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Elizabeth Makowski: Apostate Nuns in the Later Middle Ages (= Studies in the History of Medieval Religion; Vol. 49), Woodbridge: Boydell Press 2019, XIV + 227 S., ISBN 978-1-78327-426-0, GBP 60,00
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Rezension von:
Elizabeth Freeman
University of Tasmania, Hobart
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Ralf Lützelschwab
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Elizabeth Freeman: Rezension von: Elizabeth Makowski: Apostate Nuns in the Later Middle Ages, Woodbridge: Boydell Press 2019, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 2 [15.02.2022], URL:

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Elizabeth Makowski: Apostate Nuns in the Later Middle Ages

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This book studies apostate nuns, predominantly in England and with some comparative examples mainly from Germany, between c.1300 and 1540. Readers familiar with Makowski's earlier research on medieval religious women (and women religious) will appreciate the logical development in Makowski's work. She has produced books on Pope Boniface VIII's Periculoso decree (1997), quasi-religious women (2005), English nuns and church and civil law (2012) and, now, apostate nuns.

What was an apostate nun? Legally, the definition was simple: a woman who had validly taken a vow to live as a nun and who had later left the monastery (without canonical dispensation) to reenter secular life. But, as Makowski shows, the apparent clarity and uniformity of the law masked a range of human experiences that were as varied as the individuals concerned. Makowski takes the time to narrate examples of individual apostate nuns in some detail, thereby enabling readers to appreciate, as much as possible, the agency of the individual women in question.

Following a short Preface which explains the logic for the book's chronological and geographical focus, the book features an Introduction, six chapters, and a Conclusion. By around 1300, church law on what constituted a valid vow of religious profession was codified, as were regulations on what to do with apostates. Theoretically, these canonical laws were the same all throughout Western Christian Europe but the English context was unique in that the English secular legal system also had a role to play (sometimes) in the question of determining whether a person was or was not an apostate. This takes us to royal administrative documents from the medieval English chancery and exchequer, now held in The National Archives (UK), which, Makowski points out, provide valuable and unique perspectives on some aspects of apostasy. For example, the question of whether a woman had been validly professed as a nun in the first place not only determined whether she could be called an apostate, but it also determined whether she was able to inherit property. And it is often property disputes - recorded in secular documents now housed in The National Archives - that bring many so-called apostate nuns in medieval England to the modern scholar's attention.

In referring to "so-called" apostate nuns, I use my own terminology to distil an ongoing theme in this book. That is, while the definition of apostasy from religious life was theoretically clear in the late Middle Ages, interpretations differed. Some of the women charged with apostasy seem to have thought that they were not apostates; others probably intended to return to their religious communities and seem to have been victims of circumstances (displacement due to war or famine) rather than being intentional absconders.

While focussing on England, the book also includes examples from elsewhere. Continental nuns' petitions to the papal penitentiary for release from monastic vows have been studied by others (see Kirsi Salonen and Ludwig Schmugge), and some examples of these are included. But it is clear that the English scene was different, and in England episcopal registers and, especially, chancery writs are the more likely sources of evidence. Another interesting feature of the English context is Thomas Cromwell's permission ("capacities") to English nuns at the Dissolution enabling (or, rather, forcing) them to live outside their communities. These capacities were based on the same legal argument that the papacy had long offered to monks, and in this sense the right (albeit a "right" that nuns were forced to accept) to exclaustration was given to nuns in England centuries earlier than it would be to nuns elsewhere in Europe.

Chapter One introduces readers to the Europe-wide context of what exactly monastic vows were, as well as giving a short survey of some influential late-medieval commentaries on the canon law of profession (e.g. Johannes Andreae's Novella in Sextum of 1342), all of which responded to the canon law that by the late Middle Ages was well established via the Liber Extra and Liber Sextus. It was only in around 1300 that the monastic vows (of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as expressly pronounced) were systematised. And, yet, perhaps confusingly, certainly ambiguously, a pre-existing acceptance of tacit profession continued to exist alongside express profession. So too there was confusion and ambiguity in those monastic communities where the clothing for novices happened to be the same as the clothing for professed nuns. In pointing out these ambiguities, Makowski encourages readers to reflect on the human stories behind the documents, reminding us of instances where different people may have genuinely held different views on whether an individual woman really was a nun and, hence, whether she was an apostate if she later left her community.

Chapter Two examines women who petitioned for release from their vows on the grounds that they had been compelled by force and fear (the claim of vim et metum) into taking their vows; these women argued that they had never been validly professed in the first place. Chapter Three examines nuns who had been attracted to leave the monastery due to the appeal of land, or lust, or love. Of all the book's chapters, this one makes most use of documentation from The National Archives. Chapter Four discusses nuns who left their monasteries for other reasons, e.g. English nuns who left for what initially seemed likely to be only short periods of time due to the Scottish Wars of Independence, or German nuns who left their monasteries because they did not want to accept the harsh reforms of the Observant Reform movement. In Chapters Five and Six, the attention is on apostate nuns who returned to their communities. Following Gregory IX's Ne religiosi vagandi decretal and Benedict XII's Pastor Bonus bull of 1335, and canon law commentators' elucidations of these papal texts, monastic superiors had clear guidelines on how they were to accept and punish returned apostates. Summaries of extracts from Johannes Busch's Chronicon Windeshemense, his Liber de Reformatione Monasteriorum and English episcopal registers provide some examples of nuns who returned to their communities, and the experiences that they went through and/or the penances that the prescriptive sources said should apply to them.

Near the end of Chapter Six Makowski asks: "What conclusions can we draw from this snapshot of runaways [...]?" (182) Thinking of the book as a series of snapshots is helpful. The individual examples are interesting, and they give readers an appreciation of the vastly different situations that could all result in medieval women being given the legal status of "apostate". At times the book does not make explicit the reasons why particular examples have been included (i.e. the reasons why particular snapshots have been included) - I found myself wondering how representative these examples were. The examples from Busch are interesting, but the logic for including these examples about the continental Observant Reform movement alongside examples from English Benedictine nunneries is not explained. In some chapters the book has fewer examples and less analysis than one might expect, and historians may wish that the dates of all the examples had been provided. Sometimes there are lengthy quotations from secondary sources, mainly in the latter chapters, at the expense of direct engagement with scholars' arguments.

The book makes some brief, yet thought-provoking, points about the gendered nature of apostasy. Monks dissatisfied with monastic life had the option of becoming priests or studying at universities; nuns, of course, did not. Of the eighteen supplicants from fifteenth-century England and Wales who claimed in their petitions to the papal penitentiary that they had been forced to take monastic vows, the vast majority were men. Readers interested in the question of female agency will find much to ponder on in this book. After all, the essence of a solemn vow was that it needed to be freely given. While Makowski wisely points out that we cannot always know the motivations of people from the past, this interesting and humane study reminds us that the voices and actions of medieval women in religion, and their wider circles, can still speak to us.

Elizabeth Freeman