Thursday, November 20, 2008

Today's progress: much material skimmed, three books or articles ordered from ILL, several more requested from neighboring libraries, three references written on my "look for in the library" list, and, best of all, some actual writing.

Today I'm working on revisions to the liturgy article. I'm now drafted a whole new section that does a much better job of situating the community I'm talking about in the history of its order and region. So far so good. A reviewer also suggested that I need to situate the community's liturgy better in the history of its order's liturgy. That's a trickier assignment as the dating of the order's liturgy relies on arguments about the music more than the texts, and I am explicitly not dealing with the music in this article. I also am, of necessity, working from notes rather than the actual manuscripts. I'll need to take some thought about how to handle this issue.

Teaching update

It's that time of the semester--the students are running low on time, sleep, and energy. I hope the Thanksgiving break will prove to be more restorative than exhausting for them.

After Thanksgiving they'll be doing presentations in class. Less prep for me, but still some prep; the schedule I've put together does not completely fill the class period with presentations. I'm trying to think of some short things we can do in the remaining class time: perhaps brief exercises that will be pedagogically useful, helping them prepare for their final papers, or something entertaining but also informative... I'm not averse to dismissing them early, but I'd rather not do that for all four of the class periods when they'll be doing presentations.

My spring survey course has now filled. I'll have forty students, mostly first-years, to attempt to lure into the fields of history and medieval studies. Excellent.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Heu Mihi inquired yesterday what I thought about the affiliation of Helfta (Cistercian or Benedictine). I confess I hadn't much thought about the affiliation of Helfta before that point, so I poked around a little.

As it turns out, Helfta is interestingly eclectic in its spiritual affiliations and influences. This Saxon community of nuns was founded c. 1229. According to an article I recently read in Meredith Parsons Lillich, ed., Cistercian Nuns and their World, there's a definitely-Cistercian community that served as their mother house. It's not clear to me that this was a particularly strong link, mind you. Helfta was apparently never officially incorporated into the Cistercian Order, which leads some scholars to call it simply Benedictine; yet they did adopt some Cistercian customs.

So, do they walk, talk, and act like Cistercians? Sort of. They appear to be influenced by Cistercian spirituality, as discussed in Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother. Yet according to several authorities, their spiritual advisors in the late 13th century were Dominican and/or Franciscan, possibly out of shared interests in mysticism. They thus appear to have accepted spiritual advice from many different sources and traditions. Their institutional commitment to learning is distinctive; I suspect most women's communities following Cistercian customs did not emphasize the trivium and quadrivium to the extent that Helfta's nuns did. And the Helfta nuns develop some original and distinctive devotions, such as devotion to the Sacred Heart. Rosalynn Voaden, in an essay in Medieval women in their communities, argues that the Helfta visionaries worked closely together and influenced each other, and has an interesting discussion of the Sacred Heart.

So, to sum up, Helfta is idiosyncratic; certainly following the Benedictine rule and Cistercian observances, although not officially recognized as Cistercian. The lack of oversight from a Cistercian father abbot may in fact have been helpful to them, allowing them greater autonomy in selecting spiritual guides and forging their unique community culture.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bits and pieces

So. Incremental progress today. The job applications are done, so I hope I can get back into a groove of writing / researching more regularly. Today I read a few articles and made notes toward some pending revisions. I am returning now to some of the issues I raised in this post. Specifically, I'm reading up on various debates about the early existence of Cistercian nuns. I have to say that the need to address all of the major arguments on this subject seems a little tiresome. Newer arguments that favor the existence of women's communities that believed themselves to be Cistercian seem much more compelling than older pieces' simple assertion that there were no early Cistercian nuns. I am much in favor of observing realities on the ground: if people act like Cistercians, look like Cistercians, and talk like Cistercians, I tend to think they're Cistercians.

I am paying particular attention to references to Spain, of course. There's a Navarrese community of Cistercian nuns called Tulebras which appears to have had some influence both into Aragon and into Castile, but it's difficult to find out much about it. My initial searches haven't turned up much, and the community is not usually mentioned among the standard lists of early Cistercian nunnieres (Jully, Tart, etc.). I seem to have identified yet another topic that could use more research...

Monday, November 10, 2008


Arrgh. I am still feeling swamped, and frustrated that I don't seem to be able to find time for much writing of late--I am doing a little bit of reading here and there, but the pile of Things I Need To Read is still accumulating too fast. The conclusion I am coming to is this:

I can teach and work on my own stuff at the same time, but I cannot teach, prepare job applications, AND work on my own stuff at the same time. And I REALLY can't do all three of those things at once and also fight off a succession of colds and aches and other nonsense, which has been the case for the last couple of weeks.

So that just makes it imperative: the remaining applications must go out this week. Preferably, tomorrow. The materials are all drafted, I just need to put on finishing touches and get them out the door. "Perfect" is becoming the enemy of "done," and I can't allow that to continue.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting medieval style

Most medieval people probably had little experience of voting, except perhaps very informally. Urban populations did sometimes have elected councils or leaders of some type, often chosen by fairly complex systems. The election system in Venice, as I recall, involved several alternations of choosing candidates by lot and then voting from among them, or voting on a pool of candidates and then choosing one of them by lot, and so forth. 

Medieval nuns and other religious did have opportunities to vote. Abbots and abbesses, priors and prioresses were often elected by the monks or nuns or canons they were supposed to lead. Since they were then elected for life, individual nuns / monks / canons might not have had very many opportunities to vote in their lifetimes.

The Rule of St. Benedict says briefly that the abbot should be chosen "either by the whole community acting unanimously in the fear of God, or by some part of the community, no matter how small, which possesses sounder judgment." (RSB 64:1, in the 1982 edition from The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn.) Unanimous choice of an abbot or abbess was probably fairly uncommon. How did this "some part of the community" method work out in practice?

In 1283 the abbess of a small Benedictine nunnery in Catalonia died. Shortly after, the prioress convened the nuns. The twenty nuns present chose three of their number as a commission and agreed to abide by their decision. They therefore acknowledged those three as possessing sound judgment and being worthy of the community's trust. All three were venerable women; two had been nuns for at least 35 years, and the remaining one had been a nun for at least 27 years. Probably all three were at least in their 40s or 50s then, and possibly were considerably older. In addition, these three nuns had an advisor: the abbot of a nearby community of Benedictine monks. These four people deliberated for a time--not more than a few hours, in this case--and then announced their decision. They chose as the new abbess the community's prioress, a woman who had held the offices of prioress and infirmarian in the nunnery for 20 years. They praised her learning, prudence, and discretion, and their choice was attested by all those present. The witnesses included not just the twenty nuns of the community, but also its chaplain as well as representatives from the local cathedral and other men's communities. 

This election went very smoothly: a well-qualified candidate was available and the chosen delegation came to agreement quite easily. Certainly not all medieval religious elections went so well, but this example must be practically the ideal.

Incidentally, the Catalan scholar Ramon Llull seems to have been interested in voting (among his many other interests) and proposed some much more elaborate schemes for conducting elections; I found some discussion of this methods here.