Medieval Women and Devotional Compilations

Peter_Paul_Rubens_138 image of nun with pen

Pens, ink, and the hands that hold the book: The Chastising of God’s Children

In Cambridge, Magdalene College, MS Pepys 2125, one of the twelve manuscripts in which the devotional compilation The Chastising of God’s Children survives, the prologue is addressed to a ‘dere frend’ (f. 1r) rather than to a ‘religious sister’. In the eleven other manuscripts, the text remains addressed to a female reader, even when the manuscript was owned by a house of male religious, which was the case for Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson C57, owned by the Sheen Carthusians, and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 505, owned by the London Carthusians. In spite of the Chastising’s intended female reader, the actual female reader remains strangely elusive.

As has been pointed out by David N. Bell (1995) and Mary C. Erler (2002), two laywomen left a copy of The Chastising to a house of female religious in their will. In 1448, the York widow Agnes Stapilton bequeathed a copy of The Chastising to the Cistercian nuns of Esholt, near Leeds. In 1451, Mercy Ormesby left a copy of The Chastising to the Benedictine nuns of Easebourne, Sussex. We do not know whether the copies owned by Agnes or Mercy are among the surviving manuscripts.

Four Birgittine and two Augustinian nuns wrote their names in copies of Wynkyn de Worde’s early printed edition of The Chastising. In Cambridge, Sidney Sussex College, Bb 2.14, Edith Morepath (d. 1536) and Katherine Palmer (d. 1576), both sisters of Birgittine Syon Abbey, left their names. In Göttingen, University Library, 4° Theol. Mor. 138/45 Inc, two more sisters of Syon, Mary Nevel (d. 1557 or 1558) and Awdry Dely (d. 1579), wrote their names. A now lost printed copy recorded the names of two early sixteenth century nuns from the Augustinian Priory of Campsey in Suffolk, Elizabeth Wyllowby and Catherine Symond. These names show that the women passed the text on to each other, from laywoman to nun, from nun to nun, the older woman leaving the book to the younger.

We assume that these women read The Chastising, or in the case of Agnes and Mercy, perhaps, had the book read to them. Yet what we cannot reconstruct is how these women read the text. This is a particularly interesting question for The Chastising, because scholars (Rosalynn Voaden 2000, Katerine Zieman 2003) have pointed out the text’s controlling attitude with regard to contemplative and visionary experience, and its lack of strong female role models. Are there ways in which we can find out? When we research the manuscripts in which The Chastising survive, it is striking that we assume the pens that copied the text were in the hands of men, as were the pens that wrote marginal ‘notae’ or ‘notae bene’ in the margin and marked the text up for excerpting. In these assumptions the strength of historical likelihood and scarcity of evidence combines to make us wary about hypothesizing about female scribes and annotators.

That leaves text-internal evidence. In a paper entitled ‘“Ȝe han desired to knowe in comfort of ȝoure soule”: Female Agency in The Chastising of God’s Children’ recently submitted to the Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, I read the text from a different perspective. Yes, The Chastising urges caution where contemplative union and revelations are concerned, and yes, it does present Birgitta of Sweden and Hildegard of Bingen as rather colourless women obedient to their male superiors. Yet at the same time, the Chastising compiler also offers the “religious sister” knowledge, and tools to help her reach comfort of the soul through reason and thinking. Indeed, the compiler seems to place reasonable judgment first, and performative meditations and prayers second. What a thrill it must have been for some women readers to have access to this kind of systematic teaching beyond catechesis perhaps for the first time in their reading lives.

Marleen Cré


Needle and Scissors: The Tretyse of Love

The two early printed books with the names of Edith Morepath, Katherine Palmer, Mary Nevel and Awdry Dely in them – Cambridge, Sidney Sussex College, Bb 2.14 and Göttingen, University Library, 4° Theol. Mor. 138/45 Inc – do not only contain a copy of the Chastising, but these prints are bound together with another late medieval devotional compilation entitled The Tretyse of Love (See: British Library, Incunabula Short Title Catalogue). This text is also addressed to a female reader who is called a ‘dere suster’ in the text. However, contrary to the Chastising, the addressed female reader of The Tretyse is not a ‘religious sister’, but a wealthy and possibly aristocratic lay woman and patroness. The compiler of The Tretyse borrows extensively from parts four and seven of the thirteenth- century text Ancrene Wisse, but also adapts parts of this anchoritic text to make it livelier to the compilation’s patroness. The compiler for instance replaces the axe, plough and spade from the analogy in Ancrene Wisse: ‘ȝef þe axe ne kurue, ne spitelsteaf ne dulue, ne þe sulh ne erede, hwa kepte ham to halden?’ [If the axe did not cut, or the spade dig, or the plough turn up the soil, who would want to keep them?] (Millett 2005: p. 145, lines 15-16 and trans. Millett 2009: p. 145) by a needle and scissors: ‘If a nedil sowyd not nor sheri(s) clipped not, who would hold them in ther handys’ (Fisher 1951, p. 2, lines 20-22). By making these types of changes, the compiler explicitly situates the text in the centre of the fourteenth- or fifteenth century (female) household.

It is intriguing how the compiler of The Tretyse reshaped Ancrene Wisse with these (idealised) portrayals of life in a late medieval household. In my PhD-thesis, I analyse these kinds of adaptations and explore how they contributed to the compiling style and strategy of this text. A lot of questions remain still unanswered. Who was the mysterious patroness of The Tretyse? What was her relationship with the text’s compiler and why was she interested in having an (adapted) copy of Ancrene Wisse? Last but not least: why were the Syon abbey nuns who left their ownership marks in copies of the Chastising and The Tretyse interested in reading this compilation?

Some of the devotional compilations we investigate in the Swiss National Science Foundation project ‘Late Medieval Religiosity in England: The Evidence of Late 14th and 15th Century Devotional Compilations’ were popular works. The Chastising of God’s Children survives in 12 manuscripts, and was used as a source text in Disce mori (2 manuscripts) and Ignorantia sacerdotum (1 manuscript). Pore Caitif in about 30, and an additional 24 of the text in fragmentary form. Contemplations of the Dread and Love of God survives in 17 manuscripts, and 14 manuscripts have the AB-chapter of this text in some form. When strength lies in numbers, these texts can be thought of as canonical. In the remaining time of the project we will continue to reflect on the position of women addressees and readers with regard to these texts. We also hope that the questions we raise in this blogpost will be addressed in some of the sessions at our upcoming international conference: “This tretice, by me compiled”: Late Medieval Devotional Compilations in England, University of Lausanne, 31 March to 2 April 2016. For programme and registration, please click here . We hope to meet you all there.

Diana Denissen