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Guidance for Women in Twelfth-Century Convents

Guidance for Women in Twelfth-Century Convents

Translated by Vera Morton
with an Interpretive Essay by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne
Series editor: Jane Chance
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 213
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  • Book Info
    Guidance for Women in Twelfth-Century Convents
    Book Description:

    These translated letters and texts composed for younger and older women in twelfth-century convents illuminate the powerful medieval ideals of virginity and chastity. They show that the literature of virginity and chastity could offer a wide range of role models and precedents for women in the medieval church, both in their spiritual formation and in the practical concerns of their monastic lives. Abelard's history of women's roles in the church and his letter on women's education, both written for Heloise in her work as abbess, are seen here alongside previously untranslated letters and texts for abbesses and nuns in England and France. Osbert of Clare, Goscelin of St Bertin and the women of Barking together with Peter the Venerable and the women of Marcigny offer fresh comparisons and contexts for the famous correspondence of Heloise and Abelard, as well as insight into the rich literary and cultural life of other women and men in religion. An interpretive essay explores the practical and spiritual engagement of women's convents with medieval commemorative and memorial practices, showing that the professional concern of women religious with death goes far beyond the stereotype of nuns as dead to the world, or enclosed in living death. VERA MORTON gained an MA in Medieval Studies at the University of Liverpool in 1994. JOCELYN WOGAN-BROWNE is Professor of English at Fordham University, NY.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-084-5
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-ix)
    Vera Morton
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. x-x)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Even when addressed to a single individual, and to someone personally known to the writer, medieval literary letters were designed for copying and circulation among a wider public. Some of them are in effect treatises in epistolary form, meant not only to address particular people, but to be exemplary and useful to further audiences. The correspondence of churchmen was often copied into model collections.¹ Handbooks in the art of composition, thears dictandi, taught the conventions for composing letters (the physical writing of letters was frequently done by secretaries working to dictation) and provided model examples. The twelfth century witnessed...

  7. Note on Texts and Translations
    (pp. 13-14)
  8. I Osbert of Clare, Prior of Westminster, to Adelidis, Abbess of Barking: A Thank-You Letter on Holy Widows, Virgin Fecundity and Precedents for Female Authority (Letter 42)
    (pp. 15-49)

    A stranger to medieval letters beginning to read Osbert of Clare’s t letter to Adelidis will be struck first by the elaborate courtesy of his thanks to the abbess for her generous hospitality and by his encouragement to her to continue in the way of virtue; a picture of a way of life that is wealthy, formal, and devout begins to form itself. Barking was a prestigious abbey, rich and governed by noble or royal ladies. Its location gave it access to, but some detachment from, London; situated on Barking Creek a few miles down the Thames from London, it...

  9. II From Abelard to Heloise: The History of Women’s Roles in Christianity (Letter 7)
    (pp. 50-95)

    The tragic story of the love of Heloise (d. 1164) and Abelard (1079–1142) is well known, especially for the episode when, following their marriage, Heloise’s uncle and guardian, Fulbert, had Abelard castrated. Less well recognized is the fact that after they had both entered the religious life in 1118, Heloise had a career for some thirty years as a successful and respected abbess. Their correspondence, in which both Abelard’s replies and the letters from Heloise which occasioned them have been preserved, is the most famous of the Middle Ages. Once celebrated as the letters of two unfortunate lovers, the...

  10. III Peter the Venerable to his Nieces Margaret and Pontia: Of Nieces and Grandmothers and the Virgin Life at Marcigny (Letter 185)
    (pp. 96-108)

    Peter the Venerable was Abbot of Cluny near Macon-sur-Saône in France from 1122–1157 at a period when the Cluniac order was at the height of its influence.¹ The monastery had been founded in AD 910 by William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, with the purpose of returning to the strict observance of the Benedictine Rule. Its influence spread rapidly through France and Western Europe, and Cluniac monasteries became celebrated for the efficiency of their organisation as well as for their emphasis on the development of personal spiritual life. Great emphasis was placed on music and the service of the...

  11. IV Osbert of Clare to his Nieces Margaret and Cecilia in Barking Abbey: Heavenly Rewards for Virgins in Barking (Letters 21 and 22)
    (pp. 109-120)

    At the end of Osbert’s letter to the abbess Adelidis (I above) he commends his two nieces, Margaret and Cecilia, to her; he calls them daughters of his sister, and they were presumably already nuns of Barking, but apart from this we know nothing of them. However, the two letters to Margaret and Cecilia differ in style and though it is dangerous to read personal feelings into such letters, it is tempting to imagine that the young women were different in character and Osbert perceived that they required different kinds of exhortation.

    The letter to Margaret was written before Osbert’s...

  12. V Abelard to Heloise: On Educating Virgins (Letter 9)
    (pp. 121-138)

    Letter 9 of Abelard’s correspondence with Heloise, written probably between 1132 and 1135, is concerned with learning and education. As in Letter 7’s history of women and the Christian Church, Abelard’s aim is to reach the spiritual values behind the practical injunctions. Abelard appears to have felt an affinity with Jerome (c. 342–420), the fourth-century doctor of the Church whom he takes as his principal source and model in this letter. Passionate, deeply learned, quick-tempered as they both were, they also suffered from scandalous comment on their association with learned women. While in Rome, Jerome had been a frequenter...

  13. VI Goscelin of St Bertin: Lives of the Abbesses at Barking (Extracts)
    (pp. 139-156)

    Abbesses had a wide range of responsibilities in the spiritual and practical care of their monastic estates. These are demonstrated in this section through the example of the concern of successive abbesses of Barking with arrangements for various kinds of burials. The organization and maintenance of cemeteries and shrines are matters of practical concern and symbolic importance: they reflect earthly concerns with hierarchy, prestige and ritual as these shaped the identity of the living community. The dead themselves, as the following extracts show, were seen as vigorously participating in and guiding this sense of identity: their status and reputation continued...

  14. Interpretive Essay Dead to the World? Death and the Maiden Revisited in Medieval Women’s Convent Culture
    (pp. 157-180)
    Jocelyn Wogan-Browne

    The nun, like the monk, is supposed to be ‘dead to the world’, and the letters and other texts in this book all have running through them various themes and preoccupations stemming from this idea. As one interpretive framework for the texts translated here, this essay focusses on the role of death in convent life, both for its gendered representation and for the relation of representation to the social and cultural practices of women religious.

    In both medieval and later thought, anxiety that women religious should be strictly enclosed away from the world is much more strongly expressed than concern...

  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 181-188)
  16. Subject Index
    (pp. 189-197)
  17. Index of References
    (pp. 198-203)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 204-205)