The Death of the Cloister

Steven Ozment on how the Reformers went about destroying the idea that a nun was superior to a housewife.

In challenging the celibate ideal, the Protestant critics were particularly concerned to expose the repressive nature of the nunnery, to free nuns from the cloisters, and allow them to rejoin society.

Unlike many modern takes on nunneries, the Reformers viewed them as detrimental to what women were called to do by God and by nature: be wives and mothers.

Also going to the convent did not help women escape male rule. Ozment describes how the monks would often descend upon the nunneries and require the women to do their laundry, cook them food, etc. He noted that most nunneries were run by monks on some level.

Not only did the nunnery offer no safe escape from male rule, it imposed sexual self-denial an created guilt among the unsuccessful, burdens no honorable wife was forced to bear.

One nun, “recalled having watched with horror as sisters in the cloister died uncertain of God’s mercy and in fear of his judgment, having failed to find consolation in their vows and religious works.”

No propaganda proved more effective in exposing the cloister than the testimony of former nuns, whom the reformers encouraged to write and publish accounts of their lives under vows.

By the end of the Reformation age, “both experience and belief had set Protestants unalterably against the celibate life. To them it contradicted both the Bible and human nature, and created more personal and social problems than it solved; as an alternative vocation to homemaking, the cloister was deemed inhumane and antisocial.”