Academic journal article Magistra

Feminine Experience in the Northern Metrical Version of the Benedictine Rule

Academic journal article Magistra

Feminine Experience in the Northern Metrical Version of the Benedictine Rule

Article excerpt

One way to unveil the mysterious and often contradictory image of medieval nuns transmitted by both secular and sacred sources throughout the centuries might be to investigate the audience and purpose of the Northern Metrical Version of the Rule of Saint Benedict. On the secular side there is the portrait drawn by Chaucer of the worldly prioress, Madame Eglyntyne, in the "General Prologue" to the Canterbury Tales. Among religious documents, the little-known Northern Metrical Version of St. Benedict's rule, written during the last half of the fifteenth century for a community of women in the north of England, offers an alternate image of women monastics.

The Metrical Version, as this translation of the Rule of St. Benedict is called, survives in British Museum Manuscript Cotton Vespasian A.25 and was edited by Ernest Kock for the Early English Text Society in 1902.(1) The poem consists of 2516 lines of what the editor terms "iambic bimeter" subject to "modifications and abnormities" due to "shortening, transposing or slurring" of some word forms.(2)

Like Chaucer's work, the metrical rule is intended for an educated, sophisticated, well-to-do audience. It offers a use of meter and rhyme that is similar to Chaucer's, despite Kock's contention that many of the rhymes are "pitiful." Moreover, despite being approximately one hundred years younger than the Canterbury Tales, the Metrical Version displays similar vocabulary, references, allusions and literary playfulness in the portrayal of medieval English nuns, especially where those of the upper ranks, such as prioresses and subprioresses, are concerned.

The obvious similarities between the two works end with matters of style and form, and the portraits of women monastics that Chaucer and the metrical writer produce appear to be different indeed! However, upon closer scrutiny of the works, it is possible to see that these seemingly different images stem from a common awareness of the interests, status and behavior of medieval nuns.(3)

In Medieval English Nunneries, Eileen Power queries the social origins, education and activities of monastic women, and she supports Chaucer's version, concluding that "in the end it is to [him] that we turn for her picture."(4) That picture is Chaucer's detailed description of Madame Eglyntyne, the prioress who travels to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket with the other Canterbury pilgrims.(5)

Chaucer's account depicts a woman of high social rank, worldly education, interests and appetites. Power confirms the historical verity of this image with her observation that "It usually happened that the head of a nunnery was a woman of social standing in her own right...Barking Abbey in Essex had a long line of well-born abbesses, including three queens and two princesses."(6) Power emphasizes that girls of poorer classes who had little in the way of education or dowry did not become nuns. She goes on to note that "the head of the house was an important person ranking with ladies of neighboring manors, and she enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom in relation to her convent and to the outside world."(7) Power also observes that the position of the prioress laid her open to various temptations. The first, and perhaps the greatest, was "the temptation to live with too great luxury and independence escaping from the daily routine of communal life."(8) Indeed, Chaucer's Madame Eglyntyne seems to fall precisely into this category with her penchant for stylish clothing, bright accessories, good food, small dogs and worldly attachments.

If Chaucer's portrait is accorded the historical stature that Power advocates, then at least one purpose of the Metrical Version of the Rule comes into clearer focus. It is possible that this translation of St. Benedict's guidelines for right living may have served to remedy an all-too-common ailment in medieval nunneries: the secularization of the sisterhood, a difficulty that occurred most often in the upper echelons of the convent ranks. …

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