Elizabeth Makowski, Apostate Nuns in the Later Middle Ages, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, 2019. $99.00, ISBN 978-1-78327-426-0 (hardback) pp. x + 227
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Marvel, Baylor University, November 2019
In her latest monograph, Apostate Nuns in the Later Middle Ages, Elizabeth Makowski once again brings her expertise in medieval canon law and women religious together to explore the circumstances of and legal outcomes for women who fled the monastic life in late medieval Europe. Her time frame spans from 1300-1540, the period after the relevant canon law was codified following the twelfth century “renaissance in jurisprudence.” (p. vii) Makowski draws on sources such as the Benedictine rule, papal decrees Ne religioso vagandi and Periculoso and the bull Pastor Bonus, to outline the canonical procedures for dealing with apostasy. She pairs these theoretical sources with the details of numerous specific cases drawn from episcopal visitation records, papal petitions, royal writs, and narrative accounts to illustrate the ways in which these women and their superiors negotiated entry into religious life, apostasy, and return.
Makowski’s objective is to complicate the category of the “runaway nun” and to consider the various causes of apostasy beyond the scandalized tales popular in medieval literature and contemporary scholarship alike. Hers is the first monograph to do so. In addressing this gap, she notes that “the main reason why earlier generations of monastic historians seldom mentioned runaway nuns was that they seldom mentioned nuns at all.” (p. 5) Fortunately, this is no longer the case, as scholarship on medieval women religious has blossomed over the last several decades. While much of this scholarship focuses on life inside the convent, Makowski” concern here is to examine what happens to nuns outside the convent walls. She makes much use of Donald Logan’s Runaway Religious in Medieval England (1996) but adds to our knowledge of the particular circumstances faced by female religious apostates across Europe.
For example, both monks and nuns had the same status as religious persons under canon law and thus the consequences for apostasy, i.e. excommunication, were the same. The requirement to locate and return apostates and the proscribed penance upon their return were similar as well. However, differences emerge when considering particular motives and circumstances for leaving. The most significant difference lay in the fact that for nuns, there were no alternatives if they found the religious life too burdensome or unbearable. The privilege of ordination meant that dissatisfied monks could secure papal dispensation to leave the monastery and hold benefices, thus releasing them from the vows of obedience and poverty, though not chastity. For women religious, there was no such option and over the course of her study, Makowski illustrates how these gendered limitations impacted women’s decisions to leave their convents.
The book is divided into three parts covering the entry into, departure from, and restoration to monastic communities. “Part I: The Vowed Life” consists of the first chapter, “Spiritual Ideal and Legal Realities,” which surveys the vows and status of nuns under canon law. “Part II: Casting off the Habit of Religion” contains three chapters, each dealing with particular causes and motives for women who left their convents. Chapter 2, “Force and Fear,” describes cases in which women claimed to have been coerced into taking monastic vows as cause for their apostasy. In such cases, their legal status as apostates was challenged. In those cases in which they proved their vows had been made by coercion, or that they have never actually taken vows at all, they were released from excommunication and permitted to return to the outside world. Chapter 3, “Land, Lust, and Love” examines several cases of nuns who fled to be with lovers, husbands, or children. Perhaps more surprising are the examples in this chapter of women claiming their entry into religion was orchestrated in order to deny them an inheritance and who sought to reclaim their property and a worldly life. Chapter 4, “Diversions and Disasters” chronicles the cases of women who left their convents for what was intended to be a temporary absence, only to be delayed or diverted by war, famine, or disease to the point that their exit became permanent, and the nuns thus apostate.
The final section, “Part III: Prodigals Return,” examines what happened to women who returned to their convents, voluntarily or by force. Chapter 5, “Penitents and Penalties,” considers the ways in which women who attempted to return to their religious houses might be met with resistance. Again, this resistance could, in some cases, be supported by canon law. According to Makowski, “legislation dealing with the reintegration of apostates, like that which outlined canonical policy for compelling their return, had been systematically organized by the middle of the fourteenth century, but it remained for commentators on the canons to explicate the laws.” (p. 146) In this chapter, we again find a particular disadvantage for female religious communities. While they may have had the same legal right to refuse re-admittance to an apostate, the burden of the original house to finance the transfer and upkeep of a nun at a new house may have been more than a poor convent could provide. The sixth chapter, “Recidivists and Renegades,” deals with the particular complications of repeated apostasy and the tensions that could arise between a returned nun and her prioress or abbess, her fellow sisters, and the bishop responsible for restoring her to the fold at all costs.
In several places, Makowski reminds us of the importance that dress played in determining status in the medieval world. Taking the habit was not merely a metaphor, but a very real act of dressing the part, and in doing so a woman who wore the habit of a nun might be considered as such whether she had taken formal vows or not. Similarly, a woman who discarded her habit outside of the cloister walls might be considered an apostate, whether or not she had intended to actually renounce her vows. Finally, prodigals might be prohibited from wearing the veil of a professed nun upon their return, a visible reminder of their penitent status.
In many ways this latest work is consistent with previous books by Makowski, in which she bridges the gap between religious ideals for women and their lived reality not by merely observing the difference between the two, but by explaining how the church authorities and women themselves legally navigated these inconsistencies. To be sure, there were times women simply ignored their vows and fled their religious life, taking their sentences of excommunication along with it. But there were legal means for departure as well, and bishops, clerics, commentators, lawyers, husbands, and brothers assisted women in interpreting and applying these legal tools to their specific cases in order to gain their freedom from the convent, or gain them access to return. Throughout the book, Makowski highlights women’s agency in seeking their place in the world. At the same time, she illustrates the limitations on this agency, noting that most often the women who were successful were those who had the help of men. This book will be of interest to scholars of medieval women, religion, canon law, and pastoral care.