Where Did Catholic Nuns Come From?

Many of us are watching with high emotion as the Leadership Conference of Roman Catholic nuns does battle with the Roman Catholic bishops. I happened to run across a description of where Roman Catholic nuns came from while reading Norman Cantor’s Civilization of the Middle Ages, and it wasn’t what I thought. It’s probably not what anyone thought, so here we go…

I thought, probably not unlike many others, that individual women of privilege took up the veil in order to avoid marriages or other patriarchal impositions. I thought that other women — probably with personal gumption but probably without social connections pressing down on them — joined in. I saw it as personal decisions by individual women standing up against their culture.

Cantor agrees that Benedictine convents were founded by women of privilege trying to escape marriages they didn’t want. But here’s the trick: their culture was all in favor of it. Their culture was not Roman-heritage Italian, but Franco-Germanic, that is, the invaders who took over as the Roman Empire crumbled. Germanic society was organized on a more collegial and ad-hoc basis, with electoral offices even for kings, and smaller groups entering and leaving confederations according to what worked. In these societies, women had much more individual stature. Unlike the Roman imperial culture to their west, these Ostrogoths held to Arian rather than Constantinian Christianity.

The Ostrogoths made confederations with Romans along the imperial border, by which they increased their wealth through trade and a few new industrial skills. These relatively peaceful strategies generated enough largesse to pass among their own allies further to the east, from whom, in return the border Ostrogoths collected certain taxes. As the Roman state collapsed, the Ostrogoths took over northern Italy — Milan, Ravenna, Venice. As with today’s liberals,  these “conquerors” (not to be confused with a later group, the Vandals, who were not Arian and not nice) declined to impose their culture on the Roman aristocracy (which was neo-Platonic pagan), refused to confiscate enough of the old estates to cripple their power — and thereby were themselves quickly overrun by the much more numerous Franks from their immediate north.

Ah, the French… well, not quite yet. These Franks were a Germanic heritage tribe whose primary distinction was a desire to colonize (take over land for themselves and their families), but whose political culture was still Germanic. (Come to think of it, France still has a pretty strong emphasis on regional pride and powerful women…)

But there still were Italians in Italy, so the Franks needed a strategy to pacify them. The Italians, however, had given up on secular government (apparently still do) and cast their lot with the rapidly-bureaucratizing Roman Catholic Church.  This worked pretty well for Frankish men, who could easily get baptized and go to mass. For free-minded Frankish women, however, the Church was a problem.  As it built itself according to the dictates of Pope Leo I and Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, theological consolidation rejected any gnostic or heretical sect which accepted the stature of women as equally worthy of bearing God’s message to humanity.  There were men as well as women who believed in human spiritual equality, and I doubt all their conversions were joyous occasions.

And what about their womenfolk?

Here’s where I nearly shot out of my chair: Cantor says Frankish families of wealth worked as one — women and the men who loved them — to set up convent culture.  The men wanted their women to have the choice of female-led, service-focused lives.  It was not a rebellion by individual women against their fathers, uncles and brothers, but by well-beloved women enjoying support from their fathers, uncles and brothers. The Frankish men freely funded the work for which we love these women still: housing the homeless, sheltering the friendless, feeding the hungry, nursing the sick, educating children, teaching and modeling a covenant of community care for everyone.

So when we, today, admire Roman Catholic women standing up against the bishops, we join their long-ago families and friends in a well-documented cultural practice. Conversely, when the bishops attempt to shut these women down, they are also perpetuating only one side in a long-standing war theological war. Leo, Ambrose and Gregory, along with their successors, call out one interpretation of the long-ago controversial scripture (“This is Peter”); Roman Catholic women — proto-Protestants in this case — for just about as long, have been reading the Bible differently.

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since the 5th and 6th centuries of the Common Era, but some of it, apparently, still tastes of its original springs.

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