The Project

Recent history demonstrates the importance of religious belief as a fundamental historical force. In studying early medieval Europe, we see how crucial it has been in the creation of our identity today, underlying our belief systems, cultural assumptions and core values, as well as our institutions. The use of anthropology, archaeology and art history as part of multidisciplinary approach helps us pose questions of immediate concern on ETHNICITY and NATIONALITY, WOMEN and GENDER, IDENTITY and BELIEF.

This research project examines Italian Female Monasteries from 700 to 1100.

To understand medieval society, it is essential to understand medieval monasticism, and crucial to include a key player like Italy. An integrated and broad-sweeping perspective approaches the study of Italian religious women as a laboratory for exploring the complex relationship between gender and power.

Before 1100, monasticism was not the essentially individualistic contemplative lifestyle which it is today in western societies, but an essential motor of political, economic, social and cultural life, as well as a spiritual choice. In addition, while men had the choice of exercising power and influence through a variety of means, either in or outside the church, as rulers, military men, priests and bishops, lawyers or merchants, women were often in the position of exercising such power and authority only indirectly: if they were not queens, they were almost all abbesses.

Royal or aristocratic monasteries have left sources detailing the names, background and activities of nuns. These sources, spread out in time and space, are representative of the political and ethnic composition of Italian society. To study the evolution of nunneries makes it possible to trace changes in Italian political, social and cultural patterns, with the intermingling of family and politics.

Understanding the tensions between early medieval Italian society’s male-controlled political and religious power, and the great influence of noble women as queens and as nuns, is essential for grasping women’s ideological and spiritual power in Italy and their influence within the elite and in society generally, and to recognize the different and changing configurations of medieval Italy. The latter is essential for grasping some issues still at stake in Italian society today


More generally, a study of key mechanisms concerning the relationship between women, religious belief and behaviour, and politics and society can, through comprehending these in the past, illuminate key aspects of modern European societies.