medieval nuns

is it true that in the middle ages, nuns were required to have a dowry or else they were refused? meaning poor peasant girls could never become one?

I believe that generally this was the case, although it varied from convent to convent. Hildegard of Bingen was criticized for only admitting aristocratic nuns to her convent. In the words of my advisor, convents were convenient places for wealthy families to “park” surplus daughters. That’s not to say that that’s all they were, or that there weren’t many convents that took vocations very seriously.

There were ways that poor girls could live a consecrated life without having a dowry.

The Catholic Encyclopedia speaks as if the dowry requirement was still in operation at the time the CE was published (a century ago). It defends the practice on the grounds that poor convents need their new members to bring some contribution, or else they couldn’t function. It says that wealthy convents sometimes dispense with the requirement.

I don’t know what the situation is now, but apparently the practice certainly did not end with the Middle Ages.

This article lays out the different kinds of religious vocations women could follow in the Middle Ages. As you can see, there were a lot more options than becoming a “nun” in the strict and formal sense. (I think the statement that only families with enough resources to build convents could send their daughters to them is overstated–convents did accept women from a range of social classes, including the middle classes, but not, as a general rule, from the poorest classes.)

I’d also like to know whether the Mendicant orders differed from the Benedictines in this regard. Did the Poor Clares, for instance, require dowries? I’m not sure.


that seems unfair somehow. jesus never turned away anyone because they were poor. and it seems like it took some pushing to get some of the roles approved by the church. they thought they were heretical at first

It certainly appears at first glance to be unfair. However, if all the surplus poor could be lumbered on the nearest convent so they would be fed and have a roof over their heads, even today, our vocation problems would be at an end.

sorry, i’m a little confused by your post.

There are lots of things that are unfair about the way the institutional Church has acted.

However, I can see on a practical level why they did this. My great-great-uncle founded what amounted to a Protestant monastery (people lived communally–they could marry but only with the consent of the community’s leaders) at the turn of the 20th century. By the time he died, the community was nearly bankrupt. Since a condition of joining the community was that you give up all your property, the community was extremely appealing to poor people and it was very hard to get anyone (other than the original founders, who had been quite wealthy) to join. My great-great-uncle’s successor funded the church by sending the younger members out to sell greeting cards and other items door-to-door. This put the community back on a sound footing, but at a serious cost in terms of the original spiritual vision.

My point is simply that all religious institutions face these kinds of choices. That doesn’t justify compromising our principles, but perhaps it explains it a bit. It’s not some kind of uniquely Catholic problem–it’s just that Catholicism is so large and so old that it presents a very large target.


Basically, there are three different kinds of religious community, economically speaking.

  1. Self-supporting. This means that the monks, nuns, priests, etc. do some kind of work to make or farm all the food they eat, or they sell some kind of goods or service to support the community. Benedictine monks would be a good example.

  2. Supported by begging and/or donations. This allows the community to either spend a lot of time praying, or a lot of time begging. Generally this works better when the community spirituality is displaying trust in God by relying totally on Him, and when the community is prepared for real poverty at times. These groups usually didn’t need any dowries, because they were poor anyway.

  3. Supported by land grants, money grants, and dowries, supplemented by self-support and/or donations. This would be the typical situation of medieval strictly cloistered monks and nuns, particularly in times or with rules where they were forbidden to do any business with outsiders. If you’re not going to have any chance to make money for the monastery once you’re in, you have to pay for your upkeep before you enter.

All these things tend to be ruled by what you do. If you have some monks, nuns, and priests doing tons of intense prayer or living as utter hermits, they might not be able to do work for the community at the same time. If people are employed doing fine needlework, they can’t very easily go out and scrub floors or work in the field at something that ruins their hands. So some orders had a difference between “choir monks,” who learned all the songs and prayers and did book work, and who brought money for their keep; and “lay monks,” who worked out in the fields and often didn’t know how to read, but could join with absolutely no money. Nowadays, this usually isn’t a distinction.

Nowadays, it’s still often the case that young people entering an order are expected to sell their goods and bring the proceeds to the order. Many orders keep these “dowries” in escrow until the person makes his/her final profession, so that the person can get the money back untouched if they discern that they aren’t cut out for the religious life (or this particular community, anyway).

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