A Social History of the Cloister: Daily Life in the Teaching Monasteries of the Old Regime


379 pages
Contains Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-2222-0
DDC 271'.903044




Reviewed by Leonard Adams

Leonard Adams is a professor of French Studies at the University of


This book is about women whose lives were shaped by the rules of
chastity, poverty, and obedience and who formed monastic communities
dedicated to “the holy apostolate of instruction.” The idea of nuns
teaching school within the authentic orders of the Catholic Church was
born in France in the 16th century and materialized in the
implementation of conventual education in 1592. Originally intended to
be isolationist in nature, convent schools flourished all over the
country during the Old Regime until 1792 when the Revolutionary
government temporarily terminated their activities, though not without
protest from the dedicated teachers who had assisted in perpetuating a

It is the evolution of this 200-year-old tradition that Elizabeth
Rapley has aptly documented. Professor Rapley has succeeded in opening a
large window on the world of the Ursulines, the members of the Compagnie
de Notre-Dame, and the Congrégation de Notre Dame, three urban
religious communities that continue to play their instructional role in
accordance with a way of life that remains practically unchanged,
adhering faithfully to its basic modus operandi. Its operations rarely
make headlines. This detailed history is based for the most part on
numerous original documents that reveal the inner workings of the
cloister and its relevance to an important aspect of education in
France. The religious profiles of cloistered women evaluated against
their extramural historical context are presented in an attractive,
engaging style. The story of their economic, spiritual, structural, and
political triumphs and setbacks, their struggles against accusations of
parasitism and anti-monastic thought, their factional quarrels, and the
tensions created by conflicting obediences (particularly by the
Jansenist-Constitutionnaire controversy) is told in a sensitive,
impartial manner. It is a carefully crafted history essentially derived
from rich sources of original documents yet always reflective of
painstaking and focused research supported by eloquent statistics.
Scholars will be grateful to Rapley for her invaluable contribution to a
field of research that has not recently received the scholarly attention
it deserves.


Rapley, Elizabeth., “A Social History of the Cloister: Daily Life in the Teaching Monasteries of the Old Regime,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 24, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/7234.