03.05.05, Erler, Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England

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Jane Chance

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.005


Erler, Mary C.. Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 226. ISBN: 0-521-81221-6.

Reviewed by:
Jane Chance
Rice University

Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England opens a window into medieval women's reading: the "circumstances under which reading took place -- not merely what was read" -- meaning that Mary C. Erler explores the lives and networks of women who read within the larger context of the history of the book in the Middle Ages (6). To write her biographies, Erler actually looks at the material culture of women's reading -- codicology -- through those books listing women's names and marks, although she also turns to wills, bibliography, and biography wherever available. By relaying the lives of seven women who lived between 1350 and 1550, Erler illustrates the types of reading available to widows and nuns, that is, those most likely to make wills and thereby to document book ownership or book reading. Because of the lack of evidence about married or young women both married and unmarried, Erler, unfortunately, cannot include any analysis of their libraries and reading (3).

What was different about women readers between 1350-1550? Certainly books circulated among both male and female religious friends. Also true of both men and women was that the religious life was becoming more worldly. Yet the practices associated with women separated them from men: while requests for prayers in books of hours were true for men and women, more often implied in books given by women was a relationship involving female mentoring and tutelage as well as an equality of exchange reflected in loans or gifts of devotional works by widows, anchoresses, nuns, and vowesses (137). Books were often given on the day of religious profession, either service books (service books might include a missal, an antiphon, a troparium, or a book of collects) or spiritual texts like The Scale of Perfection. Women generally made more book gifts to other women than did men; donors made more written requests for prayers (137). Indeed, what Erler is chiefly interested in is friendships among women.

Among the different types of women whose lives Erler documents through books owned and/or read, there is London vowess Margery de Nerford (chap. 2); Norwich widow Margaret Purdans (chap. 3); the three Ferryplace sisters (Dorothy, Susan, and Eleanor) -- stepsisters of Sir Thomas Elyot and a combination of two nuns and a vowess -- at the Bridgettine abbey of Syon (chap. 4); and finally, Norwich Dominican friary anchoress Katharine Manne and Cambridgeshire Poor Claire abbess Elizabeth Throckmorton (chap. 5). Only four of these women actually owned books -- Eleanor and Dorothy Fettyplace, Throckmorton, and "perhaps" de Nerford (3). The other women left wills or histories. Most interesting of these is the very competent vowess Susan Ferryplace Kyngeston, to whom we shall return.

In addition to the lives of seven women, Erler looks at the general pattern of book ownership and transmission in religious communities (chap. 1) and then, at the end, female ownership of early printed religious books (chap. 6). In three appendices she lists, first, those women's religious books that survived but that do not appear in Neil R. Ker, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain: A List of Surviving Books (2nd ed., London, 1964); and in the continuation by A. G. Watson, who edited the Supplement to Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (London, 1987); or in David N. Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, 1995). Second, Erler records multiple book ownership by religious women; and third, extant incunabula copies owned by women. Included also are a bibliography, an index of manuscripts, and an index to the book as well as thirteen illustrations.

In this well-researched monograph, Erler assimilates, analyzes, and continues the groundbreaking work on medieval female reading practices begun by Mary Bateson, who edited the Catalogue of the Library of Syon Monastery, Isleworth (Cambridge, 1898); Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, 1922); and Margaret Aston, Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion (London, 1984), as well as the many recent articles, books, and dissertations about medieval women's reading, lives, and book ownership by Anne Clark Bartlett, Julia Boffey, Susan H. Cavanaugh, Alexandra Barratt, Caroline M. Barron, T. A. Birrell, C. H. Cooper, P. J. Croft, Christopher de Hamel, Anne M. Dutton, A. S. G. Edwards, Barbara J. Harris, Carol Meal, Nigel Morgan, Catherine Paxton, Susan Powell, Elizabeth Robertson, Jane Tibbetts Schulenberg, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Christine Weightman, Anne K. Warren, Jennifer C. Ward, and Sue Sheridan Walker.

Erler's conclusions from what can be quantified (discussed 134-38) are that few differences existed between the lives of secular and religious women; that bequests of books to women's houses changed in nature between 1349 and 1501, from those liturgically supportive to nonliturgical and devotional; that the shared readership interest of lay and religious women primarily occurred in devotional reading; and that the advent of printing such books suggests increased female interest in reading, especially of more exclusively personal and devotional religious books.

More speculatively, Erler notes that women readers might cause controversy by what they read or supported. The kinds of books women chose tended to reflect an anxiety on the part of their authors or translators about the tradition of religious culture and the nature of the church as opposed to a concern for justice and deprivation (in other words, concern for the visible church versus concern for the believers). Most important, their names recorded in certain books could involve the woman reader in controversies of the day, as exemplified by the dedication of one book, Swete and Deuote Sermon of Mortalitie (a translation of the sermon by St. Cyprian), to Susan Kyngeston by her stepbrother Sir Thomas Elyot in 1534 -- at a time after the dissolution of the monasteries during Thomas More's troubles and the execution of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, for advising the king against remarriage (87-89). But other controversies involved these women through book reading and ownership: most specifically, the reading of a first edition of The Obedience of a Christian Man (Antwerp, 1528) given to Anchoress Katherine Manne by Cambridge reformer Thomas Bilney (which means she may have participated at least intellectually in the theological and political struggles of the 1520s and 1530s (101); and the ownership of a Wycliffite glossed psaltery by Margery de Nerford (see chap. 2).

What we think of as "biography" is not Erler's interest. Her biographical essays tend to focus on issues such as book ownership, donation, and inscription, female friendships, the specific woman's religious or ecclesiastical status, and the like. What linked these women were family connections, connections with clerics, or the community to which they belonged -- either a natal family, an interest group, or a religious institution (136). What may be surprising to contemporary readers is the paucity of books owned or bequeathed -- and the paucity of religious women book owners and their communities within England during this time period. Margery de Nerford, the London vowess, owned twenty-five books, most of which she left to an anchorite, Margery Pensax (48); Margaret Purdons of Norwich gave four books to women or women's monasteries and two psalters to men (68); Eleanor Fettystone's signature appears on four books, two of which were associated with her after the dissolution.

Of course, also true at this time is that women's houses, according to J. C. Russell, were poorer and fewer in number than men's -- generally, only one out of four belonged to women in 1377-81 (2,054 nuns to 8,564 men) (29). In addition, most housed twelve nuns or less -- some had as many as twenty, however (30). Most significant were those Benedictine names Powers mentions: Wessex, Shaftesbury, Wilton, St. Mary's Winchester, Ramsey and Wherwell, and Barking in Essex (all Anglo-Saxon foundations). There was also the Dominican house of Danford in Kent, established 1327-43; the Bridgettine house of Syon (ca. 1415); the Franciscan house of Denny in Cambridgeshire; the London minoresses; and perhaps Carrow and Campsey in East Anglia. All religious houses did own some service books, from twenty-four (all liturgical) at Easebourne, Sussex, according to a 1450 inventory, to forty-eight at Syon (not including twelve owned by the sisters or brothers in this double house) (35-36).

Erler is most interested in extraliturgical reading, whose extensiveness depends upon the date of the foundation of the house, its wealth, and its spirituality in general (31). The highest number of extraliturgical books belonged to Syon (sixty-seven to sixty-eight), followed by Barking (fifteen), Dartford (eleven), Shaftesbury and Amesbury (seven), London Minoresses (six), St. Mary Winchester and Campsey (five), and Tarrant Keynston and Wherwell (four) (36-37). Others had just one book (37). By the dissolution of 1531, Erler notes an end to religious women's institutional book collections in England (38).

As the fourteenth century gave way to the fifteenth and then the sixteenth centuries, books owned and bequeathed by women became increasingly popular, although the type of book donated changed. As far as nun's libraries are concerned, between 1349 and 1501 there were twenty-nine gifts made; by the fifteenth century, gifts to nunneries doubled in comparison to those of the fourteenth century (twenty versus nine) (38). The new devotional slant (replacing the liturgical book) to the favorite books of religious women is reflected in the names: the Prick of Conscience (ca. 1350), Vices and Virtues (1375); Chastising of God's Children (1382-1402), Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Life of Christ (ca. 1410). All of these were English works, connected with women, and were given by women to women (40). In the latter half of the fifteenth century, most popular among bequests were books of hours, Rolle's English Psalter (1467), and the Pater Noster.

One explanation for the relative ease in tracking book exchanges in late medieval England involves geography. Because some of the most important houses were within twenty miles of one another -- for example, Shaftesbury, Ramsey, Winchester, Wherwell, Amesbury, and Wilton (43) -- book exchange between women became easier to monitor. Books "widely owned" at the dissolution included Love's Mirror, Orchard of Syon, and the Chastising of God's Children.

Erler's careful research and documentation allow her to offer equally careful, limited, and circumscribed conclusions about women's literacy and power in late medieval England, a topic she has pursued in an earlier coedited collection of essays about medieval Europe, Women and Power in the Middle Ages (1988). Underlying the foundation of her scholarship throughout both books is a reiterated truth about women who read, write, and own books: they attain significant power, often by virtue of an ecclesiastical vow or profession that demands chastity, and they influence those -- both men and women -- in the communities which they inhabit. While it is true the widows, nuns, abbesses, and vowesses whose book ownerships and dedications she traces here belonged either to gentry or to aristocracy and were essentially part of a traditional church, in several of these cases they were part of an intellectual community with connections to the religious resistance associated with church reform and even Lollardy and other forms of dissident acts. Or, as Erler puts it so elegantly, the accounts "reveal the presence of women as intellectual participants in the tense debates just before the break with Rome" (100). Indeed, the very memory of these women has been preserved in large part because of their book ownership or connection and testifies to a continuing legacy of women's history that has now -- thanks to this valuable book -- become part of our understanding of medieval history in general. Her genius here is to make manifest the facts that lie hidden within the lines of the book dedications, donations, and ownerships and thereby recover women's lives and histories. As Erler points out, the door is opened for further study of codicology and other facets of material culture to determine how what might have seemed only a private reading practice by women has indeed become part of a public record that will yield further insights into the history of women.

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Jane Chance

Rice University