Nuns’ Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Antwerp Dialogue

By Julie Somers

Against the backdrop of the beautiful convent of the Grauwzusters in Antwerp, Belgium the third and final interdisciplinary conference on ‘Nun’s Literacies’ took place June 4 – 7, 2013. Brought together by the pursuit to uncover the literary culture of medieval nuns, scholars (including me!) from a variety of countries presented their research on the texts nuns wrote, read and exchanged ranging from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries. Connected by the thread of textual transmission, many papers spoke to the rich networks that medieval nuns cultivated which in turn revealed various reading practices throughout the centuries.

Convent of the Grauwzusters

Convent of the Grauwzusters

Several of the papers focused on the book culture of Birgittine nuns. Anne Mette Hansen (Københavns Universitet) presented ‘Nuns’ Prayers in the Birgittine Abbey of Maribo’ and Eva Sandgren (Upppsala Universitet) spoke on the ‘Birgittine Diffusion of Design: The Circulation of Ideas of Form in some Birgittine Convents’, while a third paper by Mary Erler (Fordham University), kindly presented by Veronica O’Mara, discussed the ‘Transmission of Birgittine Images from Flanders to England’. All three papers concentrated on the transmission of books and the influence of contacts with other Birgittine houses on the physical appearance of images and texts.

There were also a number of papers on the book culture of Franciscan tertiary sisters in the sixteenth century with a presentation by Almut Breitenbach (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen) and Stefan Matter (Universität Freiburg) titled ‘Image, Text and the Sisters’ Minds: Franciscan Tertiaries Rewriting Stephan Fridolin’s “Schatzbehalter”’. Sabrina Corbellini (Universiteit Groningen) spoke about ‘Literacy, Books and Reading in Communities of Tertiaries: the Informieringheboeck by Jan de Wael (1510)’, while Alison More (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen) presented her paper ‘Identity, Preaching and Literacy: The Emergence of a Textual Identity in Houses of Franciscan Tertiary Women’. Each presentation brought to light the individual choices made by women in regard to reading preferences, whether through adaptation or reception of a text.

Further exploring the networks of nuns’ textual transmission, Anne Jenny-Clark’s (Universite de Lille, 3) presentation on ‘The Noble Women’s Chapter of Sainte-Waudru’s Collegiate in Mons (Hainaut): The Transmission of Books between Canonesses’ traced the textual evidence of books passed down by canonesses to other female members of the chapter. Melissa Moreton (University of Iowa) discussed ‘Exchange and Alliance: The Sharing and Gifting of Books in Women’s Houses in Late Medieval Italy’ where she examined the alliances formed within and between women’s houses through the activity of book exchange.

As the conference title suggests, the literacy of medieval nuns was a primary topic and Helene Scheck (University of Albany) in her paper ‘Aristotle at Gandersheim’ considered the books likely available to nuns in tenth-century Gandersheim, Germany, and their influence on women’s learning and literacy. Similarly, Julie Smith (University of Sydney) spoke of the foundational texts that shaped the reading practices of Clarissan nuns in the thirteenth century in her paper ‘Faciat eas litteras edoceri: Literacy and Learning in the Clarissan formae vitae’. Blanca Gari (Universitat de Barcelona) uncovered the vernacular reading development of nuns in Spain during the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries in her presentation, ‘What did the Catalan Nuns Read? Women’s Literacy in the Monasteries of Catalonia, Valencia, and Mallorca’.

Finally, the scribal activity of medieval nuns was examined by Veronica O’Mara (University of Hull) in her presentation on ‘Investigating the Texts in Nuns’ Manuscripts in Late Medieval England’ where she compared devotional texts written and/or composed by women in the late fifteenth century while Patricia Stoop (Universiteit Antwerpen) discussed the ‘The Teaching of the Young: The Middle Dutch Sermon Collections from the Cartusian Convent of Sint-Anna-ter-Woestijne near Bruges’, where she explored the formation of a female scribal redactor and her influence on manuscripts used for the teaching of young sisters. Further, I, Julie Somers (Universiteit Leiden) presented ‘The Butcher, the Baker and the Manuscript Maker: Nuns’ Role in Twelfth-Century Textual Production’ where I focused on the physical features of manuscripts produced by nun-scribes in twelfth-century Germany.

Detail of Folio 61r, The Burnet Psalter (MS 25), University of Aberdeen

Detail of Folio 61r, The Burnet Psalter (MS 25), University of Aberdeen

In all, four days of enlightening and wonderfully presented papers, this conference brought together international scholars with the purpose of furthering our understanding of nuns’ literacies in the middle ages. It was a wonderful experience to participate in this conference and develop my own network through academic exchange with the great group of delegates who attended. To learn more, summaries of all the presentations and the program with a full list of titles are available on the website. Also, a published volume of the papers presented will be forthcoming from Brepols Publishers. The first volume, ‘The Hull Dialogue’ is already available for purchase.

The first conference on ‘Nuns’ Literacies in Medieval Europe’ took place at the University of Hull from 20–23 June 2011, the second was hosted by the University of Missouri-Kansas City from 5–8 June 2012, and the third was organized at the Ruusbroec Institute of the Universiteit Antwerpen from 4–7 June 2013.

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