Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Susan Marti, eds., Ruhrlandmuseum Essen, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft Düsseldorf. Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism From the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries. Translated by Dietlinde Hamburger. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. xxii + 318 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-13980-9.
Reviewed by Karen Stoeber (Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University)
Published on H-German (May, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Between this World and the Next
According to Pope Gregory the Great, Jesus's choice to appear first to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection signaled a greater closeness of women to Christ than was possible for men. Why is it, then, that religious women in the medieval West continue to receive less attention than their male counterparts? The present volume seeks to redress this imbalance. Based on a set of exhibitions held in Bonn and Essen in Germany in early 2005 on the wonderfully rich visual culture of female monasticism, the thirteen chapters in this collection, written by leading international scholars in the field, offer a thoughtful reappraisal of the exquisite but often underappreciated material culture associated with houses of nuns and canonesses across western Christendom. Many of the objects shown at the two exhibitions have been reproduced in black and white illustrations in the collection, including statues, tapestries, altarpieces, illuminations from liturgical manuscripts, reliquaries, seals, and other items, which provide a visual context for the historical essays they accompany.
Recent scholarship on religious women has tended to emphasize the wealth of source material, both textual and non-textual, which is in fact in many cases available for the history of nuns and canonesses. Admittedly, much of this material is inconspicuous, but our growing awareness of it has only gradually been reflected in historical publications. Such work as has appeared in English in recent years, notably the research of Sally Thompson, Marilyn Oliva, Roberta Gilchrist, Jane Cartwright, and Dianne Hall, shows a discernable bias towards religious women in the British Isles--although the works of Bruce Venarde on French nunneries, and that of Leonie Hicks on religious women in Normandy are valuable (and fortunately not solitary) exceptions to this trend (though even in relation to continental Europe geographical coverage is uneven). The English translation of the present work, which originally appeared in German under the title Krone und Schleier: Kunst aus mittelalterlichen Frauenklöstern (2005), is therefore particularly welcome.
The essays that constitute this collection cover a very wide chronological and thematic terrain. The three introductory chapters provide the historical and historiographical framework for the more thematic essays that follow them. In his opening essay, "Histories of Female Monasticism," Jeffrey F. Hamburger specifically addresses the current state of the historiography on women's religion, as well as introducing the writings generated in the communities that are the focus of this volume. He laments the comparative paucity of sources related to female monasticism, though, crucially, he warns that this lack has sometimes been exaggerated. Holding up Eileen Power's seminal work on medieval English nunneries (published in 1922) as a "magisterial" model in the field, Hamburger welcomes the renewed interest in female monasticism, which emerged with the rise of feminist scholarship in the 1980s and generated a gradual improvement of the state of scholarship. It is perhaps here that Jan Gerchow's and Susan Marti's informative chapter, "A Modern Historiography of Medieval Monasticism," placed later in the volume, would have fitted best.
In the second introductory chapter, "Early Monasteries and Foundations," Jan Gerchow, Katrinette Bodarwe, Susan Marti, and Hedwig Röckelein take us back to the very beginnings of female monasticism, which only emerged as an organized form of religious life from the fifth century--the earliest known western nunnery is the one founded in Marseille by John Cassian--which offered women a new alternative to practicing their spirituality at home under the supervision of an ecclesiastical authority and eventually provided the guidance of a rule. The first rule for religious women was the one composed by Caesarius of Arles during the first half of the sixth century, followed by the more widely used seventh-century rules of Waldeberts, abbot of Luxeuil and Donatus, bishop of Besançon. The historical context provided by this chapter also considers some of the difficulties faced by communities of religious women (from within as much as from without) and issues of their education and writing. Much of what is known about early convents derives from surviving manuscript material, or from later copies thereof. One outstanding document introduced in this chapter comes from the nunnery of Hohenburg (Alsace). One folio of this late-twelfth-century so-called Hortus deliciarum of abbess Herrad of Hohenburg depicts the nuns of that abbey, each of them named. Though we are not looking at physical likenesses here (all of the nuns look the same), this manuscript is nonetheless a wonderful source of information for one medieval nunnery, providing what is all too often lacking: some information about those who spent their cloistered lives in the house. These anonymous and voiceless lives have too long been treated as individually inconsequential and in stark contrast to the few exceptional, remarkable and remarked-upon ladies, the Hildegards of Bingen and Heloises of this world, who have made it onto the historical radar and thence into immortality and admiration. In contrast to the image that is perhaps created by the surviving literary sources, most religious women were of course not mystics or miracle-working saints, but simple people who lived the cloistered life without leaving a trace.
Those who did leave a trace, among them Gertrude "the Great" and Mechthild of Hackeborn, are the subject of the chapter by Barbara Newman on "Visionary Texts and Visual Worlds," an essay that also dwells on aspects of Hildegard of Bingen's life and work. The third introductory chapter, "The Time of the Orders, 1200-1500," deals with the latter half of the period covered by the present volume. It looks at the changes that characterize this period, notably the emergence of the new orders and the opportunities they offered (or did not) for women, underscoring the fact that such developments and changes over time are a crucial factor in the consideration of religious women in the Middle Ages. This chapter also discusses the monastic compound (the role of the cloister, the cells, the choir, and other physical features in the organization of the daily life of religious women) and it considers developments in religious art and architecture.
The latter theme is also the focus of the chapter by Carola Jäggi and Uwe Lobbedey, "The Architecture of Female Monasticism in the Middle Ages." They conclude that patronage was often a determining factor in the designing and planning of female religious houses, especially in the Carolingian and Ottonian periods, when wealthy patrons were concerned about creating an appropriate environment for female relatives choosing the religious life.
Yet, once in the cloister, nuns and canonesses were expected to renounce the world and the very relatives who had been responsible for founding their new homes. Gabriela Signori, in "Wanderers between Worlds," examines the relations and means of communication between religious women and society beyond the cloister, including the nuns' own families. Her evidence includes wills, letters, and a range of bequests made by the laity to religious communities or individual nuns. On related matters, Röckelein's chapter, "Founders, Donors, and Saints," reiterates the often crucial role played by monastic founders and later patrons of religious houses. These men and women had a say in the affairs of the convent, notably in elections, and they enjoyed certain rights and privileges in the monastery. This relationship, which began as a personal act, was formalized in canon law. Patrons were bound to their abbeys and priories in a symbiotic relationship, which foresaw the religious community's acceptance of their donations and protection in return for spiritual services and burials in the house.
As well as an earthly founding figure, every monastery and nunnery also enjoyed the protection of a saintly patron to whom the house was dedicated and who might feature prominently in the house's iconography, often on such items as the objects examined by Jeffrey Hamburger and Robert Suckale in their essay on the art of religious women, which introduces a range of items, most--though not all--of liturgical use. Often these objects themselves give us a clear sense of the centrality of the liturgy in the enclosed life, and this subject is developed in Gisela Muschiol's interesting chapter, "Liturgy and Rite," for the case of medieval convents. Almost equally important was the issue of pastoral care, discussed by Klaus Schreiner, who looks at developments in pastoral practices of female religious communities in the face of the control imposed by the authorities, whose views were not infrequently colored by misogynistic prejudices. The material discussed in this volume transcends the sacred to consider more mundane concerns as well, such as the economy of the monastic household, which is addressed by Werner Rösener in his chapter, "Medieval Convents as Economic Entities."
One of the achievements of this wide-ranging volume is its success in situating these cloistered ladies in their wider, non-cloistered social context, thereby giving the reader the opportunity to appreciate them not exclusively as somewhat extreme religious phenomena, but also as integral elements of medieval society in a broader sense, and as such, connected with the lay society from which they originated. This collection makes a very welcome contribution to our understanding of medieval communities of religious women from their earliest beginnings to the end of the Middle Ages. With its broad chronological, thematic, and geographical coverage and its scholarly but accessible contributions, this collection provides an ideal starting point for anyone with an interest in female spirituality and the religious lives of medieval women. The crown and the veil, these symbols of female monasticism, appear prominently in the religious art produced in, or for, the communities of cloistered ladies, and function here as a thread that ties the different related aspects together. In sum, this important collection brings together recent scholarship by international historians, and it will be of value to anyone with an interest in women's spirituality, religious communities, and medieval women.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Karen Stoeber. Review of Hamburger, Jeffrey F.; Marti, Susan, eds.; Essen, Ruhrlandmuseum; Deutschland, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik; Düsseldorf., NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft, Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism From the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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