Between 1598 and 1800, an estimated 3, 271 Catholic women left England to enter convents on the Continent. This study focuses more particularly upon those who became Benedictines in the seventeenth century, choosing exile in order to pursue their vocation for an enclosed life. Through the study of a wide variety of original manuscripts, including chronicles, death notices, clerical instructions, texts of spiritual guidance, but also the nuns’ own collections of notes, this book highlights the tensions between the contemplative ideal and the nuns’ personal experiences. Its first four chapters adopt a traditional historical approach to illustrate the tensions between theory and practice in the ideal of being dead to the world. They offer a prosopographical study of Benedictine convents in exile, and show how those houses were both cut-off and enclosed yet very much in touch with the religious and political developments at home. The next fur chapters propose a different point of entry into the history of nuns, with a study of emotions and the senses in the cloister, delving into the textual analysis of the nuns’ personal and communal documents to explore aspect of a lived spirituality, when the body, which so often hindered the spirit, at times enabled spiritual experience.
This introduction provides an overview of the historiography of English Catholicism in the early modern period and highlights the absence, until recently, of substantial academic work on the place and role of enclosed nuns in the survival and the Catholic mission. In an effort to contextualise the English convents in exile on the Continent, it asks the question of the national specificities of institutions which belonged to the same Church and the same Orders as continental monasteries yet were the product of very different circumstances at home. Moreover, the introduction highlights the interdisciplinarity of the study of convents, which is at the crossroads of prosopography, religious history, social history, political history, but can also be approached through the prisms of art history, literary studies, gender studies or emotion studies.
Through the textual analysis of clerical prescriptive writings and of the notes compiled by the nuns themselves, this chapter examines the contemplative ideal and the idea of social death at its very core. By dedicating themselves to the monastic life, encosed and in exile, postulants embraced a lifestyle that required great determination to die to the world, to others and to themselves, in order to exist for and in Christ only. The manuscripts of their spiritual guides, their superiors, and the few personal notes left by the nuns themselves show how these ideals form the infrastructure of religious life; spiritual progress appeared impossible without absolute abandonment and self-denial.
By abandoning their homeland in order to become enclosed nuns in exile, English Benedictines committed to a religious of choice that may seem even more absolute than that of their continental counterparts. They were not only separated from the world by the rule of the cloister but cut off from their friends and families by the geographical displacement that vocation imposed. Or such was the theory; yet, reality was often quite different. Combining a prosopographic approach and quantitative and qualitative analyses, this chapter shows that the English convents reflected the secular patterns of the society from which they came, and that nuns were quite adept at building networks of kin. Their families did play a role in the recruitment patterns of exiled convents.
If they are not creatures of the world, cloistered nuns must still survive in the world. The English Benedictines relied on the support of the most important and infuential Catholic families of England, to which many of them belonged. Moreover, to ensure their subsistence, convents had to establish local networks in the cities where they settled. They enlisted the help of agents, both exiles and local, ecclesiastical and lay, to whom they entrusted the tasks they could not carry out themselves, especially regarding their assets and finances. This chapter uses the account books, chronicles and correspondence of the Sisters to develop a clearer picture of the practices of cloistered life in exile, and of its complex management.
Despite their enclosure and their lack of geographical mobility, Benedictine nuns were an integral part of the Catholic missionary effort which was in full flow in seventeenth-century England. This chapter shows that the Benedictines demonstrated a keen interest in everything concerning the affairs of the English mission. They kept each other informed of the conditions of their co-religionists in their homeland, they wrote letters of spiritual guidance and ministered to their families, they offered their prayers to the cause of the faith, and were aware of all current controversies and disputes, partly thanks to their close connections with missionaries. As staunch royalists, some of them even played an active political role in support of the Stuart dynasty.
Early modern nuns belonged to ‘emotional communities’, with their own ways of expressing emotions. In this chapter, the emotional experiences of individuals are compared to the communal constructions that make up the collective emotionology of their cloistered context. The personal writings of English Benedictine nuns reveal their efforts to comply with clerical prescriptive literature on emotions, usually construed as passions or appetites, and described as enemies of spirituality. Yet nuns’ relationships with emotions (and more generally with the body as a vector of emotions) remained complex. On their way to the spiritual, many religious women struggled to reconcile what they really felt with what they were taught they should feel.
The clerical documents written to guide the English Benedictines in their spiritual progress urged them to control human or ‘terrene’ emotions. Yet such discourse was balanced by what John Corrigan has called a ‘Christian hypervaluation of love’. Through the analysis of a wide range of personal documents, this chapter explores how the Benedictine nuns experienced one of the most fundamental paradoxes of Christian mystical theology: the impossibility of knowing God truy and His immediate accessibility through the channel of divine love. How did nuns negotiate their way through such a complex riddle?
The Protestant critics of the early modern Catholic Church denounced what they sometimes described as its sensual approach to the sacred. In the convents, behavioural guidebooks exhorted the Sisters to break away from their senses and to move towards a more perfect a-sensory contemplative state, where prayer no longer needed sensate perceptions to stimulate the soul. Yet the personal writings of the nuns are full of references to the senses; they provide valuable details on the individual experience of the cloistered life. Women taking the veil exchanged a sensory world for another, in which the sights, smells and sounds evoked the sacred. In prayer, they also felt with what they described as their ‘inner senses’. Although little used until now, the prism of the study of the senses provides a fascinating insight into the lived experience of women in early modern convents.
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.