Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in EMF: STUDIES IN EARLY MODERN FRANCE, VOL. 11, THE CLOISTER AND THE WORLD: EARLY MODERN CONVENT VOICES, ed. Anne L. Birberick and Russell Ganim; Guest Editor, Thomas M. Carr, Jr. (Charlottesville: Rookwood Press, 2007), pp. 1–6. Copyright © 2007 Rookwood Press. Used by permission.


Early modern nuns seem poles apart from women in the West today. They strove after an ideal of perfection that stressed humility, intellectual simplicity, asceticism, and submission that is the opposite of the autonomy and empowerment the contemporary feminist movement proposes for women. Even during the Ancien Régime nuns were isolated from their own society by the Council of Trent's revitalization of clausura. To modern eyes, the cloistered nun epitomizes a hierarchical church that cut a woman off from her own society, leaving her little initiative or voice. However, a burgeoning number of books and articles published in the last fifteen years have shown that such a view-one that marginalizes nuns from their society-reflects the Enlightenment's bias against monasticism more than it does the realities of early modern life. Recent scholarship stresses how convents were intimately linked to the social, economic, political, and intellectual realities of their day, and points to the fact that, while most nuns had internalized what Bert Roest calls the "dominant narratives of submission" ("Female Preaching," 140),* many nuns managed just the same to manoeuvre within these gendered ideals of perfection and to stretch their limits.