MEDIEVAL ENGLISH NUNNERIES
Sometimes it was one unruly member who set the convent by the ears. There is an amusing case at Romsey, which is reminiscent of David Copperfield:
On 16 January 1527 in the chapter house of the monastery of Romsey, before the vicar general, sitting judicially, Lady Alice Gorsyn appeared and confessed that she had used bad language with her sisters [her greatest oath evidently transcended “by sëynt Loy”] and spread abroad reproachful and defamatory words of them. He absolved her from the sentence of excommunication and enjoined on her in penance that if she used bad language in future and spread about defamatory words of them, a red tongue made of cloth should be used on the barbe under the chin (in sua barba alba) and remain there for a month.
a kinder punishment than the scold’s bridle or the ducking stool of common folk. Occasionally an inveterate scold would be removed altogether by the Bishop and sent to some convent where she was not known; two nuns were transferred from Burnham to Goring in 1339 “for the peace and quiet of the house” and in 1298 a quarrelsome nun of Nuncoton was sent to Greenfield to be kept in solitary confinement as long as she remained incorrigible, “until according to the discipline of her order she shall know how to live in a community”. It was more difficult to restore peace when a whole nunnery was seething with dispute and heart-burnings. General injunctions to cease quarrelling would seem to show that this was sometimes the case, and, without having recourse to such an extreme instance as that of Littlemore in the sixteenth century, it is possible to quote from bishops’ registers documents which go far to bear out even Langland’s picture. One such document may be quoted in[Pg 302] illustration, the comperta of Archbishop Giffard’s visitation of Swine in 1268:
It is discovered that Amice de Rue is a slanderer and a liar and impatient and odious to the convent and a rebel; and so are almost all the convent when the misdeeds of delinquents are proclaimed in chapter; wherefore the prioress or whoever is acting for her is not sufficient, without the help of the lord archbishop, to make corrections according to the requirements of the rule…. Item, it is discovered that three sisters in the flesh and spirit, to wit, Sibyl, Bella and Amy, frequently rebel against the corrections of the Prioress, and having leagued together with them several other sisters, they conspire against their sisters, to the great harm of the regular discipline; and Alice de Scrutevil, Beatrice de St Quintin and Maud Constable cleave to them…. Item, it is discovered that the Prioress is a suspicious woman and too credulous and breaks out at a mere word into correction, and frequently punishes unequally for the same fault and pursues with long rancour those whom she dislikes, until the time of their vindication cometh; whence it befals that the nuns, when they suspect that they are going to be burdened with too heavy a correction, procure the mitigation of her severity by means of the threats of their relatives. Item, it is discovered that the nuns and the sisters are at discord in many things, because the sisters contend that they are equal to the nuns and use black veils even as the nuns, which is said not to be the custom in other houses of the same order.
Apostasy, accidia, quarrels, all rose in part from monotony. The majority of nuns were probably content with their life, but they strove to bring some excitement and variety into it, not only unconsciously by cliques and contentions, but also by a conscious aping of the worldly amusements which enlivened their mothers and sisters outside the convent walls. The châtelaine or mistress of a manor, when not busied with the care of an estate, amused herself in the pursuit of fashion; even the business-like Margaret Paston hankered after a scarlet robe. She amused herself with keeping pets, those little dogs which scamper so gaily round the borders of manuscripts, or play so[Pg 303] gallant a part in romances like the Châtelaine of Vergi. She hawked and she hunted, she danced and she played at tables. All these occupations served to break the monotony of daily life. The nuns, always in touch with the world owing to the influx of visitors and to the neglect of enclosure, remembered these forbidden pleasures. And they sought to spice their monotonous life, as they spiced their monotonous dishes. Gay clothes, pet animals, a dance, a game, a gossip, were to them “a ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for fastyngdayes.” So we find all these worldly amusements in the convent.
Dear to the soul of men and women alike, dear to monks and nuns as well as to the children of the world, were the gay colours and extravagant modes of contemporary dress. Popular preachers inveighed against the devils’ trappings of their flocks, but when those trappings flaunted themselves in the cloister there was matter for more than words. As early as the end of the seventh century St Aldhelm penned a severe indictment of the fashionable nuns of his day:
A vest of fine linen of a violet colour is worn, above it a scarlet tunic with a hood, sleeves striped with silk and trimmed with red fur; the locks on the forehead and the temples are curled with a crisping iron, the dark head-veil is given up for white and coloured head-dresses, which, with bows of ribbon sewn on, reach down to the ground; the nails, like those of a falcon or sparrow-hawk, are pared to resemble talons.
Synods sat solemnly over silken veils and pleated robes with long trains; they shook their heads over golden pins and silver belts, jewelled rings, laced shoes, cloth of burnet and of Rennes, dresses open at the sides, gay colours (especially red) and fur of gris. High brows were fashionable in the world and the nuns could not resist lifting and spreading out their veils to expose[Pg 304] those fair foreheads (“almost a spanne brood, I trowe”); when Alnwick visited Goring in 1445 he
saw with the evidence of his own eyes that the nuns do wear their veils spread out on either side and above their foreheads, (and) he enjoined upon the prioress … that she should wear and cause her sisters to wear their veils spread down to their eyes.
The words of Beatrix’s maid in Much Ado About Nothing spring to the mind: “But methinks you look with your eyes as other women do.” For three weary centuries the bishops waged a holy war against fashion in the cloister and waged it in vain, for as long as the nuns mingled freely with secular women it was impossible to prevent them from adopting secular modes. Occasionally a conscientious visitor found himself floundering unhandily through something very like a complete catalogue of contemporary fashions. So Bishop Longland at Elstow in 1531:
We ordeyne and by way of Iniuncon commande undre payne of disobedyence from hensforth that no ladye ne any religious suster within the said monasterye presume to were ther apparells upon ther hedes undre suche lay fashion as they have now of late doon with cornered crests, nether undre suche manour of hight shewing ther forhedes moore like lay people than religious, butt that they use them without suche crestes or secular fashions and off a lower sort and that ther vayle come as lowe as ther yye ledes and soo contynually to use the same, unles itt be at suche tymes as they shalbe occupied in eny handycrafte labour, att whiche tymes itt shalbe lefull for them to turne upp the said vayle for the tyme of suche occupacon. And undre like payne inoyne that noon of the said religious susters doo use or were hereafter eny such voyded shoys, nether crested as they have of late ther used, butt that they be of suche honeste fashion as other religious places both use and that ther gownes and kyrtells be closse afore and nott so depe voyded at the breste and noo more to use rede stomachers but other sadder colers in the same.
It is interesting to conjecture how the nuns obtained these gay garments and ornaments. The growing custom of giving them a money allowance out of which to dress themselves instead of providing them with clothes in kind out of the common purse, certainly must have given opportunity for buying the[Pg 305] gilt pins, barred belts and slashed shoes which so horrified their visitors. We know from Gilles li Muisis that Flemish nuns at least went shopping. But an even more likely source of supply lies, as we shall see, in the legacies of clothes and ornaments, which were often left to nuns by their relatives.
Not only in their clothes did medieval nuns seek to enliven existence after the manner of their lay sisters. The bishops struggled long and unsuccessfully against another custom of worldly women, the keeping of pet animals. Dogs were certainly the favourite pets. Cats are seldom mentioned, though the three anchoresses of the Ancren Riwle were specially permitted to keep one, and Gyb, that “cat of carlyshe kynde,” which slew Philip Sparrow, apparently belonged to Carrow; perhaps there was spread among the nunneries of England the grisly tradition of the Prioress of Newington, who was smothered in bed by her cat. Birds, from the larks of the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Caen, to the parrot Vert-Vert at Nevers, are often mentioned. Monkeys, squirrels and rabbits were also kept. But dogs and puppies abounded. Partly because the usages of society inevitably found their way into the aristocratic convents, partly[Pg 306] because human affections will find an outlet under the most severe of rules:
(Objet permis à leur oisif amour,
Vert-Vert était l’âme de ce séjour),
the nuns clung to their “smale houndes.” Archbishop Peckham had to forbid the Abbess of Romsey to keep monkeys or “a number of dogs” in her own chamber and she was charged at the same time with stinting her nuns in food; one can guess what became of the “rosted flesh or milk and wastel-breed”. At Chatteris and at Ickleton in 1345 the nuns were forbidden to keep fowls, dogs or small birds within the precincts of the convent or to bring them into church during divine service. This bringing of animals into church was a common custom in the middle ages, when ladies often attended service with dog in lap and men with hawk on wrist; Lady Audley’s twelve dogs, which so disturbed the nuns of Langley, will be remembered. Injunctions against the bringing of dogs or puppies into choir by the nuns are also found at Keldholme and Rosedale early in the fourteenth century. But the most flagrant case of all is Romsey, to which in 1387 William of Wykeham wrote as follows:
[Pg 307]Item, because we have convinced ourselves by clear proofs that some of the nuns of your house bring with them to church birds, rabbits, hounds and such like frivolous things, whereunto they give more heed than to the offices of the church, with frequent hindrance to their own psalmody and that of their fellow nuns and to the grievous peril of their souls; therefore we strictly forbid you, all and several, in virtue of the obedience due unto us, that you presume henceforward to bring to church no birds, hounds, rabbits or other frivolous things that promote indiscipline; and any nun who does to the contrary, after three warnings shall fast on bread and water on one Saturday for each offence, notwithstanding one discipline to be received publicly in chapter on the same day…. Item, whereas through the hunting-dogs and other hounds abiding within your monastic precincts, the alms that should be given to the poor are devoured and the church and cloister and other places set apart for divine and secular services are foully defiled, contrary to all honesty, and whereas, through their inordinate noise, divine service is frequently troubled, therefore we strictly command and enjoin you, Lady Abbess, in virtue of obedience, that you remove these dogs altogether and that you suffer them never henceforth, nor any other such hounds, to abide within the precincts of your nunnery.
But the crusade against pets was not more successful than the crusade against fashions. The feminine fondness for something small and alive to pet was not easily eradicated and it seems that visitors were sometimes obliged to indulge it. The wording of Peckham’s decree leaves an opening for the retention of one humble and very self-effacing little dog, not prone to unseemly yelps and capers before the stony eye of my lord the Archbishop on his rounds; Dean Kentwode in the fifteenth century ordered the Prioress of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, to remove dogs “and content herself with one or two”, and in 1520 the Prioress of Flixton was bidden to send all dogs away from the convent “except one which she prefers”. Perhaps the welcome of a thumping tail and damp, insinuating nose occasionally overcame the scruples even of a Bishop, who probably kept dogs himself and mourned
if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte.
Dogs kept for hunting purposes come into rather a different category. It is well known that medieval monks were mighty[Pg 308] hunters before the Lord, and the mention of sporting dogs at Romsey and at Brewood (where Bishop Norbury found canes venatici) encourages speculation as to whether the nuns also were not “pricasours aright” and
yaf not of that text a pulled hen
That seith that hunters been nat holy men.
It is significant that Dame Juliana Berners is supposed by tradition (unsupported, however, by any other evidence) to have been a prioress of Sopwell. The gift of hunting rights to a nunnery is a common one; for instance, Henry II granted to Wix the right of having two greyhounds and four braches to take hares through the whole forest of Essex. Doubtless these rights were usually exercised by proxy; but considering the popularity of hunting and hawking as sports for women, a popularity so great that no lady’s education was complete if she knew not how to manage a hawk and bear herself courteously in the field, it is[Pg 309] surprising that there is not actual mention of these pastimes among nuns as well as among monks.
Besides gay clothes and pets other frivolous amusements broke at times the monotony of convent life. Dancing and mumming and minstrelsy were not unknown and the nuns shared in the merrymaking on feasts sacred and profane, as is witnessed by the account rolls of St Mary de Pré (1461-90), with their list of payments for wassail at New Year and Twelfth Night, for May games, for bread and ale on bonfire nights and for harpers and players at Christmas. In 1435 the nuns of Lymbrook were forbidden “all maner of mynstrelseys, enterludes, daunsyng or reuelyng with in your sayde holy place”, and about the same time Dean Kentwode wrote to St Helen’s Bishopsgate: “Also we enioyne you that all daunsyng and reuelyng be utterly forborne among yow, except Christmasse and other honest tymys of recreacyone among yowre self usyd in absence of seculars in all wyse”. The condemnation of dancing in nunneries is not surprising, for the attitude of medieval moralists generally to this pastime is summed up in Etienne de Bourbon’s aphorism, “The Devil is the inventor and governor and disposer of dances and dancers”. Minstrels were similarly under the ban of the church, and clerks were forbidden by canon law and by numerous papal, conciliar and episcopal injunctions to listen to their “ignominious art”, a regulation which, needless to say, went unobeyed in an age when many a bishop had his private histrio, and when the same stern reformer Grosseteste, who warned his clergy “ne mimis, ioculatoribus aut histrionibus intendant,” loved so much to hear the harp that he kept his harper’s chamber “next hys chaumbre besyde hys stody”. Langland asserts that churchmen and laymen alike spent on[Pg 310] minstrels money with which they well might have succoured the poor:
Clerkus and knyȝtes · welcometh kynges mynstrales,
And for loue of here lordes · lithen hem at festes;
Muche more, me thenketh · riche men auhte
Haue beggars by-fore hem · which beth godes mynstrales.
Even in monasteries they found a ready welcome and the reforming council of Oxford passed an ineffectual decree forbidding their performances to be seen or heard or allowed before the abbot or monks, if they came to a house for alms. Indeed there was sometimes need for care. Where but at one of those minstrelsies or interludes forbidden at Lymbrook did sister Agnes of St Michael’s Priory, Stamford, meet a jongleur, who sang softly in her ear that Lenten was come with love to town? The Devil (alas) had all the good tunes, even in the fifteenth century. “One Agnes, a nun of that place,” reported the Prioress, “has gone away into apostasy cleaving to a harp-player, and they dwell together, as it is said, in Newcastle-on-Tyne”. For her no longer the strait discipline of her rule, the black-robed nuns[Pg 311] and heaven at the end. For her the life of the roads, the sore foot and the light heart; for her the company of ribalds with their wenches, and all the thriftless, shiftless player-folk; for her, at the last, hell, with “the gold and the silver and the vair and the gray, … harpers and minstrels and kings of the world”, or a desperate hope that the Virgin’s notorious kindness for minstrels might snatch her soul from perdition.
But the merrymakers in nunneries were not necessarily strange jongleurs or secular folk. The dancing and revelry, which were forbidden at Lymbrook and allowed in Christmastime at St Helen’s, were probably connected with the children’s feast of St Nicholas. As early as the twelfth century the days immediately before and after Christmas had become, in ecclesiastical circles, the occasion for uproarious festivities. The three days after Christmas were appropriated by the three orders of the Church. On St Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26) the deacons performed the service, elected their Abbot of Fools and paraded the streets, levying contributions from the householders and passers-by; on St John the Evangelist’s Day (Dec. 27) the deacons gave way to the priests, who “gave a mock blessing and proclaimed a ribald form of indulgence”; and on Innocents’ Day it was the turn of the choir or schoolboys to hold their feast. In cathedral and monastic churches the Boy Bishop (who had been elected on December 5th, the Eve of St Nicholas, patron saint of schoolboys) attended service on the eve of Innocents’ Day, and at the words of the Magnificat “He hath put down the mighty from their seat” changed places with the Bishop or Dean or Abbot, and similarly the canons and other dignitaries of the church changed places with the boys. On Innocents’ Day all services, except the essential portions of the mass, were performed by the Boy Bishop; he and his staff processed through the streets, levying large contributions of food and money and for about a fortnight[Pg 312] his rule continued, accompanied by feasting and merrymaking, plays, disguisings and dances. These Childermas festivities took place in monastic as well as in secular churches, but they seem to have been more common in nunneries than in male communities. Our chief information about the revelries comes from Archbishop Eudes Rigaud’s province of Rouen; but English records also contain scattered references to the custom. Evidently a Girl Abbess or Abbess of Fools was elected from among the novices, and at the Deposuit she and her fellow novices, or the little schoolgirls, took the place of the Abbess and nuns, just as the Boy Bishop held sway in cathedral churches, and feasting, dancing and disguising brought a welcome diversion into the lives of both nuns and children. Even the strict Peckham was obliged to extend a grudging consent to the puerilia solemnia held on Innocents’ Day at Barking and at Godstow (1279), insisting only that they should not be continued during the whole octave of Childermas-tide and should be conducted with decency and in private:
The celebration of the Feast of Innocents by children, which we do not approve, but rather suffer with disapproval, is on no account to be undertaken by those children, nor are they to take any part in it, until after the end of the vespers of St John the Evangelist’s Day; and the nuns are not to retire from the office, but having excluded from the choir all men and women … they are themselves to supply the absence of the little ones lest (which God forbid) the divine praise should become a mockery.
A more specific reference still is found at Carrow in 1526; Dame Joan Botulphe deposed at a visitation that it was customary at Christmas for the youngest nun to hold sway for the day as abbess and on that day (added the soured ancient) was consumed and dissipated everything that the house had acquired by alms or by the gift of friends. The connection between these revels and the Feast of Fools appears clearly in the injunction sent by Bishop Longland to Nuncoton about the same time:
[Pg 313]We chardge you, lady priores, that ye suffre nomore hereafter eny lorde of mysrule to be within your house, nouther to suffre hereafter eny suche disgysinge as in tymes past haue bene used in your monastery in nunnes apparell ne otherwise.
The admission of seculars dressed up as nuns, and of boys dressed up as women, the performance of interludes and the wild dancing were reason enough for the distaste with which ecclesiastical authorities regarded these festivities. For the nuns clearly did not exclude strangers as Peckham had bidden. Indeed it seems probable that where they did not elect a Girl Abbess, they admitted a Boy Bishop, either from some neighbouring church, or just possibly one of their own little schoolboys. Among the accounts of St Swithun’s monastery at Winchester for 1441 there is a payment
for the boys of the Almonry together with the boys of the chapel of St Elizabeth, dressed up after the manner of girls, dancing, singing and performing plays before the Abbess and nuns of St Mary’s Abbey in their hall on the Feast of Innocents;
and the account of Christian Bassett, Prioress of St Mary de Pré, contains an item “paid for makyng of the dyner to the susters upon Childermasday iij s iiij d, item paid for brede and ale for seint Nicholas clerks iij d”. The inventories of Cheshunt and Sheppey at the time of the Dissolution contain further references to the custom and seem to show that nunneries occasionally “ran” a St Nicholas Bishop of their own: at Cheshunt there was found in the dorter “a chisell (chasuble) of white ffustyan and a myter for a child bysshoppe at xx d”, and at Sheppey, in a chapel, “ij olde myters for S. Nicholas of fustyan brodered”.
It is impossible for a cat-lover to leave the whole nation of cats under this terrific curse. Yet literature will supply no nunnery cat beside the unhappy Gyb and the uncharacterised cat of the Ancren Riwle. We must needs turn to the monks, and borrow the truer estimate of feline qualities made in the eighth century by an exiled Irish student, who sat over his books in a distant monastery of Carinthia, and wrote upon the margin of his copy of St Paul’s Epistles this little poem on his white cat:
I and Pangur Bán, my cat,
’Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
’Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He, too, plies his simple skill.
’Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
’Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
’Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O! how glad is Pangur then;
O! what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love.
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night,
Turning darkness into light.
O cat! even at the cost of relevancy we have done thee honour.
 “Ye shall not possess any beasts, my dear sisters, except only a cat.” Ancren Riwle, p. 316. At the nunnery of Langendorf in Saxony, however, a set of reformed rules drawn up in the early fifteenth century contains the proviso “Cats, dogs and other animals are not to be kept by the nuns, as they detract from seriousness.” Eckenstein, op. cit. p. 415.