- Women in the Medieval Monastic World eds. by Janet Burton and Karen Stöber
This excellent volume collects the work of fifteen scholars from ten countries who focus on subjects including history, spirituality, archeology, art, and architecture. It is not, as the editors put it, "a comprehensive history of female monasticism in medieval Europe" (p. 9) for good reasons that this brief review tries to demonstrate. Rather, the book presents new research, much of it quite exciting, from different eras across a wide swathe of Western Christendom.
The geographical scope ranges from Ireland to the west, Sweden to the north, Transylvania to the east, and Iberia and Italy to the south, and together the studies take in the entire Middle Ages, from the sixth century to the sixteenth. Most contributions have regional and chronological foci, even when regions are large and the time-span is in centuries. (The most notable exception is Anne Müller's discussion of the symbolic meanings of space, which ranges from the era of Caesarius of Arles to the thirteenth century, with examples from across western and central Europe.) Several themes emerge: the relationship of women and their communities to male authority figures, from the Mass priest to bishops and kings; the place of women's [End Page 802] communities within pan-European monastic federations, especially the Cistercians; patrons and patronage; the internal workings of nunneries and lived experience in the spaces within them; and women's contributions to monastic and other forms of cultural life.
Even in more focused studies, the accent is on diversity. Regarding Cistercian nuns in northern Italy, Guido Cariboni notes an "extreme variety […] of origins, social extractions, relations with the ecclesiastic structure, and aims" (p. 69), while Carmen Florea concludes that "Transylvanian women living in a monastic life in the Middle Ages … had several choices they could opt for when deciding to join a religious order" (p. 224). Sprinkled throughout are remarks with broad application, like Erin Jordan's bracing reminder, "Clearly, the physical presence of a woman was not in and of itself regarded as polluting. If so, nunneries would never have had patrons" (p. 294). And there are genuine insights, too, like Anne Müller's conclusion, "Social behavior, rituals, religious practice, art, and decoration (such as painting, wall hangings, pictures, and images), as well as atmospheric qualities … it was all of these elements combined that created the space of the religious, both male and female, and were vital for definitions of the sacred" (p. 320).
What generalizations can we draw? Very few, for reasons already alluded to and nicely summarized by the last two chapters of the book. Matthias Untermann examines placement of the choir in nuns' churches in the medieval German lands during the central Middle Ages. He finds no fewer than seven configurations, whereas for male communities, there were only three. To conclude the volume, Hedwig Röckelein offers an interim report on an evolving research tool on women's religious houses, "Female Monasticism's Database" (http:femmodata.uni.goettingen.de). This ambitious project aims to create a complete repertory of European women's monastic communities founded from ca. 400 to ca. 1500. There are already more than 3,000 entries, but Röckelein notes that "houses in the German-speaking part of Europe dominate the corpus of the database, while other European regions are underrepresented" (p. 358). She goes on to explain the kinds of information in each entry and plans for expansion and new research projects.
It says a great deal that my 1997 book on women's monasticism warrants exactly one mention in the entire book. The scholarship since has been plentiful and, as this collection demonstrates, extremely rich. Much wonderful work on the subject is being done—and much remains to be done. [End Page 803]