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Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries

Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries

VALERIE G. SPEAR
Volume: 24
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 266
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt81xbq
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  • Book Info
    Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries
    Book Description:

    The position of an abbess or prioress in the middle ages was one of great responsibility, with care for both the spiritual and economic welfare of her convent. This book considers the power wielded by and available to such women. It addresses leadership models, questions of social identity and the varying perceptions of the role and performance of the abbess or prioress via a close examination of the records of sixteen female houses in the period from 1280 to 1540; the large range of documentary evidence used includes selections from episcopal registers, account rolls, plea rolls, Chancery documents, letters, petitions, medieval literature and comparative material from additional nunneries. The theme of conflict recurs throughout, as religious women are revealed steering their communities between the directives of the church and the demands of their budgets or their secular neighbours. The Dissolution and its effects on the morale and behaviour of the last superiors conclude the study.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-408-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  6. Glossary
    (pp. xi-xii)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    This book is an examination of the medieval English nunnery superior as a power broker. It addresses questions of social identity, models of leadership, and perceptions of the role and performance of the abbess or prioress in secular and religious spheres.¹ Although several historians have studied English medieval nunneries in various contexts, there has been no attempt as yet to focus specifically on the individual elected to lead her house. The role of the medieval abbess or prioress allowed the exercise of independent authority by a woman, in an era noted for its subjugation of females and for its schizoid...

  8. 1 The Meaning of Leadership in the Medieval English Nunnery
    (pp. 1-19)

    The broad topic of leadership and the related issues of power and authority have attracted vigorous and fruitful debate, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, academics and their contemporaries in business strove to express in both popular and academic language a concept which was and is widely understood but difficult to analyse. In 1961 Tannenbaum defined leadership as ‘an interpersonal influence exercised in a situation and directed through the communication process towards the attainment of a specific goal or goals’.¹ Burns some seventeen years later perceived it to be inextricably linked with authority, observing that such authority...

  9. 2 Leadership and Lineage
    (pp. 20-40)

    The election and retention of an abbess or prioress depended to a large extent on the interaction of numerous factors including social class, networks of supporters, secular attitudes to the role and religious conventions. Also of considerable significance was the nunnery superior’s relationship with the outside world. Investigations into this area demand attention to a range of data, including wills, letters, and selected documents from the royal and papal courts.

    The Benedictine Rule, like others of its kind, provides advice for the election of a monastic superior. The male Benedictine version states that the abbot may be chosen ‘unanimously’ by...

  10. 3 Guardians of the Brides (care of the female religious by bishops, archbishops and their representatives)
    (pp. 41-58)

    The bishop, like his superior, the archbishop, was answerable to both the papacy and his provincial convocation as shown in Figure 1. Prelates in this position thus found themselves acting in relation to the nuns as enforcers of legislation, as well as disciplinarians, pastors and protectors. The manner in which they discharged their responsibilities to the convent superiors and their nuns is highly relevant to the history of female leadership.

    Among the list of ordinaries¹ serving the nunneries in the core group there is a striking diversity. This is partly due to differences in social origins, historical periods and religious...

  11. 4 The Lady and the Monarchs (the relations of the abbess or prioress with king and pope)
    (pp. 59-90)

    This chapter examines the relations of the abbess or prioress with her spiritual and temporal monarchs, whose separate, and sometimes intersecting, spheres of authority both supported and restricted the scope of her leadership. As indicated by Figure 2, the female superior’s perspective on some individuals and pressure groups did not necessarily match that of those in authority over her. Hence, the boarders, whom the ecclesiastical authorities strove to keep at a distance, loom much larger in this diagram than in Figure 1. Since the abbess or prioress saw the papacy as a somewhat remote entity, the pope appears in Figure...

  12. 5 The Distaff and the Crosier (balancing financial and spiritual responsibilities)
    (pp. 91-115)

    Although the authors of the early monastic rules established firm parameters for the religious life, their instructions concerning the care and maintenance of conventual possessions are sketchy. This is not surprising, given that the dominant rules were written at a time when monastic life was simple and religious communities relatively isolated from the secular world. The original form of St Benedict’s Rule directs the convent superior to keep a list of convent property and ensure that suitable office-bearers care for such items, which are to be shared.¹ It contains no hint of administrative duties apart from the obligation to draw...

  13. 6 The Clerical View (interpretations of episcopal reports)
    (pp. 116-136)

    No personal diaries of female religious survive, but traces of the paths taken and the obstacles negotiated by nunnery superiors can be discerned in many of the records, particularly those surviving in housekeeping accounts and episcopal registers. In the latter sources, misdeeds or errors of judgement are highlighted and praiseworthy efforts virtually ignored. As in the context of financial management, the picture of leadership has often been skewed by the weight of one particular class of evidence used to address the question.

    Bishops’ visitation reports, though rich in detail, must be viewed with caution. They are not only tainted by...

  14. 7 Shifting Perspectives (secular views of the nunnery superiors)
    (pp. 137-168)

    Two late medieval documents stand out from the small and mixed collection of writings in which the medieval English female superior is depicted, namely the euology for Euphemia and Chaucer’s late fourteenth-century piece describing Eglentyne, the prioress in his Canterbury Tales.¹ Even at a cursory glance Eglentyne fails miserably to emulate the ideal represented by Euphemia. If Chaucer’s image is based on reality there was a serious decline in the standard of religious service performed by female superiors in the later Middle Ages; but its validity as a representation of the ‘typical’ female superior of the later period is open...

  15. 8 Epilogue (preparations for the Dissolution and reaction to its demands)
    (pp. 169-185)

    Henry VIII’s campaign in the 1530s to dissolve the English monasteries was not unprecedented, but followed more than a century after Henry V’s assault on the alien priories, and some ten years after Thomas Wolsey’s initiatives directed at converting certain monastic resources into assets for funding colleges. It appears that the money raised in this manner was exhausted before Wolsey’s drive had dissipated; thus, seriously depleted houses which could be closed on the grounds of their spiritual and material inadequacy offered a plausible rationale for diverting additional monastic property. Lillechurch nunnery fell in 1522, its property converted into funds for...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 186-192)

    This study has sought to bring into the foreground some of the women elected to lead English nunneries between the years 1280 and 1539, invested as they were with the kind of authority normally reserved for males. The diagrams representing power relations experienced by the superior within and around the nunnery give some idea of the complex interactions taking place. However, linear forms of this kind cannot show the constant change which affected the dynamics of the whole.

    The model of leadership indicated both explicitly and implicitly in monastic rules and contemporary literature has been shown to have two distinct...

  17. Appendix A: Background Information on Core Group of Nunneries
    (pp. 193-196)
  18. Appendix B: Names of Nunnery Superiors
    (pp. 197-214)
  19. Appendix C: Election of Cecily Willoughby as Abbess, Wilton Abbey, Sept. 24, 1485
    (pp. 215-216)
  20. Appendix D: Eulogy for Euphemia of Wherwell (d. 1257)
    (pp. 217-218)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-232)
  22. Index
    (pp. 233-244)
  23. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-247)