An Apostolic Vocation: The Formation of the Religious Life for the Dominican Sisters in the Thirteenth Century

Dominican choir nuns of Notre Dame

Dominican choir nuns of Notre Dame

An Apostolic Vocation: The Formation of the Religious Life for the Dominican Sisters in the Thirteenth Century

Julie Ann Smith

Medieval Feminist Forum: Vol. 47:2 (2011)


Dominic’s decision to establish the women’s communities of his Order in accordance with the Rule of St. Augustine has been understood either as simply aligning the Sisters’ religio with that of the Preachers or as complying with the requirements of Lateran IV. However, this misunderstands Dominic’s intentions, and those of the Sisters themselves, and misrepresents the Sisters’ vocation. Both women and men heeded the call to the vita apostolica in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, though the perceived unfitness of women for preaching was, and has continued to be, understood as excluding them from the realization of an apostolic vocation. This presumes that the authentic apostolic life is premised on preaching, though the call that Jesus made to his followers was much broader than this and was made to both women and men.

The Dominican vocation sprang from complex historical understandings of the vita apostolica, and the Dominican women’s religio should be approached as part of these same contexts and perceptions. This can be most readily achieved through studying the representation of the apostolic vocation that was achieved in the yoking of the Augustinian Rule with the Dominican women’s institutes. In this way, the fundamental premise of the female Dominican religio may be better understood. Hence, this study takes as its focus the normative texts that were intended to shape the Sisters’ lives and to enable or authorize a particular vocation and that were cultural products spring- ing from their particular religious and monastic environments. This is not a study of the lived experience of the Sisters or of how the rules and institutes may have been implemented or interpreted—that is an entirely different endeavor.

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