Nuns and Mothers

Nuns and Mothers

Reading the Past

This essay originally appeared on the Reading the Past Blog by Sarah Johnson:

When I created Catherine Havens, the main character of The Altarpiece, I made her parentage uncertain.  She’s lived her whole life in the convent, under the eyes of the prioress, Christina, and the oldest nun, Veronica.  I wanted Catherine’s life to be woman-centered as a way of rethinking the roles of parents in Renaissance Europe.

Most Early Modern women were governed by their fathers and husbands, but life in the convent could be the exception.  We sometimes think of convent life as constrained, and of course it was controlled and demanding.  But in addition to providing (1) an escape from unwanted marriage, (2) some safety from contagious disease, (3) an opportunity for education beyond the traditional female accomplishments of sewing and music, and (4) positions of real power, nunneries made the mother the primary parent.

The Father was still present, but God the Father was in heaven rather than the next room.  Every convent required the services of at least one priest, but he neither lived within their walls nor oversaw much of the daily administration.  The Husband of these “brides of Christ” was also in heaven and was always perfect, mild, and loving.

But the Mother?  The second parent in the secular world, she was dominant in the convent in the figure of the abbess or the prioress.  In heaven, the Mother of God was a compassionate and accessible figure.  If God dealt punishment to sinners, Mary might be petitioned to intervene on behalf of His suffering children.  Even Jesus was seen as a mother, most famously by the mystic Julian of Norwich.  In my convent, the titular altarpiece features an image of Mary, and this would not have been unusual.  Catherine has, as she says, “prayed under Her eyes” all of her life.  It should be no surprise, then, that Catherine believes that she can make decisions about her beliefs and her desires without consulting a father.

Some abbesses no doubt took advantage of their power (Hildegard of Bingen was notoriously cruel to novices and lay sisters), but a good Mother had more influence than anyone else in the convent.  Not every nun could aspire to her authority, but the precedent was there, and women did find expressions of their creative, political, and personal ambitions through the female hierarchy of the pre-Reformation convents, as Catherine does in her work as a healer and a compiler of medical books.

The critic Joan Kelly, back in 1977, provocatively asked whether women had a Renaissance.  She concluded that while men were exploring the “new learning,” Protestant women were relegated to secondary positions—with no respectable alternative.  Husbands were recast as domestic religious authorities in the place of priests.  Unmarried women were condemned, as Shakespeare’s Beatrice says, to “lead apes in hell.”

And this is, in part, why the notion of the Mother is so important to my nun.  She’s Mother of God and living woman, model of power and learning.  The ideal Protestant mother soon became the “angel in the house”:  submissive, selfless, and silent.  She was perfectly secondary, which, of course, no real woman is.  What I wanted to recreate was a complex, true set of Mothers who work and love and, yes, sin as all of us do, even in the house of God.

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