XVII, 2021, 2

Of Elena Rareș’s Forced Monastic Tonsure (1552). Between Canon and Medieval Mentality | p. 107–122

1552–1553, Alexandru Lăpuşneanu, canons, Elena Rareș, forced monastic tonsure, Moldavia


In the present study we investigate the political practice of forced monastic tonsure of some royal family members of Moldavia and Wallachia in the XVI-XVII centuries, a Byzantine inherited custom by which the political pretenders were permanently removed from the circle of power and, through a symbolic mutilation of the nose and years, were stigmatized visually and socially. In particular, we focus on the case of Elena Rareș, Petru Rareș’s wife, who antagonized Alexandru Lăpușneanu (1552-1561) seeking to impose her sons on the throne, events which led her to forcefully assume the monastic habit and to seclude herself in the monastery in the fall of 1552, and was later executed by Lăpușneanu in 1553. Our research also reveals certain mentalities of the Moldavian society by which the practice of forced monastic tonsure, although canonically questionable by the standards of the XXI century, was then assumed by the clergy, the bishops, the boyars and the people as a legitimate way for the disgraced pretenders to atone for their political mistakes and to redeem their soul before God through monastic penance. It was widely regarded as a more humane and spiritual punishment than the death penalty, the decision being left to the clemency of the monarch, who ultimately had the right of life and death over his subjects.