Kent, Ghent and a Canterbury medieval hospital
I thought I would start this week by noting that it is just over five weeks now to the one-day conference on ‘Richborough through the Ages’. Tickets are continuing to sell well so if you haven’t bought yours and the day sounds attractive, do check out the website at www.canterbury.ac.uk/richborough we would be delighted to see you. By 25 June Early Medieval Kent, 800-1220 will have been published by Boydell, and, as well as several contributors from Canterbury Archaeological Trust, the article on monasteries was written by Dr Diane Heath who was heavily involved in the organisation of the Medieval Canterbury Weekend.
Dr Leonie Hicks of Canterbury Christ Church has also had a book published recently, in this case A Short History of the Normans and I happened to see Leonie at the University of Kent on Tuesday when Kent’s medievalists had a meeting with fellow medievalists from Ghent. This is not the first time members of the two universities have met because about twenty years ago a group of Kent medieval and early modern studies postgraduates had a weekend in Ghent where they met their peers at the university. The trip also included a visit to Bruges and this early exchange of ideas was very enjoyable; even if it didn’t produce any long-lasting links between the two universities. Consequently this new initiative is an excellent idea and may also involve Christ Church, hence Leonie’s presence.
As part of the day on Tuesday, Professor Steven Vanderputten from Ghent gave a fascinating paper entitled ‘Veiled as a canoness, but in life a true nun: The Ambiguous Identity of Women religious c. 1000’ that explored how religious women had been seen and treated by the ecclesiastical authorities between the ninth and eleventh centuries. His first case study involved Ruothild of Pfalzel, and it was a section from the epitaph on her tombstone that he used in the title of his paper because it encapsulated the desire by certain senior churchmen to ‘secure’ religious women within the Benedictine order regardless of their own wishes. As he explained, this idea that Ruothild and her sisters were Benedictine nuns in all but name and that they should therefore submit to this perceived superior form of the spiritual life can be envisaged as in some ways an ideological battleground. The canonesses were seeking to establish their own spiritual identity individually and collectively, and for them their communities were not inferior merely different. Thus the ability for individual canonesses to retain their own property and clothing, for example, rather than embrace Benedictine poverty was an important aspect of their devotional life.
As you can see Steven has been questioning the traditional stance within the historiography that has looked at female religious during this period through the lens of the reformist clerics who criticised what they saw as the decline in standards. Although not exclusively viewed in sexual terms, much of this criticism was shaped by ideas about the sexual threat women posed, alongside their stubbornness and their inability to organise themselves appropriately within the medieval Church. So for Steven the way forward is a more nuanced approach that looks beyond these detractors’ opinions about the marginalisation of religious women, both in terms of investigating a wider range of evidence, or, as with the epitaph above, reading against the text. As a result his second case study, the early-eleventh-century ‘Roll of Maubeuge’ used what he has called ‘uncreative writing’, that is he explored how these women shaped their position by what they copied. In this case the enigmatic compilation of various texts in three languages opens up ideas about what these women and their communities had access to in terms of legal, moral, and spiritual ideas, and, even more significantly, how they seemingly sought to express their own stance through what they copied, what they left out, and what they changed.
Nevertheless, as Steven also pointed out, although seeking to uncover the ‘voice’ of these women is fascinating, it is extremely difficult because very little evidence survives. Yet, as became apparent during the questions and comments after his paper, it may be fruitful to look at the later medieval centuries as well to try to uncover more of these ‘voices’. And this is where I will make a plug for hospitals as religious establishments involving sisters that may be seen and were certainly seen by some as having greater agency in their own affairs. To a degree anchoresses were at times viewed similarly, but, taking the English evidence, the institutional/communal role of the hospital sets it apart – regulations often appear to have been site specific and indeed may for long periods have been part of an oral tradition, albeit this is difficult to prove due to the frequent absence of early documentation.
Notwithstanding such problems and just using one example from Canterbury which perversely might be thought to show the ‘success’ of senior churchmen to regularise women religious, it is possible to read against this in terms of St Lawrence’s hospital. According to the surviving registers and the abbey’s chronicler, St Lawrence’s had been founded to provide accommodation for leprous monks and others associated with St Augustine’s Abbey. Initially housing twelve brothers and sisters with a clerk and chaplain, numerically the sisters may have been in the ascendancy under their prioress in the late thirteenth century, much to the disapproval of Abbot Thorne who tried to stop their admittance in 1275. Even though the abbey was one of the premier Benedictine houses in England, its daughter house did not follow this Rule and the early fifteenth-century listing of the hospital’s regulations suggests these did not become fixed until 1294, with additions in 1356. Moreover it may be significant that the fifteenth-century registers include a list of most of the regulations in English, and, like Professor Vanderputten, looking at what is omitted is just as valuable as looking at what is included. If anyone is interested in looking at this question further, there is an article on St Lawrence’s hospital and its registers in L. Clark (ed.), The Fifteenth Century XIII (Boydell, 2014). And hopefully new week I shall be able to report that details have been finalised regarding the donations to the four ‘buildings’ that featured in the Medieval Canterbury Weekend, to see which please look at www.canterbury.ac.uk/medieval-canterbury for the pdf of the souvenir brochure.