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

Protestant reformers condemned celibacy and advocated marriage. According to Luther and his followers, the problem with celibacy was not the abuse thereof – as most earlier reformers had argued – but rather the celibate life in and of itself. God, after all, had decreed marriage for the replenishment of the population but also for the curbing of lust. In places where Protestants got the political upper hand, they usually tried to abolish ordered religious communities – a move that met with stronger resistance from female communities than male ones.

This “memoire” (actually more of an apologia) by Caritas Pirckheimer (1467-1532), prioress of the convent of St. Clare’s (Franciscans) at Nuremberg, relates the most famous case of nuns' resistance to the dissolution of their community.

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Chapter 1. Portents of Trouble, 1524

The following describes part of what happened to our convent here at St. Clare's in Nuremberg during those dangerous, tumultuous times, and also includes some letters written in those days.

As is well known, for a long time it was prophesied that when we reached the year 1524, a great flood would undermine and change everything on this earth. And although this was generally understood to mean a flood of water, it turned out that the stars portended less such a flood than much tribulation, anxiety, and trial, and then a great shedding of blood. In the aforementioned year it happened that many things were altered through the new doctrine of Lutheranism [luterey], and a great dispute arose concerning the Christian faith. Furthermore, in many localities the church's ceremonies were abolished and the clerical estate was entirely ruined. There was preaching about "Christian freedom," meaning that the church's laws and the vows of religious persons were to be regarded as worthless, and that no one was obliged to obey them.

Thus it happened that many nuns and monks made use of such freedom and left their convents and orders and threw off their habits; some married and did what they pleased. From this arose great contention and animosity, for many of the powerful and many of the ordinary folk came day after day to visit their relatives in our community. They preached to the sisters, told them about the new doctrine, and argued unceasingly about how the religious estate was so damnable and seductive, also that it was not possible to gain salvation in it, and how we all belonged to the Devil. Some of them wanted to fetch their children, sisters, and aunts from the convent by force, using many threats and big promises – the half of which they could have scarcely made good on.

These attacks and disputes lasted a long time and were often conducted in hot anger and with hurtful words. Yet through God's grace no sister was moved by them, for which the Franciscan friars were blamed, as it was said that the friars had so instructed us that it was impossible to convert us to the new faith as long as we had friars for our preachers and confessors.

When we heard that the honorable City Council had decided to take our chaplains from us by force, I reported this to the community and took advice from them. The sisters deliberated about how they would be affected if the convent were taken from the friars' legal governance and brought under the power of spoiled priests and escaped monks. The sisters agreed unanimously that we should not wait for the Council to deprive us of the priests by force, for it would not be easy to get them back, even if we complained as much as possible. We should submit a petition now and tell the Council clearly how grievous and harmful such a change would be to us, and express the great hope that it would take this to heart.

Thus I followed their advice and composed a petition, which is given below. I read it to the community. All sisters without exception approved it and advised me that in addition to the petition I should write to the guardian and also to Sir Hieronymus Ebner (1) and Sir Martin Geuder (2), so that the petition could have greater effect. [ . . . ]

(1) The magistrate Hieronymus Ebner (1477-1533), a friend of Albrecht Dürer, belonged to a circle that was the chief point-of-entry for Lutheran ideas in Nuremberg – trans.
(2) The magistrate Martin Geuder was Caritas's brother-in-law – trans.

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