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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 121-123

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Female Monastic Life in Early Tudor England. With an Edition of Richard Fox's Translation of the Benedictine Rule for Women, 1517. Edited by Barry Collett. [The Modern English Woman 1500-1700: Contemporary Editions.] (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company. 2002. Pp. x, 179. $69.95.)

In this volume, Collett examines the state of early modern English nuns by analyzing and reprinting the Bodleian Library copy of Bishop Richard Fox's translation from Latin into English of the Benedictine Rule. Fox undertook this translation in 1516 at the request of Anna Westbrooke, Maud Rouse, Joan Legh, and Anne Thomas, abbesses and prioress of the four female monasteries in the diocese of Winchester. For Collett, Fox's translation, his choice of words, and his occasional commentary on issues relating specifically to nuns, provides us with a firsthand look into the spiritual lives of these superiors and the nuns in their care.

Collett admires Fox's translation, especially his "vivacious prose" (p. 46) and his rendering of the Rule into a readable and understandable guide for monastic living. Part of Fox's charm for Collett is the way he personalizes and clarifies some aspects of the daily routine. And to a great extent, this book is as much about Fox the man as it is about the state of female monasticism in the early modern period or the translation itself.

Richard Fox (1444-1528) was the consummate bishop-politician. As advisor and secretary to both Henry VII and Henry VIII, he had firsthand experience with authority, and in his role as bishop of several dioceses, pastoral care and reform of religious personnel were issues of on-going concern. But Fox's translation [End Page 121] was not an effort of reform; in fact, he thought the nuns led more spiritual lives than the monks did. Rather, his translation and commentary focus on the smooth and effective operation of the community as a vehicle for fulfillment of the nuns' spiritual vocation.

For Fox, the exercise of authority involved skill and heart, not the simple application of rules of governance. Power also entailed a personal responsibility, which included the practical skills of maintaining order and recognition of others' needs. Fox incorporated these ideas into his translation, which alludes frequently to skillful authority and co-operation within religious life.

Fox's philosophy included the notion of sexual equivalence, that all humans had the capacity for knowledge and contained the "seeds of virtue" (p. 63). Women, therefore, had the same abilities and virtues necessary to wield power, as did their male counterparts. His use of the word diocesan to describe the nuns, for example, denotes the full authority and pastoral responsibilities of heads of female religious houses, a point developed especially in Chapter 2 of the Rule.

Fox also believed in nuns' capacities for spiritual piety and vocation, and one of his most interesting interpretations of the monastic vocation for women was his view that a nun's profession ceremony was less a spiritual marriage and vehicle for sexual abstinence than a commitment to a spiritual vocation. This idea is one of the most interesting that Collett attributes to Fox.

This book's value goes beyond Fox and his translation. Collett's presentation of recent scholarship on the status of nuns in this period is one of the best I have seen. And he raises issues he thinks warrant further study: an "interconnectedness" between nuns and pious lay women, for example, which might account for a certain ambivalence about monastic vocations in this period. He also suggests that certain notions of reform need re-examination.

When discussing Fox's method of translation, Collett suggests that internal evidence from the printed texts—various spellings of the same word, for example—indicate he may have dictated his translation to a scribe. Failing eyesight may have necessitated this. Collett also places Fox's translation in the context of others and concludes that he was not influenced...


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