Seminar review: ‘Franciscan Women as Architects of the ‘Heavenly Courts’ in Bohemia and the Polish Duchies, c.1234–1320’ by Dr. Kirsty Day

Written by Candice Maharaj


On 31 October 2017, Dr. Kirsty Day, a teaching Fellow in Medieval History at the University of Edinburgh, conducted a seminar on her current work – Franciscan Women as Architects of the ‘Heavenly Courts’ in Bohemia and the Polish Duchies, c.1234–1320. Dr. Day’s research on this topic explores the close relationships between Franciscan nuns and the nobility of Bohemia and the Polish duchies – mainly how and why those relationships developed. The presentation also focused heavily on the practice of gift-giving by wealthy donors to an order that believed in rejecting material wealth and how this contradiction was dealt with.


    In her work Dr Day seeks to answer two key questions: how the Franciscan and royal ideals came together so productively, and why women and central European institutions are either left out of the scholarship altogether or treated as only marginal parts of the order’s history. She sought to write a history of an aspect of the order that did not start with Saint Francis. Her aim is to look at how thirteenth-century social models and the turbulent spiritual climate of the time nurtured a new form of devotional life centred on the cult of the Franciscan saints.


    Dr. Day began with a brief description of the Franciscan order. The order was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in the early-thirteenth century and dedicated to the idea of absolute poverty. The male branch of the order, the Friars Minor, was established around 1220. The female branch was founded by Saint Clare of Assisi, a devoted follower of Saint Francis. Although they adhered to the same practices and beliefs as the male Franciscans, these nuns faced a number of difficulties. Historical narratives have viewed the women as not playing an active role in the order and as merely an offshoot of the male branch. Saint Clare was forced to struggle with the Church for decades to establish a Franciscan law for women in order to realise Francis’ vision of absolute poverty while resisting the Church’s attempts to impose other laws on them which did not conform to strict Franciscan beliefs.


    In the thirteenth century, a number of Franciscan communities were established with the help of wealthy donors, usually royal women. Documents from this time show donations and gifts – usually from landed property – to the communities. It was common at this time for people with excess property to give gifts to the clergy or the poor in exchange for intercessory prayers that were believed to help the soul whilst in Purgatory. This was especially important for the members of noble and royal families as they had the most wealth and thus were most in need of salvation. The Franciscans knew the dangers facing the souls of the wealthy and acknowledged that it was necessary to accept their gifts in order to help speed up their time spent in Purgatory. Gifts also served to sustain the clergy. As they could not own any property themselves, they relied on these donations to survive. Dr. Day suggests that this ‘gift theory’ is a useful way of reconciling the issue of an ascetic order accepting gifts from the richest members of society.


    Additionally, there is evidence that donors were mindful of the oath of poverty that the nuns had undertaken. This concern was most notably demonstrated by Anna of Silesia who gave many gifts to the nuns in Wrocław. In 1259, Pope Alexander IV issued a Papal Bull which prevented the nuns from removing or selling certain ornaments since they were to be preserved in memory of the duchess. In 1263, Pope Urban IV issued a Bull specifying that the nuns were only to use certain property at a time of great need. Anna knew that if her gifts caused the nuns to violate their oaths of poverty, they would become ineffective and she would receive no spiritual benefit. However, her concern also demonstrated her knowledge of, and respect for, the nuns’ way of life and that she had built a relationship with them.


    Dr. Day went on to explore why it tended to be women, rather than men, who were involved in promoting Franciscan virtues in royal courts and how this connected to the shifting climate of the Church. In doing so, she sought to determine what was distinctive about particular heavenly courts in this time period and region. During the thirteenth century, royal courts became ‘semi-monastic’ spaces. This was in part due to a programme associated with the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which sought to establish a community of devout believers – from both the laity and the clergy – to combat the sins that threatened to destabilise society. The Council placed a lot of responsibility on the laity for their own souls. This encouraged the laity to engage more heavily in religious practices which led to the formation of the ‘heavenly courts’. These courts consisted of religious noble women and nuns and existed within – and heavily contrasted with – the ‘earthly courts’ of the men. A strong culture of penance emerged with women undertaking ascetic penances of varying levels of severity – such as starvation and ‘mortification of the flesh’ – to repent for their sins. This could have been due to the concept of holy bloodlines (relation to a religious figure adding credibility to a noble family’s holiness and right to rule), which pressured women to regulate their behaviour so as not to ‘be the rotten fruit on the family tree’ and the fact that women were seen as the ideal models of submissiveness and used as an example for how the laity should interact with the clergy.


    Dr. Day also discussed the blending of royal status and religious practice. Royal women who became nuns could not totally escape their royal identities; their role within the heavenly courts was to show that they were rejecting their wealth in favour of spirituality and submissiveness to the Church. Their royal identities allowed them to retain some level of influence – if only as prominent examples to others. Royal women also appeared to influence each other, especially when it came to penance, though it is not clear to what extent this is true as they tended to be enclosed. However, there is evidence that their family members and other female members of the court had access to them, and the women themselves visited other communities (after asking the Pope for permission). This evidence shows an infrastructure through which these women combined royal status and strict penance.


    In conclusion, Dr Day showed how the contradiction of ‘rich donor, poor order’ can be reconciled and proved the importance of Franciscan women in central European ‘heavenly courts’ and their connection to the shifting religious climates of the time. The presentation was interesting, informative and introduced me to an aspect of history that I had not previously considered, giving me the opportunity to learn something new. Overall, it was enjoyable and definitely encouraged me to look out for her work in the future.

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