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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)

View all of MONASTIC REFORM PREVIOUS TO THE REFORMATION.

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Visitations of Nunneries in England.

THE changes which came over convent life towards the close of the Middle Ages and modified its tenor can be studied in the efforts made to reform monastic life in the centuries preceding the Reformation. Both in England and abroad the heads of many houses were zealous in removing abuses which their predecessors had suffered to creep in, and in checking tendencies the deteriorating effect of which now first came to be realized. The bull promulgated by Pope Benedict XII in 1336 with a view to reforming the Benedictine order had been accepted with a reservation in England and had left matters in Germany practically untouched. But in the 15th century a movement in favour of reform was inaugurated within the religious orders themselves; it was increased by pressure brought to bear on monastic houses from without. For the prelates of the Church as well as others were eager to interfere with monastic settlements, all the more as such interference frequently tended to the increase of their own prerogative. But in spite of the devoted earnestness of many individuals and the readiness of convents to accept correction, the movement failed to restore its former glory to an institution which in common with other influential institutions of the Middle Ages appeared doomed to decay.

The attempts of the monastic orders to restore vigour to themselves, and the efforts of the Church to promote monastic   [p. 399]   reform, were largely furthered by the desire to counteract the dangers to the established religion which threatened from the spread of heretical teaching.

In England a critical attitude towards monastic institutions and the Church was the outcome of Wyclif's († 1384) influence. It was checked for the time being by the alliance of the Church with the Lancastrian kings (after 1399) in favour of a reactionary policy. Several monasteries were endowed by these kings, among them houses of Carthusian monks and Sion, as mentioned above. Reforms were instituted and the prelates of the Church eagerly resumed their powers of visitation. By so doing they succeeded in checking monastic abuses, which continued to exist for a longer period on the Continent and there assumed much greater proportions.

In Germany, owing partly to its scattered provinces, partly to the want of concerted action between the dignitaries of Church and State, monasteries throughout the 14th century were left to drift in the way they listed, often in the direction of indifferentism, often in that of positive evil. The abuses of convent life at the beginning of the 15th century were far greater there than in England, and the efforts at reform were proportionally greater and more strenuous. In Germany also the effort to counteract the effect of heretical doctrines by way of reform was decisive. For, as we shall see later on, monastic reforms on a large scale were instituted immediately after the Church Council at Constance (1415) which condemned Hus to the stake.

The accounts of visitations instituted by the diocesan give us an insight into the abuses which threatened life in the nunnery at different periods. The diocesan was bound to visit the religious settlements situated within his diocese periodically, with the exception of those which had secured exemption through the Pope. For some time before the movement in favour of monastic reform began, these visitations appear to have taken place at irregular intervals and at periods often many years apart. But afterwards they became frequent, and called forth injunctions which give us an idea of the abuses which needed correction. Later still these powers of visitation of the diocesan were extended by means of special permits secured from Rome. Towards the close of the 15th century we find the prelates of the Church eager to interfere with monasteries, and regain a hold on those which had been removed from their influence.

  [p. 400]  

The visitation of a religious house in all cases was so conducted that the diocesan previously sent word to the convent announcing his arrival. After assisting at mass in the chapel, he repaired to the chapter-house and there severally interrogated the superior of the house and its inmates as to the state of affairs. Their depositions were taken down in writing and were discussed at headquarters. A list of injunctions rectifying such matters as called for correction was then forwarded in writing to the superior of the house.

Among the earliest injunctions forwarded to a nunnery which I have come across are those sent to Godstow after a visitation held in 1279 by John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury.[1*] The first part treats of the celebration of the divine offices and of the part novices are to take in the singing. The feast of St John which is celebrated by childish festivities (puerilia solemnia), no doubt in accordance with an ancient folk custom, is not to be extended to a second day. Directions are then given about going outside precincts and staying away on business. The nuns are directed not to converse with the neighbouring students at Oxford (scholares Oxonii) unless they have permission to do so from the abbess, and to knit no bonds of friendship with them, 'because such affection often brings harmful thoughts.'

The attraction which the students at Oxford exerted on the nuns of Godstow has a counterpart at a later date in the effect which intercourse with the students at Cambridge had on the nuns of St Radegund's. When John Alcock, bishop of Ely († 1500), proposed the dissolution of this nunnery he urged that the nearness of the university had led to the demoralisation of the prioress and the nuns.[2*]

In the directions forwarded to Godstow we also find it enjoined that secular and religious visitors shall dine in the guest-house (hospitalaria communi) or in the chamber of the abbess, and on no account within the convent precincts with the nuns. Directions are also given as to the wearing of simple clothes, in which matter 'the rule of Benedict' (sic) shall be observed. These directions are not easy to understand. 'Linings of dyed woollen (imposterum burneto),'[3*] say they, 'shall not be worn; nor red dresses (rugatas tunicas) nor other unseemly clothes wide at the sides.'

Archbishop Peckham, who reformed abuses at Godstow, ad-   [p. 401]   dressed a mandate to the abbess of Romsey in 1286 against a certain prebendary William Shyrlock, who seems to have been one of the residential canons of the place. He is not to presume to enter the cloister or the church while suspicions are entertained against him, and the nuns are not to converse with him in the house or elsewhere, for he is accused of living a dishonest and dissolute life.[4*] No aspersion in this case is cast on the doings of the nuns.

A serious scandal is said to have occurred about the year 1303 in the Cistercian nunnery of Swine in Yorkshire, but details concerning its nature are not forthcoming. In consequence of an enquiry into the state of the house the prioress resigned, and her successor also absented herself, it is alleged, on account of some scandal.[5*]

The nunneries which were cells to abbeys of men were exempt from the visitation of the diocesan; they were inspected by the abbot of the parent house, who enquired into abuses and enjoined corrections. A mandate of this description which was forwarded to Sopwell nunnery, a cell of St Alban's, by the abbot in 1338 is in existence. The nuns are directed to observe silence in the church, the cloister, the refectory, and the dormitory. No sister shall hold converse with secular persons in the parlour unless she is wearing a cowl and a veil; and tailors and others who are employed shall work in some place assigned to them outside the convent precincts.[6*]

Among the injunctions sent to Chatteris in Cambridgeshire in the year 1345 the following are worth noticing: Nuns shall not keep fowls, dogs or small birds (aviculae) within the convent precincts, nor bring them into church during divine service, and they shall not, from a wish to reform them, take into their employ servants who are known for their bad ways.[7*]

In April of the year 1397 a visitation of the nunnery of NunMonkton in Yorkshire was conducted by Thomas Dalby, archdeacon of Richmond, who acted for the archbishop of York.[8*] He accused the prioress Margaret Fairfax of allowing various kinds of fur to be worn in her house, especially grey fur. He also objected to the wearing of silk veils and to the prioress herself acting as treasurer (bursaria) of the house, and charged her with having   [p. 402]   alienated its property to the value of a hundred marks. He censured her for entertaining John Munkton, and inviting him to dinner in her chamber, and for allowing the use of unusual vestments and clothes; for too readily receiving back nuns who had disgraced their profession (lapsae fornicatione); and for allowing nuns to receive gifts from friends to support them. He also complained that John Munkton behaved badly, had dallied (ludit) with the prioress at meals in her chamber, and had been served there with drink.

Injunctions were forwarded in the following July to rectify these matters, and directing the prioress to have no communication with Dominus John Munkton, William Snowe or Thomas Pape, except in the presence of the nuns. The usual vestments were to be worn in church, and the nuns were enjoined not to wear silk garments (paneis), silk veils, precious furs, finger rings, and embroidered or ornamental jupes, in English called gowns, like secular women. They were not to neglect the commemoration of the dead under penalty of being deprived of special clothes (carentiae camisarum?) for two whole weeks.

The general tenor of these injunctions argues a want of management on the part of the lady superior and a tendency to luxury among the nuns. As time wore on complaints about mismanagement of revenues became more frequent, but they were accompanied by evidence of increasing poverty, especially in the smaller houses, which shows that the lady superior was labouring under difficulties for which she was not altogether responsible.

A serious blow was dealt to the monastic system by the Black Death, which began in 1349. It produced a temporary collapse of discipline and indifference-to religion,[9*] and resulted in changes in the state of agriculture and the position of the labourer, which affected the poorer and smaller houses in a disastrous manner.

Thus we read about Thetford, a small Benedictine nunnery in Norfolk,[10*] that the nuns' revenues had much decreased through mortality and inundation since 1349, and that when Henry V levied a tax on religious houses, Thetford, which consisted at the time of a prioress and nine nuns, was excused on the plea of poverty. The increasing poverty of the house is evident from accounts of visitations between 1514 and 1520.[11*] On one occasion   [p. 403]   the nuns declared they were short of service books; on another that the prioress received illiterate and deformed persons (indoctae et deformes) into the house; and again that there was great poverty and that the few novices had no teacher.

Again we read of Mailing in Kent that it was excused from payments in 1404; in 1349 the bishop of Rochester had found it so decayed as to be hardly. capable of restoration.[12*] Two abbesses had died of the pestilence; there were only eight inmates left in the house, four of whom were professed and four non-professed.

Mailing recovered itself, but not so Wyrthorp in Northampton-shire, where Emma de Pinchbeck and many of the Austin nuns fell victims to the pestilence.[13*] The archbishop appointed Agnes Bowes as prioress, but the convent was beyond recovery. In 1354 Sir Th. Holland, the patron of the house, petitioned that it should be united to the nunnery at Stamford, to which its prioress and the one remaining nun removed.[14*] In the royal licence which secured this change it is stated 'that the convent being poorly endowed was by the pestilence which lately prevailed reduced to such poverty that all the nuns but one on account of penury had dispersed.' In the course of the 14th century other nunneries complained of insufficient revenue and poverty, among them Seton in Cumberland,[15*] St Sepulchre's at Canterbury in 1359,[16*] and Rusper and Easebourne which were both situated in Sussex.

In a few cases accounts are preserved of successive visitations to the same nunnery extending over a number of years, which afford a valuable record of part of the life-history of the house. The visitations conducted between 1442 and 1527 at Rusper and at Easebourne are most instructive as showing the gradual collapse which many of the smaller houses experienced.

The chief complaint made during the visitation of Rusper in 1442 was that the prioress of the house had failed to render account to the sisterhood during the term she had held office.[17*] She was consequently enjoined by the bishop of Chichester to produce an account year by year and submit it to him and to the sisterhood. Some thirty years later in 1478 upon enquiry it was found that   [p. 404]   the convent was in debt, and the bishop asked for an inventory of the house, which was drawn up for him. The community at this time consisted of the prioress and five nuns, four of whom are entered as professed, one as non-professed.

Again in 1484 the bishop visited Rusper, and three nuns were consecrated on this occasion. But the house had entered on a downward course of poverty and decay. In 1485 Rusper was exempted from paying subsidy on the plea of poverty. During the visitation of 1521 the nuns referred their pecuniary poverty to the onerous expenses caused by the too frequent visits of friends and relations who came to stay with the prioress, while the prioress herself referred the poverty to other reasons, but agreed that the house was fast going to ruin. No complaints were made at the visitation three years later (1524), except against a certain William Tychen, who sowed discord. Again in 1527 the prioress and nuns deposed that all was well in the house, but that its poverty was extreme and that it was on the brink of ruin.

The accounts of the visitations to Easebourne[18*] are even more instructive, for there the deteriorating effects of mismanagement and poverty were increased by want of discipline and quarrelsomeness among the nuns. In 1414 the community consisted of the prioress and six or seven nuns. In 1437 and 1439 its poverty was already so great that letters patent were secured on the plea of insufficient revenue, exonerating the prioress and her convent from certain payments called for by the clergy. In 1441 the house was in debt to the amount of £ 40, and here also the convent cast the blame of mismanagement on the head of the house, referring the debts to 'costly expenses of the prioress, who frequently rides abroad, and pretends she does so on the common business of the house, though it is not so, with a train of attendants much too large, and tarries long abroad, and she feasts sumptuously both at home and abroad... And while she does so the members of the convent are made to work like hired workwomen, and they receive nothing whatever for their own use from their work, but the prioress takes the whole profit.'

In reply to their complaints the bishop forbade the prioress to compel the sisters to continual work; 'and if they should wish of their own accord to work, they shall be free to do so, but yet so that they may receive for themselves the half part of what   [p. 405]   they gain by their hands; the other part shall be converted to the advantage of the house and unburdening its debts.' But discharging those debts was no easy matter. The prioress was commanded to sell her costly fur trimmings for the advantage of the house, and if she rode abroad to spend only what was needful, and to content herself with four horses. The administration of temporal goods was taken from her altogether and given to 'Master Thomas Boleyn and John Lylis, Esquire.' But under their management the debt of £ 40 had increased in nine years to £ 66; and in 1475, as again in 1485 and 1489, the house had to be excused from payments. Rumours of an unfavourable character about what went on in the house now reached the bishop, and before the next visitation in 1478, the prioress Agnes Tauke was summoned to Chichester, where she promised on her oath before the bishop and others to resign her office if called upon to do so.

The deposition made by her nuns during the ensuing visitation confirmed the unfavourable rumours; two nuns had left the priory ostensibly for their health and were abroad in apostasy. One nun referred this conduct to neglect on the part of the prioress, another to that of the chaplain, John Smyth, who confessed to having sealed or caused to be sealed a licence to one of the nuns to go out of the priory after having had criminal intercourse with her. Other complaints were made against the prioress, 'that she had her kinsmen staying with her for weeks at the priory and gave them the best food, while the nuns had the worst' also that she was herself of bad character. But these recriminations were not accepted by the bishop. The desire of Agnes Tauke to improve matters was accepted as genuine and she was not called upon to resign.

Discontent however remained a standing characteristic of the nuns at Easebourne. At the visitation of 1521 the prioress deposed that the nuns lived honestly and religiously according to the rule of St Augustine (sic) and were sufficiently obedient to her, but the nun sexton blamed the prioress for not making up any account annually as she ought in presence of the sisters concerning her administration of goods,' and another nun deposed that she neglected to provide for the sisters the sum of thirteen shillings and four pence in money to which they were entitled. Again in 1524 the prioress deposed that all was well, but the sub-prioress complained of disobedience, both among the professed and the non-professed nuns, who on their side complained of harshness of treatment. The bishop believed the complaints of the latter   [p. 406]   and blamed the behaviour of the sub-prioress, who submitted to correction.

The recriminations of the nuns at Easebourne recall a picture drawn about this time by Langland (c. 1390) in the Vision of Piers the Ploughman, in which Wrath personified as a friar describes how he stirred up quarrels in a nunnery. In its earliest version the poem omits these passages; and Langland, so ready to abuse and ridicule monk and friar, is chary in his references to nuns. In the later versions of his poem (text B and C) 'Wrath' is described as acting first as gardener and then as cook in a nunnery, where in the character of 'the prioress' potager and of other poor ladies,' he 'made them broths of various scandals.' Among the stories he set going was

'that Dame Johane was a bastard
And Dame Glance a knight's daughter, a cuckold was her sire,
And Dame Purnell a priest's concubine, she will never become prioress,
For she had a child in cherry time, all our chapter it wist.'

In consequence the nuns fall to quarrelling among themselves and end with attacking one another bodily. The picture, even if overdrawn, proves, in conjunction with the temper of the nuns at Easebourne, that peaceableness no longer formed the invariable concomitant of convent life during the 15th century.

Various particulars in the history of men's houses corroborate the fact that considerable changes were going on inside the monastic body during the 15th century.

Reference has been made to the fluctuations in the history of alien priories. Some of the foreign houses, aware of the dangers to which their English colonies were exposed, advocated the sale of their property in England. Numerous grammar-schools and colleges profited by the change or owed their foundation directly to it. As early as xo William Wykeham bought estates of alien priories for New College, his foundation at Oxford. Waynfleet, bishop of Worcester, who in 1415 founded St Mary Magdalen College at Oxford, annexed to it Sele, an alien priory which had been admitted to denizenship.[19*] It is noteworthy that some religious houses about this time dissolved of their own accord. Thus the master and brethren of St John's hospital at Oxford obtained leave from Henry VI to convey their house to Wayn   [p. 407]   fleet.[20*] The Austin priory of Selborne, which 'had become a desert convent without canons or prior,' was likewise annexed to St Mary Magdalen College, a change which was ratified by a bull from Innocent VIII in 1486.[21*]

It has already been said that a change of attitude towards religious institutions on the part of the public was the direct outcome of the spread of Wyclif's teaching. In 1410 Sir John Old-castle, the so-called leader of the Lollards, who was burnt for heresy eight years later, made a proposal in the House of Commons which is curious in various ways. It was to the effect that their temporalities should be taken from bishop, abbot and prior, and the revenues of their possessions employed to pay a standing army, to augment the income of the noblemen and gentry, to endow a hundred hospitals and to make small payments to the clergy.[22*] No notice in this case was taken of the donors or representatives of the settlement, to whom land and tenements upon default, or neglect of those to whom they were granted, otherwise reverted. The proposal was accompanied by a list of monasteries which might be appropriated, but the proposal was summarily quashed.

The Church Council held at Basel (from 1418), at which English prelates also were present, was emphatic in urging the need of monastic reform. It would be interesting to ascertain if this was prompted solely by the feeling that the recognised abuses of convent life lowered religion in general estimation, or if suspicions were entertained that religious houses might be harbouring unorthodox elements. Great efforts at reform were made within the Benedictine order; chapters were held by the abbots at regular intervals and the system of visitations formulated for mutual supervision and control by the various monasteries once more received attention. We shall see this system in full operation on the Continent. In England we have accounts of several chapters of Benedictine abbots held between 1422 and 1426, in which reports of extensive visitations were given.[23*] The chapter of 1473 appointed the abbot of St Albans (Alboin, 1464--1476) to visit at Glastonbury, and the abbot of Eynsham to visit at St Albans.[24*]

Churchmen on all sides were eager to promote monastic reforms   [p. 408]   and interfere with monastic privileges. In 1418 Pope Martin V sent a bull to the archbishop of Canterbury bidding him hold visitations regularly.[25*] But the story of the gradual encroachment of the Church on monastic privilege and property is less striking in England than abroad, for the independent spirit of individual houses was less strong, and convents generally, especially those of women, seem to have yielded without opposition to the claims made by energetic churchmen. Some monasteries of men, however, resented interference and maintained their rights. An episode in this struggle deserves attention, as it reflects unfavourably on two nunneries which were dependencies of the abbey of St Albans. There was a long-standing jealousy between the lord abbot of St Albans and the lord primate of Canterbury, renewed by a quarrel between Abbot Wallingford and Archbishop Bourchier, which had been decided in favour of the former. The abbey enjoyed exemption from episcopal visitation, not only for itself but for its dependencies or cells, among which were the nunneries of Sopwell and St Mary Prée. In 1489 Archbishop Morton of Canterbury secured a Papal bull[26*] which empowered him to visit all the monasteries of his diocese, those subject to his visitation and those exempt from it. And this, as the document says, 'not only because the former strictness of life is abandoned.. .but also because life is luxurious and dissolute.'

In consequence of the authority conferred by this bull the primate penned a letter[27*] to the abbot of St Albans containing charges of a serious nature. After a few opening sentences it continues in the following strain:

'.... Moreover, among other grave enormities and wicked crimes of which you are accused and for which you are noted and defamed, you admitted a certain married woman named Elena Germyn, who some time ago wrongfully left her husband and lived in adultery with another man, to be sister and nun in the house or priory of Prée, which you hold to be in your jurisdiction; and there you appointed her prioress notwithstanding her husband was living and is alive now. Further, brother Thomas Sudbury, your fellow-monk, publicly and notoriously and without inter   [p. 409]   ference or punishment from you, associated and still associates with this woman on terms of intimacy, like others among your brethren and fellow-monks who had access and still have access to her and to others elsewhere as to a brothel or house of ill fame. And not only in the house of Pré but also in the nunnery of Sopwell, which you contend is under your jurisdiction also, you change the prioresses and superiors (praesidentes) again and again at your will and caprice, deposing good and religious women and promoting to the highest dignity the worthless and wicked, so that religion is cast aside, virtue is neglected, and many expenses are incurred by reprehensible practices through your introducing certain of your brethren who are thieves and notorious villains to preside there as guardians to manage the goods of the priories, which more correctly speaking are wasted, and those places which were religious are rendered and reputed profane and impious, and so far impoverished by your doings and the doings of those with you as to be brought to the verge of ruin.

'Similarly in dealing with other cells of monks which you say are subject to you within the monastery of the glorious protomartyr Alban, you have dilapidated the common property in its possessions and jewels; you have cut down, sold and alienated indiscriminately copses, woods, underwood, oaks and other forest trees to the value of 8000 marks and more; while those of your brethren and fellow-monks, who, as is reported, are given over to all the evils of the world, neglecting the service of God, and openly and continually consorting with harlots and loose women within the precincts and without, you knowingly defend instead of punishing them; others too you protect who are covetous of honour and promotion and bent on ministering to your cupidity, and who steal and make away with chalices and other jewels of the church, going so far as to extract sacrilegiously precious stones from the very shrine of St Alban.'

This letter is dated 1490, and is addressed to William, presumably William Wallingford, as he became abbot in 1476; it is however confidently asserted that he died in 1484. But this date may need revision. For he was succeeded by his prior Thomas Ramryge, who was not elected till 1492; 'at all events this period of eight years is very obscure,' says the historian of St Albans.[28*] Concerning William Wallingford we know that the   [p. 410]   chapter of Benedictine abbots held at Northampton in 1480 appointed him to visit all the monasteries situated in the diocese of Lincoln, but that he deputed two of his convent to do so.[29*] His successor Ramryge wrote a book 'on the doings of the abbots, monks and benefactors of the monastery of St Albans' in which Wallingford appears of a character very different from that suggested by Morton's letter. 'Prudent and wise in the management of his abbey and resolute in the defence of its rights,' says Dugdale on the authority of Ramryge, 'he was successful too in resisting the claims of Archbishop Bourchier (Morton's predecessor) which upon appeal to Rome were decided in his favour.' He completed the high altar at St Albans and set up a printing-press in his monastery between 1480 and 1486.

In face of this evidence the language used by Morton appears somewhat violent. Unfortunately no additional information is forthcoming from the nunneries of St Mary Pre and Sopwell. We have an account rendered by the prioress Christina Basset of Prée for the year 1485--1486, four years previous to the date of Morton's letter, entries in which show that Christina Basset had succeeded Alice Wafer, who had been deposed for mismanagement of the revenues, but continued to live in the convent.[30*] About Sopwell we only know that Wallingford appointed a commission in 1480 to set aside the prioress Joan Chapell on account of old age and infirmity in favour of Elizabeth Webb, one of the nuns.[31*]

It were idle to deny that the state of discipline in many houses was bad, but the circumstances under which Morton's letter was penned argue that the charges made in it should be accepted with some reservation.

It remains to cast a glance on the views expressed on the state of monasteries in general literature in the 15th century, from which we gather that the religious settlement was fast sinking in popular estimation. Two poems in this connection deserve especial attention, the 'Land of Cockayne,' a spirited satire on monastic life generally, written about 1430, and a poem of somewhat later date preserved in fragments only, which has been published under the title, 'Why I cannot be a nun.

  [p. 411]  

The 'Land of Cockayne'[32*] describes in flowing rhyme a country of joy and bliss,' where flow rivers of oil, milk, honey and wine, and where stands a fair abbey of white and grey monks. Their house in accordance with the popular fancy is a delightful abode constructed out of food and sweetmeats with shingles of 'flourcakes,' and the cloister is of crystal with a garden in which spices and flowers grow. The monks dwell here in the greatest comfort; some are old, some are young; at times they are engaged in prayer, at times they seek diversion away from home. Another abbey, 'a fair nunnery,' stands at no great distance, the inmates of which live in the like ease and carelessness. Here too there is a river of milk, the nuns wear silken clothing, and when it is hot they take a boat and go to bathe in the river. They here meet the monks and disport themselves together, throwing off all restraint.

Clever and much to the point as this poem appeared to the laymen who had come to look upon convent life as a life of idleness and self-indulgence, its historical importance is exceeded by the poem, 'Why I cannot be a nun.'[33*] It is generally spoken of as the production of a woman on the ground of its reflecting a woman's experiences, but there is no direct evidence on the point; its author writes as one unattached to a nunnery, and by the remark that he knows more than he chooses to tell is perhaps concealing his ignorance.

It consists of an adaptation to a different purpose of the story of the 'Ghostly Abbey,' which was peopled with personified Virtues,[34*] and to which reference has been made in previous chapters of this work. Here personified Vices are described as having taken possession of the abbey. The poem is divided into two parts, of which it seems doubtful through the state of the manuscript which ought to come first. As it stands printed it begins abruptly with a description of how commissioners received the charge to ride all over England to seek out nunneries and enquire into their state. They visited the houses of Kent and are represented as returning to the father of the writer, who asks them how they have sped and how the nuns fared   [p. 412]   (L. 28). When he has heard their report he tells his daughter, who wishes to become a nun, that he will have none of it. The girl is sore aggrieved; she deplores her ill-luck and continues in this strain:

'Then it befell on a morn of May
In the same year as I said before,
My pensiveness would not away
But ever waxed more and more.
I walked alone and wept full sore
With sighings and with mourning.
I said but little and thought the more
But what I thought no man need hear.
And in a garden I disported me
Every day at divers hours
To behold and for to see
The sweet effect of April flowers.
The fair herbs and gentle flowers
And birds singing on every spray;
But my longing and sadness
For all this sport would not away.

She kneels to Jesus, the king of heavenly bliss, and tells Him how she is destitute of good counsel and would commit her cause to Him. She then falls asleep and a fair lady appears to her, who calls her by name (Kateryne, 1. 122), and who on being asked says her name is Experience, and that she has come with the help of Christ Jesus, adding 'such things as I shall show thee I trust shall set thy heart at rest.' She takes the girl by the hand and leads her through a meadow fair and green to a house of 'women regular,' a cloister, 'a house of nuns in truth of divers orders old and young, but not well governed,' for here self-will reigns instead of discipline. 'Perhaps you would like to know who was dwelling here; of some I will tell you, of others keep counsel; so I was taught when I was young,' says the writer. The first lady they encounter in the house is Dame Pride, who is held in great repute, while poor Dame Meekness sits alone and forsaken. Dame Hypocrite sits there with her book, while Dame Devout and her few companions have been put outside by Dame Sloth and Dame Vainglory. In the convent remain Dame Envy 'who can sow strife in every state,' Dame Love-Inordinate, Dame Lust, Dame Wanton and Dame Nice, all of whom take scant heed of God's service.   [p. 413]   'Dame Chastity, I dare well say, in that convent had little cheer, she was often on the point of going her way, she was so little beloved there; some loved her in their hearts full dear, but others did not and set nothing by her, but gave her good leave to go. Walking about under the guidance of Experience the writer also comes upon Dame Envy who bore the keys and seldom went from home. In vain she sought for Dame Patience and Dame Charity; they were not in the convent but dwelt outside 'without strife' in a chamber where good women sought their company. Meanwhile Dame Disobedient set the prioress at nought; a fact especially distressing to the writer, 'for subjects should ever be diligent in word, in will, in deed, to please their sovereign' (1. 273). Indeed she declared, when she saw no reverence, she would stay in the house no longer. She and Experience left and sat down on the grass outside the gates to discuss what they had seen. Experience explained that for the most part nuns are such as they have seen (1. 310); not all, she adds; 'some are devout, holy and blessed, and hold the right way to bliss, but some are weak, lewd, and forward; God amend what is amiss.' She passed away and the writer awakes convinced that she certainly does not care to go and live in a nunnery. 'Peradventure,' the writer adds, some man will say and so it really seems to him that I soon forsook the perfect way for a fantasy or a dream, but dream it was not, nor a fantasy, but unto me welcome information (gratius mene).'

The other part of the poem advises the 'ladies dear,' who have taken the habit which is a holy thing, to let their lives correspond with their outward array. The writer enlarges on the good conversation and the virtues of the holy women who were professed in the past, and enumerates as models of virtuous living a number of women saints chiefly of English origin.

Productions such is this clearly show in what direction the estimation of religious houses and their inmates was tending. The nature of devotional pursuits and keeping the houses was not yet called into question, but apart from its religious significance the nunnery had little to recommend it. As places of residence these houses still attracted a certain number of unmarried women, and as centres of education still exerted some influence, but the high standard they had at one period maintained was a thing of the past.


Notes

[1*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Godstow,' vol. 4, p. 357, Charter nr 16.

[2*] Ibid. 'St Radegund's,' vol. 4, p. 215, Charter nr 3.

[3*] Ducange, 'burnetum, pannus ex lana tincta confectus.'

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

[5*] Ibid. 'Swine,' vol. , p. 493.

[6*] Ibid. 'Sopwell,' vol. 3, p. 362, charter nr 7.

[7*] Ibid. 'Chatteris,' vol. 2, p. 614, charter nr 11.

[8*] Ibid. 'Nun-Monktofl,' vol. 4, p. 192, charter nr 2.

[9*] Gasquet, A., The Great Pestilence, 1893, Introd. p. xvi.

[10*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Thetford,' vol. , p. 475.

[11*] Jessopp, A., Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich, 1492--1532, pp. 90, 155.

[12*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Mailing.' vol. 3, p. 382; Gasquet, A., The Great Pestilence, 1893, pp. 104, 106.

[13*] Gasquet, p. 137.

[14*] Dugdale Monasticon, 'Wyrthorp,' vol. 4, p. 266.

[15*] Ibid. 'Seton,' vol. 4, p. 226, charter nr 2.

[16*] Ibid. 'St Sepulchre's,' vol. 4, p. 413, footnote 1.

[17*] Way, A., 'Notices of the Benedictine Priory of St Mary Magdalen at Rusper,' Sussex Archeol. Collections, vol. 5, p. 244; Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Rusper,' vol. 4, p. 586.

[18*] Blaauw, W. H., 'Episcopal Visitations of the Priory of Easebourne,'Sussex Archeol. Collections,vol. 9, pp. 1-32; Dugdale, Monasticon,'Easebourn,' vol. 4, p. 423.

[19*] Dugdale, Monasticon'Sele,' vol. 4, p. 668.

[20*] Dugdale, Monasticon, St. John's,' vol. 6, p. 678.

[21*] Ibid. 'Selbourne,' vol. 6, p. 510.

[22*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII. and the English Monasteries, 1888, vol. I, p. 52.

[23*] Wilkins, D., Concilia, 1737, vol. 3, pp. 413, 419, 462.

[24*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'St Albans,' vol. 2, p. 205.

[25*] Wilkins, D., Concilia, 1737, vol. 3, p. 390.

[26*] Ibid. 1737, vol. 3, p. 630.

[27*] Ibid. Year 1490, vol. 3, p. 632. Froude without taking into consideration the circumstances under which this letter was penned takes its contents as conclusive eviaence of the abuses of the monastic system at the time of the Reformation. Comp. History of England, 1893, vol. 2, p. 304; Life and Letters of Erasmus, 1894, p. 18.

[28*] Newcome, P., History of the Abbacy of St. Albans,1793, p. 399.

[29*] Dugdale, Monasiticon, 'St. Albans,' vol. 2, p. 206, footnote c; 'the Book of Ramryge,' MS. Cotton. Nero D. VII.

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

[31*] Ibid. 'Sopwell,' vol. 3, p. 363.

[32*] 'Land of Cockayne,' in Early English Lives of Saints, etc., Philological Society, 1858, p. 156.

[33*] 'Why I cannot be a nun,' in Early English Lives of Saints, etc., Philological Society, 1858, p. 138.

[34*] Comp. above, pp. 339, 377.

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