werchen nündt thattlichs vergangen so ist doch die sach ëben ergerlich sonderlich wyls frömbde personen gsëhen derhalben soll er Göldi bis jezt donstag inn Wellenberg gelegt und ein march silbers zeb{uo}s gëben und soll im mit erntst undersagt werden das er mit bishar gebruchten sachen nit mehr komen, dann dise das letst syn sölle, Anen Mentags den 25ten Septembris Ano 87

pitten herr Kambli und beid reth

edlenn vestenn fromen fürsichtigen eersamen und wyßenn innsonnders gönnstigenn gnnedigem liebenn herren nachdem unns fürkomen unnd verstänndigot wordenn wie das herr Hanns Gölldi pfharherr zu Mhur sich Inn jetz letst halltenndem jarmergkt nachts unnder dem hällmhuß mit unnd gägenn einer gmeinen mätzenn etlicher gstallt gar argwönnisch erzeigt unnd das etlich wälltsche kremer erzellter maßen inne funnden haben söllenn deßhalben haben wir nachbemällte personnen für unns beschigkenn unnd innen söliches fürhallten lassen ob doch demsëlbigenn allso sige oder nit daruff sy unns (wie hernnach vermälldot wirt) allso berichtet erstlichenn 

Moritz Benneradtein kremer vonn Urburg. Alls er mit annderen meer kremeren verschinner mittwuchenn zu nacht um acht alld zwüschendt nün unnd achten uß dem wirtzhuß keerdt unnd unnder das hällmhuß zu irenn stännden alld bädenn mit liecht ganngen hete er inn dem sch{uo}macher winngkell ein gemeine gesächen hinnder deren were herr Hanns Gölldi sitzen gewäßenn denn sy also staannd mit irer büppen tegkenn unnd das liecht ablöschenn wellenn das er aber gesächenn das er etwas tadtlichs alld lybliche werch mit iren volbracht könne er nit sagenn alleinn aber habe er zu ime gesagt das zime synnem stannd gar nit hiemit er inn zornn gëgenn ime erwachßen allso das er mit tadtlicher hannd gëgen ime gefharenn er sige aber mit ime zufridenn unnd überkhomenn

Moritz Gydonnis ouch ein kremer von Lucernn er habe nüdt annders gesëchenn dann das ein gemeinne dirnn herr Hannß Gölldi mit irer Büppen degkenn wellenn

Wilhälm Schomal ouch ein kremer uß dem Augstall er habe gesëchenn das herr Hanns Gölldi hinnder der mätzenn gewäßenn aber mit irenn nützit ußgericht allein hab sy inne wellenn vertegkenn unnd das liecht ablöschenn

unnd letstlich bezüget Gabriel Laba auch ein kremer unnd uß dem Augstal glych wie oberzellterr Schomal unnd Gydonniß

nach wellicher Jetzverschribnner personnen sagen wir (vom wëgen unnsërs thragennden ampts unnd habennden befelchs) genannten herr Hannsen Gölldi für unns citierenn unnd beschrybenn lassen. (der dann ganntz gehormsamlich komen unnd erschinnen) da wir ime mit allem ernnst dißers (wie jetzgehördt) fürhallten lassenn der daruff diserenn bescheid allso gëb:en er habe etlicher sachenn halber alhei by sonnderbarenn personnen z{uo}th{uo}n gehept unnd nnachgänntz einnen thrunngk mit einannderen gethan unnd (leider) zimlich thrunngken ouch nachts unnd sonnders vonn einem synner g{uo}ten gönneren das er by ime über nacht belybe gepëtenn wordenn das er ime abgeschlagen unnd willenns gewäßenn zu synnen töchterenn so alhie wohnnende z{uo}kherenn hiemit über die ober bruggen ganngnenn unnder das hällmhuß komenn unnd etliche kremer glychfhalls ouch da were ein gmeine dirnn gewäßenn unnd er vonn etlichen kremerenn mit worthenn zimlich Ruch sam er etwas bößes inn synnem fürnëmen habe angefharenn ouch angeredt allso das es ime unlydennlich gewäßenn hiemit die gemein dirnn für inne gestannden (unnd villicht vermeinndt vor etwas unnfhalls zu synn) sonnst hab er annders fürnëmens nit sonnders allein heim zu kherenn im sinn gehept bezüge es ouch so hoch unnd thür by synner sälligkeit unnd ehren das er mit vermällter dirnnen nützit weder vennig nach vill z{uo}schaffenn alld inn dem sinn ußz{uo}richtenn gehept pitte deßhalbenn Gott denn allmächtigenn unnd unns ganntz unnderthennig unnd zum aller höchstenn wir welltinnd doch ime söliches ganntz genedennklich verzychenn unnd nit zu dem höchstenn rächnenn unnd achtenn dann er glych (wie {zuo}vor) nachmalen bezüge das er mit gesagter gemeinen dirnnen ganntz nützit ußgericht nnach {zuo}schaffenn gehept werde es ouch kein eerlicher mann vonn Ime nit sagenn alld redenn können er wann nun wir disers alles (wie harinnen vergriffenn) gehördt unnd verstannden habennd wir unns diser sachenn halber wyter nit annëmen alld beladenn können sonnders habennd alle unnd ganntze hanndlunng geschrifftlichenn versfassenn

unnd sölliche E. E. Wten. übergëben unnd z{uo}gestellt was nun diesëlbig harinnen hanndlot unnd fürnimpt wellennd wir Unns gantz unnderthennigklich gefallenn lassenn acten iii 

zynnstags denn 19 ten herpstmonnat Ao 1587

E. E. Wten

unnderthennige burger unnd dienner an dem Eegricht

The Pastor and the Prostitute: Part I

1587, Zurich.

By Adrina Schulz, 30/04/2020

Protagonists: Pastor Johannes Göldi, an anonymous prostitute, foreign peddlers Moritz Benneradt, Moritz Gydonnis, Wilhälm Schomal, and Gabriel Laba

Citation: Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich (STaZH) A 9.2, Nr. 3.

In this court case from 19/09/1587, Pastor Johannes Göldi of the town of Maur, Switzerland, was accused of suspicious behavior (“ärgwönisches aufführen”) with a prostitute (“gemeinne dirnn”) at the Helmhaus, a Zürich landmark that still exists today (for a discussion of why I use the word prostitute rather than sex worker or source terminology, see my personal page). The main witnesses to the events were the foreign (“wälltsche,” non-German-speaking and often French-, Romansch-, or Italian-speaking) peddlers, who saw him with the prostitute. The time and date of the event were related quite precisely: between 8 and 9 on the Wednesday of the yearly market. The peddlers stated that they had left a tavern and were going back to their stands and beds when they saw the pastor and the prostitute together in a corner. Similarly, the bodily positions of the two were described in detail: Göldi was sitting and the prostitute was standing, trying to cover him with her breasts (“mit irer büppen tegken”) and to turn off the light. The peddler Benneradt’s stated reaction to the scene is particularly interesting. He refused to say that he had seen Göldi do anything bad or have sex with the prostitute (“lybliche werch mit iren volbracht”), and stated that he was satisfied with Göldi. On the other hand, he also said that he told Göldi that the latter’s behavior did not fit his station (“das zime synnem stannd gar nit”) and that he gestured at Göldi in censure. The other peddlers did not discuss their reactions, but generally concurred with Benneradt’s version of events. 

Then Göldi himself was summoned to the court to give his statement. He said that he had become quite drunk and wanted to cross the bridge to the home of his daughters (presumably he stayed with them when he visited Zurich). By the bridge, he saw the peddlers and the prostitute. The peddlers roughly accused him of having bad intentions until the situation became unbearable, but the prostitute stood for him (“für Inne gestanden”), probably defending him. He swore that he had done nothing with her and asked for forgiveness. However, he was punished with a stay in Wellenberg, one of the Zürich prisons, and a fine of 1 mark silver.

One aspect that is quite present in this case is the city’s honor, as well as the difference between outsiders and locals. The foreignness of the witnesses was highlighted, but apparently did not discredit their testimony. In fact, the case was considered galling particularly because it was witnessed by these foreigners (“so ist doch die sach ëben ergerlich sonderlich wyls frömbde personen gsëhen”). The Reformation used prostitution and prostitutes as a polemic weapon against Catholic priests, claiming that celibacy was impossible and that therefore the priests were fornicators and prostitutes’ clients (See: Roper 1989, p. 104-107, among others).  For instance, Zurich Reformer Heinrich Bullinger wrote in a letter to Johannes Zwick that those who forbade priests to marry furthered prostitution and fornicators: “qui vero sacerdotibus interdicunt coniugio, scortatores et scortationem promovent” (Heinrich Bullinger Briefwechsel, Letter 563). Having their own pastors visibly engaging with prostitutes clearly troubled the city authorities and even the witnesses: Benneradt explicitly named Göldi’s station in his censure, instead of condemning sex with prostitutes overall.      

This case represents a transitional period in the history of prostitution in Zürich. Laws against extra- and premarital sex had already been enacted in the first half of the sixteenth century, but they were only beginning to be enforced in matters relating to prostitution during the 1580s. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, prostitutes mentioned in these cases usually remained anonymous, as did the woman in this case, while clients were punished. In contrast, in the seventeenth century, as will be illustrated in my next post, this trend was reversed: prostitutes were named, brought before court, and even punished more heavily punished than their clients.

For a full transcription of this court protocol, see the archival material page.

1601, Ferrara. Convent of Santa Lucia. Sources.

By Isabel Harvey, 17/04/2020

Archivio Apostolico Vaticano (ASV), Congregazione dei Vescovi e dei Regolari (CVR), Positiones (POS), 1601, Lett. C-G. Ferrara, December 16th 1600.

Con l’ultima lettera mia che fu delle 9 del corrente, darle conto a V.S. del disordine seguito nel Monastero di Santo Gabriello sotto la cura, e dell’ordine delle Padri Carmelitani, et a mesi passato le mandai un processo fatto dal mio Vicario contra alcuni frati, pur Carmelitani, di pratichi scandalosi, che havevano con le Monache di questo Monastero di Santa Lucia dell’istesso ordine, et in particolare contra frate Giulio in quel tempo lor confessore. Hora havendo intese che una d’esse Monache ha partorito una figliola femina ho mandato in mio Vicario à pigliarne informatione, il quale ha ritrovato per il testificate d’alcune Monache esser vero il parto, agli da issi si suppone fosse stato soffocato et sepelito in terra dalla l’istessa Monaca partoriente; poiche disepelito da due di loro et portato nel Reffetorio publicamente à vista di tutti l’altri Monache si ritrovò haver sanguinata la faccia, la quale figliola asseriscono essere del predetto frati Giulio. Il Padre Generale d’issi frati carmelitani inteso dal processo incominciato d’ordine mio, è venuto a dirmi di haver anch’egli processata et fata carcerare la Monaca, et ordinato che il medesimo si esseguisca contra il frate, il quale al presente è lontano di qua. Io però senza passare più oltra ho voluto darne conto, come fù, à V.S., et diplorare seco l’atrocità di cosi scandaloso caso: degno di lagrimie digiustitio. Et qui resto facendole humilissima riverenza e pregando N.S. Dio la conservi longamente felice.

Vescovo di Ferrara

ASV, CVR, Registra Regularum (RR), 1601, 3, Carmelitani, January 2nd 1601.

Carmelitani al Vicario Generale della Congregatione di Mantova

Il caso scandaloso successo nel monasterio di Santa Lucia di Ferrara sotto posto al governo de frati dell’ordine della P.V. merità d’esser deplorato, et che in un istesso tempo sia castigato quello che si pastore diventato lupo ha rapito la pecorilla. Nostro Signore però al qual è dispiaciuto grandemente tanto brutto successo ha fatto commettere la causa al Signore Cardinale S. Clemente collegato in Ferrara et ha voluto che questi Ill.mi m. Sig.ri diano ordine a lei col mero di questo mia che debba subito far consegnare a S.S. il processo fatto sopra ciò dali suoi frati in Ferrara. Et che in un’istesso tempo dia ordine che frate Giulio il quale per diligenza della R. V. si trova carcerato a Parma sia quanto prima et sicuramente condotto alla medema città di Ferrara, et consegnato in potere del Signore Cardinale.

Collegato. Avvertendo di farlo condurre in modo che non solo non fugga ma che non possa farsi male da se stesso, et bisognando aiuto ella potrà ricorrere con l’allegata lettera al Signore Duca di Parma, et ancora far capo al Signore Cardinal S. Clemente, acciò dia quell’indirizzo, et quel modo che parerà opportune. Et avverta bene la R. V. che si come è piaciuto la diligenza d’havere il frate nelle mani, cosi dispiacerebbe molto più se intervenisse qualche accidente nella persona del medemo frate per il quale la consegnatione et il processo venisse impedito. […] Alli 2 di Gennaro 1601.

1601, Ferrara. Convent of Santa Lucia.

By Isabel Harvey, 14/04/2020

Protagonists: Suor Leonora Agelli, Dominican and Fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra, Carmelite.

Source: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones, 1601, Lett. C-G. (See the sources here).

In a letter from December 16, 1600, the Bishop of Ferrara Giovanni Fontana reported to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars in Rome the case of a certain Fra Giulio, whose actions prompted him to “immediately deplore such a scandalous case”:

A few months ago, I sent you a case made by my vicar against some of the Carmelites, about scandalous practices they had with the nuns of the monastery of Santa Lucia […] and in particular against Fra Giulio, who in those days was their confessor […]. Now, after hearing that one of the nuns gave birth to a girl, I sent my vicar to collect the information. He discovered, thanks to the testimony of some nuns, that the childbirth was real, and that it is possible to suppose that the child was suffocated and buried by this nun who gave birth; to then be dug out by two other nuns and taken to the refectory to show it publicly in before everyone. Other nuns said they saw that the child’s face was bleeding, and the father of that girl would be Fra Giulio.

The bishop then recounts a story that seems particularly sordid: a nun named Suor Leonora Agelli reportedly had sexual relations with her confessor, Fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra, which resulted a pregnancy, which then hid from her religious sisters under the pretext of severe dropsy. She eventually gave birth in her cell to a girl who died in the process, in the presence of the convent nurse, the converse sister who assisted her, and two curious nuns. The converse, Isabetta, then buried the body of the newborn in the henhouse, but only a few hours later, four nuns come to dig it and expose it to the eyes of everyone—nuns and ecclesiastical superiors—in the refectory of the convent. At the moment when the Bishop writes to Rome, he is at an impasse. An initial investigation was carried out by the ecclesiastical superiors, the Carmelite brothers, who questioned the nuns of Santa Lucia one after another, conducting a reputation survey about Suor Leonora and Pocaterra, the confessor. It was a long, drawn-out effort that ended in nothing but cloister gossip—until the day when two nuns openly accused Suor Leonora of intentionally causing the death of her child.

The accusations of infanticide—and all the surrounding scandal—prompted the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars to request a proper episcopal inquiry. This resulted in a trial. The Carmelite inquiry is included in the trial, which now turns to the main protagonists of the case. Interrogated by their ecclesiastical superiors, Suor Leonora and Giulio Cesare Pocaterra maintained the same version of their story: she had been raped just once, and he agreed to this version, as he later confessed, in order to accelerate the proceedings and to be judged internally, to avoid the painful and humiliating justice of the secular arm of the law.

Doubting that an infanticide could have been committed, the Vicars of the Bishop Fontana took the investigation very seriously. It was discovered that Suor Leonora had many opportunities to sin with the confessor—or with anyone else, if she pleased—because she had the keys to the convent, being the convent’s porter. More troubling still, the history of a long and questionable friendship between Suor Leonora and fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra was discovered, a friendship that was the source of a deep division among the nuns of Santa Lucia, because the confessor’s preferences challenged the status of a nun who was in higher social standing than Suor Leonora, Suor Doralice, as he obliged his favorite to spend as much time as possible with him. The wounded honour of Suor Doralice and the nuns who were loyal to her dig tensions between family groups and factions that divided the community, kept in the shadows until the opportunity arose in order to force the superiors to look in the convent’s disputes. This is the occasion of Suor Leonora’s pregnancy, who, instead of being hidden by the community was deliberately and theatrically brought to the eyes of the superiors by the presentation the baby’s body to the refectory.

During the interrogations, Suor Leonora admitted little by little that the sinful act was voluntary, that she herself opened the door of the enclosure to the confessor, and that they repeated the sin for several months, between January 1600 and Lent. In the end, the accusations of infanticide were abandoned but both were convicted of violating their vow of chastity and for Pocaterra, the sacrilege that is having sexual relationship with a nun. Fra Giulio Cesare Pocaterra was condemned to death by Pope Clement VIII, who insisted that the priest be executed publicly. Suor Leonora was confined to the convent.

Conflict and Collaboration

EvEn (Conflict and Collaboration: Everyday Encounters between Women and Clergymen in Pre-Modern Europe) is a research blog dedicated to the study of the various forms and expressions of the relations between clergymen – secular priests, friars, bishops, and local clergy as well as the higher levels of the ecclesiastical hierarchy – and women – noblewomen, nuns, and laywomen – from every social stratum, from the Middle Ages until the end of the Early Modern period. These encounters were sometimes initiated by the formal setting of the Church: spiritual guidance, ecclesiastical superiors in nun’s convents, or countryside parishes. They also included incidental encounters in the context of everyday activities, such as a casual discussion during a tour of a chapel or participation in confraternities. Encounters also occurred in moments of difficulty, when women were obliged to act as witnesses at episcopal courts or when they asked for shelter and spiritual help, as in the cases of the convertite, the women who abandoned Judaism or Islam for the Christian faith. They also occurred during adventurous holy missions and when traditional barriers momentarily disappeared, as in the case of the foundation of a convent or at the departure for an evangelizing mission to the other side of the world. Finally, encounters also included illegal relationships, love stories maintained through the grates of convent parlours or presbytery concubinage.

This multiplicity of moments of encounters, exchanges, and relations, sometimes conflictual, sometimes collaborative, will be explored by the topics of this blog. The blog aims to understand the mechanisms, dynamics, continuities, and ruptures of these encounters, in connection with their immediate context and the broad movements taking place in the Church and Europe during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. This research on the points of contact between people reveals individuals who were connected to each other, acting in networks that went beyond the barriers of the ecclesiastical and secular worlds or of the male and female worlds. In these networks, ideas and spirituals currents were circulated and transformed between every point of contact and by each individual participant to this diffusion of information.

The EvEn project has five main objectives:

1) To analyze a variety of case studies in which it is possible to reconstruct one or more interactions between women and clergymen;
2) To explore the various networks that these cases reveal and to investigate the potential information that circulated through these networks;
3) To compare the various case studies individually presented by each collaborator in order to analyze the encounters between women and clergymen in the long term and over an international territory;
4) To create digital tools to connect individual studies/research to the broader world of Digital Humanities; and
5) To promote the collaborative research and the creation of networks between emerging scholars across the world.

The blog contains:

1) Cases and people: single cases found during archival research, accompanied with some initial hypotheses and interpretations, as well as biographies of the individuals involved.
2) Archival material: freshly transcribed samples of archival material.
3) Project: a page for the individual projects of each contributor.
4) Map: a collective map locating protagonists and showing networks and their evolution over time.
5) Editorial: plural-hand articles to analyze the broader historical to which protagonists of encounters and networks are connected.

EvEn is, therefore, a collective blog that discusses and maps the encounters and relations between women and clergymen, focusing on agency, strategies of action, conflicts, friendships, networks, and the sharing of information. Even, as an adjective, means both something recurrent or continuous: just as this topic need to be explored deeply and with a different perspective than previous historiography, as an historical phenomenon spanning the whole history of Christianity. Even also refers to the state of being equal or balanced: to this end, the project attempts to “even out” our understanding of relations and encounters between individuals traditionally considered to be regulated by a relation of power – the clergyman having authority over women – by placing the aspirations, objectives, and strategies of women at the centre of the investigation. Finally, EvEn presents a space to develop even more about the history of women, and the religious and cultural history of Medieval and Early Modern Europe.