The Cistercian nunnery of Clairfontaine (2009-2013)

Holy vows, worldly manners. Monastic space, consumption practices and social identity in the Cistercian nunnery of Clairfontaine, PhD research Davy Herremans

Stove tiles found in Clairefontaine: 1. Ladislas Posthumus, King of Hungary and Bohemia, 2. Elisabeth de Frantz, abbess in Clairefontaine, 3. Eagle of the Dukes of Bohemia, 4. Maximilian I of Austria, Duke of Habsburg and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, 5. Pierre-Ernest, count of Mansfeld and Governor of Luxembourg, and Marguerite de Bréderode, his first wife, 6. Charles V, imperial eagle and chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece, 7. Eleonora of Habsburg, 8. Armoury of the County of Luxembourg.
Stove tiles found in Clairefontaine: 1. Ladislas Posthumus, King of Hungary and Bohemia, 2. Elisabeth de Frantz, abbess in Clairefontaine, 3. Eagle of the Dukes of Bohemia, 4. Maximilian I of Austria, Duke of Habsburg and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, 5. Pierre-Ernest, count of Mansfeld and Governor of Luxembourg, and Marguerite de Bréderode, his first wife, 6. Charles V, imperial eagle and chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece, 7. Eleonora of Habsburg, 8. Armoury of the County of Luxembourg.
This research aims to contribute to the study of daily life in medieval and early modern Cistercian nunneries. Clairefontaine serves as classic example of a 13th century Cistercian nunnery foundation and serves as a starting point for the research. Founded in the middle of the 13th century by the counts of Luxembourg as a dynastic burial place, the convent has known a long occupation history ending with its suppression in 1796. As one of the most prestigious convents of the area, the community was populated chiefly by members of Luxembourgian nobility. Large scale excavations revealed the belowground remains of the cloister range, well preserved due to the lack of notable post-suppression occupation. Combined with written evidence on the community, this unique material dataset comprising architectural remains, household goods and food consumption debris, offers a detailed insight into the everyday life of a small community of religious women during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times.

Research examines how the sisters in Clairefontaine interacted with their material and social environment in order to understand their position in Luxembourgian society. By using both documentary and material evidence we will demonstrate how the religious in Clairefontaine deliberately used patterns of display exhibited by Luxembourgian nobility to communicate their position in the world.

Medieval and early modern religious women are usually depicted as living in a remote reality, detached from the secular world. An ideal image persists of pious women choosing a disciplined and strictly regulated life of solitude and silent contemplation. A life characterized by alienation from worldly being. Religious communities were and often still are considered as highly regulated institutions, subject to a normative model designed to be universal, leaving little scope for deviant behaviour and individuality. According to this perspective, the choice for a religious life implicated a radical change in lifestyle for the women, chiefly upper-middle-class and aristocratic families entering the convent, forcing them to abandon all goods, worldly values and elite habits.

Findings at Clairefontaine are at odds with this traditional view on female monasticism. Both the documentary and the archaeological record demonstrate how architecture, objects and foodways abridged the physical and mental distance between the religious and the world to which they once belonged. It becomes clear that the sisters were children of their time, who were well aware of worldly pleasures and fashionable consumer practices among the medieval and early modern Luxembourgian elite.

Contact

dr. Davy Herremans

Prof. dr. Wim De Clercq