Van Engen, Hildo.Koen Goudriaan, Antheun Janse, Madelon, van Luijk A Research Note on the Third Order of St. Francis in the Medieval Diocese of Utrech

[A Research Note on the Third Order of St. Francis in the Medieval Diocese of Utrech]

Authors: Hildo van Engen, Koen Goudriaan, Antheun Janse, Madelon, van Luijk

Date: (Contributed to Matrix, June, 2000)

In October 1998, a research program on the third order of Saint Francis in the diocese of Utrecht was launched at the Department of History, section Medieval History, of the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. The program investigates an important feature of the so-called second religious women's movement in the north-western corner of Europe. This movement, which started some years before the turn of the 15th century, was particularly intense and massive in the historical diocese of Utrecht, which covered two thirds of the present-day Netherlands.

The research was triggered by the discovery that a list of 82 convents, edited by Van Heel in 1939 and dated by him to 1470, in fact dates from 1570, when the heydays of the movement were over. This resulted in a new preliminary inventory of the convents of the third order, listing over 160 convents following St. Francis' rule during a shorter or longer period. The inventory has been published with an introduction in the first volume of the new Jaarboek voor Middeleeuwse Geschiedenis (1998). Ninety percent of the convents were women's houses, and by far the most of them were located in the (young) cities of the Northern Netherlands. Especially in the county of Holland, the cities were more or less 'dominated' by these new semi-religious institutes.

It was clear from the start that the well-known Modern Devotion served as a catalyst for this wave of foundings of religious houses. One might even say that, next to the Windesheim chapter of Augustinian canons and canonesses and to the houses of Brethren and Sisters of the Common Life, the convents of tertiaries are a third mainstream in the great movement of the Modern Devotion; numerically speaking, in the Northern Netherlands they are even the most important one. It is probable that St. Francis' third rule, intended originally to govern the life of the laity, was adopted to place this movement of semi-religious (men and) women on a firm canonical footing, although it is not at all clear whether the pressure to do so came from without or from within (or both). From the start, the third order convents within the boundaries of the diocese enjoyed the privilege of having their own organization, detached from the first Franciscan Order: the Chapter of Utrecht. The existence of this chapter, together with the large number of houses, is a justification for restricting the investigation to the diocese.

The research program pursues several goals. Because of the bad condition and dispersion of the archival material of the houses, not much of them is known until now: this justifies the first part of the research, the compiling of a standard reference work - in the tradition of the monastica, e.g. the Monasticon Windeshemense - , in which a short description of each of the convents is given and the remains, whether archival, archeological or architectural, are signalled. The reason for making this reference work is that it will facilitate future research into the movement as a whole by presenting the material for making comparisons. Besides, it is intended as a tool in the administration and preservation of an important part of the Dutch cultural heritage. Many of the hand-written and early printed religious texts handed down from the late Middle Ages were originally intended for and preserved in exactly this type of houses. In addition in many cities remains of the convents' buildings are still present, whether above or beneath the soil.

A second branch of the research program tackles the semi-religious status of the convents and their inhabitants from a formal, juridical point of view, by preparing an edition plus commentary of the statutes, privileges and other prescriptive texts in use by the Third Order. A source of much confusion in the treatment of these convents by ecclesiastical and secular governments was exactly their semi-religious status: neither fully religious in the sense of canon law (monks and nuns), nor really laic. Another feature that deserves attention is the gradual progress in the direction of a truly monastic life. Studying the normative texts is a method of detecting the influences which contributed to this development and the relative originality of the movement from a canonical standpoint.

Prescriptions are not real life, however. Therefore, the third part of the program tackles the actual situation of women and their convents in an urban setting. An in-depth study will be made of the women's monasteries and convents in two cities, Leiden (in Holland) and Zwolle (in the IJssel region). This study also includes the religious houses which did not belong to the third order, to find answers to questions about the special features of the third order and the reasons for and consequences of adopting St. Francis' third rule. Subjects of investigation are the social background of the women, the support or lack of it from the city elite, the sometimes conflictuous sometimes harmonious relationships with town and other officials, the organization of pastoral care of the women in view of the shortage of available male religious, their property and the way they applied Geert Grote's strict prescriptions in this respect, etcetera. Ultimately, the question to be answered, both by this third part of the program and by the program as a whole, is the 'why' of the second religious women's movement.

The work on the monasticon is executed by a post-doctoral researcher attracted for the job, with support from the regular staff of the section of Medieval History. The other parts of the program will take the form of doctoral dissertations.


Antheun Janse (through the end of June, 1999): monasticon

Hildo van Engen : normative texts

Madelon van Luijk : women's convents in Leiden and Zwolle

Koen Goudriaan : monasticon, supervision