Elizabeth Makowski, “A Pernicious Sort of Woman”: Quasi-Religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages Catholic University of America Press, Washington D.C., USA, 2005.

Elizabeth Makowski, “A Pernicious Sort of Woman”: Quasi-Religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages Catholic University of America Press, Washington D.C., USA,  2005,  ISBN 0-8132-1392-4 (hardback), pages xxxiii + 170.


Reviewed by Rosa MacGinley, Golding Centre for Women’s History, Theology and Spirituality, Australian Catholic University, McAuley at Banyo Campus, Brisbane

Elizabeth Makowski’s earlier study, Canon Law and Cloistered Women: Periculoso and its Commentators 1298-1545 (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1997) dealt with those women recognised in both canon and civil law as religious, a status attained through pronouncing solemn public vows of religion. Through this, they gained rights and responsibilities guaranteed under both legal systems. In the above study, Makowski explores the legal situation of those women, described variously as mulieres religiosae, quasi-religious or extra-regulars. Though living celibate lives, often in community, they did not belong legally to the category of moniales or canonically recognised nuns. If they made vows (or practical promises) to observe celibacy or compliance with house rules while living in community, these vows were described as simple or private; they had no legal effects and could not be enforced by law. The person concerned was free to marry on leaving the community and to hold and inherit property while a member, rights which Makowski indicates were respected in the various legal pronouncements she traces. (These understandings held through the varying historical modes of  ‘quasi-religious’ or ‘extra-regular’ women, but became more canonically defined when the latter began to obtain Roman approbation from early in the 19th century.)

As Makowski makes clear, their commitment and life-style could and frequently did cause confusion, especially as they usually adopted a uniform mode of dress. The best known today were the beguines, found chiefly in the Low Countries, but they had many other manifestations: beatas in Spain, bizzoche and mantelle in Italy, and the different tertiary communities attached to the new mendicant Orders such as Franciscans and Dominicans; there were also the secular canonesses and the later medieval Sisters of the Common life. Though described by one noted canonist as ‘a pernicious sort of woman’  – and some attained legal notoriety for their deviance – most were respected and valued members of medieval society as they engaged in a variety of relief work for both the  poor and the sick. Recent medieval studies show that their presence and activity, in their various local manifestations, were widespread. (See, for example, Roberta Gilchrist’s Contemplation and Action: The Other Monasticism, Leicester University Press, 1995. She uses the term ‘monasticism’ in the broad sense of a religiously committed celibate life-style.) They were to reappear in the post-Reformation era in the numerous simple-vow congregations dedicated chiefly to teaching, social care and nursing. The non-enclosure of these groups was both legally and socially understood.

Makowski’s book is essentially a study of medieval law with frequent quotation of texts and cases. What she stresses is that the scene is highly varied and that categorical statements (that, for example, all beguines were summarily condemned) are not borne out by actual legal decisions of the time. She calls for further research which, she writes, ‘embracing some of the thousands of extant legal manuscripts and printed books (not to mention local archival material), will result in a view of late-medieval religious culture that is even more highly nuanced than that now offered by the best recent scholarship’. (p.142)