The British Province of Carmelite Friars

Cum Nulla and the Origin of the Nuns in the Family of Carmel
by Father Patrick McMahon, O. Carm.

[This article appeared in Carmelite Review, Magazine of the Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, Volume 41, Number 4, November/December 2002.]


The Carmelite Family is celebrating the 550th Anniversary of the founding of the Nuns in the Order. Here is the background to this founding.

Nuns were a late addition into the Carmelite Family. The other mendicant orders had nuns long before the Carmelites. Francis had received Clare and her companions as nuns in 1212 and Dominic had established a cloister of nuns at Prouille in 1206, even before he had established a community of friars. Communities of nuns had followed the Rule of Saint Augustine long before the Order of Augustinian Hermits (friars) was established by the Great Union of 1256, but as early as 1264 many of these communities were affiliated to the newly-organized friars. Carmel was alone in the mendicant world for not having a female branch, a condition that persisted until Nicholas V issued the Bull Cum Nulla on October 7, 1452.

Nicholas V (reigned 1446-1455), a small and wan bookish man given to belles lettres, was a better renaissance scholar than pastoral administrator, but as a protégé of the great Eugene IV, his predecessor, he did have a sincere interest in good order in the Church. He sent the humanist cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, (1400-1464) - one of the most remarkable men of the century - to Germany and the Rhineland to institute a program of Church Reform including the reform of parishes, monasteries, and other forms of religious life. Church Reform was very much in fashion in the mid-fifteenth-century, and very much needed.

To understand the emergence of nuns in the Carmelite family, it is important to know a little bit of background about the women's vocations from which the first Carmelite nuns were drawn.

Although there were no Carmelite nuns before 1452, the Order had had women affiliated to it from its earliest days. Lady Diana Buzzadelli made her profession as a pinzochera at Florence in 1309. She was the wealthy widow of a benefactor of the Carmelites and became a Carmelite tertiary upon his death. The mendicant Orders all had pinzochere attached to them, pious women-single or widowed-who professed vows to the prior of the community and wore the habit of the Order to which they belonged, but lived in their own homes. They were a sort of lay-sister attached to a community of friars. Catherine of Siena was a Dominican pinzochera. Because they were not nuns they were not subject to the enclosure that Pope Boniface VIII had imposed on all nuns in 1298 with the bull Periculoso. These pinzochere existed in many places in the Mediterranean world and were sometimes called mantellate (because of the religious mantles they wore, similar to the white cloak of the Carmelite Order) or beatae.

Beguines were different than pinzochere. They were a sort of pious association of faithful women who led a quasi-religious life unaffiliated to any particular order and without vows. They wore a habit and lived in private houses, most often grouped together in a walled colony called a beguinage; Because they did not have vows, they were not bound to any enclosure, and they were free to leave the beguinage and marry if they wished. Some beguines, such as Mechtild of Magdeburg, eventually opted to leave the beguinage and become nuns. Beguines supported themselves through handicrafts, copying of books, and other genteel occupations consistent with their upper-middle class way of life. They often provided educational opportunities for girls; the Cistercian mystic Beatrice of Nazareth was educated in a beguinage. The mendicants, especially the Dominicans, had strong influence on beguine spirituality and there was much exchange of ideas in spirituality between Benedictine and Cistercian women with the beguines. Beguine spirituality was strongly focused on the humanity of Christ and showed strong Eucharistic devotion. Exponents of beguine spirituality in its mystical form are Mechthild of Magdeburg (1212?-1282?), Beatrice of Nazareth (1200?-1268), Hadewijch of Brabant, and Marguerite Porete (d. 1310).

Beguines grew out of the lay movements of the 12th and 13th centuries, but unlike most of the lay movements never became regularised; that is, never developed into official religious. Because they were extra-canonical, beguines were very independent of Church authority and made the institutional Church very nervous. Several of them, most notably Marguerite Porete, were judged guilty of heresy and suffered the most dreadful of consequences, and this certainly did not give the movement credibility.

Nicholas of Cusa, in his program of reform in the Rhineland, insisted that various beguine groups accept the Rule of an established religious Order and become canonical religious with vows and enclosure. Most groups that complied accepted the Rule of St. Clare, a somewhat surprising choice given the strong ties between the beguines and the Dominican friars. However the beguines of Ten Elsen in Guelders lived in a Carmelite parish and they petitioned the General, Blessed John Soreth, who was visiting the Netherlands, to be accepted into the Carmelite Order as nuns. He received them on May 10, 1452.

Restrictions similar to those placed on the beguines were imposed on the pinzochere in Italy as the Church tried to better regulate the various non-canonical lifestyles that were holdovers from earlier centuries. There was reason for this attempt to regulate these groups as the social freedoms given to the pinzochere, freedoms far in excess of the limitations placed on ladies from good families at the time, sometimes led to abuses that began giving all pinzochere a bad name. Both in Italy and Spain, pinzochere and beatae increasingly organized themselves, or were organized by Church authority, into communities of nuns, although not all communities accepted the enclosure or professed solemn vows. In October of 1452, the prior of the Carmelites in Florence, Bartolomeo Masi, obtained the bull Cum Nulla from Nicholas V, authorizing the Prior General and the Provincials of the Order to accept pinzochere and mantellate as nuns. Masi had sought the bull because he was in the process of establishing a community of nuns drawn from the pinzochere attached to the Carmelite community of Florence.

Carmelite nuns never became as numerous as Dominican, Franciscan (Poor Clare), or Augustinian nuns, but the movement did spread. Frances of Amboise, Duchess of Brittany, gave a boost to the female branch of Carmel in what today is France. Italy and Spain saw many monasteries grow out of the Beatae and Pinzochere groups, the most famous being the beaterìa of the Encarnación in Avila which grew into the monastery that St. Teresa entered. Cum Nulla marks a very important stage of maturation in our Carmelite family. Indeed its importance cannot be underestimated when we remember that it has been more the women than the men of Carmel that have given the Order its heritage and its fame.

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