Leonie V. Hicks, Religious Life in Normandy, 1050-1300: Space, Gender and Social Pressure, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2007.

Leonie V. Hicks, Religious Life in Normandy, 1050-1300: Space, Gender and Social Pressure, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2007. £45/$90, ISBN 978-1-84383-329-1, 256 pages. 

Reviewed by: Emilie Amt, Hood College, July 2008.

The subject matter of this interesting and well researched book is better defined by its somewhat enigmatic subtitle than by its very broad title.  Leonie Hicks, a teaching fellow at the University of Southampton, has published a wide-ranging analysis that nevertheless concentrates on selected aspects of religious life in Normandy in the period under consideration.  This study originated as a doctoral thesis on women and the use of space; hence it will be of particular interest to members of this list.  Throughout the book, men’s and women’s houses are treated on an equal footing, and much of the most vivid anecdotal evidence concerns women’s experience.

Hicks claims to define religious life broadly, including in her purview laity, clergy, and professed religious, in institutions including parish churches, cathedrals, monasteries, hospitals and leper houses.  But in practice the book focuses on monasteries, with occasional short (but very interesting) sections on leper houses and hospitals.  Cathedrals are rarely examined, and parish churches (other than those located in monastery churches) are virtually ignored.  So this is in fact a book about monastic life; about the interaction among laity, clergy, and religious; and about the use of sacred space (here largely represented by monastic space) by laity and religious.  The sources are mainly narrative and documentary, with the thirteenth-century visitation records of Archbishop Eudes de Rigaud of Rouen and the Savignac Abbot Stephen of Lexington looming large among them.  (These records are used anecdotally rather than quantitatively.)  Lanfranc’s Constitutions, though written for an English audience, are used on the assumption that they reflect the author’s Norman experience to some extent.  Visual evidence such as church building remains and drawings is brought to bear at times, though it is surprisingly secondary for a work focusing on the use of space.  This proves to be an astute decision on Hicks’s part, explained by her desire to treat sacred space as ‘lived space—lived, worked and worshipped in by men and women’ (p. 161).  Privileging the written sources enables her to write a book that is often vivid in recreating that lived experience, and indeed the selection and handling of anecdotal evidence is one of the book’s great strengths.

Less satisfactory is the integration of space and gender theory into the text.  Although these ideas are integral to the concept of the book, having apparently determined the selection of topics and the (at times puzzling) organizational framework, they are treated rather cursorily both in the Introduction to the book and at the beginning of each chapter.  Neither sacred space nor gender is well defined in the multiple ways it is used in the book.  Similarly, Hicks tends to toss out some of her most interesting and original ideas in a single sentence and then move on without further exploration (for example, on p. 122, her suggestion that nuns used festivals of ‘misrule’ such as the Feast of the Holy Innocents to ‘forge their own liturgical traditions outside the mainstream celebration of the mass’).

Hicks argues from the beginning of the book that sacred space in high medieval Normandy was ‘contested’ between professional religious (clergy, monks, and nuns) on the one hand and laity on the other (p. 1), and this claim is prominent throughout the first half of the book.  Indeed, Chapter 2 is titled ‘Reception and Intrusion’—i.e., the intrusion of laity into the sacred space of monasteries and churches.  But the argument for a contest is made less strongly as the book progresses, and in the book’s Conclusion (before the issue of contested space is raised again) the relationship between the religious and the laity is described as ‘one of mutual support’ (p. 153).  The book describes both the cooperation and the contest, without explicitly grappling with the obvious (though easily explicable) paradox here.

For many subscribers to this list, specific parts of this book will be of particular interest.  The individual chapters are full of thoughtful, fact-based, and richly detailed discussion of a myriad of issues related to medieval religious life. Chapter 1, entitled ‘Display’, lays the groundwork by covering basics such as the location and architectural style of monasteries, as well as the specialized function of the chapter house. This chapter also discusses monastic clothing, liturgical display (for example, processions), and public penance by lay people as a form of display.  Chapter 2, ‘Reception and Intrusion’, begins with an excellent discussion of monastic hospitality, going on to almsgiving, the education of children, and the employment of lay servants.  It then turns to more ‘sacral’ reasons for lay presence in the monastery, including pilgrimages and worship, before concluding with a section on priests’ wives and concubines.

The final two chapters make up the strongest section of the book, being the most cohesive and cogent.  Chapter 3, ‘Enclosure,’ deals not only with the specific issue of monastic enclosure, but with the whole subject of how spaces within the monastery were used, including the use of liturgical space.  On the subject of women’s enclosure, Hicks sums up her evidence as follows: ‘What emerges is a picture of nuns especially attempting to adapt claustral spaces to suit their needs better, often in the face of concerted opposition from their male ecclesiastical superiors’ (p. 92).  This resembles the situation in convents in the same period and later in England, where even after Periculosonuns expected to travel regularly and bishops allowed them to do so. Chapter 4, ‘Family’, surveys the many ways in which monastics and their communities remained connected to their blood kin, to both the advantage and the disadvantage of individuals and houses.  Hicks argues that women were more likely than men to be recalled from the convent, permanently or temporarily, for their families’ benefit, among other things because of their nursing skills.  Family burials within monasteries are also discussed in this chapter.

The book concludes with three appendices, listing male religious houses, nunneries, and hospitals and leper houses respectively.  Each appendix includes a map of locations.