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Women in the Middle Ages


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The Wrath of Nuns

from Feudal Society in Medieval France: Documents from the County of Champagne. Theodore Evergates, trans. and ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Pages132-134

Pope Urban IV (1261-1264), son of a shoemaker of Troyes, decided to commemorate his family and native city by constructing a large church in the latest gothic style on the very site of his childhood home. In 1262 he ordered the owner of the house, the convent of Notre-Dame of Troyes, to sell it at a reasonable price to papal procurators, who at the time were buying up all the adjacent properties on which the new church would be built. The nuns were not pleased, as Urban had just reversed a very close election of their abbess and imposed the minority candidate.17 After the dedication of Saint-Urbain in 1265, the nuns' resentment turned to violence, as explained in the letters of Urban's successor, Pope Clement IV. First the nuns willfully damaged the new altar (Doc. A) and perhaps were responsible for the fire which seriously damaged the roof;18 then they attacked a papal envoy in order to prevent the dedication of Saint-Urbain's cemetery (Doc. B) .19


17. A summary of these events is in Penelope D. Johnson, Equal in Monastic Profession: Religious Women in Medieval France (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87-89, 171-172.

18. For the damage caused by the nuns, see Michael T. Davis, "On the Threshold of the Flamboyant: The Second Campaign of Construction of Saint-Urbain, Troyes," Speculum 59 (1984): 847-884.

19. Texts in Charles Lalore, ed., "Documents sur l'abbaye de Notre-Dame-aux-Nonnains de Troyes," Memoires de la Société académique d'agriculture, des sciences, arts et belles lettres du département de L'Aube 38 (1874): 120-121, no. 194; 123-124, no. 199.

(A) Clement [IV] to his dear sons the archdeacon of Luxeuil and the dean of Saint-Etienne of Troyes, my chaplains, greeting and apostolic benediction. Through unheard of insolence and arrogance against God and religious propriety, the abbess and nuns of the convent of Notre-Dame of Troyes vilely wished to demolish the new church of Saint-Urbain of Troyes which was built through privileges and subsidies from the Holy See. They and their accomplices destroyed the altar which by papal mandate the dean and chapter [of Saint-Urbain] erected to celebrate the divine mysteries: they sawed through the church doors, cut up the marble altar stone, and destroyed the stone-moving machines, ropes, timbers, carpenters' tools, tiles, and other things which they violently carried off. Not content with that, they later compounded the damage by destroying the doors which the canons installed as replacements [for the damaged ones] and carried them off to their convent.

Such acts, produced not by gentleness or devotion but rather by a pitiless and insolent attitude, deeply offend the Holy See, which cannot overlook grave excesses in contempt of the divine majesty. Since the nuns' accomplices, both clerics and laymen — whose names are not known to the dean and chapter of Saint-Urbain — encouraged and aided the nuns in perpetrating their malice, I am unwilling to let such a heinous crime pass under silence, nor to let them off with impunity; nor will I permit such an example to stand.

I therefore order you [his chaplains] to summon those clerics and laymen [accomplices] publicly in churches to give full satisfaction to the dean and chapter of Saint-Urbain within fifteen days (unless you set another deadline) under pain of general excommunication, which you may have published as you see fit, notwithstanding anyone's papal indulgence of exemption from excommunication or interdict.

Given at Viterbo, the, kalends of October [October 1], in the second year of my pontificate [1266].

(B) Clement [IV], bishop and servant of God, to his sons the archdeacon of Luxeuil and the dean of Saint-Etienne of Troyes, my chaplains, greeting and apostolic benediction.

Wishing to bestow appropriate honor on the church of Saint-Urbain of Troyes, which was founded by subsidies from the Roman Church, I ordered the former bishop of Auxerre, now the archbishop of Tyre, who was consulting in that region of France, to dedicate the cemetery of Saint-Urbain that is reserved for its canons, clerics, and their servants. However, the abbess and some nuns of the Benedictine convent of Notre-Dame of Troyes along with armed men — as the dean and chapter of Saint-Urbain related to me — surrounded the archbishop and prevented him from entering the church by closing the church doors, even though he was carrying out a papal mandate. Although he threatened them with excommunication if they did not open the doors and let him through, they forcefully placed hands on him and pushed him back.

Later, as the archbishop was returning to Saint-Urbain to carry out his mandate, the nuns intercepted him in the street and threatened to prevent him again from entering the church. They explained why they had impeded him earlier: primarily because the abbess and the convent were compelled by the Holy See [by Pope Urban IV] to sell their houses, revenues, rents, legal rights, jurisdiction, and other things for which they were not fully compensated, and the arbitrator appointed to work out a compromise in this dispute had not yet announced a decision.

Although the dean and chapter of Saint-Urbain said they were prepared to carry out all terms of the arbitration, they humbly petitioned me to intervene in the case. Therefore I order you [his chaplains] by this apostolic letter that in the presence of the people in churches you publicly, by my papal authority, warn those clerics and laymen accomplices of the abbess and nuns — whose names are not known by the dean and chapter of Saint-Urbain — to render satisfaction within fifteen days (or any other term you fix). If they do not, you are to promulgate a general sentence of excommunication that will be solemnly declared on every Sunday and feast day, with church bells ringing and candles lit, in all places you deem appropriate.

Given at Viterbo, the ides of July [July 15], in the fourth year of my pontificate [1268].

[The nuns and their accomplices were excommunicated on March 15, 1269, and finally released from that sentence on March 23, 1274.]


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