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Family, Power, Memory: Female Monasticism in Italy from 700 to 1100

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ITNUN (Family, Power, Memory: Female Monasticism in Italy from 700 to 1100)

Reporting period: 2015-10-01 to 2017-09-30

Recent history amply demonstrates the importance of religious belief as a fundamental historical force. In studying early medieval Europe, we see how crucial it has been in the creation of our identity today, underlying our belief systems, cultural assumptions and core values. To understand medieval society, it is essential to understand medieval monasticism, and crucial to include a key player like Italy. This research project aimed at providing a comparative and interdisciplinary study of Italian female monasteries from 700 to 1100, in an integrated and broad-sweeping perspective associating history, archaeology, anthropology and art history. It approached the study of Italian religious women as a laboratory for exploring the complex relationship between gender and power in European history. Before 1100, monasticism was not today’s individualistic contemplative lifestyle, but an motor of political, economic, social and cultural life, as well as a spiritual choice. While men had the choice of exercising power and influence directly as rulers, soldiers, bishops, lawyers or merchants, women exercised authority indirectly, as queens or abbesses. Understanding the tensions between early medieval Italian society’s male-controlled political and religious power, and the considerable influence of noblewomen as nuns, on account of their religious status in charge of securing the salvation of their whole family, is essential for grasping women’s ideological and spiritual power in Italy, and their influence in society. Italian royal or aristocratic monasteries have sources detailing the names, background and activities of nuns. These sources, wideranging in time and space, are representative of the political and ethnic composition of Italian society, and enable us to trace changes in Italian politics, society and culture. This study focuses on the five best documented female monasteries across the Italian territory: S. Salvatore (Brescia), S. Sofia (Benevento), S. Zaccaria (Venice), S. Andrea (Ravenna) and S. Ciriaco (Rome). The project’s first objective was to consider the parallels and contrasts between nunneries in various geographical, and therefore ethnically and politically different areas, to explain the evolution of Italy from a set of separate political, ethnic and cultural entities before 750, into one moulded by Carolingian policy into a streamlined cultural and religious entity. Studying these five representative monasteries together allows one to see whether they functioned in a different way across centuries and across the extent of Italy. An analysis of gender constituted the second major objective. Understanding the influence of a group of women issued from high-ranking political families seemed essential for our perception of the manifestations of their political, ideological and spiritual power. The power of nuns, many related to the ruling elites of Italian society, is crucial, and our understanding of the configurations of political power is enriched by a gendered reading of religious, landed and commemorative politics. Such a study of the key mechanisms concerning the relationship between women, religious belief and behaviour, and politics and society can, through comprehending these in the past, illuminate key aspects of modern European societies.
Work has been carried out as follows. The first step has been the gathering together of the research material, its analysis, and the completion of the secondary literature consultation. In addition to work in Venice, the latter has involved two work periods in Roman libraries and visiting archaeological sites and relevant museums. Other sites visited were the Lombard S. Giulia in Brescia and S. Sofia in Benevento.The second step has been the construction of a database of monastic women (of over 1500 documents), their family networks, to examine their political, social and economic weight, and their key role in the creation and preservation of the memory of their family. This relational database, MedItaNunC, allows for a double search: prosopographical and monastery-based. The first type, never done before in this area of work, is based on a list of all the nuns mentioned, either through an individual profile, or through the medium of the monastery with which they were connected. In parallel and with relational links, it includes almost every other person with any links to the monastery (rulers both local and ‘national’, nuns’ families and economic dependents, political, ecclesiastical and social figures of mainstream Italian history). All of them are correlated and searchable individually. The second type of search allows a search on the basis of individual monasteries and all information relating to them: people and families associated with it, economic possessions, political involvement, extant and lost art, relics and foundation myth. Putting these sources, reinterpreted and searchable, in the form of an Open Access database, will allow other scholars to tap into this documentation for their own projects. The creation of this database, through a comprehensive digital analysis of the sources, has facilitated the sistematic approach to the original questions. Another outcome was the convening of a conference to allow for discussion with colleagues. The database results and discussions with others will be brought together in the final monograph, whose purpose is to provide the historical context and interpretation of the work carried out.
Some arguments posited at the start have been confirmed by the study of the sources, for example the importance of family influence in the success of a monastery at specific points of its history (the more important the family, the more important the monastery in the history of the region during the ascendancy of that family). Other arguments foregrounded in the proposal have had to be revisited and revised, sometimes quite radically. Such was the importance of gender in terms of the influence of a monastery. In Italy this seems secondary to that of its association with families of power, its geographical location, and the cultural traditions of the presiding political entity–a fundamental argument and conclusion of this study. A monastery’s preeminence was a result of its association with a powerful and wealthy family of local, royal or imperial power, regardless of whether it was male or female. Observing such phenomena enables one to highlight contrasts with other West European areas, showing that the strong contrast in the evolution of Italian history was already due to differences in the inheritance of different political and cultural traditions: Romano-Byzantine and Lombard-Carolingian. Arguably, then, not only was later medieval Italy and its individual cities an heir to these different traditions, but the ‘Roman’, Lombard and Carolingian heritage in terms of family links and local power groups remained of considerable importance in fashioning the realities of modern Italy, where specific territorial phenomena remain key to understanding the functioning of society. This project discussed many buiding blocks of modern Western European society: the role of women in society, the role of religion, and of different ethnic and cultural and political traditions in the construction of nationhood are the main ones. What happened, and how it was perceived, in the Early Medieval period, created the people, nations and values which are ours today.
S. Salvatore, Brescia: church interior, Lombard wall paintings, 8th c.
S. Sofia, Benevento: Lombard fresco, angel
S. Ciriaco, Rome: fresco S. Erasmo (now in Crypta Balbi Museum)
Opening panel of the ITNUN Project Exhibition
S. Sofia, Benevento: church exterior
Monastery of Torba, wall painting, 8th c.
Programme of he ITNUN Conference, 4 May 2017
Inauguration academic year 2016: ITNUN project presentation
S. Salvatore, Brescia, Lombard fresco, 8th c.
S. Zaccaria, Venice: crypt of the monastery, 10th c.
S. Sofia, Benevento: Lombard church, interior
S. Sofia, Benevento: Lombard fresco, S. Zaccaria story