The Catholic University of America Press

"A Pernicious Sort of Woman"

Quasi-Religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages

Elizabeth Makowski

Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Canon Law,  Vol. 6

Cloth 978-0-8132-1392-7 $49.95
May 2005 In Print Add to Cart
E-Book 978-0-8132-1622-5 $49.95
August 2012 In Print Add to Cart


Whether they were secular canonesses or beguines, tertiaries or Sisters of the Common Life, quasi-religious women in the later Middle Ages lived their lives against a backdrop of struggle and insecurity resulting, in large measure, from their ambivalent legal status. Because they lacked one or more of the canonical earmarks of religious women strictly speaking, they had to justify their unauthorized way of life and to defend themselves against association with those who had been branded unorthodox, unruly, or even heretical. Ambiguous legal status within the organized Church and the contests to which it gave rise are a constant theme in the historiography of quasi-religious women, yet there has been no full-scale study of what it meant at law to be a mulier religiosa.

This book provides a thorough examination of the writings of canon lawyers in the late Middle Ages as they come to terms, both in their academic work and also in their roles as judges and advisers, with women who were not, strictly speaking, religious, but who were popularly thought of as such. It studies the ways in which jurists strove to categorize these women and to clarify the sometimes ambivalent canons relating to their lives in the community. It assesses, among other things, the extent to which lawyers proved responsive to popular as well as learned notions of what constituted religious life for women when the interests of particular clients were at stake.

"A Pernicious Sort of Woman" will be a useful supplement to books devoted to individual quasi-religious women or to specific manifestations of female lay piety. It will be of interest to historians of Christianity and specialists in the law and women's studies as well as anyone interested in the history of religious women.


Elizabeth Makowski is Associate Professor of History at Texas State University. She is the author of Canon Law and Cloistered Women and coauthor of Wykked Wyves and the Woes of Marriage.


"This book should help shed light on the context in which women developed their forms of religious life and be of use to historians and those who study particular women or communities that were trying to survive in [the later Middle Ages]."--Magistra

"This book is a worthy follow-up to the author's excellent monograph Canon Law and Cloistered Women. . . . There is no doubt that A Pernicious Sort of Woman is a first-rate book. Makowski's story of the formulation, reception, and use of the Clementine decrees on quasi-religious women is a model of how the neglected, 'elephantine literature' of Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-century canon law can be tamed and put to good use. Makowski aimed at a wide scholarly audience and her book hits the mark: a reader ignorant of canon law may take for granted the lucid summaries of texts that can be rather intractable. Those expert in ecclesiastical law will appreciate this achievement all the more, but should also be grateful for the way Makowski smoothly integrated such technical material with one of the hot topics of medieval historiography today: late medieval women's religiosity."--Patrick Nold, Ecclesiastical Law Journal

"Elizabeth Makowski brilliantly makes sense of the incongruities between canon law's increasing 'crack-down' on religious women of all sorts and the actuality of increasing numbers of late medieval quasi-religious women. In so doing she has written an essential book for all those embarking on the study of medieval religious women, on the history of canon law, and on the history of those late medieval towns and regions that began to persecute beguines and other religious women. The importance of this study is threefold: it constitutes a valuable introduction to the workings of canon law and canon lawyers in the later Middle Ages, it answers many of the definitional questions about these quasi-religious groups of women, and it elucidates the specific canon law that affected them most in the later middle ages. . . . Makowski's voice is clear and useful. 'A Pernicious Sort of Woman' will join her earlier book as a 'must have' for all medievalists' reading lists."--Constance Berman, Professor of History, University of Iowa

"Makowski's learned and thoughtful book should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of medieval women and the religious life. Church authorities found women who felt called to live the religious life, but stubbornly refused to fit into the mold of conventional female monasticism, enormously vexing. Makowski's study of the tensions between established views among canon lawyers and others who rebelled against those views makes a valuable and original contribution to the study of medieval women's piety."--James A. Brundage, Professor of History & Law, University of Kansas

"This book opens up a whole new perspective on the status of semi-religious women in later medieval society. Digging deep into legal commentaries and consilia, Makowski illumines the conflicted status of beguines and secular canonesses in late medieval church law, an uncertain position at once constrained and tolerated, sometimes even enabled. A real achievement."--John Van Engen, Professor of History, University of Notre Dame

"This thoughtful, competent and original study a contribution to the understanding of ideals and realities of late medieval canon a contribution to understanding the texts and workings of late medieval canon law." -- Robert E. Lerner, American Historical Review

"This book by Makowski is a really interesting one. She looks at the matter of quasi-religious women in a way unusual for medieval historical literature. . . . Makowski makes a valuable contribution to the scholarly effort to assess the views of canon lawyers on this matter, and this is very useful for the reader. . . . Makowski offers a real contribution to modern scholarship concerning the history of medieval piety, but I suggest that the content of her book is not merely a display of scholarly erudition. . . . [Makowski's] opinion must be seriously discussed. And she makes an excellent contribution to historiography by analyzing quasi-religious women in the normative context of speech, and not the more classical (and sometimes abused) spiritual one." -- Luca Parisoli, Medieval Review

"[A] valuable contribution to the study of women's extra-religious communities. . . . Makowski's book presents a new perspective on official understandings of quasi-religious women . . . . Makowski's book will prove useful to scholars interested in canon law, religious women, and the relationship between legal theory and practice." -- Tanya Stabler, Medieval Feminist Forum

"Elizabeth Makowski's study of how medieval canon lawyers dealt with 'quasi-religious women' is doubly to be welcomed. The material is interesting in itself, as a consideration of how lawyers went about their work, and how they deployed their arguments. For scholars not directly involved in the issues of women's religious status in the Middle Ages, this second aspect of the book is nevertheless important and enlightening. . . . Makowski adds to our picture of the Middle Ages as a multivalent society, in which a variety of complex and sophisticated opinions could be held simultaneously, and not one in which a black and white, orthodox-heretical divide was the order of the day." -- Lesley Smith, Medium Aevum

"This book is the first full-length study to consider the position of quasireligious women in relation to late medieval canon law. . . . This fascinating account is fully accessible to those without a specialist background in legal history, and, in the introduction and concluding chapters, Makowski helpfully locates her work within developments in the broader discipline of medieval history. . . . [T]his concise but extremely lucid and scholarly volume is a welcome addition to the field of women's studies, as well as to that of church history." -- Dianne Watt, The Historian

"Makowski's treatment of quasi-religious women in the later Middle Ages provides the historian, whether of canon law, medieval history, women, and religious women in particular, with an essential tool. . . . [T]his book appeals to a wide cross-section of readers. In particular, it sheds light on a dark period of history in an interesting and highly informative manner. The author renders a great service to historians in general by making accessible material that not only informs the reader about the ambiguities associated with understanding religious women in the later Middle Ages, but also contributes to our understanding of why this ambivalence continued in the early modern period. A "must" for the scholar as well as the general reader!" -- Elizabeth Cotter, Studia Canonica

"[A] slender but insightful study of the way canon lawyers wrote about semireligious women's communities after the issuance of the Constitutiones Clementinae in 1317. . . . This is surely a useful and clearly argued book." -- Sean Field, Speculum

"This study offers a scrupulous textual analysis of Canon law with regards to three 'quasi-religious' groups, namely secular Canonesses, Beguines, and Tertiaries. . . . This book provides a welcome pendant to Makowski's previous work on Periculoso and cloistered women, and one which will be useful to all readers with an interest in female religious history. The non-specialist will be grateful to the author for her continued efforts towards intelligibility and precision; obscure terms are always explained, contexts glossed, chapters introduced and concluded with remarkable clarity. . . . [T]his work manages the arduous task of providing an extremely well-documented study of the incongruities of Canon law, academic interpretations and legal practice with regards to quasi-religious women; it has begun the process of gradually dissipating the nebulous imprecision surrounding these women and their relationship to ecclesiastical and secular law, it is a call for further research in this field, and Makowski has certainly opened the way in an enlightening manner." -- Women's History Magazine

"The text will take its place on the scholar's bookshelf beside the author's earlier work, Canon Law and Cloistered Women (1999) as a useful explication of the theory and practice of canon law pertaining to women religious in the later medieval period. . . . Written in limpid prose and adhering to a straight-forward structure alternating exposition and analysis, Makowski's A Pernicious Sort of Woman serves as a useful introduction to an array of canon law sources and their impact on the history of women religious. . . . Historians of medieval religion (not just historians of women religious" will no doubt find this book useful as it illuminates the workings of canon law attempting to shape the lives of those reshaping religious life in the later Middle Ages." -- Katherine Jansen, The Jurist

Product Details

Pages:xxxiii,170 pages

Dimensions:5.5x8.5 inches


CIP Information: 2004001570/ BX4212.M12 2005/ 262.9'2--dc22


1. Monasticism and religious orders for women (Canon law)--History--To 1500

2. Third orders--History--To 1500