Nun (Latin, nonna; Greek, νονίς) is not exclusively used for females, for we find it used in Latin, in the Middle Ages, both under the masculine and the feminine form, as Nonnus, Nonna. Ducange furnishes many instances of the use of the masculine form. The word may be considered as equivalent to sanctus, castus. Arnobius, junior, on Psalm 105, says: "Si ille qui sanctus vocatur et Nonnus sic agit, ego quis aut quotus sum, ut non agam?" In the Liber usuun Cisterciensiun, cap. 98, we find: "I. Augusti obiit N. Nonnus de'N. sacerdos et monachus eiusdem monasterii." Occasionally, yet only in rare instances, the monks and superiors of convents were designated as Nonni. We find also different forms of the word, as Nonnanes, Nunnones, i.q. monachi. et sanctimoniales, nonnaicus habitus, in the place of monachicus habitus. The origin of the word is uncertain. Hospinian states it to be an Egyptian term denoting a virgin. It is probably derived from a Coptic or Egyptian root. This much is certain, that the term was already used in the time of Jerome (see his Ep. ad Eustochium, ep. 22, cap. 6).
Ancient Nuns. — At an early period women devoted themselves to the service of the Church. As there were ascetics in the Church long before there were any monks, so there were virgins who made public and open profusion of virginity before the monastic life or name was known (see Ludlow, Wonman's Work in the Church [Lond. 1866, 12mo], bh. 2:1 sq.). Before monasteries existed, Cyprian and Tertullian speak of virgins dedicating themselves to Christ. These are sometimes called ecclesiastical virgins, to distinguish them from such as embraced the monastic life. The ecclesiastical virgins were commonly enrolled in the canon of the Church — that is, in the catalogue of ecclesiastics-and hence they were sometimes called canonical virgins. They lived privately at home, and were maintained by their parents, or, in cases of necessity, by the Church, instead of living in communities and upon their own labor, as did the monastical virgins or nuns confined to cloisters in afterages. Whether these ecclesiastical virgins indicated their intentions to remain in that state all their lives by a solemn vow, or a simple profession, is not clear; but it appears from ancient writings that the profession of virginity was not so strict as to make after- marriage a crime worthy of ecclesiastical censure. . Ecclesiastical virgins were enrolled in the canon or matricula of the Church, SEE CANON; SEE MATRICULA, and from this were sometimes called canonical virgins. It does not seem that they were absolutely forbidden to marry. But gradually it became a subject of censure, and by the 4th and 5th centuries the Church became decided and rigorous in its treatment of the marriage of professed virgins, condemning such to severe penance, though such marriages "were not rescinded" or pronounced null. Indeed, the law gave great liberty and indulgence to all virgins that were consecrated before the age of forty. For though some canons allowed them to be consecrated at twenty-five, and others .at sixteen or seventeen, other canons required virgins to be forty years old before they were veiled; — and the law not only prescribed that age in consecrated virgins, but further decreed that if any virgin was veiled before that age, either by the violence or hatred of her parents (which was a case that often happened), she should have liberty to marry. There appears, therefore, a very wide difference between the practice of the ancient churches. and that of the Church of Rome in this matter (see Lea, Hist. Sacerdotal Celibacy, p. 101 sq. et al.). The Council of Ancyra first decreed nuns to the penance of digamists, should any of them marry, SEE CELIBACY, and the Council of Chalcedon doomed them to excommunication. (Monastic virgins, of course, lived in seclusion, and none of these laws were necessary enactments for their guidance and control.)
The consecration of virgins has varied in the Church. In the early ages, when there were ecclesiastical or canonical virgins, the mode of consecration was as follows: It was usually performed publicly in the church by the bishop, or some presbyter particularly deputed by the bishop for that purpose. When a virgin had signified to the bishop her desire for the usual consecration, she made a public profession of her resolution in the church, and the bishop put upon her the accustomed habit of sacred virgins. This change of habit is frequently mentioned in the ancient councils, but in what it consisted is not plain. A veil (velamen sacrum) and a purple and gold mitre arelspoken of: but it is 'said that they did not use them for any sacrament or mystery, but only as a badge of distinction, and to signify to whose service they belonged. The introduction of the custom of cutting off the hair of consecrated virgins called forth the condemnation of the Council of Gangra, which passed a decree that, "If any woman, under pretense of an ascetic life, cut off her hair, which God hath given her for a .memorial of subjection, let her be anathema, as one that disanulls the decree of subjection; "and Theodosius the Great added a civil sanction to confirm the ecclesiastical decree made against this practice. Although the virgins were not ordained to a special office in the Church, as the deaconesses were, they were of great esteem in the Church, and had some particular honors paid to them. They were specially protected by the law, and ladies of high rank were accustomed to entertain them, and to seek their salutations and embraces. The mother of Constantine used to wait upon them at her own table and do them service. The widows of the Church were .generally under the same laws and rules as the ecclesiastical virgins were concerning their habit, consecration, profession, and maintenance. Religious communities sprang up in the Church soon after the institution of these ascetic congregations of females, and nuns proper dwelt under rule in special residences. Pachomius erected such residences in the 4th century in Egypt the first one being built on the island of Tabenna in the Nile. They soon spread through Europe, and became a common institution. — SEE MONASTICISM.
Modern Practice. — The consecration of a nun in the Romish Church is a great ceremony. The habit, veil, and ring of the candidate are carried to the altar, and she herself is conducted to the bishop, who, after mass and an anthem (the subject of which is that she ought to have her lamp lighted, for the Bridegroom is coming), pronounces the benediction; then she rises up, and the bishop consecrates the new habit, sprinkling it with holy water. When the candidate has put on her new habit, she presents herself before the bishop, and says, on her knees; Ancilla Christi. sum, etc.; then she receives the veil, and afterwards the ring, by which she is married to Christ; and finally the crown of virginity. When she is crowned, an anathema is pronounced against all who .hall attempt to make her break her vows. The Latin form for the benediction and consecration of virgins occupies twenty- five pages in the Pontificale Romanumn of 1818. The key of the whole is given in these.questions which the pontiff (=bishop or other mitred dignitary who presides) puts to them at the beginning of the service to be answered affirmatively: "Do you wish to persevere in the purpose of holy virginity? "Do you promise that you will preserve your virginity forever? "Do you wish to be blessed and consecrated and betrothed to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Supreme God?" After various genuflections and prostrations and chantings and prayers and sprinklings with holy water, nuns go up two at a time to the pontiff, who puts the veil upon each nun's head, saying:
"Receive the sacred veil, by which you may be known to have despised the world, and to have truly and humbly, with all the striving of your heart, subjected yourself forever as a bride to Jesus Christ; and may he keep you from all evil and bring you through to eternal life." After further chantings and prayer, they go up again in pairs, and the pontiff puts a ring on the ring-finger of each nun's right hand, declaring her espoused to Jesus Christ, upon which the two chant: "I have been betrothed to him wholl. angels serve, whose beauty sun and moon admire." Afterwards each nun has a crown or wreath put on her head by the bishop, with a similar declaration and chanting. Then follow prayers, chanting, and two long nuptial benedictions upon the nuns, who first stand humbly inclined, and then kneel. Then the pontiff, sitting on his seat and wearing his mitre, pronounces the following anathema: "By the authority of Almighty God, and of his blessed apostles Peter and Paul, we firmly and under threat of anathema forbid anyone to lead off these virgins or religious persons from the divine service, to which they have been subjected under the banner of chastity, or to plunder their goods, but let them possess these in quiet. But if any one shall have dared to attempt this, let him be cursed in his house and out of his house; cursed in the city and in the country, cursed in watching and sleeping, cursed in eating and drinking, cursed in walking. and sitting; cursed be his flesh and .bones; from the -sole of his foot to the top of his head let him have no soundness. Let there come upon him the curse of. man, which the Lord through Moses in the law sent upon the sons of iniquity. Let his name be blotted from the book of the living, and not written with the just. Let his part and inheritance be with Cain that slew his brother, with Dathan and Abiram, with Ananias and Sapphira, with Simon the sorcerer, and Judas the traitor; and with those who said unto God, 'Depart from us, we desire not the path, [knowledge?] of thy ways.' Let him perish at the day of judgment; let everlasting fire devour him with the devil and his angels, unless he shall have made restitution, and come to amendment: let it be done, let it be done." The remaining services consist principally of the mass, the delivery of the breviary to, the nuns, and their return to the gate of the monastery, where: the pontiff formally presents them to the abbess. The pontiff then returns to the church, and closes the whole with the beginning of the Gospel according to John. The "Ceremony of Reception" takes place, among the Sisters of Mercy, etc., when the novice takes the white veil; the "Ceremony of Profession" is when the novice takes the black veil and the vows witth a promise; to persevere until death." Fosbroke's British Monachism distinguishes the profession from the consecration of a nun thus:
"The former applied to any woman, whether virgin or not, and could be done by an abbot or visitor of the house, after the year of probation and change of the habit; but consecration could only be made by the bishop. Nuns were usually professed at the age of sixteen, but they could not be consecrated till twenty-five; and this veil could .only be given on. festivals and Sundays." "In the year 446 pope Leo ordered that a nun should receive the veil, consecrated by a bishop, only when she was a virgin." The following description of the ceremonial of a novice taking the vows is from the pen of an eye-witness of the scene as it took place in Rome:
"By particular favor we had been furnished with billets for the best seats, and, after waiting half an hour, two footmen in rich liveries made way for the young countess, who entered the crolwded church in full dress, her dark hair blazing with diamonds. Supported by her mother, she advanced to the altar. The officiating priest was the cardinal Vicario; a fine-looking old man; the discourse from the pulpit was pronounced by a Dominican monk, who addressed her as the aftiauced spouse of Christ a saint on earth, one who had renounced the vanities of the world for a foretaste of the joys of heaven. The sermon ended, the lovely victim herself, kneeling before the altar at the feet of the cardinal, solemnly abjured that world whose pleasures and affections she seemed so well calculated to enjoy, and pronounced those vows which severed her from them forever. As her voice in soft recitative chanted these fatal words, I believe there was scarcely an eye in the whole of that vast church unmoistened by tears. The diamonds that sparkled in her dark hair were taken off, and her long and beautiful tresses fell luxuriantly down her shoulders. The grate that was to entomb her was opened. The abbess and her black train of nuns appeared. Their choral voices chanted a strain of welcome. It said, or seemed to say, 'Sister spirit, come away.' She renounced her name and title, adopted a new appellation, received the solemn benediction of the cardinal, and the last embraces of her weeping friends, and passed into that bourne whence she was never to return. A panel behind the high-altar now opened, and she appeared .at the grate again. She was now despoiled of her ornaments and her splendid attire, her beautiful hair was mercilessly severed from her head by the fatal shears of the sisters, and they hastened to invest her with the sober robes of the nun — the white coif and the novitiate-veil. Throughout the whole ceremony she showed great calmness and firmness, and it was not till all was over that her eyes were moistened with tears of natural emotion. She afterwards appeared at the little postern-gate of the convent to receive the sympathy and praise and congratulations of all her friends and acquaintances, nay, even of strangers, all of whom are expected to pay their compliments to the new spouse of heaven." The description here given refers to the first profession of a nun on the taking of the white veil, a step which forms the commencement of the novitiate or year of trial, and is not irrevocable. But the profession, properly so called, or the taking of the black veil, is. the conclusion of the novitiate, and the commencement of the regular life of the professed nun. When once this ceremony has been gone through, the step, both in the eye of the Roman. Church and in the eye of the civil law in Roman Catholic countries, is beyond recall. The individual who has taken the black veil is a recluse for life, and can only be released from her vow by death. The ceremony which thus seals the nun's doom for life is attended, of course, with peculiar solemnity and. interest. We give a graphic account of it from the pen of the Rev. Hobart Seymour, as contained in his Pilgrimage to Rome:
'"In a short time the masses were finished, sand before long the seats were occupied with persons coming to witness the scene. The cardinal-vicar, to whose province the reception of nuns belongs, arrived. He robed, assumed his mitre, held his crozier, and seated himself in front of the high-altar. He was robed in silver tissue brocaded with gold. In a few moments the destined bride of Jesus Christ entered. She was led into the chapel and aloing the aisle by the princeess Borghese. They knelt for few momients at the side- altar, and their the princess conducted her to the cardinal-vicar. They both knelt to him and as the candidate bent her head her long, rich tresses of chestnut-colored hair fell like a veil around her, and gave her a peculiar interest. He then blessed a crucifix and presented it to the kneeling novice. The carrying of this crucifix in variable in the order of St. Theresa. I could not catch the words that passed, though I was not four vards distant from them. Her dress was white satin richly damasked in gold. Her head was adorned with a diadem of diamonds, beneath which fell a profusion of long and luxuriant curls of rich chestnunt-colored hair. Her neck was covered with precious stones, that flashed through the many ringlets that fell among them. Her breast was gemmed with brilliants, set off by black velvet, so that she sparkled and blazed in all the magnificence of the jewels of the Borghese family, said to be among the most costly and splendid in Italy. There was a profusion of the most valuable lace, and a long train of gauze elegantly trimmed. This was borne by one of those beings of whom it is said that their visits are 'few and far between.' It was an angel, or, rarer still, a seraph, It had.the appearance of a little girl of eight years of age, a pretty, gentle thing that seemed frightened at such close contact with sinful mortals. It had a wreath of no earth-born, but finger-made flowers upon its head. It had a short, a very short, dress of pale-blue silk, to show it was sonme creature of the skies. Its arms and its neck: and its legs were covered, not, as in mortals, with skin, but with a silken texture that was colored like flesh; and, to place its heavenly nature beyond doubt, it had two wings, regular feather wings, projecting from the shoulders, and very airily trimmed with swan's-down. There could be no doubt that, if not an infant angel, it was a real sylph or seraph, descended from the skies to wait on the destined bride of Jesus Christ. After some moments the reverend confessor, attired in his monkish dress, approached, kissed the hand of the cardinal-vicar, and seated himself within the chancel. He then proceeded to deliver and address or sermon to the destined novice. A curtain was raised at the side of the altar, and reveled all interior chapel. It was separated from that in which we anesne assembled by a strong srating of iron. Soon were heard the voices of the those sisterhood. They were chanting some litany, and their voices were first heard coming from some distant gallery. It was faint and feeble, but sweetened by distance. It slowly swelled louder and clearer, as the sisterhood approached in slow and solemn procession, and recalled to my kind what hand often, in the days of romantic youth, filled only imagination in reading of the chants and the processions of nuns in the romances of other days. The effect at the moment was very pleasing. The chant, feeble and distant at first, and then becoming louder and clearer, and all who so chanted approachinlg slowly, and all the associations that gathered and crowded on my mind, gave a charm to the moment that I shall long remember. The chant ceased, and from my position I could see the nuns, about sixteen in number, with three or four novices, enter the interior chapel and more slowly and solemnly around it, all taking their station in two lines, at light anglles nwith the iron grating. The two lines faced each other. Each nun bore a large lighted candle in one hand and a book in the other. They were dressed in blue over white serge. The nuns had a black slawl or napkin of black serge thrown over the head. The novices had a similar thing of white serge, but of the color of white flannel. Their faces were not visible, as these cloths, which are most unromantic things, though most romantically called veils, while they might more suitably be called shawls, hung down so as to hide the side- face, while the front-face, which was open and. unveiled, was bent down over their books. In this position they stood and read some office or service in which the lines of nuns took alternate parts. They were motionless as statues, and might have passed for such if their voices had not proved them living. The destinled nun was on her knees inside the grating. The princess Borghese was beside her, directing her maid to take off the tiara and other jewels; no other hands, not even the hands of the nuns, were allowed to touch a diamond they were the jewels of the Borghese family, and the princess and her maid watched every stone till they were all carefully removed by their own hands, and deposited safely from any light fingers that might possibly be present, even in the sacred interior of a monastery of nuns. At last every diamond was gone, and then the hair — the beautiful hair, with its luxuriant tresses, its long wreath ringlets of rich and shining chestnut — was to be cut off. It was the loveliest charm she possessed, and in parting with the world, its pleasures and its soronws together, she was to part with that which of all else attracted the admiration, of men; she meekly bowed her head to her sad destiny. Lo they touched it, and it was gone! as if by a miracle it was gone! Alas, that my pen must write the truth it was a wig! On the present occasion the charm of the scene was dispelled by the fact that the young, the gentle, the loving, the interesting object of our romance, who had just parted from the pleasures of the bright and sunny world of splendid courts and fashionable revels, was — a servant-maid of above forty years of age! She was the maid of the princess Borghese, and the daughter of another domestic, and had now changed the service of the princess, where she was a menial, for a life in a monastery, where she was all equal of the sisterhood. The princess, in a foolish pride, displayed the jewels of the family." On the continent of Europe nunneries were not done away with as soon as the Reformation was introduced. Those who are at all familiar with the history of the 16th century must be well aware how much the spirit preceded the practice of religious reforms. Monastic foundations, among other institutions, were suffered for some time after the new doctrines had been widely disseminated, and the "evangelical doctrine" was received by and preached in many a convent of either sex without seemingly a suspicion that it was soon to be deemed incompatible, with their existence. Stranger still is the story of the Cistercian abbey of which Heyt speaks (vol. v, pt. iv, ch. 35) as situated in Frauenberg, in Westphalia, which was partly Romanist and partly Lutheran, and of which the abbesses were of both denominations alternately; adding that there were various other abbeys in the same country, both of men and women, which were wholly Lutheran. Of the "Secular Canonesses" — a body closely analogous to the Beguines (q.v.) — he tells us (vol. vi, pt. iv, ch. 50 sq.) that at St. Stephen of Strasburg they were Zwinglian from the middle of the 16th century to 1689 — that at Gandersheim, Quedlinburg, Herford, and, elsewhere in Germany, they were Lutherans in his time. He speaks in like manner of some Danish convents (vol. vi, pt. iv, ch. 55) where the nuns, although they had embraced the Reformed doctrines, continued to live in communities under a superior, such as those of St. Dominic at Copenhagen. See, however, the article SEE SISTERHOODS.
The following orders of nuns, among others of less note, were in England prior to the Reformation:
1. The nuns of the Order of Fontevrault, of which the abbess of Fontevrault was superior: they had their first establishment at Nuneaton, in Warwickshire, and possessed only two other houses.
2. The nuns of the Order of St. Clare, or, as they were denominated from their scanty endowments, "the poor Clares." St. Clare was born in the same town, and was contemporary with St. Francis; and the nuns of St. Clare, observing the Franciscan rule, were sometimes called Minoresses, and their house, without Aidgate, in London, was called the Minories. Blanche, queen of Navarre, first introduced them into England.
3. Brigittines, or nuns of our holy Savior, instituted by Bridget, duchess of Nercia, in Sweden, about the middle of the 14th century. They followed the rule of St. Augustine, with some additions. There was but one house in England belonging to the Brigittine nuns, the celebrated establishment at Sion House, in Middlesex. See under the respective names of the orders.
The religious houses in England were mercilessly treated at the Reformation. In reference to Scotland, Cunningham says, in his Church History, "It was not to be expected that the female mind, ever susceptible of religious impressions, should withstand the tendency to monasticism at that time so prevalent. At Edinburgh, Berwick, St. Bathans, Coldstream, Ecclets, Haddington, Aberdeen, Dunbar, and several other places, there were nunneries; and within these were ladies connected with many of the noblest families." In 1665 the Five-mile Act came into operation throughout the country. The nuns of Scotland revered as the first of their order in that country a legendary St. Brigida, who is fabled to have belonged to Caithness, to have renounced an ample inheritance, lived in seclusion, and finally to have died at Aberiethy in the 6th century. Church chroniclers relate that before Coldingham was erected into a priory for monks it had been a sanctuary for nuns, who acquired immortal renown by cutting off their noses and lips to render themselves repulsive to some piratical Danes who had landed on the coast. The sisterhood of Lincluden were of a different mind, for they were expelled by Archibald, earl of Douglas, for violating their vows as the brides of heaven, and the house was converted into a collegiate church.
History contains no record of the influence which these devoted virgins exercised upon the Church or the world; and we may well believe that, shut up in their cloisters and confined to a dull routine of daily duty, they could exercise but little. They would chant their matins and vespers, count their beads, employ themselves with needlework, and in many cases vainly pine for that world which their parents or their own childish caprice had forced them to abandon; but the world could not witness their piety, nor penetrate their thoughts.
Dr. De Sanctis, who for many years occupied a high official position at Rome, describes three classes of those who take the veil: 1. Young girls, who become interested in religion, and, blindly following the path of piety, believe the priest's declamations against conjugal love and domestic affection as unholy and tending to eradicate the love of Christ. 2. Those who, failing to captivate the regard of men, are yet conscious of an irresistible need of loving some object, and therefore seek to be loved, as they say, by the Lord Jesus Christ, who is represented as a young man of marvelous beauty and most winning look, with a heart shining with love, and seen transparent in his breast. 3. Those who, being educated from childhood iii the nunnery, remain there, and become nuns without knowing why, and give up with alacrity a world which they have never seen. Dr. De Sanctis alludes to some cases of notorious immorality, and says:
"As a general thing, however, the convent (so far as Rome is concerned) is neither, on the one hand, a terrestrial paradise inhabited by angels, nor, on the other hand, is it generally a place of open and shameless vice." In regard to health, Dr. De Sanctis divides the convents of Rome into two classes: 1. Those in which the inmates have no other occupation besides prayer; 2. Those in which they are employed in instructing the young. Of nuns in the former class of convents Dr. De Sanctis writes:
"They go without necessary food; they wear hair-cloth when nature demands restoratives: they refuse themselves remedies which would arrest disease, and this from a false modesty which forbids the communicating of their ailments to the physician. Many have I known to die of such procedure. You will call these nuns poor victims of delusion; the world will call them mad; but in the dictionary of the convent they are termed 'holy martyrs of sacred modesty.'" In this class of convents are some where the rigor of discipline treads under foot the most sacred laws of nature; as the convent of the Vive Sepolte (=buried alive), of which Dr. De Sanctis thus speaks:
"When a youth I resided in the neighborhood of this convent, and I remember that one day the pope, Leo XII, made an unexpected visit to the institution. It excited much curiosity in the quarter to know the occasion of this visit, which was as follows: A woman had an only daughter who had taken the veil in that convent. Left a widow, she came often to the institution, and with a mother's tears besought that she might be allowed, if not to see, at least to hear the voice of her daughter. What request more just and more sacred from a mother? But what is there of sacredness and justice' that fanaticism does not corrupt? The daughter sent word by the confessor to her mother that, if she did not cease to importune her, she would refuse to speak to her even on the day (once a year) when she would be allowed to do so. That day at length arrived; the widowed mother was the first to present herself at the door of the convent, and she was told that she could not see her daughter. In despair she asked, Why? No answer. Was she sick? No reply. Was she dead? Not a word. The miserable mother conjectured that her daughter was dead. She ran to the superiors to obtain at least the privilege of seeing her corpse; but their hearts were of iron. She went to the pope; a mother's tears touched the breast of Leo XII, and he promised her that on the following morning he would be at the convent and ascertain the fact. He did so, unexpectedly to all. Those doors, which were accustomed to open only for the admittance of a flesh victim, opened that day to the head of the Church of Rome. Seeing the wretched mother who was the occasion of the visit, he called her to him, and ordered her to follow him into the nunnery. The daughter, who, by an excess of barbarous fanaticism, thought to please Heaven by a violation of the holiest laws of nature, concealed herself upon hearing that her mother had entered the coherent. The pope called together in a hall the entire sisterhood, and commanded them to lift the veils from their faces. The mother's heart throbbed with vehemence; she looked anxiously from face to face once and again, but her daughter was not there. She believed now that she was dead, and, with a piercing cry, fell down in a swoon. While she was reviving the pope peremptorily asked the mother superior whether the daughter was dead or alive. She replied, at length, that she was yet living, but having vowed to God that she would eradicate every carnal affection from her breast, she was unwilling even to see her mother again. It was not until the pope ordered her appearance, in virtue of the obedience due to him, and upon pain of mortal sin, that the nun came forth. This outrage upon human nature (see Ro 1:31 and Mr 7:11-13), which might have resulted in parricide, is denominated in the vocabulary of monasticism 'virtue in heroic degree!'"