Jon Porter

title.none: Venarde, Women's Monasticism (Porter)

identifier.other: baj9928.9810.003 98.10.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jon Porter,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Venarde, Bruce. Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society: Nunneries in France and England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. xix, 243. $42.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-801-43203-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.10.03

Venarde, Bruce. Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society: Nunneries in France and England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. xix, 243. $42.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-801-43203-0.

Reviewed by:

Jon Porter

In Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society, Bruce Venarde makes an important contribution to our understanding of the origins, institutional development, and expansion of nunneries in England and France during the twelfth century, a period of dramatic increase in the number of monasteries for both sexes. He makes clear in his preface that this book is not a comprehensive study of women's monasticism in the central Middle Ages, and that he has chosen to "concentrate instead on the processes surrounding the origins of monasteries for women, their foundations, and, sometimes, their early history" (pp. xii-xiii). The availability of reliable contemporary sources (or lack thereof) has rightly led him to focus on the practical and managerial abilities of medieval nuns -- especially abbesses -- instead of, say, the spirituality of medieval religious women or their daily lives.

Venarde's study is based on an extensive computer database of monastic houses for women founded or refounded from the fifth to the mid-fourteenth centuries in fifteen northwestern European dioceses (essentially modern England and France), although he limits his discussion of the last century of his research to a brief epilogue. This database allowed him to identify and describe the changes in monastic foundation and expansion throughout this period, which substantiates his argument that the growth of women's monasticism occurred not in the thirteenth century but instead between ca. 1080 and the 1160s, an observation supported by David Knowles's figures for English nunneries.[[1]]

To demonstrate that "the expansion of female monasticism in this period was not simply a reflection of male-centered reform monasticism" (p. 14), he differentiates between female-centered monastic communities, such as Fontevraud and the Gilbertines, and male-centered ones like the Cistercians and Praemonstratensians. Whilst the foundation of nunneries in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was "to a considerable degree independent of male-centered innovation" (p. 15), this is not to say that the growth of women's monasticism in the first half of the twelfth century should be completely isolated from the monastic reform movements of the time, a point he acknowledges in his conclusion, "it is no longer suitable to consider female monasticism to have been outside the mainstream, especially in the twelfth century" (p. 184).

This statistical account of female monasticism is followed by a discussion of the royal foundations of tenth and eleventh century nunneries. After a description of developments in late Anglo-Saxon England and post-Carolingian Europe, he briefly considers those women who lived "semi-formal" religious lives in the eleventh century, which highlights the limited access for women to traditional monasticism and the solutions they created outside the traditional cenobitic framework. The foundation of Marcigny in 1055 by Cluny and Comps ca. 1052 by Chaise-Dieu were the first nunneries with direct institutional ties to self-conscious reform movements; their foundation foreshadows the exponential growth of new monasteries for women after 1080. There are a number of similarities between Marcigny and Comps and the houses for women founded in the wake of the reform movements of the twelfth century, but Venarde notes that we should not see them as part of a conscious reform program by their parent (male-centered) monasteries.

Venarde examines the era that saw the greatest expansion of women's monasticism within his geographical boundaries, from ca. 1080 to ca. 1170, in chapter 3. He begins his survey of the expansion of female monasticism in this period with western France, where the inspirational and practical contributions of hermits, bishops, and the lesser aristocracy were crucial to the development of new monasteries for men and women. In this chapter and the one that follows, Venarde pays special attention to Fontevraud, its daughter-houses, and its founder, Robert of Arbrissel, whilst also examining the role of women within the Praemonstratensian, Cistercian, and Gilbertine orders, as well as the nuns of the Paraclete.

Chapter 4, "Social and Economic Contexts in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries," examines how the religious, social, economic, and political changes of the late eleventh century transformed monastic patronage from the largely royal and princely foundations of the tenth and early eleventh centuries discussed in chapter 2. Venarde's analysis of the as yet unpublished Fontevraud cartulary makes clear that its early development and subsequent expansion was the result of support from a broad spectrum of society.[[2]] As at many other monasteries founded in the wake of the Gregorian reform, the patronage of the lesser aristocracy was vital for Fontevraud's foundation, early development, and subsequent expansion. Modest initial grants by colourfully-named local landowners (including Jerorius Fat Lips, Ogerius Sword-Rattler, Geoffrey Bad Monk, and Raginald Who Folds Up Peasants [p. 110]) were crucial to Fontevraud's early survival, for it was not until Bertrada of Montfort (the mother of Fulk V of Anjou) became a nun in 1108 that the influence of the upper nobility was felt at Fontevraud.

His final substantive chapter explores the sharp decline in new foundations of monastic houses for women, ca. 1170 - ca. 1215. Venarde's statistics show that this decline began just after 1150 in continental Europe and in the late 1160s in England. Those nunneries that were founded tended to be located in isolated or marginal areas, and without adequate economic resources; donors also had begun to change the emphasis of their giving from the outright donation of land to the direct and indirect produce of that land. Venarde uses the charters of Montazais, a Fontevrist daughter-house in Poitou, to illustrate the economic difficulties faced by late twelfth- century rural nuns. Their straightened resources are revealed in their charters, where leases and tributes replace the land donations and purchases that their mother-house was able to undertake in the earlier part of the century.

Foundations after 1215 are briefly treated in the epilogue, and in his final pages, he suggests a number of ways in which his findings might apply to the study of medieval monasticism in general. He calls for a reassessment of twelfth-century monastic life to take into account our better understanding of social, economic, and cultural change, and he questions the appropriateness of "reform" as an "adequate description, explanation, or analysis of the growth of ... monasticism" (p. 184), instead urging us to adopt Giles Constable's paradigm of diversity and pluralism.[[3]]

There are two appendices. Appendix A is a handlist of nunneries founded between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, based on Venarde's larger computer database that provided the framework for this book. His task was complicated not just by the scarce and incomplete nature of the records, but also by linguistic confusion over the exact meaning of prioratus, obedientia, and ecclesia during (and after) the twelfth century. Venarde makes clear that this list is not exhaustive; indeed, it was constructed in such a way as to not exaggerate the "immense expansion" in monastic houses for women founded in the twelfth century. He excluded nonconventual priories -- for example, a number of twelfth- century Fontevrist possessions listed as "priories" in Jean- Marc Bienvenu's repertory of Fontevrist houses (which does not differentiate between conventual and non-conventual priories) are not included.[[4]] Whilst I would have preferred that these priories were included in the handlist (although indicated as such and excluded from the statistical calculations), he has created a valuable resource for the monastic historian, providing a Continental companion to Sally Thompson's compilation of English nunneries[[5]] and Knowles and Hadcock's recently re-issued Medieval Religious Houses. The handlist shows its origins as a computerized database: dioceses are assigned numerical codes instead of being named, and the sudden appearance of endnotes instead of footnotes (itself no doubt the result of its computer origins) requires a great deal of turning back and forth, as much useful information is relegated to the endnotes. Given the importance of Fontevraud in Venarde's analysis of charters and other source material, it is somewhat surprising to see that although Praemonstratensian nunneries are usually identified as such in the notes to his handlist, other orders -- most notably, Fontevraud and the Cistercians -- are not.

Appendix B, "Diocesan Centers and Other Cities," is a list of cities -- mainly, but not exclusively, episcopal sees -- during the period covered in Appendix A.


[[1]] David Knowles and R. N. Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses, England and Wales (London, 1971) 489-95.

[[2]] Jean-Marc Bienvenu is preparing an edition for the Presses Universitaires d'Angers.

[[3]] Giles Constable, "The Diversity of Religious Life and the Acceptance of Social Pluralism in the Twelfth Century," in History, Society, and the Churches, edd. Derek Beales and Geoffrey Best (Cambridge, 1985) 29-47.

[[4]] Jean-Marc Bienvenu, "L'Expansion Fontevriste: Les prieures fontevristes en France" Fontevraud: Histoire- Archeologie 2 (1994) 107-112.

[[5]] Sally Thompson, Women Religious: The Founding of English Nunneries after the English Conquest (Oxford, 1991) 217-232.