Who’s doing all that domestic work inside the convent? Teaser Tuesday returns with some hidden labor history

Yale University Press. 2016

Yale University Press. 2016

Teaser Tuesday is back with more secrets of the convent from chapter four of my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, namely:  who’s doing all of the laundry, cleaning, and cooking inside the Ursuline convent in Québec?  The aristocratic daughters of (often literally) entitled colonial officials, military officers, and fur trade merchants performed only the apostolic labor of the order–they were the elite choir nuns, and so worked as teachers and artists.  It was the lay (or converse) sisters who got the dirty jobs done.

My excerpt today explains the differences between the choir nuns and the lay sisters, and tries to give you an idea of what daily life was like for these servant-sisters in the eighteenth century:

Teaching, artistry, and performing all of the psalms, hymns, and prayers of the liturgy of the house was the work of choir nuns, while the work of lay sisters (soeurs converses) was the ongoing housekeeping and maintenance of the large household that was the monastery. These sisters were typically admitted to the convent with much smaller dowries than the choir nuns, and they were from more modest family backgrounds as well. The work of the lay sisters in the Ursuline convent involved food preparation, laundry, cleaning, and the nursing care involved in operating a household that in the eighteenth century typically housed dozens of nuns and boarding students at a time. Imagining the mountains of laundry alone is enough to make the modern reader quail at the arduous tasks of eighteenth-century soeurs converses, let alone the demands of cooking and keeping house for perhaps sixty to seventy-five girls and women at a time. Lay sisters had to be physically strong as well as undaunted by the daily routine of two or three hot meals a day for the teachers, students, and themselves. While the choir nuns were the teachers, the lay sisters often times had even more intimate relationships with the boarding students as they nursed them when they were ill and performed the other daily labor that mothers (or servants) typically performed for children in New France.

Cleaning fireplaces and building and tending fires; drawing and carrying all of the water used in the convent, as well as stirring boiling pots of soap and giant copper kettles of stinking linens; or even just baking the daily bread and roasting or braising the beef that was served on most days of the week—it was difficult, hot, and frequently dirty work. Laundry must have occupied the majority of the lay sisters’ time, as convents appear to have had unusually high standards for personal cleanliness in the early modern period. In fact, the Rule dictated that each week all sisters must have two chemises, two caps, two veils, and two wimples apiece freshly laundered, not to mention their stockings, aprons, nightcaps, handkerchiefs, and menstrual cloths. The Ursulines’ black woolen habits were laundered twice a year. Linens were also subject to a remarkable scrubbing for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: napkins in the refectory were changed weekly, tablecloths twice a month, sheets monthly (those in the infirmary as needed), and shared towels two or three times a week. Food preparation was probably the next most time-consuming task for the soeurs converses, as they prepared three meals a day for dozens of Ursulines and their students.  In the late seventeenth century, it was typical for the convent to have forty or more boarding students, in addition to a dozen or so choir and lay sisters. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Ursulines had forty-five lay and choir sisters combined and perhaps thirty or forty boarding students per year, so the Ursuline kitchen crew had to feed at least eighty people three times a day.

L0069450 Souer Converse Ursuline de la Congregation de Paris Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Souer Converse Ursuline de la Congregation de Paris. 1792 Histoire des ordres religieux et militaires, ainsi que des Congrégations séculières de l'un et de l'autre sexe, qui ont été établies jusqu'a présent... / Pierre Hélyot Published: 1792. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

L0069450 Souer Converse Ursuline de la Congregation de Paris
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Souer Converse Ursuline de la Congregation de Paris.
1792 Histoire des ordres religieux et militaires, ainsi que des Congrégations séculières de l’un et de l’autre sexe, qui ont été établies jusqu’a présent… /
Pierre Hélyot
Published: 1792.
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Because of their heavy workload, lay sisters were set apart visually from their sisters in the choir and reminded throughout their lives of their lower rank in the convent. Their habits were typically of a coarser fabric and hemmed a little shorter at the bottom and on the sleeves to facilitate their physical labor. They also retained the white veil of the novice rather than the black veil that professed choir nuns wore. Additionally, just as they did not teach, they were not permitted to say the Divine Office with the choir nuns, nor were they permitted to vote in the order’s triennial elections. Finally, while choir sisters were generally “promoted” from the title of Sister to Mother after twelve years of profession, lay sisters continued to be called Sister for their entire lives. In short, they were servants at a time and place where the privileges of class and rank were strictly observed. However, working as a lay sister in a convent offered several advantages that servants in secular homes did not enjoy, such as membership in a community, liberty from the sexual predation of men, and finally, a guarantee of care in sickness and old age. These were considerable advantages when we look at the much more vulnerable position of women workers, and especially servant women, in the rest of colonial North America. Considering that most of the lay sisters would probably have been destined for household service outside the convent, lay sisters were fortunate by comparison.

The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwrightpp. 153-55.

The image above of a  soeur converse doesn’t fit the description of their dress according to my written sources, which all suggest that these women wore skirts and sleeves that were shortened to accommodate their vigorous and dirty work.  With their hands and arms in buckets of water much of the day, and perhaps also tending the convent’s gardens and orchards in season, who would want those ridiculously long sleeves?  However, she is portrayed correctly in a white veil, rather than the black veil that choir nuns take upon their final vows.

I must say I never thought about laundry in history until I read Kathleen M. Brown’s excellent and thought-provoking Foul Bodies:  Cleanliness in Early America, which I had the privilege of reviewing as part of a forum on the book in The William and Mary Quarterly in 2011.  As I wrote then,

[Brown] provides marvelous (and frequently itch-inducing) details about the methods and technologies for maintaining human bodies in the Atlantic world from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. In this respect her book is an example of the embrace of material culture by historians; it provides detailed information about how people cleaned their bodies and groomed themselves, how frequently laundry was done, the kinds of people who visited eighteenth-century spas for the “water cure,” and how early-nineteenth-century plumbing was engineered, for example. Throughout the book Brown pays careful and detailed attention to the various infestations that accompanied early North American human settlements—microbes and insects alike. Truly, this book will set visions of bedbugs dancing in your head.

.       .       .       .       .

As I read and re-read Brown’s book in my quiet, sunny study, I was distracted by thoughts that elsewhere in the house there was a bed whose sheets needed changing, a floor that demanded sweeping and mopping, a surface that required disinfecting, a dirty child who needed a bath. Brown’s book explains the origins of those guilty worries about filth, cleanliness, and respectability that continue to haunt middle-class American women’s minds: “Indeed, it is not simply the end product—the groomed, cared for body—but the organization of labor necessary to producing it that articulates a culture’s deepest convictions about what it means to be civilized” (5).

By Brown’s lights, then, perhaps it was the converse sisters’ work in the laundry, not the prayers and education offered by the choir nuns, whose contributions were more effective in planting French culture and civilization in North America.  Talk about the World Turned Upside Down–left, right, HALT!  (Speaking of which–Brown has some fabulous insights in Foul Bodies into the hygiene and health problems of the Continental Army, a crew even its commander-in-chief Geo. Wash. considered disgustingly filthy.  Long story short:  men refused to wash their own damn socks, and this seriously affected not just morale, but the health of the army!)

Finally, here’s a key pro tip:  the Wellcome Library’s images are free for use without charge–under their Creative Commons license, they ask only for attribution.  (That’s also true of any of the Huntington’s digitized images, and any digital images you care to make of their collections, btw.  Now, if I know you (and I believe I do), several of you are off to waste several woman-hours searching for images.  You’re Wellcome!  

3 thoughts on “Who’s doing all that domestic work inside the convent? Teaser Tuesday returns with some hidden labor history

  1. I got to wondering, in the context of an assignment that I just gave to a teeming horde of undergraduates, which involved an open-ended comparison of the lives of Esther Wheelwright (about whom they read) and another, male, generational-contemporary emigre from c. 1700 New England (who went south, and under less coercive circumstances), whether there is any demographic profile for the women religious of New France, in terms of how long they tended to live, compared with their lay contemporaries? Wheelwright and her comparator on this exercise, both lived to be 80, which I characterized in the assignment as being “typical New Enland” lifespans, for the 18th century. How did Wheelwright’s peformance (outcome?) in this regard, compare with the cohort experience of her sister sisters, across the century? This has to bear some relationship to internal labor regimes, I would think.


  2. I remember that recently Sunday Morning featured a modern convent where the nuns make cheese as part of their work. it’s obviously very dirty work, so much laundry is required but at least we have mod cons today. So many of the religious houses in medieval history were very rural and very much labour-intensive, for the religious as well as the many layfolk who worked and resided on the farms they owned or who supplied materials the convent or monastery couldn’t provide. It’s dirty and endless work, in many ways.


  3. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of December 4th, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

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