The Congregation de Notre-Dame, Superiors, and the Paradox of Power, 1693-1796.
The Congregation de Notre-Dame, Superiors, and the Paradox of Power, 1693-1796. By Colleen Gray. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007. xxxvi + 251 pp. $32.95 paper.
Colleen Gray writes an engaging history of the Congregation de Notre-Dame of Montreal in the eighteenth century. Marguerite Bourgeoys founded the community in 1653, but Gray begins her book later, with the election of Marie Barbier as superior of the community in 1693. The book ends in the late eighteenth century with the death of Marie Raizenne. Gray organizes her book, in part, around the terms of three superiors, Barbier, Marie-Josephe Maugue-Garreau, and Raizenne. Gray's book provides a valuable glimpse into the lives of convent superiors and their religious order.
Gray explains that the nuns of the Congregation were from modest backgrounds; most were from farming or artisan families, and only a few came from noble or merchant ranks. The superiors were not necessarily women from the most privileged families; often, they were the daughters of artisans. Gray finds that the nuns who became superiors entered the Congregation at a younger age than did most women, and they had family members in other religious communities and in the priesthood; these, not their family status, were the determining factors of their success. I would have found it helpful if Gray had placed these nuns into the broader context of religious life in Montreal. How many other convents existed, and did they attract women of similar social backgrounds, or was the Congregation the destination for women from modest families while other communities, like the Ursulines, attracted more privileged women?
Gray sets forth to present a nuanced view of power in an eighteenth-century religious community in Quebec. Her goal is to challenge what she understands to be a portrayal of nuns as "nascent feminists" who wield exceptional power. This is a noble goal, but what is lost in this argument is a larger historiographical picture. Scholars who argue that nuns exercised considerable power in medieval and early modern Europe and its colonies were often responding to earlier generations of scholarship that rendered nuns passive and obedient creatures who lacked agency. The truth, no doubt, lies in the middle, and Gray's objective is to discover that truth.
In her introduction, Gray states that her book, "dealing as it does with women and religion, also seeks to examine the more concrete dimension of power, for one cannot study women in history without exploring power and its pervasive influence upon them" (6). Unfortunately, Gray does not define what she means by power. In her work she describes the economic importance of the Congregation and demonstrates ways in which the superiors exerted political authority. Her assessment of the economic position of the Congregation in greater Montreal is her strongest chapter. She talks about the community's significant land ownership and shows how the convent was not isolated from Montreal. The Congregation was an important institution in the community, and as Elizabeth Lehfeldt and Alison Weber have argued, convents could be permeable institutions intimately connected with the secular world around them, which was certainly the case for the Congregation (Religious Women in Golden Age Spain [Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005]; Weber, "Locating Holiness in Early Modern Spain: Convents, Caves, and Houses," a plenary lecture at Attending to Early Modern Women, University of Maryland College Park, November 2003). It is only in the book's last paragraph that Gray explains how she understands power to operate in the community: "at every turn, power in this world was paradoxical: it was clearly defined; it radiated dignity, prestige, and privilege; it was sacred. But power was also distinctly profane, negotiated, mitigated, diffused; and at times its edges were blurred and murky. Power was at once a privilege and a 'pesante charge,' a cross one bore, on the way to heaven" (142). Including this definition in the book's introduction would have been very helpful for readers.
Gray's conclusion that power had positive and negative features is certainly true, and superiors of many religious orders and communities expressed trepidation at leading a body of nuns. However, this "paradox of power" does not undermine the conclusions of historians who argue that women found religious life empowering. Gray criticizes Elizabeth Rapley for concluding that the filles seculieres, the subject of her study, were women engaged in a "professional life, consecrated to social action," and that their work was "meritorious and satisfying." Gray continues, "Research emphasizing the positive dimensions of the religious life seemed to advance an interpretation of the historical nun as a nascent feminist, engaged in a full-fledged 'modern' occupation" (86). Rapley does not assert that early modern women religious were feminists; rather, her point is that life in religious communities offered women opportunities that were beyond those of domestic life. Rapley discusses women who pursued vocations in teaching, nursing, and what we would call social work. Rapley does not argue that these were "modern occupations" but that they were meaningful vocations for women who were motivated by spiritual goals, and occasionally by temporal ones as well.
In the first part of her book, Gray describes the private world of the convent, its spiritual mission in the private world, and its economic mission in the public world. In the second part of her book, Gray focuses on the Congregation's superiors, in three chapters about becoming a superior, the burden of authority, and the mysticism of Barbier. Gray does not explain her book's organization, and it is not clear to her reader why her study spans the 103 years that it does, or why she discusses the superiors in reverse chronological order.
Gray includes two excellent appendices in her book, one that lists each professed nun in the community and another that lists each superior. The appendices include the list of parents and place of family origin. Gray does a great service to other historians and students of the period by providing such comprehensive information.
Susan E. Dinan
William Paterson University
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|Author:||Dinan, Susan E.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2008|
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