Van Hyning, Victoria (ed.) Women religious in exile, 1550–1800, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2014 [http://www.oxforddnb.com]
Reviewed by: Joshua Canzona, Dr Carole Sargent, and Dr Amy Leonard, Georgetown University, August 2014
With its May 2014 update, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) adds the lives of twenty-two nuns active from 1550–1800. It incorporates all of the major themes of women religious that are currently being discussed—agency, negotiation and compromise, networks, resistance, and attempts at control from the outside. Publicized as an update focused on “women religious in exile,” these new biographies follow the nuns to disparate locations in continental Europe and North America as they flee religious persecution and commit themselves to the preservation of English Catholicism outside of England. An important contribution to the ongoing scholarly effort to highlight the historical significance of women religious, the ODNB update has also made these biographies broadly accessible. Readers will discover not only the remarkable individual lives of the women religious but also the important role they played as spiritual, intellectual, and political agents in a tumultuous era.
These figures share historical context and biographical elements: they are women, they are religious, and they are in exile. From this common ground several key themes emerge from the ODNB entries. First, family connections were vitally important in maintaining the social fabric of English Catholicism in exile. Margaret Throckmorton (1591–1668), whose entry is written by Geoffrey Scott, was prompted by her aunt to join the Augustinian community at Saint Monica’s, Louvain. This same convent had connections to Saint Thomas More and several prominent English families. Throckmorton herself became Prioress in 1633 and professed members of the Roper family and the Howards, viscounts Stafford, as nuns. The hardships of exile are a second notable theme in the biographies with Nicky Hallett’s entry on Anne Worsley (1588–1644) offering first-hand, “troubled yt my parents could not maintain me as I desired; and that wee were in a strange countrey & had no friends nor kindred.” Joanne Berkeley (1555/6–1616), as an Abbess, traded on this hardship while raising funds for her community, “Almost all the Parents of these Religious have suffered for their constancy in the Catholic faith either martyrdom, or tortures, or long imprisonment, or heavy & continual exactions, or loss of their estates or fortunes.”
The individual erudition of these women and the important role convents played as schools for the daughters of Catholic families make education a third major theme. Most of the nuns were polyglots and several left behind written works of considerable merit. Marie-Louise Coolahan shows how Mary Browne (d. in or before 1694) composed a history of the Poor Clares in seventeenth-century Ireland that is “a lively and dramatic account of these events [and] the sole surviving chronicle of its kind.” In Heather Wolfe’s article on Anne Cary we find references to several books of what she referred to as “her spirituall soungs which she composed for the solace of the sicke and infirme.” In the biography of Elizabeth Cary, Anne’s sister and a nun at Cambrai, we find that she once deciphered a coded message before seeing it delivered to Charles II. Mary Dennett (1730–81) took a small convent school in Liege and turned it into a formidable institution through building projects, the creation of a “substantial library,” and the institution of a broad course of study meant, in Caroline Bowden’s words, to provide “Catholic girls [with] the same advantages which they would have in the great schools in England.” Relocated during the French revolution, the school “continues in the Twenty-first century as the New Hall School, Chelmsford” and is a likely point of connection between the life of Mary Dennett and a number of other English biographies.
Many of the biographies offer insight into the fraught politics of early modern England, sometimes with the women religious taking an active role as symbols of the Catholic plight or agents in support of political actors with Catholic sympathies. In the Elizabethan period, Elizabeth Sander (d. 1607) found herself imprisoned as a recusant Catholic hiding in England and charged with carrying “certeyne lewde and forbydden bokes” among which may have been the Jesuit Edmund Campion’s “Brag” or Challenge to the Privy Council. She would later escape prison and then return again as a show of good faith before leaving England entirely. Her narrative of these events to Sir Francis Englefield, another Catholic exile and courtier in Spain, provided what her biographer, Jenna Lay, terms “a sympathetic voice for English Catholicism, in both its recusant and exilic manifestations.” Margaret Mostyn (1625–79), a Carmelite prioress whose biography is written by Nicky Hallett gave direct assistance to Charles II during the English Civil War when her “community sheltered a cavalier regiment, and fed at least twenty additional people on a daily basis; it was considered to be a mark of her astute management that the convent’s meagre supplies held out.” In reading these biographies, one realizes that religious women and their communities are not passive entities waiting for a chance to return to England but political agents in their own right.
As a final theme, several of the biographies provide examples of women religious defending their own authority against external church authorities. Anne Worsley’s biography recounts that she stood “hard against” efforts to seize some of her convent’s prerogatives by Provincial Thomas à Jesu. Her biographer, Jaime Goodrich, notes that Joanne Berkeley “successfully weathered conflicts with local residents and English Jesuits” and, in one case, a man “with plans to make trouble for the house” was discouraged by a vision of Mary. Victoria Van Hyning shows how Margaret Clement (1539–1612), embroiled in a conflict with members of her community over the institution of stricter reforms, persuaded both a bishop and Papal nuncios to support her side. Similar to those cases in which the nuns faced the difficulties of navigating between religious conviction and the political authority of England, women religious of the era also had to protect the autonomy of the convent against excessive interference from the exclusively male authority structures of the Catholic hierarchy.
As a topic of historical interest, “women religious in exile” is an exciting addition to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Looking through these new articles, the reader realizes that these nuns were not walled off from the turmoil of the world around them. A great benefit of an online instrument like the ODNB is the ability to link these new lives and the many other lives with which they intersect. In this way, the women religious are set within the much larger context of the ODNB and English and Irish history as a whole. These articles are more than simple repositories of facts; they contain intriguing quotes and citations that provide a sense of the real human being behind the biography and spur us toward deeper research into the lives of each woman and the world she lived in.
The ODNB additions are ideal for scholars of early modern religious women, as well as advanced undergraduates doing gender and/or religious studies. All of the contributors are noted experts in their respective fields. The articles are well cited and often include in-text descriptions of the most notable primary sources available for a particular nun. They tend, also, to strike a fair balance between providing potentially useful minutiae and readability. The occasional list of dates or names is generally offset by a colorful anecdote or lively direct quotation. For students and teachers, the ability to explore the ODNB and quickly draw connections among the succinct biographies has great classroom potential. Historians who study early modern women religious would certainly use these biographies in undergraduate and graduate courses as background for research papers focusing on women religious. Non-specialist readers may have minor challenges with some terminology; familiarity with the Oath of Supremacy may be expected but references like one to “the Old Pretender” can be opaque. Overall, contributing the strengths of the ODNB to the topic of “women religious in exile” will increase public understanding of an important topic, and we highly recommend this valuable new resource.