Cordula Van Wyhe (ed.), Female Monasticism in Early Modern Europe. An Interdisciplinary View, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2008.

Cordula Van Wyhe (ed.), Female Monasticism in Early Modern Europe.  An Interdisciplinary View, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2008. £60, ISBN 978 0 7546 5337 0 (hardback), pp.  xviii + 281.

Reviewed by Laurence Lux-Sterritt, LERMA, University of Aix-Marseille, France, September 2009.

Ashgate’s series on Catholic Christendom, 1300-1700 is one of the major outlets for interdisciplinary research dealing with early modern Catholicism; its catalogue is impressive, and the works published  have often opened new avenues of research, or reappraised long-held views in the light of new evidence and different approaches.  Cordula Van Wyhe’s edited collection of essays therefore fits well within the series: it aims at reappraising post-Tridentine female monasticism, in an effort to move away from the simplistic representation of convents as places of restriction, passivity and stifling control.

The inner structure of the volume has been carefully thought out: its twelve essays are divided into four parts exploring in turn the diverse aspects of monastic life and drawing out its nuances and local particularities.  In the first section on  ‘Femininity and Sanctity’,  Helen Hills, Ulrike Strasser and Margit Thøfner  respectively offer case studies of aristocratic nuns of Naples,  of Sister Clara Hortulana of the Munich Poor Clares, and of the early iconography of Teresa of Avila.  These engaging essays demonstrate convincingly that early modern nuns and their supporters developed efficient strategies and used common sociological and religious patterns in order to access a specifically female type of sanctity through their sometimes unorthodox use of relics, of demonic possession as a way to martyrdom, or of hagio-iconographical representations.

The second section, on  ‘Convent Theatre and Music Making’, explores  the roles of music and theatre in Spanish and Italian convents.  Colleen Baade demonstrates that although highly elaborate music was considered as a threat to contemplation by clerical authorities, the nuns from the Monasterio de le Piedad at Guadalajara argued it enhanced the Office and their devotions.  Yet the essay remains descriptive, and does not leave enough room for broader contextualization.  This applies also to Robert Kendrick’s essay which,  since it deals with both seventeenth and twentieth century issues, is rather difficult to follow for those without much knowledge of that particular topic.  Finally, Elissa Weaver offers an interesting analysis of four plays featuring wise and foolish virgins in Tuscan convents; yet she says little of the wider implications of her  study, which leaves the reader wondering how this would relate to the theatrical practices in other convents at the time.  Thus, although the section on music and theatre offers insightful studies, it lacks an overall sense of argument and context, and would perhaps be the weakest section of the volume.

Part III on ‘Spiritual Directorship’, taken as a whole, presents a nuanced picture of female spiritual leadership in Early Modern Spain, France and the Low Countries.   Teresian spirituality is of particular relevance to all three essays, which dwell on various aspects of female spiritual authority and its relationship with male institutions.  Although Jodi Bilinkoff’s essay on spiritual friendships between men and women begins with Teresa of Avila’s Spain, it goes beyond national boundaries to consider overarching European themes.   The tensions in religious inter-sex relationships are echoed in Barbara Diefendorf’s analysis of  the French Barbe Acarie’s roles as spiritual director and administrator.  Here, Diefendorf moves  away from the more usual emphasis on Acarie as a mystic, and counter balances historiographical trends which, according to her, have overlooked female authority to focus on female subjection to clerical authority.  Finally, through her analysis of iconographical representations of Teresian mystic life in the Low Countries, Cordula Van Wyhe demonstrates that this spirituality evolved after Teresa’s death, to involve new interpretations of the founding principles of the order.   Thus, Van Wyhe’s essay is linked to the others by its focus on Teresian spirituality, although it does not echo the themes of gender relations and authority.

In the fourth and final part on ‘Community and Conflict’, children, gossip and war, though usually considered as threats to conventual harmony, are somewhat rehabilitated.  Alison Weber offers a fascinating insight into the place of young girls in Discalced Carmelite Convents.  She demonstrates that Teresa of Avila did not show any of the Tridentine reserve against children in the cloister.  Although the care of such young charges occasioned special friendships to develop, Teresa did not see those as a threat to her order’s spiritual life, but as an opportunity to lead young souls to a spiritual disposition.   In her study of the English Benedictine convent of Brussels, Claire Walker similarly deconstructs the role of gossiping in religious life: like children, gossiping has long been held as a disruptive influence in the cloister. Yet Walker convincingly argues that it may have played a more positive role as an avenue for women to express their dissent or to restore peace in a troubled house.  Gossip could therefore foster a house’s sense of spiritual, communal and even political identity.  Finally, Charlotte Woodford demonstrates that even war could foster such a sense of belonging to a shared identity.  She shows that, when writing about the impact of the Swedish conflict (1630-35) during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), abbess Elisabeth Herold of Oberschönenfeld and Maria Anna Junius of Bamberg justified or, on the contrary, challenged the choices taken by their communities.  These accounts reclaim Christian values such as steadfastness, fortitude and patience, in what Woodford calls the ‘Christianisation of stoicism’ (p. 258).  Through their rationalization of their communities’ decisions, and their analysis of their consequences, both authors hoped to strengthen the faith of their readers, to invite them to trust in the divine providence and bring them solace.

Although Teresian spirituality is given a lot of room, the volume is to be praised for its effort at representing Europe at large rather than the more studied Spain or Italy (even more so since the conference which led to the book focused particularly on Italy).   Inevitably, as in all edited collections, the essays are a little disparate; although some function extremely well together, others are less easily linked to the book’s overall argument and could have been steeped more firmly within the volume’s rationale.  With this in mind, it is perhaps regrettable that the general introduction is rather short (8 pages): as such, it offers little more than brief introductions to each essay, whereas a broader contextualization of early modern monasticism in Europe would have been precious to draw out some of the general themes which function as a common background to individual essays.  Similarly, a few words on the current historiography of the subject would have been most welcome.  Yet on the whole, this volume remains a valuable addition to the Catholic Christendom series; it is an informative read for scholars interested in early modern European monasticism, with some articles offering fresh perspectives and novel arguments on heretofore little studied aspects of female monastic life.