Talks, Lectures, Classes

Let’s talk about abbesses and female leadership


                                Crozier and abbess bling.                                (A bit late period, but I liked her best)

I am currently a librarian at an undergraduate institution.  Dr. Elizabeth Lehfeldt gave a talk entitled “Abbesses as Administrators:  Gender and Leadership in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe.”  This seemed like it was right up my alley so here’s my notes.

Some context:  Our school, like many, has been an old boys club for many years, and the current Women’s studies faculty are invested in bringing more women to speak on leadership and administration.   Beyond this point are notes from Lehfeldt’s talk.  My own thoughts will follow in a different post.   Some of the pictures are from her talk but if I couldn’t find the exact picture, I found a similar one.

Because of title 9, many of the professors that come from the same generation who still went to institutions with very few female faculty members.  Pioneers and role models are important aspects of female college experiences, and Dr. Lehfeldt is one of them.   She is VP of the teaching division of the American History Association.  Her area is Early Modern History.  She is the author of the blog, Tales out of School.

This talk will focus on the time period 1450-1560.

Gender and Leadership, women, convent officers, abbesses, how these women succeeded despite being in a society that expected them to fail.  This has links to the current day.  Only 26% of colleges have women as their presidents, 50% of PhD holders are women but do not get associate or full professorship at the same rate as their males.

“What seems to be holding women back is a sticky web of implicit bias and gender assumptions”  which cannot be tackled unless we point them out.

Women rise above what is expected of them, but this hidden web holds women back and have for a very long time

Juana de la Cruz – abbess –  Very pious, said to have visions in her infancy.  Defied her families wishes to marry, dressed as a man and joined the Franciscans.  Her family found her and the nuns paid her dowry that her family accepted.

Peers wanted to elect her as abbess at a young age (25 or 26), male members refused.  Later, came up again, and male leadership were considered that administration would pull her away from her visions. Eventually she became abbess.

From two small fields, to several large ones, the previous income of 9 reals per year increased by 300% under her leadership.  Her biographers praised her for her good governance.

False sanctity investigated by the inquisition.  Magdalena de la Cruz, (no relation to Juana) had faked stigmata and other miracles.  In the eyes of her fellow nuns, She mismanaged the convent and accused her of taking alms and giving them away.  The fiscal impropriety brought her to the attention of the Inquisition.  She confessed to a whole bunch of demonic activities.

Convents were unique in the period for being all female institutions administered by women.  Convents also answered to the male hierarchy and had their affairs oversaw by the men.

Abbess, bookkeepers, accountants, cellaresses, etc. :  a large convent could require a large number of administrators. Candidates for abbess were voted on, and certain requirements had to be met, which could include legitimacy and age.   Abbesses took an oath of office and agreed to obey her superiors.  Abbess portraits tombstones etc, show that they moved from anonymity to public office.  Also received a Crosier.  They could also hold lordship over certain towns, raise troops, appoint officials, priests, and could be in charge of the law.  Also held the seal of the convent for agreements and meant that the corporate group agreed to the item they signed.

Frequently in charge of loans, estates, property, rents.  Additionally had to have enough food and stability for the community. Account books capture revenues and expenditures for the convent, revenue could include rent, dowries, gifts, and expenditures: food, feast days, lawsuits, and other needs.

Individual contracts included the names of all the nuns present. These names accounted for knowledge and agreement to the transaction.  Charge and discharge system.  Nuns needed literacy, numeracy skills to keep these books.

In the 15th and 16th century you start to see books marketed to women related to mathematics and accounting.  It is also thought that women learned these skills in the family.

The records of Spanish convents show careful strategies by minimizing risk by having multiple kinds of property, crops, and income streams, including lending in the community.  Yet, because they were female, male members of the clergy were dismissive of the nun’s ability to administer these complex estates, citing women’s changeability and fragility.

These characterizations caused monks to look over convents more carefully and financial affairs were more frequently meddled in by superiors.  This caused some fraudulent issues when the Cistercians who oversaw a convent changed some documents and then made it  look like the nuns were incompetent.  Unfortunately it seems like the nuns were quite good and the monks wanted to close the convent to acquire their lands.

Enclosure was gendered female in the high middle ages, which meant that women were not to leave the cloister for the most part.  All nuns were thought to be fragile and best to keep inside for protection. Papal sanction in 1298 that demanded enclosure for all nuns.  The papacy made it corrective and punitive to provide for the nuns “who cast off the reins  of modesty” and “roamed outside of their monasteries.”

This was not normative, because it was inconsistent with the ways that nuns lived and managed their estates.  The survival of some nuns relied on patronage, begging, and business as well as offering spiritual solace to their constituents.  They began to push back after 1298 since it was not practical, and how could they follow the rule that is not part of their original orders?

How people are supposed to act, vs how practical life worked was a tension.  Determined sisters who thwarted desires of the male superiors in the hierarchy, she previously saw as usual and exceptional.  There is, however, a really long list of exceptions.  Nuns ignored it from the start, complied and then stopped.  At what point does the exception to the rules mean that we need to revisit how nuns and enclosure actually worked?

This enclosure/resistance reinforces the idea of  nuns fragility or incompetence, and changing how we look at the whole thing, means we get more of a nuanced view of women in the middle ages.  Women’s bodies were enclosed to prevent the sexual impropriety of women.


A turntable for cloistered nuns in Spain to sell pastries. From

Enclosure mandate required that things about the physical space change.  Grill work, higher walls, shuttered windows, closed windows.  The turneaux became a thing in Spain.


All this is told by male monastics and clergy who had a interest in containing women and their autonomy.  While there was the occasional nun who snuck out to have sex, but a wayward nun was a titillating story rather than a common occurrence.

It leads into modern interpretation.  People did not scratch beneath the surface to not look at the actual records of convents.  It is a modern telling that posits women and nuns as titillating, and promiscuous, and diminishes the religious calling 9780226534725and roles women had.  This continues to this day, just look at the recent monograph “Nuns behaving badly.”  This emphasis on scandal demeans nuns and women, but sells books.

Why don’t women succeed in the academy?

Student evals:  Women are mean harsh unfair, strict and annoying.  Men are described as Smart and effective.

Performance evals:  Women who are confident and assertive are characterized as abrasive and pushy.  Men are not characterized as such.

When female executives spoke more than men, they were punished with 14% lower ratings.  Men were given an 11% higher rating.

Strategies for change:  Name the implicit biases.  Advocate for other women.  Talented women have always occupied positions of leadership.

How do we improve this?

By acknowledging the implicit biases that everyone holds.


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