Nails in the Wall: Catholic Nuns in Reformation Germany (Women in Culture and Society Series)

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During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther instituted new ideologies addressing gender, marriage, chastity, and religious life that threatened Catholic monasticism. Yet many living in cloistered religious communities, particularly women, refused to accept these new terms and were successful in their opposition to the new Protestant culture.

Focusing primarily on a group of Dominican nuns in Strasbourg, Germany, Amy Leonard's Nails in the Wall outlines the century-long battle between these nuns and the Protestant city council. With savvy strategies that employed charm, wealth, and political and social connections, the nuns were able to sustain their Catholic practices. Leonard's in-depth archival research uncovers letters about and records of the nuns' struggle to maintain their religious beliefs and way of life in the face of Protestant reforms. She tells the story of how they worked privately to keep Catholicism alive-continuing to pray in Latin, smuggling in priests to celebrate Mass, and secretly professing scores of novices to ensure the continued survival of their convents. This fascinating and heartening study shows that, far from passively allowing the Protestants to dismantle their belief system, the women of the Strasbourg convents were active participants in the battle over their vocation and independence.

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Editorial Reviews

Sarah A. Curtis
“The subject is original and interesting, the conclusions are based on thorough research, and the analysis is clearly presented. Nails in the Wall is an important contribution to our understanding of religious change in early modern Europe and the way in which practical, local considerations often trumped dogma and rhetoric.”—Sarah A. Curtis, author of Educating the Faithful: Religion, Society, and Schooling in Nineteenth-Century France
Thomas A. Brady Jr.
“Leonard opens a new window on the social and moral world of a Europe divided by religion and demonstrates that beneath the sometimes bitter confessional divisions, a sense of common Christianity lived on. This innovative and provocative book will be of interest to all who study the Protestant and Catholic reformations of the sixteenth century. It displays the kind of humble, everyday fidelity that sustained earnest groups on both sides of that divide.”—Thomas A. Brady Jr., coeditor of Handbook of European History, 1400–1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation
Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Nails in the Wall challenges both theoretical assumptions and assertions of fact about the Protestant Reformation, exploring the active intervention of nuns in the process of religious change. It presents a sophisticated and nuanced reading of the complexities of urban culture in a time of dramatic change.”—Merry Wiesner-Hanks, author of Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe
Catholic Literary World - Kathleen Keating
"By concentrating on these nuns and their struggles with both Protestant and Catholic ecclesial leaders and civil authorities of Strasbourg, the author produces a work of serious scholarship, demonstrating both extensive research and captivating readability. The recounting of the tale of these religious women uncovers a neglected phase of the Reformation that indicates the complexities of the issues and the persons on both sides of the great divide."
The Historian - Elisabeth M. Wengler
"This important work has broad significance for early modern women's history and Reformation history. . . . By examining the interactions between the nuns and Protestant magistrates, Leonard discovers greater accommodation and collaboration between different faith communities than Reformation historians have ordinarily recognized."
H-Net Book Review - Bea Lundt
"Leonard's short treatment of the sources, her pointed arguments against leading authorities, and her thoroughly partisan clarity are unfortunately extremely rare. These virtues make this work fresh and fascinating. . . . Amy Leonard knows what she is talking about."
Renaissance Quarterly - Maria R. Boes
"Leonard deserves a lot of credit for disclosing the nun's actions and aspirations. Her cogent and scholarly rendition of their struggle is very impressive. . . . This thoroughly scholarly book deserves a wide readership."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226472577
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2005
  • Series: Women in Culture and Society Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Amy Leonard is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University.

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Read an Excerpt


Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47257-7



Between the years 1470 and 1525 more than 250 nuns entered and lived in Strasbourg's Dominican convents. This period proved to be one of the most tumultuous times in the city's political and religious history, especially as concerned the convents. Using one such nun, Veronica von Landsberg, as our guide, we can see how the nuns found themselves in the perfect (if chaotic) position to witness the unfolding events. In 1474 Veronica's parents were looking for an appropriate convent in Strasbourg in which to place their young daughter. Although the decision was completely in their hands, evidence suggests that the city and its elites (members of the guild and urban noble families) took seriously the ecclesiastical stricture that no one should force a girl to enter the convent and that her vows had to be taken freely. The average age of entry into the Strasbourg convents was twelve, and girls who entered at a much younger age than that appear to have been orphans (or at least had lost a father), the convent their only recourse. Unlike Italy, where forced monachization was almost the rule, Strasbourg had only a few cases, before and after the Reformation, of nuns' complaining that they were placed in the cloister against their will. Perhaps, then, we can hope that the decision of which convent to enter was at least discussed with Veronica.

The Landsbergs were one of Strasbourg's most firmly established noble families; they were expected to have at least a few daughters in the city's religious houses. They already had close ties to the local religious communities, in particular the exclusive imperial abbey of St. Stephen, which only accepted girls and women from the upper nobility: eight of Veronica's ancestors had professed there, three eventually becoming abbess. Such rarefied status, however, did not preclude Veronica from joining one of the other monastic institutions in town. She could have chosen among the few Beguine communities left in the city, although they generally recruited from a social stratum lower than the Landsbergs', so Veronica and her family probably focused on the two mendicant (begging) orders with convents in Strasbourg. The Franciscan Poor Clare houses (at St. Clara an dem Rossmarkt and St. Clara auf dem Wörth) were a possibility, but the Landsbergs, not surprisingly, turned their attention to the Dominicans. Claiming an impressive eight communities at its height during the fourteenth century-St. Agnes, St. Elisabeth, St. John-in-Undis, St. Katherine, St. Margaret, St. Marx, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Nicholas-in-Undis-the Dominican order was clearly the favored destination of the political and social elite of Strasbourg. Almost all the leading families of the city had members in these houses, and the Landsbergs were no different. The family finally settled on St. Katherine, located just outside the ancient city wall (although within the second fortification) on the northeastern side of the city. Placing Veronica there put her in close proximity to her family's mansion in Rossmarkt, one of the oldest and wealthiest sections of town.

Veronica could not have known how fateful the timing and the choice were in 1474. The year she entered, the Burgundian Wars exploded in Alsace, necessitating the closure of three convents and the transfer of scores of nuns into the remaining houses. A decade later she lived through the Dominican observance reform (which ultimately failed in her house) and the increasing transfer of power and oversight from her religious order to the city council. Finally, in her twilight years, she saw her beloved Catholicism attacked and outlawed and her convent dissolved, forcing her to move into St. Nicholas-in-Undis. Each of these events had profound repercussions on the religious and their houses, ultimately determining which convents survived the Protestant incursion and which succumbed to dissolution. Veronica represents the victims of these changes, because she could do nothing to stop her own house's closure in 1525, and the tenacity and rebellion of the nuns, since she refused to blindly accept all the decisions forced on her. When the convents were first established, with such fervor, no one could have imagined that they and the nuns within would be subject to such attacks centuries later.


Strasbourg's Dominican convents were all founded in the first half of the thirteenth century as the direct result of an intense new religious movement. This movement was initially characterized by lay men and women traveling to various areas preaching a revitalized and vigorous spirituality. Unlike the older orders (such as the Benedictines and the Cistercians), which had become established, landed centers, these religious had no stabilitas loci, but rather brought their message to the people directly. The new piety stressed the humanity and poverty of Christ and emphasized imitating him and his life. It rejected the contemporary church as corrupt and advocated a return to the simpler, purer Christianity of the early church. It was largely an urban phenomenon, embraced by upwardly mobile burghers who were dissatisfied with their lives and turned to these religious groups for fulfillment.

The movement spawned both heresies and new orders as the papacy struggled to control the outburst of spirituality. The line between the orthodox and the unorthodox eventually solidified, and by 1274 the papacy recognized four new mendicant orders: the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, and the Augustinian Eremites. These orders were distinguished by public preaching and begging for alms to support their mission. This ideal appealed not only to men but also to women, who formed an integral part of the early movements. Church authorities quickly decided, however, that it was inappropriate for women to have such a public role. The new orders themselves and the papacy felt that women could best represent the religious revolution by retiring to enclosed convents to help fight heresy and impiety by prayer and contemplation. The church hierarchy emphasized enclosure (clausura) as the fundamental aspect of the female religious life, and a large body of laws appeared to protect a nun's chastity and restrict her to the cloister, culminating in Boniface VIII's papal bull Periculoso (1298). Enclosure meant the physical separation of the female religious from the lay community. Not only was she symbolically dead to the world, but her death was reinforced by the architectural boundaries of high walls, locked doors, and metal grilles. Enclosure was both active, meaning that no professed nun could leave the cloister, and passive, that is, no one else could enter the cloister without specific reason or dispensation. Even the nuns' spiritual advisers had to hear confessions through a shuttered window.

Although there were practical benefits to enclosure, such as safeguarding nuns from disease or attack and reassuring elite families that their daughters were secure, the primary motivation was to protect and control women's sexuality. Virginity and chastity became intimately linked with the female religious life, and the only way to ensure and protect them was strict enclosure. Despite the demands for it, however, church authorities found it difficult to enforce this rigid containment, and various forms of the enclosure decree were repeated and reissued frequently, indicating that nuns often ignored it. Many religious women protested the restriction of their movements (and there is great debate about how complete enclosure ever was), and some fought to maintain their active orders during the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The papacy, however, consistently opposed an active female apostolate. In fact, one of the leading ways an order attained legitimacy was by agreeing to cloister its women, prohibiting them from preaching or begging in public.

Even with the restrictions the mendicant movement inspired an unprecedented proliferation of female participation in the thirteenth century as women flocked to the new orders in startling numbers. Some joined the women's branch of a new men's order, whereas others, such as the Beguines, formed looser associations outside of a structured order or community, although generally associated with a men's house. Historians have offered various explanations for women's overwhelming enthusiasm for the new movements, which also touch on reasons why women entered the cloister more generally. One much-debated explanation posits that a large pool of single women existed in medieval cities. According to demographic evidence, there were more unmarried women in this period than at other times because of numerous wars, the rising popularity of the priesthood, and general female longevity. Add to these a growing emphasis on virginity, and the convent becomes a popular alternative for women. Another possible motivation was the establishment of a stricter form of primogeniture, which took away some of the opportunities for independence open to women; since women were increasingly denied control of their own lives in the secular world, one way to regain it was religion. A similar theory postulates that the new orders (and heresies) appealed to women because initially they were allowed a place of influence within the loose system that they could not find in the older, more organized orders. Carolyn Bynum, however, disputes societal and demographic explanations and contends that the new type of religion presented during the thirteenth century attracted women on its own terms. Instead of being forced to settle for religion as a way to gain power and authority in society, they were in fact discovering and creating a new, more "feminine" religion that captivated their female sensibilities.

All these explanations afford women more powers of choice over their lives than perhaps existed, especially after the headiness of the first years of the movement subsided and hierarchical control reasserted itself. Many women, such as Veronica von Landsberg, did not decide for themselves to enter a convent but rather had the decision made for them by their family; therefore, all reasons that center solely on why women opted for these new orders tell only part of the story. Regardless of what factors contributed to the new influx, it seems clear that women appreciated these religious movements and that once they joined the orders they became integral to them. One has only to look at the Dominicans in Strasbourg to see the impact that women had on the religious landscape.

Strasbourg's eight convents (see the table on p. 17) typify the popularity of the order with women in the Holy Roman Empire (only Constance, with fourteen, had more). Whereas the Poor Clares focused on Italy, Dominican women preferred the empire, even more than did the friars of their order. In 1277, of 414 Dominican men's houses in Europe, only 53 were in Germany. Of the 58 convents, however, 40 were in Germany. By 1303, there were 74 women's houses in Germany (65 in Teutonia and 9 in the newly created province of Saxony), compared to 48 for men. The method of establishing the women's houses explains the numerical disparity. Rather than the order helping to establish a convent (as was the case in other European countries), in Germany lay individuals created the enclosed communities, usually next to a chapel of some sort, and years later petitioned the order for incorporation. Johann Engelbrecht backed the foundation of St. Marx in 1202, more than a decade before Dominic de Guzman's order was officially recognized in 1215, and only later did the house join the order, becoming the first Dominican convent in the empire. More often, women decided to establish the convents for themselves. In 1232 four wealthy Strasbourg widows decided they wanted to retire into their own religious community, to live out their last days together with like-minded women. Pooling their substantial resources, they established St. Matthew-in-Undis (later called St. Nicholas-in-Undis) and thirteen years later petitioned to join the Dominican order. A papal bull then placed the house within the order, subject to its master general and provincial priors. This style of foundation was popular because it meant that the friars did not have to raise funds to establish the convent but rather could accept an already settled house that had proved itself financially secure. This, then, allowed for the establishment of many houses in one area.

The convents of Strasbourg were clearly popular with the city's residents, initially expanding so quickly and successfully that outside authorities had to step in to control their numbers. In 1237 Gregory IX reported that almost three hundred women lived in the five convents open in Strasbourg at the time, and he told the nuns of St. Katherine and St. Marx that they could not accept anyone else because they were already too full. Before 1525 the provincial prior strictly controlled the number of residents within the convents to ensure that the houses were economically able to provide for all the women. After the Reformation, the city council paid the same close attention to guarantee that the convents were not overburdened by too many nuns and not enough money. On average the convents in Strasbourg held anywhere between thirty and fifty nuns before secularization, although numbers varied drastically between houses that reformed during the fifteenth century and those that did not. Saint Agnes had forty-three nuns in 1475 and forty-five in 1525. Saint Nicholas-in-Undis held fifty nuns around 1431, twenty-one in 1442, and thirty-three in 1525.

The flood of women now needing spiritual guidance initially caused consternation for the order's hierarchy. Incorporation into the order did not necessarily mean complete acceptance, especially by the friars who were now expected to take spiritual responsibility for the new nuns. The debate about the "care of nuns" (cura monialium) consumed all the orders as the male religious questioned their affiliations with women and wondered how extensive their responsibility was for the convents claiming to follow their rules. Many saw it as an anomaly to include women in the mendicant orders at all, because canon law and the Bible barred women from preaching. The apparent contradiction troubled contemporaries and caused dissension in all the orders-not only the new ones-regarding how to treat the female religious. Some orders, such as the Premonstratensians (founded in 1120 as an order of canons) and the Cistercians, refused to accept any new convents at all.

The orders gave a variety of reasons for their misgivings. They claimed that they could not financially support so many women (a problem alleviated for Dominicans in Germany by the methods of establishment already discussed). The friars also worried that the time spent on pastoral care for women would necessarily infringe on their other duties. Another common argument focused on the nuns' supposedly detrimental psychological impact on religious men. Women would only corrupt men who were trying to lead pure and chaste lives; the less contact with the opposite sex, the better, even if they were professed religious. As the Premonstratensians put it, "the poisons of snakes and dragons are healthier and less dangerous to men than familiarity with women." Despite their protestations, the papacy disagreed and finally settled on the appropriate relationship between friars and nuns. In 1267 it established the guidelines for the Dominican order's care for the nuns: friars should perform the sacraments, visit houses, correct abuses, and instruct the women in doctrine. The friars provided pastoral care to the nuns but did not have to oversee any temporal matters; the nuns had to hire lay brothers or laymen to carry out these duties. With a clear understanding of its responsibilities for the women, in 1269 the order finally and formally incorporated religious women into its legal structure as the Second Order of Preacheresses.


Excerpted from NAILS IN THE WALL by AMY LEONARD Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1. Life Behind the Walls: The Establishment and Growth of the Dominican Convents
2. From Neighbor to Neighbor: Reformation Theories of the Utility of the Cloister
3. The Reformation Confronts the Convents
4. The Ties That Bind: Nuns, Families, and Magistrates
5. The Empire Strikes Back: The Counter-Reformation in Strasbourg
6. Nuns as Whores: The Closing of St. Nicholas-in-Undis
Appendix: Dominican Nuns in Sixteenth-Century Strasbourg
Selected Bibliography

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