05.01.41, Beach, Women as Scribes

Main Article Content

Richard W. Clement

The Medieval Review baj9928.0501.041


Beach, Alison I.. Women as Scribes: Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria. Series: Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology, vol. 10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xiv, 198. ISBN: 0-521-79243-6.

Reviewed by:
Richard W. Clement
University of Kansas

This slim volume in the Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology series combines traditional palaeograpical and codicological analyses of a corpus of manuscripts produced in monastic scriptoria with the larger issues of the history of monasticism and reform. Furthermore, the author is concerned with issues of gender, specifically the place of women in scriptoria and their influence. This book is derived from the author's 1996 Columbia University PhD dissertation, The Female Scribes of Twelfth-Century Bavaria.

The author concentrates on three near-contemporary monastic houses in Bavaria, chosen because significant numbers of manuscripts survive from their respective libraries and because significant evidence exists that many of these books were produced by women. The first of these is the monastery of Wessobrunn, situated in the diocese of Augsburg between the Amer and Lech rivers. During the first half of the twelfth century, Wessobrun was home to Diemut, a Benedictine inclusa, who was very active as a scribe and played a significant role in building the library collection at Wessobrun. Beach paints a remarkable image of this woman who lived a deeply spiritual life rigorously separated from the secular world, who devoted her whole life to making books. We are fortunate to have two lists of the books in the library, one dating from not long after Diemut's death and the second from the early thirteenth century. The lists are fascinating in what they tell us about which books were considered important for a contemporary monastic library and the influence of various reform movements on book selection. Fourteen of the manuscripts listed are extant in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich and all show evidence of Diemut's hand. Beach meticulously sets out the palaeographical characteristics of Diemut's hand, identifies several other anonymous nun-scribes, and analyses each codex in terms of scribal collaboration and codicological features. She concludes that the conservative nature of the works selected by Diemut (or perhaps for Diemut) emphasize a continued connection to the Gorze reform in spite of the official connection to the Hirsau reform.

The second monastic house considered by the author is the Benedictine community of Admont on the Enns River in the archdiocese of Salzburg. At Admont, the nuns were very strictly cloistered, and there was no direct contact between men and women. The nuns had their own school and several of the women are known to have authored texts of biblical exegesis and other subjects. They also had a library distinct from the monks' library, and about 200 twelfth-century manuscripts (from both libraries) survive, still in situ in Admont. Unfortunately there is no inventory of the nun's library and only a single book contains an inscription indicating it belonged to the nuns. Nonetheless, Beach skillfully works with two book lists of the men's library compiled in the 14th century and the extant books still in the Admont library to create a list of twelve manuscripts that probably were part of the women's library. As part of her analysis of the Admont manuscripts, Beach is able to identify several nun scribes through paleographical style and determine patterns of collaboration. She concludes that the Admont nuns were full participants at all levels (as scribes, readers, preachers, and biblical commentators) in the intellectual world of the reformed monastery (under the Hirsau reform).

The third monastic house considered in this study is the Premonstratensian community of Schäftlarn on the Isar River in the diocese of Freising. During the twelfth century, book production was a very highly valued activity of Schäftlarn, an activity that the nuns also participated in. Here too, the women were cloistered, but Beach has uncovered some evidence indicating that men and women collaborated on some manuscripts, which she suggests point to a more relaxed policy of segregation of the sexes. Indeed, she is able to demonstrate that at least two of the female scribes worked under the direction of the head of the men's scriptorium. Sixty-six Schäftlarn manuscripts from this period survive in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich and Beach has meticulously analyzed ten of these books which she has identified as having been copied by women scribes. She has carefully considered their palaeographical and codicological features to demonstrate the significant and collaborative nature of the nun's scriptorial work. Beach concludes that within the context of the Premonstratensian community, these women scribes performed a very specialized form of labor, but were not full participants in the intellectual life of the monastery.

Alison Beach has certainly expanded our knowledge of the role of women as scribes in these three centers in twelfth-century Bavaria and her palaeographical and codicological analyses are meticulous. This, in and of itself, represents a significant contribution, but Beach has promised more. Through her close analysis of book production by women scribes in these centers she is able to show the central role that women played in responding to the increased need for books, stimulated by the various reform movements. And thus she is able to point to the important part that women played in the twelfth-century monastic reformation.

Article Details

Author Biography

Richard W. Clement

University of Kansas