Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
The Domesticity of Nuns: Family and Household within the Convent
Emilie Amt, Hood College

This paper will explore two forms of domesticity at Godstow Abbey outside Oxford: kin relationships among the twelfth-century nuns, and the separate households found within the fifteenth-century convent. In Godstow’s first 70 years (c.1130-1200), more than half of its nuns had close blood relatives (mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, grand-daughters, aunts, nieces) among the vowed sisterhood. Thus kinship interests and familial relationships forged outside the cloister were carried into the religious community and were crucial in shaping the monastic culture. The prevalence of such relationships seems to have declined in later centuries, but occasional family ties were still important as late as the 1500s. In late medieval England, many female monastic communities were also divided into “households” (familiae). Various historians (Power, 1922; Gilchrist, 1994; Oliva, 1998; Warren, 2001) have offered, usually in passing, interpretations of this phenomenon, but rarely have these been based on a close reading of the historical evidence in the context of what is known of late medieval monastic practices. I will argue that at Godstow, where four such households were said to exist, this meant that groups of nuns pooled their financial resources to pay for household-based meals and perhaps to employ servants, but that they did not necessarily have separate dining and sleeping quarters. In other words, the nuns’ membership in and identity as a household were more organizational and notional than spatial or visible. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, the nuns of Godstow, far from renouncing the blood ties and domestic relationships that characterized secular society, preserved or replicated them within the monastic community. Rather than form a monolithic unit of sisters in Christ, they participated in multiple familial groups and used these secular models to organize key elements of the monastic life, including the domestic economy.

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