Author ORCID Identifier
Year of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Jeremy D. Popkin
This dissertation uses the concept of identity to investigate the ways religious women navigated the French Revolution. Even as their religious identities were thrown into question, these women’s religious commitments remained important to them. As the French revolutionaries began to reform aspects of the ancien régime, the Catholic Church came under attack. The fate of priests, monks, and nuns came into question. Traditionally, religious women cared for orphans, the sick, and the poor, educated young girls, housed widows, rehabilitated prostitutes, and provided a respectable alternative community for aristocratic women. Despite every effort by the revolutionaries to dissolve their patterns of living, certain nuns adjusted themselves to the changing political climate, and their practice of faith survived the religious legislation that suppressed their convents and congregations. Adapting to new circumstances after the dissolution of their religious houses was complicated for women who could not own property because of the vow of poverty, could not marry because of their vow of celibacy, and could not swear the required oaths to liberty and equality because of the vows of obedience to the Catholic Church. Nearly every nun broke at least one of these vows. The nuns were able to navigate the uncertainty of the Revolution by relying on their religious identity as devotees of an unchanging deity. Anchoring their identity in religion did not preclude changes to their sense of self and their relationship with the secular world, but it allowed them to retain some sense of stability in the face of challenges.
As unlikely harbingers of revolutionary changes, female members of monastic institutions took an active role in shaping the practice of Catholicism and crystalizing the changes wrought by the Revolution. By adapting the performance of their identity to survive severe religious persecution, the nuns redefined what it meant to be a woman, a Catholic, and a member of French society. Religious belief helped some Catholics to answer the essential question of self, morality, and community when fundamental bases of identity were in flux. Religious women solidified the revolutionary changes, wittingly or unwittingly, through the daily practice of new responsibilities, by engaging in the world outside the cloister, and by making, breaking, and leveraging different aspects of their identities.
Former nuns were expected to become laywomen in a short period of time, and the special status of religious women disappeared. New rights to own property or to live wherever they chose, however, conflicted with the rules of the convent and their permanent vows. Historians must reconsider what liberty, fraternity, and equality meant to members of religious communities. Nuns found freedom in obedience. They found death, at least the symbolic death to the world that accompanied taking religious vows, was a path to eternal life. And they found security in their identities as nuns even at a time when expressing that identity could result in imprisonment. Some women did not embrace the freedom offered by the Revolution and preferred the spiritual freedom offered in the convent. While the revolutionaries espoused a fraternity between all Frenchmen, the women in the convent already had a sisterhood and a spiritual family with which they identified.
Mother superiors and individual nuns often advocated for themselves in letters to the National Assembly, both to dissolve and preserve these convents. Furthermore, between 1802 and 1808, the Catholic Church sent a papal legate to adjudicate letters, known as the Caprara letters, written by men and women who hoped to rejoin the church. These letters help explain their actions in the church’s absence. Other primary sources used in this study include diaries, letters, and printed memoirs from nuns during the French Revolution.
Perhaps more than any other group in revolutionary France, nuns had to react to changes that affected the aspects of their daily life that defined their identity. They dressed the same, patterned their lives after a highly regimented ritual of prayer and singing, and occupied themselves in a shared mission within their communities. Nuns’ intersectional social, political, religious, and gender identities help us to understand how the Revolution affected individuals. Drawing on concepts from the work of identity theorists, this dissertation makes three arguments. First, nuns’ religious identities were a source of stability in the face of the uncertainty created by the Revolution. Secondly, female religious women had a great deal of agency in choosing which identities to adopt during the Revolution. Lastly, nuns played a role in shaping the return of convents and congregations, and their experiences during the Revolution changed both secular and religious ideas about convents. In the daily practice of new responsibilities, engaging in the world, and taking on new identities, they crystalized the revolutionary changes. My research tells the story of women who lived complicated lives and do not fit into the neat categories we have created for them. In understanding how these women made sense of the Revolution and their place in it, we can better understand how to deal with conflicts between personal religious beliefs and the public performance of various identities.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
External Grants and Fellowships
2019 Massena Society Dissertation Research Fellowship
2019 American Catholic Historical Association Graduate Student Summer Research Grant
2018 American Historical Association Travel Grant
2017 Koch Foundation Dissertation Grant
University of Kentucky Grants and Fellowships
2020 University of Kentucky Spring Dissertation Fellowship
2019 Bryan Fellowship
2018 Arts and Sciences Research Funding
2018 Gilbert-Crowe Fund for Graduate Student Development
2017 George Herring Graduate Fellowship
2017 Albisetti Summer Research Grant
2017 Dissertation Enhancement Award
2013 First-Year Fellowship
Gressang, Corinne, "Breaking Habits: Identity and the Dissolution of Convents in France, 1789-1808" (2020). Theses and Dissertations--History. 58.