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Defending Women’s Communal Life – Dominican Nuns at Strasbourg (1526)

In the Empire's larger cities there was a large number of communities of the principal mendicant orders, especially Franciscans and Dominicans, and particularly of women. A single city might have housed up to nine or ten houses of female mendicants.The women's communities were cloistered – the men’s were not – and they had stronger local identities, since they enjoyed great favor among well-to-do patrician and merchant families. All of this helps explain why, of all the urban religious communities, female mendicants resisted the evangelicals' anti-monastic agenda more consistently and stalwartly than any other group. In Strasbourg three of the city’s five Dominican women's communities long survived the introduction of the Protestant faith as the city's official religion. The nuns' struggle against the pressure to secularize and disperse is well illustrated by the convent of St. Margaret. Beginning in the mid-1520s, Protestant preachers were repeatedly sent to convert the nuns, while their own priests, on the other hand, were forbidden to minister to them – though, in fact, they did. The question arises as to why the civic magistrates, all of whom adhered to the established religion, tolerated St. Margaret's and the other two convents. One possible explanation is the presence of crypto-Catholicism among some of the city’s leading families. It might have also been that Strasbourg’s Protestant elite appreciated the Dominican convents as educators of young women.

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[2r] In the year of our Lord 1524, as a punishment from God, a widespread error about the true Christian faith appeared all over the German lands. In this same year, Lutheranism also began to appear in Strasbourg in the form of public sermons and the teaching of ministers, who were led by Doctor Martin Bucer (1). The city's magistrates ordered him to convert the nuns, especially those of St. Margaret's (2), to the [that is, his] true faith. For this purpose he was to preach thrice weekly to the nuns, explaining and clarifying with all diligence the clear word of God. At first he told the nuns in friendly words that he wanted to help them, and they should not be afraid, for he had full authority and powers from Rome (3). He said, too, that he had already brought to other convents the freedom to leave if they pleased and to ignore the fast days, and they would no longer be obliged to arise at midnight to sing Matins. His words did not please the prioress, who was named Ursula Bock. She and her nuns replied that they did not want to hear his sermon. Forced by the magistrates to listen to Doctor Bucer, however, they stopped their ears, because his words would cause the good, spiritual children great sadness, for he had abandoned their own order.

[2v] Now – as though to promote the flourishing of the Observants and all the clergy! (4) – all the nuns were forced to listen to the sermon, for otherwise the civic magistrates would destroy their convent. The next day the senior custodian of convents (5) arrived with written orders from the honorable City Council.

First, they must get rid of their father confessor, Michael Lebentorff, a teacher of the Holy Scriptures. This truly pious priest who vehemently opposed Doctor Bucer was ungraciously exiled to the city and the prioress was forbidden from ever seeing him again or letting him back into the convent. The council further ordered that no other priest or friar could be admitted, either secretly or openly, into the cloister. On the contrary, the highly learned Doctor Bucer was to be their true pastor, appointed by the magistrates for their improvement. This the nuns had to accept, and three times a week they had to listen to his horrible sermons against their will. He began at first with sweet words, giving them his poison hidden in honey. He continued to preach but moved no one to change her religion. All the nuns wanted to remain in their holy orders, for among them reigned great love and unity. None would abandon either the order or the faith; all said they wished to keep true to their vows. Then he began using many more harsh words in his sermons. [3r] Oh, such contempt and desecration of the order cannot even be described!

The prioress was greatly distressed, and she worried that the younger sisters might be swayed by his false teachings and decide to leave. She told them not to listen to the perverse sermons anymore. She also warned the nuns not to stand alone at the choir screen, in case Bucer was wandering around the convent and tried to speak with them (6). Some sisters wanted to dress the large angels that stood next to the [high] altar, dress them in habit and veil, and place them at the screen. She ordered a couple of nuns to stand watch and, when the sermon ended, pull the clothed angels back from the screen (7). The charade well impressed this perverse preacher, who thought that the motionless nuns were always listening to his sermons. Then, in a fit of malicious zeal, he nearly overturned the pulpit (8). He thus finally noticed the truth and became hateful and angry to the prioress. He attacked her in words so evil, they should not be repeated.

Oh, how humiliating it all was for her! With terrible threats he went to the City Council and complained of the nuns' sly trickery. The magistrates then commanded that the nuns must attend all sermons and must sit in the nave with the lay folk, directly next to the pulpit.

(1) Martin Bucer (d. 1551), a former Dominican friar, was a leading evangelical at Strasbourg from 1523 to 1549. Though he is referred to as “Doctor Bucer” throughout, he did not hold that degree – trans.
(2) A convent of Dominican women founded in 1224 – trans.
(3) At another place Bucer claims to have authority from the Dominicans' General – trans.
(4) Almost certainly a sarcastic comment by the anonymous writer. In interjecting this phrase, she unmasks the civic regime’s claim to assume the power to reform the religious communities of the Observance (a fifteenth-century reform movement among the mendicant orders – Franciscans, Dominicans, etc.) to imply that it is purely a power play – trans.
(5) The custodians [Klosterherren] were magistrates appointed for this purpose – trans.
(6) The choir screen separated the chapel's choir from its crossing and nave and thus the cloistered from the uncloistered part of the establishment – trans.
(7) The text is ambiguous as to whether there was one or several angels – trans.
(8) And, apparently, the choir screen – trans.

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