Laurence Lux-Sterritt, Redefining Female Religious Life: French Ursulines and English Ladies in Seventeenth-Century Catholicism, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005.

Laurence Lux-Sterritt, Redefining Female Religious Life: French Ursulines and English Ladies in Seventeenth-Century Catholicism, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, ISBN: 0754637166 (Hardback), pages 244.

Reviewed by: Caroline Bowden, Royal Holloway, University of London, August 2006.

Lux-Sterritt in her introduction states her purpose: a nuanced interpretation of female religious life in the seventeenth century and in particular the relationship between the cloistered tradition and uncloistered apostolic orders who engaged in teaching and catechising. She avoids passing judgement on the validity of the religious life for women. Instead she seeks to understand the motivation of the founders of two religious orders: the English Mary Ward Institute and the French Ursulines, both of them uncloistered congregations following a mixed life as an act of self-abnegation. Lux-Sterritt argues that there is no question that establishing these foundations should be considered an act intended to challenge gender roles within the Catholic Church.

The methodology of the study, that is comparing foundations from two different nations is not only (as far as I know) unique in studies of this period but also an ambitious task in a relatively short volume. However Lux-Sterritt’s clarity of style and structure leads to clear arguments and analysis and she provides significant insights for her readers. Both these orders were founded to meet challenges. Devout English Catholics were driven into exile in Flanders and Northern France by a succession of repressive regimes and in France the Catholic majority were challenged in many areas by an active Protestant minority. It is particularly instructive comparing an organisation like the Mary Ward Sisters who were international in their outreach but primarily English in their early membership with an organisation like the Ursulines whose membership was French and who aimed to serve their religious purpose in France.

The comparative methodology also allows Lux-Sterritt to consider the different responses of the founders to the policies of the ecclesiastical hierarchies in dealing with what they perceived as challenges to canon law. The decrees of the Council of Trent of the 1560s, re-imposing claustration on all existing houses for women and any new foundations, meant that all women religious should follow a contemplative life of work, prayer and study: it was not an uncontroversial decision. There were alternative forms of religious life for women who did not wish to be enclosed, for instance ‘beatas’ who lived together without taking vows. However both Mary Ward and the Ursulines wanted active religious communities of vowed women.

The French Ursulines whose first house was opened in Avignon in 1592 by Françoise de Bermond spread rapidly throughout France over the next twenty years. They worked with and taught girls in the community. They had by 1612 received royal recognition but they had also altered their way of life and their first convent had agreed to become enclosed. This was gradually followed by their other houses. The Institute of Mary was founded by Mary Ward on the Jesuit model to engage with the mission of recovery in England. They attracted followers at every house that was established from St Omer in 1609 to Pressburg and Prague in 1628. The movement was controversial almost from the beginning, Mary Ward’s detractors gained ground and by 1631 the Institute was dissolved by the Papacy. Mary Ward had refused to accept enclosure but at the same time she wished to take religious vows. In spite of the loss of the Institute in its original form, the schools managed to survive and out of these the order was able to re-grow, theoretically distinct from the original one founded by Mary Ward. Thus the Ursulines and the Mary Ward Sisters reacted very differently to the orders of the Catholic hierarchy.

Lux-Sterritt argues convincingly that her comparative approach enables her to study the impact of different religious and political circumstances on the foundations. Although the Ursulines were prepared to cooperate with the authorities and live enclosed, nevertheless they did not entirely abandon their original intentions to work with lay girls. Founders such as Marguerite de Vigier showed themselves adept at negotiating ways round the restrictions imposed on them: for instance they still managed to establish day schools for poor girls within the convent walls and convents further away from the eye of the bishops were freer to teach openly. Some of their number went to Canada as missionaries. This ability to adapt to circumstances allowed them to grow and to enhance their reputation to become a major force in women’s religious life in France in the seventeenth century.

Mary Ward was not prepared to compromise her intentions to fit in with the expectations of the authorities regarding appropriate behaviour for women religious. According to contemporary sources she was careful not to usurp the priestly function when catechising women: having completed their task the sisters stepped back to permit the priest to baptise, hear confession, or give mass. The activities of the Sisters in England became the subject of increasingly virulent attacks both in manuscript and print from male detractors among them secular priests, Benedictines, Jesuits and from Protestants mostly notable among them the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lux-Sterritt draws attention to this opposition but underestimates the full extent of the vehemence of the attacks, the language of which gave rise to a plethora of nicknames for the sisters: among them ‘galloping girls’ and ‘Jesuitesses’.  In the highly charged political atmosphere in the London of the 1620s, women religious who appeared to be operating successfully and independently were considered deeply threatening on a number of levels. Michael Questier’s current research into this period will allow further analysis of this significant decade which explains why Mary Ward was not able to withstand or counter the opposition building up against her in Rome and elsewhere.

Further chapters consider daily life in the convents, explaining how these new vocations combining the active and the contemplative worked in practice.  Lux-Sterritt also considers the reasons for the success of the new orders in attracting vocations and their contribution to the spirit of the counter–reformation. An important final chapter considers the nature of the vocation of the women who joined the two orders in their early days. Lux-Sterritt seeks to explain their motivation for joining unrecognised teaching communities risking disapproval from their families. Her argument contrary to previous (un-named) historians is that rather than being considered an act of empowerment joining should be seen as the ultimate act of self-denial. The case is powerfully made, supported with evidence from autobiographical and other contemporary writings. The sisters saw their lives as teachers as more arduous than the contemplative religious life as exemplified in the writing of Marie Guyart about the hardships experienced in the course of her work in Canada. Lux-Sterritt concludes by pointing to the significance of the new orders who started a conceptual shift in attitudes towards the religious life for women and reconciled the active and contemplative in the classroom. The whole work is a fine contribution to a field which is attracting increasing interest.