restricted access “A distribution of tyme”: Reading and Writing Practices in the English Convents in Exile
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“A distribution of tyme”:
Reading and Writing Practices in the English Convents in Exile

Research into the English convents in exile, 1600-1800, has been growing in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is exciting to see how far scholars have extended our knowledge and understanding of the writings of early modern English nuns as a result.1 Such studies reveal just how many sources have survived and are still to be investigated. In spite of a number of catastrophic events that interrupted the largely quiet progress of their religious life, the English communities managed to retain many of their manuscripts; other documents from the convents have survived in outside repositories.2

As we can see from the short bibliography in the first endnote, literary scholars and historians have initiated discussions on a number of different aspects of conventual writing including history writing, life writing, and spiritual texts. This paper is an attempt to underpin such discussions by providing some contextual background for understanding the demand for texts that supported the ways in which the nuns carried out their monastic obligations on a daily basis and for special occasions, such as the practice of spiritual exercises, which significantly increased the need for works of guidance for individual reading in English. It will argue that many texts were generated within the convents to meet this need. I focus on private reading, and I select sources primarily from two English convents in Liège and Rouen, whose manuscripts are little known but are representative of many others surviving in convent archives. The pattern of religious life followed in the convents of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre at Liège and the Poor Clares at Rouen is similar in outline to that of other English enclosed convents of the period, with the emphasis on the performance of the liturgy, prayer, reading, and meditation. Taking as a starting point the “distribution of tyme” or timetable from Liège, this paper will first consider the kinds of texts needed by the Canonesses at Liège to follow the day outlined by their founder, Susan Hawley.3 It will then examine a text created to support the spiritual exercises and finally consider three spiritual texts for personal reading in the Poor Clare convent at Rouen as exemplars of other manuscripts created specifically for the English convents in exile.

All choir nuns spent time reading; it was considered part of their work in order to achieve the spiritual goals that they each had agreed upon with [End Page 99] senior members of the convent such as the abbess or spiritual director.4 Although the pattern of the day was broadly similar across the convents, there were many differences in the details because of variations in traditions and customs that led particular convents to create their own versions of texts. These variations can be seen clearly in the way each house drew up and published its own constitutions as well as in their choices of confessors and spiritual directors.5 Despite these differences, some broad comparisons can be made in the way they solved the problem of lack of sufficient printed material in English to support their religious life as they would wish. The number of surviving manuscripts from most of the English convents in exile indicates that members spent a considerable amount of their time creating their own documents.6 A day spent in retreat carrying out the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola significantly increased the amount of time a nun spent in private reading and consequently expanded the numbers of resources needed. While Ignatian retreats had been practiced in convents with Jesuit spiritual directors since the beginning of the seventeenth century, the version of the “distribution of tyme” quoted here is taken from a manuscript created at the end of the seventeenth century at Liège. Retreats were a significant part of the spiritual life of all English convents, both for contemplative orders (such as the Benedictines) and the Canonesses.

Susan Hawley founded the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre (also referred to as the Sepulchrines) at Liège specifically for English women in 1644 out of...