WE have already given some attention to certain famous Christian women who, in the earliest ages of the Church, dedicated themselves to the ascetic life. But monasticism, occupying as it did so extensive and important a field in the early Church, deserves the devotion of nothing less than a chapter to the consideration of its effect upon the life of women, and to the part they played in its establishment. In describing the friends of Jerome -- Paula, Eustochium, Asella, and the others -- we dwelt more on the moral aspect of primitive asceticism, its exaggerations, its wrong-headedness, its influence upon family life; it is now our purpose to take a brief glance at the organization of female monasticism, and to notice its effect upon the social life of women. For it cannot be otherwise than that so popular and general an institution as this must at the time have profoundly affected human existence. A great multitude of men and women taken out of common society and living apart under conditions entirely contradictory to the instinct and usages of the race must have shaken the body politic in every direction, causing a movement of influences far-reaching in its effect.
Monasticism was not the creation of Christianity; the religions of the East had their devotees, like the Jewish Essenes, who abandoned the common pursuits of men for a life of solitude, idle introspection, and rapt contemplation. The wildernesses and solitary places of the East had been made yet more weird by the presence of unhumanlike hermits, even before the days of John the Baptist. Christian monasticism, also, had its birth in the dreamy East. Antony, by his example, and Pachomius, by enthusiastic propaganda of monastic ideas, laid the foundations of that system which was to honeycomb the whole world with bands of men and women who repudiated the natural pleasures and the essential duties of the world.
Of the motive that inspired the monastic life, St. Augustine says: |No corporeal fecundity produces this race of virgins; they are no offspring of flesh and blood. Ask you the mother of these? It is the Church. None other bears these sacred virgins but that one espoused to a single husband, Christ. Each of these so loved that beautiful One among the sons of men, that, unable to conceive Him in the flesh as Mary did, they conceived Him in their heart, and kept for him even the body in integrity.|
We may admit this intense love of God as a moving force, and still claim that the hermits and anchoresses of the early Church were actuated largely by the desire to redeem themselves from the wrath to come and to gain a personal entrance to the paradise of God. Salvation was an individual responsibility, and it admitted of no compromise with the world. The road to perfection could be cheered with company only, providing others were willing to set out upon it by first renouncing all natural joys, and by despising all human ties. The claims of close kindred were not allowed to hinder in the personal quest for heavenly rewards. The tearfully pleaded needs of an aged parent were not permitted to detain at home the daughter who had consecrated herself as the bride of Christ; Paula turned her back upon the outstretched hands of her infant son, in order that in the Holy Land she might spend her days in ecstatic contemplation of the Jerusalem above. It is recorded to the high praise of Saint Fulgentius that he sorely wounded his mother's heart by despising her sorrow at his departure.
True it is that many of the earliest consecrated handmaidens of the Church continued to reside in their city homes, and, in addition to their prayers, devoted themselves to works of charity and mercy. But they were scarcely less separated from the world and their kindred. Their manner of life interdicted all common intercourse. The virgin who could boast that for twenty-five years she never bathed, except the tips of her fingers, and these only when she was about to receive the Communion, must have been as foreign to the Rome in which she lived as if she inhabited a cave in the Thebaid. Her kinsfolk may have reverenced her sanctity, but it is doubtful if they unqualifiedly appreciated her presence. The explanation of this transcendent personal neglect is to be found in the dualism which was so considerable an element in the motif of monasticism. The religious sphere was exclusively spiritual and of the mind; the material world was considered to be wholly under the dominion of the devil if it were not, indeed, his work. The body, with all its appetites, instincts, pleasures, and pains, was regarded as a spiritual misfortune. Holiness was not deemed to be in any degree attainable except by constant and determined thwarting of all natural desire. The compulsion to give way to any extent to the most essential of these desires was, so far as it obtained, a moral imperfection. The three great human faults are lust, pride, and avarice. To subjugate these, celibacy, absolute submission, and complete poverty, were deemed necessary by the advocates of monasticism. Because purity is enjoined, the saint of one sex must treat a person of the other with the same avoidance as would be displayed toward a poisonous reptile; readiness to embrace a leper is none too severe a test of humility; and personal property in a hair blanket is a pitfall laid by wealth. A body so wasted by fasting as to be incapable of sustaining the continuous round of tears and prayers is the surest warrant of saintliness. A virgin who has so abused her stomach by improper and insufficient food that it refuses a meal necessary to a healthy body is the object of high veneration; indigestion is a most desirable corollary to holiness. In short, without outraging reason and contradicting every dictum of common sense, it is difficult to describe much that belonged to ancient monasticism in any other spirit than that of impatience.
Like most institutions, monasticism began in a formless, undirected enthusiasm. Men and women rushed into the wilderness with an abundantly zealous determination to get away from the wickedness of the world, but with a still greater scarcity of understanding regarding a reasonable discipline of life. Soon, however, organization was proposed by monks of experience, and rules formulated which were generally adopted. Saint Pachomius was the first to form monkish foundations in the East. These were visited by Athanasius while he was in exile, and he came back with a glowing account of the sanctity of life and the marvellous exploits of their members. His narrative fired the hearts of the more devout Christians of the West, especially of the women, and that of the monk or the nun became at once the most illustrious vocation which a Christian could follow. The result was, as the Count de Montalembert shows, that |the town and environs of Rome were soon full of monasteries, rapidly occupied by men distinguished alike by birth, fortune and knowledge, who lived there in charity, sanctity and freedom. From Rome, the new institution -- already distinguished by the name of religion, or religious life, par excellence -- extended itself over all Italy. It was planted at the foot of the Alps by the influence of a great bishop, Eusebius of Vercelli. From the continent, the new institution rapidly gained the isles of the Mediterranean, and even the rugged rocks of the Gargon and of Capraja, where the monks, voluntarily exiled from the world, went to take the place of the criminals and political victims whom the emperors had been accustomed to banish thither.|
Western monasticism was inspired by a different genius from that of the Eastern. Instead of being speculative and characterized by dreamy indolence and meditative silence, it was far more practical. It was active, stirring; duty, rather than esoteric wisdom, was its watchword. Fasting, stated hours for prayer, reading, and vigorous manual work were strictly enjoined by every rule. Consequently, the nuns and monks of the West never went to the fantastic extremes which exhibited in the East a stylite, or a female recluse, dwelling, like an animal, in a hollow tree, or a drove of half wild and wholly maniacal humans who subsisted by browsing on such edible roots as they found in the earth on which they grovelled. Method, regularity, and purpose early gave character and efficiency to Western monasteries, and prepared them for the literary and industrial usefulness which followed in the wane of the first frenzy, and which made monasticism, in spite of itself, a powerful factor in the evolution of modern civilization. This systematizing was due to the efforts of Ambrose, Athanasius, Gregory the Great, but more especially to those of Benedict of Nursia.
The first known ceremonial recognition by the Church of a professed nun is the case of Marcellina. On Christmas Day, perhaps of the year 354, she received a veil from the hands of Pope Liberius, and made her vows before a large congregation gathered in the church of Saint Peter, at Rome. Saint Ambrose, her brother, has preserved for us a summary of the sermon preached by the bishop on the occasion. It consists of an earnest but not very convincing -- so it would seem to modern ears -- exhortation to abstinence from worldly pleasure and to perseverance in virginity. Marcellina continued to dwell in private in her own home, for it had not yet become customary for professed virgins to take up their residence in a common abode. The inauguration of this new departure had begun, however, as is shown by passages in the work of Saint Ambrose on virginity, which he dedicated to his sister. In the eleventh chapter of the first book, he says: |Some one may say, you are always singing the praise of virgins. What shall I do who am always singing them and have no success (in persuading them to the consecrated life)? But this is not my fault. Then, too, virgins come from Placentia to be consecrated, or from Bononia and Mauritania, in order to receive the veil here. I treat the matter here, and persuade those who are elsewhere. If this be so, let me treat the subject elsewhere, that I may persuade you.
|Behold how sweet is the fruit of modesty, which has sprung up even in the affections of barbarians. Virgins, coming from the greatest distance on both sides of Mauritania, desire to be consecrated here; and though all the family be in bonds, yet modesty cannot be bound. She who mourns over the hardship of slavery professes to own an eternal kingdom.
|And what shall I say of the virgins of Bononia, a fertile band of chastity, who, forsaking worldly delights, inhabit the sanctuary of virginity? Though not of the sex which lives in common, attaining in their common chastity to the number of twenty, leaving their parents' dwellings, they press into the houses of Christ; at one time singing spiritual songs, they provide their sustenance by labor, and seek with their hands the supplies for their liberal charity.|
So, then, it is evident that as early as the latter part of the fourth century communities of nuns began to live in their own religious houses. As yet, however, the inmates of these asylums of chastity were answerable, only to themselves for the faithfulness with which they fulfilled their vows. There was no organized order, no recognized rule; each virgin observed her profession according as she interpreted the terms thereof. The Church exercised no well-defined disciplinary authority over these convents; of course, if a professed nun scandalously repudiated her vows, she could be excommunicated, but the efficacy of this punishment was conditioned entirely by the degree of horror with which the woman viewed the forfeiture of ecclesiastical privileges. It was not before the time of Gregory that the Church became able to enforce its judgments. When all the world became Christian, then the individual again lost his freedom of thought in relation to religious matters; then, through its alliance with the secular arm, the Church gained the power to sternly constrain its recalcitrant children. This was brought about by the political advantages gained by Gregory, and by Saint Benedict's gifts of organization.
Saint Benedict was the father of Western organized monasticism; he not only founded an order to which many religious houses already existing united themselves, but he established a rule for their government, which was adopted as the rule for monastic life by all such orders which existed in the Church down to the time of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. What Benedict did for the monks, his sister Scholastica -- who, being a woman, has received far less mention -- accomplished for the nuns. Through her efforts, under the direction and advice of her brother, greater dignity and weight were given to the female side of monasticism.
We know that Benedict was born at Nursia, in the province of Spoleto, in the year 480; whether Scholastica was older or younger than her more famous brother is not said. Their parents were respectable people, possessed of sufficient means to enable them to give their children a good education, and to take up temporarily their residence in Rome for that purpose.
While at Rome, Benedict became enamored of the idea of devoting himself to religion; and in order to get away from the moral dangers of the city, he fled from his school and his parents to a small village called Effide, about two miles from Subiaco. His nurse -- Cyrilla -- was his accomplice and companion in this adventure, and for this she has received her due meed of honor in the legends which have attached to the life of the great founder. As an example of these legends, and as an illustration of their historic value, we will notice one story. One day, Cyrilla accidentally broke a stone sieve which she had borrowed for the purpose of making the youthful saint some bread. Compassionating her distress, Benedict placed the two pieces in position and then prayed over them. To the great joy of Cyrilla and the no small wonderment of the rustics, they became firmly cemented together and the sieve was again made whole. This marvellous utensil was hung over the church door, where it remained for many years an irrefutable proof of the power of monastic holiness.
Later on, Saint Benedict established twelve monasteries in the neighborhood, at last settling at Monte Casino, not far from the place where his sister, Saint Scholastica, also presided over a colony of religious women. Here were formulated and adopted the regulations which for so many years governed these religious recluses, both male and female. Three virtues comprised the whole of the Benedictine discipline: celibate seclusion, extended to the cultivation of silence as far as the exigences of the convent would permit; humility to the very last degree; and obedience to superiors even -- so said the law -- when impossibilities were commanded. The effect designed was to concentrate the entire thought of the recluse upon himself. Yet, idleness on the part of its subjects was far from the purpose of this discipline. All the waking hours -- which were by far the greater part of the time -- of these nuns were devoted to the worship of God, reading, and manual labor. Besides the essential work of their own household, the nuns occupied themselves in spinning, weaving, and manufacturing clothing, which was distributed in charity; thus their time was not wholly spent in vain. They also wove and embroidered the beautiful tapestries and hangings which ornamented the churches, and, in course of time, developed a textile art which was one of the glories of the Middle Ages. With the time at their disposal, it is no wonder that the ancient convents could exhibit histories of the Creation, done in stitchwork. In imitation of the Psalmist, seven times a day the nuns met in their chapel for prayer and praise. Sloth was not possible with them; for they were obliged to waken for matins very early in the morning, before the breaking of day, even in summer, and this after having risen for a short service of praise at midnight.
Abstinence from the flesh of four-footed animals was perpetually and universally enforced. Fowls were allowed on festival occasions; but the regular diet was vegetable broth and bread. A large part of the year was a prescribed fast during which one meal a day was made to suffice and that at even. No nun was permitted to speak of or consider anything as her own, not even a girdle or any part of her dress. At first, when members of the order became delinquent in their duties, only such penalties as sequestration from the common table or the chapel, with expulsion from the order in case of incorrigibility, could be enforced. But, as the Church's disciplinary hand grew heavier on the lives of mankind, severer punishments were adopted, which contumacy served only to render yet more cruel, even to life-long solitary incarceration.
But the most stringent rule of monasticism, as regulated by Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica, was that in relation to the sexes. According to it, they were required to treat each other as natural, irreconcilable enemies. Communion, even between those of the closest kin, was almost entirely interdicted. The two founders, brother and sister though they were, and united not only in a perfect harmony of disposition and affection, but in devotion to the same life purpose, saw each other but once a year. |There is something striking,| says Milman, |in the attachment of the brother and sister, the human affection struggling with the hard spirit of monasticism. Saint Scholastica was a female Benedict -- equally devout, equally powerful in attracting and ruling recluses of her own sex, the remote foundress of convents almost as numerous as those of her brother's rule.| We are indebted to Gregory the Great for the narration of some interesting incidents in the lives of these two saints. The only one which our space will permit, and perhaps the one which best illustrates the spirit that governed them in the hard and self-denying path which they elected to walk, is the account of their last meeting. Though the convent was situated not far from the monastery, though they were brother and sister, aged, and devoted to the same holy aims, they met but once a year, for so said the rule. Scholastica was dying, and the time came for Benedict to pay his annual visit. Evening had come all too quickly, for the few hours had rapidly passed in the delight of spiritual communion. Scholastica entreated her brother to remain in the convent for that one night, as it was likely that he would never again see her alive. But not even sisterly affection could turn the monk from the rigid observance of his rules, one of which was that neither he nor any of his brethren should spend a night outside of the monastery. As he was preparing to bid her farewell, she bent her head for a few moments in profound prayer. Suddenly the sky, which had hitherto been clear and serene, became overcast, the vivid lightning flashed, the thunder crashed, and the rain swept down in torrents; heaven had come to the aged nun's assistance. |The Lord have mercy on you, my sister!| said Benedict, |what have you done?| |You,| she replied, |have rejected my prayers; but the Lord hath not. Go now, if you can!| Her intercession was rewarded with triumph, and they passed the night in holy communion. Three days afterward, Benedict saw the soul of Scholastica soaring to heaven in the shape of a dove, whither, after a very little while, he followed her.
As it is with all social movements, after a while the glory of the initial purity of purpose which marked the inception of Benedictine monasticism began to wane; its singleness of aim became diverted; its disingenuousness was replaced by sophisticated evasion of its rule. The monasteries and convents became wealthy; ways were discovered by which their discipline could be softened without formally abrogating the rule; and events rendered it advisable to legislate that houses for nuns and for monks should not be erected in close proximity.
The time came when the abbess took her place among the high dignitaries of the Church, and the office grew to be one, not only of great spiritual influence, but of enviable social standing. Even in the days of Gregory the Great, who, though he lost no opportunity to magnify the papal office, was a man of intense spiritual nature and powerful moral character, the leaders of female monasticism began to realize the possibilities of ecclesiastical officialdom. The honors of an abbess were found to be a not altogether unsatisfactory substitute for the undesired or the unattainable glories of the world. It was at least something to be addressed in correspondence by the great bishop of Rome as a coworker; and there are many letters extant written by Gregory to abbesses in various parts of the Western world. These furnish us with sidelights upon the personnel, the duties, customs, and standing of the women who were placed in charge of these convents.
In a letter written to Thalassia, abbess of the convent which Brunehaut founded in the city of Autun, Saint Gregory sets forth the privileges and the manner of electing a woman to that office. He says: |We indulge, grant and confirm by decree of our present authority, privileges as follows: Ordaining that no king, no bishop, no one endowed with any dignity whatsoever, shall have power, under show of any cause or occasion whatsoever, to diminish or take away, or apply to his own uses, or grant as if to other pious uses for excuse of his own avarice, anything of what has been given to the monastery by the above-written king's children, or of what shall in future be bestowed on it by any others whatever of their own possessions. But all things that have been there offered, or may come to be offered, we will to be possessed by thee, as well as those who shall succeed thee in thy office and place, from the present time inviolate and without disturbance, provided thou apply them in all ways to the uses of those for whose sustenance and government they have been granted.| The use and benefit of papal supremacy is beginning to be seen. This cumbrous legal enactment conferred upon Thalassia a life lease and freehold in the property of her convent, as secure as the tithes of his parish are to an English incumbent.
In this same letter, which was written some time in the latter part of the sixth century, there is also a clause concerning the election of an abbess. There is to be nothing crafty or secret about it. The election is to be conducted in the fear of God. The king is to choose such a woman as will meet with the approval of the nuns; she is then to be ordained by the bishop. This all goes to show that, even in those early times, for a woman who was willing to forego the attractions of married life, or was unwilling to accept its cares, the position of abbess was one which might well stir the ambitious. But, however that might be, in the same letter, Gregory, who evidently knew the weaknesses of human nature, prevented the questionable methods which the ambitious might be tempted to adopt. |No one,| he says, |of the kings, no one of the priests, or any one else in person or by proxy, shall dare to accept anything in gold, or in any kind of consideration whatever, for the ordination of such abbess, or for any causes whatever pertaining to this monastery, and that the same abbess presume not to give anything on account of her ordination, lest by such occasion what is offered or has been offered to places of piety should be consumed. And inasmuch as many occasions for the deception of religious women are sought out, as is said, in your parts by bad men, we ordain that an abbess of this same monastery shall in no wise be deprived or deposed unless in case of criminality requiring it. Hence, it is necessary that if any complaint of this kind should arise against her, not only the bishop of the city of Autun should examine the case, but that he should call to his assistance six other of his fellow-bishops, and so fully investigate the matter to the end that, all judging with one accord, a strict canonical decision may either smite if guilty, or absolve her if innocent.| A law against any wrong always predicates the existence of that fault. Hence, the prohibitions we have quoted could not have been of unknown occurrence among the fellow abbesses of Thalassia.
Through other letters we learn that it was in contradiction of monastic rule for those embracing that life to retain property of their own after profession, or even the power of disposing of it by will; it became the property of the convent. It appears, also, that if a nun were transferred from one monastery to another, or if, as sometimes happened, a consecrated virgin living at home had lapsed and was therefore sent to a monastery, her property always went to the convent in which she at that present time resided. This was so strictly enforced that when one Sirica, abbess at Caralis, made a will and distributed her property, Gregory ordered that it be restored to the monastery without dispute or evasion. As many women of position were induced to become nuns, it is easy to be seen how the convents quickly acquired great wealth.
All the abbesses did not consider themselves slavishly bound to follow the uniform rule. In the letter just mentioned, the same Sirica is seen to have manifested a refreshing independence in relation to other matters in regard to which a woman does not take kindly to outside interference. Gregory says: |And when we enquired of the Solicitude of your Holiness why you endured that property belonging to the monastery should be detained by others, our common son Epiphanius, your archpresbyter, being present before us, replied that the said abbess had up to the day of her death refused to wear the monastic dress, but had continued in the use of such dresses as are used by the presbyteresses of that place. To this the aforesaid Gavina replied that the practice had come to be almost lawful from custom, alleging that the abbess who had been before the above-mentioned Sirica had used such dresses. When, then, we begun to feel no small doubt with regard to the character of the dresses, it appeared necessary for us to consider with our legal advisers, as well as with the other learned men of this city, what was to be done with regard to law. And they, having considered the matter, answered that, after an abbess had been solemnly ordained by the bishop and had presided in the government of a monastery for many years until the end of her life, the character of her dress might attach blame to the bishop for having allowed it so to be, but still could not prejudice the monastery.| Those |presbyteresses| whose attire Sirica considered she had ample right to copy, were the wives of presbyters who had been married before ordination. It is all very trivial; and yet there is to be recognized such a touch of naturalness about this abbess of thirteen centuries ago that it is worthy of remark. And it must be confessed that Sirica has our entire approval as we fancy we see her going calmly about the duties of her office, while Pope Gregory of Rome is calling together his legal advisers to know what shall be done about her dress, she all the while determined that she is going to array herself in exactly that style which, to her independent mind, seems most befitting.
When, however, serious faults on the part of nuns had to be dealt with, Gregory possessed, even in that early day, the power as well as the will to inflict punishment of a severe nature. Moreover, the Church had become what Rome was in the time of the emperors, -- so universal and thoroughly organized that culprits could not hope to flee beyond the reach of the disciplinary hand. Petronilla, a nun of Lucania, had given way to the weakness of nature and the seducements of Agnellus, the son of a bishop. Taking the property which Petronilla had brought to the monastery, and also that which the father of Agnellus had given to the institution, they fled to Sicily in the hope of there enjoying love and affluence in their mutual companionship and that of their child. But Gregory's supervision was as far-reaching as was the power of his hand. He writes to Cyprian, Deacon and Rector of Sicily, |to cause the aforesaid man, and the above-named woman, to be summarily brought before thee, and institute a most thorough investigation into the case. And, if thou shouldest find it to be as reported to us, determine an affair defiled by so many iniquities with the utmost severity of expurgation; to the end that both strict retribution may overtake the man, who has regarded neither his own nor her condition, and that, she having been first punished and consigned to a monastery under penance, all the property that had been taken away from the above-named place, with all its fruits and accessions, may be restored.| What the exact nature of the penance inflicted was we do not know; but in another place, speaking of nuns who had been detected in the same fault, the great bishop orders that they |afford an example of the more rigorous kind of discipline, such as may inspire fear in others.| The Church had already acquired the power to enforce its artificial morality, which power it vigorously employed on those with whom it could afford to be at no pains to ingratiate itself.
Rigid disciplinarian as he was, and zealous in his labors to aggrandize the Church, Gregory was careful not to allow the privileges of monasticism to be pushed to the endangering, as he thought, of the moral welfare of those whom it concerned. The law was that if either a husband or a wife decided to devote himself or herself to the monastic life, the marriage bonds might be severed without the consent of the other partner. But in a letter which he wrote to a notary of Panormus and sent by the hand of a woman named Agathosa, he refers to the latter's claim that her husband had entered a monastery without her consent. He instructs the notary |to investigate the matter by diligent enquiry, so as to see whether it may not be the case that the man's profession was with her consent, or that she herself had promised to change her state. And should it be found to be so, see to his remaining in the monastery, and compel her to change her state, as she had promised. If, however, neither of these things is the case, and you do not find that the aforesaid woman has committed any crime of fornication on account of which it is lawful for a man to leave his wife, then, lest his profession should possibly be an occasion of perdition to the wife left behind in the world, we desire thee, without any excuse allowed, to restore her husband to her, even though he should be already tonsured.| It is quite noticeable that the bishop would much prefer that the woman follow her husband's example and embrace the monastic life. It is possible that Gregory, in addition to his constant zeal in gaining recruits for this vocation, realized, personally inexperienced though he was in such matters, that the wife would find but cold comfort in the enforced embraces of a husband who preferred the monks of a religious house to her own society. Still, even in the case of a professed nun who had been forcibly compelled to marry against her will, he did not suggest that the matrimonial bonds should be severed without the consent of the enterprising husband, but only that she should have the right, after providing for her children, to devote the residue of her property to the Church to which she would gladly have sacrificed her whole life.
In those parts of the Christian world to which the authority of Pope Gregory did not extend, monasticism showed some peculiarities that were very dissimilar to the Benedictine rule. Perhaps the most striking of these is to be seen in the ancient British Church, that apostolic foundation which, until after the Saxon conquest, had never come under the influence of the Roman See. At Whitby, in Yorkshire, Saint Hild, the daughter of a king, reared a monastery which included, under her own personal government, both men and women. In adjoining buildings, nuns and monks lived in contemplative retirement, their life and studies superintended by this gifted woman, whose wisdom was such that her counsel was eagerly sought by the highest nobles in the land. Her institution was a training school for bishops and priests, as well as a haven of religious recreation for women of the world. That her rule was salutary, and this combination not prejudicial to good living, seems to be proved by the fact that she included among those who were trained under her supervision John of Beverly, who was as famous for his holiness as for his learning.
Thus, monasticism became an increasingly powerful factor in the social life of that far distant age. The importance of the institution lay in its complete universality. Wherever was found the Christian Church, there also was the religious house, a harbor of sanctity, presided over by an abbess chosen for her piety and strength of mind, filled with women who were not loath to forsake the pleasures of the world for the love of peace and divine contemplation. From the Eternal City where Gregory was reviving in religious guise that power which for so many centuries had dominated the world, and where alone was retained what remained of a departed civilization, to Streonshealh where Hild, daughter of barbaric chiefs, reared her abbey on the summit of the dark cliffs of Whitby, looking out over the gloom of the Northern Sea, these convents represented what was then considered as the acme of feminine attainment.
That feminine monasticism had its uses and conferred its benefits it would be an absurdity to deny. Despite the falsity of the unnatural moral theory which supplied too largely its motive, monasticism was an outward and visible sign of that human evolution which makes for progress. The selfishness of its spiritual aims was in accord with the strenuous individualism of that new age; its dualistic theory of nature was at least a revolt from the brutal animalism of the day. Moreover, it furnished the only opportunity that human life then afforded for calm and concentrated reflection on any subject save eating, breeding, and killing. The monastery was the bridge by which the salvage from the dissolution of ancient civilization was carried over the Dark Ages to the Renaissance.
When we seek for the peculiar benefits monasticism provided for women, they are found to be two. The universally recognized sanctity of the cloister provided, in an age of exceeding brutality, a sanctuary where woman might take refuge, and where something at least of the spirituality of her nature might be neither outraged nor obliterated. It may be that, after all unfavorable judgments have been passed, if it had not been for the veneration of cloistered virginity, in so rude an age the world might have forgotten what modesty and purity are. Also, it is not favorable to the highest development of womanhood to be absolutely restricted to the one vocation of marriage. If, to-day, women are not better wives, they surely are more self-respecting for the fact that there is a possibility of their being independent and yet remain unmarried. What business now does for woman, in the olden times was done by the female monastery: it provided examples of the sex, who were glorious, and yet unmarried. The woman crossed in love, or the girl threatened with a union repugnant to her feelings, could say: |I will be a nun,| and thereby gain the highest esteem of the world.