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Defending Women’s Communal Life – Caritas Pirckheimer at Nuremberg (1524)

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Chapter 32. The Nuns Deliberate on their Situation

[ . . . ] I called the sisters to a chapter meeting and asked for advice from each as to what we might do concerning these serious matters, on which depended the destruction of our convent and, indeed, all religious life. I desired to know from each sister separately whether she wanted to accept the new rules the City Council had laid upon us. All voted, without exception, both together and individually, to keep to the rule to which their vow to God bound them, and to refuse the rule laid upon us by the City Council. Humbly and voluntarily they declared that they did not wish to be free [of the convent]. They would gladly obey me and do whatever I said, if only I would stay by them and not abandon them in their distress and fear. And so I promised once more my loyalty to them, that I would remain with them at the risk of life and limb until death, if need be, if only they, for their part, would remain steadfast in the true Christian faith and in the religious life. If they wanted, however, to turn Lutheran or be unfaithful to [Christ] their bridegroom and open the convent, I would not remain here a single day more.

Thus we consoled one another in faith and with fervent tears, and we vowed again to remain faithful to one another in sisterly love. And we declared before God as a community that we would not voluntarily accept anything that was against God and our holy rule. Yet, if we were compelled, we wanted Our Lord to recognize that we had to yield to force, against which we could not defend ourselves. We once again renewed our promise that if we had to obey something that was against our rule, we would not continue to do it any longer than necessary, and at the moment the situation improved, we would stop.

Concerning the unwanted window grate: since it could not be refused (and in order to avoid something worse), the sisters voted that I was to have a single window grate installed, and that it would be used in accordance with our rule to the greatest extent possible. The rule did not entirely prohibit us from seeing the speaker's face, and the sisters declared that they did not want the [new] rule of speaking without another sister present. They had nothing to say to their relations, they declared, that they would not say before a third party. Besides, it would be dangerous to speak with outsiders alone, because then it could be alleged that we had said something we never said at all. As things are now, our words and actions are already being distorted.

The issue of dress proved most difficult. The nuns wished to ask some good friends for advice about how we could defend ourselves against this and other changes. I agreed and asked some good friends, who were knowledgeable and good-hearted, for advice as to how we could defend ourselves. The friends said that it was unthinkable for us to oppose these people, and that we must yield a little in order to prevent the destruction of our community. Our foes, the friends added, use great force in everything they do. Speak as they might, they in fact fear neither emperor nor pope, nor even God Himself! To them, nothing matters except saying this is the way things must be – this way and no other, and they have been heard to boast of being more powerful than the pope himself. [ . . . ]

[The City Council had declared that the community had to accept two changes: a grate in the visiting window, so that the nun and the lay visitor could view each other; and the removal of the nuns’ habits in favor of laywomen's clothing. The prioress's lay advisors told her that the new rule concerning the grate was suggested by magistrates who, friendly toward the nuns, thought this change would avoid the greater evil of being forced to open the convent to lay visitors. On the matter of clothing, the friends advised her to wait, for the issue of giving up the habits had roused support for the nuns in the City Council.] The community of Pillenreuth, they told us, had strongly opposed abandoning their order's habits.* Their leader, Magdalena Kress, asked her brother Christoph,** who was then an officer of the Swabian League, to help her preserve the habit. He told his sister, the magistrates were informed, that if she was dissatisfied with one habit, she might put three, one over the other, and Kress himself would dare anyone to remove the habits from his sister. The idea was that she could retain her habit; we might also preserve our community's privileges, if we all stand together.

Later, on the Saturday before Trinity Sunday [June 10, 1525], Hieronymus Ebner and our guardian, Caspar Nützel, demanded from us the release of their daughters, Katharina Ebner and Clara Nützel. Although the honorable City Council had ordered us to change our habits, we were told that these two women would not have to do that, because next week they would be removed from the convent and clothed appropriately. Oh, what fear, anxiety, and heartbreak now began for these poor children! One cannot imagine how wretched their lives were from this moment on. Yet they still hoped to save themselves as nuns.

* This refers to a community of Augustinian canonesses at Pillenreuth, a village south of Nuremberg but within the city's territory. Founded in 1345, the convent was destroyed in 1552 – trans.
** Christoph Kress (1484-1535), patrician of Nuremberg, which he often represented in the Imperial Diet. At this time, he was one of the three officers or commanders of the Swabian League – trans.

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