Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Susan Marti, eds., Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008. Translated by Dietlinde Hamburger.

Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Susan Marti, eds., Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008. Translated by Dietlinde Hamburger. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-231-13980-9 (hardback), pp. xxiii + 318.

Reviewed by: Jessica Harris, Queen Mary College, University of London, December 2010

Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuriesstands out as a remarkable book because it brings together the diverse approaches, methodologies and backgrounds of many scholars in one volume. The essays originally accompanied the 2005 exhibition Krone und Schleier: Kunst aus mittelalterlichen Frauenklöstern(Crown and Veil: Art from Female Monasteries of the Middle Ages) held simultaneously at the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn and at the Ruhrlandmuseum in Essen.  This was an important exhibition that, for the first time, looked at the material culture of European female monasticism across a very large time-span.  The book (translated from the German) is useful for this reason: not only does it provide access to some of the images from the exhibition; fundamentally, the essays address an incredibly broad range of subjects, periods and countries and unite the work of scholars from around the world.

The majority of the chapters concentrate on the German Empire but also included are works on Gaul, Italy and England.  There is an excellent foreword by Caroline Walker Bynum and a concise and thought-provoking introduction by Jeffrey F. Hamburger.  Both scholars discuss the issue of the relative lack of attention to the visual culture of women religious, in particular up to the 1980s; the need for the sources that do exist to be studied in depth and the importance of setting this debate in its own framework, separating it if necessary from the pre-existing language and themes of male monasticism and visual culture. However, there is an awareness that there is a great deal of work still to be done to move this into the realm of gender history and the desire for substantial comparative works to be carried out.

The first three chapters introduce key questions and historiographical issues.  These themes include the long-debated issue of public versus private devotion; male decision-making and the role of the confessor; barriers; exclusion; space; exemplars and the fluid nature of the concept of the sacred versus the secular. Chapter three, ‘The Art of Religious Women in the Middle Ages’ by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Robert Suckale, looks at the education of nuns and addresses the “emotional imagery” of certain visual arts such as the Marian images; panel paintings; the bridegroom and bride metaphor and the influence of the Song of Songs.  This chapter effectively handles the link between imagery and devotion without resorting to sensationalistic writing.  The authors successfully connect the visual and intellectual side of female spirituality with a memorial culture: Pilgerschaft im Geist(pilgrimages in spirit) which allowed the living to suffer alongside the dead.  These scholars also do not over-emphasise the mystical nature of nuns’ worship and “erotic” imagery which although relevant can often be over-played to the detriment of other arguments.

Other key themes that recur throughout the rest of the wide-ranging chapters are issues of devotional space in ‘The Architecture of Female Monasticism in the Middle Ages’ and ‘Sacramental Services, Spiritual Edification, Ethical Discipline’.  This theme is also discussed by Gabriela Signori in chapter twelve, ‘Visitors, Letters, Wills, and Gifts as Means of Communication in Exchanges Between  Cloister and the World’, with the “separation” of the convent and “movement” between the two worlds with letters, visitors, gifts and even artwork.  This culture of communication and exchange is highlighted alongside the paradoxical relationship between women religious and men (pastors, confessors, even patrons): with the need for self-sufficiency on the one-hand yet the idea that these men were responsible for the deliverance of their souls on the other.  The “constraints” placed on women by men is also a vital theme throughout the book: in ‘Some Thoughts About a Modern Historiography of Medieval Monasticism’ and ‘Patterns of Female Piety in the Later Middle Ages’, the scholars discuss the need to set these images within the context of the convent and to try to decipher the women’s own voices.  The use of material culture in commemoration is also stressed: Gisela Muschiol in chapter eight, ‘Liturgy and Rite in Female Monasteries of the Middle Ages’, writes about intercessory prayers and their part in legitimising the community. Rituals, liturgical rites, depictions of exemplars in artworks or those invoked in written works provided a spiritual heritage whilst carrying and projecting exemplars and experiences into the future as well.  The physicality of the objects in one realm linked to transcendent ideas in another. Hedwig Röckelein in chapter nine, ‘Patrons of Nuns’ Convents’, also deals with this theme of creating a heritage for the community with benefactors represented in artwork and a network of martyrs and confessors used to ensure the salvation of their souls.

The physical nature of images and the connection with “female” spirituality and prayer was a particularly striking theme in Crown and Veiland one which has been considered in greater detail by scholars since the book was published.  Caroline Walker Bynum sees this theme embedded in a “misogynistic culture” and stresses the difference between “visualization” and the “visual”. (pp. xvi-xvii.)  This concerns the association of women with the body; the influence of men in the concept of the visualization of women’s piety and the actual form that women’s devotion took.  The extent to which this was believed to be a ‘feminine’ trait (informed by male views at the time) is discussed by Barbara Newman in ‘The Visionary Texts and Visual Worlds of Religious Women’ and by Caroline Walker Bynum in ‘Patterns of Female Piety in the Later Middle Ages’.  The important link between female devotion and the interaction with the different senses: the interplay of sight, touch, hearing and speech is also raised.  This combination is vital when thinking about the difficult and fluid nature of private versus public devotion, an area which needs greater research to try to bring some clarity to the topic.

The book makes it clear that the limitations of pre-existing language require these concepts to be considered in greater detail.  Throughout the chapters, the reader is made aware of the importance of not generalising and the need to exercise great care when employing terms to describe these objects (for example, the pitfalls of the phrases “images of devotion”, “private devotion” and “nuns’ work”).  It is clear when discussing the visual culture of women religious that there is a need to avoid ambiguity yet at the same time images and acts of “devotion” cannot be assigned classifications which may be unrealistic and inappropriate when assessed by medieval or early modern understandings.  This raises the question: to what extent can these images be disassociated from the lives of the women religious and seen as works of art or can they not be looked at in isolation at all?

Crown and Veilsuccessfully presents a myriad of themes: each essay is varied but crucially, they are stimulating and work well when read together.  It is their presentation in one book that enables new questions to be asked of the historiography and highlights the possible directions for further research. Although it is not a conclusive representation of the images from the exhibition, the inclusion of some photographs of exhibits is particularly thought-provoking, both in terms of highlighting the arguments set out but also in inspiring future work.  It is vital for the development of gender history that questions regarding the visual and written worlds, which up to recently were only asked of monasteries, are now being asked by the academics in this volume. These approaches are now being extended to address the women religious of other European cities across the period and beyond.  It is still difficult to compare male and female monasticism: Hamburger writes “Some essays in this volume represent first forays, others, a synthesis of work previously accomplished…the comparative perspective required by the study of gender, as opposed to the study of women per se, is sometimes lacking.” (p. 4.)  It can be argued that comparisons need to be made between the male and female communities but also that, at the moment, there is great scope for more comparative work on artwork, concepts of identity and women religious.

The book not only raises important themes and questions but it contributes greatly to the understanding of the everyday activities of convent life.  It is when the differing forms of iconoclasm, “devotion” and imagery are brought together with research on female literacy, spirituality, architecture, enclosure, patronage and male influence that the questions, albeit difficult ones regarding a lack of uniformity and problems of generalisation, can be seen.  That is why Crown and Veilis so successful for it is very important to see these cases as part of a whole, in one overarching study on the role of the visual andvisualization of women religious.  One area that the book could not address, due to its incredibly broad time-scale and ambitious scope, is the issue of how these images and written works fitted into the orthodoxy of the Church.  There is great scope to extend these questions across Trent; to consider the effect of the Tridentine reforms and to look at the themes of “devotion”, material culture and women religious across Europe in the following centuries.