CANONESS (Fr. chanoinesse, Ger. Kanonissin, Lat. canonica or canonica virgo), a female beneficiary of a religious college. In the 8th century chapters of canons were instituted in the Frankish empire, and in imitation of these certain women took common vows of obedience and chastity, though not of poverty. Like nuns they had common table and dormitory, and recited the breviary, but generally the rule was not so strict as in the case of nuns. The canonesses often taught girls, and were also employed in embroidering ecclesiastical vestments and transcribing liturgical books. A distinction was drawn between regular and secular canonesses, the latter being of noble family and not practising any austerity. Some of their abbesses were notable feudal princesses. In Germany several foundations of this kind (e.g. Gandersheim, Herford and Quedlinburg), which were practically secular institutions before the Reformation, adopted the Protestant faith, and still exist, requiring of their members the simple conditions of celibacy and obedience to their superior during membership. These institutions (Stifter) are now practically almshouses for the unmarried daughters of noble families. In some cases the right of presentation belongs to the head of the family, sometimes admission is gained by purchase; but in modern times a certain number of prebends have been created for the daughters of deserving officials. The organization of the Stift is collegiate, the head bearing the ancient titles of abbess, prioress or provostess (Pröbstin), and the canonesses (Stiftsdamen) meet periodically in Konvent for the discussion of the affairs of the community. The ladies are not bound to residence. In many of these Stifter quaint pre-Reformation customs and ceremonies still survive; thus, at the convent of St John the Baptist at Schleswig, on the day of the patron saint, the room in which the Konvent is held is draped in black and a realistic life-size wax head of St John on a charger is placed in the centre of the table round which the canonesses sit.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)