Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society: Nunneries in France and England, 890-1215

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Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society:Nunneries in France and England, 890-1215. By Bruce L. Venarde. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 1997. Pp. xx, 243. $42.50.)

In the eleventh, twelfth, and early thirteenth centuries, the overwhelming majority of charters and literary materials were composed in religious communities of men. Modern scholars of monasticism have been drawn to that wealth of source material and, as a consequence, have often underestimated the number and significance of women's religious houses. But the large number of monastic foundations for women points to an importance that the paucity of the sources obscures. In recent decades, the study of religious women has made great strides, in spite of the limitations of the sources. This monograph is a solid, focused contribution to the effort to understand the monastic life of women.

Sometimes an obvious idea, well executed, can yield important insights. For the period between the fifth century and 1350, Bruce Venarde counted the religious communities for women in fifteen archdioceses, two in England and thirteen in France: he found evidence for more than 850 houses, not all of which existed at the same time. He estimated that in the year 1000 there were seventy nunneries in England and France, a number which grew to more than 400 by 1170, to 525 by 1220, and to 625 by 1300. The effort to count communities of women in a particular region is an original idea and seems to have been carried out with care and good sense. The author created a database in which, for each house, he put the name, location, monastic order or rule, date of foundation, and other evidence, such as the social status of founders. From the database he generated interesting maps, graphs, and tables that tell a great deal about the foundation, diffusion, and affiliation of religious communities of women, particularly in the period from about 890 to about 1215. The author realized that numbers without context were a limited source of historical insight. …