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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 Internal Arrangements of the Convent.

At this point of our enquiry it seems well to pause for a while to describe the inner arrangements of a nunnery as they present themselves during the later Middle Ages, the offices which fell to the several members of the convent, and the daily life of the nun. The material at the disposal of the student lies scattered in the convent registers, in the accounts of visitations, and in contemporary literature, and is supplemented by the study of ruins. The inventories of monasteries made during the reign of Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution (c. 1536--1538) further add to this information. For no religious settlement for women was founded after the death of Edward III (1377) with the sole exception of Sion, and no important changes were made in the routine of existing houses, so that the state of things which survived at the dissolution may be taken with slight reservations as supplementing our information concerning the arrangements during the earlier period.

Regarding the position and duties of the lady superior, it has been mentioned before[1*] that comparatively few of the Benedictine nunneries had the standing of abbeys, most of them being priories, and that the abbesses of four houses had the additional title of baroness by reason of the property they held of the king. They were called upon to fulfil duties in accordance with their station, and like secular barons found knights for the king's service. In 1257 Agnes Ferrar, abbess of Shaftesbury, was summoned to Chester to take part in the expedition against Llewellin ap Griffith, and again in 1277 Juliana Bauceyn was summoned for a like purpose.[2*]

The lady superior of a house in the 14th and ith centuries was frequently seen outside the convent; pleasure as well as business might take her from home. It has been mentioned that the heads of convents sometimes appeared in person before the justices in eyre. Dame Christina Basset, prioress of the Bene   [p. 366]   dictine nunnery of St Mary Prée in Hertfordshire, in the account of her expenditure between 1487--1489 had the following entry made: 'when I rode to London for the suit that was taken.'[3*] In 1368 the bishop of Sarum, in whose diocese Shaftesbury was, granted a dispensation to Joan Formage to go from her monastery to one of her manors to take the air and to divert herself .[4*] Complaints were made of the too frequent absence of their prioress by members of the Benedictine nunnery of Easebourne, at the visitation in 1441, when it was alleged that the prioress was in the habit of riding about and staying away on pretence of business more often than was deemed advantageous to the convent.[5*]

After her election by the convent, the lady superior made profession of canonical obedience to the bishop of her diocese and in some cases waited upon the patron of her house. The nunnery of St Mary's, Winchester, was one of the houses that held of the king. In 1265 Eufemia was received by Henry III, and her successor Lucia went to Winchester castle to be presented.[6*] In houses which held of the king it was part of the royal prerogative that on his coronation the king should recommend a nun to the convent. In connection with Shaftesbury we find this on record in the first year of Richard II 1377-1399) and again in the first of Henry V. In 1428, several years after the accession of Henry VI, who became king when a child, a royal mandate was issued to the abbess of Shaftesbury to admit Joan Ashcomb as a nun.[7*] And in 1430 the same king nominated Godam Hampton to be received as a nun at Barking.[8*]

All the versions of the Benedictine rule known to me speak of the head of the monastery as the abbot, and in the Winteney version, which was written for nuns in the 13th century, the head of the women's house is accordingly designated as abbess.[9*] But, probably because the number of abbesses was comparatively small, the translator of the rule of St Benedict, in the rhymed English version of the 5th century, speaks throughout of the prioress as head of the nunnery.[10*] It is the prioress (1. 337 ff.) who is to be honoured inside   [p. 367]   the abbey (sic) and out of it wherever she goes or rides, who shall be law in herself, who shall have no pride in her heart but ever love God, and who is responsible as a shepherd or herdsman for the women given into her care. All these injunctions are given in other versions of the rule to the abbot or abbess. It further says that the prioress shall not favour any one nun by letting her travel more than the rest,--a command evidently added by the translator. In another passage (1. 2116 ff.) closely following the original text it is enjoined that the prioress shall liberally entertain guests, but if it happens that there be none, she shall invite some of the older sisters to dine with her.

A detailed account is preserved of the formalities of the appointment of a prioress to the convent of St Radegund's at Cambridge.[11*] This settlement, founded about the middle of the 12th century, had experienced many vicissitudes, but was comparatively prosperous in the year 1457, when the death of the prioress, Agnes Seyntel, on September 8th, left its twelve inmates without a head. We gather from a charter that the first step taken after her demise was that the subprioress, Matilda Sudbury, and the convent sent information to the bishop of Ely asking for permission to appoint a successor. This being granted the nuns assembled on Sept. 23rd and fixed the 27th as the day of the election. On this day all the nuns were present at mass, and then three of them were chosen arbiters (compromissarias). These were Joan Lancaster, Elizabeth Walton and Katherine Sayntlow, who took the oath and gave their votes, and then they administered the oath to the other nuns, who gave their votes also. The form of administration of the oath and the oath itself are both given in Latin. The nuns were adjured 'by the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, at the peril of their soul, according to God and their conscience, to name and choose her as prioress who was most needful to the priory.' The form of oath corresponds to this adjuration.

The votes being then counted it was found that a majority of seven were in favour of the appointment of Joan Lancaster, whereupon Elizabeth Walton, being called upon by the others, declared the result of the election. The Te Deum was then sung and the prospective prioress, reluctantly in this case it seems, was led to the chief altar of the convent church, where she was left,   [p. 368]   while the result of the election was proclaimed to the people outside 'in the vulgar tongue.' All this happened before noon, when the nuns returned to the chapter-house and called upon Elizabeth Walton and Katherine Sayntlow to draw up the deeds of the election, and to lay them before the newly appointed prioress, who was requested to affirm her election at four o'clock in the vestibule of the church. After much persuasion Joan Lancaster yielded and accepted the election. The words of her speech are given; in them she declares that she is a free woman and legitimate, born in lawful wedlock, and therefore entitled to proffer her consent and assent. Eleven nuns put their signatures to this document, one of whom designates herself as subprioress and president, another as leader of the choir, succentrix, another as cellaress, celeraria, and another calls herself treasurer, thesaurissa.

In connection with the Benedictine convent of Langley, in Leicestershire, a further formality is recorded at the election of a new prioress. The permission of the patron of the house having been obtained, the nuns proceeded to elect a new prioress, and a page with a white staff sent by the patron guarded the door of the priory till the election was made. 'For which in right of his master he was to have his diet but nothing more.'[12*]

The form of consent by which an abbess accepted office is entered in the register of Bishop Lacy of Exeter. In 1449 Johan or Jane Arundell was appointed abbess of the Austin settlement of Legh or Canonlegh, in Devonshire.[13*] Her consent is drawn up in English, and in it she speaks of herself as sister Johan Arundell, mynchyn, an ancient word for nun which continued in use in the south of England till the time of the dissolution.

A previous chapter has shown that the appointment of a prioress in those nunneries which were cells to an abbey, depended on the abbot.[14*] In the houses which were independent and elected their own head, a licence from the bishop had to be secured. And if the nuns neglected to secure this licence before electing a superior difficulties were apt to occur. In the case of Catesby, a Benedictine house in Northamptonshire, such difficulties are repeatedly recorded. At the death of the prioress Johanna de Northampton (1291), the cellaress of the house was elected in her stead by the nuns; but the election having been made without a licence, the   [p. 369]   bishop of Lincoln declared it void. Afterwards however he confirmed it in consideration of the merits of the person elected. At her death similar neglect on the one side was followed by similar opposition on the other; the bishop first declared the election void and then confirmed it. The relation of Catesby to the diocesan continued to be a source of difficulties. In 1444 the prioress Agnes Terry was suspended from the conduct of all business relating to the revenues of the house during the bishop's pleasure, and a commission was granted to the abbot of St James in Northampton to inspect the accounts of the nunnery.[15*]

Sometimes neglect of the administration of the property of the house was the cause of the voluntary or forced resignation of a superior. Love of finery is represented as the cause of the ruin of the prioress Juliana of Bromhall in Berkshire, into whose conduct an enquiry was instituted in 1404. It was found on this occasion that she 'had injured the convent and her own character in that she had converted to her nefarious use, alienated and wasted chalices, books, jewelry (jocalia), the income and possessions' of the priory.[16*] She resigned, but it is not recorded whether she remained in the house. In several instances a deposed lady superior did remain in the convent. Thus Margaret Punder, prioress of Flixton, an Austin convent, resigned because of complaints of her negligence, but she remained in the house as a member of the convent.[17*]

The dignitaries of the Church took upon themselves to protect the abbess or prioress against violation of her rights by laymen; under social arrangements which made the nunnery the one place of safety for the unmarried daughters of the gentry, it is obvious that ecclesiastical and lay authorities would be of one mind in severely punishing those who failed to respect the nun's privileges.

In 1285 a knight carried off two nuns from the settlement at Wilton, 'which coming to the archbishop's ears he first excommunicated him, and subsequently absolved him on these conditions,-- first that he should never afterwards come within a nunnery or be in the company of a nun; then that on three Sundays running he should be whipped in the parish church of Wilton, and likewise three other days in the market and church of Shaftesbury; that he should fast a certain number of months; that he should not   [p. 370]   wear a shirt for three years; and lastly that he should not any more take the habit and title of a knight, but wear apparel of a russet colour until he had spent three years in the Holy Land.'[18*]

Where an abbess was at the head of a nunnery, the prioress and sub-prioress, and sometimes a second prioress and sub-prioress were appointed by her; where the settlement was ruled by a prioress it was she who appointed the sub-prioress. This is in accordance with the written rule of St Benedict, where the abbot nominates the praepositus or provost whose duties correspond to those of the prioress or sub-prioress.[19*] The rhymed version of the rule, in which the prioress is treated as chief in authority, says the sub-prioress (1. 1406 ff) shall be appointed by the prioress, 'for if it were done otherwise strife and debate might easily arise. This provision was dictated by the feeling that, if chosen by the convent, the person second in authority might presume. For this reason 'the sub-prioress, sexton and other such officers shall not be chosen but appointed as the prioress desires,' and if the sub-prioress does wrong and refuses to mend her ways 'out of the flock she shall be fled.'

The duties of the person second in authority consisted in seeing that the hours of divine service were rightly kept. A manuscript now at Oxford, written in English, which came from Barking nunnery gives directions as to the formal appointment of the prioress in that house.[20*] It belongs to the end of the 14th century. Barking it will be remembered was one of the chief abbeys for women. The manner in which the abbess appointed the person second to her in authority is described in the following passage: 'When a prioress is to be made, the abbess shall commend the rule to her, enjoining that she be helpful to her and maintain religion in accordance with the rule. And she shall set her in her seat. And then shall come the chaplain with incense towards her. And the abbess and she shall go before the convent into the choir. And then shall they go to St Alburgh, and the convent shall say the Levavi (Ps. 121, Levavi oculos meos, 'I lifted up my eyes'); and the prioress shall lie prostrate, and the abbess shall say the prayers aforesaid with the orison Oremus, etc. Then shall the prioress go to the choir; the chapter mass being Spintus Domini. And the same day shall be given to the convent a   [p. 371]   pittance or allowance of good fish. And when she dies, she must give to the convent...' Here the manuscript closes abruptly.

In houses of the Benedictine order the lady superior of the house, whether abbess or prioress, usually dwelt apart from the convent in a set of chambers or a small house of her own, where she received visitors and transacted business. In some of the largest houses the prioress, sub-prioress and sexton also had establishments of their own as we shall see presently. In Cistercian houses the arrangements seem to have varied, but in the majority of houses of the order, usually among Austin nuns and always among the nuns of St Clare, the head of the house lived in closer contact with the members of her convent and took her meals at the same table as the nuns.

The lady superior managed all the business of the house and presided at the meetings of the convent, the members of which fulfilled a number of functions which we will pass in rapid review. The full complement of offices was of course found in the larger houses only; in the smaller houses several posts were frequently held by one and the same person. Reference is most frequently made to the offices of sexton, cellaress, and chaplain,--these seem to have existed in almost every house.

The rhymed version of St Benedict's rule gives the following injunctions about the duties of the sexton (1. 1521 ff.):--She shall ring the bells to all the services night and day, and keep the ornaments of the church, the chalice, books, vestments, relics, and wax and annual rents. She shall preserve the vessels of the altar and keep them clean.'

Other versions of the rule, as far as I am aware, contain nothing about these duties. The sexton at Barking at the time of the Reformation was responsible for the receipt of considerable sums.[21*]

Duties of great importance devolved on the cellaress, who managed the receipts and expenditure appertaining to the food; certainly no light task and one that required considerable powers of management. On this point the versified rule of St Benedict closely follows the original rule. We are told (1. 1467 ff.) that the cellaress 'shall be chosen by counsel out of the community' she shall be wise and gentle and of mild ways, not hard like a shrew, nor slow nor mean in her dealings (grochand in hir dede), but gladly do her office and take special care of young children, poor guests   [p. 372]   and others that ask at her door, knowing that on the day of judgment she will have to render account.

Fortunately we are in possession of an extremely interesting document written in English about the year 1400. It came from Barking nunnery, and enables us to form some idea of the duties devolving on the cellaress.[22*] It is entitled 'Charthe longynge to the office of the celeresse,' and describes the duties of buying and selling, illustrating the economic condition of the house no less than the standard of living at that convent. From the manuscript the inference can be drawn that more than one cellaress was appointed at a time. The one whose duties are described in the 'Charthe' provides and deals out the food, and manages the receipts from the home farm. The 'Charthe' opens with injunctions how the cellaress, when she comes into office, must look after what is owing to the office by divers farmers and rent-gatherers and see that it be paid as soon as may be. A list follows of the sums she receives annually from various sources, --farms and rent for various tenements in London and elsewhere. She receives 'of the canons of St Paul's in London for a yearly rent by the year 22 shillings; and of the prior of the convent of St Bartholomew's in London by the year 17 shillings.' The following entries are curious. 'She should receive yearly of a tenement in Friday Street, London, but it is not known where it stands, 23 shillings and four pence; and she should receive 30 shillings of the rent of Tyburn, but it is not paid.

A list follows of the things she is to be charged with, from which it is evident that the duties of selling as well as of buying devolved on her. She is to be charged with the ox-skins she sells, also with the 'inwards' of oxen, and with tallow and messes of beef; 'and all these be called the issues of the larder.' If she sells hay from any farm belonging to her office, she must charge herself with it or let it be called 'the foreign receipt.'

She is then directed as to the stores she has to provide, which may be grouped under the headings of grain, flesh, fish, and condiments.

The grains include malt, of which she provides three quarters yearly for the 'tounes' of St Alburgh and Christmas, and she pays twenty pence to the brewer of each 'toune'--and wheat, of which a quarter and seven bushels are required, which go to the allowance or pittance of the four men and dames resident in the monastery,   [p. 373]   for making 'russeaulx,' perhaps some kind of cake, during Lent, and for baking eels on Shere Tuesday (Tuesday preceding Good Friday). She provides two bushels of peas every year in Lent, and one bushel of beans for the convent against Midsummer. Both peas and beans are evidently dried.

Under the heading buying of store' the only item she is mentioned as providing is twenty-two oxen a year, which she evidently feeds on her pasture. Another passage tells us that 'she shall slay but every fortnight if she be a good housewife.' A passage further on refers to her buying pigs and possibly sheep. Geese and fowls she apparently received from her own farm.

She buys fish in large quantities, principally herrings, some white,--that is fresh or slightly salted, some red,--that is salted, by the cade or by the barrel. A note at the end of the 'Charthe' states that a cask or 'cade of herrings is six hundred herrings,' 'the barrel of herrings is one thousand herrings.' Seven cades of white herrings and three barrels of the same she buys for Lent.

Also she must provide eighteen salt fish and fourteen or fifteen salt salmon for the convent in Lent. Eels are mentioned, but not that she bought them; no doubt they were caught on the convent property.

Of condiments the cellaress has to provide almonds, twelve lbs. for Lent; figs, three pieces[23*] and twenty-four lbs.; raisins, one piece; rice, twenty-eight lbs.; and mustard eight gallons. There is no mention of salt or of sugar as being provided for the nuns.

We are next informed of the cellaress' expenses in money. Here the peculiar word russeaulx' figures again, variously spelt. All the ladies of the convent, who at the time numbered thirty-six, are in receipt of 'ruscheauw sylver,' payable sixteen times in the year, 'but it is paid only twice now, at Easter and at Michaelmas.' The ladies also receive twopence each for crisps and crumcakes at Shrovetide. Wherever there is question of paying money or providing food in portions, the cellaress has to give double to the chief officers of the house, such as the prioress, the cellaress, etc., which suggests that they had a double ration either to enable them to feed their servant, or perhaps a visitor.

The cellaress further pays five annuities called 'anniversaries,' namely, to Sir William, vicar, to Dame Alice Merton, to Dame Maud, the king's daughter, to Dame Maud Loveland, and to   [p. 374]   William Dunn, who are residing in the monastery. William Dunn moreover receives twelve gallons of good ale with his annuity.

In 'offerings and wages' the cellaress shall pay twelve pence to the two cellaresses; to the steward of the household what time he brings money home from the courts 20 pence, and again at Christmas 20 pence; to my lady's (the abbess') gentlewoman 20 pence; 'to every gentleman 16 pence and to every yeoman as it pleases her to do, and grooms in like case.' The abbess receives a sugar-loaf at Christmas; her clerk is paid thirteen shillings and fourpence, her yeoman cook 26 shillings and eightpence for their wages. Her groom cook and her pudding wife (groin coke and poding wief) receive the gift of one gown a year of the value of two shillings.

A description follows of the food which the cellaress has to provide for the convent on special days in the year. 'A pece of whete' and three gallons of milk for 'frimete on St Alburgh's day' four bacon hogs twice in winter, 'and she must buy six grecys (young pigs), six sowcys (perhaps 'sowkin,' diminutive for young female hog, or else 'sowthes,' Middle English for sheep) for the convent and also six inwardys and 100 (?) egges to make white puddings' also bread, pepper and saffron for the same puddings, also three gallons of good ale for 'besons.' Other directions follow which are perplexing, such as 'mary bones to make white wortys '--can it be marrowbones to make white soup, or does 'bones' stand for buns? Again we hear of 'cripcis and crumcakes,' chickens, bonnes (buns?) at Shrovetide, and of '12 stubbe elles and 60 shafte[24*] elles,' to bake for the convent on Shere Thursday. When the abbess receives a bottle of Tyre (wine) at Easter time the convent receives two gallons of red wine. The convent receives three gallons of ale every week. Regarding the wine it is well to recall that grapes were grown to some extent in medieval England, and that after the dissolution, a vineyard of five acres is scheduled as part of the possessions of Barking nunnery.[25*]

A paragraph is devoted to the giving out of eggs. The thirty-seven ladies sometimes receive money instead of eggs, 'ey sylver,' as it is called; in one case the alternative is open to the cellaress of giving thirty-two eggs or of paying twopence. Butter also forms an important item in the 'Charthe' it is given out in 'cobbets,' three cobbets going to a dish.

  [p. 375]  

It likewise falls to the cellaress to hire pasture, to see to the mowing of her hay, to see that all manner of houses within her office be duly repaired, not only within the monastery but without, on her farms and manors.

The 'Charthe' returns to directions about food, and mentions among other things pork, mutton, geese, hens, bacon and oatmeal.

The following passages will give some idea of the language in which these directions are couched.

'And the under-celaress must remember at each principal feast, that my lady (the abbess) sits in the refectory, that is to wit five times in the year, at each time shall (she) ask the clerk of the kitchen (for) supper eggs for the convent, at Easter, Whitsuntide, the Assumption of Our Lady, at St Alburgh, and at Christmas; at each time to every lady two eggs, and each (person receiving) double that is the prioress, celaress and kitchener...'

'Also to remember to ask of the kitchen at St Alburgh's time, for every lady of the convent half a goose...also to ask at the said feast of St Alburgh of the said clerk for every lady of the convent one hen, or else a cock.' The manuscript, which is corrected in several places and has additions made by another hand, closes abruptly.

It is interesting to compare the directions about food found in the rule of St Benedict with the high standard of living suggested by the 'Charthe' of Barking. The rhymed version says († 1620) that she who is seeing to the kitchen shall provide each day two kinds of 'mete,' so that she who will not eat of one kind may take the other. The convent is also to be supplied with two kinds of pottage (thick soup?) daily. If they have apples of their own growing they shall partake of them; also each lady is to be given a pound of bread each day, which is to serve her for her three meals. The rule adds words to the effect that the 'celerer' may give an extra allowance of food if she sees need though always with caution for fear of gluttony. In regard to drink, wine and ale shall be 'softly' tasted.

It appears probable from this 'Charthe' to the cellaress that the office of Kitchener at Barking was a permanent appointment, which is curious considering that in an ordinary way the members of the convent were bound to serve in the convent kitchen as cook, each for the term of a week. The injunction is repeated in every version of the Benedictine rule known to me. According to the rhymed version of the north the nun who has served her term in   [p. 376]   the kitchen is directed to leave the kitchen and the vessels clean for her who succeeded her in office. When her time is up she shall kneel before the assembled members of the convent saying, 'Blessed be the Lord that has never failed me,' whereupon the nun who is to act as cook shall say, 'Lord, to my helping take thou heed.' But this injunction was evidently disregarded in the wealthier houses at a later date, for in connection with St Mary's, Winchester, we read of a convent-cook and an under convent-cook.[26*] A nun of Campsey, an Austin house consisting at the time of a prioress and eighteen nuns, complained at the visitation of the house in 1532 of the unpunctuality of the meals, which she ascribed to the fault of the cook (culpa coci),--using a term which suggests that the cook in this case was a man.[27*]

An appointment in the nunnery which has led to some controversy is that of chaplain, it being alleged by some writers that the chaplain of the convent was necessarily a man. Certainly in most houses, especially in the wealthier ones, there were men chaplains; for example at the nunnery of Shaftesbury, where men chaplains are mentioned by the side of the abbess in various early charters and played an important part. [28*] Again at St Mary's, Winchester, at the time of the dissolution, men chaplains were among those who are described as resident in the monastery;[29*] at Kilburn nunnery the fact that the chaplain who dwelt on the premises was a man is evident from the arrangement of the dwellings--three chambers which lie together being designated as set apart for the chaplain and the hinds or herdsmen.[30*] But the fact that the chaplain's office could be and was held by a woman is established beyond a doubt by the following information. In consequence of an episcopal visitation (1478) of -the Benedictine convent of Easebourne, injunctions were sent to the prioress, one of which directs that 'every week, beginning with the eldest, excepting the sub-prioress, she shall select for herself in due course and in turns one of her nuns as chaplain (capellanissam) for divine service and to wait upon herself.'[31*] This injunction is in accordance with   [p. 377]   the words of Chaucer, who says that the prioress who was on a pilgrimage to Canterbury had with her a nun who acted as chaplain to her (1. 163):


'Another Nonne also with hire hadde she
That was hire chapelleine, and preestes thre.'

In the accounts of visitations in the diocese of Norwich between 1492 and 1532 the designation chaplain applied to an inmate of a nunnery appears in the Benedictine house of Redlingfield, in the Austin priory of Campsey and in others. In Redlingfield at the visitation of 1514 the complaint is made against the prioress that she does not change her chaplain, and at Flixton in 1520 it is alleged that the prioress has no chaplain and sleeps by herself in her chamber away from the dormitory.[33*] At Elstow in Bedfordshire at the time of the surrender Katheryne Wyngate adds the designation 'chapellain' to her name,[34*] and among the nuns of Barking who were still in receipt of their pension in 1553 was Mathea Fabyan who is styled chaplain (capellan). How far the woman chaplain performed the same offices as the man chaplain seems impossible to tell; probably she recited the inferior services in the chapel of the nunnery.

In the rhymed version of the rule of St Benedict the office of chaplain is passed over, but in the poem of the 'Spiritual Convent' written by the beguine Mechthild, of which a former chapter has given an account, the chaplain is a woman. And similarly the English version of this poem called the 'Ghostly Abbey' which is attributed to John Alcock, bishop of Ely († 1500), refers to women chaplains. It says God had ordered His four daughters to come and dwell in the abbey; Charity was made abbess and to her Mercy and Truth were to be as 'chapeleyns,' going about with her wherever she goes. He bade also that Righteousness should be with Wisdom who was prioress, and Peace with Mekeness who was sub-prioress, Charity, Wisdom and Mekeness having chaplains because they were 'most of worship.'[35*]

I have found very little information about the arrangements made in the nunnery for the young people who boarded with and were taught by the nuns, and hardly a clue is to be had as to   [p. 378]   the number of those who might stay in one house at the same time. The only allusion on this point is to St Mary's, Winchester, where twenty-six girls, mostly daughters of knights, were staying at the time of the dissolution. Rogers refers to a roll of expenditure of the Cistercian priory, Swine, in Yorkshire, on which he says are enumerated a number of young persons, daughters of the surrounding gentlefolk, who lived 'en pension' in this small community;[36*] and Rye has compiled a list of those who boarded at Carrow at different times.[37*] From 'The Death of Philip Sparrow,' a poem written by John Skelton (t 1529), we gather that the girl who is represented as intoning the lament over a tame bird, lived and boarded with the 'Nuns Black' at Carrow, where her sparrow was devoured by the cat, whereupon she took out a sampler and worked the sparrow in stitches of silk for her solace.[38*] Apparently not only girls, but boys also, were given into the care of nuns, for injunctions forwarded to Romsey in 1310 by the bishop of Winchester forbade that boys and girls should sleep with the nuns or be taken by them into the choir during divine service.[39*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Rumsey,' vol. 2, p. 507, footnote p. Injunctions sent to Redlingfield in 1514 also directed that boys should not sleep in the dormitory;[40*] and Bishop Kentwode in the directions he sent to St Helen's in London ordered that none but 'mayd learners' should be received into that nunnery.[41*] In the year 1433 Catherine de la Pole, abbess of Barking, petitioned Henry V. for a sum of money due to her for the maintenance of Edward and Jasper Tudor, sons of Catherine, the queen dowager, by Owen Tudor. It seems that these boys were receiving their education at this abbey.[42*] But the popularity of the convent even as an educational establishment began to decrease at the close of the 14th century. Judging from the Paston Letters it was no longer customary in Norfolk to send girls to board with the nuns; they were sent to stay away from home with some other country family.

Other offices held by members of the convent are as follows: thesaurissa,--the nun bursar who was responsible for the revenues coming through the Church; the precentrix and succentrix,-- the   [p. 379]   leaders and teachers of the choir, who are sometimes mentioned together (Campsey); the cameraria or chambress,--who saw to the wardrobe; the infirmaria or keeper of the infirmary,--who took charge of the sick nuns; the refectuaria,--who had the care of the refectory or dining hail the elemosinaria,--who distributed alms the magistra noviciarum,--who taught the novices. The cantarista occurs in connection with Sheppey; no doubt she is identical with the precentrix of other places. The further designations of tutrix, or teacher, occurs in connection with Shaftesbury, and eruditrix, instructress, in connection with Thetford; I have not come across these terms elsewhere.

All these appointments were made by the superior of the house and declared in the presence of the convent, and all except those of chaplain and kitchener seem to have been permanent. The chaplain was probably changed because it was a privilege to go about with the abbess, and the kitchener because of the hard work her duties involved. On the death of the abbess often the prioress, sometimes the cellaress, was appointed to succeed her, but not necessarily so.

Having so far treated of the duties of the convent inmates, we will examine the form of admission for novices and the daily routine of the nun.

According to the rhymed rule of St Benedict (1. 2155) the girl who was old enough to be admitted as nun into a religious community was granted entry as a novice and after two months had 'the law read to her, and then the question was put if she wished to stay or to go. If she stayed, it was for six months; after which, if still desirous of being received, she proffered her petition to the abbess. If after twelve months she still persisted in her resolution, she was received as a member of the convent and pronounced these words before the altar: 'Suscipe me, domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam. Et non confundas me in expectatione mea.' The formal profession or consecration was undertaken by the bishop, who visited the nunnery periodically, but as these visits were often years apart, it is probable that the declaration made before the superior of a house and the priest constituted a novice a member of a convent, and for all practical purposes made her a nun. Fosbroke is of opinion that the girl who entered at the age of twelve made profession after she had passed a year in the community: he adds that she was consecrated by the bishop when she had reached the age of twenty-five and not   [p. 380]   before.[43*] But it is impossible to draw a line between profession and consecration, as the 'non-professed' nun was invariably the nun who had not been installed by the bishop. In 1521 at the visitation of Rusper the settlement consisted of the prioress, one professed nun and two nuns entered on the list as not professed, of whom one declared that she had lived there awaiting profession for twelve years, the other for three.[44*] Women who had been professed at one house were sometimes inmates of another; and I have not found any remark which leads to the inference that this was thought objectionable. A nun residing at Rusper was afterwards prioress of Easebourne. The record of a visitation at Davington in Kent (1511) shows that the convent contained four inmates, of whom two were professed nuns. The one, professed at Cambridge, had been there for twenty years; the other, professed at Mailing, had been there for ten. The other two inmates entered on the list as not professed were girls of ten and fifteen.[45*]

The consecration of nuns was a very ancient and solemn rite. Several forms of the office as celebrated in England are in existence.[46*] One comes from the monastery of St Mary's, Winchester, and is contained in a manuscript written probably soon after 1500; the directions are in English, but the words in which the bishop addressed the maidens and their answers are in Latin. Another manuscript written about 1480 contains the office as used in the diocese of Lincoln, with prayers in English and rubrics in Latin; it contains also various directions and addresses omitted in the other manuscript. A third is throughout in English.

These forms of consecration show that after the celebration of the office of high mass in church the prospective nuns entered, each bearing a habit, a veil, a ring and a scroll. The form of interrogation they were put through and the prayers they recited during the installation are given. The declaration was made by the nuns in Latin and runs as follows: 'I, sister..., promise steadfastness (stabilitatem), continuance in virtue (conversionem morum meorum), and obedience before God and all His saints.' We   [p. 381]   also have the declaration of four nuns who were installed by the bishop of Ely at Chatteris, which is couched in similar terms.[47*] The nun in this case made her promise 'in accordance with the rule of St Benedict in this place, Chatteris, built in honour of St Mary, in the presence of the reverend father in Christ, William, bishop of Ely,' adding 'I subscribe this with my own hand,' whereupon she made the sign of the cross on the scroll which she carried in her hand and from which she had read her declaration. The form of declaration made at Rusper in Sussex in the year 1484 is similar, but the nun further promises 'to live without property (sine proprio)' of her own.[48*]

For several days after her consecration the nun lived in retirement, strictly observing the rule of silence. She then resumed her ordinary duties in church, cloister, refectory and dormitory. She usually kept within the convent close, but she was not altogether cut off from intercourse with the outside world. The rhymed rule of St Benedict of the north, transcribing the passages which refer to the monk's going abroad if need be, adapts them to the use of the nun (1. 2450), 'when a sister is going to her father, mother, or other friends, she shall take formal leave of the convent. And if she is away on an errand (1. 1967), she shall not stay away for a meal though invited to do so unless she has asked leave before going. And again (1. 1957) if she be away during Lent and cannot attend service in church she shall not forget to keep the hours by saying her prayers. And again (1. 2094), when nuns go away into the country they shall wear 'more honest' clothes (that is clothes more clearly showing their profession), which they can take off on coming home for simpler ones. From passages such as these we gather that nuns sometimes stayed away from their convent, leave of absence having been procured; and that besides pilgrimages and business, friendly intercourse with their relatives might take them away from the convent for a time.

The day at the convent was divided by the canonical hours stated times fixed by ecclesiastical law for prayer and devotion.[49*] The hours since the 6th century were seven in number, viz, matins, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers or evensong, and compline.

  [p. 382]  

During winter a night office was said in church at the eighth hour, that is at two o'clock in the morning, when the matutmae laudes were sung, but the time for that was variable. 'Then shall they rise to sing and read, and after that she who has need may have meditations' (Rhymed rule, 1. 1166). Between Easter and winter however the rule says 'that the nuns shall unto matins rise when the day begins to dawn that they their letters well may know.' Injunctions sent to Easebourne in 1524 direct the prioress to hold matins at the sixth hour, that is at midnight. Matins were followed by a period of rest, probably till five o'clock, when the nuns rose and assembled in the choir to celebrate the office of prime. This was followed by business transacted in the chapter house, by a meal and by work. According to the prose versions of the Benedictine rule children were taught between prime and tierce.

At tierce a short chapter-mass was sung followed by continued study; 'from terce to sext the nuns shall read lessons' (1. 1905). At eight the nuns assembled in the choir for the celebration of High Mass, the principal service of the day, after which came the chief meal. This was served in the refectory; 'the convent when they sit at meat for to read shall not forget' (1. 1739); and while reading went on 'if any of them need aught softly with signs they shall it crave' (1. 1754). The time of the meal was moveable. In summer the nuns were to eat at the sext, but on Wednesdays and Fridays they were to fast till nones, that is noon, except 'they swink and sweat in hay or corn with travail great' (1. 1768), when the time might be altered at the will of the superior. Between December and Lent they always ate at nones. If they eat early 'then shall they sleep and silence keep' (1. 1910) till nones, from which time till evensong work was resumed.

About three o'clock, vespers, that is evensong, once more assembled the convent inmates in church. The celebration of evensong partook of the solemnity of the celebration of high mass. In the monks' houses at high mass and at vespers the youths who were supported there for the purpose attended and joined the brethren in their choral service. In the nuns' houses the arrangements for the girls who dwelt with the nuns were similar, at least in some cases. After vespers came supper, arid then 'the nuns could sit where they would and read lessons of holy writ or else the lives of holy men' (1. 179 Q, until the tolling of the bell summoned them to the chapter-house, where they joined   [p. 383]   their superior. Compline completed the religious exercises of the day. After this the nuns retired to the dormitory, where silence unbroken was to be observed. Inside the dormitory, curtains, in some houses if not in all, were hung so as to separate bed from bed.

The celebration of the hours formed at all times the great feature of monastic life, and in itself involved a considerable amount of labour, especially during the later period, when the ritual of service had become very elaborate. Indolence and ease might creep in between whiles, deterioration might take place in the occupations of the nuns between hours, but the observance of the hours themselves constituted the nun's privilege and her raison dêttre, and was at all times zealously upheld.


[1*] Cf. Above, p. 204.

[2*] Dugdale, Monasticon,'Shaftesbury,' vol. 2, p. 473.

[3*] Dugdale, Monasticon,'St Mary Prée,' vol. 3, p. 353, charter nr 9.

[4*] Ibid. 'Shaftesbury,' vol.2 , p. 474.

[5*] Blaauw, W. H., 'Episcopal Visitations of the Benedictine Nunnery of Easebourne,' Sussex ArcheoL Collections, vol. 9, p. 7.

[6*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'St Mary Winchester,' vol. 2, p. 452, footnote.

[7*] Ibid. 'Shaftesbury,' vol. 2, p. 473.

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

[9*] Schroer, Winteney Version der regula St Benedicti, 1888, p. 16.

[10*] Edit. Koelbing, Englische Studien, vol. 2, pp. 60 ff. (line references in the text throughout this section are to this version).

[11*] Shermann, A. J. Hist. Coll. Jesus Contab,edit. Halliwell, 1840, p. 16.

[12*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Langley,' vol. 4, p. 220.

[13*] Maskell, W., Monumenta Ritualia, 1882, vol. 3, p. 358 footnote.

[14*] Cf. above, p. 206.

[15*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Catesby' vol. 4, p. 635.

[16*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Bromball,' vol. 4, p. 506.

[17*] Jessopp, A., Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich (1492--1532), pp. 185, 190, 318.

[18*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Wilton,' vol. 2, p. 317.

[19*] Benedictus, Regula, c. 65 (in Migne, Patrol. Cursus Compl. vol. 66).

[20*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Barking,' vol. I, p. 437, footnote k.

[21*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Barking,' vol. 1, p. 445 Computus.

[22*] Dugdale, Monasticon, charter nr 15.

[23*] I am unable to ascertain the quantity indicated by the 'price.'

[24*] I am unable to ascertain the differences between 'stubbe' and 'shafte.'

[25*] Rogers, Th., Six Centuries of Work and Wages, 1884, p. 101.

[26*] Dugdale, Monasticon,'St Mary's, Winchester,' vol. 2,p. 451,charter nr 4.

[27*] Jessopp, A., Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich (1492--1532), p. 290.

[28*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Shaftesbury,' vol. 2, p. 472.

[29*] Ibid. 'St Mary, Winchester,' vol. 2, p. 451, charter nr. 4.

[30*] Ibid. 'Kilburn,' vol. 3, p. 424.

[31*] Blaauw, W. A., 'Episcopal Visitations of the Benedictine Nunnery of Easebourne,' Sussex Arch. Collections, vol. 9, p. 15.

[32*] Jessopp, A., Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich (1492--1532), p. 138.

[33*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Elstow,' vol. 3, p. 411, charter nr 8.

[34*] Ibid. 'Barking,' vol. ,p. 438, footnote b.

[35*] 'Here begynneth a matere' etc. (by John Alcock (?)), printed by Wynkyn de Worde (1500), last page but one.

[36*] Six Centuries of Work and Wages, 1884, p. 166.

[37*] Rye, W., Carrow Abbey, 1889, p. 48ff.

[38*] Skelton, Poetical Works, 1843, vol. 1, p. 51, 'Phyllyp Sparowe.'

[40*] Jessopp, A., Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich (1492--1532), p. 140.

[41*] Dugdale, Monasticon, St. Helen's,' vol. 4, p. 551, charter nr 3.

[42*] Ibid. 'Barking,' vol. 1, p. 437, footnote m.

[43*] Fosbroke, British Monachism, 1843, p. 176.

[44*] Way, A., 'Notices of the Benedictine Priory of St Mary Magdalen, at Rusper,' Sussex Arch. Collections, vol. 5, p. 256.

[45*] Bateson, M., 'Visitations of Archbishop Warham in 1511,' in English Hist. Review, vol. 6, 1891, p. 28.

[46*] Maskell, W., Monumenta Rit., 1882, vol. 3, p. 331, 'The order of consecration of Nuns,' from Cambridge Fol. Mm. 3. 13, and Lansdown MS., 388; p. 360 'The manner to make a Nun,' from Cotton MS., Vespasian A. 25, fol. 12.

[47*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Chatteris,' vol. 2, p. 614.

[48*] Way, A., 'Notices of the Benedictine Priory of St Mary Magdalen at Rusper, Sussex Arch. Collections, vol. 5, p. 256.

[49*] Comp. Smith and Cheethaai, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, 1875, article 'Hours of Prayer.

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