A nunnery by any other name

As you may have gathered from my previous entries, I study female monasteries in the early Middle Ages. When I tell people this, it’s often accompanied by a blank look, until I follow it up with “or, nunneries”. This has happened often enough that I wondered if I should avoid the problem completely and stick with just using the term ‘nunnery’ in general.

Why did I start using ‘female monastery’ to begin with? Well, when we look at the sources that talk about these communities, the terms that are used are a monasterium or conventus of sanctimoniales (a monastery or convent of religious women). There was no early medieval Latin term for nunnery – this was only introduced from Middle English in the late 13th century. Instead monasterium and conventus were actually used to describe both male and female monastic houses. In the language of the period, the words used to describe a monastic community didn’t differentiate based on gender.


The collegiate church of the convent of Gandersheim “Bad-Gandersheim-Stiftskirche-Seite-vorn” by Misburg3014 – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s mainly from modern usage that we assume the word ‘monastery’ indicates a male-only community and ‘nunnery’ a female-only community. In fact, there is an archaic term that is the male equivalent of nunnery – a monkery. While it’s an amusing word (albeit slightly tinged with derogatory anti-Catholic overtones from the reformation onwards), it’s now obsolete because in popular usage, ‘monastery’ has come to stand for ‘male monastic house’.

Monkeries aside, there’s also another part to this name problem. In the early Middle Ages, not all monastic women lived in single-sex nunneries. In fact, the most prominent form of female monastery from the seventh century to the early ninth century was the double house: a group of nuns and monks, living in the same foundation (although separated from each other) all under the rule of an abbess. Technically, the community of women within the double house could itself be called a nunnery, but it existed within the larger monastery. Or, women could live as canonesses, following a monastic way of life but not bound by the same strict rules as women in a nunnery – they could still own property, live in separate residences within the foundation and leave to get married when they wished. Even more loosely, women who did not want to take vows as nuns but still wanted to live in a semi-monastic way could become Beguines from the thirteenth century onwards, living in their own houses within a Beguinage. If women wanted to take their devotions to a more extreme form, they could live as anchoresses, staying inside a small cell attached to a church or a monastery, which could even be walled up permanently. All these women took part in a form of life that we can fairly broadly describe as monastic, but it’s not possible to say that they all lived in nunneries.

So, when I tell people I study female monasticism and female monasteries, it’s a deliberate choice. Rather than collapse all the varieties of monastic life for medieval women into nunnery, a term which has its own later connotations, I’m going to keep using the words that early medieval people would have recognised: female monasteries and convents.


6 thoughts on “A nunnery by any other name

  1. Hi there! Thanks for a great post, it was very enlightening. I also study female spirituality and, as a non-native English speaker, I usually have questions about the ideal term. In that regard, would you favour (as I tend to do) the expression “female monastery” over the most usual “convent”? I’m talking about the Late Middle Ages (from the 13th c. onwards, specifically). Thanks once again for your time!

    1. Hi Delfi – as I’m an early medieval historian, I’m not sure I’m the best qualified to speak about the Late Middle Ages. However, as my post outlined, I believe we need to carefully think about the definitions that lie behind the terms we use. Female monastery is, in my opinion, a better general term which can cover a variety of different types of monastic institutions that included women. If I’m specifically talking about a particular monastery with only women living under a defined monastic rule, then I wouldn’t have a problem calling it a convent.

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