On this day: Secular Canonesses

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day in 968, Matilda, Queen of Germany, widow of King Henry I, died at Quedlinburg Abbey, the house of secular canonesses she founded in 936. Her remains were entombed beside those of her husband.

St. Matilda, the daughter of a Westphalian count, was brought up and educated by her grandmother, abbess of Herford Abbey, another house of secular canonesses.

Margaret C. Schaus, in Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, 2006, defines secular canonesses:

Canonesses "were generally recognized as women who had adopted the religious life and who lived in community, but yet differed from nuns in several important respects: they made no permanent vows, and thus could leave the community whenever they wished; they did not relinquish private property upon entering the community and even maintained separate residences and servants; they wore secular clothing rather than the black habit of Benedictine nuns; and they performed various public duties, largely freeing them from the requirement of claustration."

"Communities of canonesses reaches their apogee in Germany during the ninth and tenth centuries, when a series of new foundations with strong ties to the imperial court were established. The women of these communities, who came from noble families, maintained their power and prestige within the community and were active beyond its walls as well. Under the late-tenth-century rule of abbess Gerberga II, a niece of Otto I, the community at Gandersheim developed into an enormously powerful and independent house, with its own courts, the power to mint coins, a representative at the imperial assembly, and the right to direct protection from the pope. Gandersheim was also, like many houses of canonesses, a center of learning where daughters of the aristocracy could gain an education. The Latin writings of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim demonstrate her knowledge of a range of classical and medieval authors and reflect the richness of the community's library. Other communities, like Chelles, where Charlemagne's sister Gisela was abbess, were active in book production and included female scribes amongst their number." Page 107.

Gandersheim Abbey, like other houses of secular canonesses, would survive the Reformation, becoming Lutheran when it was necessary to do so.

St. Matilda's foundation, Quedlinburg Abbey, would do the same. Scroll down halfway for the list of abbesses. The first of the Catholic abbesses was St. Matilda's granddaughter, another Matilda, daughter of Otto I, who succeeded Henry the Fowler as King of Germany and then became Holy Roman Emperor. After six centuries, the first Protestant abbess was elected. The great abbey was finally dissolved in 1803.

A Pernicious Sort of Woman: Quasi-Religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages, by Elizabeth Makowski, Catholic University of America Press, 2005, winner of the History of Women Religious Distinguished Book Award in 2007, is important to anyone interested in secular canonesses, beguines, and tertiaries. The publisher's page provides quotations from reviews by various scholars, including one who said, "Church authorities found women who felt called to live the religious life, but stubbornly refused to fit into the mold of conventional female monasticism, enormously vexing."

The book may be sampled at Google Books and at its Amazon page.

For the story of St. Matilda, see Queenship and Sanctity: The Lives of Mathilda and the Epitaph of Adelheid, by Sean Gilsdorf, Catholic University of America Press, 2004.

The book may be sampled at its Amazon page and at Google Books.

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