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Isolde is sent to the Abbey as the only alternative other than marriage available to her. Due to her social standing she is assigned the most senior role of Abbess, even though Sister Ursula, the Lady Almoner, has lived in the convent since she was just four years old.

‘The terms of our father’s will are that we have to get you settled. He would not allow any delay. Either immediate marriage to my friend here, or …’ He paused. ‘Or what?’ Isolde asked, suddenly afraid. ‘The abbey,’ he said simply. ‘Father said that if you would not marry, I was to appoint you as abbess and that you should go there to live.’

Prayer times

Life in a monastery or convent was highly regulated and included frequent prayer

Monks and nuns daily prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, a list of prayers recited at different times of day. In the fifteenth century the Liturgy of the Hours had eight scheduled prayer times: Matins (at midnight), Lauds (at dawn), Prime (in the early morning), Terce (at midmorning), Sext (at noon), None (in midafternoon), Vespers (at dusk), and Compline (at night before going to bed).

Lay sister

In the fifteenth century, convents had a social hierarchy that reflected that of the larger society.

Elite women who could bring a dowry to the convent became sisters, but poorer women from illiterate peasant families came to the convent penniless and became lay sisters. Lay sisters did menial work—domestic chores, agricultural work, spinning—while the sisters spent their time in prayer. In places where sisters avoided contact with the world, lay sisters were the nunnery’s link to the outside—they would take the convent’s products to market, talk to outsiders, and greet visitors. In other words, while on paper a convent was a house of God in which all were equal, in practice convents—like the rest of Europe—had ladies who did not work and servants who did.

Abbey, monastery, nunnery

Abbeys, monasteries, convents, and nunneries are all Catholic institutions in which monks and nuns lived and worshipped, under the authority of the Abbot or Abbess.

A monastery is a male community; convent and nunnery are synonyms for female communities. Usually, either one can be referred to as an abbey; in Changeling, a shared central abbey is set between a monastery and a nunnery. Abbeys were common in Europe. They offered food and shelter to strangers and travelers.

Sister Ursula:

“Her habit was made of the softest bleached wool, the wimple on her head pushed back to show a pale lovely face with smiling grey eyes. The girdle at her waist was ofhe finest leather and she had soft leather slippers, not the rough wooden pattens that working women wore to keep their shoes out of the mud.”

Sister Ursula is the Lady Almoner at the Abbey and shows us that a woman could have a career and achieve status and power in the medieval world through the church. She manages and organises the day-to-day business of the abbey, looking after the stores. She lives apart from the other nuns in noticeable comfort. She has fine petticoats and shoes that are discordant with her position as the person responsible for giving alms to the poor. As the story develops we learn that she has been poisoning the nuns in her intention to induce visions and throw suspicion on Isolde and Ishraq as witches.