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Introduction DevoutLaywomenintheEarlyModernWorld:The Historiographic Challenge

ByAlison Weber

It is difficult to find a satisfactory inclusive term for a group of women whose lifestyles varied so widely.3 From the thirteenth century, “penitents” was one term among many regional variants used to refer to men or women who engaged in various kinds of Christian service but without separation from the secular world.4 By the seventeenth century in Spain and France, however, “penitent” referred to someone who did penance, whether of his own will or because of an imposed punishment.5 Gabriella Zarri suggests “the third status” (il terzo stato) to describe the “institutions developed in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that allowed women who did not wish to or could not marry or enter a convent to

live unmarried with their families or in a community.”6 After much reflection, I have settled on “devout laywomen” to designate those who saw their lives in terms of a secular vocation to serve God in the world-whether collectively or individually. This is admittedly an imprecise term that seems to be the best of less than satisfactory options.