Academic journal article Magistra

Praying with the Book of Nunnaminster: Healing the Soul and Increasing the Body of Christ in a Medieval Benedictine Convent

Academic journal article Magistra

Praying with the Book of Nunnaminster: Healing the Soul and Increasing the Body of Christ in a Medieval Benedictine Convent

Article excerpt

The Book of Nunnaminster {Nunnaminster) is a prayer collection belonging to a genre of ninth-century Anglo-Latin devotional literature known as the Insular "themed" prayerbook. The genre survives in a small but significant group of manuscripts that most likely represent a popular type of collection circulating at the time.1 Each of the prayerbooks contains gospel readings followed by private prayers, and each seems to have a particular thematic focus. According to Michelle P. Brown, in her work on The Book of Cerne {Cerné), this type of "themed" private prayerbook developed in the later eighth and early ninth century in Mercia and flourished for about a century before dying out. These manuscripts share a core of devotional pieces, but each book is a true miscellany, compiled for the needs of its original owner or community of origin.2

Remarkably, three of these four books were probably created for use by women. Brown observes about The Book of Nunnaminster.

Elements of [Nunnaminster's] text indicate that it was probably made for and perhaps by a woman. By the end of [the ninth century] it was associated with, and likely owned by, a Mercian woman who became the wife of King Alfred. ... The Book of Nunnaminster certainly appears to have been in female ownership in Winchester during the late ninth and early tenth centuries ... Additional material indicates that The Book of Nunnaminster remained in female hands, probably religious, during the early tenth century and that it was in a Benedictine house during the latter part of the century.

In fact, of the four Insular prayerbooks, only Cerne lacks clear evidence of female ownership. How were these unique books intended to be used by the women or men who first compiled and later possessed them? On the one hand, Nunnaminster's almost complete use of the singular personal pronoun in its prayers and its relatively small size would seem to mitigate against the suggestions made by some that it is a "service" book intended for public use, even of a para-liturgical nature.4 However, liturgical elements are pronounced in the collection, which includes gospel readings, hymns, and within its private prayers, a variety of liturgical allusions. It would seem that the user of this collection is invited to meditate on scriptural texts in the tradition of lectio divina, but is also called to read "liturgically."

Recently, Jessica Brantley's study of one Carthusian devotional codex, Additional 37049, traces the possible connections between the private reading and the realm of public performance that meditative reading calls into play. Brantley demonstrates that drama and narrative, dialogue and lyric are so interwoven in this carefully compiled miscellany that reading it may be construed as a "performance activity." Brantley argues:

This codex is the primary site of the spiritual activity it represents; even in its own shape and format, the book performs certain kinds of devotional meaning. More precisely, the act of reading it performs devotional meaning. For meditative reading - particularly in the late-medieval Carthusian context in which the book was almost certainly used - is a performance in itself. The kinds of meditations demanded by a book like this one involve the imagination of the reader so strenuously that they may be said to be "enacted" by that reader at each repetition. ... The miscellany shows ... that a silent medieval reader encountering the written word in solitude can participate in aspects of performance.5

Meditative reading is potentially a performative practice, especially to the extent that such reading engages with the essentially "dramatic" nature of liturgy. An interest in the liturgical language, symbol systems, and structures woven into The Book of Nunnaminster that links the approach of this paper to Brantley's. It is not difficult to imagine the solitary reader of this book, using both the techniques of lectio and her intimate knowledge of liturgy to imaginatively read the self into her proper place in the earthly and eternal communion with God. …

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