Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

What Nuns Read. Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries, by David N Bell

9780879075583For National Academic Book Week.

In 1995, a book was published by Cistercian Publications, number 158 in its Cistercian Studies series, that on the face of it was a specialised contribution to the already specialised field of manuscript studies. As far as I am concerned however (and I believe I am not alone) it is an inspirational guide to my current area of interest, which is the history of books and libraries and their wider lines of enquiry into the history of reading and literacy. It is a bit of a sleeper.

What Nuns Read by David N Bell, his third bibliography of manuscripts recorded in medieval religious communities, is a work in two parts. Its main scholarly endeavour is to identify all known records of manuscripts (and a few printed books) that can verifiably be traced back to communities of English nuns. It is a spin-off from another scholarly endeavour, Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (1964) and Ker and Piper’s essential listing of medieval manuscripts in British libraries. The other part consists of three short chapters, in which Bell analyses this body of data and reaches some tentative – and to my mind exciting – conclusions.

The sole reason I found out about this book is that one item in the historic library that I help to take care of is listed in there. It is a late 15c processional and book of hours that contains evidence that it came originally from the house of the Minoresses (Franciscan nuns) of Aldgate. Its very existence in this library opens up all sorts of intriguing questions. The survival of medieval manuscripts and printed books from before the English Reformation is a matter of the merest chance. Far, far more were destroyed than survived, and the small relatively powerless women’s religious communities were at the Dissolution among the most likely to see their books swept up with their other assets and distributed or destroyed. So, some hundreds only survive from many thousand. But these are enough, when carefully catalogued and described, to provide a body of data from which some fresh conjectures can be made about the place of books and libraries in women’s religious communities. Many of them contain additional evidence – inscriptions that reveal provenance, or pressmarks that (ingeniously) enable the author to estimate the size of collections. All this comes together in a work of exquisite scholarship.

The three chapters in Part I cover the following: Incomes and Acquisitions – what resources nunneries had to expend on books, and how they acquired books by donations and legacies; Manuscripts and Books – what the content of these collections might have been and how it was kept and used in the community, based on the surviving sample; and Literacy and Learning – the nub of the matter: what can be discerned from an analysis of surviving items and records about the intellectual world of medieval English nuns. The data collected is valuable, but the skill with which in Part I Bell has extracted its meaning is quite remarkable. It is also very lively, elegant and readable.

The library I help take care of is an 18th century foundation. Assumptions about the literacy level and intellectual interests of women at that period have found a useful corrective in our records. How much more is it assumed that in the middle ages women who could and did read were a rarity? This book provides the evidence for a reappraisal, about the nature of the books owned and read, the languages in use (Latin, French and English) and the aptitude of the nuns in reading them. The survival of French as a language of literacy in nunneries long after it had been overtaken by English in everyday life is documented, alongside the innovative appearance of works of English spiritual writers in these libraries. To show how reading (albeit slow) was woven into the lives of the nuns, the following account from Barking Abbey is so vivid:

On Monday in the first week of Lent the librarian would spread a carpet (tapetum) on the floor of the Chapter House, and each nun would bring in the book she had been given the previous year. The librarian would seat herself in medio capituli and slowly read a list of the book titles and and the names of those to whom they had been allocated. On hearing her name, each nun would rise from her seat and place her book on the carpet. If she had read it all, she bowed to the crucifix and returned to her seat; if she had not, she prostrated herself before the abbess and said ‘Mea culpa‘. She would then be given an appropriate penance. Following this, and beginning with the abbess, the librarian would make a new distribution of books for the coming year, giving shorter volumes to those whose duties were heavier and more time-consuming, and longer ones to those with less to do.

So much in there, including an early sighting of the Librarian and the early beginnings of the role that has developed to this day. In the chapter on literacy and learning, there is information on the interest women religious took in contemporary theological discourse, including the controversial and potentially heterodox. One religious house, the Bridgettine community of Syon Abbey, is notable for the number of secular works in the collection.

This book has been influential for me in a number of ways: it is a landmark contribution to an area of research that interests me; it is an object-lesson in careful marshalling of evidence with soundly-based but creative interpretation of it; and Bell’s methodology has taught me so much that has helped and inspired me in my own research, by his handling of the data and how to draw reliable inferences from it. Altogether, it is a work that will doubtless stay in its niche but I wish could be more widely known. Bell’s own self-deprecating words about his three chapters of analysis in his preface are a clue why it is so exciting:

What I have said in those chapters […] does, perhaps, demonstrate that what has long been assumed about the books, libraries, learning and literacy of women religious in the later Middle Ages may require a certain amount of emendation.

In other words, a new window into women’s lives has been opened, and that has to be something to celebrate.

David N Bell: What Nuns Read. Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995. 300pp
ISBN 0879075589

3 comments on “What Nuns Read. Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries, by David N Bell

  1. Kate
    November 12, 2015

    excellently persuasive, thank you!

  2. camilledefleurville
    November 13, 2015

    Fascinating when you are a RC frequenting the nearby Cistercian “nunnery” or convent. Times have changed. Fortunately. Thank you.

  3. Becca
    November 15, 2015

    Oh, this sounds like a really interesting read – I love books like this, that offer us a bit of insight into lives that we know very little about.

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