From Prostitutes to Brides of Christ: The Avignonese Repenties in the Late Middle Ages
By Joëlle Rollo-Koster
Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Vol 32:1 (2002)
Introduction: This study investigates cultural appropriation in late medieval Avignon. It is an illustration of how a notoriously disenfranchised group, prostitutes, creatively appropriated an ascendant cultural model, that of traditional conventual life, to better their own lot in life. This process of appropriation occurred during late medieval Avignon’s papal residency within the context of male authority attempting to control the dangers of female sexuality. In order to rein in the threat of sexual promiscuity, the city magistrates institutionalized prostitution, then tried to remedy this vice through charity, and finally encouraged the reform of prostitutes by establishing Repenties houses —convents for repentant prostitutes—where Mary Magdalene was promoted as a central hagiographic model of penance.
Yet despite their marginal status within the city and their vulnerability to male forms of power, I show how these women adopted—and were remarkably successful, even in worldly terms—a religious life according to male clerical forms. The Repenties appropriated conventual life by organizing their house according to a monastic rule. They successfully assimilated spiritual models of feminine penance circulating in the late Middle Ages, and they fostered their temporals (worldly goods and properties) just as did nuns from regular orders. Evidence of this cultural competition is seen very clearly in the spatial tug-of-war that took place between the founders of the Avignonese Repenties and the Repenties themselves. Even though the Repenties’ convent was marginalized on Avignon’s southern periphery, the Repenties’ presence in the material form of real estate endowments and acquisitions was felt in the very heart of the city. The ability to appropriate the norms and practices of a dominant culture proved to be determinative in shaping the history of the Avignonese Repenties.