Sacred Communities, Shared Devotions: Gender, Material Culture, and Monasticism in Late Medieval Germany by June L. Mecham
This important study of several late medieval communities of nuns living on the Lüneburg Heath in north-western Germany takes its place in an expanding field of studies and publications focused on the lives and religious culture of vowed religious women. Sadly, June Mecham left her text incomplete when she died from cancer in 2009. Three friends and colleagues, Alison Beach, Constance Berman, and Lisa Bitel, undertook to bring the book to publication in tribute to a life cut short.
The title Sacred Communities, Shared Devotions crisply states Mecham’s central argument: common tastes in liturgy, art, and devotional reading among half a dozen convents created a shared culture which Mecham has [End Page 393] documented in the sources. A focus on the objects, texts, and surviving material structures leads Mecham to conclude that these played a larger role in creating networks among the communities than did the monastic traditions to which the six heath communities belonged.
This engaging exploration of the Lüneburg convents combines traditional historical methods with innovative ones like gender analysis and performance theory. Mecham’s command of voluminous sources in several languages never overwhelms her task of discerning how visual art and material culture conveyed these women’s religious and cultural experiences. The themes and tropes the nuns drew on to sustain their devotional lives confirm that these women firmly embraced the familiar hallmarks of late medieval spirituality. As several chapters reveal, bridal imagery and Marian iconography feature in devotional texts, liturgies, paintings, and embroideries.
Conceptually, the book relies on an argument first made by Caroline Walker Bynum over thirty years ago: late medieval women’s view of their world was framed and filtered through their own bodily and social experiences. What is refreshing and instructive in Mecham’s work is her insistence that conventual constraints and the absence of dramatic events in the historic record do not diminish the innate value of these sources. Instead, as she astutely argues in her chapter on responses to reform, readings rooted primarily in the contexts of the women’s lives offer potentially richer, even more nuanced interpretations of the sources.
Unfortunately, the generally poor quality of reproductions prevents the reader from assessing Mecham’s claims for the visual impact of the works in question. Too many of the black-and-white illustrations are either too small or too indistinct to permit close analysis by the reader. Nonetheless, this book shows how visual evidence can be used to broaden and deepen textual approaches to this period.