‘Merely Nuns’? Exploring Female Agency in Hospitaller Houses in the Middle Ages

Museum of the Order of St John Nancy Mavroudi, Museum Assistant

Set up in Jerusalem in 1080 the Hospital of St John cared for the pilgrims who made the journey to the Holy Land. According to witnesses who were present in the Second Crusade, both men and women served in the Hospital. After the fall of Jerusalem, the Hospitallers, the Brothers and the Sisters, fled to South and North Europe, where they found monasteries or Houses. We have English Sisters Houses as early as 1180, although the Hospitaller women’s histories are not always as centralised and visible.

Challenges in voicing women’s histories
The challenges around approaching medieval women’s history in general, and female religious life in particular, are plentiful. A very common type of evidence drawn upon to understand the past is written sources, which are often considered more reliable and sound historical evidence. This, however, can often be quite problematic given the particular historical context. Women could not represent themselves legally and were not often listed in formal documents. At the same time, other types of written sources (non-formal documents) might have been disregarded as unimportant and, therefore, perished.

Secondly, aside from the issue of what survives as a source and how representative or inclusive it might be, there is also the issue of mediation of information. For example, seen and experienced through the eyes of a male early medieval historiographer of the time, there is no guarantee that such accounts do justice and fully express the lived experiences of those women. Despite his best efforts to make women more visible as members of the Order in 1894, historiographer Joseph Delaville Le Roulx, for instance, also added several inaccuracies as we now know after comparison of sources. Consequently, the challenge remains; even if we have the sources, do we take them at face value to represent the voices of women as insightfully in this indirect way?

Finally, Hospitaller women received little general study, even less before 1522 (fall of Rhodes), and even when they were the protagonists of historical narratives, their representation would be mediated in terms of holiness, and the focus would be mainly women Saints whose stories survived in the religious narratives of the Order. There is a general consensus among modern scholars that much work remains to be done in this rather neglected area, where women have been ignored for the sake of concentrating around presumably more ‘glorious’ narratives, as in the case of military themes, for example.

Who were these women?
If we were to generalise, we would probably say that Hospitaller women were primarily wealthy, noble women, from aristocratic or powerful families who, in many cases were even forced to join the Order by their families for spiritual benefits – the Order’s blessing for the family. However, although popular, such generalisations are not always accurate. To start with, there is evidence that many women joined voluntarily, simply because they so wanted. Joining a community of Sisters could bring about a change in their lives in which they themselves might have found comfort – especially given that, as discussed in further detail below, the Order could potentially be a more privileged and safe space to be.

Also, not all women had to be wealthy to become Sisters, although this would have been an advantage. There is often evidence that women from all walks of life would be admitted to the Houses, regardless of their financial situation but rather because of their skills that might have matched the practical needs of specific Houses. Those skills ranged from baking and cooking, to farming and to numeracy/literacy, and administration skills. For example, according to the religious tradition around St Ubaldesca (whose portrait can be found in the Order Gallery in our Museum) she came from an underprivileged background. Her father was a baker and their family was struggling to make ends meet; still she was able to join the House in Pisa and was later renounced Saint.

It is said that St Ubaldesca was 15 when she was admitted in the House in Pisa. It was common for young novices to be admitted to the Houses and become educated. There also were mature women, women who were widowed or unfortunate, as in situations where their families had perished or where they had to overcome unwanted pregnancies and sought refuge. Some women associates of the Order would even be admitted as partners in a married couple who were both members.

How did Hospitaller women fit in the Order?
What is perhaps indicative of the pragmatism and flexibility of the Order of St John compared to other medieval religious-military orders is their willingness to accommodate women in their ranks, and to treat each case individually, depending on the circumstances of the potential member, despite the fact that there were several rules in place often inspired by gender biases.

The most popular way to relate to the Order as a woman in the Middle Ages was through being a fully professed Sister, which broadly meant a live-in nun. Fully professed Sisters would take religious vows similar to those of men, followed the same rules, and they lived in the Houses. The Houses were either mixed (where Sisters and Brothers lived under the same roof or in close proximity – a relatively ‘revolutionary’ idea for medieval England), or autonomous female monasteries.

However, as already seen, not all women living and working in and around the Hospitaller Houses were fully professed. For example, there were women who were affiliated with the Order as consorores (often couples) that were in the same habit of prayer and piousness but did not live in the Houses, retaining, of course, their right to be buried in the Hospitaller cemetery, and in the habit of the Order. A donation -often annual- was also amongst their obligations.

Exploring Hospitaller women’s involvement in the Houses
Undeniably, part of the admittance of women in the Houses related to their potential and work that was vitally beneficial to the Order, especially at times of costly big-scale expeditions. Women had access to family networks, from which they could recruit new members, they could raise funds and donations and, of course, bring in the support of their own families and relatives/affiliates.

Technically, since both the Sisters and Brothers would take the same vows, they had the same obligations and duties, and that would have meant undertaking the funding of expeditions and, at least theoretically, the subsequent obligation to willingly participate in the operations of the Order. The extent to which women Hospitallers may have participated in the expeditions in ways other than mere sponsoring them has been an issue of disagreement among scholars. It is perhaps worth mentioning here that Arab sources often contradict Western ones in terms of the presumably non-combatant status of women in religious expeditions; we do know for a fact, however, that they were definitely present and operating in close proximity to Holy War.

Being in charge of a House came with all the responsibilities of running a small community, as well as a religious institution with charitable operations. They were Sisters, as well as carers and nurses (when a Hospital was attached to the House), but they were also administrators, managers, and governors. Perhaps more evident in the independent female convents with their relative autonomy and self-regulation, these female communities had to manage their affairs efficiently in order to be able to survive – from bookkeeping and general administration duties, managing estates, purchases and stock checks, to building maintenance and repairs – especially at times of limited funding when external assistant was not an option. There is evidence that in mixed Houses the Sisters would often come together as collective agents in order to achieve fairer conditions for them, and demand more reasonable funding for the improvement of their lives in the House by organising against the Brothers who felt gave them an unfair share to cover their everyday needs. For example, in Mynchin Buckland (England) the Sisters ‘revolted’ against the Brothers because of unfair treatment in the distribution of the assets between the men and the women and it was serious enough to result in the need of the Prior of England’s intervention to resolve the issue.

Hospitaller women did occupy in many ways positions of leadership and the existence of a Prioress in medieval times was not uncommon. We know from the records saved that in Mynchin Buckland, for example, the Prioress was voted for by her fellow-Sisters, and that in Siena (Spain) the Prioress was ruling over both the Sisters and the Brothers. They had created what was, in many ways, hubs of community support for each other, where levels of independence were often different to what they might have had experienced in their life outside the House. Joining as a Sister opened possibilities for them in areas that were often inconceivable -the example of referring other female family members to the House in order to bypass gender restrictions in the passing of property between them was once such strategic move among others.

Reclaiming female agency
The 1180s Hospitaller Rule stated that if the Brothers went near a woman, Satan would soon have them trapped. Looking at the dominant religious and gender discourse against which Hospitaller women had to negotiate their subjectivity and claim a position in an unfavourable context, it becomes understood how they served as agents of their own history, re-signifying in many ways canonical perception, and reshaping perceptions of potential and expectation.

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