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

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Chapter 33. The Patrician Women Come for Their Daughters

On the following Monday came the wives of Hieronymus Ebner, Caspar Nützel, Friedrich Tetzel, and Sigmund Fürer; they rode in a carriage and tried to force their way into the convent. Since I refused and would not let them in, they said: "We have permission from our husbands and from the entire City Council to enter the convent as often as we please, and we demand to be let in."*

"I have a quite different order from the honorable Council," I replied, "which stipulates that they do not want this convent opened."

They said: "If we enter the convent, it will not become an open convent on that account."

I told them: "When you come in, others who have children here will also want to enter, and the convent would then be made open. With the help of the living God, I will prevent that as long as I can."

When they saw that I would never allow them to enter, they tried to force me to bring their children into the church, so that they could speak to them freely about God's Word and their souls' salvation. I would not permit that, and I told them that I had received their children with the magistrates' approval and would not give them up without the same approval.

To this they replied: "We have sufficient authority to enter, whether you wish it or not. Just tell us whether you are keeping our children from us against the Council's orders, and we will procure a written order that will demonstrate to you how serious the matter is."

I said to them: "The children's fathers asked to hear what the children have to say." Then the women became angry and said: "If the fathers were here, they would carry their children out, and you'd get what you deserve." They knew very well what they were doing and how far they could go. They also asked where the visiting windows were, which the honorable Council had ordered us to close, and said that they were well aware that we should all become so defiant toward the honorable Council. So I said: "It is not possible that we could become so in so short a time, but if we had four weeks time, we could do it." Then Mrs. Ebner spoke up and said that she had to speak alone to her daughter and instruct her sufficiently in God's Word.

After a long dispute I offered to let Mrs. Ebner speak to her daughter alone through the visiting window, or through the little window in the chapel, through which we receive the holy Sacrament, or wherever else she desired. But she didn't want that, saying that she didn't feel secure from being overheard in the chapel. Then she became very angry and said that she didn't want to meet the children at all, and she threatened that she would go and come back with enough authority to make me see reason.

On Tuesday Mrs. Ebner accused me strongly before the entire Council, speaking through her attorney, Nikolaus Haller. He related that I had been so hostile, proud, and strident to the ladies, how I had withheld their children from them by force against the orders of the honorable Council, how I had refused to let them speak with their children at all, and how I had called them liars. The root of the last charge was that they had said to me that I allowed other women into the convent – women who in truth had never set foot here – and that they could produce witnesses who had seen with their own eyes that I permitted this one or that one to enter. Since I had contradicted the truth on this point, Mrs. Ebner said, she knew that she had to say falsely that I had allowed her to do this more than once. I said that I was not calling her a liar, but that this was not true. She perverted this and others of my words and charged me with many other bad things.

On the same day after dinner two magistrates, Sebald Pfintzing and Endres Imhof, were sent to me. They gave me a good talking to, saying that the women had entered a complaint against me, and that the honorable Council was so angry with me, because I had disobeyed their orders and kept the children from their parents, whom by divine ordinance they were bound to obey. I had also defied the honorable Council in other ways. On which account the magistrates were put out with me, which would bring no good to me or the convent. I had prevented the children from speaking to their parents, which was illegal. Therefore, it is the Council's final judgment and decision that, if these people do not wish to let their children live with us, we should know that when the mothers come to fetch their children on the following day, I will have to let the children go freely and without argument. The honorable Council wishes it done this and no other way, however the children feel about it.

I told them that the events had not happened as they were reported to the honorable Council. I repeatedly offered the women the opportunity to speak with their children either through the visiting widow or the chapel window. They refused my offer. They were determined either to force their way into the convent or to have the children brought out into the church.** It was true that I had refused to allow coming and going in and out of the cloister, not from mischievous intent but on the grounds of the magistrates’ own orders. The two magistrates, after all, were present when Sir Sigmund Fürer ordered us on behalf of the Council not to open up the cloister. If people went in and out, the cloister would be breached. It would soon be a major breach, for if one did, all the others would want to do it as well. I told them that the Council's word to me would be honored. I will rely on that, and, with the help of the living God, there will be no open convent as long as I live.

I then told them how the women had behaved. They were surprised and said that a lot of bad things had been reported to the honorable Council, and I was truly cooked alive in the pot. I should reflect on my actions and should in the future not keep the children from their parents by force, when they came to fetch them, for we would have no peace as long as they kept coming. Perhaps things will then go better, and we will be somewhat relieved of the daily incursions and tumult.

I told them how glad the nuns were that two of their fathers had been sent to them, before the mothers came again, so that they could speak with the men. They replied that that would not happen. If the nuns returned to their fathers' houses, they would have plenty of time to speak with their fathers.

At last I asked them to repeat my reply to the honorable Council and to tell them the truth against this unjust charge. They promised to do as I wished. And, indeed, Nikolaus Haller was asked why he had said these things to the honorable Council. He replied that he had said nothing but what the women had told him. He had assumed that they spoke the truth. And thus they stood exposed as liars.

* For the sake of the narrative, these conversations, which were reported in indirect speech, have been transposed into direct speech – trans.
** This passage is to be explained by the layout of the chapel and church. The church of St. Clare’s itself was not within the cloistered (i.e., closed) area and was open to the public. It connected to a chapel, where the nuns heard Mass, and they received Holy Communion through the connecting window. Abbess Pirckheimer would allow the nuns to speak to their mothers at the window, but she would not bring them into the church, from which the mothers, of course, could have snatched the daughters and taken them home – trans.

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