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22.05.04 Pinder, The “Abbaye du Saint Esprit”

22.05.04 Pinder, The “Abbaye du Saint Esprit”

In the late Middle Ages, could any Christian join a religious order and lead a fully spiritual life, including contemplation? Even if she was married, or too poor to enter a convent (140-41)? The answer to these questions is “yes,” according to the exquisite little allegory known as the Abbaye du Saint Esprit, composed by an unknown author in the late thirteenth century, and redacted several times for different groups of readers, mostly women, but sometimes for a male or a mixed-gender audience as well.

How were these things possible? As explained in the treatise, by the reader’s construction of an abbey in her soul. Even if prevented from entering a religious house of mortar and bricks, the would-be woman religious could build and inhabit the same structure “espirituelment...[in her] conscience” (140), heart and mind. In the spiritual sense, she could clear the soil, raise the walls, build the convent spaces, populate the abbey with virtues personified as nuns, and invite the Holy Spirit as convent visitor. Practical instructions, based on the Bible, the liturgy, the sacraments, and even secular love song, are provided in the treatise collectively titled by the editor as the Abbaye du Saint Esprit. It belongs to the genre of “vernacular theology,” the burgeoning field of late medieval writing that was created in dialogue between the clergy and the pious laity--including women--who could not read Latin, but desired instructions for understanding their faith and advancing in their spiritual lives (1 et passim). In no version of the Abbaye is virginity or celibacy referred to at all (30).

In her welcome new book, editor Janice Pinder has made this fascinating text available for the first time in a modern edition of the original French, with discussion in Part I, and editions of all six redactions in Part II. She also includes an update on the version of the French text, now lost, that must have served as the basis for the mid-fourteenth-century Middle English translation surviving in twenty-four manuscripts and five incunabula and already available in modern editions (133-34) [1]. Unlike the Middle English version, which addresses a readership of “brothers and sisters,” the oldest versions of the French are addressed to a woman, a spiritual “fille/daughter.” Verbal traces of the reader assumed to be female are persistent even in later redactions of the work (4).

As explained in the Introduction to Part I, the Abbaye also contributes to our growing understanding of the material book in the Middle Ages. Not only was the text itself adapted over time and change of venue; the treatise “is never the sole text in a manuscript” (8), but always belongs to a miscellany that appears to be specially curated for the projected audience of the collection. Using the “whole book” approach to manuscript study (7), Pinder discusses what we can learn about the special purposes of a redaction from the other treatises chosen to be anthologized alongside it. Also a gift to scholarship is her choice to provide editions of all six redactions instead of a single composite text, “an artificial entity such as no medieval reader ever encountered” (135).

A major purpose of this edition is to revise the textual history proposed by Kathleen Chesney, who argued based on the nine manuscripts known to her that manuscript Y (ca. 1295) [2] is a witness to the earliest and foundational version of the text (7). Instead, Pinder assigns this role to the group including manuscript M (40, 44) [3]. The distinction is important, because M and its counterparts give evidence of composition especially for beguines, devout laywomen who lived communally, supported themselves by handiwork, and ministered to the poor, while Y was evidently commissioned by the Maubuisson abbey, a wealthy Cistercian religious house for aristocratic women (70). Thus, in Pinder’s convincing argument, Beguine spirituality is foundational to the treatise in all its iterations, even when not mentioned directly.

The general Introduction concludes with an overview of the four French manuscript groups and six subgroups, as classified by the textual variations among them. Pinder uses Greek letters to denote the groups, with a subscript numeral added when referring to a subgroup (9-10. In approximate order of date, the subgroups are designated α1, β2, β1, β2, and γ. Not mentioned in the Introduction, but edited in the text, is the sole survivor of group δ, a drastically abridged version worked into a text of 1475 (132; 199-200).

In Chapter 1, Pinder provides a survey of the essentials held in common by all redactions of the Abbaye, which is best defined as a “lay rule of life,” a genre originating in Latin, in the literature of monastic formation, but translated and adapted to meet the popular demand for a new vernacular theology (17-18). However, unlike some other “lay rules of life,” the Abbaye has no prescription for a daily schedule with hours of prayer patterned after monastic hours (25), but rather advice on good deportment and an inner life based in the love of Jesus, often expressed “in terms of courtly love” (25-26). The reader should construct her abbey with the stones of good works cemented by faith (27). As a good religious, she is admonished to stay enclosed--but in a spiritual sense, by controlling the points of entry to the four corners of her soul--her thought, sight, hearing, and speech--through maintaining her Paors/Fear of God (27-31).

Contemplation is presented not as a series of steps in sequence, but as related experiences offered by different abbey personnel in different spaces of the abbey. For example, in the granary, the granarer offers the spiritual food of meditation on the words and deeds of Jesus and the bread of the Eucharist, conceived of as “white and ruddy” like the longed-for bridegroom in Song of Songs 5:10 (32-37; 152). The assistant to the choir mistress is Jubilation, a foretaste of the joys of Paradise to be attained through meditative prayer (39; 146, 148). The sacristan/keeper of the clock is Jalousie/Zeal or Desire, who awakens the soul to respond, like the Bride in Song of Songs (5:2): “Ego dormio et cor meum vigilat/I am asleep, but my heart is awake” (40; 154). Ministration to the poor and the ill is repeatedly enjoined upon the would-be religious, via abbey personnel such as Compassion and Largesce (140, 144, 148, 150). Clearly, the spiritual process taught by the Abbaye is entirely compatible with an active life in the world.

In Chapter 2, Pinder discusses what she argues to be the “earliest and most influential” of the manuscript traditions (40), subgroup α1, with the highest number of witnesses at five (133). I will focus most of my attention on this tradition, and on Pinder’s dual-language edition as it appears in Part II (137-57), which she titles the Religion du cuer/Religion of the heart. This version includes most of the materials found in all redactions of the Abbaye.

From the evidence of subgroup α1, the first version of the Abbaye was created in the mid-to late thirteenth century, in the spiritual hotbed of northeastern France and southern Flanders, where “intense religious experimentation” was evidenced by the Cistercian abbey of Villers, the mendicant orders, and numerous communities of women religious including Beguines (41-42; 44). Four of the manuscripts, M, L, C, and A, show evidence of their original creation for Beguines, or for women who wished to follow an equally spiritual lifestyle, even if they were married or too poor to enter a convent (49), as noted in the opening sentence of the treatise. While retaining the original material, manuscript R [4] was clearly adapted for Franciscan religious men (139), as indicated by the Life of St. Francis included in the collection (47). The text of R has been interpolated with the appeals to a mixed-gender audience often found in other redactions, such as “cil ou celes qui ne pueent entre en religion temporele/those men and women who cannot enter into a temporal religious order” (140 note 5).

Subgroup α1is distinguished by two passages which appear to reflect a distinctively Beguine way of life and spirituality. While rapt at prayer, as fully described in MS R, the devout woman may let fall her spindle or distaff, or her psalter (50-51; 148), an allusion to the Beguine practice of textile production combined with pious reading and occasional mystical experience. When carried away by Jubilation, she may be unable to refrain from singing, moving her fingers, or dancing about for joy (58; 148). These descriptions are not found in other manuscript subgroups, perhaps because such ecstatic forms of devotional expression were distrusted by redactors working in a different spiritual milieu.

In her dual-language edition of the Abbaye/Religion du cuer, Pinder uses C [5] as her base manuscript (139). First, the soil of the conscience must be cleared by Verités/Truth in confession. The foundation is excavated deep into the soil by Humility, with Poverty scattering earth both here and there, in acts of generosity as she gives as much as she has (140). Damoiselle Predicacion/Lady Preaching will build the refectory, for she feeds the soul. Lady Charity must be the abbess, for no religious must do anything at all without her permission (144; see Romans 13:1). The Holy Spirit will protect and visit the convent, as invoked by the ancient hymn: “Veni spiritus mentes tuorum visita/Come, Spirit, visit the minds of your people” (144). Charity, Wisdom, and Humility should oversee the abbey, like the three bailiffs appointed by King Nebuchadnezzar to maintain his kingdom in peace (146; see Daniel 2:49). Lady Prayer shall be the choir-mistress, with her companion Lady Jubilation (148, 150). Schooled by Lady Meditation to contemplate God’s creation, the scriptures, and the Eucharist, the nun may be so rapt as to lose all power of speech (150, 152, based on Pseudo-Denis, Mystica Theologia 3.2, 152 note 59).

Feeling the wake-up call of Lady Jalousie/Zeal or Desire, the religious may enter the state of contemplation or direct experience of God. Remarkably, this experience is described as “l’ologe de contemplation et de sainte beguinage, et c’est jalousie et amors de perfeccion/the clock of contemplation and of holy beguinage, and this is desire and love of perfection” (154, emphasis added). As far as I know, this non-literal use of the word “beguinage,” to mean the state of the soul that leads to holy contemplation, has not been reported elsewhere. No such definition appears in the 2020 Dictionnaire du moyen français; I have submitted this example. Clearly, the author/redactor of the Abbaye/Religion du cuer had the utmost respect for the spiritual practices of Beguines. The same phrase also appears in manuscripts of subgroups β1 and α2 (163, 196), but not in other versions of the French, or in the Middle English version as far as I know. Evidently, the term “beguinage” had lost its illustrious reputation for some of the later redactors, or was simply omitted as unfamiliar.

Also typical of Beguine spirituality is the melding of quotations from the Song of Songs with secular love lyrics allegorized as referring to the soul’s desire for God, as explained by Pinder, citing the scholarship of Barbara Newman (53). This combination is found in a remarkable passage that was adopted into the other major streams of the manuscript tradition, including the Middle English [6]. On hearing the wake-up call by Jalousie, the soul responds first with Song of Songs 5:2, and then with a “chansson du siècle: J’ai .i. cuer a cloquetes resveillié par amors. Les cloquetes du cuer sont li plain et li souspir et li boin desirier c’on a en oroison/a worldly song: ‘I have a heart awakened by the bells of love.’ The bells of the heart are the laments, the sighs, and the good desires that one has in prayer” (154). The song has yet to be identified, although medieval musicologist Anne Ibos-Augé has graciously agreed to keep a watch for it [7].

The other foundational redaction of the Abbaye is subgroup β1, with two witnesses, including Y [2], a sumptuous illuminated manuscript owned by Maubuisson Abbey, a house of wellborn women religious that also served as a retreat for royal laywomen (70-71). Unified by its program of illustrations, with pictures of Cistercian nuns (69), the manuscript also includes the Somme le Roi, a lengthy manual on the essentials of the faith, and three other treatises on advancement in the spiritual life (72-74). As will be no surprise in a work intended for nuns, this version omits the introduction addressed to readers who have been prevented by the bond of marriage or poverty from entering a house of religion (74-75; 159). Unlike any manuscript in subgroup α1, manuscript Y elaborates on the allegory of wakeful love with one of the earliest occurrences of the musical terms “bequarré/sharp,” and “bemol/flat” (76-77), duly allegorized as fear of hell and desire for heaven (163), and giving evidence for a readership of choir nuns who understood this terminology.

Subgroup α1 gave rise to the fifteenth-century redactions of subgroup γ (manuscripts X [8] and Z), prepared for Clarissan nuns according to Pinder (101-11, 173-80), and also to subgroup α2 (manuscripts V and O), a devotional compilation custom-made for Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy (113-24, 181-99). Subgroup β1 was the likely prototype for β2, manuscripts D, B, P, and Q, all four of which include the didactic treatise Miroir des dames, written for Queen Jeanne de Navarre, and all four of them associated with women in the family of Jean de Berry (84-85; 165-71).

I have only three minor quibbles with Pinder’s groundbreaking achievement. First, the helpful list of manuscripts classified by subgroup on pages 131-32, and the stemma on 135, would have been better placed in the opening pages of the book, as the complex textual history is hard to follow without these visual aids. Second, given the importance of the “whole book approach” for understanding the Abbaye, I was disappointed not to find a more descriptive list of manuscripts including all the other works contained by each of them. Finally, manuscript X [8] includes the welcome to readers who are married or otherwise unable to enter a house of religion (174), as well as a lengthy interpolation admonishing the “daughter” to avoid going to dances as they are a risk to her salvation (176)--how does this advice apply to enclosed Franciscan nuns, the readership proposed by Pinder? This redaction seems better suited to a laywoman interested in Franciscan values but living exposed to the temptations of the world. These minor issues aside, the Abbaye du Saint Esprit is a gift to researchers in several fields, including the history of vernacular theology and lay spirituality, especially as inspired and practiced by late medieval women. The construction allegory of the Abbaye can now be investigated as possibly foundational to later works in the tradition, such as theCité des dames/City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan.



1. See Peter Consacro, “A Critical Edition of ‘The Abbey of the Holy Ghost’ from All Known Extant English Manuscripts with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary,” diss. Fordham University, 1971. See also “The Abbey of the Holy Ghost,” in Religious Pieces in Prose and Verse, ed. George G. Perry, rev. ed., E.E.T.S. O.S. 26 (London: Kegan Paul, 1914): 51-62.

2. London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 11, fols. 2ra-7ra, see Abbaye132.

3. Metz, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 535, fol 63 [?, sic], described in articles before its destruction in World War II; see Abbaye 44-45, 131.

4. London, British Library, MS Royal 16 E XII, fols. 132va-139vb; see Abbaye131.

5. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS cod. gall. 914, fols. 91va-94va; seeAbbaye 131.

6. In the Abbaye, 163 (β1), 170 (β2), and 197 (α2); in Middle English, “The Abbey of the Holy Ghost,” ed. George G. Perry, 61 (quoting a different line of French love lyric).

7. Personal email. See her new book co-edited with Marie-Geneviève Grossel,Le Livre d’Amorètes: écrit spirituel à insertions lyriques du XIIIe siècle (Paris: Champion, 2022).

8. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fonds français 2095, fols 29r-34v; see Abbaye 132.