Illness, death and beyond
The body as witness
in English Benedictine nuns in exile in the seventeenth century
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Illness and death were an important part of monastic life in the seventeenth century; healthy nuns cared for their sick and dying Sisters every day. Their chronicles and obituaries emphasize the importance of prolonged or severe diseases, and dwell, in long descriptions, upon the last moments of exemplary individuals. Though formulaic, these writings do provide clues about the ways in which English Benedictine nuns construed the concept of imitatio Christi. They reveal both the tragic suffering of individual women and the communal constructions they allowed. The suffering body found a power it never enjoyed in health: it assumed an aura of martyrdom akin to holiness. It became a holy relic, a witness of the truth and effectiveness of the basic principles of the Roman Church. Through such writings, the English nuns in exile hoped to edify populations beyond the walls of their cloisters.

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