In the past 20 years scholars have produced a plethora of monographs and journal articles examining the late medieval and early modern convent. Before 1990 the study of female monasticism was concentrated primarily on the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. Even for that period there were only a handful of book-length studies, and most of these focused on France and England.
Two magisterial works had defined the field: Eckenstein, 1896 and Power, 1922. See also Elkins, 1988; Johnson, 1991; Thompson, 1991.
Those works that did not examine the institutional life of convents examined the lives and legacies of exceptional nuns such as Hildegard of Bingen or Clare of Assisi. Most of these studies did not cross over into the period after 1300. It is telling, for example, that the bibliography for Jo Ann McNamara’s synthetic history of Catholic nuns, Sisters in Arms
, published in 1996, did not include any monographs on early modern convents.
That situation has since dramatically changed. We now have a body of scholarship that charts the history of female monasticism across Western Europe and the Americas between 1400 and 1800. And it is not simply that a gap in our knowledge has been filled; rather, the research on convents and nuns has been transformative. It has revealed that a comprehensive appreciation of the momentous changes of this era is incomplete without an understanding of the role of convents in the social, political and religious landscape.