Valerie G. Spear, Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries, The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2005. £45.00, ISBN 1 84383 150 3 pp. xix + 244
Reviewed by Caroline Bowden, Royal Holloway, University of London
Convents over many centuries offered women possibilities of leadership that were rarely available elsewhere and as a result have become the focus of research in recent years. Valerie Spear’s impressive study ranges widely in her discussion of conventual superiors over more than 200 years in the later Middle Ages. Building on recent scholarship which has challenged views of fundamental weaknesses in conventual leadership, she seeks to provide a more nuanced view of the role of abbess, her responsibilities and relationships with both secular and ecclesiastical authorities.
Spear’s chapter headings identify different elements of the leadership role. She first discusses the meaning of leadership, relating it to the requirements of the monastic rule and discusses the problems of women holding offices of power in institutions which demanded submissiveness and obedience. Chapter Two considers the selection of individuals for the office of Abbess and the factors influencing the choice. Among them Spear finds evidence of the link between social class and the value of the convent: the more patrician abbesses concentrated in the better-off convents.
Convents can never be entirely female communities because of the need for a male Chaplain to hear confession and say mass. In addition they come under the authority of the bishops and their officials as visitors who inspect and regulate the conduct of the community. Chapters Three and Four are devoted to the relationship of the superiors to external male authority figures, secular as well as ecclesiastical and the influence they had on the role of the Abbesses and Prioresses. Spear considers the ways that royal and papal patronage could be problematic as well as bringing benefits to the communities. She found Abbesses who were able to withstand the pressures of patrons attempting to take liberties with the rights of the convents they supported; for instance at Romsey where the abbess restricted the numbers of former royal servants she took into the convent as pensioners or corrodians.
Chapter Five looks at the ways the superiors balanced their financial and spiritual responsibilities finding many examples of effective financial management of complex situations. Spear’s suggestions in Chapter Six for ways of interpreting the bishop’s reports on convent visitations are innovative and constructive. She argues that they are indicative of a male attitude to ideal qualities of female leadership and they focus on spiritual leadership of the superiors rather than a guide to daily life within the communities. Nevertheless they have value as ‘pocket guides’ to the rules and they can reveal much of the quality of daily management of religious houses.
Lack of evidence of individual lives remains a key problem when discussing leadership. It is one thing to be able to piece together evidence of economic and legal activity on the basis of accounts, charters and visitation reports, but understanding individual attitudes and practice remains elusive. The obituary of Euphemia of Wherwell who died in 1257 (Appendix D) is a rare example of an account of the leadership of one superior. However the case for the choice of Chaucer’s fictional Prioress for comparative purposes is not entirely convincing. The rest of the chapter does contain many fragmentary examples, but it would have been worth developing a discussion of the nature of monastic obituary writing in order to unpick more from the account of Euphemia’s leadership. It is clear from Spear’s findings that the abbesses and prioresses varied considerably in their abilities to lead and to manage. She suggests that the loss of moral control in a convent was often consistent with financial mismanagement. However it has to be recognised that many abbesses were faced with huge problems including wars, plague and lack both of resources and recruits. As she points out, most of the convents survived until the Henrician dissolution which is some measure of success. It was good to find the voice of the superiors themselves in the final chapter dealing with the process of dissolution. For instance, the brave response on 9 November 1538 of Joan Temmse abbess of Lacock; ‘the king will not take this house by tyranny’.
There is much in this study which will provide resources for others as well as opening out further the discussion of the complex issues surrounding female leadership and authority. One criticism of the work is that while the study covers a long time period, questions of change and continuity over time are not clearly discussed: for example the Bull Periculoso of 1298 placed significant restrictions on the lives of women religious but the issues are never fully analysed. Other economic and social influences such as the impact of plague and the Black Death would have benefited from fuller treatment since they undoubtedly influenced the problems facing monastic superiors. Some of the discussion appeared constrained by lack of space and side-headings broke up chains of thought at times. However these do not detract from the fact that this book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the governance of medieval convents.