Women in the 1400s and early 1500s in Germany did actually read and write. They wrote a lot, and much of their writing is still around, being investigated and studied by people like Anne Winston-Allen. According to this author, the 1400s was a time of great upheaval for convents. It was a time when many of them were in the process of changing from being places where nobles sent their wives or daughters for safe-keeping, where each sister had her own property and servants, to places where they lived a more communal life and prayer took a more central role. It was in this atmosphere that sisters were encouraged to write their histories and keep track of the daily life of the community. They also copied sermons and devotional works and prayers that could be used by the entire group.
This process of change was very difficult for various reasons. First, one of the biggest changes involved enclosing the sisters behind cloister walls. This meant that nobles whose relatives were in convents could no longer visit them or be visited, so often the nobles opposed the new regulations. The author explains that enclosure was not widely practiced before 1298 when Pope Boniface VIII (1204-1303) decreed in the bull Periculoso that all nuns who had solemn vows were to be perpetually cloistered. Second, the convents themselves often resisted the change. The convents owned lands and businesses which needed tending to outside the walls of the cloister. Third, the community outside needed the prayers of the nuns, and in turn provided financial support for the convent. Thus the people of the town felt that they had a say in whether or not the changes were made. Another complicating factor was that reformers were brought in from other towns to instruct the sisters as to how to go about the change. Many people inside and outside of the convents felt that this was an infringement on their liberty, and did their best to resist it. Others, however, were in favor and welcomed it.
In 1452 for example, a newly appointed cardinal Nicholas Cusa required that the house of noble canonesses at Sonnenburg be enclosed. Abbess Verena von Stuben refused to obey the order because it would make it impossible for her to administer her lands in the usual way. Cusa demanded that Verena resign as abbess. This she did, but future abbesses were no more compliant in accepting Cusa's stipulations. The cloister was never successfully reformed. The book includes many stories like this written by women themselves. Winston-Allen documents what she calls a "literature explosion" which included "an intense flowering of scribal, literary and religious activity focused on the production of texts in Latin and especially in the vernacular." They even had a very active interlibrary loan system both within and across orders.
Winston-Allen gets much of her information from sisters' own writing, which includes the sister-books as well as the history of the convent, and daily diaries that tell fascinating stories. She quotes some of this writing, which allows us to gain insight into the women's lives. These women were not at all shy or retiring. They knew what they wanted and they were determined to achieve it, whether for or against the reform. As opposed to men's accounts of the same period, women's writing is more intimate in tone. Also, the sisters depict themselves as initiators, not passive recipients, of the activities within the cloister.
It would have been good to hear more from the sisters themselves. Winston-Allen quotes some of the writings, but perhaps space did not allow her to include many more translations. Since the sisters' own writings are the focus of the book, it would seem better to hear from them directly. Second, it is not at all clear in the beginning of the book exactly what the reform is about and why people wanted or didn't want it. As the book proceeds, this becomes more evident, but even here, it is sometimes difficult to discern the connections between the town and the convent, and the reasons why the sisters resisted or wanted the reform. One gets the feeling that there is much more here than is explained. As a whole, however, this book is a captivating insight into convent women's lives in the 14 and 1500s. It includes 100 pages of notes and bibliography as well as several art reproductions.