By Christina Vanja
Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung(HSR), Vol. 6:4 (1981)
Introduction: The premise of my work was developed from Karl Bücher’s essay written in 1882 about the situation of women in the Middle Ages (” Frauenfrage im Mittelalter”), which is still largely accepted. Karl Bücher felt that he had been able to prove that there had been an excess of women in late medieval towns, a situation which would serve his explanation for the independently working women in the towns, the Beguines and women convents, which were supposed to have given the excess women population of the higher burgess and patrician families shelter.
In view of this background the questions facing the author were that of the character and social function in general of women’s convents and other similar institutions in the late Middle Ages, the family background of the nuns, their situation, and mode of living in the cloisters – one particular aspect of Bücher’s essay. Although there are a great number of monographs on monastic life already, they tend to be strongly influenced from the viewpoint of local history or of the history of a specific order and are thus often reduced to a restatement of cloister regulations mixed with a few local occurrences – especially land tenure . The moments of “moral decay” and the development of the convents into institutions designed purely to take care of unwed-daughters, stand in the forefront during the late Middle Ages, although a social – and economic – historical basis of such expositions is generally lacking. An older study concerned with the composition of social ranks in convents of the higher nobility, A . Schulte’s “Nobility and Church in the German Middle Ages” (“Adel und Kirche im deutschen Mittelalter”), found very few successors . Only in most recent times has the social and economic-historical method of questioning been applied more often to women’s convents.
The theme of my work is the family background, social situation and mode of living of the women in late medieval Hessian cloisters, and other convents. In addition to the above are studies about the socalled moral decay in the convents and about daily life. A special emphasis was placed on the study of the geneological background as a part of life in the cloisters – a method of questioning, which was suggested by more recent geneological investigations and which lead to previously seldom known problematical facits.