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22.12.08 Collins, Female Monasticism in Ireland

22.12.08 Collins, Female Monasticism in Ireland

Tracy Collins wastes no time stating the purpose of her book on later medieval Irish nunneries: her opening sentence is “this book is the first comprehensive archaeological study of female monasticism in Ireland” (1). Accordingly, this is an important contribution to an understudied area of Irish medieval archaeology. It also significantly advances our knowledge of women’s lived experiences in medieval Europe. Collins follows the precedent established by Roberta Gilchrist’s work on female religious archaeology in England. However, Ireland’s complex religious and cultural history means it was long overdue its own dedicated archaeological investigation, a position ably filled by Collins.

Collins estimates that around twenty female religious communities were in use in Ireland at any one time. The majority of these were founded over the twelfth century, following the adoption of a reformed tradition within the Irish church. The historical documentation indicates that a small but impactful proportion of medieval Irish women were nuns, yet our understanding of the material conditions of their lives is lacking. In large part this is due to a notoriously poor documentation survival record from medieval Ireland--the bulk of government records were destroyed 100 years ago in the Four Courts Fire, which was the culmination of centuries of neglect and loss. “Ireland has the poorest survival rate in Europe for later medieval written historical sources associated with religious houses” (9), and this dearth of written evidence includes no surviving rules for any female religious house in Ireland. To make matters worse, little portable material culture has survived. Collins’s temporal scope ends in 1540, which tallies with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This event was catastrophic for the material culture of monasticism, both male and female, as properties were sold to lay people and converted to elite estates. The Dissolution’s effect on landholding patterns has long been a frustration to landscape archaeologists. Thus, Collins’s methodology is central to her success. The focus on spatial analysis of built remains is especially important within this reality of research in Irish history. Collins adeptly combines excavation, field survey, archaeological theory, and archaeological science to craft an engaging narrative supplemented, where possible, with documentary references and artifacts. She is exceptionally well-placed to conduct this work: the book is developed from her Ph.D., but she has an established career in Ireland as a professional archaeologist. Therefore, this book is essential reading not just for the academic, but for archaeologists literally working on the ground. The publication of this volume will hopefully ensure future recognition and documentation of female religious sites. Collins models this intent through her excavation of St. Catherine’s, a nunnery in County Limerick in Ireland’s southwest. St. Catherine’s is employed throughout the book as a fascinating and informative case study. In addition to her conclusions from excavation, the majority of the very many color photographs, plans, and diagrams stem from her fieldwork and survey.

This approach allows for the extensive review of established tropes regarding the lives of female religious, which have been heretofore based on a limited range of sources. Her attention is specifically on nunneries--a term used only for the later Middle Ages when gender-based segregation is more identifiable in the archaeological and historical records--while acknowledging that medieval religious women inhabited diverse spaces. Most of these nunneries were Augustinian foundations, though attributing nunnery affiliations is difficult and obscure. The popularity of Augustinianism might be connected to its comparatively more flexible rule.

Collins focuses on the intertwined issues of place and space. She analyzes the spatial arrangements of nunnery buildings, but with an eye always turned to their landscape and social contexts. Changes to the physical layout of monastic buildings mean that Collins’s study cannot be extrapolated back to the early Middle Ages. She explains the risks of assigning gender to space, especially with religious occupation, where the needs of males and females were very similar.

There are at least fifty-one early medieval female religious communities with distribution across the country, albeit in geographic clusters. Chapter 2 (chapter 1 is the introduction) provides early medieval context and intriguing questions are raised about the deliberate appropriation of early religious sites by later nunneries. Buried in the middle of chapter 3 is key information that could be more prominent: the archaeology of medieval female monastic communities survives despite “attrition” if we know what to look for: churches, accommodation, claustral ranges among them (77). A significant minority of female houses in Ireland were founded before a male community, including Collins’s special study of St. Catherine’s. Accordingly, Collins suggests that the need for female houses was more pressing than for men. Chapter 4 explores nunnery landscapes, finding that they were not disadvantaged in terms of land quality but were still consumers more than producers in their contemporary economy.

Chapter 5, on nunnery layouts, will be useful for scholars of religious communities in other regions, as Collins adeptly integrates her Irish research within larger debates. Her fieldwork finds that nunneries did not follow a standardized claustral plan, but had a variety of layouts reflecting secular demands on space as much as religious ones. This use of space was not unique to Ireland. This remarkable chapter includes her own excavation results from St. Catherine’s.

Chapter 6 considers the church building as center of any religious building complex, including nunneries. It again utilizes much of Collins’s extensive field survey, with a shorter section presenting results from her excavation. This allows for the possible identification of an anchorite’s cell, or anchorhold, at St. Catherine’s. Irish nunnery churches were often simple parallelograms that probably employed local masons in their construction. However, without excavation the limitations of the extant evidence mean that internal spatial arrangements can often only be guessed at, including determining what makes them exclusively female spaces.

The difficulties presented by a lack of documentary and material evidence dominate chapter 7, which considers the daily use of space. Collins presents an argument that partial compensation for this can be made through access analyses. Three nunneries have at least partially standing cloisters, which allowed examination of how this space was used. The conclusion is that the level of enclosure varied across nunneries, as the sleeping spaces were not always the most difficult places to access from the outside. Not all nunneries originally had cloisters though and this absence may not have impacted their daily lives as much as might be first thought.

Excavation at St. Catherine’s is supplemented in chapter 8 by the osteoarcheological investigation of human remains recovered there and at Graney in County Kildare, in the east of Ireland. These studies found that nuns in Ireland may not have been drawn from the elite, as their bones show conclusive evidence of physical labor and hardship. Chapter 9 again uses St. Catherine’s to interrogate the siting of nunneries within their landholdings, which were most commonly unconsolidated.

Overall, this is an incredibly insightful volume, but there are some limitations. Ireland’s religious history is comparatively well studied. Scholars seeking information on the archaeology of early Christian Ireland in this book might be disappointed. Collins’s focus is on later medieval Ireland that is, c.1100-1540 CE. Her remit is due to the lack of female religious archaeology prior to c.1100, as most of what we know of the early medieval church comes from written sources. Despite this, the first chapter summarizes what is presently known about early medieval female religious communities. A tweak to the book’s title would better reflect content and chronology.

The book has an Irish audience in mind--for example, counties are not provided in the tables summarizing the investigated sites. This can make it hard even for readers very familiar with the Irish landscape to mentally situate them. However, informative comparisons are made to patterns in Britain and in continental Europe throughout. Concentrating on archaeological remains and landscapes, rather than fully standing buildings, provides details that can be readily applied to other European regions. Collins’s theoretical underpinnings will also be illuminating to scholars working on British and continental traditions.

Chapters 5 through 8 most intensively use the findings from Collins’s own excavation and building surveys. They enable her to weave her innovative conclusions into broader European religious patterns which are presented throughout at timely locations. They also make a major new contribution to knowledge. These are without doubt the standout chapters and their location in the middle of this large book could lessen their impact. The wider setting of nunneries bookends these central chapters. This separation means familiar ground must be restated at the start of chapter 9.

A final limitation might be specific to scholars of medieval Ireland, but the ethnic dimensions of these late medieval nunneries is little explored. Nor is ethnic background overtly disregarded as irrelevant to the book’s scope. The religious reforms that provide the backdrop to the nunneries at the heart of Collins’s research predate the late twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Conquest of Ireland. This event created overlapping contact zones between the Anglo-Norman arrivals and their descendants (the Anglo-Irish) and the “native” Irish (the Gaelic Irish). Collins touches on the ethnicity of nunnery founders, but I found myself wondering how ethnicity impacted the lived experience of the nuns she otherwise carefully uncovers. Her excavated case study of St. Catherine’s was located in an Anglo-Norman region of Ireland but one that had increasing interactions with the surrounding Gaelic Irish communities over the course of the later Middle Ages. Her other site examples are drawn island-wide from across cultural lines. When Collins does hint at manifestations of ethnicity, these points are insightful.

This book amply and ably continues discourse on female monasticism by presenting new evidence from an archaeological analysis of later medieval Ireland. Throughout, Collins persuasively demonstrates how nunnery space was diverse and permeable. Popular opinions of nuns do not necessarily tally with the physical expression of female religious lives. Collins consequently makes a forceful argument of the importance of female religious communities to medieval society. There are similarities to England and continental Europe among the nunneries of late medieval Ireland; indeed, the same orders existed across Europe. However, Ireland had its own unique take on female monasticism. That broader comparisons do not always work is equally enlightening as those that do, including Collins’s finding that female houses in Ireland were often located proximal to secular settlement in locations expected of male houses in other geographic regions. She ascertains that the “concept” of seclusion was of more importance to the medieval Irish mindset than material and physical separation, with perhaps “a spectrum of enclosure” existing (177). Instead, there may have been longstanding interaction with surrounding communities, as also suggested by the skeletons recovered from nunnery burials, which were not exclusively adult women, or even elite women. This is a book that should be read by anyone working on religious communities in medieval Europe, as well as those with an interest in integrating archaeological and historical methods. Collins’s conclusions are of use not just to archaeologists and religious historians, but to architectural and art historians.