The lives of saintly abbesses were shaped to exemplify the need for stern discipline within the context of maternal responsibility. To maintain the community, nuns bonded in a fashion generally reserved to men. The imagery of virility, athletic competition, and military service runs throughout these lives. In patronizing the cults of sainted women and encouraging the composition of their vitae, the church not only rewarded women who contributed to the multifaceted monastic mission, but also forged a powerful didactic instrument for the training of new recruits, peculiarly suited to bridge the gaps between classes and races. Their rules firmly stated that the only acceptable distinctions within a community were those of virtue and office. Indeed, the offices themselves – the abbess and the prioress elected by the community and the adjutants whom they appointed – were intended to be allotted also as rewards for virtue. The other sisters were ranked according to seniority in religion. The sisters who had been longest in the convent took the lead in choir, at table, and in all processional activity unless they were demoted for some lapse in disciple.

Jo Ann McNamara, Sainted Women of the Dark Ages


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