Caroline Bowden & James E. Kelly, eds, The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800. Communities, Culture and Identity, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Farnham (Surrey) and Burlington (Vermont), 2013.

Caroline Bowden & James E. Kelly, eds, The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800. Communities, Culture and Identity, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Farnham (Surrey) and Burlington (Vermont), 2013. £ 65, ISBN 9 7814 09450733 (hardback), pp. xxix + 272.

Reviewed by Janet E. Hollinshead, formerly Liverpool Hope University, November 2013.


This is an important book in many respects. The editors have assembled fourteen chapters that bring together in one volume much impressive work that has been undertaken recently in looking at the foundation, sustaining, relevance and impact of the more than twenty communities of English nuns based in continental Europe during the period c.1600-1800. These religious houses all existed in a post-Tridentine environment, and were influenced by their particular local political circumstances. Yet they were all inescapably English and dependent on England for recruits, dowries and donations. This relationship did not go just one way; the literature, texts and education of the convents reached back to the Catholics in their homeland.

The AHRC-funded ‘Who were the Nuns?’ project[1], co-ordinated and facilitated by Caroline Bowden and James Kelly, has been an immense undertaking that has provided a database that would have been beyond imagining a decade ago. The six-volume English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800[2]has allowed for the publication of many convent archives from various depositories, making available to both scholars and the wider public a range and haul of material not hitherto accessible so readily. The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800. Communities, Culture and Identity is a most welcome further product of this activity. The volume is exceptionally well-presented, and organised through four sections: Communities, Culture: Authorship and Authority, Culture: Patronage and Visual Culture, and Identity. The footnoting is extensive, and an overall bibliography and index are provided. An unexpected delight in a work of this nature is the collection of twenty-eight colour illustrations – many of them never seen widely before or never seen in colour.

The authors of the fourteen chapters comprise an international field of scholars (from the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and the United States) who are well-placed to provide the interdisciplinary approach that this volume requires. Archives from many and varied locations have been studied and a number of the chapters refer extensively to comparative issues in non-English communities. It is good that the examination of convent culture extends beyond their texts to music, illustration and portraiture.

The book’s Introduction (pp. 15) by the editors, together with Michael Questier, is apposite and satisfactorily brief. A helpful table of all of the convents with their recruitment details, decade by decade, is provided. The omission of consideration of the Mary Ward Institute is acknowledged here.

Part I (Communities) has three chapters by Elizabeth Patten, James Kelly and Caroline Bowden. To some extent, they all address the establishment of and recruitment to the English communities. Patten’s chapter addresses the tantalising issue of the Chideock community in Dorset and their connection with the foundation of the Benedictine convent in Brussels, whilst Kelly picks up again on family patronage as well as on Jesuit influence in convent recruitment from Essex. Bowden’s chapter considers the dilemma of sustaining recruitment at the same time as ensuring the reputation of the convent and the welfare of the community. Overall this section combines detailed examples within a broader consideration of the issues involved.

Part II (Culture: Authorship and Authority) has five chapters that employ considerable detective work to explore, often hidden, individual and plural authorship of convent writing. The section begins with Jenna Lay investigating the literary contacts of the Bridgettine nuns at Lisbon, and then Victoria Van Hyning disentangles the chroniclers of the Augustinian convent in Louvain in a chapter aptly titles ‘Naming Nuns’. Jaime Goodrich, likewise, examines the authorship of Lady Mary Percy at the Brussels Benedictine house. Genelle Gertz’s chapter concentrates on the writing of Dame Barbara Constable from the Benedictine community at Cambrai. Nicky Hallett’s contribution concludes this section using material from the Carmelite convent in Antwerp. The diversity of archives and convent author-identification that has been employed in this section of the book is a credit to the authors named above. Anonymity beware!

A particularly welcome contribution to the book is Part III where culture is again addressed, but this time through three chapters dealing with visual representation and music. Elizabeth Perry re-examines the content of the Arundel manuscript where the illuminations provide a chronicle that details the wanderings of the Syon community of Bridgettine nuns to Lisbon. Geoffrey Scott explores the surviving portraits of nuns both in the context of their communities and in the context of contemporary trends of portraiture in England and Europe. Table 11.1 (pp. 192-3) is so neat and precise and must have been so time-consuming to produce. Andrew Cichy uses examples from several convents to explore the nature and impact of the musical culture that they fostered.

Part IV concludes the book with three chapters exploring various aspects of identity. Marie-Louise Coolahan addresses the thorny question of identification for nuns of Irish origin, as well as providing instances of assimilation and alienation. Laurence Lux-Sterritt looks at the religious themselves and their identities within their contemplative vocations. Finally, Carmen Mangion’s chapter reaches the end of the period by examining the experiences of the communities of English nuns that found themselves in Paris during the revolutionary wars of the late eighteenth century. In this section the three chapters are in themselves of interest but perhaps do not sit together as well as those in the other sections.

Overall, it is a pleasure that all references to individual nuns contain their identification number from the ‘Who were the Nuns?’ database. It is to be hoped that this practice will be used more generally in future publications. I saw only very few minor errors, such as ‘Abbott G. Scott’ (which should be Abbot) [p.86], Dorsetshire (when this county is usually written as Dorset) [p.102], and Abbess Hart’s date of death is given as 1509 (and surely must be 1609) [p.163]. But these are only minor details, and do not detract from the fact that this is a book not to be missed by all with an interest in Catholic history, women’s history, cultural history, the history of female religious, or just ‘history’ in this period.



[2]Caroline Bowden, ed., English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800, Part I, 3 volumes, Pickering & Chatto 2012, pp. 1408; Part II, 3 volumes, Pickering & Chatto 2013, pp. 1392.