Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Singing nuns
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    A group of four nuns stand while singing from a liturgical book. The choir mistress or Sängerin, points to the words of the litany to keep everyone together. Above the letter, the image is labelled der Sengerin in red. This illustrated initial comes from a text written by Johannes Meyer (1422-1485), a Dominican reformer of the Observant Movement, who adapted Humbert of Romans' 13th century Liber de instructione officialium into the vernacular language Ämterbuch or Book of Offices. This new text was intended for Dominican nuns who wanted to reform their houses and keep the original rule of the order. The book spelled out the roles and responsibilities for the different offices within women's monasteries. The choir mistress needed to make sure that the monastery had the books required for the liturgy, that they had been well written and corrected, that the bindings were cared for, and that anyone who damaged a book was punished in Chapter, the regular meetings that the community held for business and for reflection.

    Choir nuns made an important contribution to the celebration of the Divine Office. Eight times per day, from the pre-dawn hours to the late evening, they sang the psalms and other texts that reflected the liturgical seasons throughout the year. Dominican reformers of the Observant movement, like Johannes Meyer, put an emphasis on nuns' responsibilities in participating in the liturgy, as well as in memorial masses for the dead. Ehrenschwendtner estimates that nuns spent around eight hours per day in chapel performing liturgical duties. The lay communities surrounding women's monasteries also valued the singing for its beauty and guarantee of prayers ascending to God. These duties could be onerous, especially for lesser endowed houses that needed to earn money through weaving or other cloth work. Reform measures often pushed less devout nuns and their dowries to other houses, leaving Observant monasteries with fewer sisters and resources to support a fully elaborated liturgical schedule while earning money for the community's upkeep. Winston-Allen reports on a prioress at Preetz, Anna von Buchwald, who feared in 1484 for her nuns' health due to overwork. She asked the bishop if two of the daily services could be consolidated along with some other liturgical time saving measures. Though her request was initially denied, the bishop and head of her order granted the changes the following day.

    Choir nuns in these houses demonstrate a degree of Latin literacy, as well as musical knowledge, in their daily performances of the changing liturgical texts. Undoubtedly there was a wide range of literacies from the ability to simply decode sounds up to a full reading and writing comprehension. With surviving choir books from Paradies bei Soest written by nuns, in fluid and accurate hands, Schlotheuber argues for advanced levels of Latin fluency among the scribes.

  • Source: Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig
  • Rights: Public domain. Creative Commons
  • Subject (See Also): Literacy Liturgy- Offices Monasticism Music Nuns Singers and Singing Women Artists Women in Religion Women Scribes
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1483
  • Related Work: Digitized copy of Leipzig, Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, Ms 1548.
    The Sacristan, illuminated initial from Leipzig, MS 1548, fol. 34v.
    Nun instructing a girl in music (right). This page also represents a nun playing a hand organ (right) and a diagram, known as a Guidonian hand, for learning music (center). Ebstorf, MS V,3 fol. 200v.
    Nuns in a liturgical procession, London, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 11, fol. 6v.
  • Current Location: Leipzig, Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, Ms 1548, fol. 39v
  • Original Location: Monastery of Maria Medingen
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Paper; Ink; Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 20/14.5/
  • Inscription: Section is titled: Sängerin (Choir mistress)
    The manuscript's historiated initials represent:
    -f. 18r:Prioress / Priorin
    -f. 24r:Subprioress / Subpriorin
    -f. 26v:Silence monitor / Cirkarin
    -f. 29v:Comptroller / Schaffnerin
    -f. 32r:Cellar custodian / Kellerin
    -f. 34v:Sacristan / Küsterin
    -f. 39v:Choir mistress / Kantorin
    -f. 43r:Window keeper / Raderin / Fensterin
    -f. 53v:Nurse / Siechenmeisterin
    -f. 60r:Mistress of novices / Novizenmeisterin
    -f. 83v:Misress of Lay sisters / Laienschwestermeisterin
    -f. 86r:Senior Advisor / Ratschwester
    -f. 87v:Mistress of construction / Baumeisterin
    -f. 89r:Librarian / Buchmeisterin
    -f. 92v:Mistress of the wardrobe / Gewandmeisterin
    -f. 95v:Kitchen mistress / Küchenmeisterin
    -f. 97v:Mistress of the Refectory / Refecterin
    -f. 100v:Server at table / Tischdienerin
    -f. 102v:Lector (in the refectory) / Tischleserin
    -f. 103:v Correctrix / Monitor and adviser to the lector
    -f. 105r:Keeper of Correspondence / Briefmeisterin
    -f. 106v:Mistress of the dormitory / Dormiterin
    -f. 108r:Mistress of the Garden / Gärtnerin
    -f. 111v:Friar in prayer / Dominikaner beim Gebet
    -f. 112r:Nun / Nonne
    -f. 133r:7 nuns at sermon /7 Nonnen bei der Predigt
    -f. 135r:Christ, nun, friar, laysister / Christus, Nonne, Dominikaner, Laienschwester
    -f. 171v:Nun and Friar / Nonne, Dominikaner
    List of initials comes from the Repertorium of Manuscripts Illuminated by Women in Religious Communities of the Middle Ages, MS 1548: http://www.agfem-art.com/medlingen-11-leipzig-universitaumltsbibliothek-ms-1548.html.
  • Related Resources: Ehrenschwendtner, Marie-Luise. "Puellae litteratae: The Use of the Vernacular in the Dominican Convents of Southern Germany>." In Medieval Women in Their Communities. Edited by Diane Watt. University of Toronto Press, 1997. Pages 49-71;
    Hamburger, Jeffrey F., Eva Schlotheuber, Susan Marti, and Margot Fassler. Liturgical Life and Latin Learning at Paradies bei Soest, 1300–1425: Inscription and Illumination in the Choir Books of a North German Dominican Convent. Aschendorff, 2016. 2 volumes;
    Jones, Claire Taylor. Ruling the Spirit: Women, Liturgy, and Dominican Reform in Late Medieval Germany. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017;
    Meyer, Johannes. Das Amptbuch. Edited by Sarah Glenn DeMaris. Angelicum University Press, 2015. Monumenta Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum Historica, 31. Includes an English translation of the text; Winston-Allen, Anne. Convent Chronicles: Women Writing about Women and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004;
    Yardley, Anne Bagnall. Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval English Nunneries. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.