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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 350-351
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Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England
Spiritual Economies: Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England. By Nancy Bradley Warren. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2001. Pp. xi, 276. $55.00.)
Medieval religious women—nuns, anchoresses, vowesses, and lay women like Margery Kemp—have increasingly drawn the attention of a range of scholars. Jettisoning the long-standing, often negative views of medieval religious women's lives and influences, Constance Berman, Roberta Gilchrist, Sharon Elkins, Penny Johnson, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, to name just a few, have re-examined evidence and reinterpreted literary sources to put religious women back into the cultural, religious, and social contexts of the medieval world.
Into this revitalized world of scholarship comes Nancy Bradley Warren with her book, Spiritual Economies, which is an analytical study of the "symbolic and spiritual capital" of medieval religious women. This capital could allow nuns to construct gendered and often oppositional identities within the monastic world, and anchoresses and lay women to construe empowered identities which affected not only literary culture but also influenced some of the biggest political campaigns of later medieval England. [End Page 350]
Does this study sound ambitious? It is, but by and large, Warren makes her case. The issues she engages and the terms she employs throughout this study to describe how the identities of nuns and their culture influenced the wider world of religious women in England are set out in her examination of the spiritual and economic vitality of the Dominican convent of Dartford. When discussing the nuns of Dartford and their involvement in textual, political, and material economies where their identities were mechanisms of exchange with those around them, Warren is on firm practical grounds. She then proceeds to more theoretical discussions of the identities available to nuns through profession rituals and monastic rules. She analyzes not only the Benedictine Rule, under which most houses of nuns in medieval England functioned, but also the rules governing the houses of Poor Clares and Syon Abbey, the only Brigittine monastery for nuns in England. Her critical reading of the vernacular translations of these rules shows that English versions of the Benedictine Rule were less empowering for nuns than were the rules written for the Poor Clares and Brigittine nuns.
Warren then builds on her survey of Dartford and her analyses of visitation records, profession vows, and monastic rules to look at how the identities, images, and values contained therein influenced women's lives outside the cloister. Engaging an impressive array of literary and royal documents, she shows how female monastic identity influenced politics and later medieval religious culture. Using Margery Kemp and Emma Roughton as examples of women who marketed their "symbolic and spiritual capital" to influence those around them, Warren also notes that religious women's images and power could be double-edged, working against them as well as in their favor. Her readings of several literary texts similarly note the multivalent and often contradictory ideas about female spiritual identity that they contained. Especially interesting is her analysis of how both Edward IV and Henry V utilized female saints, such as St. Anne and the Virgin Mary, and images of female sanctity to legitimize their claims to the throne.
While medieval nuns may not have actually seen themselves as possessing the kind of identity or wielding the kind of power Warren suggests, Spiritual Economies is a most welcome addition to the study of religious women in later medieval England. It offers a fresh perspective in which to view nuns, anchoresses, vowesses, and religious lay women, and hopefully will encourage others to view female spirituality in the later Middle Ages in new ways.