Seminar Eleven

Profession (2): Religious Profession

In this seminar we look at something of the considerable cultural energies in play around the idea of the cloister. In modern and in medieval imaginings, enclosure, particularly of women, is sometimes conceived of (sometimes in a gothicising way) as an absolute condition. Not only are there many social, economic, and spiritual transactions between convents and their patrons and dependents, but there is much imaginative trafficking around the boundaries of enclosure. Here we look firstly at a convent’s self-presentation in one of its principal documents, a register or cartulary (a cartulary is a compilation of records concerning foundation grants, landholdings, transactions, subsequent grants etc). We look at the foundation narrative included by Crabhouse Nunnery near Wiggenhall in Norfolk in its fifteenth-century trilingual Register and consider whether there is a case for reversing Dean’s exclusion of this document from her catalogue of Anglo-Norman literary texts.

Secondly, we look at imaginative investments in the life and behaviour of the cloister on the part of audiences who are not professed religious. The allegorical Abbey of the Holy Ghost offers laypeople a convent of the conscience whereby they can live a religious life in the world. This text draws on some powerful models and traditions, notably that of the figurative building (seen earlier in, for instance, de Pizan’s Cité des dames) which features largely and productively in medieval memory theory and practice, as well as structuring many literary and other texts. In its French version (initially composed c. 1300) the Abbaye seems chiefly to have been used by extremely elite patrons: the manuscript from which our extracts are taken was made in 1475 for Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy (m. Charles the Bold in 1468), and sister of Edward IV (1442-1483). More manuscripts survive for the fourteenth-century Middle English version of the Abbey (twenty-three extant, versus nine for the French) and it seems to have been used among a wider range of audiences. A response to it exists in the form of a Middle English Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost composed as a companion piece to the Middle English Abbey.

Note that here we expand our sense of the Frenches relevant to England via a French text that exists only in continental versions (the Abbaye) but which, in the copy we study, was owned by an international elite woman from the English royal family: while, in the Middle English reception of the Abbaye and the co-presence of the Middle English Abbaye and Charter in a manuscript such as the Vernon MS (from which we saw a trilingual Cato in Seminar One) the importance of cultural overlap and continuity may outweigh the significance of linguistic boundaries, even in the later English Middle Ages. In the case of the Crabhouse Register, we have a text from a region famed for fifteenth-century literature in Middle English (not only the drama, but Bokenham, Lydgate, Metham, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Capgrave), but also a region where a convent that was not wealthy or specially elite such as Crabhouse nevertheless has its origin story in French (probably of the late fourteenth-century) in its fifteenth-century Register’s account of its late twelfth-century foundation.


  1. ‘The Register of Crabhouse Nunnery’, ed. Mary Bateson, Norfolk Archaeology 11 (1892), 1-71. Excerpts. The first item in the manuscript is a later note in Middle English: our French reading is items 2-5. (translation of prose by e-mail).
  2. L’Abbaye du Seint Esperit: Opening and closing of text from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 365 (made by David Aubert for Margaret of York): j-peg pictures of the MS on email. Text and translation by email.
  3. The Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost: Excerpts and summary of Middle English Charter (photocopy and email).


Crabhouse Register, items 2 and 3 in Bateson’s text. (33 lines of verse all told, the first two lines in Latin, translate these two or not as you wish. Only translation of the prose is being sent you on email).


  1. Would you include the Crabhouse Register in Dean’s Guide? By way of exploring the status of the Crabhouse excerpt (documentary? literary?) consider the literary and monastic topoi used in this verse and prose account and add a brief comparison with the Middle English Charter of the Abbey of the Holy Ghost.
  2. Look at the opening and closing of L’Abbaye du Seint Esperit and carefully consider all the terms and conventions it employs for mediating text to audience (eg such words as ‘treatise’, whether and what kinds of authority are adduced, what audience response is inscribed or anticipated). What relation does this text seek with its audiences?


(Note: all should read both these items: there will not be time in the seminar to deal extensively with the necessary background, but you will need it in order to follow).

  • Coletti, Teresa, Mary Magdalen and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), extract on Wiggenhall from the chapter on ‘East Anglian Magdalenes’.
  • Nicole R. Rice, ‘Spritual Ambition and the Translation of the Cloister; The Abbey andCharter of the Holy Ghost‘, Viator 33 (2002), 222-60.


  • Warren, Nancy, Spiritual Economies: Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England(Phildelphia; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001): contains very useful discussion of the ideology and the practices of enclosure.
  • Whitehead, Christiania, Castles of the Mind: A Study of Medieval Architectural Allegory(Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003).

Note: Prof. Marilyn Oliva of Fordham has shortly coming out a volume of nunnery accounts, which should be of the greatest interest for the sociolinguistics and textualities of female communities in England, the more so since the mixture of languages as between literary texts and documents of records seems to be extremely varied in female communities. Her study, The Convent and the Community in Late Medieval England: Female Monasteries in the Diocese of Norwich, 1350-1540(Woodbridge and Dover, NH: Boydell Press, 1986) is a splendid account of female monasticism and community relations in the medieval Norfolk of Crabhouse and Wiggenhall.

As with all insular nunneries and monasteries, the standard sources of basic information and lists of primary documents are given in Sir William Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, rev. John Caley, Henry Ellis, and Bulkeley Bandinel (London: 1817 and repr.) and the Victoria County History of England (the second volume for each county is usually the one dealing with ecclesiastical history, and contains studies of individual religious houses).