“To make a vow is a matter of the will, to fulfill one is a matter of necessity,” declared the late medieval canon law, and religious profession involved the most solemn of those vows. Professed nuns could never renege on their vows and if they did attempt to reenter secular society, they became apostates. Automatically excommunicated, they could be forcibly returned to their monasteries where, should they remain unrepentant, penalties including imprisonment might be imposed. And although the law imposed uniform censures on male and female apostates, the norms regarding the proper sphere of activity for women within the Church would prohibit disaffected nuns from availing themselves of options short of apostasy that were readily available to monks similarly unhappy with the choices that they had made.
Amid the rich and ever-expanding trove of scholarship on women within their monastic communities, nuns who left those communities behind have received scant attention. This book is the first to addresses the practical and legal problems facing women religious, in England but also on the Continent, who chose to reject the terms of their profession as nuns. The women featured in these pages acted, and were acted upon, by the law—alleged apostates petitioned for redress and actual apostates sought to extricate themselves, via self-help, petition, and litigation, from the moral and legal consequences of their behavior. In an important sense then, the case studies assembled here contribute to a growing body of research on gender, law, and female agency in the Middle Ages.