Altar hanging depicting scenes from the life of Christ and saints of the Dominican order. The tapestry, made in Basel in the mid-15th century, hung in front of an altar in Klingental convent.
Basel Historical Museum / Photo: A. Eaton

Uprising in the convent

From today’s perspective, it seems unthinkable that nuns would rebel, put up violent resistance and ignore ecclesiastical regulations. But during the reform efforts in the 15th century, this was not an unusual occurrence.

Christine Keller

Christine Keller is an art historian and curator at the Swiss National Museum.

In the late Middle Ages around 40 nuns from aristocratic families lived at Klingental convent in Kleinbasel on the city’s outskirts, in a spacious complex protected by the city wall on the banks of the Rhine. On entering the convent, daughters were richly endowed by their families with goods and lands. The nuns could only pass on their property within the monastic community, so a family had a keen interest in having several daughters or other relatives at Klingental convent.

The well-educated nuns at Klingental convent had a talent for increasing their wealth, and managed the convent as a financially successful business. They bought local mills and productive vineyards, helping to make their convent the wealthiest in the city.

Some nuns had comfortably furnished cells and cosy sitting rooms. At least two prioresses lived in separate houses which they had had built for themselves. The Klingental sisters thus lived anything but the modest and austere life of a nun. In addition to books, their private possessions included secular clothing, textiles, jewellery and silverware. These women were very fond of the wealth and benefits of secular life, and freely left the convent to visit relatives or go for swimming excursions. Rather than the standard convent garb, the habit, they often wore their private clothes. Claims that the Klingental nuns took part in the local Fasnacht carnival, owned lapdogs and songbirds, and scandalously violated the rules of their religious order most likely came from the imagination of zealous clerics, as such accusations were welcome reasons to introduce reforms in the convent.

This group of sculptures of Saint Ursula and her companions is one of the few surviving relics of the once richly furnished Klingental convent.
Basel Historical Museum / Photo: M. Babey

THE POPE ORDERS AN INVESTIGATION

In 1459 the first complaints were made about the excessively worldly lifestyle of the Klingental nuns, alleging disorderliness and moral decline in the convent. One nun was even supposed to have given birth to a child fathered by a provost and canon. Pope Pius II ordered an investigation, and commanded that the Klingental convent be reformed. He entrusted this task to the Bishop of Basel and the Dominican friars. While the Bishop remained inactive on the matter, the Dominican friars took on the project. The nuns immediately complained to the Pope that reform measures were uncalled for. The first attempt at reform thus failed thanks to the nuns’ stubborn resistance – as did all similar measures initiated up to 1471. The conflict between the supporters and the opponents of reform dragged on for many years, culminating in the great reform struggle from 1480 to 1483.

A look inside a model of the Klingental convent around 1500. Model by Stefan Tramèr, 1998-1999.
Museum Kleines Klingental, Basel

During a visitation by supporters of reform, there was a great commotion at the convent. The 37 nuns in residence at the time deliberately made so much noise that they drowned out the reading of the reform directives, and thereby avoided hearing them. What they couldn’t hear, couldn’t be valid. More critically, they threatened to set fire to their convent in the event of any reform action being taken. This fierce reaction didn’t go unpunished; the nuns were imprisoned in their convent. 13 nuns from the Observant (reformed) Engelporten convent in Gebweiler, Alsace, were dispatched to Klingental to implement the changes. Their job was to introduce stricter rules and thus reform the convent from within. But the incarcerated nuns remained defiant and refused to accept these reform efforts.

THE ‘SHAMELESS WOMEN’ MOVE OUT OF THE CONVENT

Deprived of their offices and rights, they left the Klingental convent, bewailing the situation as a violation of their religious dignity and their status. From a distance, and despite being excommunicated by the Pope, the Klingental nuns continued with their protest in the background and fought to return home. They found widespread support in the city’s population, and among the clergy, members of the council and their own families. In the meantime, an emotionally charged small-scale war was raging in Basel. The militant nuns were reviled as ‘shameless women’ and ‘instruments of the devil’, while they threatened the Observant sisters with ‘death by strangling’ and accused them of incompetent asset administration and inept management, especially as, with the foreign nuns in charge, income such as interest payments to the convent and the convent’s assets and estate values decreased rapidly. Ultimately, the city also had an interest in the convent’s wealth.

Letter of protest from the Observant nuns at Klingental convent to the Pope, dated 16 October 1482.
Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Klosterarchiv Klingental, HH 4, Nr. 162

Reforms

As the 14th century drew to a close, a wave of reforms aimed at monasteries and convents took hold, starting in Italy and spreading to the Dominican religious houses in German-speaking areas in particular. The aim of the reform was a return to the original ideals of the monastic life, strict adherence to the rule of the order, and a cloistered life of poverty and contemplation. In Basel, the first monasteries and convents had been subject to reforms since 1420. In many places, and often even within the same house, the reform efforts resulted in two divided and quarrelling parties: those opposed to reform, and those who supported it.

RETURN OF THE REBELS

Persistence and patience proved their worth. After long negotiations in exile, the Klingental sisters were contractually assured that the 13 Observant nuns would be made to return to their original convent. The displaced nuns were allowed to move back into the Klingental convent. The Klingental sisters were supported by Pope Sixtus IV, who in 1482 finally reversed his support for the reform at the Klingental convent. The Observant sisters then sent a letter to the Pope protesting against the lifting of the reform and the return of the recalcitrant nuns. In the letter they complained that they had been the victims of a great injustice, and insisted on remaining in the convent. The situation escalated when the Klingental nuns returned. Without further ado, they forcibly evicted the Observant sisters from their convent. Their years of resistance came to a triumphant end. The Klingental nuns sued the male house of the Observant sisters for compensation, and the matter was ruled in their favour.

The Observant sisters continued to complain about the injustice that had been done to them, but finally returned to their home convent in Engelporten. There, however, they were denied readmission, probably because they had been unsuccessful in their delegated task as reforming nuns. It was only after a lengthy period in exile that they were admitted to the reformed Stetten monastery in Gnadental. In Klingental, however, life within the convent walls soon returned to the usual, liberal arrangements. Up until 1510, the city council had to reprimand the Klingental nuns repeatedly for their moral conduct. Late-night jaunts, visits to relatives and to see the city sights, and swimming excursions were still the order of the day.

Incidentally, it is thanks to the nuns at Klingental convent that details of this tough and highly emotional reform conflict have survived. From its earliest days, the nuns of Klingental established an archive in their convent, in which the sources relating to their history have been carefully saved. It is still one of the most extensive medieval cloister archives in Switzerland.

Nuns. Powerful women in the Middle Ages

National museum Zurich

until 16.8.2020

Nuns in the Middle Ages were far more than just celibate, ascetic women who only cared about the world inside their convent walls. The convent gave women opportunities that were otherwise hardly available to them: access to higher education, social security and the chance to break away from the conventions of their families. The exhibition shows with reference to diverse individuals what a wide range of life choices were open to religious Sisters in the Middle Ages.

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