Women Missing in Church History: Filling Out the Historical Record – Week 6

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

Based on Women in the Mission of the Church, by Dzubinski/Stasson
(Used by permission: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021)

A Taste of Chapter 4: Medieval Nuns
By Rebecca Hopkins www.rebeccahopkins.org

Herrad was a writer, an intellectual and an artist. She was well known, in her time, for her illustrated religious book called, “Garden of Delights.”[1]

It wasn’t just a picture book, though. It was a book that shaped spiritual conversations in the medieval period. And she wasn’t just a writer. She was a reformer who believed that priests could be corrupt but that women needed their own education and access to religious texts.[2]

And she did all this as a nun.

Today, though, Herrad is largely forgotten by the modern church.

Two authors are trying to change that. University professor Leanne Dzubinski and historian Anneke Stasson wrote about Herrad and other medieval nuns in Chapter 4 of their book, “Women in the Mission of the Church.”

Nuns played an important role in the medieval church, by caring for the sick, starting libraries, protecting the vulnerable, serving as missionaries, praying for their communities, preaching when priests were not available to do so, starting monasteries in other countries, and being good examples of a life dedicated to God and community. And unlike most women at the time, medieval nuns learned to read Latin, giving them access to literature from church fathers. As a result, medieval nuns like Herrad played an important part in art, spirituality and intellectualism, growth of Christianity, and speaking out on abuses in church life in Europe. [3]

“Medieval nuns were essential to the flourishing of both church and society,” wrote Dzubinski and Stasson.[4]

Nuns were well-respected and women were eager to become nuns at that time. Many families would send one of their daughters to convent at a young age, despite the fact that marriage brought dowries, and then they’d marry off the rest of them. [5]

Some monasteries and churches had an anchoress living there—a woman who lived alone in a  particularly austere setting—no light except a small window. They were educated and would offer prayer and advice to the community. [6]

Nuns also faced their fair share of challenges. Sometimes corrupt priests made sexual advances. Some priests accused nuns of being temptresses, turning them into scapegoats. Priests sometimes prevented them from joining monastic communities. And nuns couldn’t perform their own sacraments for confession and the Eucharist, but had to pay priests for such services, depleting their resources.[7]

“But nuns persevered through these obstacles,” the authors wrote. “They contributed to the mission of the church in myriad ways, and many of them challenged negative views of women by being virtuous, hardworking, theologically literate people.”[8]

[1]  Leanne Dzubinski, Anneke Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church, Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 95.

[2] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 95.

[3] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 102.

[4] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 102-103.

[5] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 86.

[6] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 89.

[7] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 100.

[8] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 103.

This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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