Caroline Bowden (gen. ed.), English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800, Pickering & Chatto, London, 2012.

Caroline Bowden (gen. ed.), English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800, Pickering & Chatto, London, 2012. £275.00/$495.00, ISBN 9781848932142

  • Volume 1: History Writing(ed. Caroline Bowden) 322pp.
  • Volume 2: Spirituality(ed. Laurence Lux-Sterritt) 532pp.
  • Volume 3: Life Writing I(ed. Nicky Hallett; contrib. eds. Elizabeth Perry and Victoria Van Hyning) 411pp.


Reviewed by: Marie-Louise Coolahan, National University of Ireland, Galway


The ‘Who Were the Nuns? Project’ is drawing to a close and its outcomes are being published thick and fast. As members of the H-WRBI will know, the online database providing detailed information about the membership of the exiled English convents has been available for some months. Katherine Keats-Rohan’s family trees have also been available online and are soon to be published on CD.In April, the first three of six Pickering & Chatto editions of texts produced by and relating to the convents were published, under the general editorship of Caroline Bowden. These constitute a tremendous work of scholarship and archival retrieval. These three volumes are organised around two genres – history writing and life writing – and one, crucial theme: spirituality. They are comprehensive compendia of previously unpublished material that transform accessibility to the capacious range of texts read, used and written by the exiled nuns. The editors have selected their texts with an eye to supplementing what is already available. Hence, for example, the recently edited documents of the Mary Ward Institute are omitted. In addition, the ‘Who Were the Nuns?’ (WWTN) website goes some distance in easing access to already printed sources in its provision of Catholic Record Society editions in PDF format on the Resources page. The Pickering & Chatto project is particularly timely given the fluidity of archival locations in the current climate: the Poor Clare archive at Darlington, for example, moved to Much Birch in Herefordshire in 2007; the papers of the Bridgettines of Syon Abbey were received by the University of Exeter during the preparation of the volumes. Such shifting sands render the project even more valuable.

All three volumes are expertly annotated, with introductions that frame our understanding of the texts in terms of provenance and historical context, genre, and their material condition. Caroline Bowden’s general introduction in Volume 1 maps the big picture. Although Margaret Clement was elected prioress of the Flemish-English convent at Louvain in 1569, and the Bridgettines left England in 1568, the first dedicated convent on the Continent for English women religious was the Benedictine foundation at Brussels in 1598. In total, 24 convents are included in the WWTN project, including the Mary Ward Institute (which established a school at Hammersmith in 1669 and the Bar Convent, York, in 1686) and the later Carmelite foundation at Port Tobacco, Maryland (founded 1790). The introduction supplies a very useful table that outlines patterns of recruitment according to decade and individual convent; the total number of recruits between 1600 and 1800 was 3,271. The period of continental exile had come to a close for most convents by 1800, as convents were suppressed in the aftermath of the French Revolution and Catholic worship was legalized in England. The vast majority of the convents returned to England during 1794-5, although the English Augustinians at Paris remained, as did the Irish convent at Ypres (until the war in 1914). The ‘Notes on Convents’ section, providing a summary history of each convent is an excellent port of call for easy reference.

Volume 1 is focused on history writing and prefaced by a succinct essay that contextualizes the genre. Written to create corporate identity and to inspire later members, these histories, chronicles and annals were composed under devotional circumstances that mitigated against the attribution of individual authorship. The text edited in this volume is the chronicle of the Poor Clare convent at Rouen. Of the surviving three volumes of this chronicle, the first two – covering the period from foundation in 1644 through to 1768 – are edited here. The main scribe was Sr. Cecily Cornwallis, with various hands taking up the role after her death in 1737. Two reproductions nicely illustrate the change in page layout and narrative presentation that resulted. Extracts from these volumes, published by Ann Forster in Recusant History, may be known to members of the H-WRBI; here we have the volumes in full. They are replete with accounts of the hardships involved in establishing a new foundation: the journey from Gravelines to Rouen, the fundraising and labour involved in the new monastery’s piecemeal construction. They detail the realities of daily life in the convents, new entrants and scholars, professions, elections and deaths. Prominent among accounts of new recruits are stories that reflect well on the convent itself: those who resisted parental wishes to join the convent or who converted from Protestantism. Royal visits and the patronage of the nobility are described, along with the impact of external events such as the plague of 1668, Titus Oates’ plot of 1678, and the impact of the exiled Jacobite court at St. Germain. We see how crucial the convent chronicle was as a repository of official documentation, as various texts, contracts, letters and approbations are transcribed into the manuscript. As with many convents, they experienced disputes over clerical authority, in this case between their own confessor and the local curé, and the community pursued allegiances with the monks of La Trappe. Letters were received from the French Poor Clares at Verdun and Paris relating their celebrations for the canonization of Catherine of Bologna in 1712.

Volume 2, edited by Laurence Lux-Sterritt, compiles an enormous range of texts that attest to early modern nuns’ spirituality. The editor does an excellent job of steering us through this voluminous and varied material. Coverage is broad, including the Augustinian, Benedictine, Poor Clare and Sepulchrine orders (Lux-Sterritt explains that her focus on spirituality is not well served by surviving Franciscan or Dominican documents). Arranged in five parts, the volume represents the spectrum of prescribed and experienced spirituality in the convents. Each text or excerpt is individually introduced, thus locating it in its wider contexts as well as drawing out local specificities. ‘Part I: The Stages of a Nun’s Life’ compiles documents relating to the full cycle of vocation, from the reception of novices to their instruction and preparations for death. The inclusion of two eighteenth-century examinations reminds us forcefully of the multilingual contexts of exiled religious experience: the questions posed in French, answered in English, and translated for the French files. ‘Part II: Spiritual Instructions and Guidance’ gathers texts by nuns and their male advisors setting out ideal practice and performance of devotion. Jesuit influences are evident in the sensual emphases of Ignatian meditation. ‘Part III: Rules and Liturgy’ focuses on prescriptions for communal rather than personal devotion, compiling extracts from the orders’ Rules but also texts that interpreted them for the community.

The final two sections demonstrate the ways in which the women put into practice the didactic texts they read. ‘Part IV: Hagiography and Edification’ supplies a window into the reading of women religious: martyrological and exemplary lives and obituaries, read for inspiration. ‘Part V: Nuns’ Writings’ is – to a literary scholar like myself – the climax of this enlightening volume, as it shows how this literature was absorbed and transmuted in the devotional writings of the women themselves. It includes poems (the heroic couplet appears to be the preferred metre) as well as prayers and meditations, ranging from spiritual exercises to lyrical, passionate, expressions of mystical union with Christ. Particularly striking here is the Poor Clare meditation on the Circumcision, accompanied by pictures to which the nuns added drops of blood in red ink (reproduced in black and white in Appendix 2). The relatively well-known controversy over Fr. Augustine Baker’s spiritual instruction of the Benedictines at Cambrai, emphasising individual mystical experience over male religious authority, is represented by a series of writings that close the volume.

The Cambrai controversy is also represented in the third section of Volume 3, the first of two anthologising Life Writing (the second to be published as Pickering & Chatto Volume 4). Here, the repercussions of the dispute are felt in correspondence intercepted in 1655 by Cromwell’s intelligence officer, John Thurloe. The capture highlights the on-going threat posed by the exiled convents (harbouring and training recusants and political conspirators; draining money out of the country), while the letters reveal the dire financial straits that resulted from their refusal to surrender Baker’s manuscripts. This volume, edited by Nicky Hallett with Elizabeth Perry and Victoria Van Hyning, makes a significant contribution both to the emerging field of life writing and to our understanding of the capacious range of texts produced by women religious. Over the past decade, scholars (with Hallett at the forefront) have reconceived the category of life writing to expand the range of genres it encompasses, from traditional modes (biography, autobiography, hagiography) to include sources such as letters, diaries and petitions. In her introduction, Hallett describes the volume’s principle of organisation as the ‘professional life-cycle’ – an apposite phrase. Like Volume 2, this is arranged in sections. ‘Part I: Reading and Writing Lives’, in editing the lives of exemplary women religious, emphasizes the transnational appeal of the religious vocation. Each woman was a pioneer: Margaret Clement, prioress of St. Ursula’s Augustinian convent at Louvain; Leonor de Mendanha (edited by Perry), the only Portugese to hold the position of abbess at the Bridgettine convent in Lisbon; the Florentine mystic, Maria Maddalena de Patsi; and Lucy Knatchbull, founder of the English Benedictine community at Ghent. Once more, the centrality of translation for the activities of the religious orders is to the fore: de Mendanha’s life was written in Portuguese, de Patsi’s in Italian (the 1619 translation was dedicated to Mary Percy, abbess of the Benedictine convent in Brussels). These are complemented by obituaries from the Benedictine convents at Pontoise and Brussels – the inclusion of Knatchbull’s a fascinating counterpoint to her life. ‘Part II: Vocation, Arrival, Clothing and Profession’ offers a shorter selection with equally fruitful connections: the clothing ceremonies of Mary Percy and Dorothy Arundell may be read against their obituaries in the previous section; the profession certificates work as nice counterpoints to the two examinations printed in Volume 2.

The final section, more loosely titled ‘Daily Lives’, begins with four series of letters (edited by Van Hyning) that track correspondence between nuns and their families. Mr. Winefried Thimelby of St. Monica’s, Louvain, has garnered attention in recent years. Her family were poets as well as inveterate letter-writers and this selection may be of particular interest for the poem by her brother-in-law, the grieving widower, Herbert Aston. This reworks John Donne’s ‘A Feaver’, copied above Aston’s poem in the letter. Van Hyning has performed a great archival service in obtaining permission to publish the eighteenth-century letters of Sr. Clare Conyers (Poor Clare, Aire) to her cousin Isaac Young in Lincolnshire, still privately held by his descendant. Two Huddleston women were members of convents in Bruges and Lisbon; they wrote to family in Cambridgeshire and Paris. Other letters recount the devastating earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon, and the 1654 explosion of the town arsenal at Gravelines. Continuing the commodious approach to life writing, extracts from the Gravelines Poor Clare recipe book offer instructions for the dispenser as to what should be served and when. Poetry is also presented as a form of life writing: a jolly poem on the 1609 feast to commemorate the Augustinian foundation at Louvain was copied onto a broadsheet with an illustration of the feast (reproduced here); two poems commemorate the jubilee of individual nuns – possibly, as Hallett suggests, influenced by Alexander Pope and John Dryden, both English poets with Catholic connections. Most of these headnotes provide detailed information on the source and its current material status. A minor quibble with this volume is that the section designations, clear from the table of contents, are omitted within, disrupting the reader’s sense of the coherence of the selections.

These three volumes are already a monument to the most current scholarship on religious culture in the early modern English convents. The second instalment, Volumes 4-6, can only augment the achievement. These are superbly edited volumes that bring a wealth of new material to the public domain. They will surely set the agenda for research on English Catholicism for years to come.