Janet Sorrentino

title.none: Warren, Spiritual Economies (Janet Sorrentino)

identifier.other: baj9928.0206.011 02.06.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Janet Sorrentino, Washington College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Warren, Nancy Bradley. Spiritual Economies: Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England. The Medieval Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 276. 55.00. ISBN: 0-812-23583-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.06.11

Warren, Nancy Bradley. Spiritual Economies: Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England. The Medieval Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 276. 55.00. ISBN: 0-812-23583-5.

Reviewed by:

Janet Sorrentino
Washington College

Spiritual Economies operates both like a poem and a conversation about women religious in late medieval England. Nancy Bradley Warren composes her ideas around a central metaphor, economies, and the language of that metaphor informs and organizes her book. Beginning in the preface where Dartford Priory provides a thumbnail sketch of what is to come, she states:

First and foremost, the case of Dartford highlights the involvements of women religious in multiple, mutually informing systems of production and exchange. From the community's beginning, the Dartford nuns were enmeshed in material, symbolic, textual, political, and spiritual economies in ways which at times harmonized with and at times conflicted with each other. Exploring the relationships among these systems and considering their importance for the construction of religious identities are at the foundation of my methodology in this book. (viii)

The language throughout Spiritual Economies mingles the familiar vocabulary of religious life (profession, visitation, rule, obedientiary, visions, sanctity, chastity, to name a few) with the language of economy (such as production, exchange, currency, liabilities, assets, loss, value, commodity and capital). The text also functions like a conversation. Warren mobilizes a significant amount of recent scholarship about female religious, thoroughly integrating that literature with her interpretive reading of documents for English religious women of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Warren identifies two goals for her book: "to demonstrate the complex vibrancy of material and spiritual life in later medieval nunneries" and "to emphasize the centrality of female monasticism to the flowering of later medieval female spirituality, and, indeed, its importance to later medieval culture at large". (ix) To these ends, she divides the book into two parts. Part I focuses on the relationships between spiritual and material economies within the convent walls. Part II looks to the value of religious women and female sanctity in the larger secular world. Both parts address the "permeability of the convent wall" (viii), that is, Warren is concerned to show how significantly the boundary of claustration was breached. Her look into Dartford Priory and its connection to Edward II and the Dominican house at King's Langley initiate the study, though Warren does not return to the nuns of Dartford thereafter. She chooses the Benedictine, Brigittine and Franciscan Minoress traditions to carry the weight of her arguments. These three orders "maintained a significant presence in fourteenth and fifteenth-century England" (x), and medieval sources for their histories abound, including rules, financial records, and other documentary evidence.

"Vows and Visitations", are the subject of chapter one, where Warren articulates the "ideological scripts" created by the texts and ceremonies of profession, as well as the documents created and practical constraints imposed by episcopal visitations. Warren concentrates especially on the nuptial imagery in the profession of Benedictine nuns. The Method of Making a Nunn and furme how a Nouice sall be made, two fifteenth-century Middle English texts containing ceremony for female Benedictine professions, identify the nun as the bride of Christ. Such identity meant simultaneously that her chaste body and private property were exchanged for her new role as spouse of Christ. Furthermore, she argues that monks were identified more directly with Christ and that the subtle gendering of the profession scripts subjected "the Benedictine nun, unlike the Benedictine monk, to a hierarchical, patriarchal complex of familial relations". (7) In the Brigittine and Franciscan texts Rewle of Seynte Saviour, The Rewle of Sustris Menouresses Enclosid and Syon Additions for the Sisters Warren identifies Marian and maternity themes that empowered medieval nuns. Episcopal visitation also offered opportunities to shape religious identity within the convent. Not only did regulations impose standards; the fees and hospitality were costly. Warren examines visitation records particularly with regard to familiae to see whether the management of larger households indicated relative measures of independence. Again, in her reading these visitations were harder on houses of Benedictine nuns than for Brigittines or Minoresses.

Chapter two, "The Value of the Mother Tongue: Vernacular Translations of Monastic Rules for Women", begins by pointing out that "translation is an operation performed on both bodies and words". (30) A certain nervousness attended vernacular translations of religious texts in late medieval England in the shadow of Lollardy; they promised (or threatened, depending upon perspective) independence from the traditional ecclesiastical power structures. Warren calls Arundel's Constitutions of 1407-1409 an attempt to "save the market" for the clerical elite because they required official church sanction for vernacular translations. (32) Based on her reading of Bishop Richard Fox's sixteenth-century English translation of the Benediction Rule and the verse translation found in London, BL Cotton Vespasian MS A.25, she argues that the English translations of the Benedictine Rule reaffirmed that status of traditional masculine power structures. The Brigittine rule, however, was written for women and in a vernacular (although not originally in English). It did not need, therefore, a "translation of body and text". Furthermore, the appropriation of Mary as "co-redemptrix" (47) in the English version of Brigittine services, The Myroure of Oure Lady empowered the Brigittine sisters with maternal and divine "capital".

Chapter three, "Accounting for Themselves: Nuns' Everyday Practices and Alternative Monastic Identities", shows, not surprisingly, that the practical business of running an institution gave nuns a financial identity as well as a spiritual one. Warren emphasizes that Brigittines and Minoresses operated with "autonomy in practice". (55) The Brigittine foundation at Syon had great liberties from outside interference in their finances and the Minoresses at Denny divided endowments into a prebend system, giving individual nuns personal control over property.

In chapter four, "A Coin of Changing Value: Monastic Paradigms and Secular Women", Warren makes the case that late medieval writers adopted the allegory of female monastic life as a model of the "ideal religious life for women and men in the world". (79) The texts she examined include Book to a Mother, Abbey of the Holy Ghost and Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, found together in Oxford, Bodl. Laud Miscellaneous MS 210. Their authors both extol and criticize contemporary female monasticism, especially in the matter of the body and property. She finds in these texts a concern to prevent women from adorning their bodies; when a woman treated her body as her own property, she opened herself up to accusations of lecherie and maumetrie. Warren also examines in this same context The Book of Margery Kempe. Margery's determination to remain a lay woman while living a life of intense religious devotion suggests to Warren that the models for Margery's chosen religious life, Minoresses and Brigittines, "provided powerful interpretive paradigms through which women could favorably negotiate their processes and practices of living spiritual lives in the material world". (93)

Secular men of power turned to female saints to strengthen their political positions. Chapter five, "Kings, Saints, and Nuns: Symbolic Capital and Political Authority in Fifteenth- Century England", looks to the way holy women, especially visionaries like Emma Rawghton and St. Birgitta, offered divine verification for dynastic claims. Warren focused on Henry V's "masculine" campaign that called on the symbolic value of St. George, St. Edward, and St. Edmund in England where his dynastic claims depended on refusing to acknowledge succession through women. She brought out by comparison Henry's promotion of "incarnational" politics that praised Mary's role in transmitting divine kingship in his campaign for the French crown. (116) Similarly, chapter six, "Liabilities and Assets: Holy Women in the Literary Economy", draws on John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady and Osbern Bokenham's Legendys of Hooly Wummen to show the reader a subtle tension that existed in literary religious texts. On the one hand, women could be "feminine transmitters" who established a legitimate line of male succession. On the other hand, Warren explains through these texts that it was necessary as well to keep the female element subject to the male. (162)

Joan of Arc stands at the center of the spiritual and material economies in chapter seven, "Paying the Price: Holy Women and Political Conflict". As a holy woman whose saintly voices claimed that Charles VII was God's choice to rule France, Joan presented her English adversaries with a powerful threat. It became imperative for her English accusers "to discredit Joan's version of holiness". (179) Consequently, her trial seemed to concentrate on those aspects most likely to discredit her. If Joan could be dismissed as a sorceress, unchaste, and as a worldly woman enjoying the benefits of a secular court, she stood to lose her claim to a sanctity that in turn could legitimize the rights of Charles VII. The English at Rouen, then, had to divest her of her "symbolic capital".

Warren's book is a welcome addition to the University of Pennsylvania's Middle Ages Series. Warren writes with a subtlety of language and imagination of thought that impressed me throughout, and this short review cannot do full justice to the complexity of subjects about which she writes. I return to my initial observation that Spiritual Economies reminds me of a conversation and poem. Just as in an ordinary conversation, Spiritual Economies has many voices. In addition to the Middle English texts that form the basis of her study, Warren frequently incorporates quotations from other scholars so that the reader has the sense of participating in a much larger discourse. She is meticulous in her documentation of those quotations; there are seventy-six pages of endnotes, carefully compiled, and in the notes she skillfully elucidates important historiographical issues. The frequent interpolation of quotes, however, requires conscious sorting to keep the voices distinct.

Like a poem,Spiritual Economies requires the reader to follow and understand the metaphorical threads. Warren does not claim to be writing either an economic or religious history of the Benedictine, Brigittine and Franciscan nuns in England, but rather an interpretative reading of female spirituality in late medieval England. Warren's text presumes and requires a high degree of familiarity with the history of the three orders, Middle English religious texts, the politics of Lancastrians and Yorkists, and a wide range of recent scholarship about female religious. Thus, hers is a book for graduates and professionals who will be challenged and greatly rewarded for their efforts.