Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Crown and veil

Busy week ahead: the first batch of essays is in to grade, I need to finish revisions to an article imminently, and that ms. I agreed to review is due soon. Let's not even talk about job applications yet.

I also still have a large stack of books to peruse, and today I looked at Crown and Veil, edited by Jeffrey Hamburger & Susan Marti. This is a collection of essays on female monasticism intended to accompany an exhibition of artwork from women's monasteries in Germany. From my cursory overview so far, it's a good look at the state of the subject. While it focuses geographically on Germany, Hamburger's introduction discusses the need to balance examining what is distinctive about female monasticism with how it fits into, and in turn changes, the larger world of medieval church and society. Hm, now there's a familiar theme. The collection then kicks off with two essays surveying the history of foundations, orders, and so forth, and goes on to examine numerous topics, including architecture, artwork, liturgy, patronage, and economy of women's monasteries.  I plan to discuss some of these essays at greater length as I find time.

Friday, September 26, 2008


I want to follow up on the end of yesterday's post and the comments. I find that working on medieval Catalonia can be a weirdly disconnected experience, because Catalan scholarship and international scholarship often have little to do with each other.

As Notorious says of Catalan scholars: "they know their local sources inside and out, and tracking down their footnotes is almost always rewarding." Yes, exactly.  But the stuff I read regularly is not much concerned with theoretical frameworks, just as she said.  In particular, I see only a few Catalan scholars who pay much attention to gender. That is partly a reflection of the sort of thing I read. Since I'm working on monasticism, I read a lot of things concerned with the institutional history of regional monasteries, or a sort of antiquarian exploration of some local monastic community.  This is all useful for me, but I have to do most of the work of relating it to studies of monastic life, patronage, etc. in other parts of Europe myself.

Jonathan Jarrett points out: "for the scholars I read from Catalonia theoretical debates do exist, they just tend not to be the same ones that we worry about. Depending on the scholar, the debate is either with the Castilians or with the French, and often enlisting one against the other."  True. I find that at times, too, but I think that's far more true of work on earlier periods--up to 1100 or so--than on the later Middle Ages.

The disconnection goes both ways, though.  If Catalan scholars focus on local materials and debates, there are surely good reasons for that; since I often read older (1960s and 70s-era) scholarship, I'm sure there were political reasons for that, too.  But among the English and North American authors I read, Catalonia (in fact the whole crown of Aragon) is virtually ignored.  The exception is the "feudal transformation" period that Jonathan has been discussing at length.  There Catalonia is seen as an interesting case study and discussed in a number of general works.  For later periods the relationships among Aragon's three religious cultures are extensively studied, but beyond that few references to anything regarding eastern Spain seem to reach general scholarship.  Despite the efforts of recent textbooks, such as Barbara Rosenwein's, to include many regions and cultures, I still get a sense that, for most scholars, France and England are seen as normative, while Spain is strange and exceptional.  But even within Spain, clearly Castile is the best exemplar of that exceptionalism, so Catalonia-Aragon can be neglected.

There are in fact quite a few specialists on Catalonia, Aragon, and Valencia working in North America.  But the region still doesn't seem to be well integrated into most scholars' general understanding of the Middle Ages. 

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cistercian nuns in Catalonia

I've been dabbling the last few days in scholarship on Cistercian nuns, particularly on the topic of whether there were Cistercian nuns. Well, yes, there were, but the question is when they were, and how nuns became attached to the order.

The traditional narrative holds that the early Cistercians distanced themselves from women, except for a few leaders such as Stephen Harding and Bernard of Clairvaux who offered spiritual advice to religious women only informally. Then in the late 12th century, the clamor of women seeking places in monasteries, combined with other pressure, forced the Cistercian General Chapter reluctantly to admit houses of women to the order. 

Probably the primary voice arguing against this narrative in Constance Berman's. In "Were There Twelfth-Century Cistercian Nuns?" (Church History 68:4, Dec. 1999, pp. 824-864) she attacks the question head-on, and connects it to her larger attacks on the traditional narrative of Cistercian origins found in The Cistercian Evolution.  Berman's position is that the 12th-century expansion of the Cistercian order happened through groups of reforming hermits & monastics taking up Cistercian customs, and gradually being incorporated into the developing order (rather than new houses being seeded, so to speak, directly from Citeaux and Clairvaux).  She further argues that many of these reforming groups included women, that such women viewed themselves as Cistercians, and that historians have applied overly rigid and anachronistic standards to dismiss many women's houses as only "imitating" Cistercians.  She generally argues that, where local records of a house having Cistercian customs conflict with the order's narrative sources, the local records should be trusted, because she considers the dating of the narratives to be highly questionable.  

Now, Berman has her share of critics on these issues, but the material I am looking at inclines me toward her approach. I'm looking at material related to a Catalan nunnery (Santa Maria de Vallbona) which is presented as unambiguously Cistercian in the local historiography. Catalan historians often seem to blithely ignore historiographical debates focused on other regions--in fact no Catalan article related to Vallbona appears to cite any of this controversy, or the traditional narrative.  But they do know their local sources quite well.  In fact, the foundation story that appears in the multiple histories of Vallbona I've looked at fits Berman's pattern beautifully:

A charismatic hermit called Ramon settled down in the Good Valley of Vallbona, attracting a number of followers, both male and female.  After some time the group decided to adopt a more formal set of customs and separated, the men perhaps joining the community of Poblet.  The women invited a nun from the Navarrese Cistercian community of Tulebras to come and bring them Cistercian customs, which she did c. 1175.  That is not super-early in the Cistercian chronology, but it is earlier than when the General Chapter is supposed to have been pressured to admit women.  It's a little earlier than the foundation of Las Huelgas in Castile.  I do think, based on the local accounts and sources, that Vallbona was Cistercian.  Its material seems unfairly obscure, though; it's seldom cited in studies of Las Huelgas, much less related to developments in France.  Unfortunate, as it could provide useful counterpoint.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Catching up

Well, I am not sure what happened last week. It's only in the second week of the semester here, but somehow I found myself very preoccupied with classes and short on sleep. I seem to have rectified that situation to some extent now.

Meanwhile, I am plugging away revising a conference paper (project A). I am finding it a bit recalcitrant, possibly because I'm more interested in other things (projects B and C), but A has a more imminent deadline. I've just downloaded or requested a blizzard of books and articles for project B, which I'll start reading as I finish the work on project A. As usual, combing the indexes of journals has flushed out several articles which I really should have read already, or at least been aware of. That does tend to induce some guilt, but at least I'm aware of them now...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In case you were wondering

There are too many women named Elicsendis in this paper. That is all.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Great Divide

I recently read an article on the enclosure of nuns that illustrates some of the interesting questions around this issue, as well as some of my ongoing frustrations with scholarship on women and religion. I happened on the article somewhat by chance--it's in a collection of essays that caught my eye while I was looking for something else on the shelf. I'm glad I found it, though.

The article is Francesca Medioli, "An unequal law: the enforcement of clausura before and after the Council of Trent," in Christine Meek, ed. Women in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe (Four Courts Press, 2000).  The title of the essay collections is indicative of my current complaint. Since these essays focus on Renaissance / early modern women, I hadn't previously encountered it in reading scholarship on medieval women. In short, medievalists and early modernists don't talk to each other enough. Medioli's essay further illustrates the problem. She's interested in ideas of enclosure before and after the mid-1500s Council of Trent, and she discusses some monastic rules dating from before Trent, but she doesn't deal to any significant extent with any of the scholarship on enclosure in the Middle Ages. 

This problem comes up again and again in my reading on monasticism. Medievalists pick an ending date--for historians of Spain, often 1492, for historians of England, often the Dissolution of the early 1500s--and stop there. Early modernists pick a start date, usually in the 1500s, sometimes in the late 1400s, and start there.  It's rare for a historian on either side of the medieval / early modern divide to engage systematically with work done on the other side.

Yet, for women religious, there is a lot of consistency crossing that line.  Similar rules, customs, and preoccupations dominate the theory and practice of women's monastic lives both before and after 1500.  The Council of Trent is in some ways a watershed.  But, as Medioli points out, it's a watershed of enforcement, not of ideology.  In the years after Trent, the enforcement of enclosure rules became much more stringent and effective, but the basic principle of enclosure had been established by Boniface VIII's bull Periculoso in 1298 and discussed more generally long before that.  Medioli's discussion of the Trent materials, particularly the differences between the draft and final versions of the relevant constitutions, is quite interesting.  Yet I found myself frustrated that the scholarship on earlier norms of enclosure was not more fully addressed, and also frustrated that there was little discussion of customary practices within nunneries.  We know from many anecdotes that many nunneries did not observe enclosure very strictly, but we don't necessarily know whether these nuns were working under consistent customs that just happened to be looser than the ideal, or whether there was in fact an "anything goes" mentality. And just how was it that church leaders managed to enforce enclosure more effectively after Trent, when the ideal of enclosure for nuns had already existed for centuries? Or did they succeed only in Italy (Medioli's focus)? There are some very important questions here which really require an approach that spans medieval and early modern.

R & R

Alas, not the fun rest and recreation kind.  I recently got an article back with a revise-and-resubmit recommendation.

I've often seen people complain about their readers' reports that it seems the readers hardly read the work, or at least wanted something very different. That's not the case here. Both of the reports are encouraging, and both offer concrete suggestions for improvement. And I think both reports are fair: these are indeed areas that need improvement.

One report will be fairly easy to address, I hope. The other will require some digging in the library and reconceptualization. What concerns me here, actually, is that the second report has two layers of comments. One layer requires putting my piece into dialogue with some a particular set of scholarship, which I think is manageable and a reasonable goal. The other layer may require a much more involved revision, perhaps even reconceptualization, of the project. I don't know that I can do that, at least not quickly, as it would require examining original manuscripts which I don't have. But, I'll see what I can do.

Monday, September 8, 2008

First day

So today was my first day of class. I think it will go well. I have a roomful of people who are eager to take the course, who come from an array of different backgrounds and so bring different perspectives to the material. My only trouble at the moment is that there are too many of them; the course is overenrolled and I'm going to have to turn some away.

I need to adjust to the new rhythm of the school year: two days a week teaching and being on campus all day, three days working in the home office on research, writing, and the rest of it. I hope to confine teaching responsibilities to my two teaching days as much as possible. I have a lot of writing to do, and it is too easy to let teaching fill all possible time.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A return to nuns

The last few entries, I note, have concentrated on matters personal-professional. They've brought a few new commenters out of the woodwork--welcome! and thanks for reading!

But now how about some nuns? Here's an anecdote I encountered in my research some time ago:

Once upon a time a young lady named Geralda wished to enter a particular nunnery. Now, there are some questions we can't answer here: for one thing, we can't be completely certain whether Geralda herself had a burning desire for the monastic life, or whether her parents thought the monastery would be the best place for her. She and her family were noble, but not titled nobility: her father likely held a castle or two in the countryside. 

Regardless of whose idea it was, she was certainly a socially acceptable candidate, and the nunnery she sought to enter was eminently respectable: a few hundred years old, well established, regularly accepting young women from the area. They claimed, however, that they could not take Geralda. They were too poor, they said, and could not possibly support another nun. It was expensive, after all, to take in a young woman and provide her with food, clothing, and so forth for her entire life.  

Geralda's father may not have been count of anything, but he apparently had some pull somewhere, because Geralda and her family filed complaints all the way up to the pope. Having been turned away from one nunnery, it might have been sensible to seek entrance into another. But for Geralda and her family, apparently only this nunnery would do. Why? This is another point on which we don't have much information. This particular nunnery was not too far away from the family's residence, for one thing; trying to enter another nunnery would probably require her either to join a much smaller community, or to join a community much farther from home. Or maybe Geralda was particularly fond of the saint that this nunnery was dedicated to. Or maybe she had an aunt already a nun there, although if that were so, it ought to have been easier for her to be accepted there.

Now, the pope was a busy man, and not about to trek down from Avignon himself to investigate, but he did appoint a delegate to look into the matter. Before the delegate, Geralda presented her complaints, and the nunnery in turn sent an official who laid out all the debts and other difficulties that made it just impossible, sorry, for them to take in another nun. And the delegate agreed with the nuns' official. And that should have been the end of it.

But it clearly was not. Because, lo and behold, some years later Geralda shows up in the list of nuns signing on to a charter at that nunnery, so clearly they had let her in after all. One suspects that she and her father had been induced to make some sizable donation to the community, to make up for the terrible expense of her upkeep. Yet, evidently, a happy ending for Geralda, who had fought hard to be admitted to the monastery of her choice. One hopes she lived a long and contented life there.