Today, in what is sadly my final blog for RECIRC (next month I will be moving to York to take up a lectureship in early modern British history) I thought I would reflect broadly on the convent archives I have had the pleasure of working through in the last 23 months. The archives have proved fruitful sites for uncovering new women’s writing, and evidence of their reception and circulation.
During my time on the project I have visited the archives of 9 out of the 22 English convents established in exile over the course of the seventeenth century (check out the Who Were the Nuns database for more information on these foundations): the Brussels Benedictines, Dunkirk Benedictines and Louvain Augustinians (their archives now at Douai Abbey, which is the blog’s featured photo), Syon Bridgettines, the material from the Poor Clares at Aire, Dunkirk, Gravelines, and Rouen held in Durham Special Collections, and the Liege Sepulchrines. Alongside this I have explored the reception and circulation of female authors within the Tixall circle, which involves convent authors such as the Louvain Augustinian prioress Winefrid Thimelby. (The Tixall letters are held in the British Library, London and see also the EMLO catalogue).
I have examined the material relating to the Blue Nuns and other Catholic correspondence held at the Archive of the Archdiocese of Westminster (London) and I have also looked at letters from Cambrai, Paris and Ghent Benedictine nuns held at the Bodleian library (Oxford), which includes the well-known royalist correspondence of Mary Knatchbull, Abbess of the Ghent Benedictine convent.
Before I started my archival research I was aware of approximately forty English convent authors from the period 1550-1700. These included letter-writing nuns such as Winefrid Thimelby and Mary Knatchbull, and translators such as Mary Percy, Abbess of the Benedictine convent in Brussels (for more on Percy and the convent see my previous blogs). Percy translated the Jesuit Achilles Galliardi’s Abridgement of Christian Perfection into English, and it was first published in 1612.
Since then, combing through the convent archives has led to my discovery of over 150 new women writers, the majority of them female religious. These authors, and their works, have subsequently been entered into the RECIRC database. One such author is Ursula Hewicke whose letters and petitions to the Archbishop we have seen in previous blogs.
My research has generated 2000 instances of reception from around 500 reception sources such as letters, polemical treatises, chronicles and martyrologies, with the latter often being particularly significant sites of reception and circulation.
I discovered the highest number of receptions within ‘Weldon’s Memorials’, a manuscript martyrology compiled by the Benedictine monk Ralph Weldon between 19 June and 7 November 1707 at St Edmund’s monastery, Paris – now Douai Abbey in Woolhampton, Berkshire (see featured photo). The Memorials contain 202 instances of reception, which range from simple references to authors by name, extended commentaries about named authors (there are several pages, for example, on Mary Ward), references to specific works (such as the hitherto unknown Life of Ambrose Barlow by Clementia Cary, Benedictine nun from Cambrai and daughter of Lady Falkland) and to partial and full transcriptions of female-authored works. For example, Weldon transcribed vast swathes of the chronicle of the Benedictine convent of our Blessed Lady of Good Hope, Paris which was penned collectively by nuns within that community after 1665.
As the project moves forward into its analysis phase it will be fascinating to see the trends that arise from this data. For example, a question that has arisen for me over the last 23 months surrounds collective and individual authorship. It has by now almost become a truism to assert that nuns wrote most often as a community rather than as individuals, and where attribution has arisen it has often been posthumously by modern scholars. But is this reflected in the way that female authors were received during the period? Based on what I have seen, I suspect not. To prove this we will soon be able to visualise the ways in which both individual and collective convent authors were received, and quantitatively assess their authorial reputations. As a result, I wonder if the contemporary reputations of individual convent authors were in fact more widespread than we have previously recognised.
PS – The featured photo is of Douai Abbey, Upper Woolhampton. Taken by Dom Hugh Somerville-Knapman. Follow Douai on Instagram here.