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Get thee from the nunnery

An altarpiece in St Martin’s Cathedral, Utrecht, defaced in the 16th-century

“I do not owe you obedience and I will not obey you … I am in a good, pious, blessed, honourable, free, spiritual estate, wherein both my body and soul are well cared for … I want to stay here … I have given myself to God with full knowledge and awareness in eternal chastity here to serve him … No one of the world can sway me.” – Anna Wurm to her brother, 1524.

Anna Wurm’s brother, motivated both by financial interests and his passion for the new Reformed theology, wanted her out of the Strasbourg convent in which she had dwelt for over a decade. Anna obviously disagreed. It was a drama played out countless times in the 16th century as convents were closed and thousands of women returned into the world – some happily, but many others unwillingly.

Anna’s conflict with her brother provides a small but illuminating window into what had been and what was to come in Reformation-formed societies: a world in which unmarried women would no longer have any space in which to live in acceptable and even honoured ways, a world in which women would no longer have a role in public life, and one from which the feminine expression of the transcendent would be rigorously banished.

Not, perhaps, the most politic observation as we begin a year of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses and undoubtedly countless conversations about the impact of the event.

For many years, the narrative on the Reformation and women has maintained that it must have been all good news. How could it not be? After all, Martin Luther and others had emphasised the freedom of the individual Christian believer, encouraged Bible reading and, therefore, literacy for all and, of course, had elevated and celebrated marriage. This, we are assured, was progress.

Perhaps not. As has been the case with many historical narratives and assumptions, the certainty that the Reformation produced net gains for women has been upended in recent decades. A survey of the large and continually growing body of research reveals wide agreement that is, in fact, 180 degrees away from the former view.

As Lutheran historian Kirsi Stjerna writes, “With the fading of the nuns and other related, traditionally important religious roles for women (such as the mystics and visionaries), which coincided with the theologically argued women’s domestication, women’s spiritual presence and theological voice in the church at large seemed to radically diminish.”

The Reformation was, of course, a diverse and constantly evolving phenomenon. Common to the entire movement, however, was the conviction that vowed, celibate religious life as an ideal was non-Scriptural, harmful and must be eliminated, supplanted by another model of ideal Christian life: the individual, saved by faith alone, dwelling productively in the community as believer, spouse and parent.

The strongest symbol of this “non-biblical” ideal of virginity was, of course, the monastery, so in Reformed lands the closing of male and female religious houses was a priority, and the Gospel of domesticity was preached and enforced in their stead. Every woman, it was assumed, was meant for marriage, children and the home. Gone was that space – as the convent was – for women to pursue intellectual and artistic pursuits, to provide institutionalised charity, to interact with religious, political and business interests as leaders of their communities, and – very importantly – to support the community and serve the living and the dead through their once highly valued but now “useless” prayers.

On a more abstract level, in this world in which acceptable spiritual thinking and practice was defined by Reformers’ varied interpretations of Scripture alone against tradition, a great deal was lost, and much of what was lost had a feminine cast.

Consider: although Marian devotion did persist in many Reformed areas, it was always discouraged and, just as importantly, the approved understanding of Mary shifted: she was no longer a powerful intercessor or protector – she was, instead, the Reformers preached, a model of domesticity.

As the cult of the saints was eliminated, what went with it was the notion that a woman could powerfully serve a community’s interest and could be a role model, guide and help for women and men, with no female saints or other holy women permitted to offer spiritual consolation, protection and inspiration.

The community no longer celebrated these women’s virtues on their feast days, no longer passed their shrines on their daily travels and no longer sought their intercession. Confraternities devoted to Mary and the rosary – composed of mostly men – disappeared.

In short, in this new world, there seemed to be no place for brilliant, compelling women like Catherine of Siena or Hildegard of Bingen to be revered for their spiritual wisdom. Here no one, woman or man, could look to a mere woman for protection, from women calling on St Margaret in the midst of labour, to sailors praying the Salve Regina as they launched, to Parisians honouring Genevieve who had saved their city, to Spaniards under the patronage of Teresa of Avila.

All were inconceivable in this new world in which women, driven from the convents, brought in from the spiritual margins which they themselves shaped, and even banished from the heavens, were directed by force of theology and law to their only proper place. As Luther wrote: “A woman is not the master of herself. God fashioned her body so that she should be with a man, to have and to rear children.”

This article first appeared in the October 28 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here