Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

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Notes from a DH Classroom

This semester, my students have learned the narrow streets of the Marais, traced the path once taken by Paris’s city walls, and considered how the spires of the cathedral of Notre Dame would have drawn the eye of the medieval city dweller: all without leaving upstate New York.

Like the other 300-level seminars offered in Geneseo’s history department, “Hacking the Middle Ages” is designed to introduce sophomore history majors and minors to the process of conducting independent research and prepare them for our upper-level seminars. Unlike those other classes, this class is explicitly built around a digital history project. The students collaborated to read Guillebert de Mets’ fifteenth-century Description de la ville de Paris and then used the information which it contains in order to build their own traveller’s guide to the city in the late Middle Ages.

A sixteenth-century guinea pig. Detail of “Three Unknown Elizabethan Children”, ca. 1580. London, National Portrait Gallery.

As I stressed to the students from the beginning of the course, this made them guinea pigs in a way—and put me in the very same position. The class was a new one for me to design and teach. The topic arose out of my own expertise in the history of medieval France, and my long-standing interest in digital humanities and spatial history, but I had not previously had the opportunity to teach a DH class. While some DH projects were underway at Geneseo before I and the rest of the Computational Analytics Cluster were hired last year (the Digital Thoreau project is probably the most prominent example), more robust and formal connections needed to be forged between the History Department and CIT to make sure that innovations in digital pedagogy and research projects were fully and consistently supported.

And then there was the really big structural issue: dealing with students’ anxieties about using technology. The term “digital native” gets bandied about a lot, but I find it a term that’s not just vague but actually harmful. Being born after a certain date doesn’t mean that you innately understand how computing technology works. (For all that my three-year-old niece can find her way around YouTube like nobody’s business.) “Digital native” doesn’t take into account the broad range of student socio-economic and educational backgrounds, or that in the age of the tablet and the smartphone app, students are more used to a passive and siloed use of technology than they are to the creative and experimental use of computers. It steers people—educators, administrators, policy makers—towards thinking that “the flipped classroom” or “the hybrid classroom” or whatever buzzword we’re employing this week will work simply because, well… millennials, right?

Olivier Truschet and Germain Hoyau, Map of Paris, ca. 1550. [Universiteitsbibliotheek Vrije Universiteit, LL.06979gk.]

In fact, many of the students in this class confided in me that they actively dislike computers and technology, and had signed up for the class not understanding what the terms “digital history” and “digital humanities” in the course description actually meant. (“I thought you just meant ‘hacking’ like with a longsword,” said one.)

I had built some flexibility into the course timetable, but soon realised that I needed to increase that as it became clear to me that the prospect of undertaking a digital project felt scary to students in ways that writing a more traditional research paper did not. Sure, it’s intimidating to be asked to scale up from writing a 3-4 page paper to one that’s 18-20 pages long, but the fundamentals of the task are still familiar. Asking students to get comfortable with Omeka or Neatline or Fusion Tables is asking them to learn a whole new toolkit before they ever start to construct an argument or think about their prospective audience. We ask students to read primary sources; we rarely ask them to think about the metadata choices that let us find and access those primary sources in the first place.

So I made a deliberate choice to engage with the students where they were: to openly acknowledge that they were grappling with something new and that I acknowledged that it was difficult; to stop and consider my own assumptions on a regular basis. (My Irish convent secondary school in the late ’90s insisted that all students learn how to use word processing and spreadsheet programs; American students in the No Child Left Behind age can graduate high school never having opened Excel and without grasping the distinction between a footer and a footnote.)

And, with so many of them anxious about being asked to acquire both content knowledge and skills in one fell swoop, I was as explicit as I could be, as often as I could be, that their tastes and interests would have primacy in shaping the resulting website (which they dubbed Mapping By the Book). I ditched most of the parameters I’d planned to ask them to include in the final project, and stripped it down to “base it on Guillebert’s text, include a mapping component and a scholarly bibliography, go nuts.” At first that seemed infinitely more overwhelming to them; I think there was widespread suspicion that there was some unknowable Platonic form of a mapping project that I was just expecting them to intuit. I had to stress that yes, they had agency over their own intellectual output—I wasn’t interested in seeing them blandly copy the kind of website I would build.

Mapping medieval churches on a georectified version of the Truschet and Hoyau map.

Once they realised that I really was giving them their head, their work blossomed. They tried new things, taxed Interlibrary Loan with the volume of books they called up about Parisian churches and the travels of Philip Augustus, got frustrated because they had experimental ideas that Omeka and Neatline wouldn’t let them accomplish, and seemed to spend half of their class time teaching one another how to recreate this cool new things they’d discovered. Classes got noisier, less predictable, and students were proud to claim ownership of their work. Did we get to everything I’d wanted to cover in the course originally? No. But it was an excellent reminder that sometimes giving up a little bit of control results in better scholarship and better pedagogy.

Over at the Geneseo History Department blog, the “Hacking the Middle Ages” students have written about their project this semester, and shared what they thought was most valuable about the exercise of making the Mapping by the Book website. Their enthusiasm and good humoured embrace of being the departmental guinea pigs means that I’m feeling much more confident about the next stage of digital history projects here at Geneseo: a series of student independent studies this summer that will be conducted jointly with CIT.

None of us are teaching digital natives. We’re acting as a tour guides for digital explorers.

A screencap of the students’ Neatline exhibit mapping the colleges of medieval Paris.

Papal Bull? “The Young Pope” and Teaching the Middle Ages

The HBO miniseries The Young Pope is a dreamy and often surreal look at the papacy of the fictional Pius XIII: previously Lenny Belardo, the youngest pope in generations is a New Yorker who references Daft Punk and Banksy but is also an arch-conservative who intends to use his papacy to push a reactionary and ostentatiously traditional agenda. (This traditionalism makes for one of the highlights of the series’ many visual treats, the excellent hats and elaborate clothing, much of which harks back to the Middle Ages.) His immediate predecessor is never named, but it seems clear that Lenny is reacting against the determinedly ascetic and media-friendly approach of the current pope. I’d bet good money that no one is Tweeting from @Pontifex in this particular reality.

I began to watch the show thinking that it would be a much more conventional endeavour: The West Wing and its brand of political intrigues transposed to the Vatican. The Young Pope is a much more bizarre and occasionally perplexing piece of television, right from the opening dream sequence when Lenny (played with aplomb by an impressive Jude Law) crawls out into St Peter’s Square from beneath an enormous pile of sleeping infants.

And that’s even before a lone kangaroo takes up residence in the gardens of the Vatican palace.

Pope Lenny often accessorises his full papal regalia with a pair of sunglasses.

The show’s ten episodes are by turn surreal, challenging, dazzling and occasionally frustrating. I also think they make excellent fodder for historians who are searching for ways to get students to think about the history of the papacy and Christianity during the European Middle Ages. After all, the medieval papacy can be a difficult institution for students to grapple with—particularly, as is the case of most of my students, when at least a substantial number of them aren’t from a Catholic background and they are raised in a society which at least aspires to the separation of church and state.

I’m not suggesting that much of The Young Pope would make useful viewing in the average college survey course. The idiosyncratic papacy of Pius XIII is very different to that of his historical predecessors. Moreover, for all that Lenny’s meticulously embroidered outfits are obviously chosen to conjure the splendours of papal monarchy, his evocation of the Middle Ages is no more accurate than many of the other attempts to co-opt the medieval past for contemporary political ends. This is a very modern papacy, even if Lenny spends a lot of time dodging photographers and refusing to allow the licensing of commemorative plates (€5 for plastic, €45 for the ceramic ones made by genuine craftsmen).

And this is all before the complex, layered visual symbolism of the show comes into play. I’m actually not sure how much of the show is going to be immediately comprehensible to people who weren’t raised Catholic. (And really, what are we supposed to make of the Vatican’s resident kangaroo amidst all this?)

Lenny is carried into the Sistine Chapel; shades of the famous 13th century fresco of Innocent III at Subiaco?

Yet I think the show is excellent at conveying the world view of a religious fundamentalist whose goals and methods are not those which make immediate sense to a modern, secular mindset. This pope is overtly homophobic, wanting to rid the church of all gay priests even while acknowledging that this might well see the dismissal of fully two-thirds of an already stretched clergy. He opposes reproductive rights and divorce. He has no desire to build bridges. He is overtly and unapologetically authoritarian. “I don’t care about loving my neighbour as myself. I will never love my neighbour as myself,” Lenny proclaims in one episode. For him, his elevation to the papacy is in itself proof of his righteousness and moral superiority.

In other ways, though, his thinking doesn’t fit into the usual modern tropes about religious extremism and how it tends to corrupt and make hypocrites of people. Despite a brief fake-out towards the end of the series, it doesn’t seem that Lenny’s ever been seriously tempted to break his vows of his celibacy. He disdains ecumenicism and wants all Catholics to become “fanatics for God”, but there is little evidence in the show of his endorsing the kinds of “culture wars” which have become so prominent since the middle of the last century. “I put no stock in consensus,” he says; “I have nothing to say to those who have even the slightest doubt about God,” he rails on another occasion. He wants faithful Catholics to turn inwards, not outwards. Lenny would rather a much smaller church made up of True Believers than a more expansive one that makes compromises.

Watching The Young Pope is an exercise in entering into what is for many people—even for many practising Catholics—a very different mindset. Students who are new to the medieval period in particular can struggle with encountering its priests and popes in ways that aren’t anachronistic. They tend to swing between the ideological poles of approving of a Christian Middle Ages as an ideal (if imaginary) time of cultural purity and chivalry that was enabled by the church, or excoriating the church as corrupt and hypocritical the first time they encounter its hierarchy engaged in anything like Realpolitik. A more nuanced and less moralizing reading of the sources is sometimes difficult for students to reach, though it’s one that’s enabled by the show.

For instance, Lenny is frequently hailed as a saint by those around him, with every sign of sincerity. Although this pope openly speaks of using humiliation as a tool to cow others, is casually self-absorbed and frequently cruel (in the very first episode, he makes an elderly nun cry), he may be capable of healing the sick and making the infertile conceive. This clashes with modern ideas of sanctity as comforting and loving. Yet the idea of a saint who punishes people severely for what seem nowadays like minor transgressions wouldn’t have been an odd one in the Middle Ages. (For instance, at least two women were reputed to have gone mad and died for daring to walk through a cemetery dedicated to the English saint Cuthbert.)

“God overwhelms,” Lenny says. “God frightens.”

Of course, the scene in which the pope dons his full regalia to the strains of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” might just make for excellent classroom viewing regardless. Not only do we get to see the various layers which make up a pope’s formal clothing and which are almost unchanged since the Middle Ages—cassock, lace-embellished cotton tunic, cincture, surplice, papal mantle, red shoes, triregnum and all—but we also get to see how clothing can be used to make a statement about power and authority. Just as a tonsure was an unmistakable sign that the medieval monk had set aside the cares and follies of the secular world, so these clothes turn the orphan Lenny Bellardo into the attention-arresting Pius XIII, bishop of Rome, servant of the servants of God, Christ’s representative on Earth.

And if nothing else, just like much the rest of The Young Pope, the scene makes for viewing that’s trippy, voyeuristic, and brilliantly weird: a trip inside the papal mind.

#DressingLikeAWoman in the Middle Ages

One of the anecdotes that tends to stick with students in my survey courses, to the end of the semester and beyond, is that trousers were largely regarded with derision in the Classical world. For the inhabitants of the Greek city states, and for the Romans of the Republic and the early Empire, trousers were ridiculous and effeminate, fit to be worn only by the barbarians of Persia and northern Europe. No honourable man would have worn a pair in public. This throwaway piece of information sticks with my students because it’s strange to them, and it’s strange because it conflicts with one of their most fundamental, internalised assumptions: that there are innately “male” and “female” modes of dress, and these are the ones with which they’ve grown up.

If certain recent media reports are accurate, these assumptions are widespread ones: Donald Trump has reportedly ordered the female staff in his administration to “dress like women” and has pressured them to wear dresses or skirts on the job. This has gone over about as well as you might expect. The hashtag #DressLikeAWoman has been trending on social media, with many women—doctors, pastors, soldiers, politicians and more—pointing out that the only way to “dress like a woman” is to identify as a woman and, well, put some clothes on.

A woman called Walpurgis (left) wields a sword in this illustration from a ca. 1300 manuscript. Leeds, Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 f.32r.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a silly squabble about expectations of professional dress, but the #DressLikeAWoman debate is just the latest expression of deep-seated cultural anxieties about how women should visibly express their gender identity. It’s a conversation that has medieval antecedents. Texts and images from the Middle Ages show that then as now, clothing could make the woman—or potentially unmake her, if she transgressed contemporary expectations for how her gender should dress.

Clothing, hairstyles and accessories were all gendered in the medieval period, and yet women cross-dressing as men is a trope that appears frequently both in cultural fantasy and in actual practice during the Middle Ages, as women tried to pursue opportunities otherwise closed to them. There are several “transvestite saints” from Late Antiquity, women who assumed a male identity in order to enter a monastery. Theodora of Alexandria dressed as a man so she could become a monk in fifth-century Egypt. Marina, most likely from what is now Lebanon, shaved her head, donned male clothing and the name Marinus, and lived an ascetic lifestyle for many years with her brother monks. Though falsely accused of fathering a child with a local woman, Marina’s biological sex was only discovered after death and she was acclaimed for her holiness. Marina, Theodora, and the other “female men of God” were highly popular saints throughout the Middle Ages—praised by many as women whose holiness was made manifest through their denial of their femaleness and who had overcome the apparent limitations of their sex.

St Marina, dressed as a monk, kneels before an abbot and several monks, while inside the building her father lies on his deathbed. New York, Morgan Library, MS M.672-5 III, f. 279v.

This doesn’t mean that women wearing men’s clothing met with universal approval in the Middle Ages. Then as now, opinions were not monolithic and could even be contradictory depending on context. Patristic figures like St Jerome and later ones like Bernard of Clairvaux vehemently defended the importance of gendered distinctions in dress. Sumptuary legislation enacted during the Middle Ages defined clothing according to gender, age, and social class. Dressing in ways that defied such norms could be dangerous, but women did so anyway.

The medieval cross-dressing figure likely best known to modern audiences met an unpleasant end: Joan of Arc, the fifteenth-century French teenager who claimed prophetic visions, participated in military campaigns, and was eventually burned at the stake in 1431. Yet what is perhaps less well-known is that Joan was, strictly speaking, not executed for her political or military activities, but because she was convicted of  heresy—because she claimed to hear angels and because she wore male clothing. In her trial, she was accused of  wearing her hair “like a young coxcomb” and, by wearing “the garments of a man, short, tight, dissolute”, defying “Divine Law”. She carried and used weapons, something that wasn’t socially acceptable for women. In doing these things, according to the church, Joan of Arc committed blasphemy. Unlike the transvestite saints, Joan didn’t succeed in “transcending” her sex. This may have been because she dressed like a man but insisted firmly on her femaleness and referred to herself as la Pucelle, the Maiden. Joan of Arc was publicly female and yet, perhaps, just as publicly not a woman. For her contemporaries, this was a serious problem.

This 15th century miniature shows the biblical Judith (left) holding the head of Holophernes and Joan of Arc (right) holding a spear. From Martin Le Franc, Le Champion des Dames. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Français 12476, f.101v.

These examples of cross-dressing and gender transgression in the Middle Ages can be multiplied: the case of John/Eleanor Rykener, an English sex worker from the late fourteenth century who has variously been interpreted as transvestite or transgender; the fictitious Pope Joan, who was said to have ascended the papal throne in the ninth century claiming to be a man and whose deception came to light when she gave birth during a religious procession; Silentius, the main character of the Roman de Silence, a thirteenth-century romance in which a girl is raised as a boy and becomes a skilled knight. Taken singly or together, these accounts and many more are illustrative of how unstable gender can be even when it is presented as something innate and inviolable. They show that people have long been willing to transgress, break, redefine, or ignore gendered boundaries—and to punish one another for doing so.

They also underscore the fact that the dress code allegedly being implemented in the White House is nothing more than a regulatory fiction. Any attempt to make womanhood dependent on conformity to an arbitrary set of standards ignores the fact that if you want to #DressLikeAWoman, you’ve got a very big wardrobe to choose from.

Not Just Adam’s Rib: Including Women in the Medieval Survey Course

Sara Damiano’s post yesterday over at The Junto on assigning and using more primary sources by and about women in US History survey courses was a timely one for me, published just as I was working on my own syllabi for this semester. Reflecting on her experience teaching a “United States History to 1877” survey course, Damiano makes the point that working with primary sources by women throughout the semester allows for students to really grapple with gender as something that varies across time and space. Women aren’t just coralled into one special week on the syllabus and otherwise ignored.

I nodded along as I read the post: as someone who works on women’s history, how could I not? Last semester, I taught the first half of a survey course on medieval Europe, covering roughly the period 300-1000, and one of the themes I tried to emphasize throughout the semester was the ways in which power and gender intersect throughout the Middle Ages. My students and I explored the ways in which the empress Theodora of Byzantium, could at once be incredibly powerful and subject to smears about her sexual morality, and how hair (or the lack thereof) could make or break a Merovingian king. They were quick to pick up on the ways in which gender shaped the ways in which both men and women wielded power.

But was I backing up my discussion with what I had my students read? I went back and looked at my syllabus. Of the twenty-two primary sources assigned, 17 (77%) were either by men or anonymous but likely written by men (such as the Nicene Creed or a Carolingian-era capitulary). Five of the sources were by women (like the poetry of Rabi’a al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya or Dhuoda’s Handbook for William) or substantively about women (like Venantius Fortunatus’ life of Radegund). The textbook was written by a man, and of the eight additional secondary sources, five (62.5%) were written by men.

Now, sources from the Middle Ages—particularly the early Middle Ages—are very different beasts to those from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America. There are fewer of them in absolute terms, produced in a society where a smaller percentage of people were literate, and a smaller number again of women. Given that most of the students I teach are not fluent in a language other than English, let alone conversant with medieval Latin, only the small proportion of those texts available in translation are accessible to them. It’s always going to be more difficult to approach gender parity in sources from medieval Europe. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t primary sources by and about women out there which I could use but which I haven’t—on reflection, I think because I thought there were some well-known sources which I should include, thanks to the grim and hovering spectre of Are You Providing Full Coverage, This Is A Survey After All.

So I took up Damiano’s challenge and over-hauled my in-progress syllabus for the survey course I’m teaching this coming semester: the second half of the medieval survey, covering roughly the period 1000-1500. Now, of the eighteen primary sources I’ve assigned, 8 (44%) are by women: not quite gender parity, but a marked improvement on the first half of the survey course. I’d always planned to include writers like Marie de France and Christine de Pizan but now I’ve gone back to include voices that are heard less often, like the legal testimony of Grazide Lizier, a woman accused of heresy in the early fourteenth century and or this love poem between two women. Deliberately keeping women in the foreground as I was working on the syllabus meant that I rethought my approach to a number of topics—for instance, my students are now going to be introduced to the social and political tensions of the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland in part through the tale of Alice Kyteler, the fourteenth-century Kilkenny woman infamously accused of witchcraft.

It took me longer to pull together the schedule of readings than it would have done if I’d stayed with a more familiar (to me) set of primary source readings. Yet the onus is on me as a teacher to think of new ways to use and to pair sources in the classroom: to be continually attentive to undermining assumptions, even when they’re my own. I’ve no desire to simply stand at the top of the room and regurgitate a canon.

Will this approach work? Only the next few months will tell. But I do feel optimistic that if I feel the syllabus is both challenging and honest, the students will pick up on that and respond to it. After all, one of my favourite moments of last semester came when a student dropped by my office hours to talk over the draft of the paper she was writing for my course. She’d chosen to focus on the ways in which early medieval women could exercise power and authority, and it was exciting for me to see primary sources about a topic I know so well through fresh eyes. Half-laughing, half-stunned, my student pointed at the pages and said, “These women weren’t stupid, they knew what they were doing! These women were smart.”

These women could speak, too, and I look forward to hearing what they have to say for us this semester.

The Paper-Maker and the Premonstratensians

Header image: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53084786q

As an ambitious young man, Stanislas Prioux did something quite common for ambitious young men in  mid-nineteenth century France. He left behind his birthplace—the small village of Limé, near Soissons in the quiet Vesle river valley—for the bustle and opportunity of Paris. There, Prioux established a paper wholesale business in a prime city centre spot: 47 quai des Grands Augustins, just across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral. (The company survives today, though thanks to a series of mergers and acquisitions the Papeteries Prioux now goes by the decidedly un-French name of ArjoWiggins).

View of Notre Dame from the Quai des Grands Augustins, 1900s.

View of Notre Dame from the Quai des Grands Augustins, 1900s.

Although Stanislas Prioux became a successful businessman and settled down to raise a family in the city, he maintained strong links back to his home region and was keenly interested in its history. That’s why I first encountered him, when I was researching the history of the Premonstratensian abbey of Saint-Yved-et-Sainte-Marie de Braine, the main religious foundation in a town near his birthplace. Prioux wrote extensively about the medieval abbey, and about the surrounding area and its prominent figures. It was only by getting to know a little more about Prioux that I could better understand how he and his particular interests have shaped some of our understanding of the development of the Premonstratensian Order, and the role women played in that development.

Stanislas Prioux was active in the local historical society at Soissons, was a regular visitor to archaeological digs in the Soissonais, and produced a number of articles, pamphlets, and books on regional history—at quite an astounding rate, given that he neither had much by way of training as a historian nor much free time given the demands of his job. In 1846, when he was just thirty years old, he published his Histoire de Braine et de ses environs.

The work was published on a subscription basis: the nineteenth-century version of crowdfunding. As you can see from the poster above, it was also very much a work which drew on Prioux’s connections. The book was illustrated with engravings by his childhood friend, Jules Roze; it was sold from two bookshops, one in Braine and one next door to the Parisian premises of Prioux’s papeterie.

The next year, Prioux published Grégoire de Tours au concile de Braine, a work which was followed by many others. In 1858, Prioux published his most important work, the Monographie de l’Abbaye Royale de Saint-Yved de Braine. For decades, this would remain the most authoritative work on the history and architecture of the abbey. Stanislas Prioux died in 1866 at the age of just 50, leaving behind him an unfinished but equally ambitious project: an edition of the abbey’s cartulary. (No edition of this important text would actually be published until the year 2000.)

Abbey church of Saint-Yved, Braine. [Source]

Abbey church of Saint-Yved, Braine. [Source]

The pen portrait of Prioux by his friend Jean Wallon is an attractive one—curious and active, “small in size, but strong and stocky, brown, with an open face and large, bright, dark eyes”. Yet it also reveals a man who was devoutly Catholic—spearheading the reconstruction of the parish church where he’d been baptised, and even persuading the Empress Eugénie to donate an elaborate monstrance to it—conservative, nostalgic about history, and pro-monarchist. Prioux’s desire to give his beloved Braine deep historical links with royalty—combined with contemporary ideas about how a woman could or should behave—shaped how the story he told about the abbey’s history.

As Madeline Caviness has pointed out, in the Monographie, Prioux depicted the Capetian Robert of Dreux (brother of Louis VII) as the driving force behind the abbey church’s construction. In reality, it was Robert’s devout and formidable wife Agnès of Braine who funded and oversaw the project. (Moreover, Robert died very early on in the construction process and could not have had much influence.) Prioux’s desire to depict Braine as a quasi-royal holding even seems to have led him to falsify some of the primary sources on which he drew—a cardinal sin for historians. Caviness notes that while Prioux lays out a deathbed scene in which Agnès handed over control of her birth family’s lands to a son who had long since been their de facto lord, he appears to have altered the wording to make it seem that the king’s nephew, rather than an independent-minded countess, was the real power in Braine. The version of the abbey’s early years and the role played by its key patron family that Prioux tells has been very influential over the years—and yet it’s built on very shaky foundations.

sf14-47ab

Stained glass window showing prophet Abiud, formerly at the abbey of Braine. [Source]

Without enthusiastic antiquarian scholars like Stanislas Prioux, our knowledge of medieval France would be much poorer. They founded the historical societies which sprang up across the country in the nineteenth century, and wrote about sites and artefacts which have since been lost to the world wars. But as much as we owe them our thanks, we owe it to our own readers to be mindful of the ways in which their perspectives and preoccupations have shaped our perception of the Middle Ages.

The Premonstratensian Order has acquired a reputation among historians for being firmly misogynist even by medieval standards—and yet we see an active, independent-minded woman like Agnès of Braine collaborating with them without an apparent issue. When we look at the male and female lords who ruled in medieval Braine, at the churches they helped build and the ways in which they interacted with reformed orders like the Premonstratensians, are we really seeing them? Or are we still looking through the lenses fashioned by antiquarians like Prioux?

Building A Wall Against Gog and Magog

A wall cast a long shadow across the recent U.S. presidential election: the 1,954 mile-long wall which Donald Trump has promised will soon stretch the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Whether a foundation will ever actually be dug for this wall, or what that wall should look like, are matters of hot debate right now. Archaeologists and historians have pointed out that there is little historical precedence for the efficacy of these kinds of border walls. Still, its proponents are adamant that a wall is necessary to preserve the integrity of the United States: that fearsome and alien things lurk just on the other side of the border, that a wall can be a firm dividing line between “us” and “them”.

This understanding of a wall—one built as much out of rhetoric and identity as it is out of bricks and mortar—has a long history. Medieval Europeans’ sense of themselves was defined in part by what they were not. They believed that they were normal, while the far reaches of Africa and Asia were inhabited by all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures barely recognisable as people. The blemmyes had no heads but rather faces that were embedded in their chest; the homodubii were a kind of centaur with the body of a donkey; the panotti had ears so large that they could wrap them around their bodies like blankets, protection against the cold of their homeland in the far north. The most ferocious of these quasi-humans were the peoples of Gog and Magog, cannibalistic invaders who were kept at bay only by the walls which had been built around them.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 24364, fol. 60v, leaves containing recension of Thomas de Kent, Roman de toute chevalerie; Gallica digitized image. ca. 1308-1312.

The cannibalistic inhabitants of Gog and Magog. From a recension of Thomas of Kent’s Roman de toute chevalerie, ca. 1308-12. Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 24364, f. 60v.

Gog and Magog loomed large in the medieval imagination. They appear in the Hebrew Bible (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 38-39), in the Christian New Testament (Revelation 20:7-8) and the Qur’an (Surah Al-Kahf, 83-101). While the exact details of who they were and what actions they were prophesied to carry out varied, all faith traditions agreed that the inhabitants of Gog and Magog were a wild and fearsome people who were held at bay for now, but who would one day help to bring about the end of the world. Though relatively obscure figures in religious scripture, they took on a life of their own in popular legends and stories, particularly in the series of interconnected and apocryphal tales known as the Alexander Romances.

According to many medieval tales—based in part on the stories of the first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus—Alexander the Great had come across wild and unclean peoples as he and his forces pushed eastwards across Asia. To keep these peoples from destroying humanity, Alexander drove them between two huge mountains, then prayed that God would push the mountains together and so imprison them. His wish was granted. This story was repeated and embellished on in later influential medieval texts, such as the seventh-century Syriac Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the Alexander Romance cycle, where the peoples imprisoned by Alexander became identified with Gog and Magog. In some of the stories, Alexander orders his army to build a set of gates across passes in the Caucasus mountains to keep back these apocalyptic forces. These gates—variously described as of iron or bronze—were coated with a fast-sticking kind of oil.

bnf9342_f131v

Alexander the Great’s army build a wall around the people of Gog and Magog. 15th c., France. BNF MS fr. 9342, f. 131v

As the Middle Ages progressed, western Europeans began to look beyond their home regions, to become aware of the scale of the globe in a way they had not in generations. They produced mappa mundi, maps of the world, of increasing complexity and sophistication. Gog and Magog appeared on many of these maps, though the location of their homeland and their affiliation shifted according to contemporary concerns and fears.

The Ebstorf mappa mundi (a detail of which appears in the header image of this post), shows a walled-off area labelled Gog and Magog where the monstrous inhabitants are in the act of devouring a disfigured victim. On the border of the same map, closer to Europe, there is also text which describes the “city and island of Taraconta which is inhabited by Turks of the race of Gog and Magog, a barbarous and wild people who eat the flesh of young people and aborted foetuses.”  Other maps identified Gog and Magog with the Lost Tribes of Israel, showing iudei inclusi (“enclosed Jews”) or “Red Jews” on maps of Asia and creating artwork depicting Gog and Magog that drew on overtly anti-Semitic imagery. Hostility towards Islam and Judaism clearly drove these identifications on the part of medieval Christians.

The people of Gog and Magog attacking a city. From a French/Anglo-Norman verse apocalypse, ca. 1220-1270. Toulouse, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 815, f. 49v.

A depiction of the people of Gog and Magog attacking a city, with distinct anti-Semitic undertones. From a French/Anglo-Norman verse apocalypse, ca. 1220-70. Toulouse, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 815, f. 49v.

When the Mongol empire was at its height in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many Europeans came to the conclusion that they—appearing suddenly out of the east and sweeping all before them in the creation of an empire of unprecedented size—were the peoples of Gog and Magog, or sometimes descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel who had abandoned Judaism. What else could they be but harbingers of the apocalypse? Not only were they conquerors but their way of life was alien from that of the vast majority of Europeans.

In an age of Google Maps and accurate cartography, it’s tempting to consign the land of Gog and Magog to the past, as simply yet another funny and ignorant quirk of the medieval European worldview. Yet to do so is to ignore that even at the highest political levels, many nowadays still believe that was was written in the book of Ezekiel will literally come to pass, even if they don’t imagine a lost, walled-off city somewhere in Eurasia. For instance, in 1971, Ronald Reagan—then governor of California—explicitly stated that the “communistic and atheistic” USSR was the fulfilment of the prophecy in Ezekiel. It’s been claimed that in a 2003 phone call to Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush cited end-time prophecies about Gog and Magog in an (ultimately futile) attempt to persuade the French to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

The inhabitants of Gog and Magog, shown in Turkish dress, attack a European city in this scene from the Lübeck Bible. British Library

The inhabitants of Gog and Magog, shown in Turkish dress, attack a European city in this scene from the sixteenth-century Lübeck Bible. British Library

It is also to overlook the ways in which modern people are still capable of making sharp divisions between “us” and “them” based on little if any evidence. Political rhetoric turns desperate refugees into an overwhelming horde; it conjures up a criminal threat poised just the other side of the border. Whether in medieval Europe or the modern West, people tend to define themselves by what they are not—but as was the case with Gog and Magog, these fears do not truly originate behind distant mountains in lands with unfamiliar names. Their origins lie far closer to home.

Bounded in a Nut Shell: Touching Faith in the Late Middle Ages

Reading the work of mystics or theologians gives us insight into what medieval Christians thought about their faith; walking through the ruins of a monastery or a still-standing cathedral lets us experience some of the physical environments in which they lived, worked, and prayed. But what about some of the more ephemeral aspects of the history of religion? What did faith sound like, feel like, smell like in the Middle Ages?

We can reconstruct some of those experiences by examining the objects which people used to help guide their meditation and prayer. From Late Antiquity onwards, Christians used knotted ropes or strings of beads to help keep count when saying repetitive prayers. Rosary beads, still widely used by modern Catholics, developed out of that tradition. Medieval rosaries often had attachments not found today, such as vials of holy water, relics, pomanders (scent containers), and prayer nuts.

Carved boxwood prayer-nut. Netherlandish, ca. 1500. [British Museum WB.236]

Carved boxwood prayer-nut. Netherlandish, ca. 1500. [British Museum WB.236]

Most of these prayers nuts (sometimes called prayer beads or prayer apples) were made in northern Europe during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries—about 65 examples survive from the Low Countries alone. Prayer nuts are bigger than, say, an acorn or walnut, but not by much: the size of a tennis ball or smaller. This makes the intricacy of their manufacture all the more extraordinary.

They were frequently carved out of boxwood, in part because its fine grain made it well-suited to this kind of micro-carving, but also because in the Middle Ages boxwood was believed to be the kind of wood from which the cross on which Jesus was crucified was made. The prayer nuts were then attached to a belt or string of rosary or paternoster beads—the example shown in the image at the top of this post had its own copper carrying case and accompanying red velvet pouch so that it could be worn at the waist. Objects like this would have been a light but constant weight at the waist of a medieval Christian as they went about their day.

Prayer nut, ca. 1500-35. [Musée du Louvre OA5609]

Prayer nut, ca. 1500-35. [Musée du Louvre OA5609]

Why make something as time-consuming as this, when a much smaller and simpler set of beads would also allow for focused devotion? Historians think they were one of the ways medieval Christians would undertake what they called a “spiritual” or imagined pilgrimage. Not everyone could afford, or was physically able, to travel to Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago de Compostela—but by undertaking certain spiritual exercises, by concentrating on imagining events from scripture as vividly as possible, the believer could travel in time and space even though their body remained at home.

The design of prayer nuts seems to facilitate these kinds of devotional practices. Some prayer nuts had more than one “level”, with inside panels that could be unfolded (like the examples above from the British Museum and the Louvre) which could be prompts for different prayers, or different topics of contemplation, as the user worked from the text on the outside to the innermost depiction of the Crucifixion. By focusing intently on the miniature object cupped in your palm, on its intricate details and depth of scene, you effectively shut out the outside world as you contemplate eternity—to twist Shakespeare’s words a little, infinite space could be bound in a nut shell.

Silver exterior of a prayer nut. Netherlandish, ca. 1500. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-2010-16

Silver exterior of a prayer nut. Netherlandish, ca. 1500. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-2010-16

Of course, these would not have been cheap items, to make or to purchase, and we cannot divorce the religious function of these items from their social ones. They were as much a social status symbol as a physical representation of a person’s faith. They could perform a dual role as prayer nuts and as pomanders, with small holes on the exterior of the nut allowing pleasant fragrances to escape as the object’s owner prayed or went about their day.

Scholars also think that the relative lack of wear on some of the more intricate, later examples implies that they weren’t necessarily made to be regularly used, but to be kept in a Wunderkammer—a collection of rare objects and curiosities—as a marker of the owner’s wealth and sophistication.

Detail of prayer nut, ca. 1510, showing crowd at the foot of Jesus' cross. [Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.190.475

Detail of prayer nut, ca. 1510, showing crowd at the foot of Jesus’ cross. [Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.190.475

New digital technologies can give us new insights into the devotional artefacts and architecture of the Middle Ages, into the methods used to create those objects and into how they were used. By measuring the amount of dirt embedded in a manuscript leaf, researchers can work out which pages were the most popular in a given text overall. By using acoustic measuring technology, researchers can recreate the medieval soundscapes of Byzantine and better understand why ancient authors said, “It sounds like there are angels in the buildings.”

They can also help us better understand the techniques which were used to carve these prayer beads. A team of researchers from the Netherlands and France undertook an X-ray tomography study of an early sixteenth-century prayer bead now kept at the Rijksmuseum. This study revealed that the prayer nut was composed of four main parts: the outer shell with its abstract motifs, the inner relief showing the Crucifixion, the crosses and tiny pikes wielded by some of the figures in the scene, and the arc which tops the scene. The kind of drilling and carving needed to produce these parts, and on such a scale, would have required drills, chisels, knives, and some kind of magnifying lens. Fibrous material found between the inner and outer shells may once have been soaked with perfumes or aromatic vinegars, so that the prayer nut might also have functioned as a pomander. Similarly, a team based at Canada’s Western University carried out a microCT scan of a prayer nut which gives the viewer a close-up view of an intricate carving of the Last Judgement.

An intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has even created 3D printed versions of a prayer nut—made of sugar, scented with frankincense and flavoured with wine. These new versions may be innovative in composition but they encourage us to use our senses when we interact with these objects—just as medieval Europeans once did.

How to Embed a Zotero Bibliography in a Web Page

If you use Zotero as a citation manager, there’s a relatively quick way to embed your Zotero library (or a sub-section of it) on your own web site using a free service called BibBase. I’ve done so over here, setting up a bibliography on the history of the Premonstratensian Order in the Middle Ages. This takes a minimum of technical know-how and it updates automatically. In other words, if you add an item to your Zotero library or collection, or edit it, the embedded bibliography will reflect that.

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 21.09.39

Here’s how you set up an embedded bibliography for a collection. Set up a collection in your Zotero account and add the relevant items to it. Make sure that you sync up your account with the Zotero server, and that your Zotero account is set to public. Without those two steps, BibBase won’t be able to “see” your collection.

Once you’ve done that, make sure that you’re signed in to Zotero.org and then go to http://bibbase.org/service/zotero. You should now have a list of URLs to choose from: your entire library or any one of your collections. Right click and copy the link to the collection you want to embed.

bibbaseexample

Now go to the HTML file (for most people who’ll be reading this, either a WordPress or Omeka page) where you want to host the embedded bibliography. Paste the URL you copied into the file surrounded by this little bit of code:

<script src=”http://bibbase.org/show?bib=[URL-YOU-COPIED]&jsonp=1″></script>

In the case of the bibliography I set up, the code looks like this:

bibbase2

And that should be it! All you need to do now is hit publish, open the page, and watch your new bibliography load. It will be ordered according to publication year by default, but you can use the drop-down menu to rearrange the bibliography according to author’s last name.

A caveat that this isn’t a perfect service for people working in the humanities—BibBase hasn’t been set up with us in mind and so the style in which the references are displayed isn’t standard for historians, and it doesn’t really know what to do with, say, a collection of essays by various authors with one or more editors (Looking at the accompanying documentation, that might change in the future if support for Chicago style is implemented.) However, if you’re looking for a quick way to set up a bibliography, BibBase has a lot to recommend it.

The Veil in the Middle Ages

The recent decision by several communities in France to ban the burkini has received a lot of attention around the world—and rightly so. It is a piece of legislation that is as poorly thought-through as it is self-defeating. As I stated in an interview with Sarah Bond, to mandate what a woman should not wear is no more feminist than to tell her what she should wear. Proponents of the ban claim that it will encourage laïcité, but limiting a devoutly religious woman’s ability to enter public space and move through mainstream secular society hardly seems like a logical way of encouraging social integration and cohesion.

Of course, France is not alone among European countries in passing or drafting legislation aimed at Islamic dress in its various forms. Legislators are often keen to stress that these laws are aimed at the emancipation of women, or are applied equally to forbid anyone, regardless of gender or religion, from covering their face in public. Yet the Catholic nun’s veil isn’t targeted in the same way, or an Orthodox Jewish woman’s head covering, and in fact most of the German states which have banned religious symbols and dress make explicit exemption in that legislation for Christian or Jewish cultural traditions. The Western debate over the burkini—or the hijab, niqab or burqa—is often less a conversation about women’s rights than it is using women’s clothing to make statements about identity and group morality.

Female saints wearing double veils. From the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, late 10th c. BL Ms ADD 49598, f.2

Female saints wearing double veils. From the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, late 10th c. BL Ms ADD 49598, f.2

There is a tendency in these debates to treat the veil as something distinctly other, as a symbol of something inherently non-European. Yet for most inhabitants of the medieval West, that view would have been a strange one indeed. No respectable woman past adolescence would have thought of leaving her home with her head bare, and the veil or headdress was the fundamental symbol of the married woman.

Medieval Christian views were shaped by scripture, such as the letter of Paul of Tarsus which stated that women should cover their hair while praying, and linked this mandate to women’s inferior status comparative to that of men. Over time, this admonition was applied more broadly. For a woman to have walked the streets of a medieval town with her hair uncovered would have invited suspicion as to her sexual morality—that was the behaviour of a prostitute. (In fact, if an “honest” woman from the French town of Arles saw a prostitute wearing a veil, she had the legal right to rip it off.)

Detail of "Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, ca. 1460. Getty Museum Ms. 42, f. 2v

Detail of “Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, ca. 1460. Getty Museum Ms. 42, f. 2v

Most women would have used a fairly simple piece of cloth to cover their heads, but the more elaborate and fashionable headdresses form part of the visual language that we use to popularly identify the Middle Ages. The tall headdresses—either conical with a veil attached to the top or shaped into two horns—that were in vogue in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries signal “fairytale princess” to most people nowadays. These headdresses were preceded by other styles such as the head-, chin-, and neck-covering wimple (10th to mid-14th centuries), the barbette and the filet (12th to 14th centuries), and succeeded by others like the low hoods and caps (15th and 16th centuries) familiar from portraits of Tudor women.

Medieval headdresses changed with fashion but also with life stage. A new mother wore a white veil when she was churched (underwent a purificatory ritual after childbirth); a widow wore a severe linen barbe which covered her hair, neck, ears and the upper chest. This meant that a woman’s head covering was a symbol of her morality, but also indicated her role within the community.

Detail of a silk embroidery, "The Presentation in the Temple", 14th c. Getty Museum, 60.148.2

Detail of a silk embroidery, “The Presentation in the Temple”, 14th c. Getty Museum, 60.148.2

The veil was inextricably linked to the virtuous married woman in particular. We can see this by looking at the so-called Wellcome Apocalypse, a fifteenth-century miscellany originating in Germany. It contains a number of different texts in German and Latin on scientific, moral, and theological topics, and also a number of medical diagrams.

One of these diagrams, the “Disease Woman”, shows a kind of living cadaver—a pregnant woman who gazes out at the viewer, her arms and legs spread wide. She isn’t wearing clothing, and her chest and abdomen have been cut open, revealing her internal anatomy—as nude as a person can be. And yet she is still depicted wearing a headdress which covers her hair, neck, and ears. Her visual honour is therefore preserved, and viewers are assured that she is still a respectable woman.

Detail of the "Disease Woman". Wellcome Apocalypse, Germany, 15th c. Wellcome Library MS 49, f. 38r

Detail of the “Disease Woman”. Wellcome Apocalypse, Germany, 15th c. Wellcome Library MS 49, f. 38r

While such head coverings signalled differences in class, age, and social standing, they were not necessarily clear-cut markers of ethnicity or religion. The twelfth-century scholar Shlomo Ibn Parhon described Jewish women in Spain as adopting the practices of their Muslim neighbours, covering “their faces with a cloth. And when they wrap it around their faces they leave a hole opposite one eye at the edge of the cloth, with which to see, for it is forbidden to look at women.”

Shlomo’s near contemporary, the travel writer Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubayr, visited Sicily in the 1180s. He wrote that Christian women in the capital city of Palermo followed Islamic fashions even at Christmastime: they went out “clad in gold-colored silk gowns, wrapped in elegant mantles, covered with colored veils, with gilded brodequins on their feet; they flaunt[ed] themselves in church in perfectly Muslim toilettes.” These sources don’t seem to reflect any deep anxiety about the implications, political or otherwise, about such cross-cultural borrowings. For people across medieval Europe—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—a woman’s head covering was simply a homogeneous, universal type of clothing.

Detail from an illustration in the Maciejowski or Crusader Bible, ca. 1250. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Ms M. 638 f.17r.

Detail from an illustration in the Maciejowski or Crusader Bible, ca. 1250. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, Ms M. 638 f.17r.

Yet the vast majority of women in Europe no longer wear veils or headdresses. Fashions and tastes changed. As anyone who’s ever seen a film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel or an episode of the show Mad Men knows, bonnets and hats remained a part of daily life for most people in the West until the 1960s, but these head coverings were increasingly less a direct assertion of a person’s morality or social status. Headscarves lingered in some places, particularly in rural areas or in Catholic countries where women wore mantillas or other kinds of veils to attend Mass until the late 1960s; I can certainly remember my maternal grandmother knotting a headscarf under her chin before she headed out to the shops in the Ireland of the late 1980s.

Over time, the veil and other similar headdresses began to be seen in the West as a sign of greater than normal religiosity, rather than as a cultural norm. For example, during the French Revolution, veiled nuns were regarded not as virtuous, but as a symbol of a hated and outdated regime, and were the victims of both verbal and physical attacks. Few Christian denominations in the West, with the exception of small groups such as the Amish and some Mennonites, require that their female members cover their heads regularly.

Detail of the calendar image for June from the Playfair Hours. France, ca. 1480s. V&A Museum, MSL/1918/475.

Detail of the calendar image for June from the Playfair Hours. France, ca. 1480s. V&A Museum, MSL/1918/475.

Our clothing makes a statement about who we are, and about the social influences which inform the choices we make about our clothing. This is especially true when it comes to women’s clothing (as the current US presidential election has made repeatedly clear). Gendered clothing legislation also makes a statement: it turns women’s bodies into proxies for far broader debates about politics, the role of religion in public life, and group identity. Forgetting the European history of the veil makes it far easier for those debates to become divisive, rather than a means for diverse communities to figure out how to peacefully co-exist.

A Beginner’s Reading List: Medieval Nuns

For most people, medieval nuns are shadowy figures, confined against their will in cloisters by overbearing families. But in recent decades, historians have undertaken a lot of archival research which shows that life for Catholic nuns in medieval Europe was a lot more complex, and a lot more involved with the secular world, than we once thought. The books in this list are a beginners guide for those who’d like to know more about the lives of these women (who are sometimes termed “female religious”—when used as a noun, “religious” refers to someone who is bound by monastic vows).

All the titles listed here are in English, and should be accessible to the interested general reader, or academic non-specialist. I’ve also tried to only include works which aren’t too expensive (as far as medieval history books go), or which should be available cheaply secondhand. Dipping into these books shows how diverse and dynamic the lives of religious women could be in the Middle Ages.

Getting Started

sistersinarmsJo Ann McNamara. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia (1998).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This thick volume (more than 700 pages) covers the history of Catholic nuns around the world from the earliest days of the church right through to the twentieth century. For the breadth of its coverage and for accessibility of language, it’s still unmatched for the general reader looking for an introduction to the history of female religious. That said, Sisters in Arms is now showing its age a little in terms of its analysis and conclusions. Don’t treat it as definitive, but use it as a jumping-off point in terms of over-all chronology and an introduction to some of the key figures in the history of female monasticism.

51h9uGy7nEL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_Alastair Minnis and Rosalynn Voaden, eds. Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition c.1100-c.1500 (2010).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

I said I would try to include books that weren’t overly expensive; sadly, this excellent (and hefty) collection of essays is published by Brepols which means that it’s almost certain to be unaffordable if you’re not a university library. However, Medieval Holy Women’s various entries provide an unmatched survey of the roles and interests of holy women (nuns and otherwise) across western Europe in the High and Late Middle Ages. Both the essays and their accompanying bibliographies will orient the reader towards the best in recent work on individual women and regional trends.

SetWidth440-Hall-Women-ChurchDianne Hall, Women and the church in medieval Ireland, c.1140–1540 (2003).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This book is a rare bird indeed: a comprehensive regional study of medieval women’s monasticism that’s affordable, reliable, and accessible to the general reader. Dianne Hall pulled together the scant documentary sources about female religious in medieval Ireland and complemented them with archaeological and art historical evidence to produce the first full-length study of the topic. Hall is particularly strong in demonstrating the links that existed between nuns and their surrounding lay communities, and if you’d like to start with a study that’s more focused than wide-ranging, I’d recommend this one.

Digging Deeper

strocchia_coverSharon Strocchia. Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence (2009).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This is the first proper monograph to explore the lives of women in Florentine convents during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Strocchia makes impressive use of the city’s abundant archives to show that in the period between the Black Death and the late fifteenth century, communities of religious women went from being relatively unimportant to being deeply embedded in the social, political, and economic life of the city. Through their involvement with the luxury textile industry in particular, the women made their mark on Florence’s economy and helped shape the city’s civic development.

80140100699560LAnne E. Lester, Creating Cistercian Nuns: The Women’s Religious Movement and Its Reform in Thirteenth-Century Champagne (2011).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Lester takes as her case study female religious in the Champagne region during the thirteenth century. Her focus on what historians call “documents of practice” (in other words, texts that tell us about what actually happened, as opposed to say a law code which tells us what should happen) allows her to challenge the standard narrative of the history of Cistercian nuns. If you want to explore the fluidity of women’s affiliation with religious orders in the Middle Ages, and how church legislation could shape their way of life, this is a book well worth checking out.

13488Nancy Bradley Warren, Spiritual Economies: Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England (2005).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Think that medieval nuns could entirely dismiss economic concerns? Nancy Bradley Warren encourages you to think again in this study of the house of Dominican women in Dartford. She draws on court records, financial accounts, and devotional treatises, among other sources, to bring to life a vibrant and wealthy community which was as much a part of the material economy as it was the spiritual one.

In Their Voices

riccoboni_coverBartolomea Riccoboni. Life and Death in a Venetian Convent: The Chronicle and Necrology of Corpus Domini, 1395-1436 (2000).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

This account of convent life was written by a Venetian nun who lived around the turn of the fifteenth century. Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni’s chronicle of the community’s foundation, coupled with short biographies about some of the other nuns, provide a wonderful insight into both daily life in a convent and how a group of female religious could become involved with ecclesiastical and secular politics. Daniel Bornstein’s translation is particularly clear.

51QsqWjs9HL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Hildegard of Bingen, Selected Writings: Hildegard of Bingen (2009).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most engaging characters of the Middle Ages: a Benedictine nun, she was a prolific and original writer with a broad array of interests and a personality that comes through loud and clear in her writing. Although she’s never officially been canonised, in 2012 she was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. This edition provides selections from her writings—letters, theological works, and medical treatises—accompanied by useful explanatory material about her life and times.

9780859915892_14_1_2 Birgitta of Sweden, Saint Bride and her Book: Birgitta of Sweden’s Revelations (2000).

Find it: Indiebound | Publisher | Local Library

Birgitta (or Bridget) of Sweden was a fourteenth-century mother, mystic, and founder of the Bridgettine Order of nuns and monks. This book gives a translation of Birgitta’s medieval vita, or biography, together with excerpts from her great theological work, the Revelations. An accompanying essay shows how Birgitta was politically active, involved in attempts to end the Hundred Years’ War and the Schism, and how she influenced female mystics in the later Middle Ages.

That’s nine great books to start with, but there are lots more out there. If there are other books about the history of medieval nuns that you’d particularly recommend to a beginning reader, feel free to leave a comment below!

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