Virginia Blanton, Veronica O’Mara and Patricia Stoop (eds.), Nuns’ Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Antwerp Dialogue. Brepols: Turnhout, 2017.

Virginia Blanton, Veronica O’Mara and Patricia Stoop (eds), Nuns’ Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Antwerp Dialogue, Brepols, Turnhout, 2017. €125, ISBN 978250355411-2 (hardback), pp. lxvi + 502

Reviewed by: Julie Hotchin, Australian National University, April 2019

Around 1500, sister Maria van Pee (d. 1511) from the convent of Jericho in Brussels finished copying the sermons of her confessor ‘for my own improvement and labour’ (p. lxv). Numerous women like Maria, whether known by name or remaining anonymous, are animated in this fine culmination to the project led by Virginia Blanton, Veronica O’Mara and Patricia Stoop to investigate nuns’ literacies in medieval Europe. (This Antwerp ‘dialogue’ follows on from Nuns’ Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Hull Dialogue (Brepols, 2013) and Nuns’ Literacies in Medieval Europe: The Kansas City Dialogue (Brepols, 2015)). The contributors illuminate the vibrant literate cultures of ‘average’ nuns through detailed archival work and palaeographical, textual and visual analysis.

The editors adopt an inclusive approach to the concept of ‘literacy’, recognising that it exists along a spectrum, with different literate practices obtaining in different circumstances. The 17 case studies illustrate how literacies differed for individual women by time, place and community; and how individuals managed with limited, competent or accomplished literacies (p. xli). Another of the volume’s strengths is its geographic, chronological and linguistic breadth. While mainly focussed on northern Europe (England, France, the Low Countries and Germany), this volume also extends to parts of Scandinavia, Italy and Spain. Essays examining literature in Danish, Hungarian, Catalan and Spanish introduce English-language readers to valuable scholarship that is often difficult for them to access.

The essays are grouped into four thematic sections. Authors in the first section, ‘Rules and Learning’, analyse normative texts, manuscripts and iconography to explore the role of literate practices in nuns’ spiritual formation and religious identities. Julie Ann Smith deftly reappraises Claire of Assisi’s Forma vitae to provide crucial insights into her expectations of literacy and the possible textual, oral and aural means by which women acquired the knowledge necessary for their religious duties. Ann M. Hutchison shows how the Orcherd of Syon aimed to instill ‘good reading habits’ and Sabrina Corbellini examines how a manual for novices prepared its readers to develop religious literacies within a ‘collective and collaborative’ environment (p. 95).   Women’s scribal activity was also undertaken for the spiritual profit of the community, as Patricia Stoop and Lisanne Vroomen argue in their study of the sermons copied by a sixteenth-century Carthusian nun. Literacy also functioned as an expression of religious identity. Virginia Blanton and Helene Scheck examine how the iconography of female literacy in the lives of St Leoba shifted over time and under the influence of ecclesiastic reform. In the final essay, Alison More’s examination of book circulation between communities of tertiaries warns against making assumptions about religious women’s identities solely from the literature they read or owned. Rather, she contends that these women participated in wider religious debates and negotiated ‘ambiguous identities’.

The five chapters in the second section, ‘Literacy and Visualisation’, explore how nuns ‘visualised their devotional world’ (p. xxxii). The strength of this section is methodological, focussing on approaches to recovering evidence of nuns’ book ownership and scribal activity. Blanca Garí draws on inventories, monastic archives and surviving manuscripts to survey the devotional literature produced and read in Catalan convents. Anne Mette Hansen’s analysis of the few extant manuscripts and fragments from Maribo, the sole Birgittine house in Denmark, identifies the devotional interests of the noble women who copied them. Brian Richardson’s study of nuns’ manuscript production in Milan illuminates their intellectual circles and accomplished scribal activity. Eva Lundquist Sandgren focuses on a single prayer book designed and copied by the most prolific scribe from Vadstena, Christina Handsdottor Brask, to demonstrate the characteristic devotional concerns and style of book production in this influential abbey. In contrast to the rich evidence of nuns’ scribal activity in Europe, Veronica O’Mara’s painstaking search for evidence of nuns’ scribal engagement in late medieval England reveals a different story. In this third of a series of articles documenting her search, O’Mara identifies the work of a single woman, Mary Nevel at Syon, and charts a way forward for future research.

The third section, ‘Translating and Rewriting’, considers women’s activity in selecting, translating or reworking literature to reflect their spiritual preferences. The essays vary widely in scope and approach. Viktória Hedvig Deák presents a valuable survey of literature in Hungarian vernacular, arguing for the ‘exceptional’ importance of the female Dominican monastery of Margit-sziget (Budapest) for the production, transmission and preservation of vernacular literature (p. 249). Other authors undertake close studies of single texts, underlining the importance of studying the history of a manuscript for our understanding of a text’s transmission and reception. Cate Gunn draws attention to male and female readers of devotional literature in translation, questioning assumptions about gender and the vernacular.  Catherine Innes-Parker examines the reception of spiritual literature in a manual to guide nuns through institutional reform at Monmartre, arguing for the nuns’ ability to grasp texts of theological sophistication. In a fascinating essay, Almut Breitenbach and Stefan Matter examine several complex rewritings of Stephan Fridolin’s Schatzbehalter (printed 1491) by sisters in the Pütrichkloster in Munich. The authors analyse how several sisters adapted the original visual and textual program of this work into textual meditations to reflect their diverse devotional preferences. This chapter offers fresh insights into women’s responses to popular devotional works and challenges assumptions about visual media and gendered response.

The final section, ‘Exchange and Networks’, considers wider questions of women’s cultural literacies through the evidence of book exchange, gift giving and the circulation of images. This is the strongest and most thematically unified section of the volume. Anne Jenny-Clark’s study of the secular canonesses of St Waudru in Mons is a welcome addition to the limited research into this form of institutional religious life for women. She presents a fascinating glimpse into the internal practices of the community, identifying how the chapter of canonesses developed, maintained and extended their collection of liturgical books to enable women to meet their spiritual obligations. Melissa Moreton’s analysis of over 200 manuscripts owned by nuns in Florence (1400 – 1600) presents important new insights into nuns’ literacy and how women used books to build relationships that benefited their communities spiritually, economically and politically.

Sara S. Poor’s analysis of the circulation of books within a noble family in fifteenth century Germany focuses on women’s roles in the production of vernacular religious literature. She relates a complex story about a lively exchange of books between nuns and diverse family connections, male and female, which highlights the ‘crossover’ between secular and sacred people in late medieval literary production. Visual literacies were also crucial to promoting spiritual ideals. Mary Erler considers the role of Birgittine women in transmitting Flemish spirituality and visual sensibility to England through early printed images and accompanying texts. Nuns were early adopters of the new technology of printing to disseminate these images and religious ideas, mentioned also in the chapters by Moreton and Richardson.

The authors contributing to The Antwerp Dialogue open new avenues for scholars to explore with regards to religious women’s agency in textual production and transmission, and to how women participated in debates about the renewal of religious life and promoted their spiritual aspirations. The contributions are consistently well-researched and written, continuing the high standard of the two previous volumes. All chapters offer fresh insights into their specific field of research, although they vary in the extent to which they advance their individual fields. Overall, these essays usefully model different methodological approaches for investigating nuns’ literacies using abundant or limited sources.

This collection will also be an important resource for further research. Detailed indices listing the individual women, manuscripts and texts mentioned in all three volumes of ‘dialogues’ facilitate access to this wealth of material. Students, researchers new to the field, and others seeking inspiration will find much of interest. The editors deserve warm praise for making the fruits of this research accessible to scholars in a manner that facilitates continuing conversations about medieval nuns’ literacies.