Monday, July 28, 2008

Were donations always worth while?

Late medieval monasteries got a lot of donations, and often they were quite specific. I often wonder how welcome some of these gifts really were.  

For example, people might choose to make a substantial gift of property or rents to a nunnery, and dedicate those funds to the support of a particular priest, who is to offer masses at a certain altar in the community at specified times of the year.  Do the nuns actually welcome this?  What exactly do they get out of it, hmm?  They have more opportunities to attend mass, although they probably had plenty of such opportunities.  They get another priest visiting the cloister.  They probably get a bit of extra food or money on the anniversary of the donor's death.  Wouldn't many communities prefer funds given to buy clothing or food, or funds given with no particular purpose, that they could use as they chose?  This kind of gift strikes me as being more about the donor's wishes than the recipients'.  If the donor is sufficiently wealthy or powerful, though, I'm sure the community accepts the gift cheerfully to preserve good relations.

In one of my documents, a widow gives all her property to a community of nuns, in exchange for food and clothing during her lifetime. Mutual benefits: the widow, perhaps aging or ill, now has secured basic care for herself, while the nuns hope to enjoy the income of the property in the future. The donation happens in 1308; the parcel pops up several times in later documents. First (1309) the nuns have to enter litigation to secure their claim to the property. In 1310 they find a tenant for it, who takes it for a 3-year contract.  Normally the nuns would prefer to have a "solid" tenant, someone who does homage and is bound to the land perpetually, but they apparently haven't found anyone willing to make such an arrangement.  In 1312, the tenant gives it back. In 1314 the nuns find a new tenant for the property, again someone not willing to do homage for the land. This one is willing to pay a large fee for the privilege of not doing homage, though, so that's something. So this is a gift that entailed potentially costly litigation, and may have sat vacant and uncultivated from 1308 to 1310 and from 1312 to 1314; all in all, it seems a rather troublesome gift. Perhaps its real value is that, when she gave it, the donor also forgave a debt which the abbess owed her.

Maintaining good relations with one's creditors: Priceless.

Next item?

OK. Liturgy article is revised and off to a friend for reading.  (Thanks, friend!)  What's next?

There are two pieces I'm particularly interested in working on: one about nuns and slavery, and the other about patronage of and donations to nunneries.  For the first I'm just collecting bibliography and sources right now, as the second must take priority.  It's already committed and needs some revision by October.  The amount of time I have to work on it will also drop sharply in September once I start teaching, so I'd like to get the bulk of revisions on it done by the end of August.

Most of my research focuses directly on nuns themselves: what they did, how they lived, how they handled certain obstacles and situations, and so forth. This piece still uses monastic sources, but focuses on a different subject: the lay women who supported nunneries.  There were a lot of them.  I'm firmly convinced that successful late medieval monasteries really had to have a lot of small-to-middling donors to keep them going.  Large donors were nice, too, of course, but the very wealthy might prefer something splashy like founding a new monastery.  In the sources I'm working with I'm seeing a lot more smaller donors.  Why did they give to nunneries?  Did they get some benefit, social, spiritual, or otherwise, from doing so?  How did miscellaneous small donations affect the communities which received them?  These are the sorts of questions I'm approaching here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When the writing is not good

Well, having gushed about how smoothly things were going a few weeks ago, I feel morally obligated to confess now that things are somewhat...stickier.  I now have a full draft of the article, which I let sit for a couple of days and then read all the way through today.  I've revised the introduction, trimmed some of the pedantic early material, and am proceeding to do some more minor editing and revising all the way through.  As with so many projects, the fine-tuning once the thing is 95% complete is the hardest, and I'm doing a lot of fiddling with word choice for clarity and so forth. I have perfectionist tendencies, so it would be very easy for me to keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking and never actually send the thing out.  So I'm going to limit myself to one pass through for tweaking and try to send it off by the end of the week.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

But what did other nuns read?

I've just finished David Bell's What Nuns Read. (marking off books from my to-read list) Most of the book is a complete list of manuscripts that can be attributed to English nunneries, preceded by a short analysis of finances, literacy, and other issues. The analytic chapters have some good hard numbers, including incomes of women's monasteries, comparisons of those incomes to the annual wages of laborers, information on costs of books, and so forth.  For English nuns, Bell concludes, there is better evidence of literacy and book-reading than has generally been supposed.  Even in Latin, in spite of frequent medieval complaints that nuns are not sufficiently Latin-literate.  He points out, also, that similar criticisms are being directed at monks at the same time, so it's not as if late medieval monks were preserving some better state of literacy and composition than nuns were.

What about nuns on the continent?  As far as I know there is no comparable study and book-list for any region.  Alison Beach has done some work on women and book production in Germany (more for the to-read list), and there are several other scholars who have worked on nuns' writing and artistic production there.  Fiona Griffiths' book on Herrad of Hohenburg makes a case for a high level of literacy, indeed of theological sophistication, on the part of Herrad, and perhaps others of her nuns.  This case might be quite exceptional, however.  The various nuns and communities which produced spiritual treatises (such as Helfta), may also be quite exceptional.  So, some communities might be especially noted for learning: what about other houses, especially smaller and poorer ones?  

Any monastery had to have some books.  In the first place, a monastery required books to perform the liturgy.  Bell notes that over half of the surviving manuscripts of English nunneries were liturgical.  One might expect similar figures for medieval survivals elsewhere.  Except that in Catholic Europe, the liturgy was substantially revised by the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century.  Older books were in many cases discarded as the new ones came in, especially older books that had no particular artistic merit and therefore didn't seem worth keeping.  Thrifty religious sometimes recycled such outmoded books as end-papers for new ones.

In the second place, a community following the Benedictine rule was supposed to distribute one book annually to each member, and this was to be read over by the nun or monk during the year and then returned.  By this logic, even a small house ought to have at least as many non-liturgical books as it had members.  

For the Iberian kingdoms there seems to be not much known about writing, literacy, or book ownership among nuns at any point in the Middle Ages.  One house I've done research on kept large numbers of medieval charters, but its archive has no medieval books.  Another, in contrast, has many liturgical books and a few other devotional books still in its own archive.  The dislocations of the 19th and 20th centuries might have caused books to be lost or destroyed, or moved into larger collections.  Some translations of the Benedictine rule into Catalan might have been made for a women's monastery, for example.  There is, I think, a lot that could be done on this topic, though I don't know if I am the right person to do it.

A parting note: a lengthy article on the Benedictine congregation in Catalonia indicated that copies of the orders constitutions were kept in the two largest nunneries associated with the congregation. Why them particularly? Is that somehow a testament to the quality of the nuns' libraries or record-keeping?

Apologies for the somewhat disconnected thoughts, I am still feeling my way on these questions.

Beguines in the NYT!

Beguines are not quite nuns, but have a number of similarities.  This article is not entirely accurate, but not at all bad.

Meanwhile, I continue to slog through course materials. I am trying to select readings for the course I'll teach in the fall. I'll be starting a new visiting position, which means I don't yet have an office. This means that my academic books are crammed onto shelves, stacked into piles, and loaded into boxes, which are themselves stacked into piles. Finding a particular book I want to look at can require a lot of digging through boxes and stacks. This is just one of many things that are annoying about not having a permanent job.

I always find the process of selecting readings challenging--which selections to put together? is the reading too long? is the reading too short? etc.  I know people in other disciplines who are able to simply pick a single textbook and use that for everything.  I don't find that suitable for most of the courses I teach, and particularly not for something that is supposed to be a seminar.  Getting the right balance of primary and secondary stuff, and making sure the reading load is challenging but manageable, is something I spend a lot of time, effort, and worry on.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Yes, nuns lived in monasteries

Today I need to shift gears. I'm teaching an undergrad seminar (not about nuns, alas) in the fall, and I need to select the readings and get them to the copiers so they have plenty of time to get permissions. This will more or less require me to work out the entire schedule of readings for the fall in the next few days--always something I find difficult, since there are dozens of little decisions to be made.

Meanwhile, I want to clarify a point of vocabulary regarding nuns, especially of the medieval variety.

It's customary in English to refer to houses of nuns as "convents" and houses of monks as "monasteries." This means that when I refer to "women's monasteries" I usually get some raised eyebrows. People have said to me, "Oh...they lived in monasteries?" sounding very impressed. Really, convents and monasteries are basically the same thing, it's simply a convention of English vocabulary, and I don't know when it developed. (Readers? any insights?)

I use the word monasteries to refer to women's communities because that's what my sources say. The Latin charters I'm dealing with refer quite consistently to a house for nuns as a monasterium.   So they are clearly people who live in a monastery. The charters also use the word conventum. This word, in context, seems to refer to the religious community as a legal entity: the abbess and the conventum of the house together make decisions about buying and selling property, according to the charters, for example.  Monasterium seems also to be used to refer to the physical building and its surroundings, but can also refer generally to the community.  So these nuns (continental, not English) clearly lived in both a monastery and a convent, and I use both terms whenever they seem appropriate.

Friday, July 11, 2008

End of the week

Well. I have a draft for the liturgy paper done. Time now to let it sit for a bit, and come back to it next week for a fresh reading.

I've been writing it in bits and pieces for the last few weeks, you see, so there's a substantial risk that I am repeating myself too much.  Or not clarifying something enough, because I thought I had explained it earlier.  I also need to think a bit about which journal I should send it to, and possibly revise it with that audience in mind.

Meanwhile, the Kalamazoo CFP is up, and I find myself uninspired. It would be nice to go to K'zoo next year, but I'm having trouble finding a session that seems well-suited to the things I'm working on.  There seems to be a lot of lit stuff, which is not what I'm doing; there are some sessions on religious reform, which I might be able to do something with, but not much else that seems to link religion and gender. Or even to allow for the linkage of religion and gender; I can't very well submit a paper on nuns to a session that says it's about clergy, or mendicant preachers, or the like.  I hate the feeling that I am trying to shoehorn my work into a slot that it really doesn't fit.  I'll have to read through the CFP again, since I may be missing something, but on a first reading, my work seems like a difficult fit for any of the proposed sessions.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Jesus and his celestial harem?

Aspects of medieval culture are often sufficiently different from modern culture to seem decidedly weird.  Today's example: the "bride of Christ" motif.  

It was common, in the Middle Ages, to describe nuns as brides of Christ.  Consecrated virgins took Christ as their husband in lieu of an earthly husband.  Much is made of this in any number of sources: one can find treatises discussing Jesus' superiority as a husband to any mere man and admonitions about how nuns must behave themselves lest they shame their "husband."  

What becomes odd about this, to a modern reader, is how very literal much of the discussion of the motif is.  Nuns are not merely metaphorical brides, but actual brides.  The liturgy for consecrating a nun, for example, may contain direct references to the theme.  The signature item of apparel for a nun was not so much her habit as her veil, an attribute of brides.  When you look at the lives of individual holy women, you can find even more direct references: the ancient St. Katherine of Alexandria, according to her vita, received a ring; St. Catherine of Siena is among several holy women actually living in the Middle Ages who had similar visions of a ring and wedding ceremony.  Special relationships with Christ, often accompanied by suggestive ecstasies, abound among female mystics.  I have also found a text referring to Katherine of Alexandria's entrance into the celestial bedchamber.  Medieval people were not just speaking poetically with this "bride of Christ" stuff; for many of them it appears to have been spiritual reality.

And where this gets even weirder...maybe even slightly when you reflect on the fact that Jesus was supposed to be married to all these nuns and saints at the same time.  My current research has brought that home to me, as the texts shift back and forth between talking about a nun's individual relationship to Christ, as his bride, and talking about the nuns' spiritual endeavor as a collective.  Such shifts seem a bit awkward, juxtaposing the spiritual reality of being a bride of Christ with the mundane reality of being a nun in a monastery together with many other nuns.  How special could a nun feel about being Christ's bride when Sister Snoresalot, or Sister Condescending, in the next cell was also Christ's bride?  The theme was widely used, for all sorts of purposes, and yet no one in the Middle Ages seems to have considered these implications.

Desk successfully excavated

Now I'm chugging through my manuscript images, comparing them to transcripts, etc.  

The whole reason these files are on my desk is that I don't have enough space in drawers to file them properly.  And no place to put a new filing cabinet, either, so that's out.  This leads me to some questions:

  1. Do I really need to keep notes from classes I took as a student?
  2. What about notes I took during other people's talks?
  3. What about newsletters from various organizations I belong to?
Currently I'm keeping quite a bit of such things--in particular the class notes take up a lot of space.  Since I haven't touched many of these things in years, the answer to the above questions is probably no, but I suspect some more sorting and clearing stuff out is in order.

More on nuns next post.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Less writing time today, but still going OK; I drafted one of the two remaining sections of this essay.  So just one section left to draft, and then I'll have a complete draft.  

There's just one problem.

In order to write the next section, I have to excavate my desk.  

I know that somewhere on my desk is a manila folder with printouts of the relevant documents I need to check before I can write this section. Somewhere, that is, under:
--book catalogs
--sample syllabi from my new employer
--notes I scribbled during sessions of the last two conferences I attended, one of which was in January
--random magazines
--mail I meant to deal with weeks ago
--photocopies of articles

When my desk is organized, there are a lot of piles on it, but I know what type of thing is in each pile.  When my desk is not organized, as now, everything smears into one big pile.  So...time to go digging in the pile.  

How is your desk organized (or not)?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

When the writing is good

I'm just coming off a good, solid writing session.  I was so into the work that I lost track of time, until I realized I was hungry, looked at the clock on the screen and saw it was almost 2 pm.

This project (the liturgy one) all along has nearly seemed to write itself.  Despite that, it's been in progress for 2 years, interrupted by conference papers, a book manuscript, and job applications.  From the beginning, when I was poring through the liturgical manuscripts, the basic idea came together very quickly.  I wrote a sketchy introduction and a rough outline.  How to organize a piece most effectively is often challenging for me, and this one fell into place very obviously: first I need to do this, then this, then that, then wrap up with this.  I haven't had to seriously revise the structure of the essay at any point.  

Writing is not always like this.  In fact, this particular project is almost unique in my experience, in that it's been so easy to work with.  Usually I do a lot more straining and revising and despairing over the utter crap I wrote the other day.  But for now, the writing is good, and it feels wonderful.  Hallelujah!  I need to finish writing two short sections, do a pass through the footnotes and conclusion, and then it will be done!  I almost hate to have to finish and send it off.  The next project probably won't be nearly as easy.