Magazine article European English Messenger

Doing Research in the UK-On an ESSE Bursary

Magazine article European English Messenger

Doing Research in the UK-On an ESSE Bursary

Article excerpt

Thanks to the kind consideration of the French Conseil National des Universites (CNU section 11), I enjoyed a semester's research leave from January to July 2012. This sabbatical was intended to allow me to gather a vast corpus of primary sources for my current monograph project, provisionally entitled Living Spirituality. The English Benedictines in Exile and their Convents, 1598-1687. This project necessitated much travelling, since the manuscripts of English Benedictine nuns are scattered in various libraries and archives, twelve of which I hoped to visit in northern France, Belgium and England. Since such an enterprise was to prove costly, I applied to various funding bodies to help with the costs of travelling and accommodation. I am grateful to the French Societe des Anglicistes de l'Enseignement Superieur (SAES) for its contribution, and I extend my sincere thanks to ESSE for their generous bursary of 1,500 [euro], which financed my travels to public libraries and monastic archives in England in April and May 2012.

This research work took place in very different types of archival depositories. The manuscript collections of the British Library keep the correspondence of the abbess of the Dunkirk community, Mary Caryll, with her brother John, whilst the Special Collections of the Oxford Bodleian Library, hold the letters intercepted by Thomas Cromwell's informer and spy, John Thurloe. These visits to major libraries were easy to organise thanks to the detailed online catalogues which nowadays enable researchers to know precisely what they will find in any particular archive.

The organisation of visits to private ecclesiastical archives proved, however, much more complex, since these are not open to the general public. The archdiocesan archives at Westminster, for instance, do not open every day, and then only for a few hours, which can be limiting to the travelling academic who is pressed for time. Where for monastic archives were concerned, contact was initiated a long time before the proposed date of my visits in order to establish bona fide status with the archivist and obtain the necessary authorisation of the abbot or abbess of the community. I am deeply grateful to Abbot Geoffrey, at Douai abbey (Midgham), Dr Simon Johnson at Downside abbey (Stratton-on-the-Fosse) and Sister Benedict at St Mary's abbey (Colwich), for allowing me to spend endless hours consulting their invaluable age-old treasures, sometimes late into the night, and sometimes even within the abbey's enclosure.

Early modern English convents have been subject to many upheavals over the years, and it was something of a challenge simply to locate their manuscripts; in France, many were destroyed during the Revolution, whilst others were seized by the state and are now kept mostly in county record offices (archives departementales). However, English convents managed to keep some of their manuscripts, and these travelled back to England with the nuns in the 18th and 19th centuries, only to be passed on from one house to another as convents moved or were gradually closed down for lack of new postulants. For instance, the bulk of the manuscripts belonging to the Brussels community found their way back to England when the nuns settled in Winchester in 1794; they then moved to East Bergholt in 1857 and Haslemere in 1948. With each relocation, the nuns entrusted the custody of some of their papers to other convents, which led to the dissemination of their library; finally, with the closure of Haslemere, the papers which remained were donated to Downside abbey, where they remain to this day. …

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