University of Reading

Books, Religion and Literacy
in Medieval English Nunneries

Books, Religion, and Medieval Literacy
APICES Session, 39th International Congress on Medieval Studies
Kalamazoo, 6-9 May 2004

problem which has attracted increasing attention from historians is that of text culture and book ownership, with the related issue of literacy, amongst women religious in the tri-lingual culture of post-Conquest England. The questions raised have proved very intractable, since evidence for book production in English nunneries is almost non-existent, and even that for book-ownership is fragmentary. In a book which broke new ground and paved the way for this study, Women Religious, Sally Thompson discussed the scarcity of sources for nunneries founded in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries {1}. One possible reason for their absence is, as Thompson points out, the nuns' frequently-cited difficulty in reading or writing Latin, which would make record-keeping very problematic unless male chaplains or scribes were available. Keeping up with the necessary legal and administrative work of their houses would be very difficult for women so circumstanced {2}. However, it is the argument of this paper that the impact of such an educational limitation would go much further. Nuns who could not read Latin or write Latin would presumably be unable to understand their own Rule, unless it were translated or interpreted for them. Their relationship to their liturgy would also be affected, if they could not properly understand the texts and readings which made it up. Finally, their ability to undertake the lectio divina, and to read the sorts of texts specified by St Benedict, would be severely compromised {3}.

The latter issue relates to ongoing discussions amongst historians as to the reading and spiritual culture of medieval nuns. These have recently been valuably analysed by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, who affirms the important point that "the texts of nunnery culture [should not be seen] as inferior imitations or derivations from Latin, but as the products of a valid vernacular-centred culture in a partly Latin environment" {4}. This is a necessary balance to a 'normative' view based on male patterns of literacy. Nevertheless, it still begs the question of nuns' actual levels of Latin education, and of what they could and did read. It must also be remembered that post-Conquest England had not one but two vernaculars; and that political issues were involved in the relationship between them. The issues of book ownership and usage by English women religious are thus complex; and fundamental questions remain to be resolved, especially for the period from the Conquest to the Black Death.

This paper outlines the beginnings of an attempt to approach some of these very complex issues in a manner based as directly as possible upon surviving evidence. In other words, the hope is to examine the surviving manuscripts which can be identified as having belonged to medieval English women religious between the Conquest and the Black Death. This may sound ambitious, but the losses of manuscripts from nunnery libraries have been extremely high. Even so, the work could not be attempted without the fundamental lists of provenanced manuscripts published by N.R. Ker and David Bell. Ker's Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, and its Supplement, include listings for all those nunneries to which surviving manuscripts could be traced {5}. David Bell's 1995 What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries adds a considerable amount of information {6}. It is, as Wogan-Browne says, "one of the most useful and important publications we have" in the field {7}.

Nevertheless, these books make depressing reading for the historian of women's literacy and textual culture in the period from the Conquest to the Black Death. Bell's lists yield a total of some 144 securely provenanced manuscripts from the whole period up to the Dissolution, and of these only perhaps 57 predate the early fourteenth century. This represents a period when there were at least 145 nunneries in England, and when the average male Benedictine house might be expected to have a library of some 200-250 books (excluding liturgical and administrative volumes, which would be in the care of separate officials). For comparison, Durham had built up a library of some 400 books by the mid twelfth century, to which successive priors added personal bequests of seven and nine volumes respectively in the following decades {8}. More typically, Cistercian Rievaulx had perhaps 200 to 300 books by the early thirteenth century, while Whitby (smaller and poorer) had one to two hundred {9}. The surviving library lists from which these figures are extracted cover primarily books for the lectio divina and the school; they thus make it possible to come to fairly detailed conclusions on the curriculum available at monastic schools, and on the extent to which (and speed with which) English houses kept in touch with new theological and spiritual developments {10}. By contrast, whilst we have some notices of book donations, or entries for nunneries in surveys such as the Registrum (itself late-medieval), we have no booklist or library catalogue from any English nunnery for the three-hundred year period outlined above. Indeed, the only English nunnery for which a library catalogue survives is Syon, itself a late foundation {11}.

Further examination of the statistics only adds to the sense of depression, since only just over twelve of the total surviving manuscripts listed by Bell for the period from the ninth to the mid fourteenth century are of the type used for the formal lectio divina , and there are no school books (for instance, Latin grammars or collections of Fables). This total includes glossed books of the Bible. Of the remainder, the largest category by some margin is that of Psalters, with twenty surviving at least in fragments (i.e. over one third of the total). There are also twelve cartularies and two mortuary rolls, representing organisational work and spiritual care for the prominent dead. The remainder are largely liturgical volumes. To be precise, there are: one Gospels; one complete Breviary and two fragments; one hymnal; one Office of the Virgin and one Hours of the Virgin; two fragments of liturgical material; one Martyrology and Rule; and one copy of the Ancrene Riwle. This last is the only volume entirely in the vernacular. This is not a promising total from which to build up a picture of the reading practices of the nuns; and indeed it can, at this stage of the enquiry, already be stated that no narrative history of English nuns' religious reading in the high middle ages is possible. Whilst in this mode, it must also be noted that ten of these same volumes can only be provenanced from the fifteenth century onwards, even though the books themselves are older; and that at least five volumes are known to have been acquired by their nunnery-owners only in the fifteenth century. As Wogan-Browne says, new volumes can be added to Bell's totals, but these are almost entirely late-medieval. Thus, her call to expand the 'quantitative and qualitative parameters' applied by Bell cannot fill the enormous gaps for the earlier period.

We are left instead with Wogan-Browne's additional recommendation, a call for a "different kind of history" {12}. For the later middle ages, this work is well under way, and there is a growing body of research on vernacular texts and on medieval translation theory and practice. The argument that vernacular texts should be re-evaluated, and that the assumed superiority of Latin should be challenged, is clearly a strong one. Women's spiritual and textual culture should not be dismissed as automatically inferior purely because they were not always expressed through the medium of Latin. It is also clearly important that the moralising criticisms levelled by medieval churchmen at the educational standards and practices of nuns are seen as part of an ongoing rhetoric rather than accepted as wholly factual statements. Nevertheless, we are left with the question of how to construct even a different kind of history from the materials available; and the first step is to face the fact that general surveys are very difficult, either of women's education or of their reading. We are able to look at what Rules and surviving Customaries required in terms of reading and meditation, and can reconstruct what books would be necessary to live the life specified. We are also able to look at the reports of influential churchmen, and the arguments of reformers, criticising or defending the supposed behaviour and customs of women religious. But none of this tells us what women were actually able to do in particular times and places. Instead, a way forward may be provided by looking in detail at the surviving manuscripts, in a way which explores not only their main texts and any inscriptions, but also additions, annotations and all other signs of how they were read, handled and used. In this way, even books such as liturgical volumes, not designed to be 'read' in the usual sense of the term, can provide important pieces of evidence. The level of liturgical expertise required in their use can be scrutinised. The possible sources drawn upon for variable elements such as hymns and prayers can be assessed. And textual 'aids', in the form of vernacular glosses or annotations, explanations and so forth can all add information on the linguistic expertise of the users, as well as the length of time for which any volume continued in use.

This approach has the potential to deduce evidence from the psalters which, as noted above, form a large proportion of the surviving manuscripts, and which have previously mainly been of interest for their illumination. On the face of it, psalters are unpromising material for any attempt to deduce nuns' expertise in Latin or in reading. The psalms were the texts most frequently used in the Benedictine liturgy, to the extent that any nun following the basic requirements (and by the twelfth century most liturgical practices were far more complex than this) would chant dozens each day, with the largest amount during the night office. One of the basic educational requirements for most religious was therefore the memorisation of the psalter. Medieval expectations of memorisation meant that this was not the feat it might now seem, although it may have been acknowledged as difficult for those who experienced conversion as adults {13}. What this means is that possession of a psalter, or even temporary use of one belonging to the nunnery, cannot necessarily be taken as proof that the owner was able to read the Latin poetry. However, annotations, marginalia, even unusual iconography, may all provide clues as to particular readers and uses. It is also possible to build upon art-historical analyses, and to use palaeography and illumination as evidence for the levels of expensive skilled work and luxury materials deployed in psalters made for or used by women in the period.

However, this research opens up too large a field for this paper, and instead it is proposed to look at a smaller area related to it. This is the problem of the calculation and planning of the liturgical year, something relevant to the analysis of psalters since they were almost all equipped with perpetual calendars which marked the feasts of saints. Since the selection of saints to be honoured with feasts allowed for some flexibility, these calendars have also been used as evidence for the provenance of the manuscripts which contain them. Of greater immediate importance for this paper is the question of how far women users of such calendars were able to deal with the complex calculations required to make them yield up the date of Easter for any particular year, and thus the dates of all the other 'movable' feasts which were related to Easter {14}. A smaller, but still important issue, was the calculation of Sundays and of the necessary liturgical adjustments which the correlation of Sundays and feast days might require. To understand what was involved, it is necessary to know that the calculation of the date of Easter Sunday depends upon the lunar cycle (it must follow a full moon) as well as upon the solar calendar (it must follow the vernal equinox). However, the difference in length of unadjusted lunar and solar years means that the relationship of full moons to the vernal equinox follows a complex pattern over a nineteen-year cycle. This, and the information required as to the calculations which inserted extra lunations and days at the correct points in the cycle, were part of the material known as the computus.

Very little such material survives from the nunneries; but without it, and the ability to deal with it, the nuns were at a further disadvantage. It is of course the case that the necessary calculations could be carried out well in advance, since the computus was based upon conventional, agreed dates for equinoxes and lunations, rather than upon astronomical observation. This was necessary, to avoid the variations which might otherwise be caused by taking observations from different points on the Earth's surface. To give one example, the Venerable Bede drew up a set of Easter Tables for a full 'Great Cycle' of 532 years, from 532 (the year in which Dionysius Exiguus drew up his computistical calculations) to 1064. This 'Great Cycle' is composed of 28 sets of nineteen-year Metonic Cycles, to allow for the effect of Leap Years and to bring the whole cycle back to the point where all the feasts fall on both the same dates and the same days of the week. Indeed, a few surviving psalters from English nunneries do contain Easter Tables for a decade or so. However, such tables do not appear to have been widespread in this form. This is perhaps because bishops were increasingly expected to publicise the date of Easter each year. Nevertheless, study of the computus does seem to have been expected of at least the more able boys in monastic schools, who would be expected to follow material such as that in Bede's De Temporum Ratione. Without an understanding of the basic concepts and rules involved, the nuns would be at a very serious disadvantage in correctly following the liturgical calendar for the year.

A manuscript of particular interest in relation to all these problems is B.L. Ms Cotton Claudius D iii. This is a composite manuscript from Wintney, best known for its version of the Benedictine Rule. The latter occupies folios 55 to 140, and is set out in two columns, in a clear bookhand of c.1200, equally confident (and up-to-date) in both Latin and English {15}. It is given in both Latin and English, with the Latin 'feminised' (that is, using feminine grammatical forms). What is curious is that the English version not only gives many expansions of the Latin text but is also in a form of English decidedly archaic by c.1200. Its ease of use for thirteenth-century nuns is thus questionable. The Latin text is interesting in many ways, and has been edited several times, including in an on-line version by Frank Henderson {16}. Henderson's analysis shows that the use of feminine forms is consistent throughout; but also that the whole text has been adapted for use in a women's house. Most strikingly, some sections, and particularly Chapter 62 ('on the priests of the monastery') have been rewritten or replaced with new material directly relevant to the context. This clearly suggests that the user of the manuscript will be able to deal with the details of the text. Equally interesting, the English version, while also feminised, goes beyond a close translation of the Latin, although it is alternated with it and clearly designed to be used in association with it. Each chapter is given first in Latin and then in English, with the exception of Chapter seven, which is divided into thirteen parts, with each Latin section being immediately followed by its English counterpart. This layout is clearly helpful for the reader whose linguistic competence is not high, since the two versions can be used simultaneously. However, there is an important context in which the reading of a chapter of the Rule, for the edification of the community, was a required activity, and that is the daily Chapter meeting (named after this central element). The Wintney manuscript thus appears to have been designed for use in this crucial institutional context; and this conclusion is further supported by the fact that the manuscript also contains a Martyrology. One of the main institutional uses of the Martyrology was in the Chapter meeting, when it supplied information on the saints whose feasts were to be celebrated on the following day {17}. This information could also be checked against the liturgical calendar of the house, in order to establish the grading of any feast and the degree of solemnity with which it should be celebrated. It is therefore interesting to find that the final major component of the Wintney manuscript is the Obituary Calendar of the house, which would fulfil also the function of supplying the names of those connected with the house who were to be commemorated each day.

Detailed examination of the manuscript produces further interesting evidence. The first striking thing is that a false start is made at copying a Martyrology on fol.3r. Folio 3v is a palimpsest which contains 24 lines of rather inexpert poetry in French, giving the name of the author as Simon, who has come to Wintney from Cistercian Waverley. The script here is skilled in appearance and early-thirteenth-century in style. Simon records his gratitude to the nuns of Wintney for their care in his illness, and asks to be commemorated by them. The second column was used in 1420 for an inventory of the Wintney refectory, demonstrating that the volume was still in the possession and use of the nuns at that date. The oddity of the manuscript continues, however, when this material is followed by another abandoned section of Martyrology. Finally, on fol. 6r, Bede's Martyrology is begun, and is copied out confidently in Latin, in a good bookhand, ending on fol. 51v. Once again, however, the apparent assumption that the female owners of the text will be able to use it is partially undercut, this time by the addition (on fol. 5) of instructions in French on how to calculate the lunation and age of the moon for each day of the Julian calendar through a nineteen-year Metonic Cycle. The recurrence of French suggests a link back to Simon of Waverley's poem; and the suggestion there that Simon has done something to repay the Wintney community and to deserve their commemoration of him becomes all the more interesting. In other words, it seems at least possible that it was Simon who took steps to solve the nuns' problems in producing a good copy of a reliable Martyrology; and who helped them to use it. The instructions set out, in French, the calculation of details concerning the calendar, including a brief comment on the saltus lunae (leap of the moon). This appears to assume that the Martyrology would be used in conjunction with a perpetual calendar (and we have seen that one is included in the volume). The saltus lunae is part of the calculations required to make the nineteen year Metonic Cycle work for the identification of lunations, full moons, and thus Easter Sundays. Each Metonic Cycle requires twelve Common Years, each with twelve lunations, and seven Embolismic Years, each with thirteen lunations, for a total of 235 lunations. The further complexity is that, while six of these years add a 'full' lunation of 30 days, the seventh adds only a 'hollow' lunation of 29 days - this exception being the saltus lunae. The effect of this, with the addition of a leap day every fourth year into the lunation containing 24th February, is to produce a harmonisation with the solar calendar {18}. These details are carefully handled in this explanatory section in Claud. D. iii. The leap day was known as a bissextile, since it involved the repetition of the sixth of the Kalends of March, rather than the modern system of adding the extra day at the end of February. The term bissextile is explained. However, the French text does not explain the exact points of insertion of the embolismic lunations, which are irregular. Instead, tables are given throughout the Martyrology, so that the user works day-by-day, calculating the lunar as well as solar date. The implication is that this information was required on a daily basis, and in the same context as the Martyrology. Again, the daily Chapter meeting, and the arrangements for forthcoming liturgical activity, would provide a setting in which all this information would be very useful.

All this makes the Wintney volume a fascinating testimony to the problems encountered by a community of women, whose education had not entirely equipped them for all the technicalities of following the requirements of the Rule and the liturgical year. The three-part linguistic hierarchy is also striking. Carefully-chosen texts of the fundamental works, the Rule and the Martyrology, are given in Latin, and at least some capacity to deal with that language is assumed. In the case of the core text, the Rule, each section is given also in English (if rather archaic), presumably in the expectation that the assembled community would have this as a linguistic common denominator. For the Martyrology we have instead a brief 'user's manual' in the more aristocratic language of French, presumably the vernacular of choice for those with higher levels of education. Finally, there is the issue of the help given by Simon, the (probable) monk of Waverley, in inducting the nuns (or some of them) into the 'mysteries' of their institutional life. The extent of this help cannot be finally established, but his role is fascinating in the context of attitudes towards women's education and their capacity to run their own affairs.

Simon's presence at Wintney is perhaps surprising, and is certainly deserving of comment. Waverley was the oldest Cistercian monastery in England, having been founded from L'Aumone in 1128 by William Giffard, bishop of Winchester {19}. Wintney itself is generally referred to as Cistercian, including by Knowles and Hadcock, but this status is actually far from certain (as it is for many women's houses). Wintney was in Hampshire, and was founded c1160 by Geoffrey fitz Peter, of whom almost nothing is known. Its foundation charters survive only in slightly dubious thirteenth-century versions; but the charter attributed to Geoffrey asserts that the nunnery was founded by Waverley {20}. As it stands this is unlikely, since Cistercian abbots and monks were forbidden to bless nuns and there is no official recognition of the existence of Cistercian nunneries until 1213 {21}. Indeed, Wintney seems never to have been formally recognised as Cistercian. Nevertheless, the monks of Waverley are cited in Geoffrey's charter as witness to the nuns' agreement to perform a specified number of masses for his soul; and the abbot and prior are named as witnesses to one of the charters. Sally Thompson points out that the Obituary Calendar, which occupies fols. 140v - 162v of this manuscript, commemorates the deaths of six abbots of Reading (closer and richer than Waverley) but only one abbot of Waverley. She suggests, convincingly, that the nuns of Wintney may have been one of those communities of women who imitated the customs of the Cistercians without any formal affiliation {22}. This is strengthened by the fact that the surviving records of Waverley itself make no mention whatsoever of Wintney. However, Thompson does not discuss the verses of Simon of Waverley, and the tantalising suggestion that, at the time when the Cistercians' attitude towards accepting communities of women was softening, some link was felt to exist. That the link might be under particular scrutiny at this time is further suggested by the fact that Wintney acquired a new patron, described as fundator, Richard de Heriard, who munificently equipped the nuns with a stone church {23}.

Once again, nothing is known of Richard, or of what lay behind his patronage. Nevertheless it would appear that the provision of the church, the visit of Simon of Waverley and the compiling of Claud. D iii occurred in the same period. The ambiguity of Wintney's affiliation is also inscribed into the manuscript itself, which commemorates Simon's presence and his wish to be remembered by the community at Wintney; but which provides for that community copies of key texts in versions apparently suitable for women, rather than taken directly from the 'editions' required to be used in Cistercian monasteries {24}. Thus, whilst testifying to the seriousness with which the nuns took the organisation of their regular life, it testifies also to their educational and ecclesiastical secondary status. The ambiguity is continued by the Obituary Calendar, which fails to embody any continuing link with Waverley, and yet demonstrates that the nuns followed complex liturgical and spiritual customs, involving the use of Latin, down to the fifteenth century. This is especially important when it is noted that, as all too often happened to women's houses, the nuns were forced by poverty to leave Wintney temporarily in 1316, and to reorganise their community. It was not until the fifteenth century that new patronage was received, from a new fundator, Richard Holte, and his wife {25}. Details of the problems are few; but the point for this article is the tenacity with which the nuns maintained their regular life and their use of their Chapter Book.

The results of a detailed look at this one manuscript have thus been very rewarding. Although the volume was designed for practical use rather than spiritual reading, it has provided evidence for the existence of a hierarchy of literacies and languages at Wintney. Moreover, this seems to have continued from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century (the refectory inventory, like the late additions to the calendar, are in Latin, even if not in expert hands). The manuscript testifies to the ambiguities involved in establishing links between a women's house and the prestigious Cistercian 'order', as well as to the help which a sympathetic male adviser could give to the nuns. The notes discussed above would have no point if the women were not seriously grappling with the problems raised by complex Latin texts and the organisational complexities of the opus Dei. Even those nuns who could not read Latin would be involved in multilingual Chapter meetings, during which they could become familiar with the Rule in both versions, follow the outlines of the stories of the saints, prepare for the commemoration of important individuals and for the liturgy, and be informed as to the business of their house. Whilst not all manuscripts can be expected to produce so much evidence, this is nevertheless a valuable insight into the patterns of literacy, linguistic skill and book-use in a fairly representative English nunnery.