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Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Mon Aug 18, 2014 6:22 pm
by moosiemoosiegander
What 'o, chaps

By way of a change and for a breath of fresh air for me as regards my Wars of the Roses living history, I am considering the notion of portraying a nun or sister, likely in the context of providing simple medical assistance to the troops or doing calligraphy (which I already do). The problem I have had in my reading on the subject so far is this; medieval nuns seem to have been cloistered or simply involved in their local communities near the convent and so therefore wouldn't necessarily have been knocking about in a medieval camp in the same way that say a Friar would have been.

Can anyone set me on the right road as regards being a nun in a medieval context without my having to lock myself in a large building a number of miles from the battle? Tertiary order Franciscans seem the best bet so far but any advice gratefully received. (And please be gentle, I'm new to the nun thing!)


Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Mon Aug 18, 2014 10:12 pm
by guthrie
Edie of the Nevilles did something 7 or 8 years ago about being a nun, I think you might know her, not sure how much reenactment she does these days.

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Wed Aug 20, 2014 7:43 am
by Brother Ranulf
The complete lack of medieval nuns running loose around the country has been covered in other threads; becoming a nun meant (among other things) becoming reclusive, retiring from the world and all its temptations.

To emphasise this point, Þe Ancrene Riwle of the early 13th century was written as an advisory guide to women thinking of taking up the life of a nun, offering help and wisdom about everything from religious services to clothing and food. A reasonable translation can be seen here: ... Riwle2.htm

You will find no mention of nuns becoming Florence Nightingales on battlefields around the country - this was never their role.

One major factor in preventing the kind of scenario you are thinking of is the vow of chastity. Nuns were to have absolutely minimal contact with men and then only with some kind of barrier between them, such as an iron grill in a wall or door. Naturally there were a few notable departures from this ideal, such as the case of the Gilbertine nun (details are best glossed over) and the results were always brutally medieval.

You mention Franciscan Tertiaries. These were not nuns but religious lay women living under minor vows; they were often noblewomen who might have some medical knowledge. Without the strict controls applied to true nuns these women were exposed to a range of poor discipline and inappropriate behaviour; some were married, some attached themselves closely to a regular nunnery and others were accused of heresy. It is unlikely that Tertiaries dressed in the same way as nuns, but perhaps in more simple clothing than their fashionable contemporaries.

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Wed Aug 20, 2014 8:55 am
by moosiemoosiegander
Thank you, Brother Ranulf for the comprehensive reply.

Though it is a matter of historical fact, it is a shame that it seems a tad prohibitive to portray a professed nun at reenactments as it then makes it an important part of social history that never gets any 'coverage'. As per my initial question, I'm quite aware that fully professed nuns did not leave their convents which is why I was searching for alternative options for portraying a female ecclesiastical type. I have latterly been looking into Augustinian and Dominican canonesses which as far as I can gather operated outside the cloister in their local communities. Again, I (as far as my reading has taken me) am aware that these ladies were also not fully professed and took no formal vow of chastity etc but they seem superficially similar enough to nuns to provide me with an 'in-road' that I can use to describe the female ecclesiastical life but also (as far as I have read so far) went out into their local community.

I am also aware that the Clunian nuns provided assistance to the wounded at Delapre however I'm viewing that as an extenuating circumstance and have no intention of portraying a Clunian as they are specific to one battle, cloistered and exceptionally rare.

Basically, it would be nice to find a way, in correct context, of portraying a nun, canoness or sister which would allow what would be (in my view) a very interesting living history portrayal.

(Edited when I had access to an actual computer rather than my phone in order to try and make the thing make sense!)

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Thu Aug 21, 2014 1:40 pm
by 40/- freeholder
A nun in the outer world would be possible in the context of the Dissolution, but that would not fall within WoR remit. Otherwise I have seen former religious houses advertising events with re-enactors portraying the conventual life, might be worth joining a group that already does this.

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Thu Aug 21, 2014 4:59 pm
by Alan E
A nun in the outer world would also be possible in the context of the HYW (one of the complaints against the mercernary bands was their indiscriminate rapine, including nunneries); this could also 'explain' the presence at an armed camp. How much self-identification as a nun would remain would be open to interpretation. Whether this could translate to England during WoTR I don't know.

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Wed Aug 27, 2014 1:57 pm
by Langley
My wife has played a nun (from White Ladies Aston in Worcestershire) at places like Tintern. Brother R - correct me if I am wrong but weren't there instances of nun's travelling to repair or present vestments and altar cloths etc. Pilgrimage? Chaucer's Abbess?

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Wed Aug 27, 2014 3:24 pm
by Brother Ranulf
This is beginning to look like "think of a scenario, then try to force the evidence to support it".

The Benedictine nuns of West Malling Abbey produced huge amounts of honey during the 12th century and presented much of it to the bishop of Rochester - but it was not taken to him by the nuns themselves, but by lay servants from their Abbey. The vow of stability applied to Benedictine nuns just as much as it did to Benedictine monks; it meant remaining within the cloister for life.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a work of fiction written to entertain an audience and it can not be used as a mirror of real life in the 14th century. There is no record of any genuine English abbess going to Rome, Jerusalem or Compostela, or any other shrine. In a lecture on the role of religious women in the Middle ages, A. Fisher stated that "women's ability to go on pilgrimages was more limited than men's and in Chaucer's tales of the twenty-nine pilgrims only three are women." In his classic work "The Age of Pilgrimage", Jonathan Sumption writes that "For most of the Middle Ages, however, women were not particularly noted as pilgrims." Sermons were given across Europe condemning the idea of female pilgrims and pointing out the unspeakable hazards they would face. Sumption does give details of a few women at European shrines - not one of them is a nun - and the awful experiences they endured.

St Thomas Aquinas protested strongly against women being forced to go on pilgrimage as a penance by their parish priests, since the dangers were simply too great. No English bishop was likely to agree to any nun setting off against such strong and high-profile objections.

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Wed Aug 27, 2014 3:31 pm
by moosiemoosiegander
Got to be super quick as at work but did you see my reply regarding canonesses?

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:46 pm
by Brother Ranulf
As you said in your post, canons and canonesses were a distinct entity from monks and nuns - although that distinction is completely lost on most people today.

They were certainly far more involved in the communities and more likely to spend time among the ordinary people. The "Regular" variety followed the Rule of St Augustine rather than the Rule of St Benedict; the "Secular" type followed no Rule at all - many were noblewomen and they could marry if they wished. Some were involved in educating girls or staffing pilgrim hostels or infirmaries.

The dress of canons and canonesses was designed to be as different as possible from monks and nuns and it differed among the various Orders. It's a shame that Janet Mayo's classic work on the history of ecclesiastic dress is now out of print (it now sells for silly money second-hand) as I seem to recall it covered many of the different habits and other items.

There is a newly-published work by Maureen Miller, titled "Clothing the Clergy" (available from Amazon - ... the+clergy) but I suspect it does not cover the time period you are interested in, as Mayo's book did.

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:57 pm
by moosiemoosiegander
Thank you, Brother Ranulph for that. An Augustinian canoness seems then the way forward, as I suspected. I shall look into those books, maybe my local library may be able to track down the book by Mayo on a loan, you never know! I will also look into the other text on the offchance it has something useful for me in its pages.

Edit: From the info I've gathered so far, professed Augustinian nuns seem to have mainly been in black (with white wimple) and the canonesses seem to have had a habit of undyed wool, white wimple and a black veil. That said, information is incredibly thin on the ground!

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Sat Jan 07, 2017 6:58 pm
by moosiemoosiegander
I'm having real problems finding out what Augustinian Cannonesses wore on their heads.
The undyed habit and white wimple seem fairly straightforward but some have a white hood and some black and I'm having an awful job of finding which would be correct. I have been stalking copies of Ecclesiastical Dress by Janet Mayo since I first asked this question and had no joy.

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Sat Jan 07, 2017 11:01 pm
by Brother Ranulf
Some time ago I worked on an extensive paper on the subject of the dress of Augustinian canons throughout the whole medieval period - the outcome was that there was no standard form of dress, each house of canons setting its own rules and then failing to enforce them. The Church as an institution tried and failed (miserably) to enforce an overall dress code for the canons, and I suspect the same applies to canonesses but in a less obvious way.

This image shows an Augustinian canoness at the very end of the medieval period in England (it was painted in Flanders/Brabant soon after 1530)
Augustinian canoness.jpg
This small and indistinct image from about a hundred years earlier shows canonesses staffing an infirmary for the sick, which was a typical role. It's English and it shows something of a hotchpotch dress code, including very non-standard decoration on the habits and one that may be of blue material. This is more than possible - I have documented the case of a leading 14th century canon at St Paul's who wore various habits of blue or red, lined with expensive furs, none of which was sanctioned officially. Those wearing white veils are likely novices, those with black veils have been fully professed (but not ordained, as were canons).
canonesses.jpg (49.83 KiB) Viewed 13714 times

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Sun Jan 08, 2017 1:56 am
by moosiemoosiegander
Brother Ranulph, that is immensely helpful. Thank you so much. :D
Another thing that you may be able to clear up is this; elsewhere, someone has asked if by "Augustinian Canoness I mean Gilbertine in an English context?". I have always understood it to be the case that whereas Gilbertine Canons followed the Rule of St Augustine, nit all English Augustinians were Gilbertine, some were in fact simply Augustinian. Is this the case or am I mistaken?

Re: Occupation? Nun.

Posted: Sun Jan 08, 2017 8:50 am
by Brother Ranulf
The confusion surrounding the various orders of canons and their female equivalents is understandable, since there have been a bewildering array of different orders (many of whom dressed similarly to each other). I hope this may go some way to shedding light on the subject:

(Here I use "canon" to refer to both sexes, although their houses were usually entirely separate)

The oldest and original Augustinian/Austin canons are commonly referred to as Black Canons, from the usual colour of their habits. They held a large number of houses in England.

Victorine canons, formed near Paris in 1109, usually wore black cloaks over white habits. They held a small number of houses in England.

Norbertine canons, or Praemonstratensians, formed in France in 1120, were known as White Canons because of their mainly white clothing. They eventually had 35 houses in England.

The Gilbertines were the only home-grown English order, established by Gilbert of Sempringham in 1130. They consisted of mixed houses of nuns and priests, but with very much separated areas to keep the two apart. Nuns were originally dressed in natural white (with black veils for professed nuns), since Gilbert had hoped to obtain support from the white-wearing Cistercian order of monks (they rejected him). Eventually the Augustinian canons agreed to supply administrators and priests for the Gilbertine houses. At some point (it is unclear when), the nuns took to wearing a black habit under a white scapular and hood/veil - the scapular and/or habit might be lined with lamb's wool in winter. It was normal for lay brothers and lay sisters to be admitted to the order, so a Gilbertine house might consist of 4 parts in order to separate the nuns, canons and lay brothers and sisters - clearly a recipe for disaster. Perversely, the nuns followed a version of the Cistercian Rule (in other words, the Rule of St Benedict governing cloistered nuns), while the canons followed the Rule of St Augustine and the lay members were subject to neither.

In almost all of these orders (and there were many more European types which often did not extend to England), the Rule of St Augustine was followed - it did not apply to the cloistered life followed by monks and was less detailed, less strict and very much shorter than the rule of St Benedict.

So, in answer to the person who said "by Augustinian canonesses I mean Gilbertine in an English context?", the answer is definitely no. There were in England many canonesses who were not Gilbertines and the Gilbertine women were nuns in the strict sense, not canonesses since they followed exactly the same rule as Cistercian nuns. This should confuse that person (it confuses me!!).