Masterless Mistresses: Reprise of an RiAH Classic



1 comments
Paul Harvey

One more day to go for our little mini-series featuring some notable new and recent works in Catholicism in earlier American history. Today I want to reprise one of our blog classics: a review by Tracy Fessenden of Emily Clark's important work Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834 (University of North Carolina Press, 2007), which we originally ran a few years go (which in blog years might well have been the medieval era).

Alongside this, I would point you again to Mike Pasquier's wonderfully entertaining accompanying post "A Free Tour of Colonial New Orleans," where he wrote, Unfortunately, Clark’s masterful Masterless Mistresses is one of only a handful of other books that conceives of colonial Louisiana as something other than a peripheral sideshow to “the normative culture of British North America that prevailed in the young Republic.” Might New Orleans be more central to early American religious history than the historiography would suggest? Might the Mississippi River be just as important as, say, the Chesapeake Bay in delivering European and African peoples to a New World already populated by native peoples? Might we learn from Walker Percy—a Catholic convert who came of age in Greenville, Mississippi, and who became a National Book Award winner for his 1961 novel The Moviegoer—when he says that “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.


That is a question Mike and a host of scholars take up in a forthcoming essay collection Gods of the Mississippi -- too early to blog about that one yet, as it's coming out in Feb. 2013, but can't wait to see it. Have been waiting years for it -- YEARS, people. 

Without further adieu, Tracy's review of Masterless Mistresses, and tomorrow we'll finish up this mini-series with a couple of notes on recent posts on more recent issues in Catholic, African American, and women's history. After that, I'll be taking a little blog-cation for a week. Tracy's review is after the jump.


Ursuline Convent
Old Ursuline Convent, New Orleans
Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834. By Emily Clark. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. xvi + 288 pp. $59.95 cloth; $22.50 paper.

Reviewed by Tracy Fessenden

In Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834, Emily Clark has given us a deeply imagined, beautifully written, and thoroughly researched account of the earliest order of Catholic sisters in what is now the United States. “Masterless” in the book’s title refers to the Ursulines’ resilient autonomy in relation to the various forms of patriarchal authority (civil, familial, administrative, ecclesiastical) they encountered in New Orleans during the first century of their founding. “Mistresses” refers, additionally, to their status as slaveholders. To her great credit, Clark never flinches from recording the full participation of the New Orleans Ursulines in the system of slavery, including their failure ever to speak against it, and their managerial care in profiting from the human property they owned, traded, and bred. Rather than facilely condemn, Clark takes the more difficult path of attempting instead to see the institution of slavery in New Orleans through the European nuns’ eyes. This is tricky terrain by any measure, and indeed the deeply felt historical sympathy that contributes such narrative richness to the book also accounts for some acutely unsettling moments in Masterless Mistresses.

General and specialist readers alike will be grateful to Clark for the vivid story she tells. The tale officially begins in 1727, with the transatlantic journey of twelve Ursuline nuns from their convent in Rouen to the port of New Orleans, where the few other women of European parentage they encountered were likely to be French émigrés of prostitutes and petty thieves. But Clark is finely aware as well of the prehistory of that founding in the conduct of their Order in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France and later New France, and of the transnational contexts of their life in New Orleans under French control until 1767, Spanish control from 1767 to 1803—which brought Cuban nuns into their ranks, in prickly co-existence with French and now French Creole sisters—and United States control shortly thereafter.

Clark has plumbed a massive archive with a keen eye for the telling detail. A gifted historian can coax notarial documents, sacramental registers and the like to speak; Clark makes them risk and reprove, surprise and cajole. In doing so Clark also pulls off a historiographical coup, putting the Ursulines at the center of a transnational American history that defers neither to the New England story nor to the “parallel colonial narratives” (1) that have come to serve as freestanding supplements to that resilient origin tale. Clark’s method instead is to “relate to one another . . . multiple colonial pasts” (1) and multiple genealogies of power—racial, spiritual, regional, economic, gendered, national, ecclesiastical, hemispheric—as these converge on the terrain of the Ursulines’ improbably sturdy foundation in New Orleans.

In Clark’s telling, Catholic New Orleans in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a place where “white male authority and control” were weakly staged and minimally enforced (5). The Ursulines’ shrewdness in dealing with the company of the Indies who sponsored them proved formidable. Contracted to offer nursing services in the fledgling colony, the nuns largely evaded the hospital work they found distasteful and focused instead on teaching literacy and Christian doctrine to women and girls of all ranks, including new arrivals from Europe and its colonies as well as Indians and slaves—a remarkable accomplishment, and one that contributed much to the city’s growing stability and to the richness of its cultural life. The Ursulines came to wield their impressive power thanks not only to their skills as educators and business women, Clark suggests, or to the considerable charity they administered, but also to their “confounding” status as slave mistresses unconstrained by marriage (5).

As much as the Ursulines’ status as slaveholders is central, not peripheral, to the story she tells—a centrality announced in the book’s very title—Clark wants also to take the nuns’ side. She does this by adopting her subjects’ gaze as her own, as far as possible. Thus even in recounting the affront of the Ursulines’ “aggressive inclusiveness” (130) to the aristocratic Cuban nuns who arrived under Spanish rule, and whose predecessors in the cloister had not compromised their social standing by teaching or nursing, Clark reports through the eyes of the elite choir nun unaccustomed to contact with those below her in standing. She speaks, for example, of the “distasteful forms of intimacy with social inferiors” (131) to which such a nun would be subject, or the “veritable rabble of women and girls of all ranks” she might be called upon to instruct. At the same time, Clark repeatedly makes the inclusiveness of the Ursulines’ teaching ministry a kind of moral counterweight to their enjoyment of the privileges of rank, among them the holding of other humans in bondage. “It was beyond the power, and indeed the intention, of the Ursuline apostolate to delay or oppose the development of a society increasingly looked into rigid structures of race, ethnicity, and class,” she writes. “But, when they were within the convent walls, women temporarily escaped that paradigm for a community that revealed alternative possibilities for the ordering of human relations” (160).

The world of the convent was “subversive of many of the processes by which social hierarchies were maintained” (129), according to Clark, because there differences of rank and slave status were accommodated, and the “poor . . . not segregated from the middling and the wealthy” (150)—at least not always, or not overtly. The “subversive” power of such an arrangement assumes that occasions for social contact across classes and races and between slave and free were “rare in the lives of most inhabitants” of New Orleans, where women in particular could expect no more than a “fleeting encounter” with diversity (150). But for whom were such encounters truly rare? Nineteenth-century travelers’ accounts of New Orleans, for example, give rapt attention to the mingling of ranks, races, and nationalities that distinguished the city’s gathering places. Such settings were perhaps least familiar and least available to women of high social standing whose slaves and servants saw to their interests in the crowded public square, but even these women shared intimate domestic space with their servants and slaves.

Clark typically refers not to the Ursulines’ slaves but instead to their “enslaved boarders” or “enslaved servants” and more generally to “enslaved persons of Indian and African descent”; the index entry for “slaves” directs the reader to “enslaved people.” This convention is meant perhaps to affirm the humanness of those in bondage. But it also suggests a false equivalence between slaves and others with whom the Ursulines had dealings, and exaggerates the agency they could or did extend to those they held in bondage. A “boarder” might elect to board elsewhere; a “servant” retire from service. The nuns themselves, moreover, had no illusions as to the wretchedness of slavery, a point Clark makes clear in detailing the forms of their devotional practice. In describing the Ursulines’ distinctive piety Clark goes to considerable lengths to present a medieval spirituality focused on renunciation and mortification in its best lights. Pain, sacrifice, and exhaustion willingly undertaken as forms of Marian devotion, she suggests, far from signaling their subordination to patriarchal control in the Church, instead allowed the nuns to claim equal prerogatives. (“Ursulines made the simple, yet revolutionary argument that apostolic life could not be denied to women because a woman beyond human reproach had originated it” [90].) At the same time the analogy of nun to slave became a new marker of virtuosic piety, centered on the body (100). Obituary notices recorded by the Ursulines commend the extreme mortification practiced by sisters who of their own volition ate only what the Order’s slaves were given to eat (104). There’s an unseemliness in the way Clark makes the nuns’ knowledge of the depth of slavery’s deprivations a salutary part of their spirituality, insofar as they modeled their own mortifications of the flesh on the conditions they maintained for those whom they themselves enslaved. “Action was central, but the nuns continued to honor the older tradition of bodily sacrifice amplified in Louisiana by the presence of the enslaved” (104).

Or again, Clark finds much to praise in the Ursulines’ carrying out of their rule when teaching “not to put girls of rank next to the most poor and ill groomed, in order not to disgust them” (151). On the basis of this directive, which enjoined that the separation be carried out “with discretion, so the poor will not think themselves scorned, but give to both sorts equal care and equal affection, not excepting any person,” Clark discovers a thrilling “rhetoric of human equality” all the more remarkable for its appearance not in the records of an “experimental fellowship” like the Quakers, Methodists, or Baptists but instead in those of “an integral part of the largest established branch of Christianity” in the West (154). (The rule was originally given in the 1705 Règlemens des religieuses de la Congrégation de Paris and adapted by the New Orleans Ursulines to accommodate slave status to its specifications.) Whom does such a celebration of the nuns’ “discretion” in separating their students not shortchange? More concertedly (if unevenly) egalitarian Christian communities whose histories are given here as marginal? Catholics, black and white, asked to see a glaring incidence of separate-but-equal in their own history as instead a radical strike against prejudice? The poor and black students who evidently required the nuns’ gentle ruses to conceal from them the offense of their very existence?

Throughout Masterless Mistresses Clark grasps hopefully at “the potential of women not bound by duty to husband or loyalty to family to abandon the cause of exclusion that marred the polity in antebellum America” (264). To the degree that it was beyond the intention of the Ursulines to do more than benefit from the slave system, however, the alternative relational possibilities they were able to model or offer within convent walls were decidedly constrained by that system. For example, the Ursulines encouraged their slaves to marry; in service to this ideal, they banished from their community slave women who bore children out of wedlock, the latter —this point is Clark’s—the “tangible proof” of the “vices, licentiousness, and bad conduct” of their mothers. Nowhere do the nuns consider, nor does Clark raise, the possibility that the children of unmarried slave women might as likely have come by violence, or that slave marriage by itself did nothing to undermine slavery’s structural denial to its subjects of all legitimate sexual agency or consent.

In the end Clark’s claim that the Ursulines’ status as masterless slaveowning women “usurped the role of the white patriarch and dangerously disturbed the racial order of antebellum America” (263) rests tenuously on the evidence, however compelling, that even as they never acted to oppose or undermine slavery, their teaching apostolate benefited slaves and free people of color. Clark does note that during and after the Civil War their slaves and former slaves “told the nuns in the stark language of rejection that slavery on any terms was unacceptable,” and guesses that “on some level, perhaps, [the Ursulines] knew that the moral universe that dictated the enslaved should be full beneficiaries of the graces of Catholicism also ordained their liberty” (191). This is a keen insight, rendered with Clark’s characteristic narrative authority and grace. The book might more powerfully have stayed with it longer.

Instead the book shrinks from the sting of its own conclusions by casting the Ursulines, finally, as victims. After detailing over several chapters the Ursulines’ varied affronts to “normative culture of British North America that prevailed in the young republic” (1) Clark shifts focus to the Ursulines’ diminished authority vis-à-vis that normative culture once New Orleans became a part of the United States. The book’s coda links the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834, one of the “most spectacular acts of mass violence against a group of women in American history” (258) to a decidedly less incendiary episode of administrative one-upsmanship whose result was to remove a group of orphans from the New Orleans Ursulines’ care in the same year. The move was orchestrated by the city’s rising Protestant elite, but even white Catholic men in New Orleans supported the children’s transfer from the Ursuline convent to the establishment of a Protestant philanthropist, Clark suggests, as a means of assuming the prerogatives of white masculinity denied to them by a church numerically dominated by women, white and black. The New Orleans Ursulines, Clark concludes, “openly flaunted the choreography of gender meant to preserve the power and authority of white men. That was a mortal sin in antebellum America, and the nuns' coreligionists endured a penance for it in the magnification of anti-Catholicism it produced” (264).

The orphan episode is meant to shore up Clark’s point that after the city’s passage into the United States in 1803 the Ursulines were perceived as increasingly hostile to the interests of power in a gradually “Americanizing” New Orleans because they vexed the racial and gender arrangements that had safeguarded the authority of white men in the Protestant republic. One might object that—thanks in part to the Ursulines—the Americanization of New Orleans was always uneven and incomplete, that the city has ever resisted the impress of Protestant reform, and that Anglo-Protestant arrivals (including those who gladly sent their daughters to the convent to be educated) entered into its mix without radically transforming it. Or that, to the degree that their flouting of Protestant gender norms indeed played a role in antebellum anti-Catholicism, men in Catholic religious orders were as troubling to Protestants as women in this regard. (“Were they allied to us by family and ties of blood, like the ministry of all other denominations,” Lyman Beecher warned of Catholic priests in his vitriolic Plea for the West, “there would be less to be feared.”) Or that Clark’s herding of “white male authority” under a single rubric contrasts markedly with her attention throughout to the variety of women to whom the Ursulines opened their doors, and to the import of their differences in nationality, age, social standing, race, and slave status.

But even granting Clark’s point that there was “no comfortable place for the Ursulines” in a de facto Protestant republic (223), one is struck by her failure to wonder why, in their confrontation with radical change, the Ursulines found Protestantism all but fatal when they had earlier found slavery such a boon. “Please do not be scandalized,” a young Ursuline novice wrote of the Order’s practice of slaveholding in a letter to her father in France, where slavery was unknown. “It is the custom of the country” (161). Why was their adaptation to the “custom of the country,” slavery, so very easy, to republicanism so apparently fraught?

Clark has edited and translated a selection of letters and other sources and published them separately as Voices from an Early American Convent: Marie Madeleine Hachard and the New Orleans Ursulines, 1727–1760 (Louisiana State University Press, 2007). Together the two books make a vital, original, and lingeringly discomfiting contribution to transnational United States history.

Tracy Fessenden
Arizona State University

1 comments:

Christopher at: July 22, 2012 at 8:36 AM said...

I first read Masterless Mistresses in a grad seminar on the French Atlantic a couple of years ago and it's remained one of my favorite books.

newer post older post