Diane Watt

title.none: Morton and Wogan-Browne, Guidance for Women (Diane Watt)

identifier.other: baj9928.0406.003 04.06.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Diane Watt, University of Wales, Aberystwyth

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Morton, Vera, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne. Guidance for Women in 12th-Century Convents. Series: The Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. x, 203. $70.00 0-85991-825-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.06.03

Morton, Vera, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne. Guidance for Women in 12th-Century Convents. Series: The Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. x, 203. $70.00 0-85991-825-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Diane Watt
University of Wales, Aberystwyth

This anthology of medieval guidance material for women is the most recent volume in the Library of Medieval Women series, published by Boydell and Brewer, under the series editorship of Jane Chance. Whereas, with the exceptions of the volumes devoted to Old and Middle English saints' lives, most of the books in the series are concerned with medieval texts written by women (most of a devotional or visionary nature), this collection focuses on texts--mainly letters--written by churchmen for and about women. Guidance for Women therefore represents a broadening of the remit of the series, and it is one that will be welcomed by scholars in the field. The volumes that make up the Library of Medieval Women are intended largely for teaching purposes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels and a preliminary web-based sampling of courses on medieval women, whether taught in faculties of literature, history, or religious studies, reveals that many such courses do include male--as well as female--authored works. However, whereas most of the other volumes in the series focus on key works which are likely to serve as primary texts, Guidance for Women makes widely available in translation letters and extracts that are more likely to form the backdrop for the study of Ancrene Wisse and related works than to be considered in their own right. Nevertheless, Guidance for Women is certain to appear on many course bibliographies and is likely to be purchased by university libraries with appropriate holdings. As with the other volumes on the series, alongside the translations of the texts themselves (which are individually introduced and very fully annotated), Guidance for Women includes a preface outlining and explaining the choice of texts, an introduction providing an overview of the field of study and contextual historical material, a note on the translations (giving primary sources and explaining the principles behind the translations), an interpretive essay, an annotated and sectioned bibliography, and both a subject index and an index of references. It is therefore an extremely user-friendly volume.

Guidance for Women focuses on texts for 12th-century convents in England (specifically Barking Abbey) and on the continent. Vera Morton's translations are clear and readable. Guidance for Women includes the following texts: a letter from Osbert of Clare, Prior of Westminster, to Adelidis, Abbess of Barking; another letter from Osbert of Clare to his nieces Margaret and Cecilia in Barking Abbey; two letters from Abelard to Heloise; one letter from Peter the Venerable to his nieces Margaret and Pontia; and extracts from Goscelin of St Bertin's lives of the abbesses at Barking. However, as is explained in the introduction, because the volume is primarily concerned with texts for and about women, the six texts are not ordered according to the writers but according to the recipients. Thus they form three groups: letters to Abbesses (Adelidis and Heloise); letters to younger women in convents from elder male relatives who are senior churchmen (the nieces of Peter the Venerable and Osbert of Clare); and texts concerned with the responsibilities of abbesses to their religious communities (Heloise again, and the abbesses of Barking). Clearly some of these texts are more familiar than others: the first letter included from Abelard to Heloise, with its account of the importance of women in the history of the Christian Church, is justifiably well-known. It clearly connects with Osbert of Clare's letter to Adelidis in which he too is concerned with women's roles and exemplary status. The second letter included from Abelard also discusses positive role models such as Susanna from the Old Testament. The letters to the nieces of Peter the Venerable and Osbert of Clare both are fascinating in their own rights (they emphasise the importance of virginity and spiritual virtue, and the latter also discusses the woes of marriage) and provide a context for understanding works such as Aelred of Rievaulx's De Institutis Inclusarum, or Ancrene Wisse, Sawles Warde, and Hali Meithhad. The second letter included from Abelard to Heloise, which addresses the question of the education of nuns, is possibly less familiar, but extremely interesting because of its positive humanist stance. Standing out in terms of form, and also perhaps content, are the passages taken from the lives of the abbesses of Barking. The subject matter is rather macabre: the impacts of the plague and murderous Danish attacks, the deaths and burials of the abbesses, the removal of corpses from the cemetery to the church, the translation of Abbess Wulfhilda, and the reburial of the abbesses' bodies following the extension of the church. Nevertheless, Morton explains that these have been chosen because they "illustrate [the abbesses'] concern for the nunnery cemetery, both as a practical matter and more generally as part of their custody of the community's collective memory as expressed in its material environment, customs, and traditions" (10).

Morton's introduction to Guidance for Women opens with a brief account of the rise of medieval letters in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and notes that recent research indicates that "there are more women Latin letter writers than has been previously thought" (1). For readers interested in this area of study, the footnotes direct us to work by Giles Constable, Gerald A. Bond, Joan M. Ferrante, Alexandra Barratt, and to the ground-breaking 3 volume collection, Women Writing in Latin, edited by Laurie J. Churchill, Phyllis R. Brown and Jane E. Jeffrey. From there Morton moves onto a much fuller discussion of chastity and virginity literature, pointing out the extent of the debts owed to this tradition by writers of letters of spiritual direction such as those included in this volume. She provides a useful survey of medieval ideals of virginity (a heroic state to be aspired to rather than derided), and related concepts such as that of Christ as bridegroom, and teases out the relationship between arguments for virginity and chastity and the corresponding discourses on the disadvantages of marriage. She also points out the sheer range of exemplary models (from classical forerunners to Old and New Testament figures, and from legendary martyrs and the women of the early church to more contemporary figures) offered to female readers. Again the footnotes direct the readers to relevant works in the field, such as the studies by Barbara Newman, Constant J. Mews, Kim M. Phillips, Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Sarah Salih, Cindy L. Carlson and Angela J. Weisl, and, of course, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne herself. Morton then reminds the reader of the growth of the convents in twelfth-century England and France, considers some of the reasons why women chose a cloistered life, and addresses the composition of the convents and the nature of the women's lives within them. A point that is made here, and reiterated throughout the volume, is that the abbesses "commanded large estates and complex institutions" (7) and thus in undertaking successfully their extensive and onerous responsibilities would have displayed impressive legal, managerial, diplomatic, and social skills. In a section on women's languages and learning, the introduction outlines the educational opportunities convents offered for women, and observes that as integral parts of the Western church, the convents were very much part of international politics and culture, thus the considerable overlaps between the English and French texts included in the volume. Latin, as the lingua franca of the church, was pervasive, and French was also an important language that crossed national boundaries. Morton goes so far as to suggest not only that Adelidis, Abbess of Barking, would have had much to say to Heloise of the Paraclete, and vice versa, but also that "they would have said it, perhaps, in Latin" (9). She concludes by observing that although "these letters and lives give us images of women as churchmen felt they should see themselves . . . they also allow us a sense of medieval women's own aspirations and achievements" (11).

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's essay, "Dead to the World? Death and the Maiden Revisited in Medieval Women's Convent Culture," offers a somewhat unexpected interpretation of the texts included in the volume, but, as we would expect of one of the leading scholars in the field, it is one that is both original and thought-provoking. Referring to important studies of death in the Middle Ages by Philippe Aries, Paul Binski and others, Wogan-Browne uses the texts in the volume and other related material to explore the understanding of death and rituals surrounding it in Western Christendom. She addresses the importance of dying "well," repenting before death, being treated with due reverence after death; the significance attributed to the incorrupt corpses, to human relics, to tombs and burial places; the seriousness with which the translation of the saints was regarded; and changing attitudes to death. Wogan-Browne then draws our attention to the importance of anniversaries and commemorations of death within the church calendar and especially as part of monastic and convent life. She notes that rolls of the dead were passed between religious houses, and identifies one, which includes a poem on death possibly composed by Heloise alongside entries from Barking. This provides, as Wogan-Browne puts it, "as good an image as any of the shared culture of learning and commemoration in north west Europe at this period" (171). Nuns engaged in the drama of Easter ceremonies at Barking and elsewhere, but of course it was in the areas of intercession, mourning and commemoration that religious women's contributions to the rituals of death were most marked. After briefly considering the connections between virginity and death, Wogan-Browne reaches what is her central thesis: religious women played a positive role in constructing the history of their convents, orders, and thus themselves. It is here that the extracts from Goscelin of St Bertin's lives come into their own, providing as they do compelling evidence in support of Wogan-Browne's claim that "the cemetery at Barking was a locus of memory and continuity and an ever-present theatre of events" (179). Without Wogan-Browne's essay, this volume would be a more-than welcome addition to the Library of Medieval Women series, and one that would no doubt be widely-consulted and cited. With it, it will make a significant and lasting contribution to the field of medieval women's religious literature and culture.