Even though the remains of the Cistercian Nun Convent, Nonneseter, are found in a central part of Bergen today, it was originally located outside the town. Cistercian nuns spent their time here in prayer and work, probably more peacefully than their male colleagues at Munkeliv Monastery. At least until the early 16th century, when the alleged decadence at Nonneseter Convent became the talk of the town.
The famous author Ludvig Holberg wrote an historical description of his birth town Bergen in 1737. According to his description, Nonneseter existed as early as in 1134, during the reign of King Magnus the Blind.
We don’t know the exact year of the establishment of Nonneseter Convent. It was hardly as early as 1134, but there are some good indications that the convent was founded in the 1140s. Bishop Sigurd of Bergen founded a convent of the Cistercian order for monks at Lyse in Os in 1146. It is likely that Nonneseter, the only convent for women in this order, was built around the same time. It may very well have been Bishop Sigurd, in cooperation with the king, who was responsible for the founding of Nonneseter.
King Håkon Håkonsson’s Saga tells us that King Magnus and Queen Ingeborg left their little son Olav with the nuns when they set out on a journey to Trondheim in 1262. Nonneseter Convent has also been mentioned in a number of letters and testaments.
The order of the Cistercians was founded by Robert of the Molosmes in 1098 in Citeaux in France. The order based its thinking on the basic principles of the Benedictine order, with work and prayer as the main elements of a pious life.
Around this time moral standards begun its decline in many European Benedictine convents. A monk dreamt one night that St Mary had asked God to save mankind from the apocalypse. In return she would send the people an order that would keep the promises of poverty, and live and work for God. This became the Cistercian’s mission – to reform the Benedictine convent movement. After this, the order’s churches were always dedicated in honour of the holy St Mary.
The order grew in size and influence, particularly when a monk called Bernhard was appointed abbot of a convent in Clairvaux. Bernhard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) is referred to as the second founder of the order of the Cistercians. His significance for the order was immence, and the order is still commonly known as the Bernhardine Order. He was said to be a very charismatic ecclesiastical leader. In his time the order of the Cistercians grew into a large movement. Around year 1150 there were 350 convents around Europe.
Nonneseter was a significant property holder. Probably the convent had farmland nearby for its own use. There is also reason to believe that the nuns started St Jørgen’s Hospital for leprous. The site on which the hospital was built used to be grazing land belonging to Nonneseter. Also, churches and convents were the only institutions that cared for the sick at this time. “The hospital at Nonneseter” has been mentioned in a source from 1411. From 1438 the leprosy hospital was commonly referred to as “St Jørgen’s Hospital”
In late medieval time, very little is mentioned about Nonneseter. The Plague in 1349-50 may have reduced the convent’s incomes. In 1507 the Cistercian nuns left the convent. They were supposedly run off because of their loose and improper conduct. Had the holy virgin’s delegates lost their moral integrity?
The order of St Anthony moved into the women’s convent. St Anthony was a monk order founded in 1095 as a hospital order. The monk order had taken its name after the holy Antonius, who was born in Egypt around year 250.
In 1528, King Frederik I gave the convent to his officer in Norway, the nobleman Vincens Lunge. It was said that he offered this gift to his nobleman after the monks of St Anthony had conducted themselves just as poorly as the nuns who had been chased from Nonneseter some twenty years earlier.
It is not impossible that a spiritual and moral decay put its mark on Bergen’s convents during the last decades prior to the Reformation. Still, let us not forget that such accusations very well may have originated from those who benefited from the dissolution of the convents. The vast estates belonging to the convents were much-coveted properties for upper-class people like Vincens Lunge.
Some remnants from Nonneseter can still be seen. Near Bergen Railway Station a Romanesque tower foot is now a memorial chapel over those who were killed during the Second World War. A Gothic side chapel is also found nearby.