By Autumn Dolan
M.A. Thesis, University of Missouri–Columbia, 2009
Abstract: The nuns’ rules of Caesarius of Arles (470-542), Donatus of Besanc̜on (fl. 624), and Waldebert of Luxeuil (d. c. 668) suggest that for the early medieval female community in Merovingian Gaul, the monastic rule was a versatile and influential text that could be used to express the idiosyncrasies of female religious life, to serve as a spiritual guideline, or even to exert the administrative autonomy of female monasteries. These early medieval nuns’ rules were a product of a transitional era in western monasticism, during which churchmen and women religious were attempting to define female monasticism according to rapidly changing political situations and the hardening of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Rather than enforce the tenets of any one rule, these monastic authors and the communities they addressed adapted the expectations of female religious life to the circumstances of the individual physical and political environments. Furthermore, in order to preserve the female community and the spiritual life of women religious, it was necessary to address the ways in which the female community differed from male communities. Even as the Benedictine rule presented what seemed like a suitable rule for either sex, the ways in which seventh-century churchmen organized mixed rules for nunneries, often at the request of women religious, demonstrate that although female and male communities were both capable of pursuing the monastic ideal, the route to achieving this was not the same for both monks and nuns.
Introduction: For female monasticism, the sixth and seventh centuries represent a period during which women religious and monastic authorities were struggling to define and organize the monastic community in a way that would best serve the needs of women in the community. This period represents a transition between the Church Fathers, whose ideals regarding women religious were intent on creating the perfect virgin, and the Carolingian churchmen who sought to establish monasticism as a homogenous institution. In 512, Caesarius of Arles (470-542) produced for the convent of St. John the first surviving nuns‟ rule that was written for a specific female community. Although the rule was never adopted in its entirety, the attention with which Caesarius confronted the monastic life of women left an impression for seventh-century convents and influenced the expectations of monastic legislation. Seventh-century monastic authorities, such as Waldebert of Luxeuil (d. c. 668) and Donatus of Besançon (fl. 624), strove to adapt the popular rules of Caesarius of Arles, Benedict of Nursia and Columbanus to mixed rules that expressed the nuns‟ spiritual fervor and those aspects of the monastic experience that were unique to women. The rules that churchmen devised to address the communal lives of nuns were those that took into consideration the environmental circumstances of the convent, the spirituality of nuns, the idiosyncrasies of female life, and even the administrative autonomy of the community.