The Cloister and Accounts Payable

By Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt (W&M Regular Contributor)

When I began doing research on early modern convents, one of my favorite finds in the archives was their account books.  At first glance they were impenetrable.  Only by spending hours paging through through them carefully did their internal logic reveal itself.  There is no double-entry bookkeeping, for example.  Expenditures are grouped together and then all sources of income are listed collectively.  Once I got acclimated to their format, I realized that they were a treasure trove of information about convent life.  Take, for example, the books from the convents of Santa Isabel and Santa María de las Huelgas, both located in the city of Valladolid.

photocopy of a page from the archives of Santa Isabel de Valladolid

At the turn of the seventeenth century, the pages of these account books reveal that the nuns consumed meat, fish, wine, oil, and eggs with some regularity.  “As was customary” the nuns of Santa Isabel were allowed to enjoy pastries at Sunday dinner.  The nuns employed a variety of personnel to help them manage their properties and estates.  Since normally women were prohibited from performing the sacraments they also had to hire and pay priests to perform these tasks [see my last post for interesting cases of when women could perform sacraments].  The nuns also had to maintain the liturgical life of the community.  They purchased items like wax and missals.  Music was central to their devotional life; the accounts record expenditures for bellows for an organ and strings for a harp.  Just like their secular counterparts, the nuns were constantly having to do maintenance on their physical plant: repairing a sewer; paying someone to pave a walkway, rebuilding chimneys, walls, and doors.  They might also pay large sums of money to local artisans for more elaborate projects like repairs to an upper cloister or the commissioning of an altarpiece.

Yet perhaps the most intriguing insight that comes from the pages of these books is that convent officers were responsible for all of this activity and the bookkeeping and responsibilities that it generated.  The books include the signatures of nuns who handled money and acted as stewards and accountants.  Twice yearly, the abbess added her signature to the records.  Despite the fact that their male contemporaries did not think them capable of rational administration, the evidence yielded by these weathered books makes clear that these women managed their resources efficiently and carefully.

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is Professor of History at Cleveland State University.  She is currently at work on a project exploring the material culture of convents in early modern Europe.

  • ahightower

    This is an interesting article.  Thanks for sharing.  I am wondering about this line:
    “Despite the fact that their male contemporaries did not think them capable of rational administration…”
    What is the basis for this “fact” about what their male contemporaries thought?

    • E Lehfeldt

      ahightower: great question–thank you for asking.  In these short blog-ish posts I often don’t have time to unpack all of the details that I’d like to.  We have statements from various male ecclesiastics from the period between 1400 and 1600 where they express their assumptions that women don’t know how to manage property and that their lack of financial acumen will lead to the ruin of the convent patrimony.

  • Elizabeth Durack

    Your assertion that male contemporaries didn’t consider nuns capable of running ordinary affairs of their community is an obviously false interpretation. Every community of women religious, then and now, was expected to manage these types of affairs as a matter of course. Most of what you are writing about pertains not simply to the historical past but to the necessities of any monastery then or now and the things you describe make integral sense in the practical and liturgical life of a monastery. But people in the societies of the past understood far more then than now, how necessary were the nuns and their life of sacrifice, of virtue and prayer. They were understood as important to the Church and to society. Their lives were seen as having meaning and dignity and were not studied academically for the “quaint” minutiae or interpreted according to an entirely ill fitting marxist-feminist heremeneutic.

    An important note. Priests are given stipends as a donation for their support, and for instance in most US dioceses there is an official custom (not requirement) of $10 Mass stipend if one requests that the Holy Sacrifice be offered for a particular intention, or for instance when a priest who is not the regular chaplain celebrates Mass for a monastery of nuns. This is emphatically NOT a payment for saying Mass or for the Sacraments (paying for sacred goods such as Sacraments is simony, a serious sin, you cannot buy grace or salvation, you cannot buy God or God’s actions) but given freely as a matter of justice; the beneficiaries of the priest’s ministry in turn want to help meet his needs.

    Only an ordained priest can celebrate Mass or the Sacrament of Penance, profoundly necessary, effective means of our salvation. The role and life of the nuns is complementary. A family has a wife and mother as well as a husband and father, and these are simply not interchangeable or replaceable, the relationship and mutual humility and service toward one another is wonderful, their love is life-giving, this is concretely visible in marriage which produces children, but also visible in a very different way in the complementary roles of men and women in the Church and her liturgical life which is spiritually life giving. Nuns of course, are set apart for and consecrated for the love of God in singleness of heart, to be in a particular way an image of the Church, which is the Body and  Bride of Christ, and to pray to God for us all.