How do we capture evidence about the reception of women’s writing and how do we structure it for comparative purposes? In the process of data cleaning, myself and Bronagh McShane, working with original research by Emilie Murphy, have been parsing a juicy example. In 1707, the Benedictine monk Ralph Weldon, then based at St Edmund’s Abbey, Paris, copied a history of their order by the community of English Benedictine nuns, also in Paris. This history covered the women’s move from their mother house at Cambrai, and their efforts to found a new house in the French capital. They moved five times between 1651 and 1664, when they eventually established a convent with the approbation of the English Benedictine Congregation. Weldon’s copy is the only known witness to the women’s history of their convent, which includes a detailed account of negotiations between female and male congregations as the nuns sought to secure the property and the right to establish themselves there.
The process required that new texts be produced to explain the rationale for the move and the constitutions that would be followed in the new house. Anne Cary (1615-1671), in religion Dame Clementia (and daughter to the author and convert Elizabeth), explained their relocation in her ‘Reasons that move us to desire to be established’. Her ‘Reasons for the Constitutions’ describes their proposed rule, based on the constitutions of the Cambrai house but departing from them in four ways purportedly stipulated by their benefactors, who were underwriting the property acquisition. These sought to secure the community’s right to elect their own superior, to reject any confessor not to the superior’s liking, to accept novices on the basis of sincere vocation over and above the dowry sum, and their particular dedication to prayer for the conversion of England. These texts were submitted to the Benedictine congregation in August 1653 with another: a joint-authored petition in the name of Cary and her prioress, Dame Brigitt More (1609-1692), great grand-daughter of the author and martyr Thomas.
The collectively authored history preserves not only copies of these texts themselves but richly textured information about their composition and reception. Moreover, this is doubly layered: in the first instance, we have the nuns’ own historical account of what happened to these texts; this is then filtered through Weldon (who, in the act of copying their history, received that female-authored work as well). The effect is not unlike that of Van Eyck’s 1434 portrait of the newly married Arnolfinis, in which the painter is seen reflected in the mirror behind the couple, which also presents the image of the couple from behind. Painter and copyist are participants as well as observers.
Weldon’s compilation of materials relating to the post-Refomation history of the English Benedictine order, known as his ‘Memorials’, makes no effort to disguise his curatorial role. It is regularly punctuated by formulations such as ‘I continue on in the Words of their History’. The intermixing of first and third person signals segues in the narrative as, for example, when it shifts from relating details of the 1664 property transaction back to documenting the new house’s establishment: ‘(Now follows the Reasons of their desiring to be a distinct Convent from that of Cambray) which were found in Dame Clementia’s own hand’.
How, then, are we structuring this information so that it can be compared and shared? 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 (see screenshot below).
In this case, where Cary’s ‘Reasons that move us’ is copied, the data are classified according to the types ‘Reference to Named Author’ (Cary, named as the author of this work), ‘Reference to Specific Work’ (the ‘Reasons that move us to desire to be established’) and ‘Transcription’ (the copy made of the original work). This is entered to the database as an instance of reception twice, first by the Paris Benedictines (authors of the history in which it occurs) and second by Ralph Weldon (compiler and author of the later ‘Memorials’). Cary’s ‘Reasons for the Constitutions’, which follows in the manuscript, is registered in the same way.
The narrative then shifts once more to relate the function and reception of these texts during the 1653 general chapter of the Benedictine order at Paris:
‘our several Petitions were presented & read in Chapter, as appears by the Acts following. The 23d of Aug. 1653 the humble petition of the VV. MM. Dame Brigit Moore Superioresse & Dame Clementia Cary … was read, Wherein they humbly petitioned, that the Congregation would permit them, & others, to be established into a distinct & Lawfull Convent, & to be govern’d conformably to the Constitutions then presented to be approved by the Chapter’.
We have interpreted this as a collective ‘Reading’ (another of our reception types) of both Cary’s works, plus a third: the ‘humble petition’ jointly composed with Brigitt More. As with the examples above, this reception occurs on two layers: the nun-historians and Weldon. But More’s addition further enriches the data: in order to capture the reception of each female author, the data are entered first as reception of Cary (and her three specific works) and, separately, as reception of More (and one of her works).
The final section of this passage offers further food for thought:
‘The day following, to wit the 24 of Aug. at 3 a clock in the afternoon, the said petition was read again … The Opinion … was as followeth: That it was convenient for us to procure our Establishment, & that it was necessary to depute 2 other Chaptermen, to read over our Constitutions, and to give their Opinion about them to the Chapter’.
The petition jointly authored by the two women religious enjoyed a second reading, the next day – rendering this another instance of reception evidence, again treated distinctly as two layers of receiver, and of two female authors. The instruction that Cary’s ‘Reasons for the Constitutions’ be read and considered again generates yet another instance of reception evidence relating to this author and her work.
The by-product of this kind of research is the discovery of new texts; without Weldon’s chronicling activities, we would not have these female-authored works at all. There may not be many traditionally ‘literary’ works that have escaped the attentions of feminist recovery research (thankfully), but our understanding of what prompted women to write, and how such texts were read and circulated, is deepening all the time. This example illustrates how we’ve approached data gathering for the RECIRC project. Our mid-term has been immersed in data cleaning, to ensure accuracy and consistency. We’re now turning to the next phase: aggregation and analysis.
Laurence Lux-Sterritt, English Benedictine Nuns in Exile in the Seventeenth Century: Living Spirituality (Manchester University Press, 2017).