16.10.14, Blanton, et al., eds., Nuns' Literacies in Medieval Europe

Main Article Content

Michelle Herder

The Medieval Review 16.10.14

Blanton, Virginia, Veronica O'Mara and Patricia Stoop, eds. Nuns' Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Kansas City Dialogue. Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, 27. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. 413. ISBN: 978-2-503-54922-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michelle Herder
Cornell College

This volume, the second in a series, is also the proceedings from the second in a series of conferences on nuns' literacies. As the title suggests, this particular conference took place in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2012. Though the work builds upon and responds to the papers presented in the first conference (held in 2011 at the University of Hull and published previously as Nuns' Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Hull Dialogues, I will confine my review to this volume. (The third volume in the series is still forthcoming.)

The introduction nevertheless includes a helpful review of the previous volume's contents, which helps to contextualize the work presented here, and offers working definitions of the key terms "nun," "medieval," and "literacy." In particular, the contributors have interpreted "literacy" broadly and flexibly. They focus here on religious women's engagement with texts; these are, variously, Latin texts, vernacular texts, art treated as visual text, literary texts, devotional texts, as well as charters and other practical texts. The result is a collection of essays of considerable breadth and creativity, illustrating what can be done even with the limited source materials available from women's religious communities, and opening up a wide range of questions and paths of further exploration. This is an important collection and an important series for those interested in medieval women, religious communities, literacy, and textual engagement throughout the Middle Ages. Any reader interested in these topics is likely to find stimulating and engaging work here.

It is also, however, a collection with some limitations. Although the seventeen essays collected here show considerable geographical breadth, there is a distinct slant toward northern Europe (four essays deal with German lands, four with England, two with the Low Countries, one with Sweden, one with Iceland, and one with Ireland; two address Italy and two Spain. Oddly, none focuses on France). The majority of the essays also deal with the later Middle Ages; fully eleven focus on the fourteenth, fifteenth, or sixteenth centuries. To some extent, this is to be expected, given the greater survival of source material from later periods, and yet, of the remaining six essays, three deal with eighth- or ninth-century material, leaving just three more to address the entire period between 1000 and 1300.

The book is nicely produced and well-bound; it includes several pages of full-color plates, as well as black and white illustrations interspersed in the text. The apparatus is substantial, including a valuable, up-to-date bibliography, as well as indices of manuscripts, texts, individuals, and convents mentioned throughout the volume.

Though it is always difficult to do justice to a collection of essays, especially one of such breadth and depth, I will offer brief notes on each essay (organized under five headings) and the themes that link them.

Under the heading "Educating the Sisters," four essays explore evidence for women's literacy in communal settings. Virginia Blanton and Helene Scheck, in "Leoba and the Iconography of Learning in the Lives of Anglo-Saxon Women Religious, 660-780," argue persuasively that Anglo-Saxon women religious were expected to serve as teachers and scholars within their communities, both in England and on the Continent, proving instrumental in establishing Anglo-Saxon religious culture on the Continent. Ulrike Wiethaus, "Collaborative Literacy and the Spiritual Education of Nuns at Helfta," emphasizes that though the texts we associate with Helfta are usually attributed to one or another of the renowned mystics living there, they were in fact largely the products of collaboration among the nuns. Wiethaus also discusses how the texts blend vernacular and Latinate literacy, as well as oral and written learning, into a new composite, reflecting the nuns' deep engagement with each other as well as their texts. Patricia Stoop echoes similar themes in "From Reading to Writing: The Multiple Levels of Literacy of the Sister Scribes in the Brussels Convent of Jericho," arguing not only that the convent of Jericho served as a hub for manuscript copying in the region, but also that the sisters there developed a coherent communal style, making it difficult to trace manuscripts to a single copyist. Andrea Knox, "Her Book-Lined Cell: Irish Nuns and the Development of Texts, Translation, and Literacy in Late Medieval Spain," explores the role of early modern Irish nuns in forming communities and schools in Spain, though she does not fully address what relationship these Irish women had with existing Spanish monastic culture.

In the section "Nuns Making Their Letters," three essays show the rewards of careful work on manuscripts. Antonella Ambrosio and Nils Dverstorp use palaeographical analysis of single texts in their essays. Ambrosio, in "Literacy in Neapolitan Women's Convents: An Example of Female Handwriting in a Late Fifteenth-Century Accounts Ledger", argues that the hand in question is that of a novice writer, probably a woman who could not write before entering the convent, but who successfully learned writing and account-keeping for her work within the convent. In "Step by Step: The Process of Writing a Manuscript in the Female Convent of Vadstena," Dverstorp examines changes in the scribal hand over time, which, he argues, can show how the manuscript was written and corrected. Veronica O'Mara takes a different approach, examining a range of evidence for English nuns' literacy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, surveying several late medieval devotional texts possibly intended for nuns. Though she admits that some conclusions are speculative, O'Mara offers valuable reflections comparing English nuns to those in Germany and the Low Countries. This examination of the peculiarities and commonalities of different regional cultures provokes numerous questions, which one hopes future research will address.

The essays under "Visualizing Meaning" turn toward the use of images and illustrated texts. In "Implications for Female Monastic Literacy in the Reliefs from St. Liudger's at Werden," Karen Blough examines a fragmentary eleventh-century relief from a community of monks at Werden, arguing that it depicts religious women in conversation, possibly teaching and learning, and that the likeliest inspiration would have been the house of canonesses at nearby Essen. Loretta Vandi, in "The Visual Vernacular: The Construction of Communal Literacy at the Convent of Santa Maria in Pontetetto (Lucca)," analyzes a group of manuscripts attributed to the small and short-lived scriptorium at Pontetetto. Vandi suggests that these manuscripts are distinctive in both illustration and copying style, qualities which served the needs of the nuns around the turn of the twelfth century, but are unlike mainstream manuscripts from Lucca. Since this is one of the few essays dealing with Italy, a more thorough discussion of Pontetetto's foundation and social context would have been helpful, though Vandi's arguments are intriguing. Anne Winston-Allen, too, discusses idiosyncratic qualities of women's manuscript copying in "Outside the Mainstream: Women as Readers, Scribes, and Illustrators of Books in Convents of the German-Speaking Regions." Here she points out that, though mainstream book-copying in Germany shifted from men's monasteries to secular workshops in the late Middle Ages, women often continued to copy manuscripts for their own use, including a number of characteristic decorative motifs (such as depicting the nuns themselves within liturgical texts).

Four essays under the heading "Engaging with Texts" explore a range of texts and their meanings. Maeve Callan, "Líadain's Lament, Darerca's Life, and Íte's Isucan: Evidence for Nuns' Literacies in Early Ireland," discusses the difficulty of exploring early Irish texts at all, given that most are anonymous and survive only in later copies, spurring active debates about their authorship and authenticity. She nonetheless analyzes several texts in both Latin and Irish, arguing for female authorship based on the themes and perspectives of these texts. Svanhildur Oskarsdottir, "What Icelandic Nuns Read: The Convent of Reynistadur and the Literary Milieu in Fourteenth-Century Iceland," briefly surveys the foundations of nunneries in Iceland before similarly analyzing the contents of several Icelandic manuscripts, arguing that these were intended for use at women's communities. In "Daily Life, Amor Dei, and Politics in the Letters of the Benedictine Nuns of Lüne in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries," Eva Schlotheuber discusses a collection of nearly 1800 letters, which illuminate much about the nuns' relationships with both secular and religious authorities, as well as how the women responded to the pressures of Protestant reformers. Kees Schepers, "A Web of Texts: Sixteenth-Century Mystical Culture and the Arnhem Sint-Agnes Convent," discusses the revival of Catholic mysticism in the Low Countries, arguing that the convent of Arnhem formed the center of a lively network of copying and discussion, similar to Helfta's role in an earlier era. Schepers analyzes several mystical texts and a collection of sermons linked both to Arnhem and to each other through similarities in religious vocabulary.

In the final section, "Literary Agency," three essays examine the uses of texts, both practical and propagandistic. Andrew Rabin, "Courtly Habits: Monastic Women's Legal Literacy in Early Anglo-Saxon England," examines how eighth-century Anglo-Saxon women navigated legal and administrative problems through the use of texts. Rabin observes that Anglo-Saxon laws typically viewed nuns as "victims in potentia" rather than as active agents, but he also surveys women's possession and use of charters in legal cases, showing the importance of access to documents and courts. Emilie Amt, in "Making their Mark: The Spectrum of Literacy among Godstow's Nuns, 1400-1550," explores the evidence for literacy at Godstow, singled out for criticism in Eileen Power's well-known study of English nunneries. Amt argues that Power was overly critical of nuns' lack of Latin and ignored evidence for robust English-language literacy among the nuns, signaled by the existence of an English cartulary and several devotional texts. Amt also discusses the scattered evidence for book ownership among English nunneries. She concludes that such evidence is easy to overlook, and also that a spectrum of literacy likely existed at many convents, ranging from those who could read, write, and copy at a high level, to those who could read but not write. Amt's article is particularly useful in combination with O'Mara's, which overlaps it in both place and time. Finally, Darcy Donahue's "The Personal and the Political: Ana de San Bartolomé's Version of the Discalced Carmelite Reform" examines the life and writing of Ana de San Bartolomé, Teresa of Ávila's secretary and a leader of the Discalced Carmelite reform in her own right. Ana, said to have acquired the skill of writing miraculously, wrote with confidence as Teresa's intimate and successor; Donahue argues that Ana's chronicles and short biographies of nuns, besides being vivid and personal, aimed to assert a clear vision of the early reformed order.

As a whole, these essays demonstrate a thought-provoking range of approaches to the study of texts, literacy, and women's religious communities. Several themes weave among the various papers. Many of the essays emphasize the existence of a vibrant collaborative religious and textual culture at many nunneries, typically one which was focused internally, or which included a loose network of supportive individuals outside the cloister. Many essays also note the distinctive textual and illustrative elements which could mark such local and regional convent cultures. Several essays refer to the sporadic nature of such flourishing periods, due to the small size and poverty of many nunneries, as well as the external pressures placed upon them. Conversely, for many nuns, literacy might consist of reading, but not writing, or of vernacular knowledge, but little Latin; as Amt notes, the skills of reading and writing existed along a wide spectrum. Finally, the essays frequently note the ease of overlooking evidence for nuns' literacy, since anonymous texts have typically been attributed to men, the provenance of many manuscripts is obscured, and medieval criticisms of nuns' lack of learning are often taken at face value while the evidence for their learning is brushed aside. This collection, in all its variety, shows clearly that it is no longer possible to ignore the evidence for medieval nuns' active scholarship, book copying, and engagement with texts. The essays here open up a wide range of questions about these issues; there yet remains a great deal of archival material to delve into. Moreover, this volume only begins to ask and answer questions comparing literacy in different regions and periods. One hopes that this collection, as well as its predecessor and eventual successor, will stimulate a great deal of new scholarship in these areas.

Article Details