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Nails in the Wall

Catholic Nuns in Reformation Germany

During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther instituted new ideologies addressing gender, marriage, chastity, and religious life that threatened Catholic monasticism. Yet many living in cloistered religious communities, particularly women, refused to accept these new terms and were successful in their opposition to the new Protestant culture.

Focusing primarily on a group of Dominican nuns in Strasbourg, Germany, Amy Leonard’s Nails in the Wall outlines the century-long battle between these nuns and the Protestant city council. With savvy strategies that employed charm, wealth, and political and social connections, the nuns were able to sustain their Catholic practices. Leonard’s in-depth archival research uncovers letters about and records of the nuns’ struggle to maintain their religious beliefs and way of life in the face of Protestant reforms. She tells the story of how they worked privately to keep Catholicism alive-continuing to pray in Latin, smuggling in priests to celebrate Mass, and secretly professing scores of novices to ensure the continued survival of their convents. This fascinating and heartening study shows that, far from passively allowing the Protestants to dismantle their belief system, the women of the Strasbourg convents were active participants in the battle over their vocation and independence.

240 pages | 2 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2005

Women in Culture and Society

History: European History

Religion: Christianity

Women's Studies


“The subject is original and interesting, the conclusions are based on thorough research, and the analysis is clearly presented. Nails in the Wall is an important contribution to our understanding of religious change in early modern Europe and the way in which practical, local considerations often trumped dogma and rhetoric.”--Sarah A. Curtis, author of Educating the Faithful: Religion, Society, and Schooling in Nineteenth-Century France

Sarah A. Curtis

“Leonard opens a new window on the social and moral world of a Europe divided by religion and demonstrates that beneath the sometimes bitter confessional divisions, a sense of common Christianity lived on. This innovative and provocative book will be of interest to all who study the Protestant and Catholic reformations of the sixteenth century. It displays the kind of humble, everyday fidelity that sustained earnest groups on both sides of that divide.”--Thomas A. Brady Jr., coeditor of Handbook of European History, 1400–1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation

Thomas A. Brady Jr.

Nails in the Wall challenges both theoretical assumptions and assertions of fact about the Protestant Reformation, exploring the active intervention of nuns in the process of religious change. It presents a sophisticated and nuanced reading of the complexities of urban culture in a time of dramatic change.”--Merry Wiesner-Hanks, author of Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

"By concentrating on these nuns and their struggles with both Protestant and Catholic ecclesial leaders and civil authorities of Strasbourg, the author produces a work of serious scholarship, demonstrating both extensive research and captivating readability. The recounting of the tale of these religious women uncovers a neglected phase of the Reformation that indicates the complexities of the issues and the persons on both sides of the great divide."

Kathleen Keating | Catholic Literary World

"This important work has broad significance for early modern women’s history and Reformation history. . . . By examining the interactions between the nuns and Protestant magistrates, Leonard discovers greater accommodation and collaboration between different faith communities than Reformation historians have ordinarily recognized."

Elisabeth M. Wengler | The Historian

"Leonard’s short treatment of the sources, her pointed arguments against leading authorities, and her thoroughly partisan clarity are unfortunately extremely rare. These virtues make this work fresh and fascinating. . . . Amy Leonard knows what she is talking about."

Bea Lundt | H-Net Book Review

"Leonard deserves a lot of credit for disclosing the nun’s actions and aspirations. Her cogent and scholarly rendition of their struggle is very impressive. . . . This thoroughly scholarly book deserves a wide readership."

Maria R. Boes | Renaissance Quarterly

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1. Life Behind the Walls: The Establishment and Growth of the Dominican Convents
2. From Neighbor to Neighbor: Reformation Theories of the Utility of the Cloister
3. The Reformation Confronts the Convents
4. The Ties That Bind: Nuns, Families, and Magistrates
5. The Empire Strikes Back: The Counter-Reformation in Strasbourg
6. Nuns as Whores: The Closing of St. Nicholas-in-Undis
Appendix: Dominican Nuns in Sixteenth-Century Strasbourg
Selected Bibliography

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