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Debates over the identity of women’s religious communities have exercised historians no less than late medieval canonists and officials. Even as the legal regulation of such communities increased, so, paradoxically, did the diversity of forms that such communities took. Although these trends have been the subject of much historical attention, the division of mixed-gender hospital communities which occurred across Europe in the thirteenth century has not hitherto been integrated into such studies. I attempt to redress this lacuna by examining the contested religious identity of the hospital sisters of Mainz. Forced to leave the mixed-gender staff of the city’s Heilig Geist Spital in 1259, these women resisted the joint attempts of municipal and religious authorities to see them incorporated into an existing Cistercian house. Their attempts to establish an independent community were met with lay protest; in response, the women appealed to Mainz’s archbishop for confirmation of their rights as religious women, and to prelates from all over Europe for support of their new community. I argue that the women saw themselves primarily as hospital sisters, and that in order to maintain this identity, they were willing to challenge externally-defined boundaries of acceptable conduct for religious women. My analysis of the vocabulary applied to the women over the course of the thirteenth century reveals that hospitals were clearly perceived as religious institutions by ecclesiastical officials, lay elites, and hospital staff alike; but these groups each held different notions about the criteria for religious identity.


I am indebted to the Fulbright Commission for the funding for this research, to those who offered feedback on the conference paper on which this article is based at the 2016 meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, and to Dr. Yvonne Seale for reading and commenting on an earlier version of the article.


Cistercian Order, hospitals, canon law, religious women, Germany

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