Over the years, I’ve smiled at some of the misconceptions written about the women of important medieval families, the Church, as well as how life in a convent is portrayed.
At the time, most women of the early titled families were considered only good for two things. They could marry someone who would increase their father’s position, holdings (property), influence or – they could pray. That was it.
Some of the clergy at the time even insisted that St. Augustine in his correspondence to St. Jerome, wrote a boy received a soul at the moment of conception and a girl didn’t get one until six weeks after conception. Disrespect for women didn’t stop there. She couldn’t attend a religious service after the birth of a child until she’d been ‘churched’ and if she died in child birth, she couldn't be buried in concentrated ground. Many believed she also wasn't smart enough to learn too much. She was considered inferior by many clergy and just a step above animals.
If a woman didn’t want to marry, or was widowed and had no desire to remarry or couldn't for some reason, she got to pray. Of course, she couldn’t stay in her home; she was sent to a a special place. The houses for these women, ‘convents’ were separate from the monasteries, sometimes miles away, and in almost all cases they were governed by a man, usually a priest. It wasn’t until later that women governed themselves. Leaving the convent and caring for the sick, the poor, the infirm didn’t really begin until the late 1600's.
Now, when a ‘virgin’ went to the convent, she was encouraged to take solemn vows, “take the veil”. She was called a nun and she couldn’t leave the convent, couldn’t talk to anyone but the other nuns nor could she see any family or friends. Her life consisted of fasting and praying, although she might be required to help with some menial tasks needed for survival, like food preparation. When widows came, they also accepted that kind of life. Late in the 1200's, a woman(usually a widow, or a woman whose husband decided to go to a monastery) could take ‘simple vows’, hence ‘sisters’. Their vows weren’t as binding and allowed a woman to associate with young girls who came to the convent to be educated. The education was not much more than learning to read the bible and their prayer books and in some cases, simple arithmetic. Eventually they were allowed to leave to minister to people who lived around the convent.
The contribution of property or money to admit a woman to a convent and keep her there, didn’t come along until later.
Oh, it’s fun to stretch the truth in fiction, to glamorize the life of one of these women. However, medieval women in convents weren’t considered brilliant managers, many had only rudimentary skills in reading and writing, nor would they have been able to govern a large estate until much later in history, whether they had the skills or not. No, most of the women of the time didn’t have much of a life, whether they were sent to a convent or married. There are of course a very few exceptions, but they were few and far between.
I like to write about the women of that time period, and yes, I like to portray these women as much more than they were allowed to be, but I sure wouldn’t want to go back in time and live then.