Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Phillipa Hardman (eds.), Women and Writing c. 1340-c.1650: The Domestication of Print Culture  (Manuscript Culture in the British Isles 2), York: York Medieval Press, 2010 & E.A.. Jones and Alexandra Walsham (eds.), Syon Abbey and its Books.  Reading, Writing and Religion c.1400-1700 (Studies in Modern British Religious History 24), Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010. 

Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Phillipa Hardman (eds.), Women and Writing c. 1340-c.1650: The Domestication of Print Culture  (Manuscript Culture in the British Isles 2), York: York Medieval Press, 2010. £50, ISBN 978-1-90315-332-1 (hardback), pp. x + 238 and

E.A.. Jones and Alexandra Walsham (eds.), Syon Abbey and its Books.  Reading, Writing and Religion c.1400-1700(Studies in Modern British Religious History 24), Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010.  £50, ISBN 978-1-84383-547-9 (hardback), pp.xvi + 267.

Reviewed by Laurence Lux-Sterritt, LERMA, University of Aix-Marseille, November 2010.

These two publications testify to the current interest in the field of research focusing on women’s relationships with written material, either in printed or in manuscript form.  Since Joan Kelly’s famous interrogation (‘Did Women Have a Renaissance?’, in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. R. Bridenthal and C. Koonz, New York, 1977), much research has been undertaken to reveal a rich and nuanced picture of women as book owners and readers but also as copyists, translators and writers.  A number of the essays published in these two collections were penned by the main contributors to that debate. They put to rest the now dated assumption that women did not enjoy sufficient levels of literacy to be of significance in the history of the book in the late medieval and early modern England.

Women and Writingfocuses upon the roles played by lay women in the gradual transition from medieval manuscripts to early printed books.  Its eleven essays propose very detailed case-studies focusing on selected works and their female owners, transcribers or authors.  They give fascinating glimpses into varied types of books, such as household miscellanies (Phillipa Hardman), commonplace books (Adam Smyth), books of hours and almanacs (Anne Lawrence-Mathers), personal and spiritual writings (Alice Eardley), books of poetry ( Gemma Allen, Alison Wiggins, Elizabeth Heale, C.B. Hardman) or even pamphlets such as the female-authored replies to Joseph Swetman’s misogynistic Araignment of lewde, idle, forward, and unconstant Women(1615) (Anna Bayman). The cross-over between the private and the public spheres is also analysed through the case studies of some women’s correspondence, as in the essays by James Daybell and Graham Williams. All the essays offer in-depth analyses of their respective objects of study, dealing both with their contents, their themes, their linguistics but also with the physical evidence derived from various manuscript addenda and marginal inscriptions.  Such careful studies allow the books they describe, as physical objects, to tell something of their lives in certain families, where they were passed on and transformed from one generation to the next.  They also highlight the intimate relationships that women had with these books, and their conscious and deliberate agency both in the public circulation of politically-engaged texts and in the domestic transmission of a certain cultural heritage.

Syon Abbey and its Booksechoes Women and Writingsince it deals with the religious aspects of female involvement in print culture.  It is focused upon the Bridgettine sisters of Syon Abbey, an Order founded in 1415 by Henry V.  After the 1539 Henrician dissolution of the monasteries, the Bridgettines were the first English Order to seek asylum on the Continent, where they experienced several decades of peregrination before finally settling in Lisbon in 1594. The eight essays of this collection are organized in pairs to deal with four main themes.  The first essays offer welcome contextualisation and illustrate in turn the relationships of the Syon brothers and sisters with general learning (Peter Cunich and Virginia R. Bainbridge) and the role played by Syon Abbey in the emerging European book trade (Vincent Gillespie and C. Annette Grisé).  Looking more closely at the community’s history of strife and survival, they then highlight the importance of books for the survival of a religious community in exile (Claire Walker and Caroline Bowden), and the key function of texts to preserve memory and construct the history of such a community (Claes Gejrot and Ann M. Hutchison).

The general picture which emerges from all the essays is that of a double community where not only the monks but also the nuns nurtured a rich relationship with books.  The Rule of St Bridget insisted upon poverty but for the exception of the ownership of books, and the nuns followed precise instructions to take great care of the treasures of their library.  Books were an integral part of their daily lives in matters of liturgy and private devotion  They also played a role in the convent’s interaction with other exiled nunneries and with its network of lay support, either locally in Portugal or in recusant circles in England.  Each essay contributes to the further dispelling of the image, advocated by Eileen Power, of the illiterate nun whose grasp of Latin barely allowed her to repeat the words of her service book without ever having a full understanding of their meaning.  Yet, they all point out that Syon was a rather exceptional community in many respects. The richest nunnery in England, it was highly respected for its integrity and spirituality even upon the eve of the Reformation, and even by adversaries of religious Orders such as Cromwell himself.  By establishing itself on the Continent much earlier than other convents, it also pioneered the paradigm of English monastic life in exile.  Finally, its Rule integrated the use of books into the religious manner of life of the Bridgettines, which was not the case for other communities.

Hence, from the point of view of the essays they gather, both collections represent highly valuable developments in the growing field of the history of print culture, and of its rapport with women.  There are, however, striking discrepancies in the manner in which the collections were edited.  E.A. Jones’s and Alexandra Walsham’s editing work is thorough and rigorous.  Their introduction takes the form of a full-length essay which retraces the relevant events of the history of Syon Abbey whilst placing the collection’s global argument within the context the ever-evolving historiographical debate.  Thanks to this introductory essay, the collection is rationalised as an entity which is more than the sum of its separate parts; the essays are linked together by a common focus, they sometimes refer the reader to each other.  Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Phillipa Hardman, on their parts, made different editorial choices.  Some notes on contributors would have been informative, for instance, but the main disappointment is the general introduction.  This begins promisingly but quickly glosses over historiographical concerns to become a list of summaries which (and this is quite disconcerting), each contain whole sentences which are literally copied from the introductions of the essays themselves.  The consequence is both a repetition and a sense that the collection is a sequence of self-contained essays rather than a cohesive whole.

However, despite these formal reservations, there is no doubt that both volumes, from their different perspectives (one entirely secular, the other religious and Catholic), offer new insights into the roles of women during the early developments of print culture.  They also both are beautiful objects printed on high-quality paper, bound in solid hardback and richly illustrated. Fittingly for studies on print culture, they therefore ally the intellectual delight caused by welcome advances in research with the aesthetic pleasure derived from a handsome book.