The role of women in the Military Orders

The military orders differed in their attitudes towards the admission of women. Some accepted women as full sisters, while others did not. A review on Rule and practise.
"The rule of the Teutonic Order, for example, excluded women because, according to the rule, women would make the Brothers ‘go soft’, emolliri. Women could, however, become consorores (in German halpswesteren, in Dutch halversustern, or ‘half sisters’), to assist with care of the sick. They should be housed separately from the Brothers: a dwelling should be provided for them outside the Brothers’ house.

The rule of the Order of the Temple excluded all women from entering the order, even from entering a house of the order as associates, because – according to the rule – women would lead men into sin. In contrast, the Hospital of St John and the Order of Santiago accepted women from the beginning of the order. The military orders’ rules, however, set out only the ideal, not actual practice, and it is necessary to consider also the evidence for these women’s everyday involvement in the military orders’ religious life.

There were many ways in which women could be present in the military orders’ houses. There were some wholly women’s houses, although the women would have to allow a male priest admission to the house in order to perform priestly duties such as hearing confession and celebrating mass. Women’s houses were sometimes attached to a separate house of men, or might form part of a double house containing both men and women.

Women are also found associated with predominantly male commanderies, and worked as servants in male commanderies. Much still remains unclear. It is certain that many women involved with the military orders were not fully professed sisters but associates; nevertheless, they appear to have been closely connected to a house of a military order and to have taken an active role within the life of that house. Unlike men, however, they remained in the house they joined – they did not move around within Europe and were not sent to the East. (...)

The function of the women was to pray – that is, they played a role in spiritual rather than physical warfare – and in some cases they may also have helped care for the sick. They also made donations to the military orders and effectively helped to draw new members and donations to it. The women’s primary role was prayer and reciting the office each day in their priory church. (...)

There might also be female servants present in commanderies. These were forbidden by the rule of the Temple, but nevertheless there are records that dairymaids were employed at some houses, although they might never actually have entered the precinct of the house. Women also worked on the Templars’ land. (...)"

This bog quotes freely from the paper The role of women in the Military Orders’ published by Helen Nicholson on, bottom illustration from the same paper: Top illustration: Sigena: tomb of Sister Isabel of Aragon, 1434, wearing a Hospitaller mantle. Museo Diocesà, Lleida; 

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