- Sacred Communities, Shared Devotions: Gender, Material Culture, and Monasticism in Late Medieval Germany by June L. Mecham
All books are intended to be dialogical, communicating between authors and readers and furthering scholarly exchange. This book, however, exceeds expectations in that it incorporates history with art history, church history, literary history, and musicology. An eager intellectual curiosity and hunger to avail herself of everything written within and about late-medieval women’s monasticism appears to [End Page 919] have motivated this researcher. Rather than simply following the well-trodden paths of past scholarship, Mecham explores a wide range of source material traditionally belonging to different disciplines in an attempt to find new answers.
The book begins with sad information: In the acknowledgments from 2009, June Mecham anticipates that she will not live to see the book in print and thanks Lisa Bitel, Constance Berman, and Alison Beach for agreeing to shepherd the manuscript through to publication. In a second note, dated 2011, Bitel states that the three editors have attempted to preserve Mecham’s voice. As a reader who consulted the University Microfilms International copy of the dissertation that served as the basis for this book, this reviewer must express appreciation that the author and editors succeeded in transforming a weighty and detailed elaboration into a nuanced and very readable book.
Chapter 1 introduces the “heath” convents that are central to Mecham’s work on the “multifaceted piety and devotional practices of religious women.” Justifying this focus on the abundance of visual and textual source material, she hones in on six nunneries: Ebstorf, Lüne, Walsrode, Isenhagen, Medingen, and Wienhausen, all of which flourished on the low flat plane of the Lüneburger Heide during the late Middle Ages. Wienhausen becomes the primary focus—perhaps because of its largely extant architectural complex; its wealth of artistic furnishings, much of which is still in situ; its rich textual sources, some of which are available in published and edited form; and the plenitude of studies undertaken by Horst Appuhn and other German cultural historians. Mecham also draws on comparative material from other women’s foundations in the vicinity and cast her net even wider, when appropriate, to gather comparanda from monasteries as distant as Italy.
Introducing the houses, Mecham delves into the individual histories and networks that connected them to noble and patristic families. She likewise acquaints readers with the observant reform movement that occurred between 1470 and 1500, which called for stricter claustration and shunning of personal property to further the contemplative life. Here, Mecham presents her main thesis, which she argues throughout the study: that religious women of the heath carried out their own reform by commissioning, making, and using objects and places.
Chapter 2 explores nuns’ performative devotions, centering on the Easter liturgy at Wienhausen. The particulars of these rituals have been the subject of much debate. Mecham proposes that clergy, lay folk, and nuns enacted these rituals together in the nave of the main church. More convincing is her observation that the (women’s) work of anointing Christ’s body—like the nuns’ responsibilities in fashioning textiles—was a devotional act.
Chapter 3 addresses the visual arts, pointing to figurines of the infant Christ and considering the famous collection of devotional items recovered from under the floor boards of nuns’ choirs. Chapter 4 explores the financial world of women who negotiated the realms between their vows of poverty and the necessity to provide for their own sustenance. Mecham claims that some nuns actually retained legal [End Page 920] ownership of private property and personal annuities, which they used to support monastic reform. Chapter 5, on nuns’ spaces, explores the anecdote in a chronicle regarding Abbess Katharina von Hoya of Wienhausen, who transformed her own substantial quarters into a chapel, generously endowed it, and provided the situation through which an indulgence was offered, which lured...