Mapping a terra incognita : male and female religious in the web-database ODIS

For a long time the world of nineteenth- and twentieth-century male and female religious in Belgium remained a mysterious and secluded territory, difficult to access for researchers. The typical convent climate of modesty, isolation and self-abnegation had a fundamental impact on the production, preservation and accessibility of archives and historical data. Biographical information about individual members of orders and congregations in particular was difficult to acquire and to collect, seriously hindering sociologists and historians in developing scientifically based statistical, prosopographic or in-depth analyses of convent life. Consequently, the important phenomenon of the religious revival that manifested itself after the French Revolution in Belgium – as elsewhere in Western Europe – was rarely examined from a general, quantifying perspective. With approximately 50,000 female and over 10,000 male religious by the middle of the twentieth century, members of orders and congregations in Belgium represented a large social group and, considering their important impact on different societal domains (pastoral work, education, care, social provisions, …), an interesting topic for research. Moreover, the post-revolutionary convent world offers fascinating gender patterns to examine. Not only did religious women vastly outnumber religious men; analyzing male and female convent worlds may also unveil differences in social, professional and clerical position.

As part of its mission to preserve convent heritage and to foster research on the world of religious institutes, KADOC-KULeuven has focused intensively on collecting archives and data on male and female religious, on a collective as well as on an individual level. In the last two decades, KADOC gradually built and implemented online instruments that allow researchers to (re-)use the many different contextual (meta)data-sets that the Center has gathered over the last decades. Some of them were newly created during  research and heritage projects. Others are based on older (analogue) repertories, archives and corpora that were digitized, structured according to international standards, updated and brought online. KADOC’s main data-sets on religious institutes are stored and managed in the web-database ODIS (, created in 2000-2003. ODIS applies repeatable field groups and directional input, systematized by means of validated vocabularies and thesauri. Its relational field groups allow for the creation clear and univocal links between records. As a result, rich and consistent data-packages are created that create new possibilities for research. With regard to religious institutes, ODIS contains records with general information and sources about nearly 250 religious institutes, linked to records about their archives, their related organizations and institutes and their members. Records of individual female and male religious contain systematized information about their social and geographical descent, their age of entry and profession, their career within the convent, their apostolic commitments etc.

This contribution focusses on the potential and limitations of the ODIS-data sets concerning religious institutes and their members, with special interest for issues of gender. The first research question is on the gender mechanisms of the revival. To what extent can the possible entanglement between male and female convent foundations, the role of male religious in female institutes, the gendered collaboration and interactions on the diverse apostolic fields and much more be examined through an analyses of the ODIS datasets? Second, we examine the potential for discerning parallels and differences between and among groups of female and male religious, for example with regard to their descent, entry, religious career and life expectancy. Third, we focus on the possibilities to quantify and qualify the international significance of Belgian male and female religious with regard to missionary activities.


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