The middle ages in Europe witnessed a massive expansion in the number of monastic institutions for women. Bruce Verande's study of the phenomenon shows that England was no exception, and Samson le Fort's foundation was just one of dozens made in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Including Harrold, 114 new nunneries were established in England in the period 1126 to 1200. There were 5 other women's houses founded in the area in the late 11th century and 12th, including the well known Bedfordshire communities of Chicksands (1150) and Elstow (1078). It is worth noting, of course, that there were far more communities for men founded at this time, around a hundred or so (Verande 1997).
|The Prioress, from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales|
The nuns of Harrold would have been wives and daughters from wealthy families. The attraction for many women would have been spiritual: they would have looked forward to a life of contemplation and prayer, shut away from the concerns and stresses of the material world. Such a life, though, came at a price and their families would have been expected to contribute to the cost of their upkeep through grants of land, money or goods.
Nunneries were given an additional impetus by Norman inheritance practices and the norms of medieval society. Unless a woman married her place in society as an adult was vulnerable: she had no way of earning her own living and maintaining herself, and would only rarely inherit sufficient from her family to live independently. Inheritance laws meant that when her father died a woman's brother or male heir would take over the family home and invariably she would no longer have a place in the household. A place in a nunnery would mean that she was provided for in a safe place.
Similar considerations often applied when it came to widows, many of whom would have been unable to re-marry and would have ended their days in a place like Harrold Priory rather than in a son's extended household. There are also examples of women escaping a difficult marriage or prospect of one by entering a convent (Venarde 1997). Some community leaders such as Robert of Arbrissel were prepared to defy church authorities and give such women protection from their estranged husbands and the law.
Indeed in some cases in the middle ages it appears that by forcing their wives into nunneries powerful men were able to renounce their first wives and re-marry. On occasion men would cite new concerns about consanguinity and incest to have first marriages annulled and their former wives consigned to nunneries, leaving them free to make new, politically advantageous marriages elsewhere. To make things worse for women (in England at least) aristocratic widows and orphans often became the 'property' of the king, to dispose of at will or to the highest bidder: Henry II of England, for example, 'owned' 80 widows in this position. The temptation would have often to have been to take oneself out of such servitude and into a nunnery. According to Venarde a typical community of the time would have been made up of 35% of inmates who were described as widows, wives, mothers or grandmothers. It seems possible that "massive numbers of women [were] being thrust willy nilly into the cloister by (usually) male relatives eager to rid themselves of the responsibility for caring for them and in some cases to come into control of the women's property" (Venarde 11997, p.101).
With so many hundreds of young men from landed families joining monasteries each year, combined with the effect of the almost continual wars of the middle ages, the pool of marriageable young men was always going to be smaller than the available women - although the high levels of mortality in childbirth did something to redress this imbalance. For those women unable or unwilling to marry life as a nun offered an alternative. An example of this would be Hertfordshire's Christina of Markyate who escaped the attentions of would-be suitors and lovers by hiding and devoting herself to a life of prayer. Many others, like Christina, were given no choice. Convents were also known to take children, for example orphans, and provide for them. They would also accept women who were sick and take care of them (Thompson 1991).
Harrold Priory, like others, would have had more than ordained nuns. There would have been novices who were working towards ordination, as well as number of lay sisters who were generally uneducated, from poorer families, whose role would be as servants, preparing food, cleaning, providing for guests, etc. There would likely have been male and female paid servants also, for example.
The nuns themselves would more than likely have been literate and would have managed in Norman French (or later, English) as well as Latin.
- Venarde, Bruce L. (1997), Women's monasticism and medieval society: nunneries in France and England, 890-1215, Ithaca: Cornell University Press
- Thompson, Sally (1991), Women religioius: The founding of English Nunneries after the Norman conquest, Oxford: Clarendon Press