Anne Bagnall Yardley, Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval English Nunneries, Palgrave Macmillan, New York and Hampshire, 2006.

Anne Bagnall Yardley, Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval English Nunneries, Palgrave Macmillan, New York and Hampshire, 2006. £40.00, ISBN-13: 978-1-4039-6299-7 (hardback), pp xvii + 326


Reviewed by: Lisa Padden, National University of Ireland, Galway, November 2008


Anne Bagnall Yardley’s monograph began as her 1975 PhD dissertation and one must wonder why this valuable study remained unpublished in full for thirty years. In her text Yardley notes that she only considered putting her work forward as a book after receiving encouragement from a colleague, but it is difficult to believe she had not received encouragement before this as the text adds a significant and unique contribution to those interested in a number of different areas. Researchers of musical history, piety and medieval culture will be grateful for this study for many years to come as Yardley’s meticulous research has resulted in a thorough study of musical culture in medieval English nunneries.

Yardley, in her introduction, methodically states the problems which she encountered within her study; time-span, place and volume of sources. While expanding on these problems Yardley allows readers to appreciate the sheer scope of the work; covering hundreds of years and exploring the sources in all of the relevant nunneries.  This text goes far beyond the reach of any other full length study on this specific topic. Though the bulk of this research was done thirty years ago, Yardley’s career and her current post as Associate Professor of Music and Associate Academic Dean at Drew Theological School, USA, has certainly served to enrich the work.

Yardley’s work stands up well when compared to other works in the general area but it is difficult to find another work which examines, in such detail, the music of medieval nunneries in England – the specifics of time and source are rarely seen in other works. One example of a work which does examine medieval religious music is Music in the Medieval English liturgy: Plainsong & Mediaeval Music Society Centennial Essays, edited by Susan Rankin and David Hiley; this collection of short studies, while useful, fails to provide the same flow of argument seen in Yardley’s full study. What is most unique about this study is its methodical survey of all relevant evidence allowing the reader to view a complete picture of the data available to modern scholars.

Following a thorough introduction in which Yardley defines the terms which she will use throughout the text, she moves on to develop her work in eight chapters. The first of these deals with the complex issue of religious rules throughout the ambitious time period covered. Yardley discusses at length the different versions of the Benedictine Rule including the Witney Early Middle English Version, the Anglo-Norman Prose Version, the Northern Prose Version, the Northern Metrical Version, the Caxton Abstract and Bishop Fox’s Translation. This interesting analysis is followed by a briefer discussion of the Augustinian Rule, the Order of Premontre, the Dominican nuns and the Order of the Minoresses. This chapter serves as a very useful and detailed discussion of how the specific rules governing the women religious affected the role of music in their everyday lives.

Chapter 2 discusses musical leadership within nunneries and includes a very interesting analysis of the regulation and specifically the teaching of music within the orders. It should also be noted that this chapter contains two very clear and interesting images; the first from the Theoretical Treatise on Music from Wherwell Abbey showing an usual set of circles, each of which contains a note and information on the note; the second image comes from Wherwell Psalter and shows a set of vocal exercises. All of the images in the book are of good quality and serve not only to break up the text but also to enrich Yardley’s discussions and analyses.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss realities of musical life within the nunneries and the everyday musical practices of the nuns, including Psalters, Hours and the Office of the Dead. These first four chapters constitute Yardley’s discussion of the normative practices within the nunneries she is examining, the remaining four chapters move on to examine more specific cases which emerge from the discussion in the opening section. Chapter 5 is perhaps the most interesting in the work; it discusses the relationship between pomp and piety, specifically the processional practices in nunneries. Yardley notes that the apparently conflicting ideas of pomp and piety come together in the procession which is at once a private journey and public display. Yardley looks closely at a number of processional sources before moving on to look at the rituals for Holy Week in detail.

Yardley moves on in chapter 6 to discuss the musical practice in the consecration of nuns. This chapter looks closely at the ritual experiences which the young girl would pass through on her religious journey looking closely at the development of sources throughout the middle ages. Chapter 7 of the text discusses Barking Abbey as a case study of Benedictine practices. This section looks at the training of the young priests of the abbey, music for mass, music for the office and the veneration of saints such as St. Ethelburga and St. Thomas of Canterbury. Chapter 8 is another specific study, this time taking as its subject the Bridgettine nuns at Syon Abbey. Yardley gives a brief history of the order as well as examining the relevant extant manuscripts from the order before looking at their spiritual formation and musical aesthetics. The chapter goes on to analyse in detail the Cantus Sororum (Song of the Sisters), the Bridgettine Liturgy, looking at antiphones, hymns and responsories, music for St. Bridget, the Lady Mass and the consecration of nuns.

In her conclusion Anne Bagnall Yardley notes that scholars may never be able to appreciate a complete picture of the role and impact of music within the nunneries she has examined because of the sources which are missing. However, Yardley also notes that there is still a great deal to be learned from the sources which have survived. In this text Yardley has brought together these sources, along with her own expertise, to produce a text of limitless value and timeless relevance to all students of music, the middles ages and women religious.