Who were the Nuns?

A Prosopographical study of the English Convents in exile 1600-1800

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Nuns who left

Analysis of the database reveals a very low rate of withdrawal from the conventual life among the recorded nuns. Only around 3% of nuns are recorded as having left a convent. Around the same percentage are not recorded as having died in the convent, which may indicate that they too had left.

Just over half of the nuns who are recorded as leaving did so as novices. Given the nature of the available sources, it is likely that a larger proportion of girls entered the conventual life and then decided to leave before taking their vows than the database records.

A further 1% of nuns transferred from one convent to another. This does not include those who were sent by their order to found a new convent, many of whom later returned to their original convent.

The reasons for leaving were recorded narratively by the convents and have been classified in the database for the purposes of analysis. In some cases there were a combination of reasons leading to the departure of a nun and the allocation of priority of one over another is largely subjective.

HealthSome nuns were deemed insufficently robust to undergo conventual life or had a specific physical problem, such as poor eyesight.
Other nuns became ill and withdrew from a convent, intending to return when they had recovered.
UnsuitableSeveral nuns found it too difficult to adjust to convent life. Others were asked to leave by the convent, when deemed to be unsuitable.
Lack of portionSome nuns withdrew, because they could not pay the dowry that was required for them to enter a convent. Others left to secure the money and never returned.
WithdrewSome nuns were withdrawn by their families and others decided to leave a convent of their own accord. Several such nuns subsequently married.

The distribution of leavers between convents in the sample is as follows:

The small number of nuns who left the convents and the lack of reason being given for a high proportion of the departures, limits the analysis that can be applied to this data. The records for the Conceptionists in Paris, however, stand out. Of 128 nuns recorded in the database, 41 are recorded as having left and 4 as having transferred to another convent. The data does not show any pattern in the departures over time.