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Changing Habits: Monastic Transitus and Religious Competition in Late Medieval Europe

Jochen Schenk

The project examines the phenomenon of monastic transitus as a means to illustrate possibilities of individual agency within the context of religious competition and responding canonical developments during the late middle ages.

The Latin term transitus describes the transfer of professed religious men and women from one religious community or order to another, either with or without the approval of their superiors and usually to the express purpose of entering a stricter (arcior, artior) life. It therefore implies a canonical absolution from the monastic vow of stability (stabilitas loci) within a chosen religious order made valid by the explicit reference to an implicit, i.e. non-defined, hierarchical relationship between different forms of professed religious life. Annoying but of small significance as long as they remained restricted to the Benedictine milieu, these transfers became extremely controversial in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, implicitly valuating and pitting against each other, as they did, the spiritual worth of different variants of monastic and apostolic life forms.

The aim of the project is, first, to sketch the theological and polemical debate concerning transitus in light of contemporary spiritual developments and changes in canon law, and, in a second step (which will constitute the main part of the research), to contrast the picture drawn from these texts with the evidence deriving from petitions for dispensation from ecclesiastical sanctions relating to transitus as recorded in the papal registers, the registers of the apostolic poenitentiary and, as a corrective to the curial registers, in English monastic and episcopal records. Once compiled into a comprehensive database, the cases taken from these records (which cover most of the late medieval period from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century) lend themselves to the extensive analysis of movement patterns between orders and communities (which are indicative of spiritual hierarchies as perceived and acknowledged at the time) and a critical investigation into the motivation for and social and religious consequences of these transfers. Used as a corrective to the description of religious life and spiritual ambition of individual orders and communities rendered in manifold religious normative texts and polemic treatises, the examination of transitus cases from these registers (to which others from letters, chronicles and hagiographical texts can be added) will allow to track and map of movement patterns between orders and communities over extended periods of time, thereby illustrating the fluctuant nature of spiritual hierarchies manifested by these transfers.

This, in turn, opens the discussion about individual motivation for transitus, and about the mechanisms and (changing) legal and social conditions that allowed professed religious – especially in the late middle ages – to act against their profession and pursue often highly individual (and not necessarily always spiritual) career- and life paths.