Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

How One Medieval Nun Reformed a Devil’s Nest

Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Miccuci on the set for the 2018 film The Little Hours.

This is Part 15 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Diana Dennisen. You can find the rest of the series here.

In the popular imagination, medieval nuns are often thought of as passive. If people think of them at all, they think of them as peaceful, reclusive, and ultimately marginal figures in society and politics. But, in recent decades, historians have shown that the lives of medieval nuns were more complex than this. Some were cloistered and reclusive, to be sure, but others were dynamic, outspoken, powerful, and more than willing to use their voice to demand change.

Alijt Bake was one of the latter.

In 1440 CE, a 25-year-old Dutch woman named Alijt Bake travelled from Utrecht (currently in the Netherlands) to Ghent (currently in Belgium) to become a nun in the convent of Galilea. Her life in Utrecht did not suit her very well, and she was ready for a change. And we know all of this because she wrote an autobiography. Alijt’s life story, entitled Boexcken van mijn beghin ende voortganck (“Book on My Beginnings and Progress”), begins when she enters the convent of Galilea and things do not exactly work out as planned. During the turbulent years between 1440 and when Alijt died in 1455, she faced great difficulties. But, she resisted these challenges with enormous strength.

Medieval nuns did not always have the same privileges as their male counterparts in the monastery. They could, for instance, often not study Latin from a young age. This may sound like a small thing, but it wasn’t; it limited their ability to participate in the religious life they had dedicated themselves to. Alijt complained that she did not understand enough Latin to follow the readings during the church service, or to participate in the reciting of the liturgical hours. Her text tells us that:

She did not recite as loudly and quickly as they [the other nuns] wanted. Therefore she often had to endure a lot from them. […] She read badly, because she did not understand what she had read. […] She let the others talk. She stuck to her beliefs and thought: “I do not understand the text of the lectures and therefore my heart cannot concentrate on it” [or in other words: I do not feel moved by it].

Despite this, Alijt wrote extensively. From her writing, we know a lot about her. She was not a passive or God-fearing nun—in fact she argued with God when she needed to. She was a reformer at heart; Alijt strove to be in a position of power so that she could change the things that she disliked in her convent. And she refused to be marginalised or silenced when, eventually, life got very difficult for her.

This is her story.

Gossip and Envious Nuns

A group of nuns learn from an Abbess. British Library Royal MS E VI/1, f.27r.

Alijt had very high expectations of her new life in the convent. Unfortunately, her first impression of it was a huge disappointment. She writes (and I translate):

I experienced almost no commitment, but instead a corrupted environment, a vain focus on appearances and strikingly much superficiality and unauthorized freedoms. Here governed also a lot of hate, envy, dissatisfaction, discomfort, gossip, prejudice, animosity and discord and a lot that seemed to go against the pure observance of the convent. People obeyed whomever they wanted, this person obeyed that person, this person obeyed another person. What can I say about it? I found nothing else than a devil’s nest obscured by seemingly decent religiosity.

Alijt found life inside the convent disappointingly similar to life outside. She complains that the other nuns were not enlightened at all. These seemingly pious women gossiped and were mean to each other, just like the people Alijt knew back home. Perhaps Alijt had an idealized image of life as a nun in her head and found it hard to accept that this image did not conform to reality.

However, Alijt also deliberately positioned herself as an outsider in her text. She used this role as an outsider to argue for change in the convent. It is, therefore, likely that the truth about the state of the convent lay somewhere in the middle—Alijt might have encountered envious, gossipy and prejudiced nuns in Ghent, but they were probably not all that bad. There was not a single type of nun in the Middle Ages: some nuns were completely devoted to a spiritual life, some were sent to the convent by their families, and a lot of nuns were pious at certain moments and perhaps less pious in other circumstances. They were, in essence, complicated people like you or me.

The other nuns in Ghent said that Alijt wanted “to be perfect far too quickly” and they told her that she needed to focus on her mistakes and sins first—something that may resonate with many idealistic reformers. Alijt starts to worry:

I am simply young and naïve, they tell me. I have to admit: they are old and wise. They have heard, seen, and experienced a lot of things that I do not know about.

Full of self-doubt, Alijt felt that it was probably better for her to leave the convent. She did not fit in at all and she did not care what the others, especially the prioress Hille Sonderlants, thought of her anymore:

I went to the prioress to let her know what was on my mind. I told her everything that was bothering me and informed her about my plan [to leave the convent]. She blamed me a lot and she was very offended. When I saw that, I became even more frank and told her everything as I had experienced it. I also mentioned her shortcomings to her and said that I was surprised that she had been so blind that she could not see what everyone else saw. […] She became very upset and she could hardly endure it. She said that nobody had ever spoken to her in that way. If I had not fallen to my knees at that moment, the whole convent would have been very upset with me.

Hille was outraged by Alijt’s behaviour and the rebellious novice knew that she had to formally apologise to her by falling to her knees. It was not acceptable for a novice to openly criticise her prioress like this. The prioress was the only one who could accuse the nuns of wrongdoings and Alijt’s accusations hugely undermined Hille’s authority in the convent. Yet, Hille did not send Alijt back home to Utrecht, possibly because Alijt’s father seemed to have personally known the founder of the convent in Ghent, Jan Eggaert. While she overstepped the mark, Alijt perhaps knew about how far she could go, based upon her connections.

Reform!

Two nuns learning from another, from the Burnet Psalter, 61r.

After her fight with the prioress, Alijt suddenly reveals to her readers that some of the other nuns were on her side. These nuns agreed with Alijt about, for instance, the bad state of the convent. Alijt writes how “they would have liked to keep me here, because they wished me the best and all loved me.” We should probably take this with a grain of salt, because the purpose of Alijt’s life-story was also to convince other nuns to follow her reforms. But this puts Alijt’s fight with the prioress in a new light. Alijt was not just expressing her frustrations, she was fighting for power. Eventually, Alijt decided to stay in the convent after all. This was a good move because, after Hille’s death in 1445, Alijt was elected the new prioress. She entered the convent of Galilea as a rebellious novice. Five short years later, Alijt was in charge of it.

Alijt’s new position in the convent did not guarantee that she did not meet with resistance. In fact, she wrote that “as long as I live I have to experience resistance from people who misunderstand me and do not know me.” But this did not stop her from reforming the convent. Instead of mainly focussing on “outer activities” (i.e., physical tasks like such as spinning and other household tasks rather than spiritual, intellectual, or meditative ones), Alijt encouraged the other nuns to pay much more attention to their inner spiritual state. She described herself as “a mother of our religious order in reforming the inner life.”

In the meantime, Alijt also started writing about her experiences. She produced some instructional texts in Middle Dutch (i.e., medieval Dutch) for her fellow nuns. And Alijt also turned the convent into a place where new texts were produced. The nuns in Ghent already had notebooks for them to write in (so called rapiaria), but these were only meant for copying existing prayers and meditations for their own personal use, rather than for writing new texts. The male leaders of the convent of Galilea considered writing about spiritual visions to be risky, especially for women. They feared that these spiritual visions and revelations did not come from God, but from the devil. They thought that writing and disseminating these texts about their spiritual visions had the potential to harm the women in the convent.

Banishment

For nine years, everything seemed to go well. Then, Alijt’s time as prioress abruptly came to an end when a delegation of men who represented the Windesheim congregation visited the convent.

To briefly explain, the Alijt’s convent of Galilea was part of a group called the Windesheim congregation. That congregation was a part of the German-Dutch reform movement known as the Devotio Moderna, or “Modern Devotion”—which was not Protestant (existing about a century before the Reformation began in earnest), but was instead trying to reform the Church from within. Theirs was a movement that highly valued modesty and humility. For example, the women in the convents of the Windesheim congregation were not supposed to have any personal belongings. In short, their religious doctrine dictated that their lives needed to be as simple and sober as possible.

We do not know what happened exactly when the men of Windesheim visited Alijt. But we do know that they were so outraged by what was going on in Alijt’s community that they banished the prioress from her convent. In the same year, all the nuns were forbidden from writing on doctrine or about their visions any longer. So it’s probable that one of the main reasons for the delegation’s outrage was the fact that the nuns under Alijt’s leadership were writing.

But Alijt refused to be silenced and marginalised. She was convinced that her punishment was unjust. She angrily writes to a sympathetic rector:

They robbed me of my mantle, that is to say, my self-respect. They robbed me from the outside of my position and my good name, that was fruitful for many. They covered my face in shame.

Although Alijt kept fighting her punishment by writing letters and trying to convince people to reverse her banishment, she died in Antwerp at the age of forty, not long after her banishment, on the 18th of October, 1455. We don’t know why she died, but we have a few clues. In her final correspondence, Alijt wrote that she did not care about her body, but only about her soul. She had written extensively about her own suffering—for her reforming cause—throughout her autobiography. We do not know whether Alijt meant that her suffering was spiritual and intellectual, or also physical. If she meant physical suffering, it may mean that Alijt practiced asceticism—renouncing any physical comfort, and likely fasting extensively—during her banishment. This kind of ascetic lifestyle could have contributed to Alijt’s death.

Legacy

A page from Alijt Bake’s ‘Letter from exile’, MS Gent, University Library 3854, f. 221. Printed in W. F. Scheepsma, Deemoed en Devotie (1997).

The story that Alijt wrote about her life was kept safe by the people who supported her. Her voice survives because her work was copied in the sixteenth century, and again in the early eighteenth century. So, luckily, Alijt’s voice could not be silenced. Now, Alijt’s Boexcken forms an important part of the history of the convent of Galilea in Ghent and, most of all, of the place of this remarkable woman within it. And more, it helps us to rethink what medieval nuns were really like.

But maybe we should read it with a grain of salt. We don’t know exactly which parts of Alijt’s life story really happened, and which parts of her story she made up for her own benefit. However, it is clear that Alijt had the ambition to be a reformer. She was willing to suffer for her beliefs. She strongly resisted Hille Sonderlants, the prioress. She fought the representatives of the Windesheim congregation. Alijt’s rebellious spirit proves once again that the lives of medieval nuns were more complex than we might think. “I felt a raging love”, Alijt tells us in her text. This rage caused Alijt’s downfall, but it is what makes us remember her still today.


Notes

For more about Alijt’s life (in Dutch): http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/sche064deem01_01/sche064deem01_01_0010.php.

Author’s Note: All English translations are my own and they are for the most part based on Spaapen’s 1967 edition. For this edition of the Middle Dutch text, see Bernard Spaapen in ‘De autobiografie van Alijt Bake’ en ‘De brief uit de ballingschap’ in Ons Geestelijk Erf  41 (1967), pp. 209-301, 321-50, 351-67. For a modern Dutch translation of Boexcken van mijn beghin ende voortganck, see R. Th. M. Van Dijk en M. K. A. van den Berg (ed. and trans.), Alijt Bake, tot in de peilloze diepte van God: De vrouw die moest zwijgen over haar mystieke weg (Kampen: Kok, 1997).

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