Elizabeth Makowski, English Nuns and the Law in the Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge and Rochester, 2012.

Elizabeth Makowski, English Nuns and the Law in the Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge and Rochester, 2012. £60.00,  978-1-84383-786-2 (hardback) 198pp


Reviewed by: Gillian Kenny, Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies Trinity College Dublin, February 2013.

In this volume Elizabeth Makowski attempts to outline and assess the ‘extent to which the material and spiritual health of mendicant and Bridgettine communities depended upon the work done by professional lawyers on their behalf’ (p. 174). In this, I believe, she has very much succeeded.  It is very clear, as Makowski claims, that the successful continuance of established communities of cloistered nuns in later medieval England can be definitely linked to the evolution of a class of legal professionals (p. 169).  In recent years the role of women in both monasticism and in legal history has been more thoroughly investigated and this book manages to combine the two topics extremely well. In particular, it is a very worthy and equally thought provoking successor to Makowski’s own Canon Law and Cloistered Women.  She has now chosen to detail a fascinating period of both legal and religious women’s history in England after Periculoso (1298) had been promulgated and just as a professional legal class who could attend to enclosed women’s legal needs was emerging.  She meticulously investigates and documents those legal officers who acted on behalf of enclosed nuns in both Church and secular courts.  As she demonstrates in this work, these men were crucial in maintaining the monasteries’ economic independence and ability to engage with the wider world.  It is usually patrons who are associated with a religious house’s ability to prosper but, as Makowski illustrates, in the case of enclosed communities their lawyers were just as important as their patrons.   Sometimes, indeed, they fulfilled both roles.

The book emphasises this synergy and also the close family and regional connections which often existed between litigious abbesses and the lawyers they hired.  At times, the lawyers and the enclosed nuns in this study have an almost symbiotic relationship. For without the growth of the professional lawyer, in what Makowski refers to as the ‘age of legal professionalization’ (p. 55) nuns who wished to engage in the spiritual rigour of an enclosed life would not have been free to do so. She demonstrates the truth of this by, in the first section of her book, documenting the establishment of the six mendicant and Bridgettine houses in England and linking their success with the concomitant growth of the professional lawyer class who argued their cases in court. In the second section of the book her focus shifts and she examines cases concerning the different foundations which further establish the necessary link between successful enclosed houses and the men who they hired to look after their legal affairs.

Her dissection of the relationships between enclosed women and the active lawyers who spoke for them is achieved in a subtle and engaging way. She details abbesses, hidden behind walls, whose money and connections enabled them to stand up to powerful men including bishops and kings.  Her description of the dispute between the wealthy abbess of Syon and Henry VI in particular excellently illustrates a ‘perfect storm’ of wilful king, aristocratic abbess and skilled lawyers (pp. 85-95).  Equally formidable is the Prioress of Dartford, Elizabeth Cressener, who found herself in opposition to Thomas Cromwell in the early 1530s (pp. 95-100).  Both women employed the best legal help to argue their cases in the face of both threatened and actual dispossession.  Enclosed as they were, this did not stop the nuns vigorously defending their legal rights or, indeed, carrying on a feud. Their memories at being slighted were long; as late as 1937 the nuns of Syon continued to omit Henry VI’s name from their prayers because he had attempted to dispossess them (pp. 85-6).

A look at the bibliography only serves to confirm the impression generated from reading the book; that Makowski’s use of sources is comprehensive and that these are marshalled in an effective and extremely readable way.  In the production of this work, she has collated and used an enormous amount of material from what she rightly claims are ‘highly technical legal records’ (p. 11) whose sheer numbers and detail somewhat makes up for the lack of other sources for these houses such as visitation records which are not available from enclosed communities. From these legal records she has created a work in which the social and religious changes of the mid to late thirteenth century affecting both legal practice and the establishment of enclosed communities of nuns are explained, discussed and analysed in a work that will be of interest to not only historians of female religious but also students of legal history and, indeed, of gender and society in general during the later medieval period. Makowski’s work on this topic deserves praise. She has produced an elegant and masterful study of a little known aspect of the history of nuns in later medieval England.  She deserves to be congratulated for demonstrating exactly how enclosed women, using a veritable army of lawyers, advocates and proctors, could influence and manage their destinies using the courts of Crown and Church despite having no direct contact with the outside world.