One thing the records do seem to show is a growing interest in Benedictine monasticism for women in the 10th and 11th centuries in what is now France. Several aristocratic women decided to found their own communities and often became their first abbesses.* Most of the nuns in these monasteries would have come from the same class as the founder, partially out of economic necessity. Some of them, however, did accept members from other classes in society, even former serfs.
[The abbey church at Ronceray, 11th & 12th centuries, photographed by Sémhur]
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Poverty was always a problem for the women’s monasteries of northwestern Europe. One of the ways they supported themselves was to request a gift of any new member entering the monastery, which ended up shutting out those who could not afford it. The also depended on donations because of the presence of a relic or simply out of pious generosity, both of which were easier to get if one had connections to wealthy people. Economic necessity pushed some monasteries towards accepting mostly nuns from wealthier backgrounds. The simple fact that poorer monasteries were less likely to leave behind evidence of their members and their existence has skewed our perception even further.
*The fact that so many of these original abbesses were aristocratic women may have been why so many of them either tried to associate themselves with Cluniac Reforms or found other ways of excluding the local bishop at least from interfering with the election of their abbesses if not from all decisions regarding the monastery.
-The Rule of St. Benedict
-Jewell, Helen M., Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe c. 500-1200, 2007.
-Nichols, John A. and Lillian Thomas Shank, eds., Distant Echoes: Medieval Religious Women, Volume One. 1984