I recently read an article on the enclosure of nuns that illustrates some of the interesting questions around this issue, as well as some of my ongoing frustrations with scholarship on women and religion. I happened on the article somewhat by chance--it's in a collection of essays that caught my eye while I was looking for something else on the shelf. I'm glad I found it, though.
The article is Francesca Medioli, "An unequal law: the enforcement of clausura before and after the Council of Trent," in Christine Meek, ed. Women in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe (Four Courts Press, 2000). The title of the essay collections is indicative of my current complaint. Since these essays focus on Renaissance / early modern women, I hadn't previously encountered it in reading scholarship on medieval women. In short, medievalists and early modernists don't talk to each other enough. Medioli's essay further illustrates the problem. She's interested in ideas of enclosure before and after the mid-1500s Council of Trent, and she discusses some monastic rules dating from before Trent, but she doesn't deal to any significant extent with any of the scholarship on enclosure in the Middle Ages.
This problem comes up again and again in my reading on monasticism. Medievalists pick an ending date--for historians of Spain, often 1492, for historians of England, often the Dissolution of the early 1500s--and stop there. Early modernists pick a start date, usually in the 1500s, sometimes in the late 1400s, and start there. It's rare for a historian on either side of the medieval / early modern divide to engage systematically with work done on the other side.
Yet, for women religious, there is a lot of consistency crossing that line. Similar rules, customs, and preoccupations dominate the theory and practice of women's monastic lives both before and after 1500. The Council of Trent is in some ways a watershed. But, as Medioli points out, it's a watershed of enforcement, not of ideology. In the years after Trent, the enforcement of enclosure rules became much more stringent and effective, but the basic principle of enclosure had been established by Boniface VIII's bull Periculoso in 1298 and discussed more generally long before that. Medioli's discussion of the Trent materials, particularly the differences between the draft and final versions of the relevant constitutions, is quite interesting. Yet I found myself frustrated that the scholarship on earlier norms of enclosure was not more fully addressed, and also frustrated that there was little discussion of customary practices within nunneries. We know from many anecdotes that many nunneries did not observe enclosure very strictly, but we don't necessarily know whether these nuns were working under consistent customs that just happened to be looser than the ideal, or whether there was in fact an "anything goes" mentality. And just how was it that church leaders managed to enforce enclosure more effectively after Trent, when the ideal of enclosure for nuns had already existed for centuries? Or did they succeed only in Italy (Medioli's focus)? There are some very important questions here which really require an approach that spans medieval and early modern.