A Revival of Female Spirituality: Adaptations of Nuns’ Rules during the Hiberno-Frankish Monastic Movement
Autumn Dolan (University of Missouri)
Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol. 46, no. 1 (2010)
For women religious of seventh-century Gaul, much had changed since the days of Caesarius of Arles and the monastic regulations of the sixth century. By the seventh century, the Irishman Columbanus (540–615) and his disciples had galvanized the Frankish nobility toward the development of a complex monastic net- work across the previously neglected regions of northern and eastern Gaul. In this process, they established around two hundred monastic communities, many of which housed women in either convents or double monasteries. Although Columbanus’s monastic legislation did not include a rule written specifically for nuns, the mixed rules of Waldebert of Luxeuil (d. 668) and Donatus of Besançon (d. 660), both students of Columbanus’s monastic center at Luxeuil, reveal the impression that Irish monasticism had on the expression of female monastic life in the seventh-century nunnery.
The anxiety regarding safety that had dominated the sixth-century rule of Caesarius of Arles began to fade from the memory of women religious and their monastic advisers, and the Frankish kingdom and its monastic communities began to expand beyond the walls of cities into rural environments. Moreover, the division that had once existed between Gallo-Roman bishops and their Germanic kings was replaced by an increasingly involved Frankish nobility whose participation in new monastic settlements made the boundaries between monastic and secular politics more permeable. As a result, the tenets of strict enclo- sure, so essential to the mood of sixth-century female monasticism, were no longer present in the regulations of seventh-century nunneries. Instead, the rural environment of northern Gaul, and the religious ideals of Columbanus’s Irish upbringing influenced nuns’ rules in such a way that they revived an intimate and personal dimension of asceticism that had been neglected for the sake of safety and stability. Along with the images of female religious life found in the lives of seventh-century saints, these mixed rules demonstrate that Irish monasticism imbued the communal life of Gallic women religious with the intense fervor once ascribed only to independent ascetics.