Experiencing Space Through Women’s Convent Rules: the Rich Clares in Medieval Ghent (Thirteenth to Fourteenth Centuries)
De Paermentier, Els
Medieval Feminist Forum 44, no. 1 (2008)
Introduction: The connection between “women” and “space” can be studied in many very divergent ways. This contribution investigates the extent to which the concept “space” affected and determined women’s behavior in medieval religious houses through rules and statutes. Ten years ago I examined these issues in relation to some twenty religious and charitable institutions in Ghent. However, the subject needs updating on the basis of new insights in medieval history, gender studies, and sociology drawn by scholars in the last decade. Some new theoretical concepts on “space” will therefore be applied to the Rich Clares’ convent in Ghent—also known as the “Urbanist sisters,”—for this convent was one of the few communities of regular nuns that resided there as early as the thirteenth century. The order of the Clares is generally regarded as the Second Order of Saint Francis of Assisi and was founded by Francis of Assisi himself in 1212 CE at San Damiano near Assisi, and headed by Saint Clare of Assisi (1193/94-1253 CE). The “Urbanists” owe their name to pope Urban IV, whose rule of 1263 CE they followed. Unlike the Poor Clares, the “Rich Clares” were allowed to have joint possessions. The archives of the Ghent Rich Clares still contain a medieval copy of the rule used in the convent. This fourteenth-century copy of the Rich Clares’ rule of 1263 is the basis of this study. Because the Rich Clares followed a general rule, their specific location in Ghent becomes meaningful when their connection with their male counterparts in Ghent, the Franciscan Friars, is elucidated.
This analysis aims to demonstrate that, according to the Rich Clares’ rule, modern theoretical and spatial concepts such as the “public” and “private” spheres had a specific meaning for enclosed nuns. The classical dichotomy between “public” and “private” space still remains valid here. However, as will be shown by source evidence, the behavioral conditions of the Rich Clares’ rule, drawn up in order to meticulously organize the daily communal life of the nuns inside the convent walls, generally refer more to “public” than to “private” space. The case of the Rich Clares should certainly not be considered as separate or exceptional, but rather represents how daily life in a convent sub clausura was organized through rules and what importance the ideas “space” and “spatiality” had. Thus, the monastic ideal of claustration was not only made physically visible by the convent walls, but was also made tangible by the practice of the many clauses of the rule. Or, as Julie Ann Smith strikingly puts it: “once nunnery space had been constructed (both textually and physically), it in turn defined and constrained the individuals it encompassed: that is, the space defined the people.”