Nicky Hallett,  The Senses in Religious Communities, 1600-1800.  Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013.

Nicky Hallett,  The Senses in Religious Communities, 1600-1800.  Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013.  ISBN 978-1-4094-4946-1 (hardback). $99.95.   xii + 249 pages.

Reviewed by Nancy Bradley Warren, Texas A&M University, October 2013.

Nicky Hallett’s book The Senses in Religious Communities, 1600-1800: Early Modern ‘Convents of Pleasure’ brings welcome attention to two comparatively little studied subjects:  the history of English female monasticism after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the gendered history of sensory experiences.  Bringing the two together results in a fresh, original, fascinating volume.   Consisting of an introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion, the book focuses on texts associated with two Carmelite convents of English women in Antwerp and Lierre, communities that were populated by women from England’s recusant families.  The central question the chapters seek to answer are stated at the very beginning of the introduction:  “What did it mean to be sensate in an early modern convent?” (1).

Not surprisingly for a book dealing with sensory experience, the chapters are organized centrally around the senses (touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight respectively). Following the introduction and preceding the chapter 3 on touch are two other chapters that are slightly organizationally puzzling.  The first chapter is entitled ‘In Which Mrs. Eyre Protects the Impressionable Souls of her Tender Daughters’, and it serves almost as a second introduction.  In this chapter, Hallett begins with an account of Mary Bedingfield’s journey with her three youngest daughters to the Carmelite convent in Lierre to escape troubling worldly influences on those daughters in England.  The chapter then proceeds through a discussion of early modern medical and philosophical understandings of the operations of the senses and provides an overview of the life writings and instructional manuals that record so much of the nuns’ sensory experiences.  Hallett then examines the nuns’ experiences of liminal sensory states, moments of ‘coming to’—between sleeping and waking, between consciousness and unconsciousness.  While the material presented in this chapter is interesting and clearly relevant to the material treated in later chapters, I had difficulty comprehending the organizational strategy governing the presentation of the material in the chapter, and I did not fully grasp the rationale for developing this chapter as a freestanding chapter distinct from the introduction.

The second chapter also serves to set the stage for the group of chapters dealing with senses. Its concerns are the relationship of sensory experience and textuality as well as the ways in which the senses were understood to provide access to the soul.  In considering the latter point, Hallett revisits the demonic possessions and exorcisms (both the events themselves and the ways they are textually recounted) of two biological sisters, Ursula and Margaret Mostyn, who were nuns at the Carmelite community in Lierre, material she treated more extensively in her 2007 book Witchcraft, Exorcism and the Politics of Possession.  I also found this chapter a somewhat difficult organizational fit.  Chapters 3-7 are so fascinating, and so clearly and strongly unified by their focus on individual senses, that my preference would be to arrive at that material sooner, with a less extended process of laying the groundwork through the introduction and chapters 1-2.  Some of the material in the introduction and first two chapters could have been productively consolidated into a single introductory chapter, while other material could have been usefully merged with the arguments of chapters 3-7.

Chapter 3 is entitled ‘Titillation and Texture: The Sixth Sense of “Hansome Handid Nuns”.’  As Hallett observes, ‘Carmelites have a particular preoccupation with this sense’. (87)  This chapter examines monastic prohibitions on touching as well as the license to touch associated with such practices as nursing.  Hallett considers the ways in which nuns recount experiences of texture and the ways in which texture ‘links mind and body’ (97). Particularly interesting is her exploration of the ‘textual shift’ (99) many women from well-to-do families experienced when being clothed as nuns upon profession.  Hallett then discusses touch and the saintly corpse of the Carmelite St. Teresa de Jesus as well as accounts of verification by touch of the miraculous incorruption of other Carmelite nuns’ bodies.  Other permutations of touch that Hallett analyzes include ‘tactile textuality’ (111), which encompass both the significance the nuns placed on the traces left by the hands of writers and the understandings of bodies as texts to be read; hand gestures, including the roles of hands in prayer; and, finally, connections between touch and taste, providing a springboard to chapter 4.

Chapter 4, ‘Of Taste and Tongue: “a very slippery member” ’ examines the tongue as the organ of both taste (in the first sections of the chapter) and speech (in the latter sections).  To contextualize the nuns’ experiences and perceptions of taste, Hallett discusses early modern understandings of ‘the mechanics of oral sensation’ (133) before considering the nuns’ diet in health and sickness as well as relationships between devotional practices and diet.  She notes fascinating connections in nuns’ writings about food linking taste with national identity.  Moving on to a consideration of speech, Hallett analyzes the ways in which the regulation of speech features in devotional manuals and monastic rules, and she considers prayer as a special form of speech.

Given the importance of silence in Carmelite culture, it is fitting that chapter 5, which concerns sounds, is one in which silence and quiet feature prominently. Hallett examines the variety and meanings of different types of silence in monastic communities.  She indicates that sounds had particular power ‘to alter’ nuns’ ‘composure’ (147), and accordingly she addresses an array of disruptive kinds of sounds about which nuns write, including the noises made by the sick, noise from building work, and noise from weather events.  She also writes about the ways in which the sounds of bells structure the nuns’ daily lives and devotional practices.

Chapter 6 is concerned with smell.  Smells feature significantly in the nuns’ writings as catalysts for ‘somatic sensory chains’ (164) that raise complex questions about where bodies begin and end.  Strikingly, though, Hallett indicates that nuns do not write about some types of smells, including smells of food, that we might have expected to find mentioned.  Hallett observes that the nuns experience of smell ‘is emphatically non-linear; smell transports them in several simultaneous directions’.(163)

In chapter 7, Hallett turns her attention to sight, structuring the chapter around understandings of looking out and understandings of looking in.  She addresses the lack of colour in the monastic environment, exploring ways of disciplining the eye as means of fostering revelation.  She discusses the ways in which the nuns distinguish in their writings different types of seeing and considers their awareness of religio-cultural anxieties about sight and its fallibility.  Hallett also provides an insightful analysis of the uses of statues, portraits and other images in Carmelite devotion, a devotion that aspires, in its purest form, to transcending images.

Hallett’s brief conclusion takes the form of a philosophical, even poetic, meditation on senses and doubt, incorporating as well a brief but suggestive discussion of the senses and early modern confessional politics.  The book closes with some rich suggestions for future work on the senses and religious cultures.

One of the strengths and potential weaknesses of this book is Hallett’s extensive quotation from primary sources; at times the book seems almost as much an edition of some of the nuns’ writings as an analysis of them.  This is a plus in that Hallett provides scholars and students with a richness of fascinating and otherwise largely inaccessible primary source material.  The large number of extended quotations, both in the bodies of the chapters and in the footnotes, sometimes, however, cause the reader some difficulty in following the thread of Hallett’s argument.  This difficulty in discerning argumentative trajectories is compounded by Hallett’s distinctive writing style throughout.  Her writing tends to be associative and episodic, qualities that at times prove a very good fit for the nature of her subject and the nature of the primary sources with which she is working.  At times, however, these qualities result in some degree of incoherence. All in all, however, this is a book that admirably repays the effort it requires of a reader.  Hallett has made a stunningly original contribution to the critical conversation on early modern female monasticism, and, furthermore, this book will no doubt prompt others’ contributions to the conversation as well.