The Troubles of Vilanera – October 24, 2012
The Troubles of Vilanera – October 24, 2012

The Troubles of Vilanera – October 24, 2012

On Wednesday afternoon, the Iowa Forum for Graduate Medievalists was host to its first guest lecturer—which meant that I, as the IFGM’s current president, was getting something of a crash course in all the practicalities involved in being a host, too. For once, technology didn’t fail on our end (the projector worked first time! based on past experience, this must be some sort of minor miracle), but rather on that of our speaker. Still, I think that beginning a talk with only a ten minute delay counts as starting pretty much on time, based on my past experiences at some conferences—and luckily our large (and talkative!) audience, led by the ever-capable Connie Berman, were able to occupy themselves during the slight wait with discussion of other medieval things.

Our speaker was Michelle Herder, a professor of history at Cornell College.

Professor Herder’s research focuses on women in religious institutions in late medieval Spain, and her talk—entitled “The Troubles of Vilanera: Monastic Decline and Failure in Fourteenth-Century Spain”—emerged from that research. Herder was arguing against the traditional framing of religious history which sees the 14th and 15th centuries as a period of decline in monasticism in general, but particularly Benedictine monasticism. While there were undoubtedly some house closures, Herder sees continuing vitality in many houses, and urges us to look at the particular rather than the general in attempting to make sense of religious change in late medieval Europe. She argues, too, that we must pay as much attention to the smaller, less successful monasteries as to the grander and more successful ones.

6a013486c64e2e970c017c32d06482970bHer paper centered on the house of Santa Maria de Vilanera (pictured above; more pictures at this link, though all the commentary is in Catalan). Established in 1326 in coastal Catalonia, Vilanera had a brief and troubled existence. Its founder, Arnau de Soler (tomb effigy pictured to the left), was a deacon of the cathedral in nearby Girona who had a distinguished if unexceptional career—unexceptional, that is, if we overlook the fact that he had an illegitimate daughter called Felipa. Arnau appears to have established Vilanera with Felipa in mind, as well as perhaps other members of his family. The first abbess is his sister, Fresca de Soler, who had previously been a prioress at another house before transferring to Vilanera.

There is little surviving documentation about the house, but we do possess one intriguing visitation record from about 1340. It tells us not only of complaints by the nuns about the house lacking financial resources, but also that several nuns—most notably one Francesca Torroella de Sant Iscle—complained of financial mismanagement and sexual misconduct on the part of Felipa, who was by now abbess. Based on hints from other records, Herder posits that the nuns were jealous of Felipa’s status despite her illegitimacy, as well as perhaps aggrieved that she was abbess despite her youth—Felipa may well have been born the year her father died, and was therefore destined to become head of the monastery from the time she was an infant. At the time of the visitation, then, she may still have been in her early teens.

We can’t prove that this indeed what happened, but it certainly conjures up an intriguing image—of a group of women telling tales about (a teenage?) Felipa canoodling with her boyfriend in the hen house, not because of silly female quarrels (and I use that terminology with a full awareness of all its deeply gendered connotations) but because of very real tensions to do with class and age difference.

Given the house’s financial difficulties and internal conflict, not to mention the warfare and plagues which periodically swept the area, it’s little wonder that Vilanera was closed by episcopal order in 1407. It didn’t have enough institutional resilience to overcome adversity—and it is to this idea of institutional resilience, of particularity, as a means of examining the success or failure of a given house, to which Professor Herder returned at the end of her talk.

I think, despite minor hiccups at the beginning, this all went off very well for a first attempt at hosting such a gathering! We had lots of questions from the audience, and a strong, multidisciplinary attendance—it was wonderful to see so many different people from across campus there. Hopefully our luck will hold for our next lecture. I should probably start making propitiatory gifts to the projector.

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