An Introduction to RECIRC: The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550-1700

The RECIRC project is one of the largest digital humanities projects in Ireland. Funded by the European Research Council, the project has its home at the National University of Ireland, Galway, located on the west coast of Ireland, where it is led by Professor Marie-Louise Coolahan. It began in 2014 and is currently in year three of what is a five year project. Currently the team consists of three post-doctoral researchers and two affiliated PhD students; although at its height between 2015 and 2016 the team comprised ten members.

The RECIRC team (December 2015)

The project is fundamentally an evaluation of how women’s writing was received and circulated in the early modern English-speaking world.

The key questions its asking are:

• How did texts by women circulate?
• Which female authors were read?
• How did women build reputations as writers in the early modern period?

The project’s scope incorporates female writers whose works were read or circulated in Britain and Ireland during the early modern period. Thus RECIRC is not solely limited to authors who wrote in English; we’re also interested in continental European authors whose works were read or received in the English-speaking world. For example, the Life of the Spanish Carmelite and mystic Teresa of Avila which was translated into English in 1642 by the English courtier and author, Tobie Matthew (1577-1655).

The flaming hart, or, the life of the glorious S. Teresa, translated by Tobie Matthew (Antwerp, 1642); EBBO, Wing / 1052:06.

The RECIRC project is organised into four interlocking work-packages:

Work Package 1; ‘Transnational Religious Networks’ - investigates the reception and circulation of women’s writing within and between English convents that were founded on the Continent during the seventeenth century.
Work Package 2; ‘The International Republic of Letters’ - analyses the international republic of letters as a locus for the circulation of texts by women.
Work Package 3; ‘The Manuscript Miscellany’ - addresses the reception of women’s writing in early modern manuscript culture; and finally
Work Package 4; ‘Book/Manuscript Ownership’ - maps the transmission of female-authored texts by focusing on early modern library catalogues.

The data:

The first two and a half years of the project was dedicated to data-gathering. During this time the RECIRC team visited more than twelve libraries and archives spread across no less than six different countries gathering reception evidence. That data was subsequently entered into a custom-built online database, designed in collaboration with David Kelly, research technologist affiliated to the project.

In designing the online RECIRC database (intended for public access at the project’s close), we devised a taxonomy of reception, categories that run from adaptation through to translation, all explicitly defined.

Screenshot, RECIRC database

We define reception as a record of engagement with a female author and/or her work.1 For example, in his large-scale martyrology composed between 1707 and 1711, the English Benedictine monk, Ralph Weldon, referred to the ‘several books of Collections’ and ‘spiritual Songs’ written by Anne Cary, in religion Sr Clementia, (1615-26). Anne Cary professed at the English Benedictine convent in Cambrai, Spanish Flanders in 1640 and was later instrumental in establishing a sister house of English Benedictine nuns at Paris. She is just one of 182 female authors in our database who are nuns.

Weldon’s martyrology is just one example of the kind of material the RECIRC team has been mining in order to understand what prompted women to write, and how such texts were read and circulated. The by-product of this kind of research is the discovery of new texts; without Weldon’s chronicling activities, we would not know about these works by Anne Cary or other English Benedictine nuns (you can read more about the reception of Anne Cary’s work by Weldon here).

'Weldon's Memorials', II, 406. Copyright Douai Abbey, Woolhampton, UK

During the data gathering phase of the project we’ve amassed a lot of data — we currently have 4,452 examples of the reception or circulation of a female author and/or her work. Our mid-term period was dedicated to data-cleaning to ensure accuracy across the board. Now we’re turning our attention to data analysis!

The analysis:

Over the past six months, the team have been testing out various digital tools in order to analyse and visualise the data we’ve gathered thus far. One method I’ve been experimenting with for Work Package 1 data is network analysis. What do I mean when I say network analysis and what is a network?

A network, in the most abstract sense, is a collection of something you’ve defined as nodes (for example, people) that are connected by relationships or associations of some kind (known as ‘edges’). In a correspondence network, for example, the nodes are people and the edges are letters exchanged between them. Once you’ve represented any real world scenario – whether current or historical – in terms of nodes and edges you can then take a whole range of mathematical tools from the field of network analysis to analyse the properties of these nodes and edges.

While network analysis tools have long been used in disciplines such as sociology, mathematics and physics, they are only recently making an impact in the disciplines of English and History.2 Three scholars who have been leading the way in terms of applying network analysis tools to early modern sources are Ruth and Sebastian Ahnert3 and Evan Bourke4 (Evan is one of the PhD students affiliated to the RECIRC project).

Archive of the Archdiocese of Mechelen (AAM), Belgium

Studies such as theirs have demonstrated the value of using network analysis tools especially when dealing with large data-sets as they allow you to take a step back, look at the archive as a whole and find over-arching trends or areas that have perhaps been overlooked by traditional scholarship.

In applying network analysis tools to WP1 data, I have focused initially on a large body of correspondence composed by members of the English Benedictine convent in Brussels, founded in 1598 by Lady Mary Percy (c.1570-1642). These letters, which are now held in the archive of the archdiocese of Mechelen in Belgium were written by members of the Brussels community to the archbishops of Mechelen and their secretaries.

From this collection of correspondence the RECIRC database holds records on 353 letters spanning a 64-year period between 1609 and 1673. The data gathered from these 353 letters has in turn generated 1,024 instances of reception.

My application of network analysis to WP1 data is at a very early stage. Initial results are intriguing for what they reveal about the number and variety of people within the Brussels community correspondence network and hence how widely the nuns’ writing was circulated. Furthermore, the prominence of collaborative authorship within the epistolary culture of the Brussels convent is another compelling finding which requires further probing. Watch this space!

Brussels Benedictines Correspondence Network

You can follow the project on Twitter (@RECIRC_) or join our mailing list by visiting our website.

1 RECIRC Database Manual, p. 8.

2 Just last month (October 2017) saw the launch of the Journal of Historical Network Research, a new journal dedicated to promoting research that combines historical research and network analysis.

3 Ruth Ahnert and Sebastian E. Ahnert, ‘Protestant Letter Networks in the Reign of Mary I: A Quantitative Approach’, English Literary History (2015); Ruth Ahnert, ‘Maps Versus Networks’ in Noah Moxham and Joad Raymond (eds), News Networks in Early Modern Europe (Brill, 2016), 131-157; Ruth Ahnert and Sebastian E. Ahnert, ‘Reconstructing Correspondence Networks in the State Papers Archive’, unpublished paper delivered at ‘Reception, Reputation and Circulation’ international conference held at the National University of Ireland, Galway in March 2017: a podcast of the paper is available here.

4 Evan Bourke, ‘Female Involvement, Membership and Centrality: A Social Network Analysis of the Hartlib Circle’, Literature Compass (2017); available (by subscription) at:

Bronagh Ann McShane


Aunque históricamente las mujeres han tenido especiales dificultades en el acceso y tenencia de un patrimonio propio, ello no fue así en determinados tiempos y espacios. Es el caso de la Edad Media. Los monasterios, por ejemplo, pudieron ser plataformas de promoción y poder económico. Cierto que la economía de la vida monástica se cifraba en la pobreza individual y la propiedad común. Pero la sociedad y la Iglesia aceptaron que este patrimonio, además de asegurar el funcionamiento de las instituciones, pudiese otorgarles poder y preeminencia. Incluso aceptaron el origen y desarrollo de la propiedad privada de los individuos aun cuando con ello se incumpliesen el carisma espiritual y la normativa regular.

El fenómeno de las monjas propietarias figura frecuentemente asociado al desarrollo de estructuras de poder y autonomía femeninos. Vamos a mostrarlo aquí empleando la rica información aportada por un monasterio concreto en su realidad local: Santa Clara de Córdoba.

Se trató de una fundación real impulsada por el rey de Castilla Alfonso X el Sabio, que encomendó su ejecución al arcediano don Miguel Díaz. En 1268 surgía una entidad rica, privilegiada y vinculada al poder. Los reyes le otorgaron protección y privilegios y fue estrecha la conexión con los poderes urbanos. Las monjas ejercían una función público-cívica al rezar por la monarquía y el gobierno concejil, lo cual repercutía en beneficio y honra de la ciudad. También el reclutamiento monástico estuvo en conexión con los poderes fácticos urbanos, oficiales del concejo y canónigos.

El origen de la propiedad privada debió estar conectado con el peso de los poderes político-religiosos en la definición del derecho de herencia de las monjas y la organización de la vida económica de los monasterios. Los papas marcaron directrices en la Orden de Santa Clara reconociendo a monasterios concretos el derecho de sus monjas a recibir su herencia incluso tras la profesión. Este mismo planteamiento fue seguido por los reyes en su interés por asegurar las bases económicas de los monasterios femeninos. En el privilegio otorgado por Sancho IV a la comunidad cordobesa en 1284, las monjas obtenían licencia para adquirir bienes raíces por donación o compra y veían reconocido su derecho a heredar tras la profesión.

Para llegar a la completa privatización patrimonial, sin embargo, se siguió un proceso en el que debieron incidir decisivamente tanto la gran crisis del siglo XIV como la progresiva aristocratización sociopolítica urbana. Las primeras referencias seguras se retrasan al último tercio de esta centuria. La existencia de monjas propietarias coincidió con el desarrollo de un peculiar régimen monástico. En un contexto de definición aristocrática y progresivo incremento del poder económico y político nobiliario, el monasterio de Santa Clara ofrece un paralelo de intensificación del control material por parte de las monjas a su vez sintonizado con su propia aristocratización comunitaria.

El régimen de propiedad privada no conllevó la pérdida de conciencia comunitaria ni significó una autonomía completa de la monja con efectos disgregadores sobre la familia monástica. Lo que había eran propietarias individuales en el marco general de la persona jurídica comunitaria que era el monasterio. Se distinguía entre propiedad privada y común y, aunque las monjas gozaban de capacidades autónomas en el disfrute y distribución de sus bienes, mostraban conciencia de interés común. De hecho, el monasterio se sostenía sobre este modelo de propiedad de auto-alimentación material, básicamente fundado en los aportes de las monjas: donaciones de entrada tipificadas como dotes, herencias y otros aportes efectuados en vida y que podían ser fruto de su actividad personal de gestión e incremento patrimonial. Las donaciones de monjas podían beneficiar a otras en una dimensión retributiva o de caridad intracomunitaria que revela la existencia de solidaridades internas. Estos traspasos eran supervisados por la autoridad conventual, es decir, los vínculos personales especiales entre las religiosas no eludían el lazo de la familia espiritual ni el concepto comunitario. Por otra parte, la destinataria de las cesiones podía ser también la comunidad misma.

Este circuito de auto-alimentación material contribuye a explicar los aspectos de autosuficiencia económica propios de Santa Clara y su peculiar estructuración de las redes de transmisión de bienes. Además del gran peso de las donaciones de monjas y su variedad tipológica, el menor peso de las fundaciones litúrgicas perpetuas, los enterramientos y encargos de misas. Explica también una gestión económica orientada hacia la eficacia y la rentabilidad en abierto contraste con el panorama monástico femenino general. Hubo coordinación frecuente entre la actividad particular y los intereses comunitarios, de modo que el monasterio desarrolló una política adquisitiva que complementaba las iniciativas de sus monjas con las de la comunidad; las primeras bascularon hacia los bienes más rentables o las áreas en crecimiento mientras el segundo intervenía cuando la seguridad estaba garantizada o bien aquéllas cubrían los huecos cronológicos de éste. El dinamismo adquisitivo y el afán especulativo mostrado por las monjas a título particular no halla paralelo en otros cenobios.

El monasterio desarrolló un sistema organizativo propio. La cúpula comunitaria se organizó como oligarquía monástica, grupo rector con tendencias al monopolio y la perpetuación en el cargo. Surgió así un cuerpo de élite, aristocrático e inmovilista, al frente de las principales funciones de gobierno. Ello condujo a prácticas individualistas, sobre todo en los oficios más importantes. Las abadesas y otras monjas nobles debieron hacer vida independiente, situación favorecida por la inobservancia de clausura; tenían criadas o podían recibir licencia para residir fuera del monasterio durante períodos de diversa extensión a fin de gestionar sus bienes o atender sus enfermedades.

Junto a la jerarquización interna, sociológica y de oficio, otro aspecto característico fue el peso de los vínculos consanguíneos. Las monjas favorecían con sus bienes el ingreso de sus parientas –frecuentemente sobrinas–, saltando por encima de otros posibles intereses familiares y, acaso, apoyando el deseo de éstas o sus necesidades. El gran peso del vínculo consanguíneo, sumado a la capacidad de propiedad privada y al sistema de ayudas intracomunitarias, dio lugar a numerosos subgrupos internos de dos o tres monjas que podían involucrarse en negocios o proyectos comunes –incluso nuevas fundaciones monásticas– y que debieron dar gran cabida a lo afectivo y a las prácticas de autoridad. Esto sin duda favoreció los particularismos. Mas, aunque se desgajaran del conjunto comunitario, acaso un microcosmos demasiado amplio y complejo, no parecen haber perdido el sentido de comunidad.

El contacto con los parientes de sangre fue muy frecuente. La posición de las monjas fue de protagonismo activo, igualitario y autónomo, situación en la que estuvieron apoyadas por la comunidad monástica. Este sistema alternativo de solidaridades radicó en una medida importante en la dimensión económica: las monjas eran receptoras de ayudas materiales familiares y mantenían contactos económicos habituales con sus parientes, a los que beneficiaban con sus bienes. Se revela el peso del entramado relacional horizontal y de los vínculos colaterales. Respondieron a la preservación del derecho femenino de herencia, pero, sobre todo, los intereses económicos compartidos podían manifestarse en la forja de solidaridades familiares en situaciones de conflicto donde las monjas participaban en igualdad de condiciones con sus parientes manifestando una conciencia de identidad de sangre perfectamente compatible con su pertenencia a una familia espiritual monástica que parece respaldar en todo sus decisiones y con una sorprendente fluidez comunicativa.

Santa Clara de Córdoba acabó constituyendo una agrupación humana que estimulaba el desarrollo de vínculos consanguíneos opuestos a la tendencia dominante hacia la patriarcalización y verticalidad en el conjunto social aunque no estuviese totalmente ajena a ella. Sobre todo, dado el origen oligárquico de sus protagonistas, revelaba, activaba y justificaba un concepto de parentesco alternativo, un concepto de colateralidad femenina o memoria femenina del grupo amplio que rompía con las tendencias nobiliarias agnaticias y permitía someterlas a control femenino contribuyendo a intensificar y otorgar autorización y visibilidad sacra a los lazos entre parientas. Fue escaso el peso específico del padre en los vínculos que las mujeres entablaron con él. Las primeras noticias de redes femeninas relacionadas con el reclutamiento vocacional se hacen esperar también a finales del siglo XIV: eran las mujeres de la familia quienes procuraban la dote para no menoscabar la herencia de la interesada. Lo cual, sumado a los privilegios de herencia de las monjas y su capacidad propietaria, generó un circuito de colateralidad femenina alternativa plenamente establecido durante el siglo XV. También fue preferentemente femenina la atracción que el monasterio ejerció sobre el mundo circundante. Además, contribuyó a configurar genealogías femeninas enraizadas en el espacio monástico. La más antigua fue la sucesión madre-hija en los enterramientos monásticos: ¿plasmación de una posible tendencia a enfatizar líneas nobiliarias matrilineales en un contexto de definición patriarcal de los linajes?

En definitiva, gracias a la autonomía económica y la propiedad privada, este monasterio diseñó su propia red de filiaciones sociales. Aunque reprodujo las estructuras aristocráticas, lo hizo desde una perspectiva de soberanía femenina. De algún modo, se convirtió en la caja de resonancia de una conciencia urbana pública especialmente manifestada por sus grupos dirigentes, pero sin servir a sus posibles intereses de diferenciación interna y potenciación individual ni entablar con ellos lazos de sometimiento señorial, aunque la mera integración de sus parientas en un mismo espacio religioso no dejase de constituir una herramienta de cohesión y otra forma de entablar vínculos entre sí alternativa al sistema de alianzas.

Casos como éste muestran la necesidad de investigar la realidad sociohistórica femenina en sus manifestaciones concretas y revelan la posibilidad de existencia libre y alternativa a las estructuras oficialmente establecidas. Todo un incentivo para seguir investigando la historia de las mujeres.

María del Mar GRAÑA CID

Introducing the Medieval Convent Drama Project, based at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland

London, British Library MS Royal 2 B VII (the ‘Queen Mary’ psalter), f. 177. Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a nun playing a psaltery and a monk playing a citole, c. 1310-1320. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Did medieval women ever take to the stage? Despite totalising critical narratives which suggest that public drama was largely an exclusively male preserve in the Middle Ages, a body of evidence has already been amassed to suggest that, in certain times, places and spaces, women did indeed take part in theatrical performances of various kinds. Lynette Muir , for example, as long ago as 1985 traced and published archival evidence for female performers in medieval France, whilst the on-going REED project (Records of Early English Drama) continues to unearth fascinating snippets of data concerning medieval English women’s involvement in a broad range of theatrical activity (see, for example, the work undertaken by James Stokes on the Lincolnshire records and the pioneering monograph by Katie Normington on cycle drama).

In the wake of these local pieces of evidence and critical work on them, the interdisciplinary Medieval Convent Drama project was formed in 2016 at the University of Fribourg by Elisabeth Dutton, Olivia Robinson, Matthew Cheung Salisbury and Aurélie Blanc. Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the project’s aim is to provide the first detailed and comparative study of theatrical practice within medieval convents in England, northern France and Burgundy, placing this evidence alongside the emerging picture of secular women’s varied involvement in drama revealed by, for example, REED. This work will, we hope, meaningfully destabilise a sense that theatre was entirely male-dominated in the Middle Ages, by focusing critical attention on the all- or partially-female productions which we know took place in some convents, and which have hitherto been understudied.

We are lucky that there are some surviving convent play-scripts traceable to particular religious houses and copied by sisters within them — and these will form one branch of our project’s analysis. By transcribing and re-editing these, we will gain greater understanding of how particular communities of women religious shaped the intellectual content and dialogue of their plays, what languages they used within them and why, on what occasions and at which events those plays might have been produced, and in what locations within the convent they might have been performed.

In order to understand better the range of available spaces in which the plays might have taken place, we are also undertaking extensive research into the broader archival evidence which survives from these convents – and it is here that our work overlaps fruitfully in methodology with Research Line 3, Inside the Nunnery, of the Spiritual Landscapes project. From archival documents such as convent accounts, inventories, letters and necrologies (for example), we are seeking to understand as much as possible about the spiritual and cultural life of the women who made these convents their home, and to reconstruct something of the ways in which the spaces of the convent were laid out, delimited, defined and decorated by the nuns who built and furnished them. We thus aim to understand as fully as possible the material contexts of the surviving plays, and to be able to make informed hypotheses as to how they might have fitted into those material contexts. So, for example, Liv Robinson is currently undertaking a detailed assessment of the archive of the Carmelite Convent of the White Ladies at Huy (now Belgium). This includes unpicking the convent’s history, the history of its architectural programme (including the building and consecration of its church) and the make-up of its finances during the fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Two manuscripts containing plays survive from this convent, and Liv hopes to find out as much as possible about their copyists, possible performers and performances, and the relationships between the convent and the local community in which it was situated: this might give some indication as to who might have been in the audience for performances, if not just the nuns themselves. We know, for example, that this convent ran a school for local girls (some of whom probably later became nuns within it themselves), because financial records survive of the payments made to the convent by the girls' relatives and friends for their education and upkeep: might some of the surviving plays have been used in this educative context? How might they have functioned as teaching texts? Some of the plays display sophisticated use of liturgical tropes alongside vernacular dialogue: might these plays have been performed within the convent church, alongside the orthodox liturgical celebration of a particular feast day? What about the other literature which is traceable to the convent (either in surviving manuscripts or through references in archives), or the books which can be located at other local houses of the same order: how do the plays fit into this broader literary context? These are all questions to which the project team hope to provide some kind of answers through archival research.

The Spiritual Landscapes project has already shown us how fruitful such an “archival” approach to understanding convent life can be, and the extremely useful and intriguing data which it can generate in relation to drama within medieval Spanish convents: in 2014, Nùria Jornet Benito published evidence from the sacristy inventories of the convent of Sant Antoni i Santa Clara, in Barcelona, a convent of Poor Clares, showing that the nuns in this house possessed a wide range of costumes, jewellery and props including wigs and false beards. In the event that these were used for theatrical performances, which seems at the very least possible, if not likely, the existence of beards within the list of items stored in the sacristy is of particular interest to the researchers on the Medieval Convent Drama Project, because it suggests that these nuns may have been playing men. One of the major questions we are interested in addressing through our project is the aesthetic and devotional effect of such cross casting. Having women onstage playing the parts of men – particularly well-known male characters from, for example, Biblical narratives – might be thought to overturn some powerful and long-held assumptions about strict hierarchical attitudes to gender and sanctity in the Middle Ages.

In order to try to gain some purchase on just what the effects of women taking male roles within these plays may have been, the Medieval Convent Drama project team plan to undertake performance-based research as part of our investigation into the workings of different convent plays. Beginning this winter with Christmas performances of the Huy Nativity Play in Fribourg, Switzerland, we will be partnering with some existing convents in the region, including the Ursuline convent in the city centre of Fribourg and the Carmelite convent du Pâquier, to stage all-female performances of some of the convent plays, directed by Elisabeth Dutton. These partnerships will be vital for us in assessing the impacts of the plays upon religious and non-religious audiences alike. We hope to be able to undertake at least one performance with a cast made up exclusively of present-day nuns and we anticipate that – whilst not, of course, providing an unproblematic substitute for a medieval cast – their thoughts and reactions to performing the scripts will give us a unique perspective on these pieces of drama. Indeed, we have already found that consulting a house of contemporary Carmelite nuns, who generously invited us to explore their archive and to discuss our project with them, gave us some extremely valuable insights into the role that theatre continues to play to this day within the quotidian life of their order.

Performances of the convent plays will also help us to explore more concretely another aspect of their theatricality and devotional thrust which was clearly crucial to their effect during the Middle Ages: their music. As noted above, liturgical tropes are found within the Huy Carmelite plays, which also employ vernacular song at particular moments. How was this music integrated within the performance? What were its effects? And, most importantly, what relationship do these plays bear to the liturgy? If the Carmelite plays might be said to “borrow” innovatively from liturgical worship, what about plays such as those from Origny-Sainte-Benoîte (France) or Barking Abbey (England; both Benedictine houses), which appear to have taken place in a much more traditionally liturgical setting, grafted into these communities’ liturgy to celebrate particular feasts? Matthew Cheung-Salisbury, the musicologist working on our project will explore the particular liturgical practices of the communities which we are studying, and his findings will inform our use of music within the performances we undertake.

Ultimately, the project seeks to enable a greater and more precise understanding of the ways in which medieval women’s houses shaped their own dramatic reinterpretations of (for example) Biblical narratives, and the importance of this tradition for assessments of medieval dramatic, devotional and liturgical practice. Only by including medieval convent drama alongside women’s participation in other forms of theatre will we gain a complete and unbiased picture of the variety of theatrical practices which were undertaken during the Middle Ages.

Olivia Robinson, for the Medieval Convent Drama Project

Eve of Wilton: the Anchorite, her Cell, and Medieval Women’s Literary Culture in England and the Continent

Anchorites were individuals, sometime laypeople rather than members of formal monastic orders, who lived a life of religious contemplation focused on prayer and devotion to the Eucharist. Theirs was a life of extreme enclosure, as they were quite literally walled up in cells permanently attached to churches. In other words, they chose a life of solitude paradoxically located in the heart of the community.

In the later Middle Ages, the anchoritic movement grew considerably in popularity, especially amongst women. The cells were spaces of strict physical isolation, the boundaries of which were, at least theoretically, carefully policed. An early example of an English woman who chose the solitary life is Eve of Wilton (c.1058-c.1125). Eve joined Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire as a young girl, but left, apparently abruptly, in c.1080 to become a recluse in France, initially in Angers. She subsequently moved to St. Eutrope.

Shortly after her departure from Wilton, Goscelin of St Bertin, a Flemish Benedictine monk based in England, wrote the Liber confortatorius [Book of Consolation]. This long epistolary text is addressed to his former pupil Eve and in it he laments her absence and offers her guidance in her new vocation. For example, Goscelin advises Eve to ensure that she avoids the evils of the outside world:

Let the windows of your cell, your tongue and your ears be locked to false tales and idle talk, which is better named malicious talk.
   (Book of Encouragement, trans. Otter, 94-5).

The apertures to Eve’s cell are equated with the openings of her body, vulnerable to corruption, and therefore they should be carefully sealed up against the evils of rumour and gossip.

For Goscelin, however, the cell is also a space of scholarship. Drawing again on the architectural image of the window as the connection between Eve and the outside world, but to very different and more positive effect, he encourages her to remain open to learning:

I would like the window of your cell to be wide enough to admit a library of this size, or to be wide enough that you could read the books through the window if they are propped up for you there from outside.
   (Book of Encouragement, trans. Otter, 95-6).

Indeed Goscelin has confidence in Eve’s ability to manage her own instruction and he provides her with a programme of reading that includes Augustine’s Confessions and City of God, Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History and its continuation, Orosius’s De Ormesta Mundi [History of the World or History Against the Pagans] and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (Book of Encouragement, trans. Otter, 96). Intellectually, at least, Goscelin does not consider Eve to require close monitoring, but rather believes she should be supported in independent study.

In fact, Goscelin—who found himself forced by circumstance to become something of an itinerant hagiographer, moving from one religious house to another following commissions to chronicle their spiritual histories—claims that he actually envies Eve her cell:

I cannot tell you how often I have sighed for a little refuge similar to yours (though one that would have a door for solemn exits, that I may not lack a larger temple) where I might escape the crowds that tear at my heart; where I might pray, read a little, write a little, compose a little; where I might have my own little table, so that I could impose a law on my stomach and on this pasture feast on books rather than food; where I might revive the dying, tiny spark of my little intellect, so that, unable to be fruitful in good deeds, I might yet be a little fruitful by writing in the house of the Lord.
   (Book of Encouragement, trans. Otter, 32-3).

Goscelin envisages the anchoritic cell as having the potential to be a space of contemplation, reading, writing and ascetic self-restraint; a library and study combined. He longs to inhabit such a space himself but is constrained by his priestly role and the need to access the church in order to celebrate the mass. Eve’s cell would have been attached to a church, and may have had a squint, allowing her a view of the altar and to participate in the mass, but she would not have been able to enter the building itself.

Eve was able to write as well as to read: Goscelin alludes to the fact that they formerly exchanged letters when she resided in Wilton, and he begins his Liber by inviting her to resume this activity. However, he does not imagine Eve’s cell as a place in which she will pursue her own writing. The composition of written texts is not an activity generally ascribed to anchoritic women in the High and Later Middle Ages, and it is not known whether Eve ever read or even received the Liber, far less composed her own response to it.

Despite that fact that no letters or other writings by Eve have survived, Goscelin’s Liber provide insights into the literary culture of intellectually, spiritually and socially élite English women immediately after the Conquest. It contributes to our understanding of their learning, their opportunities for scholarship, and of their access to books. For this reason, it is a key text connecting two research projects funded by the Leverhulme Trust on which I am currently working: the international research network, Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval English Canon, and the major research fellowship project, Women’s Literary Culture before the Conquest.

The network brings together scholars from universities in the UK, USA and continental Europe in order to demonstrate the importance of considering women’s engagement with literature in understanding the established male-dominated late medieval English literary canon. The project culminates in a major international conference that will include a broader European focus, to be held at the University of Bergen from 21-23 June 2017. To date, outputs from the project include a Special Issue of The Chaucer Review, co-guest-edited with Liz Herbert McAvoy. The major research fellowship project, in contrast, will offer the first full scale exploration of the literary culture of early medieval English women, examining both the conditions that enabled that culture to thrive, and the reasons why it is almost invisible today.

A figure like Eve of Wilton is important to both projects not only because she lived, wrote and studied at the key transitional point in English history, but because, like many women and men before and after her, she benefited from an education influenced by and fostered in continental Europe.

The Leverhulme Trust

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