112 The Sisters of St. Catherine in Avignon, France

Brittany John

On a cold day at the end of a long March, I attended a Guest Lecture in Women’s History by Dr. Christine Axen who works at Fordham University in New York.  This lecture was hosted by the one and only Dr. Abby Goode, the PSU Women’s Studies Council, and the Department of History, Philosophy, and Social Studies Education.  In Hyde Hall, room 220 at Plymouth State University, my roommate Sky, Anna, and I learned all about the abbess and the nuns of the thirteenth-century convent of St. Catherine in Avignon, France.  This lecture was about how the women of St. Catherine expressed their agency and their female power in different ways, and how having the chance to choose is the most liberating thing for a woman.

St. Catherine did a good job at drawing in sisters of all kinds.  They drew in the wealthy, and they even drew in the distant.  The convent was set in the city with large walls surrounding the property, and the sisters would hardly ever interact with the public.  Although they rarely ever interacted with the public, the city of Avignon as a whole worked to keep the convent running.  St. Catherine was heavily supported across the entire city.

Sometimes, nuns seem to get a bad rap.  People see them as women who lose their identity in order to become a bride of Christ.  They are seen as women who have a dismal history.  People don’t see that a lot of the time, the nuns are choosing this life.  Axen has recognized this, and recognized the beauty in their sisterhood.  She has spent an admiringly large amount of time researching the convent, the abbess, and the nuns of St. Catherine by reading and translating charters, which are documents that show all of the sisters of St. Catherine.  Charters list the names of the sisters, and their role in the convent since there was a hierarchy of the sisters.  The abbess is on the top tier of the hierarchy, and she speaks on behalf of the rest of the nuns and in defense of their space.  So, Abbess Tiburga, who was the abbess for a while according to the charters, included the rest of the nuns in fights against the Parish Priests.  The voices of the sisters would be silenced if Abbess Tiburga didn’t include them.

The nuns would cover themselves completely with clothing; they didn’t necessarily want to be seen by men.  This is where their female agency comes in.  Nuns profess themselves to the convent, which gives the assumption that a woman becomes a nun because she wants to.  She has a choice in the matter.  There hasn’t been any proof that a woman was forced to become a nun against her will.  Their profession is the Profession of Novas, where the women give themselves and their goods to God, Mary, and the monastery of St. Catherine.  The convent of St. Catherine included parlors, which were spaces that the nuns could do their sacred religious practices, and they also included cloisters.  Parlors and cloisters were the sisters’ spaces at St. Catherine. There was a lawsuit by the nuns that was brought to the Pope against a neighbor whose roof allowed him view into the sisters’ cloister.  That was a no-no.  The cloister is their space to do what they want, and peeping tom’s are not allowed.  Obviously.

What does all of this have to do with Critical Theory?  How does the convent of St. Catherine make us rethink a theoretical concept, or an aspect of a theoretical concept?  The sisters of St. Catherine have a different relationship with the patriarchy of the convent than most women have with the patriarchy in general.  In the book, Rivkin and Ryan write, “the subject of feminism was women’s experience under the patriarchy, the long tradition of male rule in society which silenced women’s voices, distorted their lives, and treated their concerns as peripheral” (765).  The normal relationship between women and the patriarchy usually isn’t good, as Rivkin and Ryan point out.  The sisters’ relationship with the patriarchy of the convent isn’t the same as the norm.  The Abbess’s act of including the rest of the nuns in decision making, and asking for their input before she goes to the Parish Priest with a problem is making it so the nuns’ voices won’t be silenced.  The women choose to become nuns because they want to, not because a man or anyone else is forcing them to.  The Priests and the Popes have to listen when the Abbess comes to them with a lawsuit, like the one with the peeping tom neighbor.  The dynamic between the sisters and the patriarchy is different because the sisters make it so with the agency they express.  They’re pretty powerful against the patriarchy of the convent.

As said before, sometimes nuns get a bad rap.  They go into a system where they’re supposed to cover up completely, and they give themselves and their goods to God.  They give up everything in order to become a nun.  Wouldn’t that normally be seen as the opposite of liberating?  The opposite of “being free”?  Sure.  Some people can view it like that, but the moments of choice for these women are what’s liberating.  One could say that the small, cramped space that they’re supposed to their religious practices in is trap-like.  I don’t think these women would think of it like that, though, based on what I learned from Dr. Axen.  Yes, the system these women go into could be seen as not liberating, but these women show that you can choose something that could be seen as not liberating, but the act of choosing is liberating.  They choose their own lifestyles.  They take their space and they claim it as theirs.  Having the chance to choose is one of the most liberating things for a woman, and it definitely was for these women who became the sisters of St. Catherine.


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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Brittany John is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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