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book review, Women's Monasticism in Medieval Society

Poster: "Garrett, William" <WGarrett@sierrahealth.com>

> -----Original Message-----
> From:	tmr-l@wmich.edu [SMTP:tmr-l@wmich.edu]
> Sent:	Wednesday, October 21, 1998 9:17 AM
> To:	tmr-l@rigel.cc.wmich.edu
> Subject:	TMR 98.10.03, Venarde, Women's Monasticism and Medieval
> Society , (Porter)
> Bruce L. Venarde.  <i>Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society: 
> Nunneries in France and England, 890-1215</i>.  Ithaca: Cornell 
> University Press, 1997.  Pp. xvii, 243.  $42.50 (hb) ISBN 0-
> 801-43203-0.
>    Reviewed by J. M. B. Porter
> 	Adjunct Faculty, Franklin College, Franklin, Indiana and 
> 	  University of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana
> 	jporter@indy.net
> In <i>Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society</i>, Bruce 
> Venarde makes an important contribution to our understanding of 
> the origins, institutional development, and expansion of 
> nunneries in England and France during the twelfth century, a 
> period of dramatic increase in the number of monasteries for 
> both sexes.  He makes clear in his preface that this book is 
> not a comprehensive study of women's monasticism in the central 
> Middle Ages, and that he has chosen to "concentrate instead on 
> the processes surrounding the origins of monasteries for women, 
> their foundations, and, sometimes, their early history" (pp. 
> xii-xiii).  The availability of reliable contemporary sources 
> (or lack thereof) has rightly led him to focus on the practical 
> and managerial abilities of medieval nuns -- especially 
> abbesses -- instead of, say, the spirituality of medieval 
> religious women or their daily lives.
> Venarde's study is based on an extensive computer database of 
> monastic houses for women founded or refounded from the fifth 
> to the mid-fourteenth centuries in fifteen northwestern 
> European dioceses (essentially modern England and France), 
> although he limits his discussion of the last century of his 
> research to a brief epilogue.  This database allowed him to 
> identify and describe the changes in monastic foundation and 
> expansion throughout this period, which substantiates his 
> argument that the growth of women's monasticism occurred not in 
> the thirteenth century but instead between ca. 1080 and the 
> 1160s, an observation supported by David Knowles's figures for
> English nunneries.[[1]]
> To demonstrate that "the expansion of female monasticism in 
> this period was not simply a reflection of male-centered reform 
> monasticism" (p. 14), he differentiates between female-centered 
> monastic communities, such as Fontevraud and the Gilbertines, 
> and male-centered ones like the Cistercians and 
> Praemonstratensians.  Whilst the foundation of nunneries in the 
> eleventh and twelfth centuries was "to a considerable degree 
> independent of male-centered innovation" (p. 15), this is not 
> to say that the growth of women's monasticism in the first half 
> of the twelfth century should be completely isolated from the 
> monastic reform movements of the time, a point he acknowledges 
> in his conclusion, "it is no longer suitable to consider female 
> monasticism to have been outside the mainstream, especially in 
> the twelfth century" (p. 184).
> This statistical account of female monasticism is followed by a 
> discussion of the royal foundations of tenth and eleventh 
> century nunneries.  After a description of developments in late 
> Anglo-Saxon England and post-Carolingian Europe, he briefly 
> considers those women who lived "semi-formal" religious lives 
> in the eleventh century, which highlights the limited access 
> for women to traditional monasticism and the solutions they 
> created outside the traditional cenobitic framework.  The 
> foundation of Marcigny in 1055 by Cluny and Comps ca. 1052 by 
> Chaise-Dieu were the first nunneries with direct institutional 
> ties to self-conscious reform movements; their foundation 
> foreshadows the exponential growth of new monasteries for women 
> after 1080.  There are a number of similarities between 
> Marcigny and Comps and the houses for women founded in the wake 
> of the reform movements of the twelfth century, but Venarde 
> notes that we should not see them as part of a conscious reform 
> program by their parent (male-centered) monasteries.
> Venarde examines the era that saw the greatest expansion of 
> women's monasticism within his geographical boundaries, from 
> ca. 1080 to ca. 1170, in chapter 3.  He begins his survey of 
> the expansion of female monasticism in this period with western 
> France, where the inspirational and practical contributions of 
> hermits, bishops, and the lesser aristocracy were crucial to 
> the development of new monasteries for men and women.  In this 
> chapter and the one that follows, Venarde pays special 
> attention to Fontevraud, its daughter-houses, and its founder, 
> Robert of Arbrissel, whilst also examining the role of women 
> within the Praemonstratensian, Cistercian, and Gilbertine
> orders, as well as the nuns of the Paraclete. 
> Chapter 4, "Social and Economic Contexts in the Eleventh and 
> Twelfth Centuries," examines how the religious, social, 
> economic, and political changes of the late eleventh century 
> transformed monastic patronage from the largely royal and 
> princely foundations of the tenth and early eleventh centuries 
> discussed in chapter 2.  Venarde's analysis of the as yet
> unpublished Fontevraud cartulary makes clear that its early 
> development and subsequent expansion was the result of support 
> from a broad spectrum of society.[[2]]  As at many other 
> monasteries founded in the wake of the Gregorian reform, the 
> patronage of the lesser aristocracy was vital for Fontevraud's 
> foundation, early development, and subsequent expansion.  
> Modest initial grants by colourfully-named local landowners 
> (including Jerorius Fat Lips, Ogerius Sword-Rattler, Geoffrey 
> Bad Monk, and Raginald Who Folds Up Peasants [p. 110]) were 
> crucial to Fontevraud's early survival, for it was not until 
> Bertrada of Montfort (the mother of Fulk V of Anjou) became a 
> nun in 1108 that the influence of the upper nobility was felt 
> at Fontevraud.
> His final substantive chapter explores the sharp decline in new 
> foundations of monastic houses for women, ca. 1170 - ca. 1215. 
> Venarde's statistics show that this decline began just after 
> 1150 in continental Europe and in the late 1160s in England. 
> Those nunneries that were founded tended to be located in 
> isolated or marginal areas, and without adequate economic
> resources; donors also had begun to change the emphasis of 
> their giving from the outright donation of land to the direct 
> and indirect produce of that land.  Venarde uses the charters 
> of Montazais, a Fontevrist daughter-house in Poitou, to 
> illustrate the economic difficulties faced by late twelfth-
> century rural nuns.  Their straightened resources are revealed 
> in their charters, where leases and tributes replace the land 
> donations and purchases that their mother-house was able to 
> undertake in the earlier part of the century.
> Foundations after 1215 are briefly treated in the epilogue, and 
> in his final pages, he suggests a number of ways in which his 
> findings might apply to the study of medieval monasticism in 
> general.  He calls for a reassessment of twelfth-century 
> monastic life to take into account our better understanding
> of social, economic, and cultural change, and he questions the
> appropriateness of "reform" as an "adequate description, 
> explanation, or analysis of the growth of ... monasticism" (p. 
> 184), instead urging us to adopt Giles Constable's paradigm of 
> diversity and pluralism.[[3]]
> There are two appendices.  Appendix A is a handlist of 
> nunneries founded between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, 
> based on Venarde's larger computer database that provided the 
> framework for this book.  His task was complicated not just by 
> the scarce and incomplete nature of the records, but also by 
> linguistic confusion over the exact meaning of 
> <i>prioratus</i>, <i>obedientia</i>, and <i>ecclesia</i> during 
> (and after) the twelfth century.  Venarde makes clear that this 
> list is not exhaustive; indeed, it was constructed in such a 
> way as to not exaggerate the "immense expansion" in monastic 
> houses for women founded in the twelfth century.  He excluded
> nonconventual priories -- for example, a number of twelfth-
> century Fontevrist possessions listed as "priories" in Jean-
> Marc Bienvenu's repertory of Fontevrist houses (which does not 
> differentiate between conventual and non-conventual priories) 
> are not included.[[4]]  Whilst I would have preferred that 
> these priories were included in the handlist (although 
> indicated as such and excluded from the statistical 
> calculations), he has created a valuable resource for the 
> monastic historian, providing a Continental companion to Sally 
> Thompson's compilation of English nunneries[[5]] and Knowles 
> and Hadcock's recently re-issued <i>Medieval Religious 
> Houses</i>.  The handlist shows its origins as a computerized 
> database: dioceses are assigned numerical codes instead of 
> being named, and the sudden appearance of endnotes instead of 
> footnotes (itself no doubt the result of its computer origins) 
> requires a great deal of turning back and forth, as much useful
> information is relegated to the endnotes.  Given the importance 
> of Fontevraud in Venarde's analysis of charters and other 
> source material, it is somewhat surprising to see that although 
> Praemonstratensian nunneries are usually identified as such in 
> the notes to his handlist, other orders -- most notably, 
> Fontevraud and the Cistercians -- are not. 
> Appendix B, "Diocesan Centers and Other Cities," is a list of 
> cities -- mainly, but not exclusively, episcopal sees -- during 
> the period covered in Appendix A.
> [[1]] David Knowles and R. N. Hadcock, <i>Medieval Religious 
> Houses, England and Wales</i> (London, 1971) 489-95.
> [[2]] Jean-Marc Bienvenu is preparing an edition for the 
> Presses Universitaires d'Angers.
> [[3]] Giles Constable, "The Diversity of Religious Life and the 
> Acceptance of Social Pluralism in the Twelfth Century," in 
> <i>History, Society, and the Churches</i>, edd. Derek Beales 
> and Geoffrey Best (Cambridge, 1985) 29-47. 
> [[4]] Jean-Marc Bienvenu, "L'Expansion Fontevriste: Les 
> prieures fontevristes en France" <i>Fontevraud: Histoire-
> Archeologie</i> 2 (1994) 107-112.
> [[5]] Sally Thompson, <i>Women Religious: The Founding of 
> English Nunneries after the English Conquest</i> (Oxford, 1991) 
> 217-232.
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