Mary C. Erler, Reading and Writing during the Dissolution: Monks, Friars, and Nuns 1530-1558. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Mary C. Erler, Reading and Writing during the Dissolution: Monks, Friars, and Nuns 1530-1558. Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9781 107 039 797 (hardback), pp. 203.

Reviewed by: Susannah Brietz Monta, University of Notre Dame, June 2015.

The title of Mary Erler’s new book may be slightly misleading. The book does not focus so much on reading and writing per se—on interpretations, literary histories, reading practices, authorship, etc.­—as on the intricate historical contexts undergirding the written production of monks, friars, and nuns during the English Reformation. Erler’s finely detailed book is a model of careful historical scholarship and should prove useful to anyone interested in the history of English religious, the English Reformation, and the relation of politics, patronage, and religion in the period.

Erler’s study is organized into six chapters, each of which takes a prominent figure or community as its subject. The first centers on Simon Appulby, London’s last anchorite. Erler argues that Appulby’s Fruyte of Redempcyon, which enjoyed five editions up to 1532, should be seen as ‘a final conservative statement in the centuries-old debate about lay scriptural access’ (p. 15). Indeed, its last three editions, appearing in 1530, 1531 and 1532 after a gap of fourteen years, were likely part of a conservative effort directed by John Stokesley, Bishop of London, to put scripture before the laity in carefully supervised forms. Erler’s chapter offers a nuanced account of the book’s print history and of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century records of London anchorites. She demonstrates that anchorites in Appulby’s parish were devoted to their parish and neighborhood, and important for the parish’s financial health. Various influences on the Fruyte’s affective piety are also discussed, though one might wish the text itself were examined more closely.

The second chapter focuses on the Greyfriars Chronicle and speculates on the authorship of its last section, an account of events between 1538, when its Franciscan house was dissolved, and 1556. Erler proposes the Franciscan Albert Copeman as that section’s author. She shows that the Chronicle exhibits a blend of conservative (traditional sacramental views) and reforming (contempt for the papacy) beliefs, together with firm loyalty to the monarch, whoever he or she happened to be. This blend of attitudes, Erler suggests, was not uncommon in the years after the dissolutions, even among former religious. She traces as well the fates of the Franciscans after their house’s dissolution, many of whom continued to live close to their former home.

The third chapter discusses a group whom Erler calls ‘Cromwell’s nuns’: Katherine Bulkeley, Morpheta Kingsmill, and Joan Fane. Each woman was appointed by Cromwell as head of a large religious house in the 1530s, and each shows some sympathy with or at least careful neutrality towards reform, either in her letters (Bulkeley), will (Kingsmill), or reading (Fane). All three reflected their families’ complex religious sympathies, especially those of their brothers, who were dependent, as the women were, on Cromwell’s patronage. The chapter also gives some attention to Elizabeth Shelley, who represents a conservative position; under her initial leadership, a group of nuns from St. Mary’s Winchester (Nunnaminster) sustained a form of group living for nearly two decades after the dissolution. The chapter traces the complexities of post-Reformation religious and patronage networks in fascinating detail.

The fourth chapter turns to Margaret Vernon, whose twenty-one surviving letters bear witness to a close friendship with Thomas Cromwell. Her letters request (and then back away from) an appointment as prioress of St. Helen’s; they address the early education of Cromwell’s son Gregory, which he had entrusted to her care and supervision at Little Marlow; they conduct business with Cromwell; they discuss the imminent closure of Little Marlow (in 1536), of which she was prioress; and they negotiate strategies for the closing of Malling (in 1538), of which she had been appointed abbess thanks to Cromwell’s influence. If her letters do not provide firm information on her religious sympathies, they do suggest that she was on friendly terms with Cromwell, shared his interest in administrative matters, and knew a number of Cromwell’s associates, all of whom backed the cause of reform.

In the fifth chapter, Erler turns to William Peryn’s Spirituall Exercyses. Peryn was an Oxford-educated Dominican who had gone into exile after the 1534 Act of Supremacy; he returned to England under Mary Tudor, when his house was reestablished, and died four months after Elizabeth took the throne. His book was dedicated to Katherine Palmer of Syon and Dorothy Clement, a Poor Clare, two well-known members of the Louvain exile community. As Erler demonstrates, the book draws heavily on both Ignatian spirituality and the devotio moderna of the Low Countries. The Syon community had long served as a conduit for continental spirituality; similarly, Peryn’s book presents the spiritualities of the Low Countries to English readers, and especially to female exiles. Erler traces the histories of the book’s dedicatees, and notes that the text proved influential for later Catholic women as well: Margaret Clitherow, the martyr of York, read the book, and in the seventeenth century Augustine Baker recommended it (under its subtitle, The Waie to Perfection) to the Benedictine nuns under his spiritual guidance at Cambrai.

The sixth chapter takes up the subject of Richard Whitford’s last work, Dyvers Holy Instrucyons(1541), a compilation of four texts. Two are earlier works: Pacience(c. 1514) and a short piece from a sermon (‘On Detraction’). The book’s other two items are ‘a translation of a recently acquired anonymous Latin tract on hindrances to perfection and a translation of the popular pseudo-Isidorian Counsels,’ both recently completed (p. 131). Erler wisely does not allow hindsight to dictate her view of Whitford; she does not see his religious writing in the last decade of his career (from the 1530s to 1541) as representing last-gasp traditional Catholicism so much as a ‘modern accommodation of traditional religious direction’ and a reforming response to heresy (p. 126). Thus on her account Dyvers Holy Instrucyons reveals the ‘continuity of [Whitford’s] intellectual interests, the preservation of some semblance of monastic community, and, it seems, the expectation of a continuing audience’ (p. 142).

The book’s final section offers a series of appendices that will be invaluable to researchers. These include a table showing the anchorites of All Hallows London Wall parish, from 1402 to 1537, together with a source list; the will of Simon Appulby; the letters of Katherine Bulkeley, Morpheta Kingsmill, and Joan Fane (unfortunately the texts are often reliant, presumably out of necessity, on a mid-nineteenth century edition); Margaret Vernon’s letters to Thomas Cromwell, together with a suggested chronology for them; a brief life of Elizabeth Woodford, which Erler bases on the Louvain Chronicleand Sr. Elizabeth Shirley’s Life of Mother Margaret Clement; and an excerpt from Richard Whitford’s sermon ‘On Detraction.’

Erler’s book offers a wealth of information for those interested in the varied ways English religious negotiated the Reformation. While exile convents have, perhaps deservedly, gotten the lion’s share of scholarly attention, Erler reminds us of the complex negotiations undertaken in the early Reformation by those who stayed in England, or who took paths other than exile or stark religious dissidence. The book is especially good on the intricacies of post-Reformation social networks; the complex interactions of people with a wide spectrum of views on reform is one of its important findings. In this way, Erler’s work offers a focused complement to scholarship on religion and patronage networks in later periods (such as Michael Questier’s Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England: Politics, Aristocratic Patronage, and Religion, c. 1550–1640). One might wish that Erler had done more interpretive work with the texts she so richly contextualizes, but that task has been left to other scholars. She has generously provided them a detailed map to follow.