Yvonne Seale

Making Women Matter, One Medieval Manuscript at a Time

Author: Yvonne Seale (Page 1 of 7)

Publication Roundup II

[Header image: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fr. 1728]

Two things to link to briefly:

  • “On Empathy in Editing”, Guest Column, Hortulus: the Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies, June 6, 2015. [Read online] This column was partly inspired by my experience as a guest editor with Hortulus.


Clothes Make the Premonstratensian Sister

Clothing mattered for medieval religious women—as it did for all women in the Middle Ages. It marked out rank, gender, and age, but it also made a statement about marital status and morality. Many of the Church Fathers such as Jerome, John Chrysostom and Tertullian, whose writings were highly influential on the development of Christianity in the Middle Ages, had condemned any kind of extravagance or display in women’s clothing, fearing that it might cause men to feel spiritually or sexually tempted. (This is the same underlying reasoning which we see, say, driving gendered differences in dress codes in U.S. public schools.) This isn’t to say that medieval women (or men, for that matter) didn’t follow fashion, or use their clothing to display their wealth. But for those women who chose to take religious vows of whatever kind, those patristic strictures had weight, and from a very early period, female Christian religious opted to wear plain and inexpensive clothing. The Rule of Caesarius of Arles, written in 512, was the first monastic rule in western Europe written exclusively for women. It required that nuns wear simple outfits of undyed woollen cloth.

Altenberg Altarpiece

On the lower left, a Premonstratensian sister kneels, wearing a nun’s crown. Detail, Altenberg altarpiece, 1334. Städel Museum, Frankfurt-am-Main.

However, the reformed religious orders that emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—including the order which I work on, the Premonstratensians—were much more specific than their predecessors when it came to issues of monastic dress. Their Rules detailed the kind of cloth to be used, its colour and cut, what kinds of accessories were permitted, and if there could be seasonal variation. Not only did these regulations help to set the virtuous vowed religious apart from the world, but they also helped to rein in some of the excesses of the more zealous members of the order. For instance, one of the order’s founders, Norbert of Xanten, was reputed to have wandered barefoot as a preacher through the snows of northern France and the Rhineland while clad only in the skins of sheep and goats—a clear attempt to mimic John the Baptist’s voice crying out in the wilderness (allowing for the fact that camel skin was not so easy to come by in twelfth-century northwestern Europe). This kind of ostentatious piety was enough to attract censure from the Council of Fritzlar. [MGH Scriptores XII: 673].

As you can see from the early fourteenth-century Altenberg altarpiece pictured left—one of the few contemporary visual sources for what medieval Premonstratensian sisters dressed like—they were not any more covered-up than were their lay female counterparts. Nothing is visible of the body of either the kneeling sister or the standing noblewoman other than their face and hands. The basic shapes and items of clothing were also similar—the nun’s belted habit is like the laywoman’s belted tunic; both women wear a cloak over this, together with a veil and wimple (a piece of cloth that covers the throat and chest). We can’t see the women’s feet, but likely both are wearing shoes and perhaps even woollen hose for added warmth. What marks the clothing of the Premonstratensian sister out from the laywoman is the absence of colour and ornamentation, together with much less elaborate drapery and folding of the fabric. The noblewoman’s clothing is designed to make you notice how much she has; the Premonstratensian sister’s, how much she has given up.

From early in the history of the Premonstratensian Order, donning the habit was considered a necessary step for admission to its ranks. In a letter written around 1160, Philippe, abbot of the Cistercian house of L’Aumône, discussed a niece of his who had impulsively decided to join the Premonstratensians. (Very impulsively: she hadn’t stopped to ask permission from the order itself.) However, Philippe seemed to think that his niece’s actions—taking a vow of virginity in front of an altar, cutting off her hair, and putting on the habit—irrefutably made her a Premonstratensian. [Text]

What that habit looked like was decided by the order’s General Chapter—the assembly of the Premonstratensians’ leaders which met, at least in theory, on a regular basis. Like the Cistercians, Gilbertines, and Carthusians, Premonstratensian men and women wore mostly white habits—likely because of the colour’s association with purity—but the details did change over the course of the Middle Ages.

Premonstratensian men also wore white robes. Miniature of the Premonstratensian Jean Hayton offering his book to Pope Clement V. NY Public Library

Premonstratensian men also wore white robes. Miniature of the Premonstratensian Jean Hayton offering his book to Pope Clement V. Ca. 1400. [NY Public Library]

One of the earliest commentators on the Premonstratensians, the monk-chronicler Herman of Tournai (ca. 1090-1147), said that the order’s sisters could wear only a single garment made of wool or sheepskin, with a veil made of cheap black cloth [Patrologia Latina 156, col. 996]. However, the earliest known statutes of the order (ca. 1135) present a slightly more complicated picture. In the summer, the sisters wore white linen tunics with black linen veils; in the winter, they wore tunics and veils made of black linen or coarse, itchy black wool. (“Black wool” probably meant wool that was dark in colour, because it was difficult and expensive to dye wool a pure black with the technology available at the time.) At all times of the year, they could wear a belt from which hung a small knife in a sheath. [BSM Clm. 17174, ff.38v-39]

These regulations were modified around 1200—new statutes stated that under pain of excommunication, Premonstratensian sisters were never to wear black tunics, only white tunics and black surplices (a kind of loose over-tunic). [BM Troyes MS 802, ff. 93-94] Mid-thirteenth statutes modified the required habit of Premonstratensian women yet again: the sisters were to wear all-white clothing, except in the regions where it had been customary (ex antiqua consuetudine) that they wear different-coloured tunics. It’s not clear why all these legislative changes were made—perhaps the Premonstratensians were trying to more effectively distinguish themselves from other orders—but they clearly faced regional push-back from women who valued the traditions of their particular communities. The habit of a Premonstratensian sister signified individual religious purity, but it also signalled a group identity.

As the push-back makes clear, just because the Premonstratensian Order—and indeed the Church hierarchy—told women they had to dress in a particular way doesn’t mean that they were listened to. The Council of Reims (1157) forbade religious women from wearing habits made of sumptuous fabrics [Text]—but 150 years later, the Council of Vienne (1311-12) felt the need to reiterate that nuns shouldn’t wear silk gowns, fur trims, sandals, elaborate hairstyles, or plaid or striped veils. [Text] These councils would have had no reason to ban these kinds of attire if there hadn’t been religious women sporting them—and the fact that many church councils issued legislation like this over and over means that their rules weren’t always observed. Nunneries in the Middle Ages may have been far more colourful places than we give them credit for.

Premonstratensian Doll, early 19th c. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Premonstratensian Doll, early 19th c. France. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Until the changes introduced by Vatican II in the mid-twentieth century, Catholic sisters and nuns largely dressed as had their medieval foremothers. Even by the early nineteenth-century, however, nuns’ habits had long since ceased to be an austere variant on everyday women’s variant and had become something distinctly associated with religious women. The hemp-and-wax Premonstratensian doll (pictured at left) was made in the first half of the nineteenth century, perhaps as an educational aid to help distinguish between various religious orders and congregations. Enclosed orders still wear the traditional habits (as indeed do modern Premonstratensian canonesses, like those who recently establish a community at Tehachapi in California), but members of nursing and teaching congregations—the kinds of female religious whom the general public are most likely to encounter—now largely wear contemporary, albeit modest, clothing. The choice to don or discard the habit, now as in the Middle Ages, is a powerful and immediate way of communicating how a religious woman—and the community which she inhabits—understands her religious faith.

Read More:

Pierre Hélyot. Dictionnaire des ordres religieux (Paris, 1714-19). [Archive.org]

Adrien Schoonenbeek. Courte description des ordres des femmes & filles religieuses (Amsterdam, 1691). [Archive.org]

Collection of 19th century dolls representing Catholic religious orders. [Victoria and Albert Museum]

List of Inventaires-Sommaires (Séries G & H) of French Departmental Archives

This is a list which links to digitised copies of série G and série H of the inventaires-sommaires for the archives of the northern French départements on which I primarily work. These departmental “summary inventories” are arranged largely according to the same scheme, so in all cases their série G volume(s) brings together sources from the secular clergy (diocese, cathedral chapters, parishes, cures) and the série H volume(s) from the regular clergy (abbeys, priories, collegiate churches). Most of them were compiled in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

Despite the name, these inventories can often be quite detailed. The image above gives a sense of what a standard entry looks like: the heading gives the cote (call number), if it’s a liasse (bundle of documents) or a single document, and then how many items are within the liasse. At the beginning of the entry proper, the figures in bold give the date range for the documents contained within the liasse (so in the case of H 775 (pictured above), the oldest is from 1173 and the most recent from 1268), and then follows a one-sentence description of each individual document, arranged (where known) in chronological order.

These descriptions are very useful in giving you a sense as to whether you need to call up a particular cote—however, as they were drawn up according to nineteenth-century and early-twentieth ideas of what is historically important about a given source, these descriptions cannot be relied on wholly, particularly when it comes to the presence of women as actors within a particular medieval charter. In addition, as many of the inventaires were compiled before the World Wars, some of the documents which they describe have since been destroyed.

Sadly, not all of the departmental archives’ websites make these inventaires available online. Where volumes have been digitised by Google Books or Gallica, the meta data are often confused and confusing, and finding the volume you’re looking for can be a trial in frustration. This list brings together all the inventaires which I have been able to find, either on the archives’ websites or on external sites like Archive.org and Google Books.


Série G & H, Vol. 3 — Bishopric and Cathedral Chapter of Laon; Abbeys of Saint-Jean de Laon, Saint-Quentin-en-l’Ile, Prémontré. [Google Books]


Série G, H & I — Parishes [Internet Archive]


Série G, Vol. 3 — Episcopal officialité of Troyes; Grand and petit séminaire of Troyes. [Google Books]

Série G & H (entirety). [AD Aube]


Série G, Vol. 4 — Bishopric of Meaux. [Internet Archive]

Série G & H (entirety). [AD Marne]


Séries G & H (entirety). [AD Meuse]


Série G (nos. 1 à 2352) — Bishoprics and Cathedral Chapters of Beauvais, Noyon, Senlis. [Google Books]

Série H, Vol. 1 (nos. 1 à 1717) — Abbeys of Saint-Quentin de Beauvais, Saint-Martin-aux-Bois, Saint-Barthélémy de Noyon, Saint-Vincent de Senlis, Note-Dame de la Victoire, Saint-Germer, Saint-Lucien, Saint-Symphorien. [Google Books]

Série H, Vol. 2 (nos. 1718 à 2649) — Abbeys of Breteuil, Saint-Éloi de Noyon, Saint-Corneille de Compiègne [Internet Archive]


Série G (nos. 1 à 1169) — Bishopric and Cathedral Chapter of Amiens. [Google Books]

Série H (entirety) — Abbeys of Saint-Jean d’Amiens, le Gard, Saint-Riquier, Berteaucourt-les-Dames [Internet Archive]


Série G, Vol. 2 — Archbishopric and Cathedral Chapter of Sens; Parish churches. [Internet Archive]


Série G (nos. 1 à 1167) — Parishes; collégiales of Notre-Dame de Poissy, Saint-Mellon de Pontoise. [Google Books]

Série G (entirety). [Archives Portal Europe]

Série H (entirety). [Archives Portal Europe]


If you know of other places where digitised copies of the inventaires-sommaires are hosted, please let me know.

Write ON: Week 6 Goals

Day 1—Monday

It felt as if every pavement on the west side of the river was closed this morning due to construction work. Making it to campus as a pedestrian is sometimes a true exercise in endurance. This morning, however, I push onto Chapter 5, having made some progress this past weekend. Since the first part of this chapter is substantially complete, I’ll probably spend this morning’s session mostly tinkering around the edges of it and making sure that the framework is appropriate—the lower word count goal reflects that.

Session Goal: 200 words. 214 words hammered out to help rework the chapter introduction, and now I’m off in search of a well-earned scone.

Day 2—Thursday

Yesterday I was felled by what felt like the beginnings of a summer cold, but thankfully the application of throat lozenges, lots of tea, and an early bed time seem to have warded off the worst of it. I’m back in the writing group today, and am going to work on revising the section of Chapter 5 in which I talk about the abbey of Sainte-Elisabeth of Genlis, from which comes the lovely psalter shown above. (Image: Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, ms. 2689, f. 009v-010. Source)

Session Goal: 200 words. 227 words. I got slowed down to the end because the section I’m now starting in on needs a lot of heavy lifting with regards to its structure—time to print it out and grapple with it on paper, I think.

Day 3—Friday

Today, I figure out how to structure the case study of the cluster of female houses which were dependent on Prémontré directly. This promises to be somewhat involved.

Session Goal: 300 words. 306 words. Involved indeed! And what I have is still very much in rough outline, but now I’ve just got one chapter to revise before I hit a full first draft of the whole thing.

Week Total: 747 words.


Write ON: Week 5 Goals

Day 1—Monday

It’s another soupy, humid day outside, but I hope that we’ll get a thunderstorm to bring us some relief before we hit the forecast high for this afternoon’s heat index: 43C/109F. But despite wanting to curl up somewhere with an icepack or three, another week of the Write ON begins. This morning I want to finish the section I’ve been working on, on Premonstratensian obituaries.

Session Goals: 250 words. 307 words. I got distracted a little but only because I’d finally worked out how to do a (very minor) mapping thing that will hopefully make things easier and quicker for me in the future.

Day 2—Wednesday

I’m continuing on with writing about obituaries, affiliations of prayer, and commemoration today, and working in some of my manuscript finds from yesterday, like the snippet pictured above of a manuscript from the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Remi at Reims [BM Reims 346, f.100v] which mentions the Premonstratensian women of Gérigny.

Session Goal: 400 words. 530 words. And worked out another interesting episcopal familial connection, to boot!

Day 3—Friday

The end of the week, and it’s still so humid outside that water is condensing on the air-conditioned windows of the Writing Centre. Still, time to persevere with getting the last part of the obituaries section into shape.

Session Goal: 500 words. 567 words. I’m still not quite at the end of the obituaries section, but it’s nice to find you have more to say about a source than you thought! I have at least got the section about Saint-Paul de Verdun finished, so my next task will be to write the conclusion for this part of the chapter.

Weekly Total: 1404 words.

Write ON: Week 4 Goals


[Image above: Tomb of Barthélémy, bishop of Laon, at abbey of Foigny. Edouard Fleury, Illustrations de Antiquités et monuments du département de l’Aisne, Vol. 4, 77]

Day 1—Monday

It’s a muggy, humid morning with the kind of sky that hints that we’ll shortly be facing a most horrific thunderstorm. But while I’m waiting for that to get here, I’ve got a thermos full of tea, a desk to myself, and some continuing edits to do on Chapter 4.

Session Goal: 250 words. 348 words.

Day 2—Wednesday

Today I’ll be continuing with Chapter 4, this time a section looking at the familial connections of Barthélémy de Jur, bishop of Laon, and his involvement with the early growth of the Premonstratensian Order.

Session Goal: 300 words. 338 words. I think I’ve untangled a knotty genealogical problem about Ermengarde of Roucy and her connection to Barthélémy, with a little help from doodling a family tree and a return to the original charters. This is the best kind of logic problem.

Day 3—Friday

I’m going to finish up the section on Ermengarde of Roucy and if I get that done by the end of the session, I’ll turn to looking at Premonstratensian obituaries.

Session Goal: 300 words. 508 words. Goals achieved! And with another genealogical connection unexpectedly made which helps to solidify a point I’d been making—serendipitous.

Weekly Total: 1194 words.


Write ON: Week 3 Goals

Day 1—Wednesday

I’m getting underway a little later than usual this week—I was away in Illinois for a few days, helping a friend to move into her beautiful new home. There was lots of box hauling and furniture construction, which means I’m tired right now, but also riding a feeling of completion and accomplishment that you don’t get on a regular basis when dissertation writing. I hope I’ll be able to carry that feeling into this morning’s work.

Session Goal: 200 words. 351 words. Not too bad! This morning I’ve been focusing on the tombs of the female members of the comital family of Dreux and Braine—particularly the tomb pictured above which is of Marie de Bourbon (d. 1274), the wife of Jean I of Dreux.

Day 2—Thursday

This morning, I’m aiming to continue on with writing about the tomb of Marie de Bourbon. I’ll probably also be needing a lot of caffeine. For some reason, this is a Thursday morning that feels like a Monday.

Session Goal: 200 words. 353 words. There’s a particular struggle that comes from trying to explain complicated genealogical relationships clearly, even when there’s also a family tree for readers to refer to. Hopefully this paragraph isn’t as clear as mud—but then, that’s what editing is for.

Day 3—Friday

It’s the day before the Fourth of July, so there are only a valiant few (I think all non-Americans) here at the writing group. But I took the precaution of bringing along a very large travel tumbler of tea, so I’m fortified and hope to soldier on despite the reduced numbers.

Session Goal: 200 words. 427 words. I’ve moved onto the next section—or at least, realised that the next section needs to be moved up to the introduction in order to better frame what I’m trying to argue in this section.

Weekly Total: 1131 words.

Write ON: Week 2 Goals

Day 1—Monday

I’m beginning the second week with more work on the structure of Chapter 4, primarily adding in a section on the women of the de Coucy family and their patronage of the order.

Session Goal: 400 words. 542 words. I’m not yet done with this section, but I’m maybe halfway through roughing it out.

Day 2—Tuesday

Today I’m going to continue with Chapter 4—hopefully I’ll get done with the section on the de Coucy and move onto the Baudement/Braine family.

Session Goal: 250 words. 309 words. As ever, this word count would be much more impressive if I factored in the footnotes that I added!

Day 3—Thursday

I’ve now firmly moved on to looking at the Baudement/Braine family and their acts of patronage. Let’s see how much I can get completed on this section today!

Session Goal: 250 words. 270 words. Sadly some people came into the room and started talking towards the end, just as I was figuring out how to articulate an idea and lost my train of thought entirely. Boo! But I’m sure if it was a thought worth having, it will come back to me eventually.

Weekly Total: 1121 words.


Write ON: Week 1 Goals

Day 1—Monday

Today begins the first of eight weeks of the Writing Center’s Write ON programme, which offers space and support to dissertating graduate students. I’ll be keeping track of my progress in posts here on my blog and in Tweets over at @yvonneseale. This morning, I’ll be reading back through my long-neglected draft of Chapter Three—which is about space and movements of women within the Premonstratensian Order—tightening up the structure and seeing where I can expand on my analysis.

Session Goal: 200 words. 303 words. Chapter Three is now in a full draft form, though I think it can be expanded on significantly as I start to analyse my mapping evidence more.

Day 2—Wednesday

I spent yesterday transcribing and translating the first few folios of Mitchell Library MS 308892, a set of Premonstratensian statutes dating likely to the first quarter of the thirteenth century. Today I start to work what I’ve figured out so far about the manuscript and its origins into Chapter Two, and if that’s accomplished, do some tidying-up work on the structure of Chapter Four.

Session Goal: 200 words. 404 words. I ended up spending more time than I expected tracking down footnote references, but that did help to bolster my argument in places.

Day 3—Friday

Yesterday, I translated the fragmentary statutes ca. 1200 relating to Premonstratensian sisters (which, for reasons too complicated and obscure to explore at this juncture, survive in François d’Amboise’s 1616 edition of the writings of Abelard and Heloïse). Today I add information on this text into Chapter 2.

Session Goal: 350 words. 861 words. Observations on the statutes added! Some more analysis needed, but the rough framework of my argument is in place.

Weekly Total: 1568 words.

A Premonstratensian Abbot in France Reacts to Magna Carta

[Image above: British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106. Credit.]

The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta has prompted a lot of discussion around the world about how the document has influenced law and government in the centuries since it was signed—but even in 1215, Magna Carta was being discussed outside of England.

One of the key figures whom I discuss in my dissertation is Gervais, who was abbot of a succession of Premonstratensian houses—Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, Thenailles, and then Prémontré itself from 1209-1220—before serving as bishop of Séez from 1220-28. Though his ecclesiastical career led him to northern France, Gervais was English by birth. Charles-Louis Hugo, the great Premonstratensian antiquarian writer of the early eighteenth-century, described Gervais as being origine Lincolniensis, sanguine clarus, though we know nothing more of Gervais or his origins than that.1

While my interest in Gervais centres mostly on his other activities in 1215—he travelled to Rome to participate in the Fourth Lateran Council, which gave him encouragement for his reformist agenda which seems to have been so central in shaping the direction of the Premonstratensian Order for the rest of the thirteenth century—even amidst all his other duties, Gervais was following the events unfolding back in his country of birth. In 1215, Gervais wrote to archbishop Stephen Langton of Canterbury about Magna Carta.2

The letter is undated but was probably composed in July or August, since Gervais knew that an agreement had been reached between King John and the rebels, but didn’t yet know of the renewal of the civil war or of the pope’s condemnation of Magna Carta. The letter doesn’t provide any new insights into the circumstances surrounding the composition of Magna Carta, but it does give us a rare insight into how the conflict in England was perceived by an Englishman and an ecclesiastic, one who had lived overseas for many years but who still had strong ties there. Gervais urged moderation in the church’s interaction with the crown—perhaps unsurprisingly, given both the Premonstratensians’ history of maintaining strong ties with royal administrations, and given Gervais’ own insistence on the importance of hierarchical structure within his order.

You can find the full text of the letter embedded below:

This was not the only time when the baronial rebellion was mentioned by Gervais. He twice wrote to the papal legate in England, Guala Bicchieri, asking among other things for leniency for those English Premonstratensians who had sided with the rebels and been excommunicated. In the second of these letters, Gervais made reference to a failed attempt at a “three-fold” peace (triplex forma pacis) which was proposed by the papacy but which Gervais evidently thought would have been shameful.3 Given Gervais’ strong relationship with successive popes, and the wide geographical range of Premonstratensian houses in this period, it’s not a surprise that even in Picardy, far from the ongoing diplomatic negotiations, Gervais had knowledge of them.

Gervais also wrote a letter in the summer of 1216 to Simon of Maugastel, archbishop of Tyre, at a time when the future Louis VIII of France had invaded southern England. The text reveals Gervais’ less-than-cordial thoughts about the clergy who had sided with the baronial party: “I’m greatly upset that when England was on the brink of peace, it was hindered by merely four clerics—would that they had never learned their letters!”


1 He has sometimes been referred to as Gervais/Gervase of Chichester or Gervaise/Gervase of Chester, but C.R. Cheney showed that this was based on a confusion on the part of Jean Le Paige in the seventeenth century. See C.R. Cheney, “Gervase, Abbot of Premontre: A Medieval Letter-Writer.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 33, no. 1 (1950): 25–56. We do however know that a relative of Gervais’, Bartholomew, was also a Premonstratensian canon who transacted business in Italy on Gervais’ behalf.

2 The dispute over Langton’s election to the episcopate was of course one of the causes behind the conflict which led to Magna Carta. See Langton’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

3 “Triplex forma pacis quae, ut dicitur, a sede apostolica emanavit, quarum quaelibet, si fuisset ad effectum perducta, in totius ecclesiae et vestram nihilominus ignomimam redundasset.”


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