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21.06.03 Bugyis, The Care of Nuns

The Medieval Review

21.06.03 Bugyis, The Care of Nuns


At last, here is a book on the liturgical practice at Benedictine nunneries in England. Much of the liturgy that we expect to have been provided by medieval chaplains, modelled on male monastic rules and liturgical practice, was, so Bugyis compellingly argues, inspired, written and executed, by the nuns themselves. For this reason, she calls the women ‘ministers of Christ’ in a deliberately provocative vocabulary that should make us think about the role of women in the provision of pastoral care and liturgy in nunneries. For those of us who have studied medieval women and their thoughts and writings, this conclusion should not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, the careful assessment of the liturgical manuscripts and their texts reveals the impressive scale of the nuns’ autonomy and leaves no doubt about their involvement and creativity in fashioning celebrations of Christian life in the nunneries for their own consumption. The impact of this thoughtful study will be felt far and wide. The book is divided into five thematic chapters each devoted to the various tasks the nuns performed in their liturgical duties. In an introductory chapter Bugyis discusses the lack of scholarship on women’s role in the shaping of their liturgies, setting up for her conclusion: a thesis of agency, authority and creativity on the part of the nuns which in turn justifies the subtitle of her book.

At the heart of this book lies the relatively neglected source material of the liturgical manuscripts that have been produced in the medieval nunneries of England. I say ‘relative’ because some of manuscripts are very well known. Individual studies of these medieval books have in the past led to the odd suggestion that some nun or abbess may have had a hand in their production (usually as patron or scribe, seldom as ‘author’), e.g. the St Albans Psalter (Hildesheim, Dombibliothek MS St Godehard 1) or The Barking Gospels (Oxford Bodleian Library MS Bodley 155), the only surviving gospel book from an English Benedictine nunnery. However, what becomes rapidly clear from Bugyis work is that these were not isolated exceptional incidents but that when one pulls all threads together we see a picture of sustained female authority at work to produce meaningful texts and music specifically for women. When in the 1130s in northern France Heloise complained about the lack of specificity for nuns in the written monastic rules, esp. the Rule of St Benedict, Abelard produced a revised Rule for her, very much paying attention to the gaps identified by Heloise. We are still awaiting a study of the liturgy at Argenteuil and the Paraclete to see if what had long seemed to have been another example of Heloise’ exceptionalism is in fact the tip of an iceberg of abbesses and nuns trying to get their head round a religious life organized and instructed by men for men. The evidence unearthed by Bugyis across so many nunneries in England emphasizes the agency of women.

The chapter on Memory keepers, first published in a book on Medieval Cantors, co-edited by Bugyis (with A. Kraebel and Margot Fassler, York Medieval Press 2017) explores nuns in their role as cantors and sacristans, responsible for the liturgy in the monastery, the library and the collective memory of the institution. In Pastors Bugyis discusses the extent to which abbesses and prioresses acted as magistrae in their nunneries, a topic of long standing debate. Did they stick to mere reading of specific set texts or did they go beyond the standard reading by expounding what these readings might mean, again a task that was deemed to be reserved for chaplains. Oxford Bodleian Library MS Bodley 451, a twelfth-century manuscript from Nunnaminster, contains Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s Diadema monachorum and is the only copy out of 121 that can be proven to have been produced in a women’s house. It also contains texts from Augustine, Isidore of Seville and Caesarius of Arles. Bugyis makes a compelling case that this is a book not for private prayer but for public instruction. The evidence lies in scribal paragraph marks indicating sections for particular attention.

According to prescriptive Church texts women were not allowed to proclaim the gospels in a liturgical context, a task that was reserved for their chaplains. In Evangelists however we find a detailed analysis of an image of Mary Magdalen as apostola apostolorum (from the St. Albans Psalter) that is set in the context of gospel manuscriptsfrom nunneries. The Barking Gospel manuscript reveals the leeway the nuns created by using this manuscript in their liturgy. It has been studied before but never in such depth and detail before. It was produced for communal liturgical proclamation and like Bodley 451 emphatically not a private book for individual perusal. As Bugyis notes, in the Barking Gospel book the nuns were not the sole readers of the liturgy as they appear alongside the conventional male readers as actors in the liturgy. She warns, rightly, against extrapolating from this Barking evidence a notion of widespread practice in other English Benedictine nunneries.

Despite prescriptive texts forbidding abbesses to hear confession, the chapter on Confessors, contains plenty of evidence from liturgical manuscripts to make the case that in fact abbesses acted in that capacity. Aethelwold’s adaptation of the Rule of Benedict for nuns had already allowed the abbess to assist the priest in hearing confession. The Book of Nunnaminster, as well as the Galba prayer book and the Wherwell Psalter provide interesting evidence to understand the abbess’ role. What was at stake is the issue to what extent the abbess as penitent herself was able to absolve the sins of her nuns. Some abbesses struggled with their own sinfulness facing their nuns as we know from a long prayer for an abbess in the Wherwell Psalter (printed in full in Latin in Appendix 2). I come back to the Wherwell Psalter and the abbess’ confession below.

The chapter on Intercessors illustrates how the nuns executed their role as intercessors by praying for the families of benefactors who had paid for this service. Especially interesting is the comparative table with data drawn from the non-royal charters for several nunneries that record the requests for prayers.

Finally, there is an important cross-Channel aspect to the study of the female ministries of the English Benedictine nuns. Appendix B represents an edition of the prayer for an abbess in Cambridge, St. John’s College MS C.18 (68) fols. 230r-234r. Produced in the late 1160s or early 1170s in England the psalter was made for Osto (d. c. 1174), a scion from the elite family of castellans at Saint-Omer in Flanders, who were instrumental in setting up the Order of the Knights Templar. For a brief period in the mid twelfth century Osto was their leader in England, where even after he was replaced in 1155 he can be found until his death in the 1170s. On behalf of the Templars, he was involved in royal finances, ambassadorial work at the French royal court, as well as royal matchmaking. He was also the uncle of Matilda de Bailleul (d. 1212). She would become abbess of Wherwell, a position that then passed on to her niece Eufemia de Wallers (d.1257). Why the women of the castellan family of Saint-Omer moved from Flanders to England is unknown, but they kept a record of obits of members of their Flemish family in the Wherwell Psalter. This evidence almost certainly explains the move of the Psalter from Osto to his niece Matilda, as Bugyis more expansively and compellingly argues in a recent article in Speculum. The Latin prayer, probably for either Abbess Matilda or her successor Eufemia, does not have an integral English translation, but there is a detailed paraphrase on pp. 203-6. All in all The Care of Nuns is an admirable and innovative study of active and creative participation of nuns in their liturgies that deserves to be read widely.