Like other women throughout history, many communities of nuns turned their hands to textile work. They made altar cloths, priests’ vestments, and quite possibly their own clothing. The repeated orders of a 13th century Norman bishop that nuns should restrict themselves to weaving and sewing liturgical cloths rather than creating frill collars and silk accessories to sell makes it clear that some communities were doing just that, probably to support themselves financially. It’s unlikely that they were the only ones to do so.
Some also did agricultural work, usually on a much smaller scale than monks did.** They grew crops and kept farm animals, often dairy cows, pigs, and sheep. Those communities with vineyards almost certainly made wine as well. Some grew medicinal herbs and practiced medicine, either through a hospital connected to the monastery or independently.*** This was not usually the predominant work in a monastery and the nuns working in the hospital were outnumbered by their sisters who remained entirely cloistered.
Early medieval English nuns in monasteries closely connected with missionaries often spent much of their time copying manuscripts, especially Gospels, for use by newly Christian communities. A few, notably St. Leoba, engaged in missionary work themselves. Nuns in later centuries continued to work with texts, copying and interpreting them, while some communities took in secular girls and educated them. The houses of Gandersheim in the 9th century and Helfta in the 13th, for example, were known for their high level of scholarship.
Nuns’ labor varied widely across and centuries and localities. The wealthier the house, the less likely they were to do more physical work and the more likely they were to focus on education, though most communities did certain amounts of both. This is, of course, based on a certain definition of the word “work” that may not have really fit how these nuns thought about their own lives.
*On which many reformers based their own Rules.
**Communities of monks sometimes had plow oxen. Communities of nuns did not.
***As Hildegard of Bingen may have. She certainly had enough practical and scholarly experience to write two medical texts.
Herlihy, David. Opera Muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe. New York: McGraw Hill, 1990.
Jewell, Helen M. Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe c. 500-1200. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Jewell, Helen M. Women in Late Medieval and Reformation Europe 1200-1550. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Nichols, John A. and Lillian Thomas Shank, eds., Distant Echoes: Medieval Religious Women, Volume One. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984.