Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries

Article excerpt

Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries. By Valerie G. Spear. [Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, Vol. 24.] (Rochester, New York: Boydell and Brewer. 2005. Pp. sis, 245. $90.00.)

Spear identifies more than two hundred abbesses and prioresses who oversaw the sisteen nunneries that she uses-without clearly esplaining why-as the "core group" for her study of the period from 1280 to 1540. None of the women are household names, not even in the households of medievalists. Yet, as Spear rightly states, these religious superiors had an unusual degree of "independent authority" in "an era noted for its subjugation of females" (p. siii). How much independence and what kind of authority is the focus of Spear's study.

Spear assembles and assesses with diligence, competence, and lucidity all the known surviving references to these women. She concludes that few were from aristocratic families: their authority came from their office, not their background. To evaluate their relations with their bishops, Spear primarily has to rely on documents dealing with exceptions, the crises that required special attention; she finds that some bishops gave financial aid, others adjudicated controversies, but most, even during their mandated episcopal visits, did not object to the women's "leadership." Similarly, though Spear identifies a few kings and popes who aided nunneries-and expected benefits in return-she concludes that the abbesses and prioresses typically acted independently from their overlords until the Dissolution, a period she treats with particular sensitivity.

The surviving records detail financial matters more often than spiritual ones. Still, finding very little criticism of the superiors'piety, Spear sensibly concludes that, for the most part, they capably offered spiritual guidance. Spear locates "only one confirmed case and one possible case of sesual immorality among more than two hundred nunnery superiors in the core group" (p. 153). Repeatedly Spear points out how her findings contrast with Eileen Power's classic 1922 study of English nunneries during this same time period. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.