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Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)


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The External Relations of the Convent.

FROM consideration of affairs on the Continent we return once more to England, to consider the external relations of the convent and the purposes these institutions fulfilled during the later Middle Ages. Speaking generally the monasteries maintained their standing unimpaired till the beginning of the 14th century; then their character began to change and for quite a century they ceased to be attractive to -progressive and original minds. The range of occupations cultivated by their inmates was restricted, and these inmates gradually came to regard everything with indifference except their own narrow religious interests.

The previous chapters have shown that monasteries at different periods had served a variety of purposes and had inaugurated progress in various directions; but after the year 1350 few if any new developments are recorded. As agricultural centres they continued prosperous on the whole; the abbot and the abbess retained their character as good landlords; charity and hospitality continued to be practised by them. But as intellectual centres the monasteries had found their rival in the growing townships. The townships at the beginning of the 14th century were so well established that they   [p. 355]   were able to protect and further pursuits and industries which had hitherto flourished under the protection of monastic centres. Book-learning and science were cultivated in a more liberal spirit at the universities, where the friars of different orders had established houses; and the arts and crafts flourished on more fruitful soil under the protection of the town. The progress of the English nation during the 14th and th centuries is uncontested; but little of it, if any, was due to the influence of monks. On the whole monasteries continued to be favourably regarded by the nation, and the system of which they formed part was not attacked, but while the friar freely moved from city to city and for a while became the representative of learning and art, the monk bound to his convent home showed an increasing want of intellectual activity.

The change was part of the great revolution which was taking place in feudal institutions generally. The age of chivalry was a thing of the past, and though the romantic ideas it had engendered had not ceased to influence mankind, they no longer possessed the transforming power of innovation. Similarly, mysticism which had been so largely cultivated inside convent walls had done its work in ushering in a spiritualised interpretation of religion; during the 14th century it was spread abroad and popularised by the friars, who gave it a new development, the monk's interest in it seemed to cease. But the ceremonial and ritual which the mystic had helped to elaborate, and the many observances by which the Catholicism of the Middle Ages had secured a hold on the concerns of daily life, continued in undisturbed prominence,--with this difference, that from elevating the few the ritual had now come to impress the many.

It is often insisted on that during the later Middle Ages monasteries were homes of superstition and idolatry, and that practices in devotional ritual and in the cult of the miraculous were kept up by them to the extent of making them a hindrance to moral and intellectual development, and obnoxious to the advocates of more liberal and advanced views. The fact must be taken as part of the conservative attitude of these houses, which had strengthened their hold on outside attention by observances with which their existence was indissolubly bound up. Certainly a later age may be excused for condemning what had become a mischief and a hindrance; but it is well to recall that it was precisely those usages and tendencies which a later period condemned as superstitious, that had been elaborated at an early   [p. 356]   period by leaders in thought, who saw in them the means of setting forth the principles of the Christian faith. And the elaborate cult, the processions and imagery of mediaeval Christianity, have a deeply significant side if we think of them in connection with the poetic, pictorial, dramatic and architectural arts of the later Middle Ages.

Convents retained some importance for the education of women during these ages. Attention must be given to them in this connection, though the standard of tuition they offered was not high. Compared with the level they had reached during an earlier period convents showed signs of retrogression rather than of advance, and compared with what was contemporaneously attained at the universities, the training women received in the convent was poor in substance, cramped in method, and insufficient in application. But, as far as I have been able to ascertain, a convent education remained the sole training of which a girl could avail herself outside the home circle. For the universities absolutely ignored the existence of woman as a being desirous or capable of acquiring knowledge, and the teaching at the mediaeval university was so ordered that students ranged in age from the merest boyhood to manhood. These centres then, by ignoring the existence of women, appropriated to men not only the privileges of a higher education, but also all knowledge from its rudiments upwards.

The standard of education in the average nunnery was deteriorating because devotional interests were cultivated to the exclusion of everything else. In early Christian times we saw monk and nun promoting intellectual acquirements generally, but the separation of the sexes, and the growing feeling in favour of the stricter confinement of nuns within convent precincts, advocated by a later age in the interests of a stricter morality, more and more cut off the nun from contact with secular learning. In the 12th century we saw Queen Matilda, the pupil of a Wessex house, writing fluent Latin and speaking not only of the Fathers of the Church but quoting from classical writers of whom she evidently knew more than the name. But in the later Middle Ages the class of writers who were read in the convent was restricted; service books, the legends of the saints, theological works, and some amount of scripture, comprised the range of the nun's usual studies. The remarks of contemporary writers bear out the inferences to be drawn from such a narrowed curriculum of study. The nun is represented as a person careful in   [p. 357]   her devotions, pious in her intent, of good manners and gentle breeding, but one-sided in the view she takes of life.

The author of the Ancren Riwle, as mentioned above, left us to infer that the women he was addressing were acquainted with English, French, and Latin, and their education must have been given them in convents. His work was written in the early half of the 13th century. In all convents down to the Reformation Latin continued to be studied to some extent, if only so far as to enable the nun to repeat her prayers, to follow mass and to transcribe a book of devotion. The lady superior, by the terms of her appointment and on account of the duties of her station, was bound to have some knowledge of it. But at the same time one comes across remarks which lead one to suppose that Latin was falling into disuse in nunneries, especially in the south of England, and that French was taking its place. Corroboration of this view is afforded by a list of injunctions sent by the bishop of Winchester to the convent at Romsey, in consequence of an episcopal visitation in 1310; they were drawn up in Latin, but a literal translation into French was appended for the greater convenience of the puns.[1*] The rules and ordinances prescribed by Archbishop Walter Reynolds to the convent of Davington in Kent about the year 1326 were written in French,[2*] and so were the set of rules forwarded by the abbot of St Albans to the convent of Sopwell in 1338.[3*] On the other hand injunctions written in Latin were sent to Godstow in Oxfordshire in 1279 and to Nun-Monkton in Yorkshire in 1397.

French down to the middle of the 14th century was the language of the upper classes as well as the legal language,[4*] and many literary products of the time are in French. A 'Life of St Katherine' written in Norman French by Clemence, a nun at Barking, is extant in two MSS. Only its opening lines have been published in which the nun informs her readers that she has translated this life from Latin into 'romans.'[5*] Letters written by ladies superior during this period were usually in French.[6*] Thus the prioress and convent of Ankerwyke in Buckinghamshire addressed a petition to King Edward III. in French, and the abbess of Shaftesbury in   [p. 358]   1382 petitioned King Richard II. in the same language.[7*] Various documents and year-books which were kept in religious houses show that entries made during the early period were in Latin, but in the 14th century French frequently occurs. In the 15th century both Latin and French were abandoned and the use of English became general. The documents of Barking, a most important Benedictine nunnery, are partly in Latin, partly in French, and partly in English.[8*] The extant charters of Legh or Minchenlegh in Devonshire are exclusively in Latin, but the rubrics of the 14th century are in French.[9*] In the register of Crabhouse,[10*] an Austin settlement of nuns in Norfolk, all three languages are used.

In the nunneries of the south of England French maintained itself longest, but it was Norman French, which continued in use after the change abroad which made the French spoken on this side of the Channel (except that of court circles) sound unfamiliar to a Frenchman. In the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales, written about 1386, Chaucer introduces a prioress who was one of the pilgrims en route for Canterbury, and remarks on the kind of French which she spoke (l. 124):

'And Frenche she spake full fayre and fetisly
After the scole of Stratford atte Bow,
For Frenche of Paris was to hire unknowe.'

Evidently he is referring to the French which was generally in use at the nunneries. Stratford, otherwise St Leonard's, Bromley, was situated in Middlesex.

English was first heard at the opening of the session at Westminster in 1363, and in 1404 French was unintelligible to the English ambassadors in Flanders. I have come across few French documents relating to nunneries which are later than the year 1400; in fact a petition in French written in 1433 by the prioress of Little-more in Oxfordshire stands almost alone.[11*]

There is extant a highly interesting rhymed version of the rule of St Benedict written for the use of nuns in the English dialect of the north between 1400 and 1425.[12*] It is not the earliest version   [p. 359]   in English made for the use of nuns; there is a translation, known as the Winteney version, which was written for them and is preserved in a copy of the 13th century; and it is possible that the earliest Benedictine rule in Anglo-Saxon for monks was adapted from a version in the vernacular written for women.[13*] However the author of the rhymed version of the th century is conscious of women's comparative ignorance of Latin. He prefaces his rule with the reason which prompted him to make it. 'Monks and learned men,' he says, 'may know the rule in Latin and gather from it how to work, serving God and Holy Church; it is for the purpose of making it intelligible to women who learnt no Latin in their youth that it is here set into English that they may easily learn it...'

The name of this translator is unknown. On the ground of certain passages referring to singing in choir (line 1188 ff.) it has been supposed, but with slight probability, that the translation was the work of a woman.

Another proof of the growing unfamiliarity with Latin in nunneries is afforded by the introduction to the register of God-stow, which was one of the wealthier English Benedictine nunneries. This register was written under the abbess Alice Henley, who is known to have been ruling in the year 1464, and consists of 126 folio leaves of vellum. According to Dugdale[14*] it comprises an account of the foundation of the house, an A. B. C. of devotion, a kalendar of the year, and all the charters of the house translated into English.' The translator has left an introduction to his work which in modern English runs as follows: 'The wise man taught his child to read books gladly and to understand them well, for lack of such understanding has often caused negligence, hurt, harm and hindrance, as experience proves; and since women of religion in reading Latin books are excused from much understanding where it is not their mother tongue, therefore if they read their books of remembrance and of gifts written in Latin, for want of understanding they often take hurt and hindrance; and since for want of truly learned men who are ready to teach and counsel them, and for fear also of publishing the evidence of their titles which has often caused mischief, it seems right needful to the under   [p. 360]   standing of these religious women that they have besides their Latin books some written in their mother tongue, by which they may secure better knowledge of their property and more clearly give information to their servants, rent-gatherers and receivers in the absence of their learned counsellors; therefore I, a poor brother, and 'wellwyller' to the abbess of Godstow Dame Alice Henley and to all her convent, which are for the most part well learned in English books.. .have undertaken to make this translation for them from Latin into English.'

I have come across very few references to books which have come from nunneries. A celebrated manuscript in Latin, which contains a collection of the lives of the saints and is written on vellum, belonged to the convent at Romsey[15*] a copy of 'The life of St Katherine of Alexandria' by Capgrave (in English verse of the 15th century), which has lately been printed, is designated as belonging to Katherine Babington, subprioress of Campsey in Suffolk;[16*] and the famous Vernon manuscript which contains the most complete collection of writings in Middle English on salvation or soul-hele' probably came from a nunnery.

The inventories taken of the goods and chattels belonging to convents at the time of the dissolution contain few references to books. Probably only books of devotion were numerous, and these were looked upon by the nuns as their personal property like their clothes, and were taken away with them when they left. The inventory of the nunnery of Kilburn mentions that two copies of the Legenda Aurea, the one written, the other printed, were kept in the chamber of the church.[17*] In connection with Sion, the only house in England of the order of St Bridget, we shall hear of a splendid collection of books, all I believe of a devotional character.

An inventory of the goods of the comparatively insignificant priory of Easebourne in Sussex, which never numbered more than five or six nuns, was taken in the year 1450 and shows what books of devotion were then in its possession. The following are enumerated: two missals, two breviaries, four antiphonies, one large legenda or book of the histories of the saints, eight psalters, one book of collects, one tropon or book of chants, one French Bible, two ordinalia or books of divine office, in French, one book of the   [p. 361]   Gospels, and one martyrology.[18*] It is in accordance with the exclusively pious training shown by the possession of books such as these that Chaucer lets his prioress, when called upon to contribute a tale, recount the legend of a boy-martyr who was murdered at Alexandria, and the nun who was with her tell the legend of St Cecilia. The prioress in this case did not fail to impress her hearers, while the monk, who was also of the party and told of worthies of biblical and of classical repute, roused no interest.

In the eyes of Chaucer the prioress was a thoroughly estimable person. 'Madame Eglentine,' whose smiling was 'ful simple and coy,' and who spoke French fluently, was distinguished also for elegance of manners at table. She neither dropped her food, nor steeped her fingers in the sauce, nor neglected to wipe her mouth, and throughout affected a certain courtly breeding which went well with her station.

And sikerly she was of grete disport,
And ful plesant, and amiable of port,
And peined hire to contrefeten chere
Of court, and ben estatelich of manere,
And to ben holden digne of reverence.'

Her sensitiveness was so great that she wept on seeing a mouse caught in a trap, and the death of one of the small dogs she kept caused her great grief. She could not bear to see one of them beaten, for in her 'all was conscience and tendre herte.' The only ornament she wore was a brooch which was attached to her beads and on which were inscribed the words Amor vincit omnia. The poet's designating her companion as the 'other nun,' suggests that the prioress in this case was a nun herself, that is that she was not the superior of a priory, but prioress and member of a convent which was under an abbess.

Education in a nunnery at this period secured the privilege of being addressed as 'Madame,' the title of a woman of the   [p. 362]   upper classes. Directions in English about the consecration of nuns which were in use in the diocese of Lincoln about the year 1480 are in existence . In these the bishop at the conclusion of the service is directed to offer words of advice to the newly professed nuns, which begin as follows: 'Daughters and virgins, now that you are married and espoused to Him that is above king and 'kaysor,' Jesus Christ, meet it is and so must you from henceforth in token of the same be called 'madame or ladye.'[19*]

Judging from a passage in Chaucer (1. 3940) this privilege was apparently kept by those who had been educated in a nunnery and returned to the world. The reeve tells about the miller's wife who was come of noble kyn; she was i-fostryd in a nonnerye,' and on account of her kindred and the 'nostelry' she had learned, no one durst call her but 'Madame.'

It remains to note how far the standing of nunneries was directly affected in the later Middle Ages by external social and political changes. Various conditions combined to curtail the privileges of religious houses, which when once lost were never recovered.

The reign of Edward I (1272--1307) was marked by many legal innovations. One of the first acts of the king was to appoint a commission to enquire into jurisdictions, and a general survey of the whole kingdom was taken to obtain correct knowledge of the rights by which property was held. Local and manorial rights were throughout called into question, which in many instances resulted in their being curtailed to the advantage of the king. In common with other holders of property, the heads of monasteries incurred direct losses, especially the heads of smaller settlements, where the property was not so well managed and the superior could not afford to have a legal adviser.

Among those cited before the justices in eyre were the abbesses and prioresses of convents of various orders, who as we gather from the account of these pleas[20*] sometimes appeared in person, sometimes through an attorney, to justify their claims and to seek re-establishment of their rights. The superiors of smaller settlements, whose property lay near their house, generally appeared in person, but the superiors of larger houses, where the jurisdiction over property which lay at a distance was called into question,   [p. 363]   appeared by an attorney. Thus the abbess of Barking which lies in Essex appeared by an attorney at Bedford and in Buckinghamshire, but in Essex she appeared in person to defend certain rights connected with property she held at Chelmsford.[21*] The abbess of Mailing in Kent appeared by attorney at Canterbury, where she secured renewal of her rights before the king's justiciaries not only to liberties and franchises of the most extensive kind in East and West Mailing, but to the holding of a market twice a week, and of three fairs in the year.[22*]

On the other hand we find the prioress of Stratford appearing in person before the judges in eyre at the Stone Cross, bringing her charters with her.[23*] The prioress of Wroxhall at first refused to answer the summons to appear at Warwick. Afterwards she appeared in person and succeeded in establishing her claim to her possessions in Hatton and Wroxhall together with many privileges and immunities which had been confirmed to her priory by Henry II, Richard I, John and Henry III, as appears in the charters granted by those monarchs.[24*]

But not all were so successful. The prioress of Redlingfield in Suffolk also came in person to justify a right which was held to belong to the crown, but which she claimed that she and all her predecessors had held time out of mind. But as she could show no special warrant, William de Gyselham prayed judgment for the king. A day was appointed for further hearing of the case at Westminster, but no further proceedings appear.[25*] Frequently a case was adjourned to Westminster and we hear no more of it; sometimes also the king's attorney did not choose to prosecute his suit further.

A close analysis of these pleas helps us to understand the various and complicated rights, immunities and privileges which abbess and prioress had acquired in common with feudal lords at an early period, and which the larger houses retained with few abatements down to the time of the dissolution. The study of these rights shows that a considerable business capacity and no small amount of attention were required to protect a settlement against deterioration and decay.

  [p. 364]  

The number of religious houses[26*] for women which existed at this period, including those of all orders, was close upon a hundred and thirty. Their number can be estimated only approximately, because some fell to decay and were abandoned as we shall see later, while, regarding Gilbertine settlements, it is unknown at what period nuns ceased to inhabit some of them. The number of monasteries for men including those of all monkish and canonical orders, at the same period was over four hundred; while the friars, the number of whose houses fluctuated, at the time of the dissolution owned about two hundred houses.

Of the settlements of nuns eighty-two belonged to the order of St Benedict, and twenty-seven (including two houses which had been founded by the order of Cluni) to Cistercian nuns. Fourteen houses were inhabited by Austin nuns or canonesses (including Sion), and two by nuns of the order of Prémontré.

In England only the orders of friars of St Francis and St Dominic had houses for women attached to them. The nuns of the order of St Clare, called also Poor Clares or Nuns Minoresses, had been established in connection with the Franciscan friars, an(1 owned three houses, of which the house in London, known as the Minories, was of considerable importance. Only one house of Dominican nuns existed in England. The nuns both of the Dominican and the Franciscan orders differed in many particulars from other nuns and are usually spoken of not as nuns but as sisters.[27*] They observed strict seclusion, and as a rule took no interest in anything save devotion. A set of rules for the nuns of St Clare was written by St Francis himself, and gives a fair idea of the narrow interests to which women who embraced religion under his auspices were confined:[28*]

Regarding the wealth of the settlements of different orders, the houses of the Benedictine order owned most property and drew the largest incomes; the houses owned by monks were throughout wealthier than those owned by nuns. Judging by the computations made at the time of the dissolution the Cistercian houses for men, and the houses of Austin and of Premonstrant Canons, were comparatively rich, whereas the houses of Cistercian and of Premonstrant nuns were poor, but the income of the Austin nunnery,   [p. 365]   Buckland in Somersetshire, compared favourably with that of the wealthier Benedictine houses for women. We shall have occasion to speak more fully of the house of Sion, which was of the order of St Bridget, and the wealth of which at the time of the dissolution exceeded that of any other nunnery.


[1*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Rumsey,' vol. 2, p. 507 footnote.

[2*] Ibid. 'Davington,' vol. 4, p. 288.

[3*] Ibid. 'Sopwell,' vol. 3, p. 365, charter nr 7.

[4*] Jusserand, J., Histoire littiraire du Peuple Anglais, 1894, pp. 121 ff., 235 ff.

[5*] Romania, edit. Meyer et Paris, vol. 13, p. 400.

[6*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Ankerwyke,' vol. 4, p. 229, charter nr 4.

[7*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Shaftesbury,' vol. 2, p.471, charter nr 21.

[8*] Ibid. 'Barking,' vol. 1, p. 441.

[9*] Ibid. 'Legh,' vol. 6, P. 333 footnote t.. MS. Harleian 3660.

[10*] Bateson, M., 'Register of Crabhouse Nunnery' (no date), Norfolk and Norwick Archeol. Society.

[11*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Littlemore,' vol. 4, p. 490, charter nr 14.

[12*] Koelbing, Englische Studien, vol. 2, pp. 60 ff.

[13*] This supposition is based on certain peculiarities in the language of the rule for men. Cf. 'Die angelsachsischen Prosabearbeitungen der Benedictinerregel,' edit. Schrcier, 1885 (in Grein, Bibliotek der angels. Prosa, vol. 2) Einleitung, p. xviii.

[14*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Godstow,' vol. 4, p. 357, charter ur 23.

[15*] Lansdowne MS. 436.

[16*] Early English Text Soc., nr 100. Arundel MS. 396.

[17*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Kilburn,' vol. 3, p. 424.

[18*] Blaauw, W. H., 'Episcopal visitations of the Benedictine nunnery of Easebourne' in Sussex Arch. Collections, vol. 9, p. 12. According to Bradshaw, H., 'Note on service books' (printed as an appendix in Middleton, J. H., Illuminated Manuscripts, 1892) the missal was used for celebration of the mass; while the breviary contained the services for the hours, including the antiphony (anthems to the psalms)--the legenda (long lessons used at matins),--the psalter (psalms arranged for use at hours),--and the collects (short lessons used at all the hours except matins). In the list above, these are enumerated as separate books. He further says that the ordinale contained general rules for the right understanding and use of the service books. It is noteworthy that this is in French in the list of books at Easebourne.

[19*] Maskell, W., Monumenta Ritualia,1882, vol. 3, p. 357 footnotes.

[20*] Placita de Quo Warrantoby Command.

[21*] Placita de Quo Warranto, pp. 11, 97, 232, 233.

[22*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Mailing,' vol. 3, p. 381, charter nr 5.

[23*] Ibid. 'Stratford,' vol. 4, p. 119, charter nr 3.

[24*] Ibid. 'Wroxhall,' vol. 4, p. 88.

[25*] Ibid. 'Redlingfield,' vol. 4, p. 25, charter nr 2.

[26*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, 1888, appendices to vols. 1 and 2.

[27*] The word 'mynchyn' was I believe never applied to them.

[28*] Holstenius, Codex regularum, 1759, vol. 3, p. 34.

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