- Reading and Writing during the Dissolution: Monks, Friars, and Nuns 1530–1558 by Mary C. Erler
With its six compact chapters and 143 pages of text, this is a slim volume. But in this case at least, the materiality of the book is misleading. As we might expect from Mary C. Erler, Reading and Writing during the Dissolution is a rich, detailed, and nuanced contribution.
The chapters divide easily into three pairs. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on London religious. First to be considered is Simon Appulby, the last anchorite of All Hallows, London Wall, and his Fruyte of Redempcyon (London, 1514), “a final conservative statement in the centuries-old debate about lay scriptural access” (p. 15). Looking back to Nicholas Love’s late-medieval Mirror, Erler here traces continuity—in anchoritic living, but also in patterns of devotion and book ownership—from the fifteenth century to St. Ignatius Loyola. The companion chapter is an account of the “Greyfriars Chronicle”: notes written by a Franciscan of the London convent covering the whole of the crucial period 1538–56. The “Chronicle” itself is oddly noncommittal on all the changes of the period, but what emerges most clearly from a fine-grained discussion of the former friars, their milieu, and their associates is the range of religious positions still possible in the 1530s and 1540s.
For the next pair of chapters, Erler is on the familiar ground of women and piety, with a set of case studies of nuns and former nuns linked by their connections to, and correspondence with, Thomas Cromwell. Again, the range of doctrinal sympathies (from traditional to evangelical) is marked. In chapter 3, Erler explores how each of four abbesses who saw their houses closed down in the 1530s maintained (or re-created) a sense of community, interweaving family ties with those to former monastic colleagues. Chapter 4 is dedicated to a single woman, Margaret Vernon—a career monastic superior, a close friend of Cromwell, and an intimate of his circle; her letters reveal “a powerful and attractive personality” (p. 105) and a set of administrative skills to match.
The final pair of chapters adds a European dimension to the discussion. Chapter 5 traces the engagement of English nuns with continental spirituality both before the dissolution and after, when women like Dorothy and Margaret Clement (at Louvain) and Katherine Palmer (with the Bridgettines of Syon at Dendermonde) found themselves, as a by-product of their exile, close to the centers of the latest currents of Catholic spirituality. Palmer and Dorothy Clement were the dedicatees of the Spirituall Exercyses published in 1557 by William Peryn, probably the [End Page 937] earliest example of Ignatian spirituality in English. For her last chapter, Erler returns to male religious, with a study of the last publication of Richard Whitford (brother of Syon), which was printed in 1541, two years after the closure of his house. Whitford has been much studied of late, but Erler valuably places his efforts in the context of continental printing projects that promoted Catholic reform, notably those emanating from the Carthusians of Cologne (Denys Rykiel’s house).
The book concludes with thirty-five pages of appendices, offering summaries and transcriptions of some of the key documents and texts that underpin the foregoing analyses. There is no formal conclusion and only a summary introduction. Erler eschews grand methodological or historiographical statements, although the modestly expressed “I have regularly thought of bibliography as a way of exploring lives” (p. 2) could define the work of a scholar whose richly textured investigations (unlike some book history) always seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts. In her study, the Dissolution (like the larger Reformation) emerges not as a one-off event, but a generation of upheaval and uncertainty. As Erler comments of Richard Whitford, “he was involved in a process, one whose resolution was by no means visible” (p. 141). To read this book is to immerse oneself in...