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This biography is a most extraordinary story; I don’t think I’ve read about such a forward-thinking and radical woman of the Middle Ages before. The author, Ellen Watkins, a retired historian now mercifully free to write the books she wants rather than grind away under the academic treadmill, admits that Stultila the nun appears to be an improbable character, but that the evidence collected during the last few years in Watkins’s career in medieval French and Dutch philology, indicate that Stultila did exist, she was a nun, an obscure poet and also appears to have been a very early advocate for the use of English as a lingua franca on continental Europe. This was clearly bonkers for her day, since Latin and French were the dominant ‘common tongues’, but she was keen on English poetry, particularly Chaucer. If true, this is a fascinating connection between 15th-century English and Flemish culture.
Stultila appears to have been born sometime in the mid-1400s in Hoelindeheden in the then county of Flanders, in north-western Belgium. It’s now only a name on a map, partly maize fields – there are photographs in the book of where her convent would have stood – and partly grazing land. There was a church on the site up to the end of the 18th century, but the Napoleonic wars blew it up. Stultila’s family were superior convent servants, so it’s likely she went into service in the convent early on in life, became a nun, learned to read, and remained in Hoelindeheden for what seems to have been a reasonably long but humble life, apart from one odd excursion to England in the 1480s.
Why have traces remained of her? Ellen Watkins’s discovery is that Stultila, otherwise known only for some not very interesting devotional poetry, was a political activist. Her voice has survived in some remarkable radical writings, from a period where women with no social status or vocational rank simply may as well not have existed. Lowly women certainly did not send Maximilian of Austria letters to suggest that English be used to replace court French and peasant Dutch in daily discourse. The motivations of this anglophile nun are only to be guessed at from the two letters she sent, and which were returned to her abbey. It’s a miracle that they were preserved, since no mention of them, or her, according to Watkins, exists in the Burgundian archives. The significance of a Dutch-speaking nun asking that English – a foreign language! – replace her own rather difficult dialect, rather than have to speak the resented court French of her rulers, is quite remarkable.
Stultila’s original Middle Dutch name was probably Gekke, as recorded by the Brotherhood of St Simeon, the confraternity which managed the finances of her convent. The Hoelindeheden convent of St Simeon’s was a sister house to the ancient Norfolk convent of Our Lady and St Leonard at Oby (presumably some of the Norfolk nuns lived also at the Flemish house, since Stultila had an unusual understanding of English). These records have preserved Stultila’s poetry and writings, as well as random notes of daily expenditure. So Watkins was able to work out that Stultila wrote her first letter to Maximilian on the occasion of his Joyous Entry into Brussels in 1486, and the second after a new tax on English wool had been imposed. There are all sorts of conclusions drawn from these letters about Stultila’s educational standard, her creativity with words, her use of common linguistic models and even some classical references. I was more interested in her holidays, because it seems that some time after the second letter had been returned, she took ship from Ostende to England on the invitation of a wool merchant who had dealings with St Simeon’s. No details at all are recorded of the purpose of the visit, or who else went with her, but we know that she returned within three weeks, and that shortly after her return an order was sent for a plain but complete edition of The Canterbury Tales. The last records from Stultila’s life (it’s not even known when she died or where was buried) are some efforts of Chaucerian poetry in Middle Dutch, about not wasting or mishandling chances in life that ‘cometh not again’. The poignancy of the fragments of this woman’s life make hers a marvellous story.
I found this book fascinating, and very readable, considering that the author has been writing extremely technical articles and studies on language history for most of her career. Definitely one for Chaucerians, history fans and aficionados of the 15th century.
Ellen Watkins, Stultila of Flanders. A Campaigning Nun of the Fifteenth Century (Four Crows Press, 2014), ISBN 978-1-7993-666-3
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