Another point to be emphasized as characteristic of the Middle Ages is the spirit of superstitious devotion so generally manifested. No guest was so welcome in bower and hall as the pilgrim returned from the Holy Land, with many a tale to tell of victories gained by knights of the holy cross over the worthless infidel. The troubadours, after a youth spent in love and minstrelsy, almost invariably retired to the silence of the cloister. Noble and beautiful women, upon the slightest disgust with life, or remorse of conscience, took the vow that separated them forever from the world, and pledged them to perpetual chastity and poverty. When this vow was taken, all jewels and rich garments were laid aside, and the head shorn of its beautiful ornament of hair.
The building in which they secluded themselves was guarded by massive walls, and iron-grated windows. The rich and the noble seldom died without leaving something to endow a convent. At last, they became powerful instruments of oppression; for, if a nobleman had numerous daughters, and wished, in the pride of his heart, to center his wealth on one only, he could compel all the others to take the veil; if they were not sufficiently beautiful to aid his ambitious views, or dared to form an attachment contrary to his wishes, the same fate awaited them.
If a nun violated her vow of chastity, she suffered a penalty as severe as that imposed on the vestal virgins; being placed in an opening of the walls, which was afterward bricked up and thus left to perish slowly with hunger.
But the influence of convents was far from being wholly evil. Their gates were ever open to the sick, the wounded, and the destitute; in the most turbulent times, the sweet charities of life were found a kindly nursery, and many a young mind was trained to virtue and learning, under the fostering care of some worthy abbess.
As chivalry and the military spirit declined, men began to take pride in literature; and women, of course, assumed a corresponding character. The merits of Aristotle and Plato divided the attention of the learned. The universities declared in favor of Aristotle; but poets, lovers, and women were enamored of the ethereal Plato. Women preached in public, supported controversies, published and defended theses, filled the chairs of philosophy and law, harangued the popes in Latin, wrote Greek, and read Hebrew. Nuns wrote poetry, women of rank became divines, and young girls publicly exhorted Christian princes to take up arms for the recovery of the holy sepulcher.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.