Guidance for Women in Twelfth-Century Convents

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Guidance for Women in Twelfth-Century Convents. Translated by Vera Morton with an interpretive essay by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne. [Library of Medieval Women.] (Rochester, New York: D. S. Brewer. 2003. Pp. x, 203. $70.00.)

This aptly titled volume introduces and translates writings of four menGoscelin of St. Berlin, Peter Abelard, Peter the Venerable, and Osbert of Clare-addressed to nuns and their communities. There are six chapters: four letters, a sermon, and excerpts from Goscelin's sketches of the abbesses of Barking. Little of the material has been translated into English before and all of it is packed with fascinating glimpses into the lives of medieval religious women and the men who acted as their mentors and advisers. Morton offers good guidance herself in introducing the material with care and even humor, as when she remarks, "life for the young women of [the convent of] Marcigny must have been rather like life in a strict and well-run, but rather snobbish, life-long boarding school" (p. 97). The sheer variety of materials and subject matter makes this book (which I hope will emerge in a more affordable paperback version) an excellent choice for advanced undergraduate and even graduate students and their teachers.

The writers talk about virginity, history, heroism, miracles, the body, education, martyrdom, marriage; they teach, they preach, they warn, they sympathize, and they remember-and they do not speak with one monolithic voice. The book opens with Osbert of Clare's letter to Abbess Adelidis of Barking, where an expression of gratitude for recent hospitality turns into a long, complex tract on exemplary women of the past, including Judith and the Vestal Virgin Silvia. (This must be the longest thank-you note in history.) Peter the Venerable scolds his nieces for a letter containing medicine, which smacks not of Christ's pupils but the schools of Hippocrates, while Abelard, in the traces of St. Jerome, offers guidance on the education of women and stresses its great importance. Osbert writes about mystical marriage of nuns with Christ in strikingly vivid and physical terms, and Abelard makes the case that the model of monasticism is the early church in Jerusalem in which women were such active participants-after women were, of course, the first to see the resurrected Jesus. Goscelin and Osbert assume their readers know their Bede; Osbert presents complex, even crabbed interpretive arguments, and Abelard does not simplify his prose style; all the authors assume their readers' mastery of the Bible and early Christian literature and casually quote Horace, Ovid, and Virgil without explaining the references. …