Friday, January 14, 2005

Article: Enclosure

From Patrick O'Sullivan's Irish Diaspora list

Journal of Medieval History
Volume 12, Issue 1 , March 1986, Pages 15-36

Copyright C 1986 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd.

Women's monastic enclosures in early Ireland: a study of female
spirituality and male monastic mentalities

Lisa M. Bitel

Available online 15 October 2003.


Early Irish communities of religious women have never been adequately
studied. However, Irish hagiography, unique among medieval saints'
because of the incidental details it offers, provides much evidence
about nuns and nunneries. Because the Irish saints' lives were written by
monks, this information also reveals the monastic attitude towards nuns.
Hagiography shows that many nunneries were established before the
seventh century. But these communities began to disappear soon after, so that
today only the location of a dozen or so are known to historians.

Women's religious communities disappeared for a combination of reasons,
political, social, economic, and spiritual. Secular society was hostile
towards these communities from the start because they consumed a
resource considered precious by men: unmarried women. Male ecclesiastics held an
ambiguous attitude towards nuns and nunneries. They believed that women
could attain salvation as well as themselves. Yet the entire church
hierarchy of Ireland was dominated by supposedly celibate men, whose
sacral functions and ritual celibacy were threatened by women, especially
women's sexuality. Hagiography expressed this threat with the theme of sinful,
lustful nuns; even the spirituality of women vowed to chastity and
poverty was suspect. This attitude affected the structure, organization, and
eventually the survival of women's monastic enclosures in early