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Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture

Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture: Authorship and Authority in a Female Community

Jennifer N. Brown
Donna Alfano Bussell
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture
    Book Description:

    Barking Abbey (founded c. 666) is hugely significant for those studying the literary production by and patronage of medieval women. It had one of the largest libraries of any English nunnery, and a history of women's education from the Anglo-Saxon period to the Dissolution; it was also the home of women writers of Latin and Anglo-Norman works, as well as of many Middle English manuscript books. The essays in this volume map its literary history, offering a wide-ranging examination of its liturgical, historio-hagiographical, devotional, doctrinal, and administrative texts, with a particular focus on the important hagiographies produced there during the twelfth century. It thus makes a major contribution to the literary and cultural history of medieval England and a rich resource for the teaching of women's texts. Professor Jennifer N. Brown teaches at Marymount Manhattan College; Professor Donna Alfano Bussell teaches at University of Illinois-Springfield. Contributors: Diane Auslander, Alexandra Barratt, Emma Bérat, Jennifer N. Brown, Donna A. Bussell, Thelma Fenster, Stephanie Hollis, Thomas O'Donnell, Delbert Russell, Jill Stevenson, Kay Slocum, Lisa Weston, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Anne B. Yardley.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-050-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Contributors
    (pp. vii-ix)
    (pp. x-x)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Barking’s Lives, the Abbey and its Abbesses
    (pp. 1-30)
    Donna Alfano Bussell and Jennifer N. Brown

    Barking Abbey’s importance is attested in England’s early recorded history, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (c. 731), written by the monk known to us as the Venerable Bede.² Bede’s account of the miracles witnessed at the abbey, based on a now lost Barking libellus, gives us a glimpse of its first abbess, Ethelburg (d. 675), and other notable women who were associated with the abbey’s founding (c. 666) or the life of its community.³ Bede records that Barking was founded by Erkenwald, abbot of Chertsey (Surrey) and later bishop of London (675), for his sister Ethelburg. Bede’s history not only provides...


    • CHAPTER ONE Barking’s Monastic School, Late Seventh to Twelfth Century: History, Saint-Making and Literary Culture
      (pp. 33-55)
      Stephanie Hollis

      Of the seven religious houses for women founded in the late ninth and early tenth centuries with varying degrees of support from the Wessex royal family, only Barking was established on the site of an ancient double monastery.¹ It therefore has an unassailable claim to have been ‘the home of the longest lived tradition of female learning and literacy in British history’.² Bell suggests that this long tradition of learning and literacy – which he regards as having been inseparably related to an equally long existence as a wealthy and aristocratic institution – explains the composition of Anglo-Norman vitae by...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Saint-Maker and the Saint: Hildelith Creates Ethelburg
      (pp. 56-72)
      Lisa M. C. Weston

      According to Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, Erkenwald, bishop of London, founded Barking Abbey in the late seventh century for his sister Ethelburg at a place called in Berecingum.¹ A supernatural sheet of light from heaven later showed Ethelburg where she should site a cemetery for the community’s women (iv.7); this and other miraculous visions confirmed the holiness of both the abbey and Ethelburg herself. Ethelburg was succeeded as abbess, as Bede’s account relates, by ‘a handmaid dedicated to God, by name Hildelith, who for many years, that is until extreme old age, governed the monastery very diligently, keeping regular discipline, and...

    • CHAPTER THREE Goscelin of Saint-Bertin and the Translation Ceremony for Saints Ethelburg, Hildelith and Wulfhild
      (pp. 73-93)
      Kay Slocum

      During the Middle Ages the relics of saints were often translated, or ‘re-buried’ – that is, they were moved to a different location or to another shrine within the same church. This process, which often included an elaborate public ceremony, was generally undertaken in order to provide a more impressive site for the remains. The translations, which were regarded as the outward recognition of heroic sanctity, were an important aspect of the cult of saints and the development of monastic establishments. Closely connected with the memory of particular church dedications, they often established continuity and enhanced the reputation of the...

    • CHAPTER FOUR ‘The ladies have made me quite fat’: Authors and Patrons at Barking Abbey
      (pp. 94-114)
      Thomas O’Donnell

      The literary culture of Barking Abbey during the High Middle Ages was founded on the enthusiastic welcome had there by out-of-house authors. The nuns’ patronage shaped the careers of some of the most remarkable ecclesiastical writers of the age – Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Osbert of Clare, Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence – establishing a vibrant tradition of commemorative literature from which would emerge the in-house vitae of St Edward and St Catherine. But understanding the nature of the nuns’ literary activity before the time of Clemence of Barking requires us to think about patronage during the twelfth century in a new way....


    • CHAPTER FIVE ‘Sun num n’i vult dire a ore’: Identity Matters at Barking Abbey
      (pp. 117-134)
      Delbert Russell

      ‘For the moment, she does not wish to say her name.’ With these words the author of the twelfth-century Vie d’Edouard le confesseur deflects the gaze of her audience away from her own personal identity back towards the only name she reveals, that of the convent where she has written this work, the well-known foundation of Barking Abbey.¹ At the period when this vernacular life was written, Barking Abbey’s long tradition of learning and royal connections had been revived following the Norman Conquest. With each successive modern study that demonstrates that in the twelfth century this was a sophisticated, learned...

    • CHAPTER SIX ‘Ce qu’ens li trovat, eut en sei’: On the Equal Chastity of Queen Edith and King Edward in the Nun of Barking’s La Vie d’Edouard le confesseur
      (pp. 135-144)
      Thelma Fenster

      The nun of Barking who composed La Vie d’Edouard le confesseur was at once the beneficiary of a rich Anglo-Saxon literary past and an innovator uniquely equipped to contribute to twelfth-century England’s rich store of creative works in French. When she set out to write the life of King Edward the Confessor, he had already been the subject of three Latin lives: hers would be the first Edward life in the French vernacular. The first of the Latin lives, commissioned by Edward’s wife, Queen Edith, was the Vita Aedwardi regis qui apud Westmonasterium requiescit (‘The Life of Edward who Rests...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Body, Gender and Nation in the Lives of Edward the Confessor
      (pp. 145-163)
      Jennifer N. Brown

      Edward the Confessor, whose death without an obvious heir permitted William the Conqueror to claim the English throne, left a varied hagiographical record.¹ During his life, Queen Edith, his wife, commissioned the first vita from a monk of Saint-Bertin.² This narrative ends with Edward’s death and the arrival of William, omitting usual hagiographical addenda concerning miracles or other post-death stories concerning the saint. In 1138, Osbert of Clare follows with a more traditional hagiography,³ and a bid for Edward’s canonization (which did not, in the end, happen until 1161). But it is Aelred of Rievaulx’s 1163 vita,⁴ written for the...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Clemence and Catherine: The Life of St Catherine in its Norman and Anglo-Norman Context
      (pp. 164-182)
      Diane Auslander

      Some time between 1173 and 1199, Clemence, a nun of Barking Abbey in Essex, England, took up the work of translating the Life of St Catherine of Alexandria into the Anglo-Norman vernacular, also known as the French of England. Her source is a Latin text, the Vulgata, composed in the mid-eleventh century. She is true to this source as to the organization of events and the events themselves, but inserts her own voice, speaking through her heroine to weave her own views into the work, making it far more than a mere translation. It is curious, however, that she chose...

    • CHAPTER NINE Cicero, Aelred and Guernes: The Politics of Love in Clemence of Barking’s Catherine
      (pp. 183-209)
      Donna Alfano Bussell

      This chapter examines the political relevance of love and spiritual friendship in Clemence of Barking’s La Vie de St Catherine d’Alexandrie.¹ Her Catherine extends the work of the Barking La Vie d’Edouard le confesseur (Edouard) by using the conventions of romance to explore the sacramental love that holds the body politic together and binds it to Christ in friendship.² I argue that Clemence derives her model of friendship from Aelred of Rievaulx’s De spirituali amicitia,³ a widely circulated revision of Cicero’s De amicitia (Laelius) for the monastic life.⁴ I also posit that Clemence’s emphasis on spiritual friendship can be seen...

    • CHAPTER TEN The Authority of Diversity: Communal Patronage in Le Gracial
      (pp. 210-232)
      Emma Bérat

      The multilingualism and multiculturalism of twelfth-century England opened new possibilities for noblewomen’s roles in the production and reception of literature.¹ Women, with their long history of cultural and linguistic mobility through marriage, stepped to the fore as authors and patrons. They experimented with the written vernacular and narrative structures that reflected the diversity of contemporary society. To take just two examples, Clemence of Barking authored the Life of Saint Catherine, an adaptation of a hagiographical Latin text, and Constance FitzGilbert patronized the Estoire des Engleis, a vernacular historiography that juxtaposes Saxon, Welsh, Danish and Norman histories. This chapter, however, considers...


    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Keeping Body and Soul Together: The Charge to the Barking Cellaress
      (pp. 235-244)
      Alexandra Barratt

      London, British Library, MS Cotton Julius D VIII,¹ is a composite manuscript containing a number of Latin and Middle English texts. Among them, on folios 40 to 47v, is one probably written after 1453, entitled ‘the charche [duties] longynge to the office off the Celeresse of the Monestarij of Barkynge’ (the Charge).² This loosely structured document,³ largely written in note form with many specific numerical figures, details the special provisions needed, over and above those required for the standard diet, to feed the abbess and convent of Barking during the course of the year. Its internal consistency and its command...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Rhythmic Liturgy, Embodiment and Female Authority in Barking’s Easter Plays
      (pp. 245-266)
      Jill Stevenson

      During the fourteenth century, Barking Abbey continued to be one of the most important and renowned female religious houses in England.¹ Some time during Katherine of Sutton’s tenure as abbess, from 1358 to 1376, the abbey began using plays as part of its Easter liturgy. The only extant copies of these Easter plays are found in Barking’s 1404 Ordinale and Customary, a manuscript that codifies the abbey’s customs and practices. As Anne Bagnall Yardley has demonstrated, both this manuscript and a fifteenth-century hymnal attributed to the abbey indicate that Barking’s nuns regularly crafted their liturgy to meet the community’s specific...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Liturgy as the Site of Creative Engagement: Contributions of the Nuns of Barking
      (pp. 267-282)
      Anne Bagnall Yardley

      The conference that engendered this chapter, ‘Authorship and Authority: Barking Abbey and its Texts’, seemed a rather unlikely place for a paper on medieval liturgy. The overwhelming majority of liturgical texts and musical settings are anonymous. As such, they are often distinguished from such other monastic genres as saint’s lives, confessions, theological treatises and other works. Indeed the basic myth about medieval chant – that it was dictated to Pope Gregory by the Holy Spirit – worked against naming authors and composers. This repertoire gained much of its authority because of the assumption that it was divinely inspired and handed...

  10. AFTERWORD. Barking and the Historiography of Female Community
    (pp. 283-296)
    Jocelyn Wogan-Browne

    When the borough of Barking celebrated its accession to charter status in 1931, the local civic authorities produced a pageant of Barking Abbey’s history.¹ The pageant’s script-writer was Colonel E. A. Loftus (d. 1987), then headmaster of Barking Abbey school, the first co-educational grammar school in England.² Loftus tells the abbey’s history in eight scenes, from the Roman camp on the site to the abbey’s dissolution in 1539. By scene 6, William the Conqueror is staying at the nunnery in the first year of his English conquest, while he strengthens the Tower of London and receives promises of loyalty from...

    (pp. 297-324)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 325-334)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 335-339)