20.01.01 Blanton et al (eds.), Nuns’ Literacies in Medieval Europe

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Walter Simons

The Medieval Review 20.01.01

Blanton, Virginia, Veronica O'Mara, and Patricia Stoop, eds. Nuns’ Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Antwerp Dialogue. Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols , 2017. pp. lxvi, 502. ISBN: 978-2-503-55411-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Walter Simons
Dartmouth College

The work under review completes a three-volume set generated by three conferences organized by the editors at their home institutions: after Nuns' Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Hull Dialogue (University of Hull, 2011, published by Brepols in 2013), and Nuns' Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Kansas City Dialogue (University of Missouri--Kansas City, 2012, published by Brepols in 2015), the present volume, based on a conference held at the University of Antwerp in 2013, offers another nineteen essays exploring the uses of writing in communities of female religious. Whereas the first two volumes ranged widely in time from the seventh through sixteenth centuries, this one concentrates on the Late Middle Ages and beyond, dipping even into the seventeenth century. Like the previous volumes, it includes a collective bibliography as well as indices of people, convents, texts, manuscripts, documents, and incunabula. The book opens with a lengthy (65 pages) Introduction, which in addition to articulating the project's scholarly agenda and identifying its main themes, formulates a series of conclusions to cap the whole enterprise--more than fifty essays in all, by almost as many different contributors, resulting in about 1,400 pages of text.

The aim throughout was to examine how religious women engaged with Latin and vernacular texts in a variety of circumstances: formally and informally, collectively and individually, as readers and writers, as cloistered nuns or as semi-enclosed religious (beguines, tertiaries). The essays in this volume are grouped under four themes. In the first section on "Rules and Learning," Helene Scheck and Virginia Blanton examine the program for women's literacy set out in the vita of Leoba of Tauberbishofsheim by Rudolf of Fulda, and gauge its possible later uses in ninth-century Saxony. Julie Ann Smith looks at provisions about reading and writing in the thirteenth-century rules for nuns in the order of St Clare, Ann M. Hutchison at instructions for the use of books in the Birgittine abbey of Syon in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Patricia Stoop and Lisanne Vroomen at two manuscripts withReportationes of the sermons of Henricus Cool in the late sixteenth-century Carthusian nunnery of Sint-Anna-Ter-Woestijne near Bruges, while late medieval and sixteenth-century manuscripts and printed books for the instruction of so-called Franciscan tertiaries in the Low Countries are treated in essays by Alison More and Sabrina Corbellini.

Five essays gathered under the somewhat misleading heading "Literacy and Visualization" consider manuscripts as textual or visual representations of devotional life. Blanca Garí collects disparate but stimulating information on vernacular and Latin manuscripts used in eight Catalan convents between 1200 and 1500; essays by Eva Lindqvist Sandgren, Anne Mette Hansen, and Veronica O'Mara analyze prayer books and other manuscript materials in Birgittine convents of the fifteenth and sixteenth century; and Brian Richardson situates the library of the Augustinian convent of Santa Marta in Milan against the background of manuscript use by nuns in northern Italy around 1500.

In the first of four studies devoted to "Translating and Rewriting," Viktória Hedvig Deák traces the large number of Latin and vernacular manuscripts produced by or for Dominican nuns at the convent of St Margit (d. 1270) of Buda to the lasting appeal of their patron saint's vita in the late Middle Ages. Cate Gunn revisits French translations of Edmund of Abingdon's Speculum religiosorum, long thought to be written for nuns, to find that some of the manuscripts had male owners, even though textual passages assumed female readership. Catherine Innes-Parker demonstrates how a French prose translation of Bonaventure'sLignum vitae in a manuscript of the convent of Montmartre reflects the goals of Fontrevraudian reform in the early sixteenth century and more broadly, of Counter-Reformation spirituality. The section closes with a comparison, by Almut Breitenbach and Stefan Matter, of incunabula print and manuscript versions of the Schatzbehalter, a huge manual for meditation on Christ written by the Observant Franciscan Stephan Fridolin (d. 1498): while the printed edition of 1491 is centered around a series of ninety-six full-page woodcuts, three manuscripts of the work written at the Pütrich convent of Franciscan tertiaries in Munich in the early 1500s bear few or no illustrations at all, transforming the didactic treatise into textual exercises of personal meditation.

The last section, on "Exchange and Networks," investigates the circulation of books and texts among female religious. Using extracts made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of archival documents lost in the Second World War, Anne Jenny-Clark reveals how secular canonesses of Ste Waudru in Mons (Hainaut) around 1400 purchased liturgical manuscripts from the collegiate chapter for their own use and passed them down to other canonesses or had them returned to the chapter. Sara S. Poor identifies manuscripts of vernacular literature donated, loaned, or bequeathed to the Cistercian nuns of Kirchheim am Reis in Southern Germany by family members of Magdalena, the noble abbess active in reforming the convent at the end of the fifteenth century. Mary C. Erler draws attention to the role of the Birgittine convent of Mariëntroon at Dendermonde (Flanders) in the production and distribution of devotional woodcuts shortly before and after 1500; many of these reached its sisterhouse of Syon in England before that house was suppressed in 1539. Finally, Melissa Moreton considers the different ways in which transfer of manuscripts among individuals sustained spiritual life in Florentine convents of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, strenghtening ties between nuns or between the women and their (male) patrons outside their communities.

The capsule summaries given here cannot do justice to the wealth of materials explored in the volume or to the ingenuity with which individual contributors responded to the conference questionnaire. While not all of them adopted its guidelines explicitly, they steered closely to the conference objectives and invariably grounded their work in solid documentary evidence. The successful publication of the essays within a few years after the three conferences were held is further evidence that the editors handled the project with more than ordinary scholarly discipline.

The editors also provide what must be rare in conference proceedings: a frank, meaningful, and detailed assessment of the results, not only of the Antwerp "Dialogue" but of all three meetings. They caution that their efforts did not produce a fully satisfying definition of "literacy" in this context, nor is it clear whether religious life for women involved common requirements or hopes about engagement with texts: expectations "varied" over time and from place to place, they conclude (xlvii), which certainly is a useful observation in itself but may not please all readers. More concretely helpful are their notes on the various textual and visual instruments by which women gained instruction in spiritual life, on the importance of size for the functionality of religious communities (a certain number of nuns was required to fulfill essential tasks, including book collection and production), on the interplay between Latin and vernacular languages, and on the relationship between the choice of language and various genres of texts or materials. Here too, they add, "to pretend that there is a grand récit [about the literacies of female religious in the Middle Ages] would be to negate all the valuable work done here in the kaleidoscopic narratives that contribute to a composite picture" (lxiii).

Given the complexity of that picture, emerging from three conferences and more than fifty essays, the editors' reservations about broad conclusions seem warranted enough. It is therefore curious to note that they do not always heed their own advice. When reviewing the diverse data on the writing ability of nuns in the vernaculars of western and central Europe, they place "English at the bleaker end of the spectrum and…Dutch and German at the more positive end [with] Catalan, Czech, Danish, Hungarian, Icelandic, Irish, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish…plotted on a line at different points" (liv). But surely that conclusion reflects little more than the particular interest of the contributors, whose expertise is largely tilted toward Germany and the Low Countries? And how does it square with the findings of social historians, who have long argued that (northern) Italy knew higher levels of literacy among the laity than other parts of late medieval Europe (with the possible exception of, yes, the Low Countries, the only other region that was highly urbanized and offered accessible elementary education)? The "bleak" picture of England sketched out here also stands at odds with Michael Clanchy's well-known argument that the early medieval tradition of writing in the vernacular gave English society a headstart over the continent in all matters of literacy during the central Middle Ages. Furthermore, the absence of French among the languages listed in the quotation above is telling. It is a pity that we learn so little here about manuscripts in French or Occitan. Anyone who has worked on female religiosity in France or in the French-language part of the Low Countries (with the mass of vernacular writings associated with Arras, Valenciennes, Tournai, Douai, and Liège) will take issue with the editors' suggestion that there is less evidence about female literacy in France than in northern Europe (lix); greater consultation of work by Geneviève Hasenohr, Anne Bondéelle-Souchier, Dominique Vanwijnsberghe, Thérèse de Hemptinne, and Sean Field, among others, would have nuanced that view.

The sources discussed in these volumes raise issues that not only transcend geographical and linguistic boundaries but cut across scholarly disciplines as well. The contributors draw on such a wide range of scholarship--of codicology, paleography, iconography, theology, and literature--that it seems rather churlish to point out lacunae. Still, it's a commonplace of gender studies today that to examine historical women necessarily involves scrutiny of the male subject as well. Some contributions fully cover that comparative dimension. For instance, when examining early legislation for the order of St Clare and its lack of concern for the nuns' education, Julie Ann Smith highlights the clear contrast with contemporary rules for male Franciscans, which increasingly assumed they acquired knowledge of Latin. But other essays might have benefited from greater familiarity with monastic traditions for men. The problem seems especially acute in the editors' overview, when, unsure of what to make of the little evidence from customaries about nuns' reading, they state:

"[T]he fifteenth-century Barking Ordinale account, which describes an

annual distribution of books to the nuns of this convent in Essex, is

famous because of its uniqueness in England. Given that the books

were set out on a carpet and nuns were to come forward individually

and return a book before choosing another for the next year, it causes

us to wonder why there was not a more frequent distribution, as one

book per year for each nun to read is not very much" (xlv, with a

reference to the 1927-28 edition of the Ordinale).

Historians of monasticism will recognize this as a well established Benedictine custom, mentioned in the Rule and detailed at some length in the eleventh-century customs of Cluny and in Lanfranc's constitutions for Canterbury; lists of books distributed to monks in this manner at the beginning of Lent, from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, have been published since the nineteenth century (for a concise discussion, see most recently C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, 4th ed., London: Routledge, 2015, 104-05). The custom set a base requirement for reading. Rather than suggesting low levels of literacy among nuns, the source shows that in this respect the nuns of fifteenth-century Barking were held to exactly the same standards as the monks of Cluny in its heyday.

This example may also remind us how problematic generalizations about "the average nun" (or monk) can be. The editors of this volume should be commended for their efforts to investigate literacies of all religious women, not only of "famous nuns like Heloise or Hildegard von Bingen about which so much has been written already" (xxi). The materials they collected in this ambitious project and their careful introduction will be the starting point for all future research on the subject.

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