Nancy Bradley Warren

title.none: Spear, Leadership in Medieval Nunneries (Nancy Bradley Warren)

identifier.other: baj9928.0604.007 06.04.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Nancy Bradley Warren, Florida State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Spear, Valerie G. Leadership in Medieval Nunneries. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005. Pp. xix, 244. $90.00 1-84383-150-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.04.07

Spear, Valerie G. Leadership in Medieval Nunneries. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005. Pp. xix, 244. $90.00 1-84383-150-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Nancy Bradley Warren
Florida State University

Valerie Spear's study of monastic superiors in medieval English nunneries is a welcome contribution to the growing body of recent scholarship on female monasticism. Like the work of Marilyn Oliva and Roberta Gilchrist, Spear's study takes another important step down the road of undoing the influential, negative portrait of English female monasticism painted by Eileen Power the better part of a century ago. Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries consists of an introduction, seven chapters plus an epilogue, and a conclusion; Spears also includes four appendices providing lists of data, an example of the election procedures for a superior, and the eulogy for Euphemia of Wherwell, a text that she discusses in her final chapter. The sources under consideration range from the thirteenth century through the sixteenth, and she focuses on a range of religious orders, giving particular attention to the Benedictines and the Brigittines.

In her first chapter, entitled "The Meaning of Leadership in the Medieval English Nunnery," Spear convincingly justifies her choice of the modern term "leadership" for exploring the roles, subject positions, and identities inhabited by medieval abbesses and prioresses. She examines the models for leadership set out in prose and verse Middle English versions of the Rule of St. Benedict , noting that leadership requires balancing authoritarianism and humility and consists of a paradoxical combination of empowerment and denial of power. She surveys the conflicting demands that superiors had to negotiate in fulfilling their office--for instance, providing hospitality while still adhering to requirements for enclosure.

In her second chapter, "Leadership and Lineage," Spear examines the processes by which convent superiors were elected, the interactions of secular and ecclesiastical powers in the processes, and the conflicts that occasionally ensued. Bringing to bear a wealth of detailed examples drawn from an impressive range of primary sources, Spear also engages in a nuanced analysis of the social class of monastic superiors. Her analysis harmonizes with those of Marilyn Oliva and John Tillotson in revising Power's view of English nunneries as generally aristocratic institutions that "promoted" nuns on the basis of their elevated social status. Spear provides, furthermore, extensive evidence that nunneries were strongly connected to their local communities, using materials from wills, letters, and other documents to illustrate that "relatives and friends of the nuns identified strongly with the convents housing their women" (39).

In chapter 3, entitled "Guardians of the Brides," Spear turns her attention to episcopal and archepiscopal supervision of female monastic institutions. She points out that medieval ordinaries were a diverse group; not surprisingly, their attitudes toward the authority of female monastic superiors, their diligence in visitation, and their treatment of monastic institutions under their supervision also varied widely. Spear once again supports her arguments with richly detailed evidence, and her careful reading of episcopal registers and records of visitations for what they do not tell us, as well as what they do tell us, is particularly welcome.

In chapter 4, "The Lady and the Monarchs," Spear considers relations of abbesses and prioresses with "spiritual and temporal monarchs, whose separate, and sometimes intersecting, spheres of authority both supported and restricted" female leadership (59). She discusses the benefits and drawbacks of royal patronage, considering such issues as negotiations of royal rights of nomination, debates concerning the presence in nunneries of corrodians and pensioners, and conflicts over the control of temporalities. In analyzing the interactions of monastic superiors with popes, she notes that many nunneries were exempt from papal tax, "except perhaps for Peter's Pence" (79), but, in spite of this financially generous treatment, when it came to the benefices in an abbess's gift in a royal house, popes were every bit as anxious as kings to usurp the rights of the female superior to nominate. In general, Spear observes, the benefits conferred by kings and popes alike tended to go to wealthy houses more frequently than to poorer houses.

Spear's fifth chapter, "The Distaff and the Crosier," interrogates the superior's responsibility to balance the domestic side of convent administration with spiritual leadership. Spear once again provides a corrective to Power's theory of "typical female ineptitude in financial management" (92). She astutely observes that records tend to tell us more about cases in which problems did occur than about cases where affairs proceeded smoothly. She also presents examples in which female superiors exhibited considerable business acumen, noting that, while such "shrewdness" might "appear to sit uneasily with the more spiritual qualities enjoined in the Rule " in fact "the capacity to maintain a life of prayer and service depended to a large extent on economic survival" (111).

Chapter 6 explores clerical views of female superiors, concentrating on documents associated with episcopal visitations. Not surprisingly, prelates exhibited a particular concern for enclosure and its violations. In this chapter too Spear is attentive to the limitations of the available sources, noting that episcopal injunctions do not always make clear whether they are directed toward "specific infringements of the Rule or consist simply of standard recommendations" (122). She also usefully observes that, as is the case with the cases of financial mismanagement and financial success that feature in the previous chapter, "poor discipline is readily identified, whereas evidence of a calm, well-balanced approach is much more difficult to identify in the kind of records available" (125). She concludes that while cases of abuse, laxity, and misrule certainly existed, the overall pictures of female leadership and female monastic life are largely positive ones, albeit ones colored by the frequently misogynistic orientation of such official ecclesiastical documents as episcopal registers.

Chapter 7, "Shifting Perspectives," is the only one in which I found anything much to quibble. My problem with this chapter is largely methodological. Here Spears takes Chaucer's portrait of the Prioress from the Canterbury Tales and pairs it with the eulogy for Euphemia of Wherwell to examine perspectives on female monastic superiors. On the one hand, this is simply a convenient organizing strategy for examining such subjects as the use of French in English nunneries; the presence of pets in monastic households; and the adherence, or lack thereof, of English nuns to monastic regulations on dress and personal adornment. On the other hand, while Spear does admit that "the literary pieces describing Euphemia and Eglentyne represent different genres, the first hagiography and the second satire" (157), she does have a problematic tendency in this chapter to fall into the position of taking such works as The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman as representations of the realities of life in later medieval English nunneries. I hasten to add, however, that there is plenty of evidence from other types of sources brought to bear in this chapter as well, so my objection is, overall, a minor one. The chapter ultimately builds the argument begun in the previous two chapters, concluding that there certainly were "worldly" superiors (just as there were financially incompetent ones, and ones that did not manage spiritual discipline effectively), but that, overall, "gross deviations from the ideal, though dramatic in some cases, were not demonstrably typical of female superiors" (167).

In her epilogue, Spear incorporates a fairly brief discussion of the process of the Dissolution, nunneries' efforts to protect their property, and the life choices enacted by monastic superiors after their foundations were dissolved. She concludes that the "last superiors from the English nunneries emerge from the surviving evidence as individuals rather than as a homogeneous group" (185).

Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries makes an important contribution to the growing subfield of monastic studies within the larger field of medieval female spirituality. Spear's study will certainly be of interest to scholars and students of medieval religion, but it will equally be of use to scholars interested in questions concerning medieval constructions of gendered identities and power relations.