Family, Sex and Convents: Nuns in the Early Reformation

Religious houses–where monks or nuns lived together in community–held an important place in the Catholic Church from the early middle ages. Martin Luther himself was an Augustinian friar until his campaign made him disobedient. Across Europe, these houses were places of learning, hospitality and piety (i.e. good religious behaviour).

Yet Luther and other Protestant reformers came to oppose this traditional way of life. Why?

Monks and nuns normally expressed their commitment to God with three promises: to give any wealth to the church, to be obedient, and to have no sex. But not all upheld their good reputations. Critics pointed to unruly convents, wicked nuns, drunk monks; to places of disobedience, sexual immorality and no learning. The stereotype of the corrupt convent and its wild inhabitants became a Protestant symbol of the worst parts of the Catholic Church.

Luther criticised the lives of monks and nuns based on his own experiences. He said most people weren’t made for a celibate life. The frustrations felt by monks and nuns, he argued, led to immorality. It distracted them from their piety. Nuns were especially important to Luther’s arguments. He claimed (some) women were forced to become nuns through family or economic pressures. If their convents were places of sin, it was nearly impossible for them to lead a pious (good) life.

Reformers thought marriage was the best form of Christian life. Living sexless lives was actively discouraged. Marriage and family life enabled husbands and wives to free themselves from sexual frustration and focus on living piously. Reformers argued women were meant to be mothers and wives, and would be happier in domestic homes than in convents. Some women found the freedom of the early Reformation liberating: a chance to escape and lead new lives. One famous example is Katherine von Bora, Luther’s wife. She escaped her convent at night in an apple-cart, helped by some of Luther’s friends.

However, not all nuns agreed. Not all convents were unruly. The combination of learning, piety and female community could be a wonderful choice. For nuns who had chosen this way of life, it seemed like Reformers wanted to control and undermine them. Some nuns actively defended their convent to stop it being shut down. Others attempted to negotiate, presenting their convent as a place of charity and social care. Some nuns were too old to marry, or had no family to return to. Others did not fancy domestic married bliss. The Reformation threatened the female power they enjoyed. Outside convents, women were under the authority of fathers or husbands.

Nuns and their way of life remained a difficult issue. They sat at the centre of debates about women’s roles. They illustrated differences between individual and collective expressions of piety. Nuns, finally, embodied ideas of the old and the new authorities on sex, choice and community.

Featured image: Caritas Pirckheimer (1467-1532) was Abbess of Saint Clara’s convent in Nuremberg. Detail from an original photograph by Andreas Praefcke. Creative Commons License 3.0.