Men's Houses, Women's Houses: The Relationship between the Sexes in Twelfth Century Monasticism

by Constance H. Berman



It goes without saying that there was a relationship between the sexes in most parts of twelfth-century life, but it is generally assumed that the Church, and in particular the monastery, were exceptional places —that therein existed a world of sex-segregation. Traditionally, it has been thought that in this period after the Gregorian reform, the new purity that monks and other religious men sought for their lives allowed them little contact with women. It has generally been held that because only a few preachers and reformers responded to, or at least wrote about, the desire among women for a purified religious life, that their interest was less intense than that of men.1 Scholars looking at its surviving literature have tended to see the period as one in which female participation in monasticism lessened, citing the misogynist tone in the letters and legislation of members of the new religious groups such as the Cistercians or the Praemonstratensians.2 However, the most recent assessments suggest that the number of new religious houses for women in this period was significant and that women were not the negligible factor in the eleventh- and twelfthcentury reform movement that they have sometimes been thought.3

It is the contention of this paper that the participation of women and their ties to men's houses within the religious reform dating to the late eleventh and twelfth centuries have been understated by historians, partially because of our traditional tendency to study the history of religious men or women within the context of particular congregations and orders —a bias which is built into the ways in which major archival collections are organized and in which studies of monasticism are published. If one is willing to look beyond the documents for a single religious order, however, and if one considers location and early patrons of male and female communities within a region, hitherto unnoticed relationships between male and female religious and their communities sometimes emerge. Indeed, a careful scrutiny of such evidence suggests that women's houses in this period were even sometimes predecessors of those for men. Perhaps the typical methodologies of looking at communities of only one order, or looking at male communities first and then regarding female communities as satellites around them, or of looking at houses of one or the other sex exclusively, all tend to distort the reality of eleventh- and twelfth-century religious reform which turns out to have been less sex-segregated than is often thought. Indeed, if one considers findings for history of early Christianity and the barbarian period, there is considerable reason for thinking that lay women, women religious, and women's religious communities were equally or more important in the spread of Christianity than were their male counterparts.4 One might hypothesize that women in the post-Gregorian reform period, as they were pushed out of the secular church, had an increasing impact on the monastic church. Thus, an effective approach to studying women's part in the monastic fervor of the high middle ages might be to look first at how females—as patrons and founders of male and female houses and as members of female communities needing to have priests or canons around them to care for their souls—influenced the foundation of monastic houses for both sexes, and only then to look at how those women eventually fit into the institutional framework of orders and congregations.5

In attempting to show how such a starting point might affect our assessment of women's participation in twelfth-century monasticism, this paper will examine relationships between three religious communities for women founded in southern France in the twelfth century, and three communities of Cistercian men with which they had ties. From these examples one can contend that there were much more complex relationships between monks and female patronesses, between monks and nuns, between the houses of monks and those of nuns, than the official picture of the early Cistercian order presents. Undoubtedly the examples which are discussed here: the women's communities of Nonenque, Lespinasse, and Le Vignogoul, with their counterparts: the Cistercian men's houses of Silvanès, Grandselve, and Valmagne respectively, reflect ties which existed between other male and female communities which have thus far gone unremarked and in many cases are probably undocumented. 6

Any effort to discuss relationships between men's and women's monastic communities, when it relates to Cistercians of the twelfth century, encounters problems specific to the early history of that order. This is a period for which contact between women religious and the Cistercians has often been denied. Until recently, historians contended that the Cistercian order did not accept women until the last decade of the twelfth century. Moreover, it was generally believed that most entrances of women into the Cistercian practice were a result of the admissions en masse of transformed Praemonstratensian canonesses— the canons of Prémontré having allowed women into their congregation initially, but then ousting them in the late twelfth century because of the burden of providing them priests and administrators, as well as to avoid scandal.7 This model has allowed historians of the Cistercian order to deny the presence of women with. in Cistercian practice during the early "Golden Age" of Cistercian monasticism, and to admit their presence in the order only in a period for which those historians are forced to admit that decadence had already begun to set in; there is consequently a self-reinforcing tendency to see women as symptomatic of decadence.8

This picture of the Cistercian early order and its "Golden Age" (without women) is based on faulty considerations of the order's early legislative documents and is belied by much of the surviving local archival evidence. Although it is true that some of the most famous foundations for Cistercian women were made during the thirteenth century, often with direct intervention by papal and secular authority, the entrance of women into Cistercian practice occurred much earlier.9 The twelfth century, although not nearly as well documented, can now be shown to have been as important as the thirteenth for the participation of women in the fervor of the reform movement and for the influx of female communities into some sort of relationship with communities of Cistercian men. Indeed, the Cistercian reality of the twelfth century was probably similar to that of the Praemonstratensians; early Cistercian monks and abbots, like the regular canons, probably did encourage women to practice their observances and participate in the benefits of the order (such as tithe exemption), although the General Chapter and chroniclers of the order, as they projected the organization of the second half of the twelfth century back onto its earlier events, seem to have officially ignored that participation.10 Unfortunately, particularly for the first half of the twelfth century, the local evidence is limited and open to a number of interpretations. Crucial information is not necessarily found among files of Cistercian documents. Moreover, because it comes from local archives rather than from the official Burgundian records of the order, it has often been dismissed as aberrant.11

Whatever the order's official position on women at the time, the existence in twelfth-century southern France of communities of women which had some tie to Cistercian houses for men is clear and is documented by local archival evidence. In addition to the three houses of Nonenque, Lespinasse, and Le Vignogoul discussed below in detail, there were, for instance, several other communities of women tied to Cistercian monasteries in the region near Narbonne and Montpellier. These included the house of Rieunette, founded in 1162, whose first abbess had earlier been a donor to the nearby Cistercian monks of Villelongue, or that of Netlieu founded in 1195, or that of St. Felix of Montseau also founded in the twelfth century, although generally listed as being Benedictine until the thirteenth, as well as the slightly later foundation at Les Olieux.12 In the marquisate of Provence there was a female community at Bonlieu and another at La Vernaison. The first was described in 1291 as the daughter-house of the abbey of Cistercian men at Aiguebelle; it continued until the fourteenth century when it was taken over by a male community.13 Were these and the many other twelfth-century houses for Cistercian women throughout France14 simply aberrations?

It is not only that local evidence shows the contrary, but the denial by historians that there were twelfth-century Cistercian houses for women is based on weak arguments from the Burgundian legislative documents, on faulty dating or interpretation of the early Cistercian legislation, and on mistaken assumptions about the character of the early order. For instance, historians have denied that women were part of the twelfth-century order because "early" (and unreliably dated) statutes forbade the blessing of nuns,15 or because women were not mentioned in the order's legislation until the 1190s and then in a "negative" way; in the latter case, historians have tended to assume that the refusal by the General Chapter to compel women on a specific issue constituted a denial that women were part of the order.16 In general, these arguments assume that the twelfth-century legislative records of the order are complete and accurately dated, when they are neither.17

Moreover, despite assumptions to the contrary, the early order was not made up of identical units all in strict conformity to the edicts of the General Chapter. The legislation of that Chapter must be considered a set of guidelines towards which individual houses aimed, not binding or wholly enforceable law, and while consistency of organization may have been the ideal, it was rarely the reality.18 The monolithic view of the early Cistercians which we tend to take, particularly for the twelfth century, cannot be verified in local records. The conformity on any issue which we have tended to project back onto those early monks in their "Golden Age," did not exist.19 Thus, particularly for the early period, that for which the order's surviving legislative documents are faulty and sparse and its organization weakest, local archival records may be more accurate than the order's legislation regarding almost any aspect of monastic practice. It must be accepted that there were discrepancies between ideal and reality in Cistercian practice for houses of men. If this is so, discrepancies are even more likely between theory and practice for women's houses or with regard to ties between houses of the two sexes. This was demonstrated by Catherine Boyd some years ago with regard to the Cistercian nuns of Rifreddo in northern Italy and the ownership of tithes, where the evidence from local archives was much more reliable than recourse to the order's idealizing "statutes."20 Such relationships between early houses for women (whether Cistercian or not) and houses for men which eventually became Cistercian seem most likely to have occurred for southern French communities having roots in the eremitical tradition of reform coming from western and central France, rather than among houses founded de novo by the Cistercians. That western French reform, which is associated with Robert of Arbrissel, Gerald of Salles, and Bernard of Tiron, was extremely important in the spread of what would eventually be the Cistercian order in southern France.21 That reform movement much more than the parallel movement of monastic reform in Burgundy (from which the Cistercian order originated) encompassed the religious desires and interests of women as well as of men. There were a number of houses of nuns associated with western French reformers; not just Robert of Arbrissel, but Gerald of Salles, Bernard of Tiron, Vidal of Savigny, and Stephen of Obazine all seem to have founded communities for women.22 As a result, it is not surprising that communities for men founded in southern France which were inspired by such western French reformers also took an interest in women's religious aspirations or were tied to similar communities for women.

The most famous of such reform houses for women in western France was Fontevrault, founded by the wandering-preacher, reformer, hermit, Robert of Arbrissel. Fontevrault, was not simply a great aristocratic house for contemplative women; it was the inspiration for an entire order of houses of "Fontevristes" including a number of such houses in southern France; such "daughters" of Fontevrault have, unfortunately, been much less studied than the famous "mother-abbey."23 In addition, the "Fontevriste" pattern—houses founded by the dominant ladies of the region for female contemplatives with secondary communities of priests and lay brothers attached—describes many other new communities of religious women having no specific tie to Fontevrault, but like Bellecombe and Nonenque discussed below, simply called Benedictine.24 Some of the latter, as described above, seem to have been transformed in the thirteenth century into abbeys and priories of Cistercian nuns, while houses which had clear ties to Fontevrault were more likely to avoid Cistercian affiliation (perhaps needing that order less in terms of protection and tithe exemption).

Turning to the specific houses in question here, the clearest example of a community of women having a close relationship to a Cistercian house for men from the time of foundation is a case from the southern Rouergue: the convent of Nonenque which became associated with the monks of Silvanès. In this instance the house of nuns at Nonenque was elevated in 1251 to the status of Cistercian abbey and may have been considered a Cistercian priory from some earlier date. Although the I 160s chronicle of Silvanès claims that the house of Nonenque had been founded by Silvanès, this is one of many instances of that chronicle's unreliability.25 Both Nonenque and Silvanès had pre-Cistercian roots and, as explained below, the foundation of a community of nuns at Nonenque was at least contemporary with and may have preceded the foundation of a men's house at Silvanies; at the outset it may also have been the stronger community, in both economic and political terms. In the twelfth century Nonenque also had more important pastoral rights and granges on the Causse de Larzac than Silvanès that Nonenque gradually fell under the control of Silvanès may well have been a result of the monks' need for access to pasture and Nonenque's need for protection from increasing competition coming from military religious orders for access to pasture. Nonenque also had, much more than Silvanies, received very important gifts at the outset—for instance, the large grange of Lioujas on the Causse Corntal north of Rodez, which came from Ermengarde of Creyssels, Countess of Rodez, who entered the community in 1170.26 Ermengarde's special interest in Nonenque probably derives from the fact that her family came from the immediate area of that convent: their castle of Creyssels was located in the southern Rouergue, not far from Millau.27

As is so often the case, there is considerably more surviving material concerning the early history of the men's community than for the women's. As far as both the chronicle of Silvanies and that monastery's cartulary tell us, Silvanès was founded c. 1132 by a group of hermits, probably inspired by western French reform movements. They were led by a former knight from the region of Lodeve named Pons de Leras who had abandoned his life of violence after undergoing a religious conversion at the urging of his wife; he sold his goods, did penance before the bishop, made material amends for past wrongdoing, and persuaded his wife and children to enter religious houses. Then he undertook a pilgrimage with his followers, and finally founded a hermitage at Silvanès. The Silvanès chronicle describes his settlement there, the decision with his followers to adopt a rule, and the group's rejection by the Carthusians, who sent them to the Cistercian house of Mazan in the Vivarais, where some of the group seem to have done a novitiate. By c. 1138 their community had been transformed into a Cistercian abbey. Out of humility, Pons de Leras remained a conversus, but he seems to have acted as cellarer of the community and was involved in at least several of its early land acquisitions.28

Much less information survives for the early history of Nonenque. The community there appears to have been founded by local patrons with the aid of "Benedictine" nuns from Bellecombe in the Velay.29 Although eventually developing ties to Silvanès, it was recognized as an independent community of women and not as an appendage of Silvanès, for example, in a papal exemption from tithes granted by Alexander III c. 1162.30 The earliest surviving dated document concerning Nonenque is found in the Silvanies cartulary. It records that in 1139 the monks of Silvanès had been given land in the valley of Elnonenca.31 The fact that this charter describes land conveyed as the valley of Elnonenca or Nun's valley, implies the presence of nuns there already at the time the charter was written-that is, prior to 1139. Thus, careful consideration of such local archives as survive suggests not only that the Silvanès chronicle that Nonenque was a foundation de novo as a dependency of Silvanies is simply untrue, but also that this "Benedictine" foundation for women had been made prior to the foundation of the nearby hermitage of Silvanies. Indeed, rather than seeing Nonenque as dependent on Silvanès from foundation, it is perhaps more appropriate to contend that it was the community of women at Nonenque who tolerated the foundation of a hermitage in their neighborhood. It is even possible that the story of Pons de Leras' conversion actually masks the transformation into a separate community of what had originally been a college of canons or priests originally attached to Norfenque (like those of Fontevrault, or at houses like Roceray in Anjou).32 While Nonenque's mother-house of Bellecombe apparently remained Benedictine, Nonenque was brought under Silvanès' control, but despite claims of the Silvanès chronicle, only a considerable time after Silvanès' incorporation into the Cistercian order.

The transformation of such a community of priests attached to a house for women into a community of Cistercian men is even more likely to have occurred in the other cases discussed here, for instance, that of Lespinasse and Grandselve. In this second example, the community of women was one of Fontevristes at Lespinasse, located a few kilometers north of Toulouse on the right bank of the Garonne River; that of men was what would become the Cistercian house of monks at Grandselve, located not far to the west of Lespinasse on the opposite side of the Garonne from the women's community, but with many properties on either side of the Garonne.33 Documents for Lespinasse tell us that a house of nuns in the order of Fontevrault was founded on March 12, 1114 by Philippa, Countess of Toulouse, wife of William VII count of Poitou and Ninth Duke of Aquitaine.34 The foundation of Grandselve remains in obscurity, although Grandselve also claimed a foundation date of 1114, and its foundation is generally attributed to Gerald of Salles, an early associate and follower of Robert of Arbrissel. Unfortunately, the bulk of the recorded contracts for Grandselve are dated to the period after it was incorporated into the Cistercian order in the mid- 1140s. The earliest surviving document concerning Grandselve is a letter concerning a group of hermits in the forest of Grandselve, who were commended to the king of England by a bishop of Toulouse; slightly later, possibly in 1117, there was a grant to those hermits by the bishop of that city of revenues from nearby churches for their support.35

The foundations at Lespinasse and Grandselve were thus both apparently made during the period when William of Aquitaine occupied Toulouse in the name of his wife Philippa and before their divorce of 1115, after which she seems to have retired to Lespinass.36 Late eleventh-century documents in the Trencavel cartulary record Robert of Arbrissel among witnesses to a feudal oath received by Philippa and thus confirm her relationship with the western French reformers; other accounts suggest that Robert enjoyed a stay at her "court."37 Gifts originally made by Philippa to the community of Lespinasse were confirmed to it by a later count of Toulouse in 1150. Count Alphonse Jourdain similarly appears to have made or confirmed gifts to Grandselve.38 This parallelism of confirmations by her successor suggests that Philippa was also involved in the foundation of Grandselve by Robert's follower and companion Gerald of Salle.39 Indeed, it is possible, in keeping with the tradition of Fontevrault, to which Lespinasse was definitely affiliated, that the community of nuns there had originally been a "double house" with an associated community of priests and lay brothers which eventually developed into the community at Grandselve. It is at least suggestive that the two foundations were not only adjacent, but claim foundation dates of the same year, probably had many of the same patrons, and were both associated with western French reformers interested in such "double houses." Among Grandselve documents, Lespinasse is mentioned at least once and further prosopographical study of donors and witnesses in the acts for these houses might confirm or clarify an early relationship as well as providing information on its continuation.40 Unlike Nonenque, Lespinasse never fell under Cistercian control, but remained tied to Fontevrault.41

A third pair of religious communities for men and women which eventually became very closely associated but which heretofore have not been linked in their origins, was the community of nuns at le Vignogoul in Languedoc and that of monks at Valmagne, located nearby. Despite opinion which calls Le Vignogoul a community of Benedictine nuns in the twelfth century and only ties it to Vamagne in the mid-thirteenth,42 these two houses, like Nonenque and Silvanès and probably Lespinasse and Grandselve as well, had probably been closely associated since foundation. Although there are a number of unresolved questions regarding their early years, both Le Vignogoul and Valmagne probably had been founded by western French reformers or their followers in the south. Valmagne was a daughter of Ardorel in the Albigeois.43 Le Vignogoul was apparently founded by 1130, was originally called Bonloc and was dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene; the date of the name change is not clear and surviving early charters are uncatalogued and inaccessible at present.44 By mid-thirteenth century both houses were Cistercian, for the community of nuns at Bonloc or Le Vignogoul was elevated to the status of Cistercian abbey in 1246.45

It was the Countess Cecilia of Provence, wife of Bernard Aton IV of Carcassonne and Nimes, who had made important gifts to the early hermit-monks of Ardorel in the early 1130s or before and although accounts often attribute its foundation to her son Raymond Trencavel, it was presumably also Cecilia who was most involved in the foundation of Valmagne by Ardorel. Early documents preserved in Valmagne's late twelfth-century cartulary record conveyances to the monks in the territory of Veyrac and near the port of Meze, where Cecilia is known to have held property.46 Moreover, it was only after Cecilia's death in mid-twelfth century and only after a certain amount of hesitation that Valmagne was incorporated by the Cistercians, probably in 1155. The hesitation and difficulties over incorporation have been explained as a result of Cecilia's preference for the Fontevrault tradition over the Cistercians.47 It is quite possible that Cecilia had met Robert of Arbrissel himself, for the Trencavel cartulary records Cecilia's husband Bernard Aton's presence in the court of Philippa of Toulouse in a charter to which that reformer was witness.48 The fact that Bonloc was dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene is also suggestive of an interest in or relationship to Fontevrault, which was also dedicated to that saint. Thus, despite the availability of documentation, it seems likely that Cecilia was the founder of that house for women at Bonloc-Le Vignogoul along with Ardorel and Valmagne. At Le Vignogoul with Cecilia and perhaps with Guillelma of Montpellier, as was the case at Nonenque with Ermengarde of Creyssels and at Lespinasse with Philippa of Toulouse, there was thus a strong female patroness, one of the "viragos" described by Huyghebaert,49 involved in the foundation of the female community, if not promoting what may have originally been a "double community." For Le Vignogoul, at least, the record is not closed, for further documents will eventually become available. Unlike at Lespinasse, however, the tie of the female community to Fontevrault was not retained, perhaps because of differing political conditions in Languedoc.50

Whereas the earliest relationship between Le Vignogoul and Valmagne remains obscure, it is clear that Valmagne did have ties by the late twelfth century to another religious house in the vicinity, a hospital for brothers and sisters under the direction of a female "procuratrix." This was the otherwise undocumented hospital of St. Martin which is mentioned in a contract in the Valmagne cartulary dated 1197.51 That hospital was under the direction of a certain Guillelma, presumably Guillelma of Montpellier, Cecilia's daughter-in-law, wife of Bernard Aton V of Nimes and daughter of William VI of Montpellier. Was this hospital perhaps the house of lay brothers and sisters associated with a double or triple house in the tradition of Fontevrault? Whatever the earliest relationships among these three communities of St. Martin, Valmagne, and Le Vignogoul, they seem to have grown out of the western French reform movement encompassing Fontevrault, which in southern France was gradually engulfed by the Cistercians.

In the three examples discussed in this paper, female communities having ties to or similarities to the "double community" of Fontevrault were made as early as, or even earlier than the nearby communities of men which eventually became Cistercian. Whatever the order or affiliation of those female communities in the twelfth century, it is clear that the three houses of Cistercian men discussed here had close ties to such women's houses even during the twelfth century. Moreover, the surviving evidence confirms that these women's houses were not simply satellites founded by houses of Cistercian men. Instead these foundations for women adhering to reform practices occurred very early. They were entities in themselves because they had the backing of those powerful local women in the twelfth-century Midi who were founders of communities of both sexes. The examples discussed here also show that reform houses for men and for women could survive side by side without scandal even in the "Golden Age" of Cistercian monasticism, when the white monks were purported not to have concerned themselves with women. Moreover, the association with women's houses did not bring about disrepute or decadence for the Cistercian men.

Whether one can say definitely that any or all the pairs of houses discussed here were originally "double communities" on the model of Fontevrault can probably never be resolved. The evidence, however suggestive, is too sparse. One interpretation of the little evidence available, however, is that these were female communities from which the male communities eventually sprang. It does seem probable that if such relationships were consistently searched for in surviving local documents for this and other regions, that more such pairs of houses, where women's needs for communities of priests may well have been the impetus for the later development of a community of men, would be uncovered, and that many such twelfth-century female communities can be found to have been at the origins of the so-called foundations of Cistercian women of the thirteenth century. The interpretation of evidence for the houses discussed here suggests a new direction for additional research.