Monday, June 30, 2008

Nuns on the run

No writing today. I did, however, make progress in working through the stack of books I've checked out. Today I finished F. Donald Logan's Runaway Religious in Medieval England, c. 1240-1540. This book deals with the interesting phenomenon of religious who ran away from their monasteries, well documented in England because monastic superiors could get writs from the crown to go arrest the runaways and return them by force. The book is packed with interesting anecdotes, plus descriptions of the procedures involved and numbers of runaways.

Nuns were a pretty small portion of the documented runaways; a lot more were monks, canons, and friars. Sometimes nuns ran off with lovers; just as often they left their monasteries to attempt to claim inheritances. One of the things I really appreciated about this book is that nuns are fully represented in it. Many books about medieval monasticism treat nuns in a very cursory way, or leave them out entirely; Logan gives special attention to issues unique to nuns (pregnancy, for instance), but otherwise subjects them to the same analysis as monks. It's a pleasure to see such an evenhanded approach.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Liturgy: not so scary

One of the projects I am working on this summer is an article based on study of medieval liturgy.  Note, I am trained as a historian (who works on religious topics), rather than as a scholar of religion.  When I tell other historians that I am working on liturgical sources, I tend to get some interesting responses.  Often a look of suppressed terror creeps into their eyes.  "Oh," they say, edging away as if I might have something catching, "how interesting. I could never do that..."

Why are they so nervous?  Well, liturgiology (cool word, huh?) seems to be reputed as an especially esoteric part of the medieval studies field.  There are, I suppose, some good reasons for this.  Liturgical manuscripts are a distinct genre of manuscripts, with several different formal types.  The manuscripts use a lot of jargon and abbreviations which have to be unravelled.  Scholarship on liturgy also uses a lot of specialized vocabulary: can you tell Vespers from Matins? how about Lauds? what's the difference between an antiphon and a responsory? and so forth.  Further, many liturgiologists (even cooler word!) work on very early liturgies, which involve even more specialized manuscripts, plus languages like Syriac, etc.

I'm not venturing into those waters.  Instead, I'm working with late medieval liturgical manuscripts, which are safely in Latin.  Once I've gotten a grip on the conventions of liturgical manuscripts generally--which is possible through a couple of excellent introductions--the manuscripts themselves are not that hard to work through.  

Why put in the work?  Because this is what nuns (and monks) did most of the day.  Middle of the night, morning, scheduled intervals throughout the day, evening, the lives of people in monasteries were regulated by the liturgical routine.  This is what they read, sang, heard, and experienced throughout their days.  Liturgy had to have been crucial to how they understood themselves and the monastic life, and that's what I'm trying to uncover.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Berks 2008

A week and a half ago I was at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women.  I don't normally think of myself as good at networking.  But this conference was excellent for meeting people!  Medievalists were well represented at the conference, and since we knew we had interests in common, it was much easier to meet and chat than at a more general conference like the AHA.  I managed to have productive and delightful conversations with a lot of people in my field, both junior and senior.  

But what about the research, you ask?  That was excellent, too.  A session on "Gendering the Plague" showed how using the lens of gender helps wring new insights out of a very well-worn topic.  A session on motherhood and nursing proved particularly lively, provoking a fascinating discussion on what medieval people thought made someone a "good mother" and various aspects of wet nursing.

For me, the highlight was the Sunday workshop with the lengthy title: "Using the Archives of Medieval Religious Women's Houses to Reflect on Their Secular Sisters."  That's a mouthful.  Though secular women were nominally the focus of these papers, many of them dealt with patronage of nuns, or cooperation between nuns and secular women.  The ensuing discussion tended to come right back around to nuns, as one participant remarked.  

Unfortunately, the papers are no longer available from the Berks website.  Here are some of the common themes from the papers and the discussion:
  • The boundary between "religious woman" and "secular woman" is quite porous
  • Women of high, middling, and low status all had connections to nunneries
  • There is still a lot we don't know about how and why medieval women became nuns
  • There is still a lot we don't know about how and why lay people supported nuns
For me, this was a very stimulating and thought-provoking session.  I am very glad I went; I really needed a source of inspiration like this to motivate me to write write write this summer.

Why a blog?

This blog is mostly about nuns.  Medieval nuns, to be exact.  I have no intention of becoming a nun, and I don't study modern nuns.  The medieval period is what interests me.  I wrote a dissertation on  a single house of medieval nuns, and in the process uncovered a ton more questions and issues that I'm still pursuing.  Hence, this blog.  I hope to use this space to work through some of these questions informally, as well as keep track of my writing goals and progress.

I am now several years past that dissertation.  While I shop around a book manuscript, I'm attempting to work on other projects.  I've got at least three separate essays I'd like to work on this summer.  More about those in future posts. 

So here are my current intentions for this blog:
I will endeavor to post regularly.
I welcome comments, and I will try to respond to them regularly.  But:
I will delete spam, personal attacks, and other obnoxious comments.