Thousands of women throughout Europe who did not want to marry or become Roman Catholic nuns had begun to set themselves up in these female collectives. The women supported themselves by crafts, primarily weaving. They set up hospitals, educated girls, wrote books and preached on the streets.
Europe was experiencing a period of change and unrest. There were significant and rapid climatic changes resulting in flooding, drought and crop failure. The fertility of both animals and humans had fallen remarkably, and livestock were becoming prey to new diseases sweeping the country.
This created a climate of fear and suspicion, and some people began to ignore church authorities, threw priests out of their own churches and engaged in bizarre cults. General lawlessness was widespread.