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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 329-331
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Volume I: The Disappearance of Nuns from Anglo-Saxon England;
Volume II: Female Religious Communities in England, 871-1066
Veiled Women. Volume I: The Disappearance of Nuns from Anglo-Saxon England; Volume II: Female Religious Communities in England, 871-1066. By Sarah Foot. [Studies in Early Medieval Britain, 1.] (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate. 2000. Pp. xvii, 228; xii, 274. $79.95 each volume.)
Sarah Foot's survey of Anglo-Saxon religious women includes a first volume that analyzes their historical (or historiographical) "disappearance" after 800 and a second volume that offers an extremely valuable repertory of women's communities. Aimed at an audience of informed but not specialist readers, Foot's project purports to provide the "first convincing explanation for the evanescence of so many of the institutions of female religion in the early Middle Ages" (p. vii). Foot has selected an appropriate readership, for her argument does not contain much that is new for historians of Christian women. Her explanation of changes in religious communities is not entirely convincing either, but her method with the English sources may be instructive to Continental historians.
As Foot points out, sources for the study of English nuns are scanty, especially for the reform period (late Anglo-Saxon period) of 900-1066. Bede, the vita of Leoba, other Bonifacian material, the Mildrith legend, and council and charter evidence record the vibrant spiritual life of religious women in the seventh and eighth centuries. But the few, famous double-houses of male and female religious run by royal women eventually declined with the political dynasties that founded them. Historians from Dugdale onward have tended to use these famous early minsters and their documents as models for later religious communities; scholars have judged the success of later religious foundations by comparison with these pre-Viking houses. The charters and other texts of ninth-century and later England focus on powerful and well-funded houses, normally of men; so historians have concluded that religious women disappeared in the ninth century. While women's houses seem to have resurfaced after the Norman conquest, scholars have found little continuity in the history of women's communities before and after the Viking invasions and religious reforms of the tenth century. [End Page 329]
Foot argues that religious women continued to create communities between the ninth and eleventh centuries, but that we have failed to see them in the sources. She calls for renewed scrutiny of the vocabulary of religious life and for a new look at a variety of documents. Cloistered communities of women did not attract royal support or endowment in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Women's communities did not appear in documents recording property transactions, nor did communities have the wealth to generate charters of their own. In addition, women's religious communities were not always identified as such in the texts; sometimes writers identified religious foundations as monasteria, mynsters without specifying the gender of inhabitants. In addition, religious women lived on what historians have taken for "secular" estates, rendering them invisible to scholars searching for nunneries. Most important, Foot argues, women in Anglo-Saxon England practiced religion in "fluid and diverse modes of expression" (p. 1) that are impossible for historians to recover fully. Women lived as vowesses or religious widows in their own homes or the homes of others. Their communities had life-cycles, just as did religious women themselves; communities of vowesses might last only for the lifetime of their foundresses. All these historical conditions contributed to the so-called historical disappearance of English religious women from the sources.
The trouble is, according to Foot, that we are still looking for cloistered Benedictine women whereas Anglo-Saxon women maintained a variety of religious roles in the reform period. Foot argues that we must conceive of two parallel frameworks for the lives of religious women: Benedictine cloistered women (muncenas, mynecenas) in exclusive endowed foundations, on the one hand, and on the other hand, virgin or widowed vowesses (nunnes, nonnae) in less formal communities. Stray references from witness...