The Other Sisters: Towards a Re-Conceptualization of Christian Religious Women (1100-1800)

Les projets
en cours
des membres

Members of the group:
Prof. Isabelle Cochelin
(Principal Investigator) University of Toronto

Dr. Isabel Harvey
(Co-Investigator) GRHS – UQAM

Prof. Alison More
(Co-Investigator) University of Toronto

Prof. Angela Carbone
(Collaborator) Università degli Studi di Bari Aldo Moro

Dr. Sylvie Duval
(Collaborator) Università degli Studi di Padova


The Other Sisters project focuses on women in Western Europe (and New France) who pursued forms of religious life outside of the cloister. Traditional Christian historiography has accepted the cloistered nun as the archetypal expression of feminine religious devotion. In so doing, it has ignored many other religious women and prevented scholarly exploration of their place in history. These women’s vocation often fluctuated between the cloister and the secular world. Instead, they could have been part of many groups: tertiaries, penitents, lay sisters, recluses, Deo devote, oblates, and secular canonesses. Although many non-cloistered religious women played significant roles in society, they appear marginal in the historiography of pre-modern Western Christendom. There is a need, therefore, for a collaborative research project focused on non-cloistered religious women between the twelfth and eighteenth century, from Italy to New France, which will enhance the study of this important and global part of Christian history. By defining and contextualizing the experiences of these women, the Other Sisters research project is producing the basis for a necessary corrective to the standard historiographical picture and helping to clarify the place of religious women in the Church and society. As these non-cloistered religious women were numerous and often fulfilled important functions in their society (such as spiritual counsellors, care-givers and teachers), this project aims to restore their voices to the historical record.

Two questions animate this project. The first is about identity and terminology. What should we call these women and how do we situate them in Church history? The second question is about the roles these women played in society. What social and economic roles did non-cloistered religious women fulfil? 

To answer these questions and more, the goals of the project are as follows:

  1. To establish a methodology to reconstruct the individual experiences of devout women living outside traditional ecclesiastical institutional structures;
  2. To rethink categories used to discuss feminine religious experience in both the Middle Ages and the early modern period; and
  3. To understand the roles and functions of non-cloistered religious women over a long period and by prioritizing links and continuities.

The various stages of the research, together with the calendar of our activities and a collection of research tools about non-cloistered religious women, are presented through the Other Sisters research blog. This blog will also eventually include a series of maps (Europe and Canada) illustrating the geographical locations of particular groups of non-cloistered religious women and allowing us to track the development of specific movements.


Andrea di Bartolo, Sainte Catherine de Sienne, Museo del Vetro, Murano.