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  • St Anselm and the Handmaidens of God. A Study of Anselm’s Correspondence with Women
  • Constant J. Mews
Vaughn, Sally. St Anselm and the Handmaidens of God. A Study of Anselm’s Correspondence with Women ( Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 7), Turnhout, Brepols, 2002; cloth; xii, 335; 26 b/w illustrations; RRP €60; ISBN 2503513379

Sally Vaughn has a long established reputation as an authority on St Anselm, not as a philosopher or theologian but as an ecclesiastic with firm ideas about the place of the Church within Anglo-Norman society. Unlike Richard Southern, whose two major biographies of St Anselm dwell on the complexity of an otherworldly intellectual being caught in a political world not much to his liking, Vaughn argues that St Anselm had a very clear idea of the public role of an archbishop, and that he presents this image very clearly in his correspondence. Vaughn's new book explores these themes with particular reference to the 73 letters (out of a total collection of 475) to, from, or about women. Vaughn also develops some important arguments about the surviving letter collections as a whole, that they were compiled during St Anselm's lifetime and that they reflect a self-conscious desire by the archbishop to present his ideas about how aristocratic men and women, as well as monks and bishops, should behave. In this, she expands on arguments raised by the late Walter Fröhlich against Richard Southern, who tended to think that the surviving letter collections were compiled after St Anselm's death. She argues that each of the sections of the correspondence, prioral, abbatial, and archiepiscopal, represents a model of an ideal prelate appropriate to that office. [End Page 290]

Sally Vaughn's new book conveys magisterial familiarity not just with the entire corpus of St Anselm's letters, but with their complex prosopographical context. The genealogical tables of various families, such as of Clemence and Robert of Flanders, of Edith-Matilda (wife of Henry I), the Clare family, of Ida of Boulogne, of Adelaide, sister of the William the Conqueror, of the Crispin family, and of Gunhilda, daughter of Harold Godwineson, are of great help in following the complex narrative told by these letters, indeed for Anglo-Norman historical scholarship in general. On the face of it, the volume might seem to have limited interest. Vaughn does not explore the broader context of women and religious life in the late eleventh century. Her focus is resolutely confined to the network in which St Anselm was involved, with particular attention to its political context. Nonetheless, she does succeed in showing that St Anselm's friendship circle was not as uniquely masculine as some scholars have tended to imply. She organizes her study around the various types of women in his network. After an important global chapter on the correspondence as a whole (amici et amicae), she looks at 'spiritual mothers' at Bec, the women he addresses as cherished sisters, as spiritual daughters, as queens, and as handmaidens of God.

Vaughn notes that in the early Bec phase of the correspondence there are very few letters to women. Nonetheless, Vaughn brings together significant evidence for identifying a significant group of pious laywomen attached to Bec, even in its early years, when Herluin's mother, called Heloise, was part of the community. Indeed, Bec was founded on the dower lands of Heloise, between 1034 and 1037. In 1080/81, Anselm sent greetings to married women living at Bec, notably, Eva de Montfort, mother of Gilbert of Crispin, and Basilia, who entered Bec with her husband, Hugh of Gournay. Intriguingly, Anselm's successor as abbot of Bec was William of Beaumont, whose mother was Aubrée de Montfort, and thus a scion of the same powerful French family. Although Vaughn does not comment on this as a wider practice, apart from the case of St Martin of Tournai, we have here valuable insight into practices what is (confusingly) sometimes called a double monastery. Similar arrangements flourished in Germany, as at Disibodenberg, where Jutta of Sponheim and the young Hildegard lived alongside a new monastic community.

There is immense detail in Vaughn's study, such as...


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