What did nuns do in the middle ages? (the Life of medieval nuns)

I’ve always been intrigued by nuns. At theology school, I decided to do more research about monasticism and the history of nuns. Reading books was not enough. I had to talk to several of my professors to fully understand the concept of monasticism and the role of women as nuns. I later met up with an elderly nun who was kind enough to narrate to me what it was like being a nun in her heydays and the stories she heard about nuns in the Medieval Ages. During one of our online cross-denominational bible study sessions, a young woman shared her controversial opinion on the lifestyles of nuns. According to her, it was sadistic to subject a person to a life of stringent rules and rigid schedules. The young lady wanted to know what had changed about nuns since medieval times. Armed with my insight on this subject, I volunteered to tackle her main question; what did nuns do in the middle ages?

Nuns in the middle ages spent their time meditating and praying. Just like monks, nuns followed strict rules to uphold their integrity and morality. Medieval nuns also invested lots of resources, time, and energy toward helping the less fortunate. Nuns in this age provided services such as nursing and diplomacy.

In this article, we will discuss the lifestyles of medieval nuns. Join me as I explore the daily routines of medieval nuns.

What did a typical day in the Life of a medieval nun look like?

Nuns in medieval times lived ascetic and structured lives. The ascetics strictly adhered to a “Book of Hours” `, which had eight sections. The nuns upheld these sections or hours at specific times throughout the day. There were special hymns, prayers, and psalms for nuns to recite and meditate upon during each section. Below is a summary of the eight sacred of that medieval nuns observed daily;

  • Lauds- It was an early morning devotion starting at 5 am
  • Matins- A light service that took place at 2 am.
  • Prime- this service was held at 6 am.
  • Sext- This is a divine office that nuns recited at noon.
  • Nones- This divine office devotion happened at 3 pm.
  • Terce- Divine office devotion took place at 9 am.
  • Vespers- This was the divine office that nuns recited between 4-5 pm.
  • Compline- the final divine office is recited before bed at 6 pm.

How were nuns chosen during the middle ages?

What did nuns do in the middle ages? 
How were nuns chosen during the middle ages? Image source: Pixabay

Historical records speak about specific criteria that convents used to select nuns. Back then, there were several reasons women became nuns. Women who had a genuine desire to serve God through complete devotion would be accepted as nuns in the middles ages. In some cases, families chose to take their daughters to nunneries for them to get an education. This was rampant among low-income families who could not afford to get their daughters an education. In such cases, the families would donate a small percentage of the dowry to the convents. Other convents only accepted nuns from wealthy families, which made the institutions rich.

Women who missed the opportunity to assume leadership roles in the church became nuns. Due to the chauvinism of the Middle Ages, many women joined convents to make their mark on Christianity. Medieval Nuns created a life away from the confines of societal expectations. Women who did not want to be wives or mothers also joined the nunneries. Widows are another group of women who found solace in convents during medieval times.

Where did nuns live in the middle ages?

Nuns lived in monasteries and convents in the middle ages. Nuns who dedicated their entire lives to prayer and meditation never left the convents. However, nuns who performed community service were allowed to come and go as needed. Nuns who served the community were allowed live in any monastery.

What was it like being a nun in the middle ages?

Social status affected the lifestyles of different nuns in the middle ages. The majority of nuns were from low-income families. These women were assigned the most challenging jobs in the convents. For example, poor nuns would be forced to farm the lands for food and tend the livestock. On the other hand, the nuns from wealthy families seemed to have it easier in the convents. The head nuns assigned noble nuns to light jobs, making their lives easier. That said, all the nuns were subject to the unique rules in each convent. In medieval times, nun orders based their guideline on three principles. These were poverty, chastity, and obedience. Therefore, nuns in the middle ages had to give up any claim to material wealth. Nuns in that era spent their time serving their local communities and spreading the gospel of Good News.

How were nuns treated in the middle ages?

Nuns in the middle ages commanded far more respect than their civilian counterparts. They were revered for their ability to remain chaste and loyal to their cause. Society showed respect to nuns because they were educated. In those days, women were only encouraged to pursue just enough literacy to be a wife and a mother. This was different for nuns living in convents. The ascetics could gain a quality education within the confines of the convents. The nunnery schools offered training in astronomy, grammar, arithmetic, Latin, music, reading, and writing, among other useful classes.

Why were there so many nuns in the medieval times?

The medieval period was a difficult time to be a woman. It was a time when society considered women less important than men. During this period, the best a woman could hope for was marriage and children. Women were denied many things, including education and employment. The monastic lifestyle gave medieval women a sense of purpose and control over their lives.

In monastic communities, women had access to education, art, and training in different skills. This is why many low and middle-class families all over Europe forced their daughters to become nuns. The idea of maintaining chastity and not being subservient to men appealed to many ladies in the middle ages. Nuns commanded a certain level of respect from society. That made these religious orders even more attractive to young and old women alike.

Why were nuns so important in the medieval age?

What did nuns do in the middle ages? 
Why were nuns so important in the medieval age? Image source: Pixabay

Nuns were important because they provided society with valuable services such as healthcare, guidance and counseling, and teaching. Poverty was rampant in the medieval times. Nuns were beloved for their commitment to meeting the needs of the poor people in society. Nuns also played a key role in the spread of Christianity as we know it today. Medieval nuns wrote journals and kept certain records which became priceless sources of information on the history of Christianity.

Nuns were symbols that anyone could create a meaningful life despite the odds. Convents became a haven for troubled young women. A great example is a reformed Egyptian prostitute named Mary of Egypt. History reveals that Mary of Egypt spent 17 years in the desert praying and changing her Life for the better. This could not have been possible were it not for the monasteries and convents in the middle ages.

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