McLaughlin, Mary Martin. 1989. "Creating and Recreating Communities of Women: The Case of Corpus Domini, Ferrara, 1406-1452" in Signs vol. 14, no. 2 293-320.
Non-historians (and even some historians) often have fixed ideas of women’s place and opportunities in past cultures. One of the themes I hear when authors and readers explain why they steer clear of historical fiction is that women in patriarchal societies were completely constrained by their relationships to men. But conversely, when we do imagine the lives of women who stepped outside those constraints, we are often think only in terms of adopting male-coded roles and careers.
In covering the following article for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I am not suggesting any specific implication that the women of the medieval Corpus Domini community engaged in same-sex romantic relationships (though it’s clear that the community inspired some strong emotional bonds modeled on the mother-daughter relationship). Rather, I’m putting it forth as an example of a woman-centered, woman-led institution that resisted being subsumed under male leadership or control. Despite several off-branches that did choose to affiliate themselves with traditional religious orders, the original secular community survived for the equivalent of three generations. Although founded by a wealthy widow, it included women of a wide variety of economic backgrounds, and welcomed young unmarried women, offering them a path that was neither traditional heterosexual marriage nor traditional religious vows.
But the Corpus Domini community also operated within a specific cultural context. A similar institution could be a setting for a story in late medieval Italy, not necessarily for other times and places. I find that my most successful historic stories arise from coming across a context like this and then asking myself what sorts of women inhabited it? What were their lives like? If a woman experienced same-sex desire within such a context, what form would it take? How would her community view her? What are the possible successful and happy lives that could exist within such a context? How would they be specific to that time and place?
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McLaughlin traces the history and internal politics of a planned women’s community in Ferrara in the first half of the 15th century. Although the community eventually shifted (through several branchings) into a traditional religious order, it had started as a secular (though devotional) community and maintained that status for almost 50 years, largely due to the determined and forceful personalities of its successive leaders.
Such lay devotional communities were not at all uncommon in various parts of Europe in the later middle ages. In size they might range from half a dozen members to the nearly 100 of the Corpus Domini community at the time it redefined itself as part of the Order of Saint Clare.
The Corpus Domini community was founded at the beginning of the 15th century by a young and wealthy widow, Bernardina Sedazzari. The daughter of a merchant family, as a child, the motherless Bernardina was placed in the care of a Benedictine abbey. After her marriage and widowhood, she returned to the abbey for several years, perhaps contemplating joining the order. But for unspecified reasons—though she was known to be something of an independent spirit—she left to found her own community. She still had her substantial dowry, she had been legally emancipated by her father (who might otherwise have had legal control over her money), and with an additional donation from the aunt who had provided her dowry, she brought together a group of devout women who supported her idea to create a lay community. To that end, she purchased a house and two pieces of property in Ferrara.
Initially she represented her plans as intended to set up a group of a dozen nuns following the Rule of Saint Augustine, but that never came to pass. In retrospect, the ambiguity of her plans may have helped to deflect ecclesiastical concern, but Bernardina worked hard to avoid turning the community into a traditional order under church authority. Even so, she created her own convent-like rules for the community and required members to promise to support it taking their vows “between her own hands” (i.e., suggesting a pseudo-fealty type arrangement).
In such lay communities, women—both widows and unmarried women—would pool their resources (in the same way that women joining a religious order would be expected to bring a “dowry”) and follow the usual patterns of secular life, but they were not bound by rules that required specific clothing or that restricted their interactions with the general community. They also performed religious devotions and “good works” through charity and offering a respectable upbringing for poor girls and orphans.
One such girl who was taken in by Bernardina was Lucia Mascheroni, whom Bernardina eventually named as her heir and successor in the community. Bernardina’s will “granted Lucia all rights and powers over Corpus Domini and its property, having asked and received form her a sworn promise to ‘defend, maintain and improve’ the community in the form in which it has existed since its foundation.” Lucia took this promise very seriously, and her efforts to retain the lay character of the community shaped its fate.
However after Bernardina’s death (in 1425?), Lucia’s authority was challenged by another member, Ailisia de Baldo, who had her own following of girls raised within the community and who wanted Corpus Domini to become a traditional convent under Augustinian rule. Ailisia and her followers gained church support for her plans and temporarily took control of the institution, but Lucia appealed to the secular ruler and court of Ferrara and won recognition of her legal rights to the property and control of the community.
This struggle, however, attracted the attention of church authorities who appointed a commission to “reconcile the differences” within the community, and to create explicit formal structures for their governance. In theory, this included retaining the lay character of the community, and recognizing a joint authority between Lucia and Ailisia, along with election by the community of officers to oversee everyday affairs. The reconciliation was short-lived. Two months later, Ailisia left with her follower to join an Augustinian convent. The conflict between the two may have been, not so much religious differences, but simply a struggle for personal power. Ailisia was strong-willed, well-connected, and an able administrator. She may have recognized that a traditional religious order would attract more patronage than a lay community, apart from any specifically religious concerns. Her new community was quite successful and became a permanent part of the Ferrara community landscape.
The original Corpus Domini community also thrived, but somewhat in spite of, rather than because of, the leadership of Lucia. Lucia’s primary characteristic was her dedication to keeping her promise to Bernardina. She had significant personal charisma, but was not effective as a community leader. This left something of a leadership vacuum that was filled by a prominent Ferrara noblewoman, Verde Pio da Carpi who, although not a member of Corpus Domini itself, took an interest in using the community to further her own social and political ambitions. This was primarily accomplished by arranging financial support for the community, thereby increasing her influence over the direction and nature of the institution.
Verde, too, felt that Corpus Domini would best be served (and serve her interests) as a traditional religious order, identifying the Order of Saint Clare as the desired state. Lucia’s promise to Bernardina was still a barrier, but Verde took the approach of asking the pope to absolve Lucia from her promise as a first step to having her renounce her rights to the property and community.
Lucia seems to have opposed this on principle, not merely due to being bound by her promise, but during her temporary absence from the community, Verde put her plans in motion creating a fait accompli when Lucia returned with five companions, including a young woman named Caterina Vegri who will be the “third generation” mentioned previously.
Caterina later set out an account of the difficulties and trauma that accompanied this power struggle. Although she eventually accepted membership in the transformed Corpus Domini, at that time she was a loyal supporter of Lucia and an unwilling pawn when nominated as a candidate for abbess of the planned institution.
With the new Clarisse administration imposed on the community, Lucia may have been pressured to take the habit, but soon left “of her own will” perhaps concluding that her promise to Bernardina was incompatible with taken vows. The community continued in a sort of legal limbo for perhaps the next 15 years until Lucia (who by this time appears to have been over 50 years old) finally agreed to renounce her rights to the property and community, which was later followed by papal absolution from her long-held promise regarding the community.
The article concludes with a detailed discussion of the social, economic, and ecclesiastical pressures that tended to make lay communities of this type precarious and short-lived. Permanence and stability were most possible by accepting ecclesiastical institutionalization. The commitment and cohesion felt by the followers of a charismatic leader such as Bernardina (and to some extent, Lucia) would itself push them toward prioritizing the existence of the community over the ideals of lay community that had originally inspired them.
That conflict of ideals can be seen in Caterina Vegri’s tribute to Lucia’s leadership and mentoring, to the efforts she had put into maintaining the community, even as Caterina shifted the context to praising the end product of Lucia’s work as the establishment of the convent. Caterina herself went on to become abbess of a different Corpus Domini institution in Bologna and her religious writings and personal reputation resulted in her eventually being canonized as a saint (in the 18th century).
There’s a lot more in this article about the context, history, and logistics of the Corpus Domini community, but the above summary is focused on both the existence, and the difficulties of a medieval Italian secular “commune” of women that provides just one example of the possibilities for non-married women’s lives in that era.