Anne Winston-Allen, Convent Chronicles: Women Writing about Women and Reform in the late Middle Ages, Penn State Press, Pennsylvania, 2005.

Anne Winston-Allen, Convent Chronicles: Women Writing about Women and Reform in the late Middle Ages, Penn State Press, Pennsylvania, 2005, pp 345.


Reviewed by Caroline Bowden, Royal Holloway, University of London, September 2007

Convent Chronicles is a fine overview of women’ religious life in fifty-two German and Dutch-speaking communities in the fifteenth century. This study, based on a substantial body of previously little or unknown texts by women religious means that Anne Winston-Allen joins a select but growing number of historians who are demonstrating just how much there is to be known about female monasticism for those prepared to search. The study has been based on long hard labour (witnessed by 100 pages of notes and bibliography) not only to locate and translate the writings but to establish the contextual framework. At the same time Winston-Allen writes clearly and fluently interpreting her material in ways which make her scholarship accessible to the general reader.

Winston-Allen describes her sources, such as chronicles, life-writing, sister-books and sermon notes, as ‘hybrid texts’ because they cross over the categories recognised by literary scholars more used to working with texts written by lay women. Writings by women religious are also unusual in the way that they are often institutional rather than individually created documents. For instance, chronicles may be reworked by the community and added to, not just as the result of the passage of time, but also for the purpose of creating or fostering community memory. Her analysis of the variety of daily life in the Canoness houses and enclosed convents is detailed. Such depth of knowledge is important not only to comprehend the conditions allowing the creativity of the members of the religious houses, but also to allow historians to work comparatively: young women in Venice (for example) may have joined convents for very different reasons from those in Bavaria. It also demonstrates as Winston-Allen herself argues, that Christine de Pizan was not alone in writing about “cities of ladies”: these fifteenth-century sister-books and chronicles celebrate the achievements and activities of earlier members of the female communities.

The subtitle indicates a particular and important angle to the study; that is the reaction of women to the reforms of the Observant movement which would radically restructure life for the Canonesses and lead to wide ranging reforms in the Dominican and Benedictine convents. Winston-Allen discusses the impact of enclosure which she argues led to an intense burst of scribal activity in Latin and the vernacular as communities turned inwards. Reforms were not always imposed by men: the nuns at St Katharina in St Gall decided to self-impose enclosure. The explosion of creativity in that convent led to the creation of a library which at one time held 500 volumes, of which 105 still survive. Elsewhere too, members of convents copied and created works of meditation, verse, prayer books, histories, song books and transcriptions of sermons some of which were beautifully illustrated. Enclosure did not entirely cut off the nuns from the world: for instance some of the texts they edited were specifically for lay readership and they maintained contacts with familial and patronage networks outside.

Chapter Four discusses opponents of reform. Here Winston-Allen was not able to find female explanations or descriptions of opposition and has to rely on male sources. Some of the attempts at imposing reform were dramatically resisted for instance at the wealthy abbey at Sonnenburg which was still resisting enclosure as late as 1612. At the Benedictine abbey of Rijnsberg populated by noble women ‘who were little acquainted with the rule’, reform was opposed to the point where the nuns hired expensive lawyers to take five requests to Rome. The situation in Germany was complicated by the arrival of Lutheran preaching in the early sixteenth-century with its opposition to the monastic life which makes it more difficult to judge the extent of the long term impact of the Observant reform movement.

On the one hand Observant reform imposed enclosure on women which is often seen as restrictive and negative, on the other (as Winston-Allen argues) there are other ways of looking at it. For instance enclosure was seen by some women religious as a way of keeping out intrusive laity and gaining some tranquillity. It also led as we have seen to the growth of communal libraries and the creation of innumerable texts. The reform dislodged the nobility from their entrenched positions in some elite religious houses and opened up the orders to an influx of devout religious.

Winston-Allen considers methodological issues and ways of interpreting writings by women religious which are applicable outside her period. For instance, she argues that the chronicles are works of imaginative literary self-depictions as much as they are factual documents because they were written with particular purposes in mind to serve the communities. These (wherever possible) are the voices of medieval women heard (unusually) unmediated by men and for this reason Winston-Allen gives long extracts to illustrate her discussions. The well-chosen illustrations, although few in number, are indicative of a variety of intellectual pursuits and artistic patronage.