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13.10.18, Brown & Bussell, eds., Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture

13.10.18, Brown & Bussell, eds., Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture

In recent years a great deal has been written about the literacy of medieval women in general, what they read, whether inside or outside houses of religion, their ownership of books and patronage of authors. Here, Barking Abbey provides a focus on one institution and its contribution to medieval literary culture. The nuns of Barking were an impressive group of women in early Anglo-Saxon England: Aldhelm dedicated his prose De virginitate to its long-lived second abbess Hildelith and nine other nuns, naming among them a relation of his own, Osburg, and commending the excellence of the Latin in a letter sent to him; Boniface passed on to Eadburga, abbess of Thanet or of Wimbourne, details of terrifying otherworld visions he'd had from Hildelith; and Bede, in his Historia, devotes three chapters to them and their double house, a renowned centre of learning and sanctity. They enter historical records with satisfying solidity, based in a monastery founded by Erkenwald, bishop of London, for his sister Ethelburg. With the Viking raids of the mid-eighth-century, they seem to fade away, although some argue that a reduced community continued to exist. The period of the English Benedictine reform saw the establishment of a religious house for women which flourished until its dissolution in 1539. Throughout its history, Barking Abbey drew in noblewomen, princesses and queens, it attracted sizeable endowments, and it was among the three richest communities of women both in the Domesday reckoning of 1086 and in the 1530s.

The collection of specialist articles edited here is expertly topped and tailed. In a fine introductory essay (1-30), Donna Alfano Bussell and Jennifer N. Brown discuss the history of the abbey and its abbesses, giving particular attention in a substantial section of their essay (12-26) to books known to have been at Barking. They survey the evidence assembled by David N. Bell and Mary C. Erler, and point out that at one time the abbey even had an armarium dedicated to storing books. This section provides information that usefully complements the many references to books in the essays that follow. We learn that Latin remained in use well into the fourteenth century. Religious and liturgical texts were actively organized, compiled and revised at Barking, and the abbey's Ordinale and Customary affords a glimpse of the life of worship. Evidence for vernacular writings begins in the thirteenth century, with two large collections in French, followed by five miscellanies, mostly in English, from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The nuns of Barking were up-to-date in their devotional reading, Wycliffite texts were among their holdings, and they were prepared to buy printed books. In the later middle ages they used English, French and Latin for writing history and poetry and very likely placed importance on the teaching of French. Bussell and Brown note that in the late fourteenth-century there was an Elizabeth Chausir (or Chaucey) among the nuns, but are too circumspect to identify her as the poet's daughter.

The papers are divided into three roughly chronological sections. First there are four papers relating to the Abbey's Anglo-Saxon Context. Stephanie Hollis, "Barking's Monastic School, Late Seventh to Twelfth Century: History, Saint-Making and Literary Culture" (33-55), moves through the long Anglo-Saxon period, from the early double monastery through to Goscelin's rewriting of the lives of two early abbesses Ethelburg and Hildelith and of Wulfhild, the founding abbess in Edgar's reign. It is chastening to reflect that from all this long period only one piece of Old English remains from Barking Abbey: a list of lands added late in the eleventh century or early in the twelfth century on the last leaf of a Gospels (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 155). Hildelith's Barking is examined in Lisa M. C. Weston's "The Saint-Maker and the Saint: Hildelith Creates Ethelburg" (56-72). Here the likely contents of the libellus sent to Bede are skilfully teased out. There's a thoughful assessment too of the Erkenwald Charter, extant only in Jocelyn's transcript. Although Goscelin appears to single out Hildelith in his lecciones, Weston points out that the leccionesare much better known for their account of the 870 destruction of the abbey, in which no names are given. Barking's mid-ninth-century residents were apparently "unnamable" in Goscelin's day (72). Kay Slocum, in "Goscelin of Saint-Bertin and the Translation Ceremony for Saints Ethelburg, Hildelith and Wulfhild" (73-93), looks more closely at the lives and lecciones commissioned from Goscelin, dealing with their liturgical use. The fourth chapter, Thomas O'Donnell's "'The ladies have made me quite fat': Authors and Patrons at Barking Abbey" (94-114), evokes the generosity of Barking's patronage of peripatetic authors such as Goscelin, Guernes and Osbert of Clare, and creates a wider picture of Barking's affiliations, arguing that the abbey was among "premier literary milieux in twelfth-century England" and pointing out that it is the only identifiable post-Conquest nunnery known to have had among its sisters one who "penned creative work still extant" (113).

The six papers of the second section focus in on the abbey's Anglo-Norman context. Delbert Russell, "'Sun num n'i vult dire a ore': Identity Matters at Barking Abbey" (117-34), provides a new assessment of the authorship of the anonymous Vie d'Edouard le confesseur. Arguing that the unnamed nun's "modesty is false rather than her French" (127), she presents the case for Clemence as its author. To the three manuscript witnesses to Clemence's Vie de St Catherine should be added an extract noted on p. 257 by Stevenson.) In "'Ce qu'ens li trovat, eut en sei': On the Equal Chastity of Queen Edith and King Edward in the Nun of Barking's La Vie d'Edouard le confesseur" (135-44), Thelma Fenster explores the content of the life, highlighting Edith's wish to live "chastement", and compares later lives, one commissioned by Edith herself and those written by Osbert of Clare and Aelred. Jennifer N. Brown, "Body, Gender, and Nation in the Lives of Edward the Confessor" (145-63), also homes in on the Edward lives, but discusses the changing emphases in the miracle stories they contain. In "Clemence and Catherine: The Life of St Catherine in its Norman and Anglo-Norman Context" (164-82), Diane Auslander argues that Clemence develops the legend's implicit conflict between religious and secular power, with the Emperor Maxentius doubling for Henry II. She suggests that "most of her [Clemence's] audience would recognize Henry in the vie and would sympathize with her portrayal of their mercurial and heavy-handed king" (182). For Donna Alfano Bussell, "Cicero, Aelred and Guernes: The Politics of Love in Clemence of Barking's Catherine" (183-209), the Catherine life resonates with images of the martyrdom of Becket found in the Vie by Guernes. Her careful analysis looks to Aelred of Rievaulx's discusion of spiritual friendship, but within a political framework. The final paper in Section II, Emma Bérat's The Authority of Diversity: Communal Patronage in Le Gracial (210-32), moves outside the closely interknit materials of the preceding five essays. Le Gracial, the first French translation of Marian stories, could have been read by the nuns of Barking, although there is nothing to prove that the "dame Mahaut" once named was necessarily the abbess of c. 1175. The author, Adgar (when signed with the cross) or William (as baptised) was at St Paul's, affiliated with Barking, and other links are put forward, among them the happy thought that some of the daughters fathered by the cathedral's twelfth-century canons could have been parked out in Barking. Wherever Le Gracial was read, and later Middle English notes in one copy show that some of its miracles were selected for reading aloud on particular feast days, it was undoubtedly a popular collection.

Three papers make up Section III's picture of Barking Abbey in the later middle ages. The accounts examined in Alexandra Barrett, "Keeping Body and Soul Together: The Charge to the Barking Cellaress" (235-44), were drawn up after 1453. The house then had an abbess and forty-one nuns (the statutory number was thirty-nine). Their life style was not as lavish as that enjoyed by the monks of Westminster, but it was a "well ordered community" (243), where "the bookshelves were almost as well stocked as the larder" (241). The cellaress kept a good kitchen; there was beef, mutton and pork, and money for treats--not just for crisps and crumkakes at Shrove. Orderliness is a hallmark too of the 1404 Ordinale and Customary, which Jill Stevenson, "Rhythmic Liturgy, Embodiment and Female Authority in Barking's Easter Plays" (245-66), investigates for hints of dramatic performance and argues that the service for the Visitatio sepulchri is the "most developed" for performance (249). Tellingly, she points to possible elements of disorder: in 1279 the archbishop of Canterbury was worried about the part played by children in church ludi; and in 1308 the bishop of London complained about wrestling matches and inappropriate dancing. Katharine of Sutton, abbess from 1358, she sees as behind the Easter Plays. And in Clemence's Catherine, she finds elements of rhymicality that would have been "especially evident and even palpable" when read aloud (259). Finally, Anne Bagnall Yardley, "Liturgy as the Site of Creative Engagement: Contributions of the Nuns of Barking" (267-82), offers a close reading of the Barking Ordinale, sussing out how generations of nuns tweaked and added to the liturgy that governed their daily lives.

The well constructed volume should attract a wide readership. I spotted few literals: for example an odd spelling "co-existance" (14) and an unfilled cross reference "p. oo" for p. 16 (19) have escaped eagle eyes. The thirty-nine manuscripts listed on the first page of the Bibliography (297-324) are at odds with the total of forty-one to be found embedded in the Index (325-34); both lists identify London, British Library, Cotton MS Otho A. v and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 923 incompletely. But these are minor slips. The Afterword by Jocelyn Wogan-Brown, "Barking and the Historiography of Female Community" (283-96) provides a fitting conclusion to an excellent collection of papers. It opens with an account of a 1931 pageant mounted to celebrate Barking's history, its eight scenes disproportionately centred on the Abbey's Anglo-Saxon history--an imbalance the present book goes a long way to redress. Wogan-Browne considers the relative lack of modern historical writing about Barking Abbey and the surprising fact that for archaeological evidence we are for the most part still reliant on the excavations carried out by Sir Alfred Clapham in 1911. She points out that the books known to have belonged to house of religious women in the later Middle Ages compare badly with the holdings on wealthy male houses and dramatically so with continental houses. Yet, Barking Abbey was a well-established centre of worship and learning, it had extended networks of patronage and affiliations, links with London, the culture of the royal court and particularly with St Paul's. As Wogan-Browne points out in her concluding sentence (296), "the literary history begun in the present volume offers an important key" to future examinations of the Abbey's history.