The subject for this week is the development of new sorts of female religious communities. We will see that between Hildegard's time and the close of the fourteenth century, a world of change had taken place. Hildegard's activism notwithstanding, women in the twelfth century had to choose between the cloister and the world. Since a woman generally needed to have a significant dowry to enter a monastery and since the number of female (and/or double) convents was never as great as the number of male convents, only a small segment of the female population was able to enter the religious life.

By the thirteenth century, increasing urbanization, a steadily rising commercial economy, and a remarkable explosion of lay piety led to the emergence of a number of different religious options outside the cloister. While monastic communities continued to attract many women, others came to live in open religious communities called beguinages without making a formal religious profession. For many women, participation in these communities was temporary, but others remained throughout their lives. The three chapters we are reading from Walter Simon's Cities of Ladies outlines the social and religious nature of those communities in the Low Countries (see his maps).

In addition to these unregulated (and sometimes suspect) communities, the newly established Franciscan and Dominican orders created affiliated orders open to women: the Second Order (Poor Clares and Dominican nuns) and Third Order (tertiaries: lay men and women who still lived in the world but with a modified profession within one of the mendicant orders). Since these orders were ultimately under the direction of the papacy, they were far less controversial than were the poorly-defined and supported beguinages.