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perfections on their heads—have we, in these days of enlightenment, any sort of substitute for the blessings they held out to dependent and suffering woman of whatever rank?
Convents became also schools for the education of young women of rank, who here imbibed in early youth principles of religion which might enable them to endure with patience and fortitude those aftertrials of life from which no station or wealth could exempt them; and they acquired here those accomplishments, and were taught here those lighter occupations, amongst which fine needlework and embroidery occupied a conspicuous position, which would qualify them to beguile in a becoming manner the many hours of leisure which their elevated rank would confer on them.
"Nunneries," says Fuller, " also were good sheeschools, wherein the girles and maids of the neighbourhood were taught to read and work; and sometimes a little Latine was taught them therein. Yea, give me leave to say, if such feminine foundations had still continued, provided no vow were obtruded upon them (virginity is least kept where it is most constrained), haply the weaker sex (besides the avoiding modern inconveniences) might be heightened to an higher perfection than hitherto hath been attained. That sharpnesse of their wits and suddenness of their conceits (which their enemies must allow unto them) might by education be improved into a judicious solidity, and that adorned with arts which now they want, not because they cannot learn, but are not taught them. I say, if such feminine foundations were extant now of dayes, haply some virgins of highest birth would be glad of such places, and I am sure their fathers and elder brothers would not be sorry for the same."
Miss Lawrance gives a more detailed account of the duties taught in them. "In consequence of convents being considered as establishments exclusively belonging to the Latin church, Protestant writers, as by common consent, have joined in censuring them, forgetful of the many benefits which, without any reference to their peculiar creed, they were calculated to confer. Although providing instruction for the young, the convent was a large establishment for various orders of women. There were the nuns, the lay sisters, always a numerous class, and a large body of domestics; while in those higher convents, where the abbess exercised manorial jurisdiction, there were seneschal, esquires, gentlemen, yeomen, grooms, indeed the whole establishment of a baronial castle, except the men-at-arms and the archer-band. Thus within the convent walls the pupil saw nearly the same domestic arrangement to which she had been accustomed in her father's castle; while, instead of being constantly surrounded with children, well born and intelligent women might be her occasional companions. And then the most important functions were exercised by women. The abbess presided in her manorial court, the cellaress performed the extensive offices of steward, the prsecentrix led the singing and superintended the library, and the infirmaress watched over the sick, affording them alike spiritual and medical aid. Thus, from her first admission, the pupil was taught to respect and to
emulate the talents of women. But a yet more important peculiarity did the convent school present. It was a noble, a well-endowed, and an independent institution; and it proffered education as a boon. Here was no eager canvassing for scholars, no promises of unattainable advantages; for the convent school was not a mercantile establishment, nor was education a trade. The female teachers of the middle ages were looked up to alike by parent and child, and the instruction so willingly offered was willingly and gratefully received; the character of the teacher was elevated, and as a necessary consequence so was the character of the pupil."
But in addition to those inmates who had dedicated their lives to religion, and those who were placed there specifically for education, convents afforded shelter to numbers who sought only temporary retirement from the world under the influence of sorrow, or temporary protection under the apprehension of danger. And this was the case not merely through the very dark era with which our chapter commences, but for centuries afterwards, and when the world was comparatively civilized. Our own "good Queen Maude" assumed the veil in the convent of Romsey, without however taking the vows, as the only means of escaping from a forced marriage; and in the subsequent reign, that of Stephen, so little regard was paid to law or decorum, that a convent was the only place where a maiden, even of gentle birth, if she had riches, could have a chance of shelter and safety from the machinations of those who resorted to any sort of bru
tality or violence to compel her to a marriage which would secure her possessions to her ravisher.
It was then in the convents, and in them alone, that, during the barbarism and confusion consequent upon the overthrow of the ancient empire, and the irruption of the untamed hordes who overran southern Europe from the north and west,—it was in the convents that some remnants of the ancient art of embroidery were still preserved. The nuns considered it an acceptable service to employ their time and talents in the construction of vestments which, being intended for the service of the church, were rich and sumptuous even at the time when richness and elegance of apparel were unknown elsewhere.* It was no proof of either the ignorance or the bad taste or the irreligion of the " dark" ages, that the religious edifices were fitted up with a rich and gorgeous solemnity which are unheard of in these days of light and knowledge and economy. And besides the construction of rich and elaborately ornamented vestments for the priests, and hangings for the altars, shrines, &c, besides these being peculiarly the occupation of the professed sisters of religious houses, it was likewise the pride and the delight of ladies of rank to devote both their money to the purchase and their time to the embroidering of sacerdotal garments as offerings to the church. And whether temporarily sheltering within the walls of a convent, or happily presiding in her own lofty halls, it was oftentime the pride and pleasure of the high-born dame to embroider a splendid cope, a rich vest, or a gorgeous hanging, as a votive and grateful offering to that holy altar where perhaps she had prayed in sorrow, and found consolation and peace.
* Muratori (Diss. 25), speaking of the mean habiliments usual in Italy even so late as the 13th century, adds, " Ma non per questo s'hanno a credere cosi rozzi e nemici del Lussa que' Secoli. A buon couto anche in Italia qui non era cieco, sovente potea mirare i piu delicati lavori di Seta, che servivano di ornamenti alle Chiese e alle sacre funzion i."