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Men’s Houses, Women’s Houses: The Relationship between the Sexes in Twelfth Century Monasticism

Men’s Houses, Women’s Houses: The Relationship between the Sexes in Twelfth Century Monasticism

By Constance H. Berman

The Medieval Monastery, edited by Andrew MacLeish (St Cloud, MN, 1988)

Introduction: It goes without saying that there was a relationship between the sexes in most parts of twelfth-century life, but it is generally assumed that the Church, and in particular the monastery, were exceptional places —that therein existed a world of sex-segregation. Traditionally, it has been thought that in this period after the Gregorian reform, the new purity that monks and other religious men sought for their lives allowed them little contact with women. It has generally been held that because only a few preachers and reformers responded to, or at least wrote about, the desire among women for a purified religious life, that their interest was less intense than that of men.

Scholars looking at its surviving literature have tended to see the period as one in which female participation in monasticism lessened, citing the misogynist tone in the letters and legislation of members of the new religious groups such as the Cistercians or the Praemonstratensians. However, the most recent assessments suggest that the number of new religious houses for women in this period was significant and that women were not the negligible factor in the eleventh- and twelfth-century reform movement that they have sometimes been thought.

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