Gender and Politics in Early Modern Europe: English Convents in France and the Low Countries

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Gender and Politics in Early Modern Europe: English Convents in France and the Low Countries. By Claire Walker. [Early Modern History: Society and Culture.] (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2003. Pp. xii, 247. $72.00.)

Not since Peter Guilday's magisterial The English Catholic Refugees on the Continent, 1558-1795 (London, 1914), has a scholar attempted a sustained analysis of post-Reformation English nuns' experiences in Continental exile. Claire Walker's important book fills that gap and enhances our understanding of Catholic Englishwomen in religious life by focusing on the activities of the contemplatives rather than on the redoubtable, and much-studied, Mary Ward. Walker makes excellent use of the rich historiography on convents in early modern Italy, Germany, Spain, and France in order to contextualize the English nuns' story within the history of women religious in Europe. Drawing from conventual and archdiocesan archives in England, France, and Belgium, as well as from other ecclesiastical and governmental records, Walker studies 1,109 Englishwomen professed in France and the southern Netherlands from 1591 to 1710. She concentrates her attention on a cross section of ten cloisters out of the total twenty-two English Tridentine foundations. In chapters on vocations, the familial metaphor in convent life, the spiritual and economic labors of cloistered women, nuns' political activities as both recipients and purveyors of patronage, and contemplation, Walker explores how the nuns confronted the unique challenges and opportunities of exile.

The elite, stalwartly English, women who populated the convents struggled mightily to cope with the difficulties that their exiled status posed. Although remarkably no English foundations for women failed in the early modern era, they consistently teetered on the edge of economic disaster, vulnerable both to the vagaries of the Catholic experience in England (chronic financial sufferings of nuns' families through recusancy fines, the possibility of martyrdom, the Civil War) and to the vicissitudes of life on the Continent (war, periodic outbreaks of epidemic disease, tensions with local ecclesiastical officials). …

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