In 1622, the English Benedictine nun Mary Wintour used her confessor, John Daniel, to translate her letter to Archbishop Jacobus Boonen into Latin. In the letter she outlined her thoughts on the problems in her community, which she felt started with the tensions between her Abbess, Mary Percy and the convent’s ordinary confessor, Robert Chambers (a dispute I discussed in my previous blog). The resultant breakdown of authority had meant that even the lay sisters have ‘to much freedom’ in ‘speaking amongs themselves of theyr dislike of any thing in the Convent, giving of ther censures very indiscreetly’.
Wintour’s complaints about inappropriate complaining was a common feature of the correspondence sent to Boonen by women in the English Benedictine convent in Brussels during the course of the 1620s, and it is this that forms the subject of my blog today.
In the wake of the Council of Trent’s (1545-1563) reforms of monastic life, from the moment of their foundation at the turn of the seventeenth century English convents were intended to conform to strict ecclesiastical regulation. Enclosure removed the nuns from worldly distraction beyond the convent walls (in theory – but see recent literature on enclosure’s limitations, a good place to start is Elizabeth Lehfeldt’s Permeable Cloister (2005)) and closer episcopal supervision was in place to enforce compliance and unity. Nonetheless, as the incidents hinted at in my previous blogs have suggested, authority was often a hotly contested issue.
Within convents there were several layers of monastic governance, starting first with the straightforward division between choir nuns and the lay or converse sisters. Lay sisters were professed nuns often from less well-off backgrounds that took service roles within the community (for example in the kitchen) in order to allow the choir nuns to have more time for the performance of the Divine Office. There was further social stratification based on age (of years of profession, rather than physical age) and the more senior nuns were more likely to hold positions of authority (such as Mistress of the Novices). This hierarchy was manifested physically in monastic life, most noticeably in the choir where nuns were seated in accordance with seniority. Leading the convent was the Abbess, who was democratically elected by secret ballot by the nuns, and in the Benedictine community in Brussels the Abbess held their office for life.
Ultimate authority lay with the episcopacy, and all convents (unless subject to a religious congregation – the English Benedictine congregation was not formally reconstituted until 1633) were placed under the direct jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop who was charged with regular visitation to ensure conformity. If a nun had a particular complaint or issue, they were first to take it to their superior within the convent. Failing that (for example, if their issue was with their superior) it was enshrined in the Brussels convent statutes that the nuns were to have a free channel of communication to their male superiors and spiritual directors. This particular type of letter was to be kept secret from the rest of the community, even protected from the eyes of the Abbess who was responsible for reading any other mail sent or received beyond the convent walls.
‘If any of the Professed would at any time write to the Bishop or Visitor, she shall have free liberty to do the same, and she may deliver her letters to the Thourier [in charge of the grate], who may not…discover to any, that ever she received any such letters to be addressed vnto them…’
The Statutes continued:
‘the Abbess or any other Superiors [must not] either Directly, by any ways, signs or outward shew of Countenances, hinder the free writing of their Religious to their Superiors’.
This form of correspondence was therefore written with the presumption of at least some level of privacy and secrecy. On this matter the Brussels statutes seem somewhat unusual when compared other English convents. The Poor Clares Rule, for example, simply stated that it was not lawful for ‘any Sister to send letters, or to receive any…without the consent of the Mother Abbesse’. The closest I have seen is in the Constitutions for the Augustinian canonesses, which stated that: ‘Noe Sister shall send out, receive, or open any letter from abroad without leave and shewing it first to the Mother, the Visitour excepted’.
The ability to write to their male superiors unmolested was evidently very important to the Brussels nuns, and a recurring feature of their extant correspondence throughout the 1620s were complaints about the breach of this particular aspect of their rights as preserved in their statutes. As I explained in my last blog, Mary Percy became increasingly concerned about what the nuns were saying about her behind her back and frequently tried to hinder the nuns’ ability to communicate. Elizabeth Southcott wrote on 23 April 1623 begging Boonen
‘absolutly to forbidd My lady when she visiteth our celles not to reade the paperes that she by chance findeth written eyther Conserninge our Confessiones, or anything to be sent to your Lordship or the visitor’.
Events like those at Brussels allow us to witness the ways that these hierarchies of authority were challenged and broke down, as Mary Wintour complained about the ‘freedom’ of the lay sisters. The ability for Brussels nuns to complain and challenge authority was enshrined in statute, along with the potentially unique expectation that their letters might have limited circulation. This is complicated when it is remembered that the majority of the nuns required translators for their correspondence. On 29 July 1623, Frances Gawen complained to Boonen about the various violations she had witnessed to the convent statutes, and ended her letter suggesting that if Boonen desired to know further particulars, ‘Mr Colford knoweth as much as I can tel your Lord in that he is my interpreture’. As well as giving the nuns a voice on the page, it is evident that nuns’ translators were also trusted with oral messages to deliver to the Archbishop as well. When thinking about how to complain, a nun’s choice of translator was therefore of the utmost importance.