03.02.20, Smith, Ordering Women's Lives

Main Article Content

Dianne Hall

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.020


Smith, Julie Ann. Ordering Women's Lives: Penitentials and Nunnery Rules in the Early Medieval West. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001. Pp. x, 246. ISBN: 1-85928-238-5.

Reviewed by:
Dianne Hall
University of Melbourne

Proscriptive literature aimed at women is often one of the few sources available to access women's lives in early medieval Europe. It is because of this that often-difficult texts such as penitentials and rules for nuns have assumed such importance among historians of early medieval women. Smith does not mine the texts she has chosen for what they might tell us about women's lives, and is explicit that the texts cannot do this. What she aims to do and does admirably is to examine each text closely, in its context, and then analyse its contents. As such this book substantially succeeds in its aims.

The book is divided into two sections, one for penitentials and one for nunnery rules. Each section commences with a chapter outlining the authorship, context of composition and transmission of each text. There are then two chapters in each section analysing the content of the textual groups. This is a sensible and easy to follow organisation of the material, though it does mean that some sections are rather descriptive.

Developments in penitential literature are followed from the early Irish texts, through the various Anglo-Saxon examples, including the ones ascribed to Bede, to the handbooks produced on the Continent such as Halitgar's ninth-century compilation and that of Burchard in the early eleventh century.

The substantive chapters on penance analyse how the penitentials deal with firstly sexuality, then with work and magic. As is abundantly clear from any reading of penitentials, the authors were concerned to ensure that priests using the texts had adequate information to hear confessions for the many troubling variations in human sexuality. Smith takes us through the various penitentials' attitudes to marriage, abduction, monogamy, deviant sexuality, as well as the sexuality of nuns. Smith's analysis suggests that these texts were not more concerned with female sexuality than male, and that the texts were part of an ongoing negotiation between clergy and laity to reformulate human sexuality along more Christian lines (70).

Her chapter on work and magic gives some interesting insights into the relationships between pre-Christian practices and the ways that Christian clergy viewed them, particularly as they related to women. The types of work and magic that Smith has identified are childcare, contraception and abortion, healthcare, love magic, food preparation, textile work, funeral practices and intentional evil magic. Her discussion of some of these is rather brief. I would, for example, have liked more information on funerary practices, where the references in penitentials are some of the few sources available on this aspect of social history.

The second and longer section of the book is on nunnery rules of the early medieval period. This section is an important contribution to the study of religious women in medieval Europe, as although the nunnery rules have been discussed in varying degrees of detail individually or as small sections in longer studies of nuns and convents, this is an extended analysis of the rules themselves. As such it will be welcome and necessary reading for any future researchers of medieval nuns and their convents.

Like the first section, the section on nunnery rules starts with a history of the rules and the contexts of their composition. This section is strongest when collating the background for each of the important nunnery rules, Caesarius of Arles, Augustine of Hippo, and Benedict's Rule, as well as some other more minor rules, such as that of Donatus of Besancon. A history of these rules, with specific emphasis on the expectations for women expressed in them is a most useful addition to the historiography of early medieval religious women. The section is less strong on the contexts for women's monasticism in individual geographical areas, where Smith has relied rather heavily on McNamara's monumental Sisters in Arms. This means that some of the nuances of the contexts of the convents for women have been smoothed over. Ireland is one example, where McNamara and Smith have relied on analyses of Irish monasticism that have been recently challenged. While this does not alter the value of the synthesis that Smith presents, it would have been even more helpful if she had been able to consult new works on the Irish context such as those by Colm Etchingham on Irish episcopal organisation or Christina Harrington on early medieval Irish religious women.

Perhaps the most fully developed and interesting chapter of this book is the one on enclosure, which uses the nunnery rules, and other texts such as vitae to sketch out textual evidence for the physical spaces of nunneries, reinforcing the inner spaces that the rules prescribe. Her analysis of the variations in expectations of enclosure in the early nunnery rules will inform discussions and analyses of the later thirteenth century changes to the rules of enclosure of nuns introduced by Boniface VIII. This chapter will prove especially valuable as there are more archaeological excavations of nunnery sites, when it will become possible to compare the physical remains of nunnery spaces with the expectations that were outlined in the rules.

The final substantive chapter is on the categories of work and abstinence in the various nunnery rules. In this chapter, Smith examines varieties of abstinence that are outlined in the rules, such as detachment from the secular world, relinquishment of status, poverty, avoidance of friendship, silence, simplicity of dress and fasting and food. Here her comparison of the rules and of their different proscriptions on these topics is clearly set out and again gives well-rounded background to the rules themselves. The section on work within the nunnery examines work in terms of prayer, domestic labour, reading and copying of manuscripts. While she makes some conclusions on the application of the rules, again this section will be most useful as background for further research on early medieval nunneries in their individual contexts. This section concludes with an examination on the provision for the different offices within nunneries, including the election and conduct of superiors.

In the early years of researching women's religious experiences in the medieval period, pioneering studies were conducted over wide geographical areas. More recently there has been a trend to more closely focussed studies of one geographical area, allowing for more nuanced contextual discussion. What such closely focussed studies often lose is the capacity for analysing the women and their religious practice within the wider context of European Christendom. Ordering women's lives is a welcome addition to the history of early medieval Europe because Smith takes texts from broad geographical areas and examines them together. This allows her to offer interesting and significant comparisons between the texts. It also means that future studies can use her wide ranging synthesis to situate closely focussed and detailed study of individual geographical areas or groups of religious women.

Article Details

Author Biography

Dianne Hall

University of Melbourne