- Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture: Authorship and Authority in a Female Community ed. by Jennifer N. Brown and Donna Alfano Bussell
Barking was a great abbey. According to Bede, it was founded in the seventh century by a saint (Erkenwald) for a saint (his sister, Ethelburga), and began its life as a Benedictine double foundation, for both men and women. This first abbey was destroyed by the Vikings in about 870, and when it was eventually resurrected, it was a house for women only and remained thus until its surrender on November 14, 1539. Barking was wealthy, prestigious, and influential, with close links to the highest echelons of English society, and the center of an important literary culture. Ælfgyva, abbess from about 1066 to 1086, commissioned the celebrated hagiographer Goscelin of Saint-Bertin to write (in Latin) the lives of its founding abbesses. Mary Becket, the sister of Thomas, who governed the house from 1173 to 1175, commissioned Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence to compose (in French) a life of her saintly brother. [End Page 774] And two nuns of Barking composed their own saints’ lives: one, who remains anonymous, produced the first vernacular translation, in Anglo-Norman, of Ælred of Rievaulx’s life of Edward the Confessor; and the other, Clemence, translated the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria, again into Anglo-Norman. An Anglo-Norman collection of Marian miracles, Le Gracial, was compiled by one Adgar, possibly for the Barking nuns (he himself may have been a chaplain at the abbey), and there is every reason to believe that the abbey possessed an extensive library. It certainly had a librarian (libraria) to look after its books. Two other important texts associated with the abbey are the Ordinale and Customary of 1404 and the fascinating “Charge to the Barking Cellaress,” written sometime after 1453. There are other manuscripts associated with the house, not all of which are discussed in detail in this book.
The literary culture of this remarkable abbey is the subject of this admirable collection of essays. To gain a glimpse of the whole one need only read the excellent introduction by Donna A. Bussell with Jennifer N. Brown (pp. 1–30) and the perceptive afterword by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (pp. 283–96). The collection is divided (like Gaul) into three parts: the first concerns the abbey in its Anglo-Saxon context, the second in its Anglo-Norman context, and the third in the later Middle Ages. In part I we find four chapters that present a detailed consideration of various aspects of Goscelin’s lives of abbesses Ethelburga, Hildelith, and Wulfhild. Chapter 4 ends with mention of Clemence of Barking and thus leads us into part II of the volume, which contains five chapters dealing with the anonymous nun’s translation of the life of Edward the Confessor, Clemence’s own life of Catherine of Alexandria, and the Gracial of Adgar. Guerne’s life of Becket is considered on pages 189–91. The third section of the book is concerned with the “Charge to the Barking Cellaress” (a most interesting chapter by Alexandra Barratt) and certain aspects of the Ordinale and Customary—more specifically, the performance of Easter plays at Barking and monastic liturgy “as the site of creative engagement” (p. 267) at the abbey. The volume concludes with a comprehensive bibliography (pp. 297–324) and an index (pp. 325–34) that, although serviceable, is not as detailed as one might like and could be better arranged.
But there is not one of the chapters in this collection that does not have its own reward, and not one that does not present a thorough scholarly analysis of its particular subject. For anyone interested in what Wogan-Browne calls “the historiography of female community” (p. 283), nuns’ libraries and literacy, and Barking abbey itself, this first-class collection of essays is essential reading.