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Title: Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535
Author: Power, Eileen, 1889-1940
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535" ***

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  Edited by G. G. COULTON, M.A.
  Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge
  and University Lecturer in English




  BOMBAY   }
  MADRAS   }




[Illustration: PLATE I


(At the top of the picture a priest with two acolytes prepares the
sacrament; behind them stand the abbess, holding her staff, her chaplain
and the sacristan, who rings the bell; behind them a group of four nuns,
including the cellaress with her keys. At the bottom is a procession of
priest, acolytes and nuns in the quire.)]

  c. 1275 to 1535


  [Illustration: MADAME EGLENTYNE (From the Ellesmere MS.)]


TO M. G. J.



There is only too much truth in the frequent complaint that history, as
compared with the physical sciences, is neglected by the modern public.
But historians have the remedy in their own hands; choosing problems of
equal importance to those of the scientist, and treating them with equal
accuracy, they will command equal attention. Those who insist that the
proportion of accurately ascertainable facts is smaller in history, and
therefore the room for speculation wider, do not thereby establish any
essential distinction between truth-seeking in history and truth-seeking
in chemistry. The historian, whatever be his subject, is as definitely
bound as the chemist "to proclaim certainties as certain, falsehoods as
false, and uncertainties as dubious." Those are the words, not of a modern
scientist, but of the seventeenth century monk, Jean Mabillon; they sum up
his literary profession of faith. Men will follow us in history as
implicitly as they follow the chemist, if only we will form the chemist's
habit of marking clearly where our facts end and our inferences begin.
Then the public, so far from discouraging our speculations, will most
heartily encourage them; for the most positive man of science is always
grateful to anyone who, by putting forward a working theory, stimulates
further discussion.

The present series, therefore, appeals directly to that craving for
clearer facts which has been bred in these times of storm and stress. No
care can save us altogether from error; but, for our own sake and the
public's, we have elected to adopt a safeguard dictated by ordinary
business commonsense. Whatever errors of fact are pointed out by reviewers
or correspondents shall be publicly corrected with the least possible
delay. After a year of publication, all copies shall be provided with such
an erratum-slip without waiting for the chance of a second edition; and
each fresh volume in this series shall contain a full list of the errata
noted in its immediate predecessor. After the lapse of a year from the
first publication of any volume, and at any time during the ensuing twelve
months, any possessor of that volume who will send a stamped and addressed
envelope to the Cambridge University Press, Fetter Lane, Fleet Street,
London, E.C. 4, shall receive, in due course, a free copy of the _errata_
in that volume. Thus, with the help of our critics, we may reasonably hope
to put forward these monographs as roughly representing the most accurate
information obtainable under present conditions. Our facts being thus
secured, the reader will judge our inferences on their own merits; and
something will have been done to dissipate that cloud of suspicion which
hangs over too many important chapters in the social and religious history
of the Middle Ages.

G. G. C.

_October, 1922._


The monastic ideal and the development of the monastic rule and orders
have been studied in many admirable books. The purpose of the present work
is not to describe and analyse once again that ideal, but to give a
general picture of English nunnery life during a definite period, the
three centuries before the Dissolution. It is derived entirely from
pre-Reformation sources, and the tainted evidence of Henry VIII's
commissioners has not been used; nor has the story of the suppression of
the English nunneries been told. The nunneries dealt with are drawn from
all the monastic orders, except the Gilbertine order, which has been
omitted, both because it differed from others in containing double houses
of men and women and because it has already been the subject of an
excellent monograph by Miss Rose Graham.

It remains for me to record my deep gratitude to two scholars, in whose
debt students of medieval monastic history must always lie, Mr G. G.
Coulton and Mr A. Hamilton Thompson. I owe more than I can say to their
unfailing interest and readiness to discuss, to help and to criticise. To
Mr Hamilton Thompson I am specially indebted for the loan of his
transcripts and translations of Alnwick's Register, now in course of
publication, for reading and criticising my manuscript and finally for
undertaking the arduous work of reading my proofs. I gratefully
acknowledge suggestions received at different times from Mr Hubert Hall,
Miss Rose Graham and Canon Foster, and faithful criticism from my friend
Miss M. G. Jones. I have also to thank Mr H. S. Bennett for kindly
preparing the index, and Mr Sydney Cockerell, Director of the Fitzwilliam
Museum, for assistance in the choice of illustrations.


      _September 1922_




    Situation, income and size of the English nunneries                  1

    Nuns drawn from (1) the nobles and gentry                            4
                    (2) the middle class                                 9

    Nunneries in medieval wills                                         14

    The dowry system                                                    16

    Motives for taking the veil:
       (1) a career and a vocation for girls                            25
       (2) a 'dumping ground' for political prisoners                   29
       (3) for illegitimate, deformed or half-witted girls              30
       (4) nuns forced unwillingly to profess by their relations        33
       (5) a refuge for widows and occasionally for wives               38


    Superiors usually women of social standing                          42

    Elections and election disputes                                     43

    Resignations                                                        56

    Special temptations of a superior:
       (1) excessive independence and comfort                           59
       (2) autocratic government                                        64
       (3) favouritism                                                  66

    The superior a great lady in the country side                       68

    Journeys                                                            69

    Luxurious clothes and entertainments                                73

    Picture of heads of houses in Bishop Alnwick's Lincoln
    visitations (1436-49)                                               80

    Wicked prioresses                                                   82

    Good prioresses                                                     89

    General conclusion: Chaucer's picture borne out by the records      94


    Evidence as to monastic property in
       (1) the _Valor Ecclesiasticus_                                   96
       (2) monastic account rolls                                       97

    Variation of size and income among houses                           98

    Methods of administration of estates                                99

    Sources of income:
       (1) rents from land and houses                                  100
       (2) manorial perquisites and grants                             103
       (3) issues of the manor                                         109
       (4) miscellaneous payments                                      112
       (5) spiritualities                                              113

    Expenses                                                           117
       (1) internal expenses of the convent                            119
       (2) divers expenses                                             123
       (3) repairs                                                     123
       (4) the home farm                                               125
       (5) the wages sheet                                             129


    The obedientiaries                                                 131

    Allocation of income and obedientiaries' accounts                  134

    Chambresses' accounts (clothes)                                    137

    Cellaresses' accounts (food)                                       137

    Servants                                                           143
       (1) chaplain                                                    144
       (2) administrative officials                                    146
       (3) household staff                                             150
       (4) farm labourers                                              150

    Nunnery households                                                 151

    Relations between nuns and servants                                154

    Occasional hired labour                                            157

    Villages occasionally dependent upon nunneries for work            158


    Poverty of nunneries                                               161
       (1) prevalence of debt                                          162
       (2) insufficient food and clothing                              164
       (3) ruinous buildings                                           168
       (4) nuns begging alms                                           172

    Reasons for poverty:
       (1) natural disasters                                           176
       (2) ecclesiastical exactions and royal taxes                    183
       (3) feudal and other services                                   185
       (4) right of patrons to take temporalities during voidance      186
       (5) right of bishop and king to nominate nuns on certain
           occasions                                                   188
       (6) pensions, corrodies, grants and liveries                    194
       (7) hospitality                                                 200
       (8) litigation                                                  201
       (9) bad management                                              203
      (10) extravagance                                                211
      (11) overcrowding with nuns                                      212

    Methods adopted by bishops to remedy financial distress:
       (1) devices to safeguard expenditure by the head of the house   217
       (2) episcopal licence required for business transactions        225
       (3) appointment of a _custos_                                   228


    The education of the nuns:
      Learning of Anglo-Saxon nuns, and of German nuns at a later
          date                                                         237
      Little learning in English nunneries during the later middle
          ages                                                         238
      Nunnery libraries and nuns' books                                240
      Education of nuns                                                244
      Latin in nunneries                                               246
      Translations for the use of nuns                                 251
      Needlework                                                       255
      Simple forms of medicine                                         258

    Nunneries as schools for children:
      The education of novices                                         260
      The education of secular children                                261
      Boys                                                             263
        (1) not all nunneries took children                            264
        (2) only gentlefolk taken                                      265
        (3) disapproval and restriction of nunnery schools by the
            ecclesiastical authorities                                 270
      What did the nuns teach?                                         274
      Life of school children in nunneries                             279
      'Piety and breeding'                                             281


    Division of the day by the Benedictine Rule                        285

    The Benedictine combination of prayer, study and labour breaks
    down                                                               288

    Dead routine                                                       289

    The reaction from routine                                          290
       (1) carelessness in singing the services                        291
       (2) _accidia_                                                   293
       (3) quarrels                                                    297
       (4) gay clothes                                                 303
       (5) pet animals                                                 305
       (6) dancing, minstrels and merry-making                         309


    The monastic obligation to (1) communal life, (2) personal
    poverty                                                            315

    The breakdown of communal life: division into _familiae_ with
    private rooms                                                      316

    The breakdown of personal poverty                                  322
       (1) the annual _peculium_                                       323
       (2) money pittances                                             323
       (3) gifts in money and kind                                     324
       (4) legacies                                                    325
       (5) proceeds of a nun's own labour                              330

    Private life and private property in the fourteenth and
    fifteenth centuries                                                331

    Attitude of ecclesiastical authorities                             336


    Enclosure in the Benedictine Rule                                  341

    The movement for the enclosure of nuns                             343

    The Bull _Periculoso_                                              344

    Attempts to enforce enclosure in England                           346

    Attempts to regulate and restrict the emergence of nuns from
    their houses                                                       353

    The usual pretexts for breaking enclosure:
       (1) illness                                                     361
       (2) to enter a stricter rule                                    363
       (3) convent business                                            367
       (4) ceremonies, processions, funerals                           368
       (5) pilgrimages                                                 371
       (6) visits to friends                                           376
       (7) short walks, field work                                     381

    The nuns wander freely about in the world                          385

    Conclusion                                                         391


    Visitors in the cloister are another side of the enclosure
    problem                                                            394

    The scholars of Oxford and Cambridge and the neighbouring
    nunneries                                                          395

    Regulations to govern the entrance of seculars into nunneries:
       (1) certain persons not to be admitted                          401
       (2) certain parts of the house and certain hours forbidden      402
       (3) unsuccessful attempts to regulate the reception of
           boarders                                                    409

    The nuns and political movements                                   419

    Robbery and violence                                               422

    Border raids in Durham and Yorkshire                               425

    The strange tale of Sir John Arundel's outrage on a nunnery        429

    The sack of Origny in _Raoul de Cambrai_                           432


    Nuns and the celibate ideal                                        436

    Sources of evidence for the moral state of the English nunneries   439

    Apostate nuns                                                      440

    Nuns' lovers                                                       446

    Nuns' children                                                     450

    Disorder in two small houses, Cannington (1351) and Easebourne
    (1478)                                                             452

    Disorder in the great abbeys of Amesbury and Godstow               454

    Moral state of the nunneries in the diocese of Lincoln at two
    periods                                                            456

    Attempted statistical estimate of cases of immorality in
    Lincoln (1430-50), Norwich (1514) and Chichester (1478, 1524)
    dioceses                                                           460

    Punishment of offenders                                            462

    General conclusions                                                471


    The chapter meeting                                                475

    Reform by external authorities:
       (1) a parent house                                              478
       (2) the chapter general of the order                            481
       (3) the bishop of the diocese                                   482

    The episcopal visitation and injunctions                           483

    How far was this control adequate?
       (1) concealment of faults                                       488
       (2) visitation too infrequent                                   490
       (3) difficulty of enforcing injunctions                         492

    Value of visitation documents to the historian                     493


    Value of literary evidence                                         499

    Autobiographies and biographies of nuns                            500

    Popular poetry (_chansons de nonnes_)                              502

    Popular stories (_fabliaux_, _exempla_)                            515

    Didactic works addressed to nuns                                   523

    Satires and moral treatises                                        533

    Secular literature in general                                      555


       A. The daily fare of Barking Abbey                              563
       B. School children in nunneries                                 568
       C. Nunnery disputes                                             581
       D. Gay clothes                                                  585
       E. Convent pets in literature                                   588
       F. The moral state of Littlemore Priory in the sixteenth
          century                                                      595
       G. The moral state of the Yorkshire nunneries in the first
          half of the fourteenth century                               597
       H. The disappearance or suppression of eight nunneries prior
          to 1535                                                      602
       I. _Chansons de Nonnes_                                         604
       J. The theme of the nun in love in medieval popular
          literature                                                   622
       K. Nuns in the _Dialogus Miraculorum_ of Caesarius of
          Heisterbach                                                  627

       ARCHBISHOP EUDES RIGAUD (1248-1269)                             634


   IV. LIST OF ENGLISH NUNNERIES, C. 1275-1535                         685

  BIBLIOGRAPHY                                                         693

  INDEX                                                                704



     I Page from _La Sainte Abbaye_                           FRONTISPIECE
           (Brit. Mus. MS. Add. 39843. Folio 6vº.)

                                                              TO FACE PAGE

    II Abbess receiving the pastoral staff from a bishop                44
           (From _The Metz Pontifical_, 82(b)vº and 90vº,
           in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.)

   III Page from _La Sainte Abbaye_                                    144
           (Folio 29.)

    IV Brass of Ela Buttry, the stingy Prioress of Campsey
       ([dagger] 1546), in St Stephen's Church, Norwich                168
           (From _Norfolk Archaeology_, Vol. VI; Norf. and
           Norwich Archaeol. Soc. 1864.)

     V Page from _La Sainte Abbaye_                                    260
           (Folio 1vº.)

    VI Dominican nuns in quire                                         286
           (From Brit. Mus. Cott. MSS. Dom. A XII f.)

   VII The nun who loved the world                                     388
           (From _Queen Mary's Psalter_, Brit. Mus. Royal MS.
           2 B. VII.)

  VIII Plan of Lacock Abbey                                            403
           (From _Archaeologia_, LVII, by permission of the
           Society of Antiquaries and Mr Harold Brakspear.)


  Map showing the English Nunneries in the later middle ages        AT END




  Then, fair virgin, hear my spell,
  For I must your duty tell.
  First a-mornings take your book,
  The glass wherein yourself must look;
  Your young thoughts so proud and jolly
  Must be turn'd to motions holy;
  For your busk, attires and toys,
  Have your thoughts on heavenly joys:
  And for all your follies past,
  You must do penance, pray and fast.
  You shall ring your sacring bell,
  Keep your hours and tell your knell,
  Rise at midnight to your matins,
  Read your psalter, sing your Latins;
  And when your blood shall kindle pleasure,
  Scourge yourself in plenteous measure.
  You must read the morning mass,
  You must creep unto the cross,
  Put cold ashes on your head,
  Have a hair cloth for your bed,
  Bind your beads, and tell your needs,
  Your holy Aves and your Creeds;
  Holy maid, this must be done,
  If you mean to live a nun.
                              _The Merry Devil of Edmonton._

There were in England during the later middle ages (c. 1270-1536) some 138
nunneries, excluding double houses of the Gilbertine order, which
contained brothers as well as nuns. Of these over one half belonged to the
Benedictine order and about a quarter (localised almost entirely in
Lincolnshire and Yorkshire) to the Cistercian order. The rest were
distributed as follows: 17 to the order of St Augustine and one (Minchin
Buckland), which belonged to the order of St John of Jerusalem and
followed the Austin rule, four to the Franciscan order, two to the Cluniac
order, two to the Premonstratensian order and one to the Dominican order.
There was also founded in the fifteenth century a very famous double house
of the Brigittine order, Syon Abbey. Twenty-one of these houses had the
status of abbeys; the rest were priories. They were distributed all over
the country, Surrey, Lancashire, Westmorland and Cornwall being the only
counties without one, but they were more thickly spread over the eastern
than over the western half of the island. They were most numerous in the
North, East and East Midlands, to wit, in the dioceses of York, Lincoln
(which was then very large and included Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire,
Rutland, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire, Buckinghamshire,
Oxfordshire and part of Hertfordshire) and Norwich; there were 27 houses
in the diocese of York, 31 in the diocese of Lincoln, ten in the diocese
of Norwich and in London and its suburbs there were seven. On the other
hand if nunneries were most plentiful in the North and East Midlands it
was there that they were smallest and poorest. The wealthiest and most
famous nunneries in England were all south of the Thames. Apart from the
new foundation at Syon, which very soon became the largest and richest of
all, the greatest houses were the old established abbeys of Wessex,
Shaftesbury, Wilton, St Mary's Winchester, Romsey and Wherwell, which,
together with Barking in Essex were all of Anglo-Saxon foundation; and
Dartford in Kent, founded by Edward III. The only houses north of the
Thames which approached these in importance were Godstow and Elstow
Abbeys, in Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire respectively; the majority were
small priories with small incomes.

An analysis of the incomes and numerical size of English nunneries at the
dissolution gives interesting and somewhat startling results. Out of 106
houses for which information is available only seven had in 1535 a gross
annual income of over £450 a year. The richest were Syon and Shaftesbury
with £1943 and £1324 respectively; then came Barking with £862, Wilton
with £674, Amesbury with £595, Romsey with £528 and Dartford with £488.
Five others (St Helen's Bishopsgate, Haliwell and the Minories all in
London, Elstow and Godstow) had from £300 to £400; nine others (Nuneaton,
Clerkenwell, Malling, St Mary's Winchester, Tarrant Keynes, Canonsleigh,
Campsey, Minchin Buckland and Lacock) had from £200 to £300. Twelve had
between £100 and £200 and no less than 73 houses had under £100, of which
39 actually had under £50; and it must be remembered that the net annual
income, after the deduction of certain annual charges, was less still[1].
An analysis of the numerical size of nunneries presents more difficulties,
for the number of nuns given sometimes differs in the reports referring to
the same house and it is doubtful whether commissioners or receivers
always set down the total number of nuns present at the visitation or
dissolution of a house; while lists of pensions paid by the crown to
ex-inmates after dissolution are still more incomplete as evidence. A
rough analysis, however, leaves very much the same impression as an
analysis of incomes[2]. Out of 111 houses, for which some sort of
numerical estimate is possible, only four have over thirty inmates, viz.
Syon (51), Amesbury (33), Wilton (32) and Barking (30). Eight (Elstow, the
Minories, Nuneaton, Denny, Romsey, Wherwell, Dartford and St Mary's
Winchester) have from 20 to 30; thirty-six have from 10 to 20 and
sixty-three have under 10. These statistics permit of certain large
generalisations. First, that the majority of English nunneries were small
and poor. Secondly, that, as has already been pointed out, the largest and
richest houses were all in London and south of the Thames; only four
houses north of that river had gross incomes of over £200 and only three
could boast of more than 20 inmates. Thirdly, the nunneries during this
period owned land and rents to the annual value of over £15,500 and
contained perhaps between 1500 and 2000 nuns.

To understand the history of the English nunneries during the later middle
ages it is necessary not only to understand the smallness and poverty of
many of the houses and the high repute of others; it is necessary also to
understand what manner of women took the veil in them. From what social
classes were the nuns drawn, and for what reason did they enter religion?
What function did monasticism, so far as it concerned women, fulfil in
the life of medieval society?

It has been shown that the proportion of women who became nuns was very
small in comparison with the total female population. It has indeed been
insufficiently recognised that the medieval nunneries were recruited
almost entirely from among the upper classes. They were essentially
aristocratic institutions, the refuge of the gently born. At Romsey Abbey
a list of 91 sisters at the election of an abbess in 1333 is full of
well-known county names[3]. The names of Bassett, Sackville, Covert,
Hussey, Tawke and Farnfold occur at Easebourne[4]; Lewknor, St John,
Okehurst, Michelgrove and Sidney at Rusper[5], the two small and poor
nunneries in Sussex. The return of the subsidy in 1377 enumerates the
sisters of Minchin Barrow and, as their historian points out, "among the
family names of these ladies are some of the best that the western
counties could produce"[6]. The other Somerset houses were equally
aristocratic, and an examination of the roll of prioresses for almost any
medieval convent in any part of England will give the same result, even in
the smallest and poorest nunneries, the inmates of which were reduced to
begging alms[7]. These ladies appear sometimes to have had the spirit of
their race, as they often had its manners and its tastes. For 21 years
Isabel Stanley, Prioress of King's Mead, Derby, refused to pay a rent due
from her house to the Abbot of Burton; at last the Abbot sent his bailiff
to distrain for it and she spoke her mind in good set terms. "Wenes these
churles to overlede me," cried this worthy daughter of a knightly family,
"or sue the lawe agayne me? They shall not be so hardy but they shall avye
upon their bodies and be nailed with arrows; for I am a gentlewoman, comen
of the greatest of Lancashire and Cheshire, and that they shall know right
well"[8]. A tacit recognition of the aristocratic character of the
convents is to be found in the fact that bishops were often at pains to
mention the good birth of the girls whom, in accordance with a general
right, they nominated to certain houses on certain occasions. Thus Wykeham
wrote to the Abbess of St Mary's Winchester, bidding her admit Joan
Bleden, "quest de bone et honeste condition, come nous sumes enformes"[9].
More frequently still the candidates were described as "domicella" or
"damoysele"[10]. At least one instance is extant of a bishop ordering that
all the nuns of a house were to be of noble condition[11].

The fact that the greater portion of the female population was unaffected
by the existence of the outlet provided by conventual life for women's
energies is a significant one. The reason for it--paradoxical as this may
sound--lies in the very narrowness of the sphere to which women of gentle
birth were confined. The disadvantage of rank is that so many honest
occupations are not, in its eyes, honourable occupations. In the lowest
ranks of society the poor labourer upon the land had no need to get rid of
his daughter, if he could not find her a husband, nor would it have been
to his interest to do so; for, working in the fields among his sons, or
spinning and brewing with his wife at home, she could earn a supplementary
if not a living wage. The tradesman or artisan in the town was in a
similar position. He recognised that the ideal course was to find a
husband for his growing girl, but the alternative was in no sense that she
should eat out her heart and his income during long years at home; and if
he were too poor to provide her with a sufficient dower, he could and
often did apprentice her to a trade. The number of industries which were
carried on by women in the middle ages shows that for the burgess and
lower classes there were other outlets besides marriage; and then, as now,
domestic service provided for many. But the case of the well-born lady was
different. The knight or the county gentleman could not apprentice his
superfluous daughters to a pursemaker or a weaver in the town; not from
them were drawn the regrateresses in the market place and the harvest
gatherers in the field; nor was it theirs to make the parti-coloured bed
and shake the coverlet, worked with grapes and unicorns, in some rich
vintner's house. There remained for him, if he did not wish or could not
afford to keep them at home and for them, if they desired some scope for
their young energies, only marriage or else a convent, where they might go
with a smaller dower than a husband of their own rank would demand.

To say that the convents were the refuge of the gently born is not to say
that there was no admixture of classes within them. The term gentleman was
becoming more comprehensive in the later middle ages. It included the
upper class proper, the families of noble birth; and it included also the
country gentry. The convents were probably at first recruited almost
entirely from these two ranks of society, and a study of any collection of
medieval wills shows how large a proportion of such families took
advantage of this opening for women. A phrase will sometimes occur which
shows that it was regarded as the natural and obvious alternative to
marriage. Sir John Daubriggecourt in 1415 left his daughter Margery 40
marks, "if she be wedded to a worldly husband, and if she be caused to
receive the sacred veil of the order of holy nuns" ten pounds and twenty
shillings rent[12], and Sir John le Blund in 1312 bequeathed an annuity to
his daughter Ann, "till she marry or enter a religious house"[13]. The
anxiety of the upper classes to secure a place for their children in
nunneries sometimes even led to overcrowding. At Carrow the Prioress was
forced to complain that "certain lords of England whom she was unable to
resist because of their power" forced their daughters upon the priory as
nuns, and in 1273 a papal bull forbade the reception of more inmates than
the revenues would support[14]. Archbishop William Wickwane addressed a
similar mandate to two Yorkshire houses, Wilberfoss and Nunkeeling, which
public rumour had informed him to be overburdened with nuns and with
secular boarders "at the instance of nobles"[15]; and in 1327 Bishop
Stratford wrote to Romsey Abbey that the house was notoriously burdened
with ladies beyond the established number, and that he had heard that the
nuns were being forced to receive more "damoyseles" as novices, which he
forbade without special licence[16]. A very strong personal connection
must in time have been established between a nunnery and certain families
from which, in each generation, it received a daughter or a niece and her
dower. Such was the connection between Shouldham and the Beauchamps[17]
and between Nunmonkton and the Fairfaxes[18]. A close link bound each
nunnery to the family of its patron. Thus we find a Clinton at Wroxall and
a Darcy at Heynings; nor is it unlikely that these noble ladies sometimes
expected privileges and homage more than the strict equality of convent
life would allow, if it be permissible to generalise from the behaviour of
Isabel Clinton[19] and from the fact that Margaret Darcy received a rather
severe penance from Bishop Gynewell in 1351 and a special warning against
going beyond the claustral precincts or speaking to strangers[20], while
in 1393 there occurs the significant injunction by Bishop Bokyngham that
no sister was to have a room to herself except Dame Margaret Darcy
(doubtless the same woman now grown elderly and ailing) "on account of the
nobility of her race"; an old lady of firm will and (despite his careful
mention of extra pittances and of tolerating for a while) a somewhat
sycophantic prelate[21].

It is worthy of notice that Chaucer has drawn an unmistakable "lady" in
his typical prioress. There is her delicate behaviour at meals:

  At mete wel ytaught was she with-alle;
  She leet no morsel from her lippes falle,
  Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.
  Wel coude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe,
  That no drope ne fille upon hir brest.
  In curteisye was set ful muche hir lest.
  Hir over lippe wyped she so clene,
  That in hir coppe was no ferthing sene
  Of grece, whan she drunken hadde hir draughte.
  Ful semely after hir mete she raughte[22].

This was the _ne plus ultra_ of feudal table manners; Chaucer might have
been writing one of those books of deportment for the guidance of
aristocratic young women, which were so numerous in France. So the _Clef
d'Amors_ counsels ladies who would win them lovers[23], and even so Robert
de Blois depicts the perfect diner. Robert de Blois' ideal, the
chivalrous, frivolous, sensuous ideal of "courtesy," which underlay the
whole aristocratic conception of life and the attainment of which was the
criterion of polite society, is the ideal of the Prioress also:

  "Gardez vous, Dames, bien acertes,"
  "Qu'au mengier soiez bien apertes;
  C'est une chose c'on moult prise
  Que là soit dame bien aprise.
  Tel chose torne à vilonie
  Que toutes genz ne sevent mie;
  Se puet cil tost avoir mespris
  Qui n'est cortoisement apris[24]."

Later he warns against the greedy selection of the finest and largest
titbit for oneself, on the ground that "n'est pas _cortoisie_." The same
consideration preoccupies Madame Eglentyne at her supper: "in _curteisye_
was set ful muche hir lest." Good manners, elegant deportment, the polish
of the court, all that we mean by nurture, these are her aim:

  And sikerly she was of greet disport,
  And ful plesaunt, and amiable of port,
  And peyned her to countrefete chere
  Of court, and been estatlich of manere,
  And to be holden digne of reverence.

Her pets are the pets of ladies in metrical romances and in illuminated
borders; "smale houndes," delicately fed with "rosted flesh, or milk and
wastel-bread." Her very beauty

  (Hir nose tretys; hir eyen greye as glas,
  Hir mouth ful smal, and ther-to soft and reed;
  But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed;
  It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe;
  For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe)

conforms to the courtly standard. Only the mention of her chanting of
divine service (through the tretys nose) differentiates her from any other
well-born lady of the day; and if Chaucer had not told us whom he was
describing, we might never have known that she was a nun. It was in these
ideals and traditions that most of the inmates of English convents were
born and bred.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, another class rose
into prominence and, perhaps because it was originally drawn to a great
extent from the younger sons of the country gentry, found amalgamation
with the gentry easy. The development of trade and the new openings for
the employment of capital had brought about the rise of the English
merchant class. Hitherto foreigners had financed the English crown, but
during the first four years of the Hundred Years' War it became clear that
English merchants were now rich and powerful enough to take their place;
and the triumph of the native was complete when, in 1345, Edward III
repudiated his debts to the Italian merchants and the Bardi and Peruzzi
failed. Henceforth the English merchants were supreme; on the one hand
their trading ventures enriched them; on the other they made vast sums out
of farming the customs and the war subsidies in return for loans of ready
money, and out of all sorts of government contracts. The successful
campaigns of Crécy and Poitiers were entirely financed by these English
capitalists. Not only trade but industry swelled the ranks of the
_nouveaux riches_ and the clothiers of the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries grew rich and prospered. Evidences of the wealth and importance
of this middle class are to be found on all sides. The taxation of
movables, which from 1334 became an important and in time the main source
of national revenue, indicates the discovery on the part of the government
that the wealth of the nation no longer lay in land, but in trade. The
frequent sumptuary acts, the luxury of daily life, bear witness to the
wealth of the _nouveaux riches_; and so also do their philanthropic
enterprises, the beautiful churches which they built, the bridges which
they repaired, the gifts which they gave to religious and to civic
corporations. And it was in the fourteenth century that there began that
steady fusion between the country gentry and the rich burgesses, which was
accomplished before the end of the middle ages and which resulted in the
formation of a solid and powerful middle class. The political amalgamation
of the two classes in the lower house of Parliament corresponded to a
social amalgamation in the world outside. The country knights and squires
saw in business a career for their younger sons; they saw in marriage with
the daughters of the mercantile class a way to mend their fortunes; the
city merchants, on the other hand, saw in such alliances a road to the
attainment of that social prestige which went with land and blood, and
were not loath to pay the price. "Merchants or new gentlemen I deem will
proffer large," wrote Edmund Paston, concerning the marriage of one of his
family. "Well I wot if ye depart to London ye shall have proffers

This social amalgamation between the country gentry and the "new
gentlemen," who had made their money in trade, was naturally reflected in
the nunneries. The wills of London burgesses, which were enrolled in the
Court of Husting, show that the daughters of these well-to-do citizens
were in the habit of taking the veil. There is even more than one trace of
the aristocratic view of religion as the sole alternative to marriage.
Langland, enumerating the good deeds which will win pardon for the
merchant, bids him "marie maydens or maken hem nonnes"[26]. At Ludlow the
gild of Palmers provided that:

    If any good girl of the gild of marriageable age, cannot have the
    means found by her father, either to go into a religious house or to
    marry, whichever she wishes to do, friendly and right help shall be
    given her out of our common chest, towards enabling her to do
    whichever of the two she wishes[27].

Similarly at Berwick-on-Tweed the gild "ordained by the pleasure of the
burgesses" had a provision entitled, "Of the bringing up of daughters of
the gild," which ran: "If any brother die leaving a daughter true and
worthy and of good repute, but undowered, the gild shall find her a dower,
either on marriage or on going into a religious house"[28]. So also John
Syward, "stockfisshmongere" of London, whose will was proved at the Court
of Husting in 1349, left, "To Dionisia his daughter forty pounds for her
advancement, so that she either marry therewith or become a religious at
her election, within one year after his decease"[29]; and William Wyght,
of the same trade, bequeathed "to each of his daughters Agnes, Margaret,
Beatrix and Alice fifty pounds sterling for their marriage or for entering
a religious house" (1393)[30]; while William Marowe in 1504 bequeathed to
"Elizabeth and Katherine his daughters forty pounds each, to be paid at
their marriage or profession"[31]. Sometimes, however, the sound burgess
sense prevailed, as when Walter Constantyn endowed his wife with "the
residue of his goods, so that she assist Amicia, his niece, ... towards
her marriage or to some trade befitting her position"[32].

The mixture of classes must have been more frequent in convents which were
situate in or near a large town, while the country gentry had those lying
in rural districts more or less to themselves. The nunnery of Carrow, for
instance, was a favourite resort for girls of noble and of gentle birth,
but it was also recruited from the daughters of prosperous Norwich
citizens; among nuns with well-known county names there were also ladies
such as Isabel Barbour, daughter of Thomas Welan, barber, and Joan his
wife, Margery Folcard, daughter of John Folcard, alderman of Norwich, and
Catherine Segryme, daughter of Ralph Segryme, another alderman; the latter
attained the position of prioress at the end of the fifteenth century[33].
These citizens, wealthy and powerful men in days when Norwich was one of
the most important towns in England, probably met on equal terms with the
country gentlemen of Norfolk, and both sent their daughters with handsome
dowries to Carrow. The nunneries of London and of the surrounding district
contained a similar mixture of classes, ranging from some of the noblest
ladies in the land to the daughters of city magnates, men enriched by
honourable trade or by the less honourable capitalistic ventures of the
king's merchants. The famous house of Minoresses without Aldgate
illustrates the situation very clearly. It was always a special favourite
of royalty; and the storm bird, Isabella, mother of Edward III, is by some
supposed to have died in the order. She was certainly its constant
benefactress[34] as were Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and his
wife, whose daughter Isabel was placed in the nunnery while only a child
and eventually became its abbess[35]. Katherine, widow of John de Ingham,
and Eleanor Lady Scrope were other aristocratic women who took the veil at
the Minories[36]. But this noble connection did not prevent the house from
containing Alice, sister of Richard Hale, fishmonger[37], Elizabeth,
daughter of Thomas Padyngton, fishmonger[38], Marion, daughter of John
Charteseye, baker[39], and Frideswida, daughter of John Reynewell,
alderman of the City of London[40], girls drawn from the _élite_ of the
burgess class. An investigation of the wills enrolled in the Court of
Husting shows the relative popularity of different convents among the
citizens of London. Between the years 1258 and the Dissolution, 52 wills
contain references to one or more nuns related to the testators[41]. From
these it appears that the most popular house was Clerkenwell in Middlesex,
which is mentioned in nine wills[42]. Barking in Essex comes next with
eight references[43], and St Helen's Bishopsgate with seven[44]; the house
of Minoresses without Aldgate is five times mentioned[45], Haliwell[46] in
London and Stratford-atte-Bowe[47] outside, having five and four
references respectively, Kilburn in Middlesex three[48], Sopwell in
Hertfordshire two[49], Malling[50] and Sheppey[51] in Kent two each. Other
convents are mentioned once only and in some cases a testator leaves
legacies to nuns by name, without mentioning where they are professed. All
these houses were in the diocese of London and either in or near the
capital itself; they lay in the counties of Middlesex, Kent, Essex,
Hertford and Bedford[52]. It was but rarely that city girls went as far
afield as Denny in Cambridgeshire, where the famous fishmonger and mayor
of London, John Philpott, had a daughter Thomasina.

Thus the nobles, the gentry and the superior rank of burgess--the upper
and the upper-middle classes--sent their daughters to nunneries. But nuns
were drawn from no lower class; poor girls of the lowest rank--whether the
daughters of artisans or of country labourers--seem never to have taken
the veil. A certain degree of education was demanded in a nun before her
admission and the poor man's daughter would have neither the money, the
opportunity, nor the leisure to acquire it. The manorial fine paid by a
villein when he wished to put his son to school and make a religious of
him, had no counterpart in the case of girls[53]; the taking of the veil
by a villein's daughter was apparently not contemplated. The chief barrier
which shut out the poor from the nunneries was doubtless the dower which,
in spite of the strict prohibition of the rule, was certainly required
from a novice in almost every convent. The lay sisters of those nunneries
which had lay sisters attached were probably drawn mainly from the lower
class[54], but it must have been in the highest degree exceptional for a
poor or low-born girl to become a nun.

Medieval wills (our most trusty source of information for the _personnel_
of the nunneries) make it possible to gauge the extent to which the upper
and middle classes used the nunneries as receptacles for superfluous
daughters. In these wills, in which the medieval paterfamilias laboriously
catalogues his offspring and divides his wealth between them, it is easy
to guess at the embarrassments of a father too well-blessed with female
progeny. What was poor Simon the Chamberlain of the diocese of Worcester
to do, with six strapping girls upon his hands and sons Robert and Henry
to provide for too? Fortunately he had a generous patron in Sir Nicholas
de Mitton and it was perhaps Sir Nicholas who provided the dowers, when
two of them were packed off to Nuneaton; let us hope that Christiana,
Cecilia, Matilda and Joan married themselves out of the legacies which he
left them in his will, when he died in 1290[55]. William de Percehay, lord
of Ryton, who made his will in 1344, had to provide for five sons and one
is therefore not surprised to find that two of his three daughters were
nuns[56]. It is the same with the rich citizens of London and elsewhere;
Sir Richard de la Pole, of a great Hull merchant house (soon to be
ennobled), mentions in his will two sons and two daughters, one of whom
was a nun at Barking while the other received a legacy towards her
marriage[57]; Hugh de Waltham, town clerk, mentions three daughters, one
at St Helen's[58]; John de Croydon, fishmonger, leaves bequests to one son
and four daughters, one at Clerkenwell[59]; William de Chayham kept Lucy,
Agnes and Johanna with him, but made Juliana a nun[60]. The will of Joan
Lady Clinton illustrates the proportion in which a large family of girls
might be divided between the convent and the world; in 1457 she left
certain sums of money to Margaret, Isabel and Cecily Francyes, on
condition that they should pay four pounds annually to their sisters Joan
and Elizabeth, nuns[61]. It was not infrequent for several members of a
family to enter the same convent, as the lists of inmates given in
visitation records, or in the reports of Henry VIII's commissioners, as
well as the evidence of the wills, bear witness[62]. The case of
Shouldham, already quoted, shows that different generations of a family
might be represented at the same time in a convent[63], but it was perhaps
not usual for so many sisters to become nuns as in the Fairfax family; in
1393 their brother's will introduces us to Mary and Alice, nuns of
Sempringham, and Margaret and Eleanor, respectively prioress and nun of
Nunmonkton[64]. Margaret (of whom more anon) took convent life easily; it
is to be feared that she had all too little vocation for it. Sometimes
these family parties in a nunnery led to quarrels; the sisters
foregathered in cliques, or else they continued in the cloister the
domestic arguments of the hearth; there was an amusing case of the kind at
Swine in 1268[65], and some years later (in 1318) an Archbishop of York
had to forbid the admission of more than two or three nuns of one family
to Nunappleton, without special licence, for fear of discord[66].

Probably the real factor in determining the social class from which the
convents were recruited, was not one of rank, but one of money. The
practice of demanding dowries from those who wished to become nuns was
strictly forbidden by the monastic rule and by canon law[67]. To spiritual
minds any taint of commerce was repugnant; Christ asked no dowry with his
bride. The didactic and mystical writers of the period often draw a
contrast between the earthly and the heavenly groom in this matter. The
author of _Hali Meidenhad_ in the thirteenth century, urging the convent
life upon his spiritual daughter, sets against his picture of Christ's
virgin-brides that of the well-born girl, married with disparagement
through lack of dower:

    What thinkest thou of the poor, that are indifferently dowered and
    ill-provided for, as almost all gentlewomen now are in the world, that
    have not wherewith to buy themselves a bridegroom of their own rank
    and give themselves into servitude to a man of low esteem, with all
    that they have? Wellaway! Jesu! what unworthy chaffer[68].

Thomas of Hales' mystical poem _A Luue Ron_, in the same century, also
lays stress upon this point, half in ecstatic praise of the celibate
ideal, half as a material inducement[69], and the same idea is repeated at
the end of the next century in _Clene Maydenhod_:

  He asketh with the nouther lond ne leode,
  Gold ne selver ne precious stone.
  To such thinges hath he no neode,
  Al that is good is with hym one,
  Gif thou with him thi lyf wolt lede
  And graunte to ben his owne lemman[70].

In ecclesiastical language the same sentiment is expressed by the
injunction of Archbishop Greenfield of York, who forbade the nuns of Arden
to receive any one as a nun by compact, since that involved guilt of
simony, but only to receive her "from promptings of love"[71].

This sentiment was, however, set aside in practice from early times; and a
glance at any conventual register, such as the famous Register of Godstow
Abbey, shows something like a regular system of dowries, dating certainly
from the twelfth century. The Godstow Register contains 19 deeds, ranging
between 1139 and 1278, by which grants are made to the nunnery on the
entrance of a relative of the grantor, the usual phrase being that such
and such a man gave such and such rent-charges, pasture-rights, lands or
messuages, "with" his mother or sister or daughter "to be a nun"[72]. One
very curious deed dated 1259, shows that the reception of a girl at
Godstow was definitely a pecuniary matter. Ralph and Agnes Chondut sold to
the nunnery a piece of land called Anfric,

    for thys quite claime and reles, the seyd abbas and holy mynchons of
    Godstowe gafe to the seyde raph and Agnes hys wyfe liiiº marke, and
    made Katherine the sustur of the seyd Agnes (wyfe of the seyd raph)
    Mynchon in the monasteri of Godstowe, with the costys of the hows, ...
    and the seyd holy mynchons of Godstowe shold pay to the seyd raph and
    Agnes hys wyfe xxv marke of the forseyd liii marke in that day in
    whyche the foreseyd Katerine should be delyuerd to hem to be norysshed
    and to be mad mynchon in the same place and in the whyche the seyd
    penyes shold be payd,

and a second instalment at a place to be agreed upon when confirmation of
the grant is obtained[73]. That is to say the price of the land was £35.
6_s._ 8_d._ together with the cost of receiving Katherine, which was
equivalent to a further sum of money, unfortunately not specified.

Any collection of wills provides ample evidence of this dowry system. Not
only do they frequently contain legacies for the support of some
particular nun during the term of her life, but bequests also occur for
the specific purpose of paying for the admission of a girl to a nunnery,
in exactly the same way as other girls are provided with dowries for their
marriage. The Countess of Warwick, in 1439, left a will directing "that
Iane Newmarch have cc mark in gold, And I to bere all Costes as for her
bryngynge yn-to seynt Katrens, or where-ever she woll be elles"[74]. Even
the clergy, who should have been the last to recognise a system so
flagrantly contrary to canon law, followed the general custom; William
Peke, rector of Scrivelsby, left one Isabella ten marks to make her a nun
in the Gilbertine house of Catley[75] and Robert de Playce, rector of the
church of Brompton, made the following bequest:

    Item I bequeath to the daughter of John de Playce my brother 100_s._
    in silver, for an aid towards making her a nun in one of the houses of
    Wickham, Yedingham or Muncton, if her friends are willing to give her
    sufficient aid to accomplish this, but if, through lack of assistance
    from friends, she be not made a nun,

she was to have none of this bequest (1345)[76]. Sometimes, as has already
been noted, the money is left alternatively to marry the girl or to make
her a nun, which brings out very clearly the dower-like nature of such
bequests[77]. The accounts of great folk often tell the same tale. When
Elizabeth Chaucy--probably a relative of the poet Chaucer--became a nun at
Barking Abbey in 1381, John of Gaunt paid £51. 8_s._ 2_d._ in expenses and
gifts on the occasion of her admission[78], and the privy purse expenses
of Elizabeth of York contain the item, "Delivered to thabbesse of
Elnestowe by thands of John Duffyn for the costes and charges of litle
Anne Loveday at the making of her nonne there £6. 13_s._ 4_d._"[79].

It is possible to determine the exact nature of these costs and charges
from an account of the expenses of the executors of Elizabeth Sewardby,
who died in 1468. This lady, the widow of William Sewardby of Sewardby,
had left a legacy of £6. 13_s._ 4_d._ to her namesake, little Elizabeth
Sewardby, to be given her if she should become a nun. The executors record
certain payments made to the Prioress of Nunmonkton during the period when
Elizabeth was a boarder there, before taking the vows, and then follows a
list of "expenses made for and concerning Elizabeth Sewardby when she was
made a nun at Monkton":

    They say that they paid and gave to the Prioress and Convent of
    Monkton, for a certain fee which the said Prioress and Convent _claim
    by custom to have and are wont to have from each nun at her entrance_
    £3. And in money paid for the habit of the said Elizabeth Sewardby and
    for other attire of her body and for a fitting bed, £3. 13_s._
    6-1/2_d._ And in expenditure made in connection with the aforesaid
    Prioress and Convent and with the friends of the aforesaid Elizabeth
    coming together on the Sunday next after the feast of the Nativity of
    the Blessed Virgin Mary A.D. 1460, £3. 11_s._ 4_d._ In a gratuity
    given to brother John Hamilton, preaching a sermon at the aforesaid
    Monkton on the aforesaid Sunday, 2_s._ And in a certain remuneration
    given to Thomas Clerk of York for his wise counsel concerning the
    recovery of the debts due to the said dame Elizabeth Sewardby,
    deceased, 12_d._ Total £10. 7_s._ 10-1/2_d._[80]

It will be noticed that Elizabeth took with her not only a lump sum of
money, but also clothes and a bed, the cost of which more than doubled the
dowry. Canon law specifically allowed the provision of a habit by friends,
when the poverty of a house rendered this necessary; and it is clear from
other sources that it was not unusual for a novice to be provided also
with furniture. The inventory of the goods belonging to the priory of
Minster in Sheppey, at the Dissolution, contains, under the heading of
"the greate Chamber in the Dorter," a note of

    stuff in the same chamber belonging to Dame Agnes Davye, _which she
    browghte with her_; a square sparver of payntyd clothe and iiij peces
    hangyng of the same, iij payre of shets, a cownterpoynt of corse
    verder and i square cofer of ashe, a cabord of waynscott carved, ij
    awndyrons, a payre of tonges and a fyer panne.

And under "Dame Agnes Browne's Chamber" is the entry:

    _Stuff given her by her frends_:--A fetherbed, a bolster, ij pyllowys,
    a payre of blankatts, ij corse coverleds, iiij pare of shets good and
    badde, an olde tester and selar of paynted clothes and ij peces of
    hangyng to the same; a square cofer carvyd, with ij bad clothes upon
    the cofer, and in the wyndow a lytill cobard of waynscott carvyd and
    ij lytill chestes; a small goblet with a cover of sylver parcel gylt,
    a lytill maser with a bryme of sylver and gylt, a lytyll pece of
    sylver and a spone of sylver, ij lytyll latyn candellstyks, a fire
    panne and a pare of tonges, ij small aundyrons, iiij pewter dysshes, a
    porrenger, a pewter bason, ij skyllots, a lytill brasse pot, a
    cawdyron and a drynkyng pot of pewter.

She had apparently been sent into the house with a complete equipment in
furniture and implements[81].

Throughout the middle ages a struggle went on between the Church, which
forbade the exaction of dowries, and the convents which persisted in
demanding them, sometimes in so flagrant a manner as to incur the charge
of simony. The earliest prohibition of dowries in English canon law
occurred at the Council of Westminster in 1175[82] and was repeated at the
Council of London in 1200[83] and at the Council of Oxford in 1222[84];
this last had been anticipated by a decree of the fourth Lateran Council.
The history of the struggle to apply it is to be gathered from
visitational records. Archbishop Walter Giffard, visiting Swine in 1268,
finds that Alicia Brun and Alicia de Adeburn were simoniacally veiled[85];
Bishop Norbury has to rebuke the Prioress of Chester for the simoniacal
receipt of bribes to admit nuns[86]; Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury has heard
that the Prioress of Cannington received four women as sisters of that
house for £20 each, falling into the pravity of simony[87]; William of
Wykeham writes to the nuns of Romsey in 1387 that

    in our said visitations it was discovered and declared that, on
    account of the reception of certain persons as nuns of your said
    monastery, several sums of money were received by the Abbess and
    Convent by way of covenant, reward and compact, not without stain of
    the pravity of simony and, if it were so, to the peril of your souls,

and he proceeds to forbid the exaction of a dowry "on pretext of any
custom (_consuetudinis_) whatsoever, which is rather to be esteemed a
corruption (_corruptela_)," a significant phrase, which shows that the
practice was well established[88]. Bishop Buckingham of Lincoln warns the
nuns of Heynings against "the reception or extortion of money or of
anything else by compact for the reception of anyone into religion"
(1392)[89]; and Bishop Flemyng enjoins at Elstow in 1422

    that hereafter fit persons be received as nuns; for whose reception or
    entrance let no money or aught else be demanded; but without any
    simoniacal bargain and covenant of any sum of money or other thing
    whatsoever, which were accustomed to be made by the crime of simony,
    let them henceforth be admitted to your religion purely, simply and
    for nothing[90].

But the most detailed information as to the prevalence of the dowry-system
is contained in the records of Bishop Alnwick's visitations of religious
houses in the diocese of Lincoln in 1440[91]. When the Bishop came to
Heynings (which had already been in trouble under Bokyngham) one of the
nuns, Dame Agnes Sutton, gave evidence to the effect that

    her friends came to the Prioress and covenanted that she should be
    received as a nun for twelve marks and the said money was paid down
    before she was admitted, and she says that no one is admitted before
    the sum agreed upon for her reception is paid.

She added that nothing was exacted save what was a free offering, but from
her previous words it is obvious that no nuns were received at Heynings
without a dowry. Similarly at Langley Dame Cecily Folgeham said that her
friends gave ten marks to the house "when she was tonsured, but not by
covenant." The most interesting case of all was that of Nuncoton. The
Subprioress, Dame Ellen Frost, said "that it was the custom in time past
to take twenty pounds or less for the admission of nuns, otherwise they
would not be received." The Bishop proceeded to examine other members of
the house; Dame Maud Saltmershe confirmed what the Subprioress had said
about the price for the reception of nuns; two other ladies, who had been
in religion for fifteen and eight years respectively, deposed to having
paid twenty pounds on their entrance and Dame Alice Skotte said that she
did not know how much she had paid, but that she thought it was twenty
pounds. Clearly there was a fixed entrance fee to this nunnery and it was
impossible to become a nun without it; all pretence of free-will
offerings had been dropped. When it is considered that this entrance fee
was twenty pounds (i.e. about £200 of modern money) it is easy to see why
poor girls belonging to the lower orders never found their way into
convents; such a luxury was far beyond their means.

In each of these cases and at two other houses (St Michael's Stamford, and
Legbourne) Alnwick entered a stern prohibition, on pain of
excommunication, against the reception of anything except free gifts from
the friends of a novice. His injunction to Heynings may be quoted as
typical of those made by medieval bishops on such occasions:

    For as mykelle as we founde that many has been receyvede here afore
    into nunne and sustre in your sayde pryory by covenaunt and paccyons
    made be fore thair receyvyng of certeyn moneys to be payed to the
    howse, the whiche is dampnede by alle lawe, we charge yowe under the
    payn of the sentence of cursyng obove wrytene that fro hense forthe ye
    receyve none persons in to nunne ne sustre in your sayde pryore by no
    suche couenant, ne pactes or bargaines made before. Whan thai are
    receyvede and professede, if thaire frendes of thaire almesse wylle
    any gyfe to the place, we suffre wele, commende and conferme hit to be

But the efforts at reform made by Alnwick and other visitors were never
very successful; Nuncoton evidently continued to demand its entrance fee,
for in 1531 the practice was once more forbidden by Bishop Longland[93].
Moreover it is easy to see that the distinction between the reception of
what was willingly offered by friends (which was specifically permitted by
the rule of St Benedict and by synods and visitors throughout the middle
ages), and what was given by agreement as payment for the entry of a
novice (which was always forbidden) might become a distinction without a
difference, as it clearly was in the case of Heynings quoted above. The
Prioress of Gokewell, who declared to Alnwick that "they take nothing for
the admission of nuns, save that which the friends of her who is to be
created offer of their free-will and not by agreement"[94], may have acted
in reality not very differently from her erring sisters of Heynings,
Nuncoton and Langley. The temptation was in fact too great. The clause of
the Oxford decree, which permitted poor houses if necessary to receive a
sum sufficient for the vesture of a new member and no more, broadened the
way already opened by the permission of free-will offerings. The
concluding words of Bishop Flemyng's prohibition of dowries at Elstow in
1422 show that this permission had been abused; "if they must be clothed
at their own or their friends' expense, let nothing at all be in any sort
exacted or required, beyond their garments or the just price of their
garments"[95]. Throughout the later middle ages an increase in the cost of
living went side by side with a decrease in the monastic ideal of poverty,
showing itself on the one hand in the constant breach of the rule against
private property, on the other in the exaction of money with novices,
until the dowry system (although never during the middle ages recognised
by law) became in practice a matter of course.

Lest it should seem that everyone who had enough money could become a nun,
it must, however, be added that the bishops took some pains that the
persons who were received as novices should be suitable and pleasing to
their sisters. They seldom exercised their right of nomination without
some assurance that their nominee was of honest life and station,
"Mulierem honestam, ut credimus"[96], "bonae indolis, ut credimus,
juvenculam"[97], "jeovene damoisele et de bone condicion, come nous sumez
enformez"[98], "competeter ad hujusmodi officii debitum litterate"[99].
They were always ready to hear complaints if unsuitable persons had been
admitted by the prioress; and they sometimes made special injunctions upon
the matter. Bokyngham at Heynings in 1392 ordered "that they receive no
one to the habit, nor even to profession, unless she be first found by
diligent inquisition and approbation to be useful, teachable, capable, of
legitimate age, discreet and honest"[100]. At Elstow Bishop Gray made a
very comprehensive injunction:

    Furthermore we enjoin and charge you the Abbess ... that henceforward
    you admit no one to be a nun of the said monastery, unless with the
    express consent of the greater and sounder part of the same convent;
    and no one in that case, unless she be taught in song and reading and
    the other things requisite herein, or probably may be easily
    instructed within short time, and be such that she shall be able to
    bear the burdens of the quire (with) the rest that pertain to

Nevertheless, for all their precautions, some strange inmates found their
way into the medieval nunneries.

The novice who entered a nunnery, to live there as a nun for the rest of
her natural life, might do so for very various reasons. For those who
entered young and of their own will, religion was either a profession or a
vocation. They might take the veil because it offered an honourable career
for superfluous girls, who were unwilling or unable to marry; or they
might take it in a real spirit of devotion, with a real call to the
religious life. For other girls the nunnery might be a prison, into which
they were thrust, unwilling but often afraid to resist, by elders who
wished to be rid of them; and many nunneries contained also another class
of inmates, older women, often widows, who had retired thither to end
their days in peace. A career, a vocation, a prison, a refuge; to its
different inmates the medieval nunnery was all these things.

The nunnery as a career and as a vocation does not need separate
treatment. It has already been shown that in large families it was a very
usual custom to make one or more of the daughters nuns. Indeed the youth
of many of the girls who took the veil is in itself proof that anything
like a vocation, or even a free choice, was seldom possible and was hardly
anticipated, even in theory. The age of profession was sixteen, but much
younger children were received as novices and prepared for the veil; they
could withdraw if they found the life distasteful, but as a rule, being
brought up from early childhood for this career, they entered upon it as a
matter of course; moreover the Church was rather apt to regard the
withdrawal of novices as apostasy. Sir Guy de Beauchamp in his will (dated
1359) describes his daughter Katherine as a nun of Shouldham and Dugdale
notes that Katherine, aged seven years, and Elizabeth, aged about one
year, were found to be daughters and heirs of the said Guy, who died in
the following year[102]. It might be supposed that this child of seven was
being brought up as a lay boarder in the convent, but legacies left to
Katherine "a nun at Shouldham" by her grandfather and by her uncle, in
1369 and in 1400 respectively, show that she had been thus vowed in
infancy to a religious life[103]. One of the daughters of Thomas of
Woodstock Duke of Gloucester, was "in infancy placed in the monastery (of
the Minoresses without Aldgate) and clad in the monastic habit" and in
1401 the Pope gave her permission to leave it if she wished, but she
remained and became its abbess[104]. Bishops' registers constantly give
evidence of the presence of mere children in nunneries. When Alnwick
visited Ankerwyke in 1441, three of the younger nuns complained that they
lacked a teacher (_informatrix_) to teach them "reading, song, or
religious observance"; and at the end of the visitation the Bishop noted
that he had examined all the nuns save three, whom he had omitted "on
account of the heedlessness of their age and the simplicity of their
discretion, since the eldest of them is not older than thirteen
years"[105]. At Studley in 1445 he found a girl who had been in religion
for two years and was then thirteen; she complained that one of the
maid-servants had slapped a fellow nun (doubtless also a child) in
church![106] At Littlemore there was a certain Agnes Marcham, who had
entered at the age of thirteen, and had remained there unprofessed for
thirteen years; she now refused to take the full vows[107]. Some of the
nuns at Romsey in 1534 were very young, two being fourteen and one
fifteen[108]. Indeed the reception of girls at a tender age was rather
encouraged than otherwise by the Church. Archbishop Greenfield gave a
licence to the Prioress of Hampole to receive Elena, daughter of the late
Reyner Sperri, citizen of York, who was eight years old, and (he added
solemnly) "of good conversation and life"[109], and Archbishop John le
Romeyn described Margaret de la Batayle, whom he sent to Sinningthwaite,
as "_juvencula_"[110]. The great Peckham went out of his way to make a
specific defence of the practice in 1282, when the Prioress and Convent of
Stratford sought to excuse themselves from veiling a little girl called
Isabel Bret, by reason of her youth, "since on account of this minority
she is the more able and capable to learn and receive those things which
concern the discipline of your order"[111].

It is impossible to make the generalisation that even children professed
at such an early age could have had no consciousness of a vocation for the
religious life; the history of some of the women saints of the middle ages
would be enough to disprove this[112]. The German monk Caesarius of
Heisterbach, who is to be equalled as a gossip only by the less pious
Salimbene, has some delightful stories of youthful enthusiasts in the
_Dialogus Miraculorum_, which he wrote between 1220 and 1235 for the
instruction of the novices in his own Cistercian house. One child,
destined for a worldly match, protests daily that she will wed Christ
only; and, when forced to wear rich garments, asserts "even if you turn me
to gold you cannot make me change my mind," until her parents, worn out by
her prayers, allow her to enter a nunnery where, although very young, she
is soon made governess of the novices. Her sister, given to an earthly
husband while yet a child, is widowed and, "_ipsa adhuc adolescentula_"
enters the same house. Another girl, fired by their example, escapes to a
nunnery in man's clothes; her sister, trying to follow, is caught by her
parents and married, "but I hope," says the appreciative Caesarius, "that
God may not leave unrewarded so fervent a desire to enter religion"[113].
But the most charming tale of all is that of the conversion of Helswindis,
Abbess of Burtscheid[114].

    She, although the daughter of a powerful and wealthy man ... burned so
    from her earliest childhood with zeal to be converted (i.e. to become
    a nun), that she used often to say to her mother: "Mother, make me a
    nun." Now she was accustomed with her mother to ascend Mount St.
    Saviour, whereon stood at that time the convent of the sisters of
    Burtscheid. One day she climbed secretly in through the kitchen
    window, went up to the dorter and putting on the habit of one of the
    maidens, entered the choir with the others. When the Abbess told this
    to her mother, who wanted to go, she, thinking that it was a joke,
    replied "Call the child; we must go." Then the child came from within
    to the window, saying: "I am a nun; I will not go with thee." But the
    mother, fearing her husband, replied: "Only come with me now, and I
    will beg thy father to make thee a nun." And so she went forth. It
    happened that the mother (who had held her peace) once more went up
    the mountain, leaving her daughter asleep. And when the latter rose
    and sought her mother in vain in the church, she suspected her to be
    at the convent, followed her alone, and, getting in by the same
    window, once more put on the habit. When her mother besought her to
    come away she replied: "Thou shalt not deceive me again," repeating
    the promise that had been made to her. Then indeed her mother went
    home in great fear, and her father came up full of rage, together with
    her brothers, broke open the doors and carried off his screaming
    daughter, whom he committed to the care of relatives, that they might
    dissuade her. But she, being (as I believe) not yet nine years of age,
    answered them so wisely that they marvelled. What more? The Bishop of
    Liège having excommunicated her father and those by whom she had been
    taken away, she was restored to the place and after a few years was
    elected Abbess there[115].

After these examples of infant zeal it is impossible to assert that even
the extreme youth of many novices made a real vocation for religious life
impossible. But there is no doubt that such a vocation was less probable,
than in cases when a girl of more mature years entered a convent. And it
is also certain that the tendency to regard monasticism as the natural
career for superfluous girls and as the natural alternative to marriage,
was capable of grave abuse. When medieval convents are compared
unfavourably with those of the present day, and when the increasing laxity
with which the rule was kept in the later middle ages is condemned, it has
always to be remembered that the majority of girls in those days (unlike
those of today) entered the nunneries as a career, without any particular
spiritual qualification, because there was nothing else for them to do.
Even in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries monasticism produced
saintly women and great mystics (especially in Germany); but it is
remarkable that in England, although there must have been many good
abbesses like Euphemia of Wherwell, there are no outstanding names.
Monasticism was pre-eminently a respectable career.

It has been said that this tendency to regard monasticism as a career was
capable of abuse; and there were not wanting men to abuse it and to use
the nunnery as a "dumping ground" for unwanted and often unwilling girls,
whom it was desirable to put out of the world, by a means as sure as death
itself and without the risk attaching to murder. Kings themselves were
wont thus to immure the wives and daughters of defeated rebels. Wencilian
(Gwenllian) daughter of Llewelyn was sent to Sempringham as a child, after
her father's death in 1283, and died a nun there in 1337, and the two
daughters of Hugh Despenser the elder were forced to take the veil at the
same convent after their father's fall[116]. The nunnery must often have
served the purpose of lesser men, desirous of shaking off an encumbrance.
The guilty wife of Sir Thomas Tuddenham, unhappily married for eight years
and ruined by an intrigue with her father's servant, was sent to
Crabhouse, where she lived for some forty years; and none thought kindly
of her save--strangely enough--her husband's sister[117]. Sir Peter de
Montfort, dying in 1367, left ten shillings to the lady Lora Astley, a nun
at Pinley, called by Dugdale "his old concubine"[118]. Illegitimate
children too were sometimes sent to convents. One remembers Langland's
nunnery, where

                  Dame Iohanne was a bastard,
  And dame Clarice a knightes doughter · ac a kokewolde was hire syre.

Nor were the clergy loath to embrace this opportunity of removing the
fruit of a lapse from grace. Hugh de Tunstede, rector of Catton, left ten
shillings and a bed to his daughter Joan, a nun of Wilberfoss[119], and at
the time of the Dissolution there was a child of Wolsey himself at
Shaftesbury[120]. It is significant that it was sometimes necessary to
procure the papal dispensation of an abbess- or prioress-elect for
illegitimacy, before she could hold office. The dispensation in 1472 of
Joan Ward, a nun of Esholt, who afterwards became prioress, is
interesting, for the Wards were patrons of the house and her presence
illustrates one of the uses to which such patronage could be put[121]. The
diocese of York affords other instances (they were common enough in the
case of priests) of dispensation "_super defectu natalium_"; in 1474 one
was granted to Cecily Conyers, a nun at Ellerton, "born of a married man
and a single woman"[122] and in 1432 Alice Etton received one four days
before her confirmation as Prioress of Sinningthwaite[123]. At St Mary's
Neasham in 1437, the Bishop of Durham appointed Agnes Tudowe prioress and
issued a mandate for her dispensation for illegitimacy and her
installation on the same day[124].

Less defensible from the point of view of the house was the practice,
which certainly existed, of placing in nunneries girls in some way
deformed, or suffering from an incurable defect.

  Now earth to earth in convent walls,
    To earth in churchyard sod.
  I was not good enough for man,
    And so am given to God.

It will be remembered that the practice roused the disapprobation of
Gargantua, whose abbey of Thélème contained only beautiful and amiable

    Item, parcequ'en icelluy temps on ne mettoit en religion des femmes,
    sinon celles qu'estoyent borgnes, boiteuses, bossues, laides,
    deffaictes, folles, insensees, maleficiees et tarees, ... ("a propos,
    dist li moyne, une femme qui n'est ny belle, ny bonne, a quoi vault
    elle?--A mettre en religion, dist Gargantua.--Voyre, dist le moine, et
    a faire des chemises.") ... feut ordonne que la (i.e. à Thélème) ne
    seroyent receues, sinon les belles, bien formees et bien naturees, et
    les beaux, bien formez et bien naturez[125].

Occasionally the nuns seem to have resented or resisted these attempts to
foist the deformed and the half-witted upon them. One of the reasons urged
by the obstinate inmates of Stratford against receiving little Isabel Bret
was that she was deformed in her person[126]. It was complained against
the Prioress of Ankerwyke at Alnwick's visitation in 1441 that she made
_ideotas_ and other unfit persons nuns[127]; and in 1514 the Prioress of
Thetford was similarly charged with intending shortly to receive
illiterate and deformed persons as nuns and especially one Dorothy
Sturges, a deaf and deformed gentlewoman. Her designs were frustrated, but
the nuns of Blackborough were less particular and in 1532 Dorothy answered
among her sisters that nothing was in need of reform in that little

At the time of the Dissolution the Commissioners found that one of the
nuns of Langley was "in regard a fool"[129]; and a certain Jane Gowring
(the name of whose convent has not been preserved) sent a petition to
Cromwell, demanding whether two girls of twelve and thirteen, the one deaf
and dumb and the other an idiot, should depart or not[130]. At Nuncoton
in 1440 a nun informed Bishop Alnwick that two old nuns lay in the fermery
and took their meals in the convent's cellar "and likewise the infirm,
_the weak minded_ (_imbecilles_) and they that are in their seynies do eat
in the same cellar"[131]. Complaints of the presence of idiots were fairly
frequent. It is easy to understand the exasperation of Thetford over the
case of Dorothy Sturges, when one finds Dame Katherine Mitford complaining
at the same visitation that Elizabeth Haukeforth is "_aliquando
lunatica_"[132]; but a few years later Agnes Hosey, described as
"_ideota_," gave testimony with her sisters at Easebourne and excited no
adverse comment[133]. In an age when faith and superstition went hand in
hand a mad nun might even bring glory to her house; the tale of Catherine,
nun of Bungay, illustrates this. In 1319 an inquiry was held into the
miracles said to have been performed at the tomb of the saintly Robert of
Winchelsea, Archbishop of Canterbury, whose canonisation was ardently
desired by the English; among these miracles was the following:

    Sir Walter Botere, chaplain, having been sworn, says that the miracle
    happened thus, to wit that he saw a certain Catherine, who had been
    (so they say) a nun of Bungay, in the diocese of Norwich, mad
    (_furiosam_) and led to the tomb of the said father; and there she was
    cured of the said madness and so departed sane; and he says that there
    is public talk and report of this.

Three other witnesses also swore to the tale[134]. Even cases of violent
and dangerous madness seem at times to have occurred, judging from a note
at Alnwick's visitation of Stainfield in 1440, in which it is said that
all the nuns appeared separately before the Bishop, "with the exception of
Alicia Benyntone, who is out of her mind and confined in chains"[135].

Lay and ecclesiastical opinion alike condemned another practice, which
seems to have been fairly widespread in medieval England, that of forcing
into convents children too young to realise their fate, or even girls old
enough to resist, of whom unscrupulous relatives desired to be rid,
generally in order to gain possession of their inheritance; for a nun,
dead in the eyes of the law which governed the world, could claim no share
in her father's estate[136]. It is true that influential people, who could
succeed in proving that a nun was unwillingly professed, might obtain her
release[137]; but many little heiresses and unwanted children must have
remained for ever, without hope of escape, in the convents to which they
had been hurried, for it is evident that the religious houses themselves
did all they could to discourage the presentation of such petitions, or
the escape of unwilling members. The _chanson de nonne_, the song of the
nun unwillingly professed, is a favourite theme in medieval popular
poetry[138]; and dry documents show that it had its foundation in fact. It
is possible to collect from various sources a remarkable series of legal
documents which illustrate the practice of putting girls into nunneries,
so as to secure their inheritance.

As early as 1197 there is a case at Ankerwyke, where a nun who had been
fifteen years professed returned to the world and claimed a share of her
father's property, on the ground that she had been forced into the
monastery by a guardian, who wished to secure the whole inheritance. Her
relatives energetically resisted a claim by which they would have been the
losers and appealed to the Pope. The runaway nun was excommunicated and
her case came into the Curia Regis, but the result has not survived and it
is impossible to say whether her story was true[139]. The case of Agnes,
nun of Haverholme, illustrates at once the reason for which an unwilling
girl might be immured in a nunnery and the obstacles which her order would
place in the way of escape. She enters history in a papal mandate of 1304,
by which three ecclesiastics are ordered to take proceedings in the case
of Agnes, whose father and stepmother (how familiar and like a fairy tale
it sounds) in order to deprive her of her heritage, shut her up in the
monastery of Haverholme. "The canons and nuns of Sempringham (to which
order Haverholme belonged) declare," continues the mandate, "that she took
the habit out of devotion, but refuse to confirm their assertion by
oath"[140]. The inference is irresistible. Another case, the memory of
which is preserved in a petition to Chancery, concerns Katherine and Joan,
the two daughters of Thomas Norfolk, whose widow Agnes married a certain
Richard Haldenby. Agnes was seised of certain lands and tenements in
Yorkshire to the value of £40 a year, as the nearest friend of the two
girls, whose share of their father's estate the lands were. But her
remarriage roused the wrath of the Norfolk family and an uncle, John
Norfolk, dispossessed her of the land and took the children out of her
guardianship, "with great force of armed men against the peace of our lord
the king," breaking open their doors and carrying away the deeds of their
possessions. Then, according to the petition of Agnes and her second
husband, "did he make the said Katherine a nun, when she was under the age
of nine years, at a place called Wallingwells, against her will, and the
other daughter of the aforesaid Thomas Norfolk he hath killed, as it is
said." The mother begs for an inquiry to be held[141].

But the most vivid of all these little tragedies of the cloister are those
concerned with Margaret de Prestewych and Clarice Stil. The case of
Margaret de Prestewych has been preserved in the register of Robert de
Stretton, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield; and it is satisfactory to know
that one energetic girl at least succeeded in making good her protests and
in escaping from her prison. In her eighth year or thereabouts, according
to her own petition to the Pope, her friends compelled her against her
will to enter the priory of the nuns of Seton, of the order of St
Augustine, and take on her the habit of a novice. She remained there, as
in a prison, for several years, always protesting that she had never made
nor ever would willingly make any profession. And then, seeing that she
must by profession be excluded from her inheritance, she feigned herself
sick and took to her bed. But this did not prevent her being carried to
the church at the instance of her rivals and blessed by a monk, in spite
of her cries and protests that she would not remain in that priory or in
any other order. On the first opportunity she went forth from the priory
without leave and returned to the world, which in heart she had never
left, and married Robert de Holand, publicly after banns, and had issue.
The bishop, to whom the case had been referred by the Pope, found upon
inquiry that these things were true, and in 1383 released her from the
observance of her order[142].

Within a few years of this high spirited lady's escape the case of little
Clarice Stil engaged the attention of the King's court. The dry-as-dust
pages of the medieval law-books hide many jewels for whoever has patience
to seek them, but none brighter than this story. It all arose out of a
writ of wardship sued by one David Carmayngton or Servyngton against
Walter Reynold, whom he declared to have unjustly deforced him of the
wardship of the land and heir of Robert Stil, the heir being Clarice.
Walter, however, said that no action lay against him, because Clarice had
entered into the order of St John of Jerusalem, of which the Prioress of
Buckland was prioress, and had been professed in that order on the very
day of the purchase of the writ. In answer David unfolded a strange story.
He alleged that William Stil, the father of Robert, had married twice; by
his first wife Constance he had one daughter Margaret, who was now the
wife of Walter Reynold; by his second wife Joan he had two children,
Robert and Clarice. William died seised of certain tenements which were
inherited by Robert, who died without an heir of his body; whereupon
(David alleged) Walter, by connivance with the Prioress of Buckland and in
order to disinherit Clarice (in which case his own wife Margaret would be
the next of kin), took Clarice after her brother's death and conveyed her
to Buckland Priory, she being then eight years of age, and kept her there
under guard. David's counsel gave a dramatic account of the proceeding:

    Sir, we say that the same Walter by covinage to compel the said
    Clarice to be professed, took the said Clarice when she was between
    the ages of seven and eight years, to the house of nuns at Buckland,
    and in that place were two ladies, nuns, who were of his assent to
    cause the infant to be professed, and they told the child that if she
    passed the door the devil would carry her away.

It was furthermore pleaded that on the day of purchase of the writ,
Clarice was within the age of twelve years and that she was still within
that age, and that therefore she could not be considered professed by the
law of the land. By this time one's sympathies are all on the side of
David, and of terrified little Clarice, with whom the devil was to run
away. Unfortunately the judges referred the matter to an ecclesiastical
court and ordered a writ to be sent to the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The
Bishop made his return

    that the said Clarice on August 1st, 1383, of her own free will, was
    taken to the said Prioress of Buckland by Stephen Joseph, rector of
    the church of Northeleye, without any connivance on the part of the
    said Walter and the said Prioress, and she remained at the said priory
    for two years to see if the life would please her. Afterwards, on
    October 18th, 1385, she assumed the religious habit and made
    profession according to the manners and customs of the said house. And
    on the day when Clarice entered the house she was more than eight
    years old and on the day of purchase of the writ more than twelve
    years old, and at the present time is more than fourteen years old,
    and is well contented with the religious life.

The Bishop also found that no guards had been placed over Clarice by
Walter, or by the Prioress. So David lost his suit and was in mercy for a
false claim; and he also lost, upon a technical point, another suit which
he had brought against the Prioress of Buckland. Nevertheless one's
sympathies remain obstinately on his side. That touch about the devil
assuredly never sprang even from the fertile brain of a lawyer[143].

The illegitimate, the deformed, the feeble-minded and the unwilling
represent a not very pleasant side of the conventual system. The nunneries
contained other and less tragic inmates, who may be distinguished from the
majority; for to them went in voluntary retirement a large number of
widows[144]. If the nun unwillingly professed has always been a favourite
theme in popular literature, so also has the broken-hearted wife or lover,
Guinevere hiding her sorrows in the silent cloister.

Many of the widows who took the veil were, however, less romantic figures.
Although their presence as secular boarders was discouraged, because it
brought too much of the world within cloister walls, those who desired to
make regular profession were willingly received, the more so as they often
brought a substantial dower with them. Thus when Margaret, Countess of
Ulster, assumed the habit at Campsey in 1347, she took with her, by
licence of the Crown, the issues of all her lands and rents in England for
a year after her admission, and after that date 200 marks yearly were to
be paid for her sustenance[145]. Such widows often enjoyed a respect
consonant with their former position in society and not infrequently
became heads of their houses. Katherine de Ingham and Eleanor Lady Scrope
both entered the Minories in their widowhood and eventually became
abbesses[146]. But it does not need much imagination, nor an unduly
cynical temperament, to guess that this element of convent life must
occasionally have been a disturbing one. The conventual atmosphere did not
always succeed in killing the profaner passions of the soul; and the
advent of an opinionated widow, ripe in the experience of all those things
which her sisters had never known, with the aplomb of one who had long
enjoyed an honoured position as wife and mother and lady of the manor,
must at times have caused a flutter among the doves; such a situation, for
instance, as Bishop Cobham found at Wroxall when he visited it in
1323[147]. Isabel Lady Clinton of Maxstoke, widow of the patron of the
house, had retired thither and had evidently taken with her a not too
modest opinion of her own importance. She found it impossible to forget
that she was a Clinton and to realise that she, who had in time gone by
given her easy patronage to the nuns and lodged with them when she would,
was now a simple sister among them. Was she to submit to the rule of
Prioress Agnes of Alesbury, she without whose goodwill Prioress Agnes had
never been appointed? Was she to listen meekly to chiding in the dorter,
and in the frater to bear with sulks? Impossible. How she comported
herself we know not, but the bishop "found grave discord existing between
the Prioress and dame Isabel Clinton, some of the sisters adhering to one
and some to the other." Evidently a battle royal. The bishop, poor man,
did his best. He enjoined peace and concord among the inmates; the sisters
were to treat the prioress with reverence and obedience; those who had
rebelled against her were to desist and the prioress was to behave
amicably to all in frater, dorter, and elsewhere. And so my lord went his
way. He may have known the pertinacity of the late patroness; and it was
perhaps with resignation and without surprise that he confirmed her
election as prioress on the death of the harassed Agnes.

The occasional cases in which wives left their husbands to enter a convent
were less likely to provoke discord. Such women as left husband and
children to take the veil must have been moved by a very strong vocation
for religion, or else by excessive weariness. Some may perhaps have found
married life even such an odious tale, "a licking of honey off thorns," as
the misguided realist who wrote _Hali Meidenhad_ sought to depict it. In
any case, whether the mystical faith of a St Bridget drew her thither, or
whether matrimony had not seemed easy to her that had tried it, the
presence of a wedded wife was unlikely to provoke discord in the convent;
the devout and the depressed are quiet bedeswomen. It was necessary for a
wife to obtain her husband's permission before she could take the veil,
since her action entailed celibacy on his part also, during her lifetime.
Sometimes a husband would endow his wife liberally on her entry into the
house which she had selected. There are two such dowers in the Register of
Godstow Nunnery. About 1165 William de Seckworth gave the tithes of two
mills and a grant of five acres of meadow to the convent, "for the helth
of hys sowle and of hys chyldryn and of hys aunceters, with hys wyfe also,
the whyche he toke to kepe to the forseyd holy mynchons to serve
god"[148]; and a quarter of a century later Geoffrey Durant and Molde his
wife, "whan þe same Moole yelded herself to be a mynchon to the same
chirch," granted one mark of rent to be paid annually by their son Peter,
out of certain lands held by him, "which were of the mariage of the said
Moolde"[149]. Nor did Walter Hauteyn, citizen of London, in his solicitude
for his son and three daughters, forget the mother who had left her
husband and children for the service of God; to Alice his wife, a nun of
St Sepulchre's Canterbury, he bequeathed in 1292 his dwelling place and
rents upon Cornhill for life, with remainder to his heirs[150].



  "My lady Prioresse, by your leve
  So that I wiste I sholde you not greve,
  I wolde demen that ye tellen sholde
  A tale next, if so were that ye wolde.
  Now wol ye vouche-sauf, my lady dere?"
  "Gladly" quod she, and seyde as ye shal here.

It usually happened that the head of a nunnery was a woman of some social
standing in her own right. All nuns were Christ's brides, but an earthly
father in the neighbourhood, with broad acres and loose purse strings, was
not to be despised. If a great lady retired to a nunnery she was very like
to end as its head; Barking Abbey in Essex had a long line of well-born
abbesses, including three queens and two princesses; and when Katherine de
la Pole (the youngest daughter of that earl of Suffolk who was slain at
Agincourt) is found holding the position of abbess at the tender age of
twenty-two, it is an irresistible inference that her birth was a factor in
the choice[151]. The advantage in having a woman of local influence and
rich connections as prioress is illustrated in the history of Crabhouse
nunnery under Joan Wiggenhall[152]; how she worked and built "be the grace
of oure Lord God an be the helpe of Edmund Perys, Person of Watlington,"
her cousin; and how

    whanne this good man beforeseyde was passid to God, oure Lord that is
    ful graciouse to alle his servauntis that have nede and that troste on
    hym, sente hem anothir goode frende hem to helpe and comforte in her
    nede, clepid Mayster Jon Wygenale, Doctoure of Canon and person of
    Oxborow, and Cosyn to the same Prioresse;

and how

    in the xix yere of the same Prioresse, ffel a grete derth of corne,
    wherefore sche muste nedis have lefte werke with oute relevynge and
    helpe of sum goode creature, so, be the steringe of oure Lord, Mayster
    Jon Wygenale befor sayde sente us of his charite an 100 cowmbe malte
    and an 100 coumbe Barly and besyde this procurid us xx mark. And for
    the soule of my lord of Exetyr, of whos soule God of hys pyte he wil
    have mercy, we had of him xl pounte and v mark to the same werke,
    whiche drewe ccc mark, without mete and drinke. And within these vij
    yere that the dortoure was in makynge the place at Lynne clepped
    Corner Bothe was at the gate downe and no profite came to the place
    many yeris beforne. So that maystir Jon before seyde of hys gret
    charite lente the same prioresse good to make it up ageyne and
    procured hir xx mark of the sekatouris of Roger Chapeleyn[153].

The election of a superior was a complicated business, as may be gathered
from the list of seventeen documents relating to the election of Alice de
la Flagge as Prioress of Whiston in 1308, and enrolled in the _Sede
Vacante_ Register of Worcester diocese[154]. Indeed there were so many
formalities to be fulfilled that the nuns seem often to have found great
difficulty in making a canonical election, and there are frequent notices
in the episcopal registers that their election has been quashed by the
Bishop on account of some technical fault; in such cases, however, the
Bishop's action was merely formal and he almost always reappointed the
candidate of their choice[155]. An election was, moreover, not only
complicated but expensive; it began with a journey to the patron to ask
for his _congé d'élire_ and it ended with more journeys, to the patron and
to the Bishop, to ask for confirmation, so that the cost of travel and the
cost of paying a clerk to draw up the necessary documents were sometimes
considerable; moreover a fee was payable to the Bishop's official for the
installation of the new head. The account of Margaret Ratclyff, Prioress
of Swaffham Bulbeck in 1482, contains notice of payments "to the official
of the lord bishop, at the installation of the said prioress for his fee
i. li." and to one Bridone "for the transcript of the decree of election
of the prioress v. s."[156]. An account roll of St Michael's Stamford for
the year 1375-6 illustrates the process in greater detail; under the
heading of "expenses de nostre Elit" are the following items:

    Paid for the hire of horses with expenses going to the abbot of
    Peterborough [the patron] to get licence to elect our choice 9-1/2_d._
    Paid for the hire of horses going to the bishop of Lincoln and to the
    abbot of Peterborough and for their expenses at our election 4_s._
    8-1/2_d._ Paid for bread, ale and meat for our election on the
    election day 2_s._ 11-1/2_d._ Paid for a letter to the abbot of
    Peterborough for a licence to elect 3_d._ Paid for the installation of
    our elect, 10_s._[157] Total 18_s._ 8-1/2_d._[158]

The only necessary qualifications for the head of a house were that she
should be above the age of twenty-one[159], born in wedlock and of good
reputation; a special dispensation had to be obtained for the election of
a woman who was under age or illegitimate.

[Illustration: PLATE II



As a rule the nuns possessed the right of free election, subject to the
_congé d'élire_ of their patron and to the confirmation of the bishop, and
they secured without very much difficulty the leader of their choice.
Often enough it must have been clear, especially in small communities,
that one of the nuns was better fitted to rule than her sisters, and, as
at Whiston, they

    unanimously, as if inspired by the Holy Spirit[160], chose dame Alice
    de la Flagge, a woman of discreet life and morals, of lawful age,
    professed in the nunnery, born in lawful matrimony, prudent in
    spiritual and temporal matters, of whose election all approved, and
    afterwards, solemnly singing Te Deum Laudamus, carried the said elect,
    weeping, resisting as much as she could, and expostulating in a high
    voice, to the church as is the custom, and immediately afterwards,
    brother William de Grimeley, monk of Worcester, proclaimed the
    election. The said elect, after being very often asked, at length,
    after due deliberation, being unwilling to resist the divine will,

But Jocelin of Brakelond has taught us that a monastic election was not
always a foregone conclusion, that discussion waxed hot and barbed words
flew in the season of blood-letting "when the cloistered monks were wont
to reveal the secrets of their hearts in turn and to discuss matters one
with another," and that "many men said many things and every man was fully
persuaded in his own mind." Nuns were not very different from monks when
it came to an election, and the chance survival of a bishop's register and
of another formal document among the muniments of Lincoln, has preserved
the record of an election comedy at Elstow Abbey, almost worthy to rank
with Jocelin's inimitable account of the choice of Samson the subsacrist.

After the death of Abbess Agnes Gascoigne in July 1529, the nineteen nuns
of Elstow, having received Henry VIII's _congé d'élire_, assembled in
their chapter house on August 9th, to elect her successor. They chose
Master John Rayn "_utriusque juris doctorem_," as director, Edward Watson,
notary public as clerk, and the Prior of Caldwell and the rectors of Great
Billing and Turvey as witnesses. Three novices and other lay persons
having departed, the director and the other men explained the forms of
election to the nuns in the vulgar tongue and they agreed to proceed by
way of scrutiny. Matilda Sheldon, subprioress, Alice Boifeld,
_precentrix_, and Anne Preston, _ostiaria_ (doorkeeper) were chosen as
scrutineers and withdrew into a corner of the chapter house, with the
notary and witnesses. There Matilda Sheldon and Anne Preston nominated
Cecilia Starkey, _refectoraria_, while Alice Boifeld nominated Elizabeth
Boifeld, sacrist, evidently a relative. The three scrutineers then called
upon the other nuns to give their votes; Anne Wake, the prioress, named
Cecilia Starkey; Elizabeth Boifeld and Cecilia Starkey (each unable to
vote for herself, but determined not to assist the other) voted for a
third person, the subsacrist Helen Snawe; and Helen Snawe and all the
other nuns, except two, gave their votes in favour of Elizabeth Boifeld.
Consternation reigned among the older nuns, prioress, subprioress,
_refectoraria_ and doorkeeper, when this result was announced. "Well,"
said the Prioress, "some of thies yong Nunnes be to blame," and on the
director asking why, she replied: "For they wolde not shewe me so muche;
for I asked diverse of them before this day to whome they wolde gyve their
voices, but they wolde not shewe me." "What said they to you?" asked the
director. "They said to me," replied the flustered and indignant prioress,
"they wolde not tell to whome they wolde gyve their voices tyll the tyme
of thellection, and then they wolde gyve their voices as God shulde put
into their mynds, but this is by counsaill. And yet yt wolde have beseemed
them to have shewn as much to me as to the others." And then she and Dame
Cecilia said, "What, shulde the yong nunnes gyve voices? Tushe, they
shulde not gyve voices!" Clearly the situation was the same which Jocelin
of Brakelond had described over three centuries before: "The novices said
of their elders that they were invalid old men and little capable of
ruling an abbey." However the Prioress was obliged to admit that the
younger nuns had voted in the last election and the subprioress thereupon,
in the name of the scrutineers, announced the election of Dame Elizabeth
Boifeld by the "more and sounder part of the convent" (poor Anne Wake!).
But the Prioress and disappointed Dame Cecilia still showed fight; the
votes must be referred to the Bishop of Lincoln. Further discussion; then
Dame Cecilia gracefully gave way; she consented to the election of Dame
Elizabeth Boifeld and would not proceed further in the matter. Master John
Rayn published the election at the steps of the altar. Helen Snawe (whom
after events showed to be a leading spirit in the affair) and Katherine
Wingate were chosen as proctors, to seek confirmation from the Bishop, and
Dame Elizabeth was taken to the altar (amid loud chanting of _Te Deum
Laudamus_ by the triumphant younger nuns) and her election announced. She,
however, preserved that decorous semblance of unwillingness, or at least
of indifference, which custom demanded from a successful candidate, even
when she had been pulling strings for days, for when the proctors came to
her at two o'clock "in a certain upper chamber called Marteyns, in our
monastery" and asked her consent to her election, "she neither gave it nor
refused." Away went the proctors, without so much as a wink to each other;
let us leave our elect to meditate upon the will of God. At four p.m. they
came to her "in a certain large garden, called the Pond Yard, within our
monastery"; and at their repeated instances she gave her consent.
"Wherefore we, the above-named nuns, pray the Lord Bishop to ratify and
confirm our election of the said Elizabeth Boyfeld as our Abbess." Which
the Lord Bishop did[162].

But this was by no means the end of the matter. A year later the whole
nunnery was in an uproar[163]. The bishop, for reasons best known to
himself, had removed the prioress Dame Anne Wake and had appointed Dame
Helen Snawe in her place; perhaps Dame Anne had said "Tush" once too
often under the new _régime_; perhaps she was getting too old for her
work; or perhaps Abbess Elizabeth Boifeld had only commanded Dame Snawe's
intrigues at a price; evidently the subsacrist was no less adroit than
that other subsacrist of Bury St Edmund's. At any rate Dame Anne Wake was
put out of her office and Dame Helen Snawe ruled in her stead. It might
have been expected that this change would be welcomed by the nuns,
considering how strong the Boifeld faction had been at the election of the
Abbess. But no; during the year of triumph Helen Snawe had aroused the
hearty dislike of her sisters; led by Dames Barbara Gray (who had voted
against the Abbess at the last election) and Alice Bowlis they had
strenuously opposed her substitution for the old Prioress; they had been
impertinent to the Abbess of their own choice (indeed she was only a
figure-head); they had written letters to their friends and refused to
show them to her; and finally when the election of Dame Snawe was
announced, they had risen in a body and left the chapter-house as a
protest. This was intolerable, and the Bishop's vicar-general came down to
examine the delinquents. Matilda Sheldon, the subprioress, admitted to
having left the chapter, but denied that she had done so for the reason
attributed and said that she did not know of the departure of the other
nuns, until she saw them in the dorter. Margaret Nicolson showed more
spirit; she said that she went out "because she wold not consent that my
lady Snawe shulde be priores," and that "ther was none that ded councell
hir to goo" and that "my lady abbes did commaunde them to tary, that not
withestandyng they went forthe"; and she gave the names of eight nuns who
had followed the subprioress out. Dame Barbara Gray was next asked "yf she
ded aske licence of my Lady Abbas to wryte letters to hir frends," and
replied "that she ded aske licens to wryte to hir frends and my Lady Abbas
sade, 'Yf ye showe me what ye wryte I am content,' and she saide agene, 'I
have done my devoir to aske licence, and yf ye wyll nede see it I will
wryte noo letters.'" Asked whether she had left the chapter house, this
defiant young woman declared that "yf it were to do agene she wolde soo
doo," and moreover "that she cannot fynde in hir hert to obbey my lady
Snawe as priores, and that she wyll rather goo out of the house by my
lord's licence, or she wyll obbey hir ... and that she wyll never obbey
hir as priores, for hir hert cannot serve hir." Asked for her objection to
Dame Snawe, she said that "she wyll shewe noo cause at thys tyme wherfor
she cannot love hir"; but after a little pressure she declared with heat
that "the priores maks every faute a dedly syne"[164], treats all of them
ill except her own self and if she "doo take an oppynyon she wyll kepe
itt," whether it be right or wrong. Dame Margery Preston was next examined
and was evidently rather frightened at the result of her actions; she said
that she had left the chapter-house as a protest against the deposition of
the old prioress and not for any ill will that she bore Dame Snawe, "and
she sais," the record continues, "that she ys well content to obbey my
lady Snawe as priores. And she desiers my lord to be a good lord to the
olde priores, because of her age." Ill-used Dame Cecilia Starkey, so
unkindly circumvented by Dame Snawe a year ago, next appeared before the
vicar-general and said "that she went forthe of the chapter howse, but she
sais she gave noo occasion to eny of hir susters to goo forthe. And says
she knewe not howe many of hir susters went forthe whyle she come intoo
the dorter; saynge that she cannot fynde in hir hert nor wyll not accepte
and take my lady Snawe as priores" (an amusing comment on her vote in
1529). Next came Dame Alice Foster, who admitted to having left the

    and sais that they war commanded by the Abbes to tare styll. But she
    and other went forth because the olde priores was put done [i.e. down]
    wrongfully and my lady Snawe put in agenst ther wylle, saynge that she
    wyll never agre to hir as long as she lyvys; she says the sub-prioress
    went forthe of the chapiter howse fyrst and then she and other

and evidence in almost the same words was given by Dame Anne Preston and
by Dame Elizabeth Sinclere, the latter adding that "she wyll take tholde
priores as priores as longe as she levys and no other, and she says yf my
lord commaunde vs to take my lady Snawe to be priores, she had lever goo
forthe of the howse to sum other place and wyll not tare ther." Dame Alice
Bowlis, another young rebel, asked

    yf she ded aske lycence of the Abbes to wryte, she sais she ded aske
    licens to wryte and my lady Abbes seyde "My lord hathe gevyn vs soo
    strate commaundement that none shuld wryte no (letter) but ye shewe it
    to me, what ye doo wryte"; and she sais she mayde aunswer agene to
    thabbes, "It hathe not bene soo in tymis paste and I have done my
    dewty. I wyll not wryte nowe at this tyme"; she admitted that she left
    the chapter house, "but she says that nobody ded move hyr to goo
    forthe; she says that she must neds nowe obbey the priores at my lords
    commaundement, saynge that my lady Snawe ys not mete for that offes,
    butt she wolde shewe noo cause wherfor."

Two other nuns declared with great boldness "That my lord ded not
commaunde vs to tak my lady Snawe as priores, but he saide, 'Yf ye wyll
not take hir as priores I wyll make hir priores'" and that "they was wont
to have the priores chosyn by the Abbes and the convent, and not by my
lord, after seynte Bennet's rule," one of them remarking cryptically "that
she wyll take my lady Snawe as priores as other wyll doo" and not
otherwise. Meek little Dame Katherine Cornwallis was then interrogated and

    "that she was going forthe of the chapiter house wt. other of hir
    susters and then when she herde my lady abbes commaund them to tary,
    she ded tary behynde, but she sais that she thynks that none of the
    oder susters that went forthe ded here hyr, but only she" (kind little
    Dame Katherine), "and she is sory that tholde priores ys put out of
    hir offes. She says that my lady abbes ded tare styll and domina
    Alicia Boyfelde, domina Snawe, domina Katherina Wyngate, domina
    Dorothia Commaforthe, domina Elizabethe Repton, and domina Elizabeth

Finally the ill-used abbess made her complaint; she had bidden saucy Dame
Alice Bowlis and others to stand up at matins, according to the custom of
the house, "and went out of hir stall to byde them soo doo, and lady
Bowlis ded make hir awnswer agene that, 'ye have mayde hir priores that
mayde ye abbes!', brekyng her silence ther." Evidently poor Elizabeth
Boifeld had not succeeded in living down the intrigues which had preceded
her election, and the convent suspected her of rewarding a supporter at
the expense of an old opponent.

Here was a pretty state of affairs in the home of buxomness and peace. But
the vicar-general acted firmly. Barbara Gray and Alice Bowlis were given a
penance for their disobedience; they were to keep silence; neither of them
was to come within "the howse calde the misericorde" (where meat was
allowed to be eaten), but they were always to have their meals in the
frater; neither of them was to write any letters; and they were to take
the lowest places of all among the sisters in "processions and in other
placys." Finally all the nuns were enjoined to be obedient to the abbess
and to the hated prioress. Their protests that they would never obey Dame
Alice Snawe, while the old prioress lived, were all in vain; and when some
ten years later the Reformation put an end to their dissensions by casting
them all upon the world, Dame Elizabeth Boyvill (_sic_), "abbesse,"
received an annual pension of £50, Dame Helen Snawe, "prioresse," one of
£4 and Dame Anne Wake, "prioresse quondam," one of 66_s._ 8_d._[165]

The turbulent diocese of York provides us with an even more striking
picture of an election-quarrel. In 1308, after a vacancy, the election of
the Prioress of Keldholme lapsed to the Archbishop, who appointed Emma of
York. But the nuns would have none of Emma. Six of them refused obedience
to the new prioress and, six being probably at least half of the whole
convent, Emma of York resigned. Not to be daunted the Archbishop returned
to the charge; on August 5th he wrote to the Archdeacon of Cleveland
stating that as he found no one in the house capable of ruling it he had
appointed Joan de Pykering, a nun of Rosedale, to be Prioress.

    As a number of persons (named) had openly and publicly obstructed the
    appointment of the new prioress the Archdeacon was to proceed
    immediately to Keldholme and give her corporal possession and at the
    same time he was to admonish other dissentient nuns (named) that they
    and all others must accept Joan de Pykering as prioress and reverently
    obey her.

It is clear in this case that the feuds of the convent had spread beyond
its walls, for the Archbishop at the same time warned all lay folk to
cease their opposition on pain of excommunication and shortly afterwards
imposed a penance upon one of those who had interfered. But pandemonium
still reigned at Keldholme and he went down in person to interview the
refractory nuns; the result of his visitation appears in a mandate issued
to the official of Cleveland on September 3rd, stating that he had found
four nuns, Isabella de Langetoft, Mary de Holm, Joan de Roseles and
Anabilla de Lokton (all had been among the original objectors to Emma of
York) incorrigible rebels. They were therefore to be packed off one after
another, Isabella to Handale, Mary to Swine, Joan to Nunappleton and
Anabilla to Wallingwells, there to perform their penances. In spite of
this ruthless elimination of the discordant elements, the convent of
Keldholme refused to submit. On February 1st following the Archbishop
wrote severely to the subprioress and convent bidding them at once to
direct a letter under their common seal to their patroness, declaring that
they had unanimously elected Joan de Pykering as prioress; on February 5th
he issued a commission to correct the crimes and excesses revealed at his
visitation; and on February 17th he directed the commissioners "to enquire
whether Joan de Pickering" (luckless exile in the tents of Kedar) "desired
for a good reason, of her own free will, to resign and if they found that
she did to enjoin the subprioress and convent to proceed to the canonical
election of a new prioress"; and on March 7th the triumphant convent
elected Emma of Stapelton. At the same time the Archbishop ordered the
transference of two other nuns to do penance at Esholt and at Nunkeeling,
perhaps for their share in these disorders but more probably for

But this was not the end. Emma of York could not forget that she had once
been prioress; Mary de Holm (who had either returned from or never gone to
Swine) was a thoroughly bad character; and in 1315 the Archbishop

    directed Richard del Clay, _custos_ of the monastery, to proceed at
    once to Keldholme and to summon before him in the chapter Emma of
    York and Mary de Holm, who like daughters of perdition were
    disobedient and rebels against the Prioress. Having read the
    Archbishop's letter in the mother tongue in the chapter, he was to
    admonish the two nuns for the first, second and third times that they
    must humbly obey the Prioress in all lawful and canonical injunctions.
    They were not to meddle with any internal or external business of the
    house in any way, or to go outside of the enclosure of the monastery,
    or to say anything against the Prioress, on pain of expulsion and of
    the greater excommunication.

At the end of the year, however, harassed Archbishop Greenfield went where
the wicked cease from troubling; and the two malcontents at Keldholme
seized the opportunity to triumph. Scarcely a couple of months after his
death Emma of Stapelton resigned; she said she was "oppressed by age," but
since Emma of York was at once elected and confirmed in her place, it is
probable that the rage, like Joan de Pickering's free will, was something
of a euphemism; her reason doubtless took a concrete and menacing shape
and wore a veil upon its undiminished head. The last we hear of these very
unsaintly ladies is in 1318, when the new Archbishop enjoined a penance on
Mary de Holm for incontinence with a chaplain[166]. It is noticeable that
this was the second case of the kind which had occurred in the diocese of
York within fifteen years. At Swine in 1290 the appointment by Archbishop
Romeyn of Josiana de Anlaby as Prioress had been followed by similar
disorders and he ordered an inquiry to be held and the rebellious nuns to
be sent to Rosedale[167].

Much trouble might arise within a convent over the election of its head,
as these stories show. But sometimes external persons interfered; great
ladies used their influence and their wealth to secure the coveted post
for a protégée of their own; and the protégée herself was not averse to
oiling the palms of those in authority with good marks of silver;
"blood-abbesses," Ensfrid of Cologne would have called them ("that is,
foisted in by their kinsfolk") or "jester-abbesses" ("that is, such as had
been thrust in by the power of great folks") or "simoniacs, who had crept
in through money or through worldly services"[168]. In these cases there
was likely to be more trouble still, for great ladies were not always
careful of the character of a friend or relative whom they wished to
settle comfortably as head of a convent. In 1528 the Abbess of Wilton died
and Mr John Carey thought he would like the appointment for his sister
Eleanor, one of the nuns. He was brother-in-law to lovely Anne Boleyn, and
a word in her ear secured her warm support; the infatuated King wished to
please Anne; and Wolsey, steering his bark in troubled waters, wished to
please the King; so he promised that the lady should have the post, the
election to which had been placed in his hands by the nuns. It seemed that
all would go well with Dame Eleanor Carey, when Anne Boleyn pulled the
strings; but trouble arose, and the action taken by the Cardinal and by
the future oppressor of the monasteries is greatly to the credit of them
both, for both had much to lose from Anne. "As touching the matter of
Wilton" Henry wrote to her

    My lord cardinal hath had the Nuns before him, and examined them, Mr.
    Bell being present; which hath certified me, that for a truth that she
    hath confessed herself, (which we would have had abbesse) to have had
    two children by two sundry priests; and furder, since, hath been kept
    by a servant of the Lord Broke, that was, and that not long ago;
    wherefore I would not for all the gold in the world clog your
    conscience nor mine to make her a ruler of a house, which is of so
    ungudly demeanor, nor I trust you would not that neither for brother
    nor sister I should so destain mine honor or conscience. And as
    touching the prioress [Isabel Jordan] or Dame Eleanor's eldest sister,
    though there is not any evident case proved against them, and that the
    prioress is so old that of many years she could not be as she was
    named [ill-famed]: yet notwithstanding to do you pleasure I have done
    that neither of them shall have it, but that some other good and well
    disposed woman shall have it, whereby the house shall be the better
    reformed (whereof I ensure you it had much need) and God much the
    better served[169].

Wolsey, however, gave the appointment to Isabel Jordan, who in spite of
her having been the subject of some scandal in her youth, was favoured by
the greater part of the convent as being "ancient, wise and discreet";
whereupon he brought down upon himself a severe rebuke from Henry, who had
"both reported and promised to divers friends of Dame Elinor Carey that
the Prioress should not have it"[170]. Without doubt pretty Mistress Anne
was sulking down at Hever.

Not only did outside persons thus concern themselves in a conventual
election; the nuns themselves were not always unwilling to bribe, where
they desired advancement. A series of letters written by Margaret Vernon
to Cromwell, concerning the office of Prioress of St Helen's, Bishopsgate,
throws a lurid light upon the methods which were sometimes employed:

    "Sir," she wrote to her powerful friend in 1529, "Pleaseth it you to
    understand that there is a goldsmith in this town, named Lewys, and he
    sheweth me that Mr. More hath made sure promise to parson Larke that
    the subprioress of St. Helen's shall be prioress there afore
    Christmas-day. Sir, I most humbly beseech you to be so good master
    unto me, as to know my lord's grace's [the king's] pleasure in this
    case and that I may have a determined answer whereto I shall trust,
    that I may settle myself in quietness; the which I am far from at this
    hour. And farthermore if it might like you to make the offer to my
    said lord's grace of such a sum of money as we were at a point for, my
    friends thinketh that I should surely be at an end."

Soon afterwards she wrote again:

    Sir, it is so that there is divers and many of my friends that hath
    written to me that I should make labour for the said house unto your
    mastership, showing you that the King's grace hath given it to master
    Harper, who saith that he is proffered for his favour two hundred
    marks of the King's saddler, for his sister; which proffer I will
    never make unto him, nor no friend for me shall, for the coming in
    after that fashion is neither godly nor worshipful. And beside all
    this must come by my lady Orell's favour, which is a woman I would
    least meddle with. And thus I shall not only be burdened in conscience
    for payment of this great sum, but also entangled and in great
    cumbrance to satisfy the avidity of this gentlewoman. And though I
    did, in my lord cardinal's days, proffer a hundred pounds for the said
    house, I beseech you consider for what purpose it was made. Your
    mastership knoweth right well that there was by my enemies so many
    high and slanderous words, and your mastership had made so great
    instant labour for me, that I shamed so much the fall thereof that I
    foresaw little what proffer was made; but now, I thank our Lord, that
    blast is ceased, and I have no such singular love unto it; for now I
    have two eyes to see in this matter clearly, the one is the eye of my
    soul, that I may come without burthen of conscience and by the right
    door, and, laying away all pomp and vanity of the world, looking
    warily upon the maintenance and supportation of the house, which I
    should take in charge, and cannot be performed, master Harper's
    pleasure and my lady Orell's accomplished. In consideration whereof I
    intend not willingly, nor no friend of mine shall not, trouble your
    mastership in this case.

In another letter she mentions a saying of Master Harper, that from the
good report he has heard of her, he would rather admit her without a groat
than others who offer money; but her conscientious scruples were not
rewarded with St Helen's, though she almost immediately obtained an
appointment as prioress at Little Marlow, and on the dissolution of that
house among the lesser monasteries, received and held for a brief space
the great Abbey of Malling[171]. It is true that these instances of simony
and of the use of influence belong to the last degenerate years of the
monasteries in England. But cases hardly less serious undoubtedly occurred
at an early date. The gross venality of the papal _curia_[172], even in
the early thirteenth century, is not a very happy omen for the behaviour
of private patrons; smaller folk than the Pope could summon a wretched
abbot "Amice, ut offeras"; nor was it only abbots who thus bought
themselves into favour. The thirteenth century jurist Pierre Du Bois,
whose enlightened plans for the better education of women included the
suppression of the nunneries and the utilisation of their wealth to form
schools or colleges for girls, mentioned the reception of nuns for money
and rents, by means of compacts (i.e. the dowry system) and the election
of abbesses and prioresses by the same illicit bargains, as among the
abuses practised in nunneries[173].

Once having been installed, the head of a house held office until she
died, resigned or was deprived for incompetence or for ill behaviour.
Sometimes prioresses continued to hold office until a very great age, as
did Matilda de Flamstead, Prioress of Sopwell, who died in 1430 aged
eighty-one, having lived in the rules of religion for over sixty
years[174]. But the cases (quoted below) of the prioresses of St Michael's
Stamford and of Gracedieu prove that an aged and impotent head was bad for
the discipline of the house, and it appears that a prioress who was too
old or in too weak health to fulfil her arduous duties, was often allowed
to resign or was relieved of her office[175]. Sometimes an ex-superior
continued to live a communal life as an ordinary nun, under her successor,
but sometimes she was granted a special room and a special allowance of
food and attendance. In some houses certain apartments were reserved for
the occupation of a retired superior. Sir Thomas Willoughby, writing to
Cromwell on behalf of his sister-in-law, who had resigned her office as
Abbess of Malling, begs that she may

    have your letter to my lady abbess of Malling (her successor), that
    she at your contemplation will be so good to her as to appoint her
    that room and lodging within the said monastery that she and other of
    her predecessors that hath likewise resigned hath used to have, and as
    she had herself a little space, or else some other meet and convenient
    lodging in the same house[176].

When Katherine Pilly, Prioress of Flixton, "who had laudably ruled the
house for eighteen years," resigned in 1432 because of old age and
blindness, the Bishop of Norwich made special arrangements for her

    she was to have suitable rooms for herself and her maid; each week she
    and the maid were to be provided with two white loaves, eight loaves
    of "hool" bread and eight gallons of convent beer, with a daily dish
    for both from the kitchen, the same as for two nuns in the refectory,
    and with two hundred faggots and a hundred logs and eight pounds of
    candles a year. Cecilia Crayke, one of the nuns, was to read divine
    service to her daily and to sit with her at meals, having her portion
    from the refectory[177].

These aged ladies probably ended their days peacefully, withdrawn from the
common life of the house. But sometimes a prioress resigned while still
young enough to miss her erstwhile autocracy and to torment her unlucky
successor. Then indeed the new head could do nothing right and feuds and
factions tore the sisterhood. Such a case occurred at Nunkeeling early in
the fourteenth century. Avice de la More resigned in 1316, and the
Archbishop wrote to the nuns making the usual provision for her; she had
"for a long period laudably and usefully superintended the house"; she was
to have a chamber to herself and one of the nuns assigned to her by the
Prioress as a companion; and daily she was to receive the portion of two
nuns in bread, ale and victuals and her associate that of one nun; an end,
one might suppose, of Avice de la More. But the Yorkshire nuns were
quarrelsome ladies; and two years later the Archbishop addressed a severe
letter to Avice, threatening to remove the provision made for her if she
persisted in her "conspiracies, rebellions and disobedience to the
prioress" and imposing a severe penance upon her. But seven penitential
psalms with the litany upon Fridays, a discipline in chapter and fasting
diet could not calm the temper of Avice de la More; she stirred up the
nuns to rebellion and spread the tale of her grievances "to seculars and
adversaries outside." There was some family feud perhaps between her
relatives and the St Quintins to whose house the unhappy Prioress
belonged; at any rate "clamorous information" reached the Archbishop
concerning the intrigues of certain of the nuns. Once more he wrote to
Avice "with a bitter heart." She had broken her vow of obedience in
arrogancy and elation of heart towards her prioress, "who was placed in
charge of her soul and body and without whom she had no free will"; let
her desist at once and study to live according to the rule; and a
commission was sent to inquire into the misdeeds of the rebellious nuns of
Keeling. But alas, the finding of that commission has long since powdered
into dust and we hear no further news of Avice de la More[178].

The head of a house was an important person and enjoyed a considerable
amount of freedom, in relation both to her convent and to the outside
world. In relation to her convent her position laid her open to various
temptations: she was, for instance, beset by three which must be faced by
all who rule over communities. The first was the temptation to live with
too great luxury and independence, escaping from the daily routine of
communal life, to which her vows bound her. The second was the temptation
to rule like an autocrat, instead of consulting her sisters. The third was
the temptation to let human predilections have their way and to show
favouritism. To begin with the first of these temptations, it is obvious
that the fact that the superior nearly always had a separate room, or
suite of rooms[179], and servants, and had the duty of entertaining
important guests, gave her much freedom within her house, especially if
she were the head of one of the great abbeys. The Abbess of St Mary's
Winchester, at the Dissolution, had her own house and a staff consisting
of a cook, an undercook, a woman servant and a laundress, and she had also
a gentlewoman to wait upon her, like any great lady in the world[180]. The
Abbess of Barking had her gentlewoman, too, and her private kitchen; she
dined in state with her nuns five times a year, and "the under celeresse
must remember," says the _Charthe longynge to the Office of Celeresse_,

    at eche principall fest, that my lady sytteth in the fraytour; that is
    to wyt five times in the yere, at eche tyme schall aske the clerke of
    the kychyn soper eggs for the covent, and that is Estir, Wytsontyd,
    the Assumption of our Lady, seynt Alburgh and Cristynmasse, at eche
    tyme to every lady two eggs, and eche double two egges, that is the
    priorisse, the celeresse and the kychener[181].

The stern reformer Peckham was forced to take in hand the conduct of the
Abbesses of Barking, Wherwell and Romsey, who were abusing their
independence of ordinary routine. The Abbess of Barking was forbidden to
remain in her private room after sunset, at which hour all doors were to
be locked and all strangers excluded; she might do so only very rarely, in
order to entertain distinguished guests or to transact important business;
and he ordered her to eat with the convent as often as possible,
"especially on solemn days" (i.e. great feasts)[182]. The Abbess of
Wherwell had apparently stinted her nuns in food and drink, but caused
magnificent feasts to be prepared for her in her own room, and Peckham
ordered that whenever there was a shortage of food in the convent, she was
to dine with the nuns, and no meal was to be laid in her chamber for
servants or strangers, but all visitors were to be entertained in the
exterior guest-hall; if at such times she were in ill health, and unable
to use the common diet, she might remain in her room, in the company of
one or two of the nuns. At times when there was no lack of food in the
convent and when she was entertaining guests in her own room, all
potations were to cease and all servants and visitors to depart at the
hour of compline[183]. About the same time (1284) Peckham wrote two
letters to the Abbess of Romsey, who had evidently been guilty of the same
behaviour. She was not to keep "a number of" dogs or monkeys, or more than
two maid servants, and she was not to fare splendidly in her own rooms
while the nuns went short; his injunctions to her are couched in almost
precisely the same language as those which he addressed to the Abbess of

According to the Benedictine rule the superior, when not entertaining
guests, was permitted to invite the nuns in turn to dine with her in her
own room, for their recreation, and notices of this custom sometimes occur
in visitation reports; at Thicket (1309) the Prioress was enjoined to have
them one by one when she dined in her room[185]; at Elstow (1421-2) the
Abbess was to invite those nuns whom she knew to be specially in need of
refreshment[186]; at Gracedieu (1440-1) the Prioress was ordered

    that ye do the fraytour be keppede daylye ... item that no mo of your
    susters entende up on yowe, save onely your chapeleyn, and otherwhile,
    as your rule wylle, ye calle to your refeccyone oon or two of your
    susters to thair recreacyone[187];

at Greenfield (1519) there was a complaint that the Prioress did not
invite the nuns to her table in due order, and at Stainfield it was said
that she frequently invited three young nuns to her table and showed
partiality to them and she was ordered to invite all the senior sisters in
order[188]. In Cistercian and Cluniac houses the superior was supposed to
dine in the frater and to sleep in the dorter with the other nuns, and
even in Benedictine houses it was considered desirable that she should do
so. But the temptation to live a more private life was irresistible, and
visitation records contain many complaints that the head of the house is
lax in her attendance at dorter and frater and even in following the
divine services in the choir[189]. Bishops frequently made injunctions
like that given by Alnwick to the Prioress of Ankerwyke in 1441:

    that nyghtly ye lygge in the dormytorye to ouersee your susters how
    thai are there gouernede after your rewle, and that often tyme ye come
    to matynes, messe and other houres ... also that oftentymes ye come to
    the chapitere for to correcte the defautes of your susters ... also
    that aftere your rewle ye kepe the fraytour but if resonable cause
    excuse yowe there fro[190].

Sometimes a minimum number of attendances was demanded. At St Michael's
Stamford Alnwick ordered the old Prioress

    that nyghtly ye lyg in the dormytorye emong your susters and that
    euery principale double fest and festes of xij or ix lessouns ye be at
    matynes, but if grete sekenes lette yowe; and that often tymes ye be
    at other howres and messes in the qwere, and also that ye be present
    in chapitres helpyng the supprioresse in correctyng and punisshyng of

It was further attempted to restrict the dangerous freedom of a superior's
life, by ordering her always to have with her one of the nuns as a
companion and as witness to her behaviour. So Peckham ordered the Abbess
of Romsey to "elect a suitable companion for herself and to change her
companions yearly, to the end that her honesty should be attested by many
witnesses"[192]. Usually the nun whose duty it was to accompany the
superior acted as her chaplain. It will be remembered that Chaucer says of
his Prioress "another Nonne with hir hadde she, That was hir
chapeleyne"[193], and episcopal registers contain frequent allusions to
the office. William of Wykeham gave a comprehensive account of its purpose
when he wrote to the Abbess of Romsey in 1387,

    since, according to the constitutions of the holy fathers, younger
    members must take a pattern from their rulers (_prelati_) and those
    prelates ought to have a number of witnesses to their own behaviour,
    we strictly order you (lady abbess) in virtue of obedience, that you
    annually commit the office of chaplain to one of your nuns ... and
    thus the nuns themselves, who shall have been with you in the
    aforesaid office, shall (by means of laudable instruction) be the
    better enabled to excel in religion, while you will be able
    immediately to invoke their testimony to your innocence, if (which God
    forbid) any crime or scandal should be imputed to you by the malice of
    any person[194].

So at Easebourne in 1478 the Prioress was ordered

    that every week, beginning with the eldest ... she should select for
    herself in due course and in turns, one of her nuns as chaplain for
    divine services and to wait upon herself[195].

The Norwich visitations of Bishop Nykke afford further information; at
Flixton discontented Dame Margaret Punder complained that the Prioress had
no sister as chaplain, but slept alone as she pleased, in a chamber
(_cubiculo_) outside the dorter, "without the continual testimony of her
sisters," and the visitors enjoined that henceforth she should have with
her one sister in the office of chaplain for a witness, and especially
when she slept outside the dorter[196]. At Blackborough one of the nuns
complained that the Prioress had kept the same chaplain for three
years[197] and at Redlingfield it was said that she never changed her
chaplain[198]; the Abbess of Elstow in 1421-2[199] and the Prioress of
Markyate in 1442[200] were ordered to change their chaplains every year,
and this seems to have been the customary arrangement. The title of
"chaplain" is sometimes found after the name of a nun in lists of the
inmates of nunneries[201].

Besides the temptation to live too independent an existence the head of a
house had also the temptation to abuse the considerable power given to her
by the monastic rule. She was apt to govern autocratically, keeping the
business of the house entirely in her own hands, instead of consulting her
sisters (assembled in chapter) before making any important decision. There
were constant complaints by the nuns that the Prioress kept the common
seal in her own custody and performed all business without consulting
them. Peckham's letter to the Abbess of Romsey illustrates the variety of
matters which might thus be settled without any reference to the nuns; she
had evidently been misusing her power, for he wrote sternly:

    Know that thou art not mistress of the common goods, but rather the
    dispenser and mother of thy community, according to the meaning of the
    word abbess.... We strictly command thee that thou study to transact
    all the more important business of the house with the convent. And by
    the more important business we intend those things which may entail
    notable expenditure in temporalities or in spiritualities, with which
    we wish to be included the provision of a steward; we order for the
    peace of the community, that H. de Chalfhunte, whom thou hast for long
    kept in the office of steward contrary to the will of the convent, no
    longer intermeddle in any way with this or with any other bailiff's
    office (_bajulatu_) of the monastery. Moreover we make the same order
    concerning John le Frikiere. Let each of them, having accounted for
    his office before Master Philip our official ... look out for an abode
    elsewhere. Besides this thou shalt transact all minor business of the
    church according to the rule with at least twelve of the senior
    ladies. And because thou hast been wont to do much according to the
    prompting of thine own will, we adjoin to thee three coadjutresses of
    laudable testimony, to wit dames Margery de Verdun, Philippa de Stokes
    and Johanna de Revedoune, without whose counsel and attempt thou shalt
    not dare attempt anything pertaining to the rule of the convent in
    temporalities or in spiritualities. And whensoever thou shalt
    wittingly do the contrary in any important matter, thou shalt know
    thyself to be on that account suspended from the office of
    administration. And we mean by an important matter the provision of
    bailiffs of the manors and internal obedientiaries, the punishment of
    delinquents, all alienation of goods in gifts or presents, or in any
    other ways, the sending forth of nuns and the assignment of companions
    to those going forth, the beginning of lawsuits and all manner of
    church business. And if it befall that any of the aforesaid three be
    ill or absent, do thou receive in her stead Dame Leticia de
    Montegomery or Dame Agnes de Lidyerd, having called into consultation
    the others according to the number fixed above. And whenever thou
    shalt happen to fare forth upon the business of the church, thou shalt
    always take with thee the aforesaid three ladies, whom we have joined
    with thee as coadjutresses in the rule of the monastery both within
    and without; and if ever thou goest forth for recreation thou shalt
    always have with thee two; in such wise that thou shalt in no manner
    concern thyself to pursue any business without the three[202].

The danger of autocratic government to the convent is obvious; and it is
significant that a really bad prioress is nearly always charged with
having failed to communicate with her sisters in matters of business,
turning all the revenues to any use that she pleased. Moreover the head of
a house not only sometimes failed to consult her convent; she constantly
also omitted to render an annual account of her expenditure, and by far
the most common complaint at visitations was the complaint that the
Prioress _non reddidit compotum_. At Bishop Nykke's Norwich visitations
the charge was made against the heads of Flixton, Crabhouse, Blackborough
and Redlingfield[203]. At Bishop Alnwick's Lincoln visitations it was
made against the heads of Ankerwyke, Catesby, Gracedieu, Harrold,
Heynings, St Michael's Stamford, Stixwould, Studley; at Ankerwyke Dame
Clemence Medforde had not accounted since her arrival at the house; at St
Michael's Stamford the Prioress had held office for twelve years and had
never done so; at Studley it was said that the last Prioress who ruled for
58 years never once rendered an account during the whole of that period,
nor had the present Prioress yet done so, though she had been in office
for a year[204]. Sometimes the delinquent gave some excuse to the Bishop;
the Prioress of Catesby said she had no clerk to write the account[205];
at Blackborough one of the nuns said that her object had been to avoid the
expense of an auditor and another that she gave the convent a verbal
report of the state of the house[206]. Sometimes she flatly refused, and
the bishop's repeated injunctions on the subject seem to have been of
little avail; the Prioress of Flixton had not rendered account since her
installation _et dicit quod non vult reddere_; she was superseded, but six
years later the same complaint was made against her successor and the
visitors ordered the latter to amend her ways, _sub poena privationis,
quia dixit se nolle talem reddere compotum_[207]. The bishops always
inquired very carefully into the administration of the conventual income
and possessions by the head of each house, and invented a variety of
devices for controlling her actions[208].

There remains to be considered the third pitfall into which the head of a
house was liable to fall. The wise Benedictine rule contained a special
warning against favouritism, for indeed human nature cannot avoid
preferences and it is the hardest task of a ruler to subdue personal
predilections to perfect fairness. The charge of favouritism is a fairly
common one in medieval visitations. Alnwick met with an amusing case when
he visited Gracedieu in 1440-1. The elder nuns complained that the old
prioress did not treat all equally; some of them she favoured and others
she treated very rigorously; Dame Philippa Jecke even said that
corrections were made so harshly and so fussily that all charity and all
happiness had gone from the house. Moreover there were two young nuns whom
she called her disciples and who were always with her; these nuns had many
unsuitable conversations, so their sisters thought, with the Prioress'
secular visitors; worse than this, they acted as spies upon the other nuns
and told the Prioress about everything that was said and done in the
convent, and then the Prioress scolded more severely than ever[209]; but
her disciples could do no wrong. These nuns, indeed, were among the most
voluble that Alnwick visited, and he must have remarked with a smile that
the two disciples were the only ones who answered "Omnia bene"; but he did
not intend to let them off without a rebuke.

    "Agnes Poutrelle and Isabel Jurdane" runs the note in his Register,
    "who style themselves the Prioress's disciples, are thereby the cause
    of quarrel between her and her sisters, forasmuch as what they hear
    and see among the nuns they straightway retail to the prioress. They
    both appeared, and, the article having been laid to their charge,
    expressly deny it and all things that are contained therein; wherefore
    they cleared themselves without compurgators; howbeit, that they may
    not be held suspect hereafter touching these matters or offend herein,
    they both sware upon the holy gospels of God that henceforth they will
    discover to the prioress concerning their sisters nothing whereby
    cause of quarrel or incentive to hatred may be furnished among them,
    unless they be such matters as may tend to the damage of the prioress'
    body or honour"[210].

At two other houses there were complaints against the head; at Legbourne
Dame Sibil Papelwyk said that the Prioress was not indifferent in making
corrections, but treated some too hardly and others too favourably; and at
Heynings Dame Alice Porter said that the Prioress was an accepter of
persons in making corrections,

    for those whom she loves she passes over lightly, and those whom she
    holds not in favour she harshly punishes ... and she encourages her
    secular serving-women, whom she believes more than her sisters, in
    their words, to scold the same her sisters, and for this cause
    quarrels do spring up between her and her sisters[211].

In neither of these cases, however, was the charge corroborated by the
evidence of the other nuns. Probably the two malcontents considered
themselves to have a grievance against their ruler; at Legbourne Dame
Sibil's complaint that the Prioress would not let her visit a dying parent
gives a clue to her annoyance. Another charge sometimes made was that the
Prioress gave more credence to the young nuns than to those who were older
and wiser[212]. Injunctions that the head of a house was to show no
favouritism were often made by visitors. One of Alnwick's injunctions may
stand as representative:

    Also we charge yow, prioress, vnder payn of contempte and vndere the
    peynes writen here benethe, that in your correccions ye be sad, sowbre
    and indifferent, not cruelle to some and to some fauoryng agayn your
    rule, but that ye procede and treet your susters moderly, the qualytee
    and the quantitee of the persons and defautes wythe owten accepcyone
    of any persone euenly considerede and weyed (Legbourne)[213].

So far the position of a superior has been considered solely from the
point of view of internal government, of her power over the convent and of
the peculiar temptations by which she was assailed. But the head of a
house was an important person, not only in her own community, but also in
the circumscribed little world without her gates; though here the degree
of importance which she enjoyed naturally varied with the size and wealth
of her house. In the middle ages fame and power were largely local
matters; roads were bad and news moved slowly and a man might live no
further away than the neighbouring town and be a foreigner. The country
gentry were not great travellers; occasionally they jaunted up to London,
to court, or to parliament or to the law-courts; sometimes they followed
the King and his lords to battles over sea or on the Scottish border; but
for the most part they stayed at home and died in the bed wherein their
mother bore them. The comfortable burgesses of the town travelled still
less; perhaps they betook themselves upon a pilgrimage, "clothed in a
liveree of a solempne and greet fraternitee," and bearing a cook with
them, lest they should lack the "chiknes with the marybones," the
"poudre-marchant tart," the "galingale," the "mortreux," the "blankmanger"
of their luxurious daily life; but they seldom had the Wife of Bath's
acquaintance with strange streams. And the lesser folk--peasants and
artisans--looked across the chequered expanse of the common fields at a
horizon, which was in truth a barrier, an impassable line drawn round the
edge of the world. The fact that life was lived by the majority of men
within such narrow limits gave a preeminent importance to the local
magnate; and among the most local of local magnates (since a corporation
never moved and never expired and never relaxed the grip of its dead
fingers) must be reckoned the heads of the monastic houses. Socially in
all cases, and politically when their houses were large and rich, abbots
and abbesses, priors and prioresses, ranked among the great folk of the
country side. They enjoyed the same prestige as the lords of the
neighbouring manors and some extra deference on account of their religion.
It was natural that the Prioress of a nunnery should be "holden digne of
reverence." The gentlemen whose estates adjoined her own sent their
daughters to her as novices, or (if her house were poor and the Bishop not
too strict) as school girls to receive their "nortelrye"; and they did not
themselves scorn the discreet entertainment of her guest-chamber and a
dinner of capons and wine and gossip at her hospitable board. The artisans
and labourers on her land lived by her patronage. All along the muddy
highroads the beggars coming to town passed word to each other that there
stood a nunnery in the meadows, where they might have scraps left over
from the convent meals and perhaps beer and a pair of shoes. The head of a
house, indeed, was an important person from many points of view, as a
neighbour, as a landlord and as a philanthropist.

The journeys which a prioress was sometimes obliged to take upon the
business of the convent offered many occasions of social intercourse with
her neighbours. It is, indeed, striking how great a freedom of movement
was enjoyed by these cloistered women. There are constant references to
journeys in account rolls. When Dame Christian Bassett, Prioress of St
Mary de Pré, rode to London for the suit against her predecessor in the
Common Pleas, she was accompanied on one occasion by her priest, a woman
and two men; on two other occasions she took four men; and during the
whole time that the suit dragged on, she was continually riding about to
take counsel with great men or with lawyers and journeying to and fro
between St Albans and London. On another occasion the account notes a

    in expenses for the prioresse and the steward with their servants and
    for hors hyre and for the wages of them that wente to kepe the courte
    wyth the prioresse atte Wynge atte two tymes xvj_s_ v_d_, whereof the
    stewards fee was that of vj_s_ viij_d_; item paid to the fermour of
    Wynge for his expenss ix_d_[214].

The accounts of St Michael's Stamford are full of items such as "in the
expenses of the Prioress on divers occasions going to the Bishop, with
hire of horses 3_s._" "in the expenses of the Prioress going to Rockingham
about our woods 1_s._ 2-1/2_d._," "paid for the hire of two horses for the
prioress and her expenses going to Liddington to the Bishop for a
certificate 2_s._ 8_d._," "paid for the expenses of the Prioress at Burgh
(i.e. Peterborough) for two days 5_s._ 8_d._"; twice the Prioress went
very far afield, as usual (it would appear) on legal business, for in
1377-8 there is an entry, "Item for the expenses of the Prioress and her
companions at London for a month and more, in all expenses £5. 13_s._
4_d._" (a large sum, a long distance and a lengthy stay), and in 1409-10
there is another payment "to the Prioress for expenses in London

In spite of repeated efforts to enforce stricter enclosure upon nuns, it
is evident that the head of the house rode about on the business of the
convent and overlooked its husbandry in person, even where (as at St
Michael's Stamford) there was a male prior or _custos_ charged with the
ordering of its temporal affairs. The general injunction that an abbess
was never to leave her house save "for the obvious utility of the
monastery or for urgent necessity"[216] was capable of a very wide
interpretation, and it is clear from the evidence of visitations and
accounts that it was interpreted to include a great deal of temporal
business outside the walls. If a house possessed a male _custos_ the
Prioress would have less occasion and less excuse for journeys, though for
important affairs her presence was probably always necessary; Bishop
Drokensford, appointing a _custos_ to Minchin Barrow, warns the Prioress
no longer "to intermeddle with rural business (_negociis campestribus_)
and other secular affairs" but to leave these to the _custos_ and to
devote herself to the service of God and to the stricter enforcement of
the rule[217]. But in houses where no such official existed the prioress
doubtless undertook a certain amount of general estate management. One of
Alnwick's orders to the Prioress of Legbourne in 1440 was "that ye bysylly
ouersee your baylly, that your husbandry be sufficyently gouernede to the
avayle of your house"[218]; and in the intervals of their long struggle to
keep nuns within their cloisters, the Bishops seem to have recognised the
necessity for some travel on the part of the heads of houses, and to have
facilitated such travel by granting them dispensations to have divine
service celebrated wherever they might be. Thus in 1400 the Prioress of
Haliwell obtained a licence to hear divine service in her oratory within
her mansion of Camberwell, or elsewhere in the diocese, during the next
two years[219], and in 1406 the Abbess of Tarrant Keynes was similarly
allowed to have the service celebrated for herself and her household
anywhere within the city and diocese of Salisbury[220].

It is significant that among the arguments used to oppose Henry VIII's
injunction that monks and nuns should be strictly enclosed (which was, for
the nuns, only a repetition of Pope Boniface's decree of three centuries
earlier) was that of the difficulty of supervising the husbandry of a
house, if its head were confined to cloistral precincts.

    "Please it you to be advertised," wrote Cecily Bodenham, the last
    Abbess of Wilton, to Cromwell in 1535, "that master doctor Leigh, the
    King's grace's special visitor and your deputy in this behalf,
    visiting of late my house, hath given injunction that not only all my
    sisters, but I also, should continually keep and abide within the
    precincts of my house: which commandment I am right well content with
    in regard of my own person, if your mastership shall think it so
    expedient; but in consideration of the administration of mine office
    and specially of this poor house which is in great debt and requireth
    much reparation and also which without good husbandry is not like, in
    long season, to come forward, and in consideration that the said
    husbandry cannot be, by my poor judgment, so well by an other overseen
    as by mine own person, it may please your mastership of your goodness
    to license me, being associate with one or two of the sad and discreet
    sisters of my house, to supervise abroad such things as shall be for
    the profit and commodity of my house. Which thing though,
    peradventure, might be done by other, yet I ensure you that none will
    do it so faithfully for my house's profit as mine own self. Assuring
    your mastership that it is not, nor shall be at any time hereafter, my
    mind to lie forth of my monastery any night, except by inevitable
    necessity I cannot then return home"[221].

It is, however, very plain that the journeys taken by abbesses and
prioresses were not always strictly concerned with the business of their
convents, or at least they combined business most adroitly with pleasure.
These ladies were of good kin and they took their place naturally in local
society, when they left their houses to oversee their husbandry, to
interview a bishop or a lawyer about their tithes, or quite openly to
visit friends and relatives. They emerged to attend the funerals of great
folk; the Prioress of Carrow attended the funeral of John Paston in
1466[222], and Sir Thomas Cumberworth in his will (1451) left the

    I will that Ilke prior and priores that comes to my beryall at y{t}
    day hafe iii_s_ iiij_d_ and ilke chanon and Nune xij_d_ ... and Ilke
    prior and priores that comes to the xxx day (the month's-mind) hafe
    vj_s_ viij_d_ and Ilke chanon or none that comes to the said xxx day
    haf xx_d_[223].

Sometimes they attended the deathbeds of relatives; among witnesses to the
codicil to the will of Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham, in 1404 was
"religiosa femina Domina Johanna Priorissa de Swyna, soror dicti domini
episcopi"[224]; and it was not unusual for an abbess or prioress to be
made supervisor or executrix of a will[225]. Nor was the sad business of
deathbeds the only share taken by these prioresses in public life.
Clemence Medforde, Prioress of Ankerwyke, went to a wedding at Bromhale;
and unfortunately a sheepfold, a dairy and a good timber granary chose
that moment to catch fire and burn down, setting fire also to the
smouldering indignation of her nuns; whence many recriminations when the
Bishop came on his rounds[226]. Stranger still at times were the matters
for which their friends sought their good offices. The aristocratic Isabel
de Montfort, Prioress of Easebourne, was one of the ladies by whose oath
Margaret de Camoys purged herself on a charge of adultery in 1295[227].

The fact that these ladies were drawn from the wealthy classes and
constantly associated on terms of equality with their friends and
relatives, sometimes led them to impart a most unmonastic luxury into
their own lives. They came from the homes of lords like Sir John Arundel,
who lost not only his life but "two and fiftie new sutes of apparell of
cloth of gold or tissue," when he was drowned off the Irish coast; or
Lord Berkeley who travelled with a retinue of twelve knights, twenty-four
esquires "of noble family and descent" and a hundred and fifty
men-at-arms, in coats of white frieze lined with crimson and embroidered
with his badge; or else of country squires and franklins, like the
white-bearded gentleman of whom Chaucer says that

  To liven in delyt was ever his wone,
  For he was Epicurus owne sone,

    *       *       *       *       *

  Withoute bake mete was never his hous,
  Of fish and flesh, and that so plentevous
  It snewed in his hous of mete and drinke,
  Of alle deyntees that men coude thinke;

or else their fathers were wealthy merchants, living in great mansions
hung with arras and lighted with glass windows, rich enough to provoke
sumptuary laws and to entertain kings. It is perhaps not surprising that
abbesses and prioresses should have found it hard to change the way of
life, which they had led before they took the veil and which they saw all
around them, when they rode about in the world. Carousings, gay garments,
pet animals, frivolous amusements, many guests, superfluous servants and
frequent escapes to the freedom of the road, are found not only at the
greater houses but even at those which were small and poor. The diverting
history of the flea and the gout shows that the luxurious abbess was
already a byword early in the thirteenth century.

The tale runs as follows:

    The lopp (flea) and the gout on a time spake together, and among other
    talking either of them asked [the] other of their lodging and how they
    were harboured and where, the night next before. And the flea made a
    great plaint and said, "I was harboured in the bed of an abbess,
    betwixt the white sheets upon a soft mattress and there I trowed to
    have had good harbourage, for her flesh was fat and tender, and
    thereof I trowed to have had my fill. And first, when I began for to
    bite her, she began to cry and call on her maidens and when they came,
    anon they lighted candles and sought me, but I hid me till they were
    gone. And then I bit her again and she came again and sought me with a
    light, so that I was fain to leap out of the bed; and all this night I
    had no rest, but was chased and chevied ['charrid'] and scarce gat
    away with my life." Then answered the gout and said, "I was harboured
    in a poor woman's house and anon as I pricked her in her great toe she
    rose and wetted a great bowl full of clothes and went with them unto
    the water and stood therein with me up to her knees; so that, what for
    cold and for holding in the water, I was nearhand slain." And then the
    flea said, "This night will we change our harbourage"; and so they
    did. And on the morn they met again and then the flea said unto the
    gout, "This night have I had good harbourage, for the woman that was
    thine host yesternight was so weary and so irked, that I was sickerly
    harboured with her and ate of her blood as mickle as I would." And
    then answered the gout and said unto the flea: "Thou gavest me good
    counsel yestereven, for the abbess underneath a gay coverlet, and a
    soft sheet and a delicate, covered me and nourished me all night. And
    as soon as I pricked her in her great toe, she wrapped me in furs, and
    if I hurt her never so ill she let me alone and laid me in the softest
    part of the bed and troubled me nothing. And therefore as long as she
    lives I will be harboured with her, for she makes mickle of me." And
    then said the flea, "I will be harboured with poor folk as long as I
    live, for there may I be in good rest and eat my full and nobody let
    [hinder] me"[228].

The Durham man, William of Stanton, who went down St Patrick's hole on
September 20th, 1409, and was shown the souls in torment there, has much
the same tale to tell. He witnessed the trial of a prioress, whose soul
had come there for judgment, and

    the fendis accusid hir and said that she come to religion for pompe
    and pride and for to have habundaunce of the worldes riches, and for
    ese of hir bodi and not for deuocion, mekenesse and lowenesse, as
    religious men and women owte to do; and the fendes said, "It is wel
    knowen to god and to al his angels of heven and to men dwellyng in
    that contree where she dwellid ynne, and all the fendes of hell, that
    she was more cosluer (_sic_) in puler [fur] weryng, as of girdelles of
    siluer and overgilt and ringes on hir fingers, and siluer bokeles and
    ouergilt on hir shone, esy lieng in nyghtes as it were [a quene] or an
    emprise in the world, not daynyng hir for to arise to goddis
    servis[229]; and with all delicate metes and drinkes she was fedde ...
    and then the bisshop [her judge] enioyned hir to payne enduryng
    evermore til the day of dome"[230].

Our visitation documents show us many abbesses and prioresses like the
gout's hostess or the tormented lady in St Patrick's Purgatory. In the
matter of dress the accusations brought against Clemence Medforde,
Prioress of Ankerwyke, in 1441, will suffice for an example:

    The Prioress wears golden rings exceeding costly with divers precious
    stones and also girdles silvered and gilded over and silken veils, and
    she carries her veil too high above her forehead, so that her
    forehead, being entirely uncovered, can be seen of all, and she wears
    furs of vair.... Also she wears shifts of cloth of Reynes which costs
    sixteen pence the ell.... Also she wears kirtles laced with silk and
    tiring pins of silver and silver gilt and has made all the nuns wear
    the like.... Also she wears above her veil a cap of estate furred with
    budge. Item she has round her neck a long cord of silk, hanging below
    her breast and on it a gold ring with one diamond.

She confessed all except the cloth of Rennes, which she totally denied,
but pleaded that she wore fur caps "because of divers infirmities in the
head." Alnwick made an injunction carefully particularising all these

    And also that none of yow, the prioresse ne none of the couente, were
    no vayles of sylke ne no syluere pynnes ne no gyrdles herneysed with
    syluere or golde, ne no mo rynges on your fyngres then oon, ye that be
    professed by a bysshope, ne that none of yow vse no lased kyrtels, but
    butoned or hole be fore, ne that ye vse no lases a bowte your nekkes
    wythe crucyfixes or rynges hangyng by thame, ne cappes of astate abowe
    your vayles ... and that ye so atyre your hedes that your vayles come
    down nyghe to your yene[231].

If anyone doubts the truth of Chaucer's portrait of a prioress, or its
satirical intent, he has only to read that incomparable observer's words
side by side with this injunction of Alnwick:

  But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed;
  It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe;
  For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.
  Ful fetis was her cloke, as I was war.
  Of smale coral aboute hir arm she bar
  A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene;
  And ther-on heng a broche of gold ful shene,
  On which ther was first write a crowned A
  And after, _Amor vincit omnia_.

Margaret Fairfax of Nunmonkton (1397) and the lady (her name is unknown)
who ruled Easebourne in 1441 are other examples of worldly prioresses;
they clearly regarded themselves as the great ladies they were by birth,
and behaved like all the other great ladies of the neighbourhood. Margaret
Fairfax used divers furs, including even the costly grey fur (gris)--the
same with which the sleeves of Chaucer's monk were "purfiled at the hond";
she wore silken veils and "she frequently kept company with John Munkton
and invited him to feasts in her room ... and John Munkton (by whom the
convent had for long been scandalised) frequently played at tables" (the
fashionable game for ladies, a kind of backgammon) "with the Prioress in
her room and served her with drink." No wonder she had to sell timber in
order to procure money[232]. The Prioress of Easebourne was even more
frivolous; the nuns complained that the house was in debt to the amount of
£40 and this principally owing to her costly expenses:

    because she frequently rides abroad and pretends that she does so on
    the common business of the house, although it is not so, with a train
    of attendants much too large, and tarries long abroad, and she feasts
    sumptuously both when abroad and at home, and she is very choice in
    her dress, so that the fur trimmings of her mantle are worth a hundred

as great a scandal as Clemence Medforde's cloth of Rennes at sixteen pence
the ell. The Bishop took strong measures to deal with this worldly lady;
she was deposed from all administration of the temporal goods of the
priory, which administration was committed to "Master Thomas Boleyn and
John Lylis, Esquire, until and so long as when the aforesaid house or
priory shall be freed from debt." It was also ordered

    that the Prioress with all possible speed shall diminish her excessive
    household and shall only retain, by the advice and with the assent of
    the said John and Thomas, a household such as is merely necessary and
    not more. Also that the Prioress shall convert the fur trimmings,
    superfluous to her condition and very costly, to the discharge of the
    debts of the house. Also that if eventually it shall seem expedient to
    the said Masters Thomas and John at any time, that the Prioress should
    ride in person for the common business of the house, on such occasions
    she shall not make a lengthened stay abroad, nor shall she in the
    interval incur expenses in any way costly beyond what is needful, and
    thus when despatched to go abroad she must and ought rightly to
    content herself with four horses only;

and those perhaps "bothe foul and lene," like the jade ridden by the
Nonnes Preeste when Chaucer met him on the Canterbury road[233].

The charge of gadding about the country side, sometimes (as in the
Prioress of Easebourne's case) with a retinue which better beseemed the
worldly rank they had abjured, was one not infrequently made against the
heads of nunneries[234]. The Prioress of Stixwould was accused, in 1519,
of spending the night too often outside the cloister with her secular
friends and the Bishop ordered that in future she should sleep within the
monastery, but might keep a private house in the precincts, for her
greater refreshment and for receiving visitors[235]. The Prioress of
Wroxall was ordered to stay more at home in 1323[236], and in 1303 Bishop
Dalderby even found that the Prioress of Greenfield had been absent from
her house for two years[237]. Even more frequent was the charge that
abbesses and prioresses repaid too lavishly the hospitality which they
doubtless received at neighbouring manors. Many abbesses gave that
"dyscrete enterteynement," which Henry VIII's commissioners so much
admired at Catesby[238]; but others entertained too often and too well, in
the opinion of their nuns; moreover family affection sometimes led them to
make provision for their kinsfolk at the cost of the house. In 1441 one of
the nuns of Legbourne deposed that many kinsmen of the prioress had
frequent access to the house, though she did not know whether it was
financially burdened by their visits; Alnwick ordered

    that ye susteyn none of your kynne or allyaunce wythe the commune
    godes of the house, wythe owten the hole assent of the more hole parte
    of the couent, ne that ye suffre your saide kynne or allyaunce hafe
    suche accesse to your place, where thurghe the howse shall be

A similar injunction had been made at Chatteris in 1345, where the abbess
was warned not to bestow the convent rents and goods unlawfully upon any
of her relatives[240]. The charge was, however, most common in later
times, when discipline was in all ways relaxed. At Easebourne in 1478 one
of the nuns complained "that kinsmen of the prioress very often and for
weeks at a time frequent the priory and have many banquets of the best
food, while the sisters have them of the worst"[241]. The neighbouring
nunnery of Rusper was said in 1521 to be ruinous and "greatly burdened by
reason of friends and kinsmen of the lady prioress who continually
received hospitality there"[242]; at Studley in 1520 there were complaints
that the brother of the prioress and his wife stayed within the monastery,
and ten years later it was ordered that no corrody should be given to the
prioress' mother, until more was known of her way of life[243]. At Flixton
in the same year one of the nuns asserted that the mother of the prioress
had her food at the expense of the house, but whether she paid anything or
not was unknown; it appears, however, that she was in charge of the dairy,
so that she may have been boarded in return for her services. A
characteristic instance is preserved in Bishop Longland's letter to the
Prioress of Nuncoton in 1531, charging her

    that frome hensforth ye do nomore burden ne chardge your house with
    suche a nombre of your kinnesfolks as ye haue in tymes past used. Your
    good mother it is meate ye haue aboute yow for your comforte and hirs
    bothe. And oon or ij moo of suche your saddest kynnes folke, whome ye
    shall thynk mooste conuenyent but passe not.... And that ye give
    nomore soo lyberally the goods of your monastery as ye haue doon to
    your brother george thomson and your brodres children, with grasing of
    catell, occupying your lands, making of Irneworke to pleugh, and
    carte, and other like of your stuff and in your forge[244].

Much information about the conduct of abbesses and prioresses may be
obtained from a study of episcopal registers, and in particular of
visitation documents. An analysis of Bishop Alnwick's visitations of the
diocese of Lincoln (1436-49) gives interesting results. In all but four
houses there were few or no complaints against the head. Sometimes it was
said that she failed to dine in the frater or to sleep in the dorter,
sometimes that she was a poor financier, and in two cases the charge of
favouritism was made; but the complaints at these sixteen houses were, on
the whole, insignificant. The four remaining heads were unsatisfactory.
The Prioress of St Michael's Stamford was so incompetent (owing to bodily
weakness) that she took little part in the common life of the house and
regularly stayed away from the choir, dined and slept by herself, though
the Bishop refused to give her a dispensation to do so. The administration
of the temporalities of the house was committed by Alnwick to two of the
nuns, but when he came back two years later one of these had had a child
and the other was unpopular on account of her autocratic behaviour. The
moral condition of the house (one nun was in apostasy with a man in 1440,
and in 1442 and 1445 two nuns were found to have borne children) must in
part be set down to the lack of a competent head[245]. The Prioress of
Gracedieu was also old and incompetent; her subprioress deposed that

    by reason of old age and incapacity the prioress has renounced for
    herself all governance of matters temporal, nor does she take part in
    divine service, so that she is of no use; but if she makes any
    corrections, she makes them with words of chiding and abuse.... She
    makes the secrets of their religious life common among the secular
    folk that sit at table with her ... and under her religious discipline
    almost altogether is at an end.

Other nuns gave similar evidence and all complained of her favouritism for
two young nuns, whom she called her disciples. Here, as at St Michael's
Stamford, the autocratic behaviour of the nun who was in charge of the
temporalities had aroused the resentment of her sisters and the whole
convent was evidently seething with quarrels[246]. The Prioress of
Ankerwyke, Clemence Medforde, was equally unpopular with her nuns. The
ringleader against her was a certain Dame Margery Kirkby, who poured out a
flood of complaints when Alnwick came to the house. The chief charge
against her was that of financial mismanagement. She was obliged to admit
that she received, paid and administered everything without consulting the
convent, keeping the common seal in her own custody all the year round and
never rendering account. She was also said to have allowed the sheepfold,
dairy and granary to be burned down owing to her carelessness, one result
of which was that all the grain had to stand in the church. She had
alienated the plate and psalters of the house, having lent three of the
latter and pawned a chalice; another chalice and a thurible had been
broken up to make a drinking cup, but, as she had been unable to pay the
sum demanded, the pieces remained in the hands of a monk, who had
undertaken to get the work done. She was charged with having alienated
timber in large quantities and with having cut down trees at the wrong
time of year, so that no new wood grew again; but she denied this
accusation. Another charge made against her by Margery Kirkby, that of
wearing jewels and rich clothes, has already been described; she admitted
it and the fault was the more grave in that she omitted to provide
suitable clothes for the nuns, who went about in rags. It was also
complained that she behaved with undue severity to her sisters; she made
difficulties about giving them licence to see their friends; and she had a
most trying habit of coming late to the services, and then making the nuns
begin all over again. It is obvious that she was greatly disliked by the
convent, perhaps because she was a stranger in their midst, having been
imported from Bromhale to be Prioress; she evidently sought relief from
the black looks of her sisters by visiting her old home, for she was away
at a wedding in Bromhale when the farm buildings caught fire, and one of
the missing psalters had been lent to the prioress of that place. Her
_régime_ at Ankerwyke had been fraught with ill results to the convent,
for no less than six nuns had (without her knowledge, so she said) gone
into apostasy; perhaps to escape from her too rigorous sway. Nevertheless
one cannot help feeling that Margery Kirkby may have been a difficult
person to live with; the Prioress complained that the nuns were often
very easily moved against her and that Dame Margery had called her a thief
to her face; and though it may have been conducive to economy that the
triumphant accuser (elected by the convent) should share with the Prioress
the custody of the common seal, it can hardly have been conducive to
harmony[247]. At any rate poor luxury-loving Clemence died in the
following year and Margery Kirkby ruled in her stead[248].

But the most serious misdemeanours of all were brought to light when
Alnwick visited Catesby in 1442[249]. Here the bad example of the
Prioress, Margaret Wavere, seems to have contaminated the nuns, for all of
them were in constant communication with seculars and one of them had
given birth to a child. The Prioress' complaint that she dared not punish
this offender is easily intelligible in the light of her own evil life.
The most serious charge against her was that she was unduly intimate with
a priest named William Taylour, who constantly visited the nunnery and
with whom she had been accustomed to go into the gardens in the village of
Catesby; and one of the younger nuns had surprised the two _in flagrante
delicto_. She was a woman of violent temper; two nuns deposed that when
she was moved to anger against any of them she would tear off their veils
and drag them about by the hair, calling them beggars and harlots[250],
and this in the very choir of the church; if they committed any fault she
scolded and upbraided them and would not cease before seculars or during
divine service; "she is very cruel and severe to the nuns and loves them
not," said one; "she is so harsh and impetuous that there is no pleasing
her," sighed another; "she sows discord among the sisters," complained a
third, "saying so-and-so said such-and-such a thing about thee, if the one
to whom she speaks has transgressed." More serious still, from the
visitor's point of view, were the threats by which she sought to prevent
the nuns from revealing anything at the visitation; two of them declared
that she had beaten and imprisoned those who gave evidence when Bishop
Gray came to the house, and sister Isabel Benet whispered that the
Prioress had boasted of having bribed the bishop's clerk with a purse of
money, to reveal everything that the nuns had said on that occasion. Her
practice of compelling the nuns to perform manual labour was greatly
resented--why should they

      Swinken with hir handes and laboure
  As Austin bit? How shal the world be served?
  Lat Austin have his swink to him reserved.

It appeared, however, that they were anxious to

      studie and make hemselven wood
  Upon a book in cloistre alwey to poure,

or so they informed Alnwick. One Agnes Halewey complained that, though she
was young and wished to be instructed in her religion and such matters,
the Prioress set her to make beds and to sew and spin; another sister
declared that when guests came the Prioress sent the young nuns to make up
their beds, which was "full of danger and a scandal to the house"[251];
another deposed that the choir was not properly observed, because the
Prioress was wont to employ the younger nuns upon her own business. There
were also the usual charges of financial mismanagement and of wasting the
goods of the convent; she had let buildings fall to ruin for want of
repair and two sheepfolds had stood roofless for two whole years, so that
the wood rotted and the lambs died of the damp. Whereas thirteen years
ago, when she became prioress, the house was worth £60 a year, now it was
worth a bare £50 and was in debt, owing to the bad rule of the Prioress
and of William Taylour, and this in spite of the fact that she had on her
entry received from Joan Catesby a sack and a half of wool and twelve
marks, with which to pay debts and make repairs. She had cut down woods.
She had pawned a sacramental cup and other silver pieces; the tablecloths
"fit for a king" (_mappalia conueniencia pro seruiendo regi_), and the set
of a dozen silver spoons which she had found at the priory, all had
vanished away. She had not provided the nuns with clothes and money for
their food for three quarters of the year, and she never rendered an
account to them. Moreover all things in the house were ordered by her
mother and by a certain Joan Coleworthe, who kept the keys of all the
offices; and both the Prioress and her mother revealed the secrets of the
chapter to people in the village. Examined upon these separate counts, the
Prioress denied the majority of them; she said that she had not been cruel
to the nuns or laid violent hands upon them, or called them liars and
harlots or sowed discord among them; that she had not set them to make
beds or to do other work; that she had never punished the nuns for giving
evidence at the last visitation or bribed the Bishop's clerk; that she had
never allowed her mother and Joan to rule everything; and that she had
never revealed the secrets of the chapter; on the contrary those secrets
were spread abroad by the secular visitors of the nuns. She admitted her
failure to render account, and gave as a reason that she had no clerk to
write it for her; she said that she had pawned the cup with the consent of
the convent, in order to pay tithes, and that she had cut down trees for
the use of the house, partly with and partly without the consent of the
house; as to the ruinous buildings, she said that some had been repaired
and some not, and as to the outside debts she professed herself ready to
render an account. The most serious charge of all, concerning William
Taylour, she entirely denied. The Bishop thereupon gave her the next day
to purge herself with four of her sisters for the things which she denied;
but she was unable to produce any compurgatresses[252] and Alnwick
accordingly found her guilty and obliged her to abjure all intercourse
with Taylour in the future.

It might be imagined that such a case as that of Margaret Wavere was in
the highest degree exceptional, likely to occur but once in a century.
Unfortunately it appears to have occurred far more often. In the fifty
years, between 1395 and 1445, Margaret Wavere can be matched, in different
parts of the country, by no less than six other prioresses guilty of
immorality and bad government; and it must be realised that this is
probably an understatement, because so much evidence has been destroyed,
or is as yet unexplored in episcopal registries. Of these cases two belong
to the diocese of York, one (besides the case of Margaret Wavere) to the
diocese of Lincoln, one to the diocese of Salisbury, one to the diocese of
Winchester and one to the diocese of Norwich. Fully as bad a woman as
Margaret Wavere was Eleanor, prioress of Arden, a little Yorkshire house
which contained seven nuns, when it was visited by Master John de Suthwell
in 1396 (during the vacancy of the see of York)[253]. The nuns were
unanimous and bitter in their complaints. The Prioress kept the convent
seal in her possession, sometimes for a year at a time, and did everything
according to her own will without consulting her sisters. She sold woods
and trees and disposed of the money as she would, and all rents were
similarly received and expended by her. When she assumed office the house
was in good condition, owing some five marks only, but now it owed great
sums to divers people, amounting to over £16 in the detailed list given by
the nuns[254], and this in spite of the fact that she had received many
alms and gifts during her year of office--£18. 13_s._ 4_d._ in all; indeed
the two marks which had been given her by Henry Arden's executors that the
convent might pray for his soul, had been concealed by her from the nuns,
"to the deception of the said Henry's soul, as it appeared to them." She
had pawned the goods of the house, at one time a piece of silver with a
cover and a maser worth 40_s._, at another time a second maser and the
Prioress' seal of office itself, for which she got 5_s._; even the sacred
vestments were not safe in her rapacious hands and a new suit was pawned,
with the result that it was soiled and worn and not yet consecrated. The
walls and roof of the church and dorter and the rest of the house were in
ruins; there were no waxen candles round the altar, no lights for matins
or for the other canonical hours, no Paschal candles; when she first took
office she found ten pairs of sheets of good linen cloth (cloth of "lake"
and "inglyschclath," to wit) and now they were worn out and in all her
time not one new pair had been made; the nuns had only two sacred albs and
one of them had been turned to secular uses, viz. to "bultyng mele," and
on several occasions had been found on the beds of laymen in the stable.
The allowances of bread and beer due to the nuns were inadequately and
unpunctually paid; sometimes she would withdraw them altogether and the
sisters would be reduced to drinking water[255]. She was not even a good
bargainer, for by her negligence a bushel of corn was bought by an
agreement for 11_d._, when it could have been had in the public market for
9_d._, 8_d._ or 7_d._ Domineering she was, too, and sent three young nuns
out haymaking, so that they did not get back before nightfall and divine
service could not be said until then; and she provoked secular boys and
laymen to chatter in the cloister and church in contempt of the nuns.
There were graver charges against her in connection with a certain married
man, John Bever, with whom she was wont to go abroad, resting in the same
house by night; and once they lay alone within the priory, in the
Prioress' chamber by night; and during the whole summer she slept alone in
her principal room outside the dorter and was much suspected on account of
John Bever. It will be noticed that this case presents many points of
similarity with that of Margaret Wavere, the chief difference being that
at Arden the Prioress alone seems to have been in grave fault; she made no
accusation against her nuns, save that they talked in the choir and in the
offices and that the sacrist was negligent about ringing the bell for
divine service. Nor had they anything to say against each other. The other
Yorkshire case came to light in 1444, when Archbishop Kemp stated that at
his visitation of the Priory of Wykeham very grave defaults and crimes had
been detected against the Prioress, Isabella Westirdale, "who after she
had been raised to that office had been guilty of incontinence with many
men, both within and outside the monastery"; she was deprived and sent to
do penance at Nunappleton.

After the case of Eleanor of Arden the next scandal concerning a prioress
was discovered in 1404 at Bromhale in Berkshire. The nuns complained in
that year to the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Prioress Juliana had
for twenty years led an exceedingly dissolute life and of her own temerity
and without their consent had usurped the rule of Prioress, in which
position she had wasted, alienated, consumed and turned to her own
nefarious uses the chalices, books, jewels, rents and other property of
the house[256]. The next year an even more serious case occurred at
Wintney in Hampshire, if the charges contained in a papal commission of
1405 were true[257]. The Archdeacon of Taunton and a canon of Wells were
empowered to visit the house:

    the Pope having heard that Alice, who has been Prioress for about
    twenty years, has so dilapidated its goods, from which the Prioress
    for the time being is wont to administer to the nuns their food and
    clothing, that it is 200 marks in debt; that she specially cherishes
    two immodest nuns one of whom, her own (_suam_) sister, had
    apostatized and left the monastery and, remaining in the world, had
    had children, the other like the first in evil life and lewdness but
    not an apostate, and feeds and clothes them splendidly, whilst she
    feeds the other honest nuns meanly and for several years past has not
    provided them with clothing; that she has long kept and keeps Thomas
    Ferring, a secular priest, as companion at board and in bed (_in
    commensalem et sibi contubernalem_), who has long slept and still
    sleeps, contrary to the institutes of the order, within the monastery,
    beneath the dorter, in a certain chamber (_domo_), in which formerly
    no secular had ever been wont to sleep and in which the said priest
    and Alice meet together at will by day and night, to satisfy their
    lust (_pro explenda libidine_), on account of which and other enormous
    and scandalous crimes, which Alice has committed and still commits,
    there is grave and public scandal against her in those parts, to the
    great detriment of the monastery.

If these things were found to be true the commissioners were ordered to
deprive the Prioress. In 1427 there occurred another very serious case of
misconduct in a Prioress, which (as at Catesby) seems to have tainted the
whole flock and is a still further illustration of the fact that a bad
prioress often meant an ill-conducted house. By her own admission Isabel
Hermyte, Prioress of Redlingfield in Suffolk, had never been to confession
nor observed Sundays and principal double feasts since the last
visitation, two years before. She and Joan Tates, a novice, had not slept
in the dorter with the other nuns, but in a private chamber. She had laid
violent hands on Agnes Brakle on St Luke's day; and she had been alone
with Thomas Langeland, bailiff, in private and suspicious places, to wit
in a small hall with closed windows "and sub heggerowes." Nor was the
material condition of the house safer in her hands. There were only nine
nuns instead of the statutory number of thirteen and only one chaplain
instead of three; no annual account had been rendered, obits had been
neglected, goods alienated and trees cut down without the knowledge and
consent of the convent. Altogether she confessed that she was neither
religious nor honest in conversation and the effect of her conduct upon
her charges was only too apparent, for the novice Joan Tates confessed to
incontinence and asserted that it had been provoked by the bad example of
the Prioress. The result of this exposure was the voluntary resignation of
the guilty woman, in order to save a scandal, and her banishment to the
priory of Wix; the whole convent was ordered to fast on bread and beer on
Fridays, and Joan Tates was to go in front of the solemn procession of the
convent on the following Sunday, wearing no veil and clad in white

It is the darker side of convent life that these ancient scandals call up
before our eyes. The system produced its saints as well as its sinners; we
have only to remember the German nunnery of Helfta to be sure of that. The
English nunneries of the later middle ages produced no great mystics, but
there have come down to us word-pictures of at least two heads of houses
worthy to rank with the best abbesses of any age; not women of genius, but
good, competent housewives, careful in all things of the welfare of their
nuns, practical as well as pious. The famous description of the Abbess
Euphemia of Wherwell (1226-57) is too well-known to be quoted here in

    "It is most fitting," says her convent chartulary, "that we should
    always perpetuate the memory, in our special prayers and suffrages, of
    one who ever worked for the glory of God, and for the weal of both our
    souls and bodies. For she increased the number of the Lord's handmaids
    in this monastery from forty to eighty, to the exaltation of the
    worship of God. To her sisters, both in health and sickness, she
    administered the necessaries of life with piety, prudence, care and
    honesty. She also increased the sum allowed for garments by 12_d._
    each. The example of her holy conversation and charity, in conjunction
    with her pious exhortations and regular discipline, caused each one to
    know how, in the words of the Apostle, to possess her vessel in
    sanctification and honour. She also, with maternal piety and careful
    forethought, built, for the use of both sick and sound, a new and
    large farmery away from the main buildings and in conjunction with it
    a dorter and other necessary offices. Beneath the farmery she
    constructed a watercourse, through which a stream flowed with
    sufficient force to carry off all refuse that might corrupt the air.
    Moreover she built there a place set apart for the refreshment of the
    soul, namely a chapel of the Blessed Virgin, which was erected outside
    the cloister behind the farmery. With the chapel she enclosed a large
    place, which was adorned on the north side with pleasant vines and
    trees. On the other side, by the river bank, she built offices for
    various uses, a space being left in the centre, where the nuns are
    able from time to time to enjoy the pure air. In these and in other
    numberless ways, the blessed mother Euphemia provided for the worship
    of God and the welfare of her sisters."

Nor was she less prudent in ruling secular business: "she also so
conducted herself with regard to exterior affairs," says the admiring
chronicler, "that she seemed to have the spirit of a man rather than of a
woman." She levelled the court of the abbey manor and built a new hall,
and round the walled court "she made gardens and vineyards and shrubberies
in places that were formerly useless and barren and which now became both
serviceable and pleasant"; she repaired the manor-houses at Tufton and at
Middleton; when the bell tower of the dorter fell down, she built a new
one "of commanding height and of exquisite workmanship"; and one of the
last acts of her life was to take down the unsteady old presbytery and to
lay with her own hands, "having invoked the grace of the Holy Spirit, with
prayers and tears," the foundation stone of a new building, which she
lived to see completed:

    These and other innumerable works our good superior Euphemia performed
    for the advantage of the house, but she was none the less zealous in
    works of charity, gladly and freely exercising hospitality, so that
    she and her daughters might find favour with One Whom Lot and Abraham
    and others have pleased by the grace of hospitality. Moreover, because
    she greatly loved to honour duly the House of God and the place where
    His glory dwells, she adorned the church with crosses, reliquaries,
    precious stones, vestments and books.

Finally, she "who had devoted herself when amongst us to the service of
His house and the habitation of His glory, found the due reward for her
merits with our Lord Jesus Christ," and died amid the blessings of her

Less famous is the name of another mighty builder, who ruled, some two
centuries later, the little Augustinian nunnery of Crabhouse in
Norfolk[260]. Joan Wiggenhall was (as has already been pointed out) a lady
of good family and had influential friends; she was installed as Prioress
in 1420, and began to build at once. In her first year she demolished a
tumble-down old barn and caused it to be remade; this cost £45. 9_s._
6_d._, irrespective of the timber cut upon the estate and of the tiles
from the old barn, but the friends of the house helped and Sir John
Ingoldesthorpe gave £20 "to his dyinge," and the Archdeacon of Lincoln 10
marks. Cheered by this, the Prioress continued her operations; in her
second year she persuaded the Prior of Shouldham to co-operate with her
in roofing the chancel of Wiggenhall St Peter's, towards which she paid 20
marks, and she also made the north end of her own chamber for 10 marks,
and in her third year she walled the chancel of St Peter's and completed
the south end of her chamber. Then she began the great work of her life,
the church of the nunnery itself, and for three years this was the chief
topic of conversation in all the villages round, and the favourite charity
of all her neighbours:

    "Also in the iiij yere of the same Jone Prioresse," runs the account
    in Crabhouse Register, "Ffor myschefe that was on the chyrche whiche
    myght not be reparid but if it were newe maid, with the counseyle of
    here frendys dide it take downe, trostynge to the helpe of oure Lorde
    and to the grete charite of goode cristen men and so with helpe of the
    persone before seyde (her cousin, Edmund Perys, the parson of
    Watlington) and other goode frendes as schal be shewyd aftyrward, be
    the steringe of oure Lorde and procuringe of the person forseyde sche
    wrowght there upon iij yere and more contynuali and made it, blessyd
    be God, whiche chirche cost cccc mark, whereof William Harald that
    lithe in the chapel of Our Lady payde for the ledynge of the chirch
    vij skore mark. And xl li. payede we for the roofe, the whiche xl li.
    we hadde of Richard Steynour, Cytesen of Norwiche, and more hadde we
    nought of the good whiche he bequeathe us on his ded-bedde in the same
    Cyte, a worthly place clepyd Tomlonde whiche was with holde fro us be
    untrewe man his seketoures. God for his mekyl mercy of the wronge make
    the ryghte."

The indignant complaint of the nuns, balked of their "worthly place clepyd
Tomlonde," is very typical; there was always an executor in hell as the
middle ages pictured it, and a popular proverb affirmed that "too secuturs
and an overseere make thre theves"[261]. In this case, however, other
friends were ready to make up for the deficiencies of those untrue men:

    And the stallis with the reredose, the person beforeseyde payde fore
    xx pounde of his owne goode. And xxvi mark for ij antiphoneres whiche
    liggen in the queer. And xx li. Jon Lawson gaf to the chirche. And xx
    mark we hadde for the soule of Jon Watson. And xx mark for the soule
    of Stevyn York to the werkys of the chirche and to other werkys doon
    before. And xxi mark of the gylde of the Trinite which Neybores helde
    in this same chirche. The glasynge of the chirche, the scripture
    maketh mencyon; onli God be worshipped and rewarde to all cristen

After the death of the good parson of Watlington, another cousin of the
Prioress, Dr John Wiggenhall, came to her aid, and in her ninth year, she
set to work once more upon the church, and she

    arayed up the chirche and the quere, that is for to seye, set up the
    ymagis and pathed the chirche and the quere, and stolid it and made
    doris, which cost x pownde, the veyl of the chirche with the
    auterclothis in sute cost xl_s._[262]

During the building of the church the Prioress had not neglected other
smaller works and a long chamber on the east side of the hall was built;
but it was not until her tenth year, when the building and "arraying" of
the church was finished, that she had time and money to do much; then she
made some necessary repairs to the barn at St Peter's and built a new
malt-house, which cost ten marks. In her twelfth year "for mischeef that
was on the halle she toke it downe and made it agen"; but alas, on the
Tuesday next after Hallowmas 1432, a fire broke out and burned down the
new malt-house, and another malt-house with a solar above, full of malt.
This misfortune (so common in the middle ages) only put new heart into
Joan Wiggenhall:

    thanne the same prioresse in here xiij yere with the grace of owre
    Lord God and with the helpe of mayster Johnne Wygenale beforseyd, and
    with helpe of good cristen men which us relevid made a malthouse with
    a Doffcote, that now ovyr the Kylne, whiche house is more than eyther
    of thoo that brent. And was in the werkynge fulli ij yere tyl her
    xiiij yere were passyd out, which cost l pounde. Also the same
    prioresse in her xv yere, sche repared the bakhous an inheyned
    [heightened] it and new lyngthde it, which cost x marc. And in the
    same yere she heyned the stepul and new rofyd it and leyde therupon a
    fodyr of led whiche led, freston, tymbur and werkmanshipe cost x
    pounde. Also in the same yere sche made the cloystir on the Northe
    syde and slattyd it, and the wal be the stepul, which cost viij li.

Then she began her greatest work, after the building of the church:

    Also in the xvj yere of the occupacion of the same prioresse (1435)
    the dortoure that than was, as fer forthe as we knowe, the furste that
    was set up on the place, was at so grete mischeef and at the
    gate-downe [falling down], the Prioresse dredyinge perisschyng of her
    sistres whiche lay thereinne took it downe for drede of more harmys
    and no more was doon thereto that yere, but a mason he wande[263] with
    hise prentise, and in that same yere the same prioresse made the litil
    soler on the sowthe ende of here chaumber stondyng in to the paradise,
    and the wal stondinge on the weste syde of the halle, with the lityl
    chaumber stondynge on the southe syde, and the Myllehouse with alle
    the small houses dependynge there upon, the Carthouse, and the
    Torfehouse, and ij of stabulys and a Beerne stondynge at a tenauntry
    of oure on the Southe syde of Nycolas Martyn. Alle these werkys of
    this yere with the repare drewe iiij skore mark. In the xvij yere of
    the same Prioresse, be the help of God and of goode cristen men sche
    began the grounde of the same dortoure that now stondith, and wrought
    thereupon fulli vij yere betymes as God wolde sende hir good.

In the twenty-fourth year of her reign Joan Wiggenhall saw the last stone
laid in its place and the last plank nailed. The future was hid from her
happy eyes; she could not foresee the day, scarcely a century later, when
the walls she had reared so carefully should stand empty and forlorn, and
the molten lead of the roof should be sold by impious men. She must have
said with Solomon, as she looked upon her great church, "I have surely
built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in for
ever"; and no flash of tragic prescience showed her the sheep feeding
peacefully over the spot where its "heyned stepul" pointed to the sky. In
1451 she departed to the heaven she knew best, a house of many mansions;
and her nuns, who for four and twenty years had lived a proud but
uncomfortable life in clouds of sawdust and unending noise, buried her
(one hopes) under a seemly brass in her church.

The mind preserves a pleasant picture of Euphemia of Wherwell and of Joan
Wiggenhall, when Margaret Wavere, Eleanor of Arden, Isabel Hermyte and the
rest are only dark memories, not willingly recalled. Which is as it should
be. The typical prioress of the middle ages, however, was neither Euphemia
nor Margaret. As one sees her, after wading through some hundred and fifty
visitation reports or injunctions, she was a well-meaning lady, doing her
best to make two ends of an inadequate income meet, but not always
provident; ready for a round sum in hand to make leases, sell corrodies,
cut down woods and to burden her successor as her predecessor had burdened
her. She found it difficult to carry out the democratic ideal of convent
life in consulting her sisters upon matters of business; she knew, like
all rulers, the temptation to be an autocrat; it was so much quicker and
easier to do things herself: "What, shulde the yong nunnes gyfe voices?
Tushe, they shulde not gyfe voices!" So she kept the common seal and
hardly ever rendered an account. She found that her position gave her the
opportunity to escape sometimes from that common life, which is so trying
to the temper; and she did not always keep the dorter and the frater as
she should. She was rarely vicious, but nearly always worldly; she could
not resist silks and furs, little dogs such as the ladies who came to stay
in her guest-room cherished, and frequent visits to her friends. When she
was a strong character the condition of her house bore witness, for good
or evil, to her strength; when she was weak disorder was sure to follow.
Very often she won a contented "omnia bene" from her nuns, when the Bishop
came; at other times, she said that they were disobedient and they said
that she was harsh, or impotent, or addicted to favourites. In the end it
is to Chaucer that we turn for her picture; as the Bishops found her, so
he saw her, aristocratic, tender-hearted, worldly, taking pains to
"countrefete chere of court," smiling "ful simple and coy" above her
well-pinched wimple; a lady of importance, attended by a nun and three
priests, spoken to with respect and reverence by the not too mealy-mouthed
host (no "by Corpus Dominus," or "cokkes bones," or "tel on a devel wey!"
for her, but "cometh neer my lady prioresse," and "my lady prioresse, by
your leve"); clearly enjoying a night at the Tabard and some unseemly
stories on the road (though her own tale was exquisite and fitting to her
state). Religious? perhaps; but save for her singing the divine service
"entuned in her nose ful semely" and for her lovely address to the Virgin,
Chaucer can find but little to say on the point:

  But for to speken of hir conscience
  She was so charitable and so pitous--

that she would weep over a mouse in a trap or a beaten puppy! For charity
and pity we must go to the poor Parson, not to friar or monk or nun. A
good ruler of her house? doubtless; but when Chaucer met her the house was
ruling itself somewhere at the "shires ende." The world was full of fish
out of water in the fourteenth century, and, by sëynt Loy, Madame
Eglentyne (like Dan Piers) held a certain famous text "nat worth an
oistre." So we take our leave of her--characteristically, on the road to



  Tomorrows shall be as yesterdays;
      And so for ever! saints enough
      Has Holy Church for priests to praise;
  But the chief of saints for workday stuff
      Afield or at board is good Saint Use,
      Withal his service is rank and rough;
  Nor hath he altar nor altar-dues,
      Nor boy with bell, nor psalmodies,
      Nor folk on benches, nor family pews.
                              MAURICE HEWLETT, _The Song of the Plow_.

In many ways the most valuable general account of monastic property at the
close of the middle ages is to be found in the great _Valor
Ecclesiasticus_, a survey of all the property of the church, compiled in
1535 for the assessment of the tenth lately appropriated by the King[264].
It is true that only 100 out of the 126 nunneries then in existence are
described with any detail and that the amount of detail given varies very
much for different localities. Nevertheless the record is of the highest
importance, for in order to assess the tax the gross income of each house
is given (often with the sources from which it is drawn, classified as
temporalities and spiritualities) and the net income, on which the tenth
was assessed, is obtained by subtracting from the gross income all the
necessary charges upon the house, payments of synodals and procurations,
rents due to superior lords, alms and obits which had to be maintained
under the will of benefactors, and the fees of the regular receivers,
bailiffs, auditors and stewards.

Such a survey as the _Valor Ecclesiasticus_, though valuable, could not by
its nature give more than the most general indication of the main classes
of receipts and expenditure of the nunneries. The accounts kept by the
nuns themselves, on the other hand, are a mine of detailed information on
these subjects. Every convent was supposed to draw up an annual balance
sheet, to be read before the nuns assembled in chapter, and though it was
a constant source of complaint against the head of a house that she failed
to do so, nevertheless enough rolls have survived to make it clear that
the practice was common. Indeed it would have been impossible to run a
community for long without keeping accounts. The finest set of these rolls
which has survived from a medieval nunnery is that of St Michael's
Stamford, in Northamptonshire[265]. There are twenty-four rolls, beginning
with one for the year 32-3 Edward I, and ranging over the greater part of
the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A study of them enables the
material life of the convent for two centuries to be reconstructed and
gives a vivid picture of its difficulties, for though the nuns only once
ended the year without a deficit and a list of debts, yet the debts owed
by various creditors to them were often larger than those which they owed.

A very good series also exists for St Mary de Pré, near St Albans, kept by
the wardens 1341-57 and by the Prioress 1461-93[266]; and there is in the
Record Office a valuable little book of accounts kept by the treasuresses
of Gracedieu (Belton) during the years 1414-18, which has been made
familiar to many readers by the use made of it by Cardinal Gasquet in
_English Monastic Life_[267]. Very full and interesting accounts have
also survived from St Radegund's Cambridge (1449-51, 1481-2)[268], Catesby
(1414-45)[269] and Swaffham Bulbeck (1483-4)[270]. These are all
prioresses' or treasuresses' accounts of the total expenditure of the
different houses; but there are in existence also a few obedientiaries'
accounts, chambresses' accounts from St Michael's Stamford and Syon and
cellaresses' accounts from Syon[271]. An analysis of these accounts shows,
better than any other means of information, the various sources from which
a medieval nunnery drew its income, and the chief classes of expenditure
which it had to meet. It will therefore be illuminating to consider in
turn the credit and debit side of a monastic balance sheet.

It is perhaps unnecessary to postulate that since monastic houses differed
greatly in size and wealth, the sources of their income would differ
accordingly. A very poor house might be dependent upon the rents and
produce of one small manor; a large house sometimes had estates all over
England. The entire income of Rothwell in Northamptonshire was derived
from one appropriated rectory, valued in the _Valor_ at £10. 10_s._ 4_d._
gross and at £5. 19_s._ 8_d._ net per annum[272]. The Black Ladies of
Brewood (Staffs.) had an income of £11. 1_s._ 6_d._ derived from demesne
in hand, rents and alms[273]. On the other hand Dartford in Kent held
lands in Kent, Surrey, Norfolk, Suffolk, Wiltshire, Wales and London[274],
the Minoresses without Aldgate held property in London, Hertfordshire,
Kent, Berkshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire,
Norfolk and the Isle of Wight[275]. The splendid Abbey of Syon held land
as far afield as Lancashire and Cornwall, scattered over twelve
counties[276]. Similarly the proportionate income derived from house-rents
and land-rents would differ with the geographical situation of the
nunnery. London convents, for instance, would draw a large income from
streets of houses, whereas a house in the distant dales of Yorkshire would
be dependent upon agriculture. At the time of the _Valor_ twenty-two
nunneries were holding urban tenements in fifteen towns, amounting in
total value to £1076. 0_s._ 7_d._, but of this sum £969. 11_s._ 10_d._ was
held by the seven houses in London[277]. With this proviso the conclusion
may be laid down that the money derived from the possession of
agricultural land, and in particular the rents paid by tenants in
freehold, copyhold, customary and leasehold land, was the mainstay of the
income paid into the hands of the treasuress.

A word may perhaps be said as to the method by which the nuns administered
their estates. Miss Jacka distinguishes two main types of administration,
discernible in the _Valor_:

    The London houses, except Syon and a number, chiefly, of the smaller
    nunneries scattered throughout the country, had a single staff of
    officials, steward, bailiff, auditor, receiver; their revenues were
    drawn from scattered rents and other profits rather than from entire
    manors. There seem to have been about forty houses of this type in
    addition to the London houses. The second group comprises the great
    country nunneries in the south of England, including Syon and a number
    of smaller houses whose revenues were reckoned under the headings of
    various manors each managed by its own bailiff.... The staff of Syon
    may be taken as an unusually complete and elaborate example of the
    usual system, whose principle appears worked out on a smaller scale,
    in the case of smaller nunneries. The nuns had in the first place what
    may be called a central staff, a steward at £3. 6_s._ 8_d._, a steward
    of the hospice at £23. 15_s._ 4_d._, a general receiver at £19. 13_s._
    4_d._ and an auditor at £8. 3_s._ 4_d._ Their lands in Middlesex were
    managed by their steward of Isleworth, Lord Wyndesore, whose fee was
    £3, a steward of courts at £1 and a bailiff at £2. 13_s._ 4_d._, who
    had a separate fee of 13_s._ 4_d._ as bailiff of the chapel of the
    Angels at Brentford. Their extensive possessions in Sussex were
    managed by a receiver and a steward of courts for the whole county,
    whose fees were £3 and £2 respectively, by four stewards for various
    districts with fees from £1. 6_s._ 8_d._ down to 13_s._ 4_d._ and by
    13 bailiffs arranged under the stewards, of whom one received £2.
    3_s._ 4_d._ and the rest from £1 to 6_s._ 8_d._ Their one manor in
    Cambridgeshire was managed by a steward at 13_s._ 4_d._ and a bailiff
    at £1. With the central staff was reckoned a receiver for Somerset,
    Dorset and Devon, whose fee was £6. 13_s._ 4_d._; the ladies held no
    temporalities in Somerset; in Dorset they had a chief steward, £1.
    6_s._ 8_d._, a steward of courts, 6_s._ 8_d._, and a bailiff, 11_s._,
    and their large possessions in Devon were managed by two stewards (£2.
    13_s._ 4_d._), two stewards of courts (13_s._ 4_d._, 6_s._ 8_d._),
    six bailiffs, with fees ranging from 4_s._ to £2 and an auditor,
    3_s._ 4_d._ They received £100 a year from unspecified holdings in
    Lancashire and had there a steward of courts at £1. Their possessions
    in Lincolnshire were mainly spiritual, but they employed a receiver,
    whose fee was 13_s._ 4_d._ In Gloucestershire they had large
    possessions. The two chief stewards of Cheltenham received each £3.
    6_s._ 8_d._ and the chief steward of Minchinhampton £2. Two stewards
    of courts each received £1. 6_s._ 8_d._ and the two stewards at
    Slaughter £1. Three bailiffs received £2. 13_s._ 4_d._, £2 and 13_s._
    4_d._, with livery. A bailiff and receiver of profits arising from the
    sale of woods was paid £4 and the steward of the abbot of Cirencester
    was paid 6_s._ 8_d._ for holding the abbess' view of frankpledge. In
    Wiltshire the nuns held a manor and a rectory and paid £1 to a steward
    for both: they seem to have been leased. In counties where all their
    possessions were spiritual they had no local officials; in Somerset
    both the rectories they held were leased and in Kent, although that is
    not stated, it is suggested by the round sums which were received
    (£26. 13_s._ 4_d._, £10, £20). The leasing of property for a fixed sum
    of course made the administration of it very much simpler. All the
    temporalities of the Minoresses without Aldgate were leased and their
    staff consisted of a chief steward, Lord Wyndesore, whose fee was £2.
    13_s._ 4_d._, a receiver at £4. 5_s._ 10_d._ and an auditor at 13_s._

A closer analysis of the chief sources of income of a medieval nunnery, as
they may be distinguished in the _Valor_ and in various account rolls, is
now possible. They may be classified as follows: _Temporalities_,
comprising: (1) rents from lands and houses, (2) perquisites of courts,
fairs, mills, woods and other manorial perquisites, (3) issues of the
manor, i.e. sale of farm produce, (4) miscellaneous payments from
boarders, gifts, etc.; and _Spiritualities_, comprising (5) tithes from
appropriated benefices, alms, mortuaries, etc. The distinction between
temporalities and spiritualities is a technical one and there was
sometimes little difference between the sources of the two kinds of
income, but the temporal revenues were usually larger[279].

(1) _Rents from lands and houses._ A house which possessed several manors
besides its home farm would either lease them to tenants ("farm out the
manor" as it was called), or put in bailiffs, who were responsible for
working the estates and handing over to the convent the profits of their
agriculture, and who may also have collected rents where no separate rent
collector was employed. For besides the profits arising from the demesne
land (of which some account will be given below), the convent derived a
much more considerable income from the rents of all tenants (whatever the
legal tenure by which they held) who held their land at a money rent. The
number of such tenants was likely to increase by the commutation of
customary services for money payments; since, except in the particular
manor or manors wherein the produce of the demesne was reserved for the
actual consumption of the community, it was to the interest of a convent
to lease a great part of the demesne land to tenants at a money rent and
so save itself the trouble of farming the land under a bailiff[280]. In
addition to these rents from agricultural land an income was sometimes
derived, as has already been pointed out, from the rent of tenements in

In most account rolls a careful distinction was drawn between "rents of
assize" and "farms." The former were the payments due from the tenants
(whether freehold or customary) who held their holdings at a money rent;
these rents were collected by the different collectors of the nunnery or
brought to the treasurers by the tenants themselves. "Farms" were leases,
i.e. payments for land or houses which were held directly in demesne by
the nunnery, but instead of being worked by a bailiff, or occupied by the
household, were "farmed out" at an annual rent. A "farmer" might thus hold
in farm an entire manor, and, for the payment of an annual sum to the
nuns, he would have the right to the produce of the demesne and to the
rents of rent-paying tenants. He might be quite a small person and hold in
farm only a few acres of the demesne (in addition perhaps to an ordinary
tenant's holding on the manor). He might hold the farm of a mill, or a
stable, or a single house[281]. In any case he paid a rent to the nuns and
made what he could out of his "farm"; while they much preferred these
regular payments to the trouble of superintending the cultivation of
distant lands, in an age when communication was difficult and slow.

Nevertheless the rents were not always easy to collect, for all the
diligence of the bailiff and of the various rent-collectors[282]. There
are some illuminating entries in the accounts of St Radegund's Cambridge.
In 1449-50 the indignant treasuress debits herself with "one tenement in
Walleslane lately held by John Walsheman for 6_s._ 8_d._ a year, the which
John fled out of this town within the first half of this year, leaving
nought behind him whereby he could be distrained save 7_d._, collected
therefrom"; and in the following year she again debits herself "for part
of a tenement lately held by John Webster for 12_s._ a year, whence was
collected only 7_s._ for that the aforesaid John Webster did flit
[literally, _devolavit_] by night, leaving naught behind him whereby he
could be distrained." Yet these nuns seem to have been indulgent
landlords; in this year the treasuress debits herself "for a tenement
lately held by Richard Pyghtesley, because it was too heavily charged
before, 2_s._ 3_d._, ... and for a portion of the rent owed by Stephen
Brasyer on account of the poverty and need of the said Stephen, by grace
of the lady Prioress this time only, 15_d._" and there are other instances
of lowered rents in these accounts[283]. Other account rolls sometimes
make mention of meals and small presents of money given to tenants
bringing in their rents.

(2) _Various manorial perquisites and grants._ Besides the rents from land
and houses the position of a religious community as lord of a manor gave
it the right to various other financial payments. Of these the most
important were the perquisites of the manorial courts. These varied very
much according to the extent and number of the liberties which had been
granted to any particular house. To Syon, beloved of kings, vast liberties
had been granted (notably in 1447), so that the tenants upon its estates
were almost entirely exempt from royal justice. The abbess and convent had

    view of frankpledge, leets, lawe-days and wapentakes for all people,
    tenants resiant and other resiants aforesaid, in whatsoever places, by
    the same abbess or her successors to be limited, where to them it
    shall seem most expedient within the lordships, lands, rents, fees and
    possessions aforesaid, to be holden by the steward or other officers.

They had the assizes of bread and ale and wine and victuals and weights
and measures. They had all the old traditional emoluments of justice,
which lords had striven to obtain since the days before the conquest,

    soc, sac, infangentheof, outfangentheof, waif, estray, treasure-trove,
    wreck of the sea, deodands, chattels of felons and fugitives, of
    outlaws, of waive, of persons condemned, of felons of themselves
    [suicides], escapes of felons, year day waste and estrepement and all
    other commodities, forfeitures and profits whatsoever.

They had the right to erect gallows, pillory and tumbrel for the
punishment of malefactors. They even had

    all issues and amercements, redemptions and forfeitures as well before
    our [the king's] heirs and successors, as before the chancellor,
    treasurer and barons of our exchequer, the justices and commissioners
    of us, our heirs or successors whomsoever, made, forfeited or adjudged
    ... of all the people ... in the lordships, lands, tenements, fees and
    possessions aforesaid[284].

In the eyes of the middle ages justice had one outstanding characteristic:
it filled the pocket of whoever administered it. "Justitia magnum
emolumentum est," as the phrase went. All the manifold perquisites of
justice, whether administered in her own or in the royal courts, went to
the abbess of Syon if any of her own tenants were concerned. It is no
wonder that out of a total income of £1944. 11_s._ 5-1/4_d._ the
substantial sum of £133. 0_s._ 6_d._ was derived from perquisites of

Few houses possessed such wholesale exemption from royal justice, but all
possessed their manorial courts, at which tenants paid their heriots in
money or in kind as a death-duty to the lord, or their fines on entering
upon land, and at which justice was done and offenders amerced (or fined
as we should now call it). Most houses possessed the right to hold the
assize of bread and ale and to fine alewives who overcharged or gave short
measure. Some possessed the right to seize the chattels of fugitives, and
the abbess of Wherwell was once involved in a law suit over this liberty,
which she held in the hundred of Mestowe and which was disputed by the
crown officials. One Henry Harold of Wherwell had killed his wife Isabel
and fled to the church of Wherwell and the Abbess had seized his chattels
to the value of £35. 4_s._ 8_d._ by the hands of her reeve[286]. A less
usual privilege was that of the Abbess of Marham, who possessed the right
of proving the wills of those who died within the precincts or
jurisdiction of the house[287]. The courts at which these liberties were
exercised were held by the steward of the nunnery, who went from manor to
manor to preside at their sittings; but sometimes the head of the house
herself would accompany him. Christian Bassett, the energetic Prioress of
Delapré (St Albans), not content with journeying up to London for a
lawsuit, went twice to preside at her court at Wing[288].

In rather a different class from grants of jurisdictional liberties were
special grants of free warren, felling of wood and fairs. Monasteries
which possessed lands within the bounds of a royal forest were not allowed
to take game or to cut down wood there without a special licence from the
crown; but such grants to exercise "free warren" (i.e. take game) and to
fell wood were often granted in perpetuity, as an act of piety by the
king, or for special purposes. The Abbess of Syon had free warren in all
her possessions, and in 1489 it was recorded that the Abbess of Barking
had free chase within the bailiwick of Hainault to hunt all beasts of the
forest in season, except deer, and free chase within the forest and
without to hunt hares and rabbits and fox, badger, cat and other
vermin[289]. Grants of wood were more often made on special occasions;
thus in 1277 the keeper of the forest of Essex was ordered to permit the
Abbess of Barking and her men to fell oak-trees and oak-trunks in her
demesne woods within the forest to the value of £40[290], while in 1299
the Abbess of Wilton was given leave to fell sixty oaks in her own wood
within the bounds of the forest of Savernake, in order to rebuild some of
her houses, which had been burnt down[291]. The grant of fairs and markets
was even more common and more lucrative, for the convent profited not only
from the rents of booths and from the entrance-tolls, but not infrequently
from setting up a stall of its own, for the sale of spices and other
produce[292]. Henry III granted the nuns of Catesby a weekly market every
Monday within their manor of Catesby and a yearly fair for three days in
the same place; and almost any monastic chartulary will provide other
instances of such rights[293].

The majority of the special perquisites which have been described would
originate in special grants from the Crown; but it must be remembered that
every manorial lord could count on certain perquisites _ex officio_, for
which no specific grant was required. For his manor provided him with more
than agricultural produce on the one hand and rents and farms on the
other. Through the manor court he also received certain payments due to
him from all free and unfree tenants, in particular those connected with
the transfer of land, the heriot and the fines already mentioned. From
unfree tenants he could also claim various other dues, the mark of their
status; merchet, when their daughters married off the estate, leyrwite,
when they enjoyed themselves without the intermediary of that important
ceremony, a fine when they wished to send their sons to school and a
number of other customary payments, exacted at the manor court and varying
slightly from manor to manor. Moreover the tolls from the water- or
wind-mill at which villeins had to grind their corn all went to swell the
purse of the lord[294]. This is not the place for a detailed description
of manorial rights, which can be studied in any text-book of economic
history[295]; a word must, however, be said about the mortuary system,
which did not a little to enrich the medieval church.

When a peasant died the lord of the manor had often the right to claim his
best animal or garment as a mortuary or heriot, and by degrees there grew
up a similar claim to his second best possession on the part of the parish

    "It was presumed," says Mr Coulton, "that the dead man must have
    failed to some extent in due payment of tithes during his lifetime and
    that a gift of his second best possession to the Church would
    therefore be most salutary to his soul"[296].

From these claims, partly manorial and partly ecclesiastical, religious
houses benefited very greatly, and their accounts sometimes mention
mortuary payments. The Prioress of Catesby in the year 1414-15 records how
her live stock was enriched by one horse, one mare and two cows coming as
heriots, while she received a payment of 20_s._ for two oxen coming as
heriot of Richard Sheperd[297]. In the chartulary of Marham is recorded a
mortuary list of sixteen people, who died within the jurisdiction of the
house, and the mortuaries vary from a sorrel horse and a book to numerous
gowns and mantles[298]. The system was obviously capable of great abuse,
and Mr Coulton considers that it did much to precipitate the Reformation,
for the unhappy peasant resented more and more bitterly the greed of the
church, which chose his hour of sorrow to wrest from him the best of his
poor possessions; it must have seemed hard to him that his horse or his ox
should be driven away, if he could not buy it back, to the well-stocked
farm of a community which was vowed to poverty, far harder than if his
lord were a layman, as free as he was himself to accumulate possessions
without soiling the soul. When the parish priest followed the convent with
a claim upon what was best, his despair must have grown deeper and his
resentment more bitter. It was often difficult to collect these payments,
just as it was often difficult to collect tithes, even when a priest was
less loth to curse for them than Chaucer's poor parson. Vicars were
obliged to sue their wretched parishioners in the ecclesiastical courts,
and monasteries were sometimes fain to commute such payments for an annual
rent, collected by the tenants[299]. But the best ecclesiastics recognised
that the system was somewhat out of keeping with Christian charity.
Caesarius of Heisterbach has a story of Ulrich, the good head of the
monastery of Steinfeld, who one day

    came to one of his granges, wherein, seeing a comely foal, he enquired
    of the [lay] brother whose it was or whence it came. To whom the
    brother answered, "such and such a man, our good and faithful friend,
    left it to us at his death." "By pure devotion," asked the provost,
    "or by legal compulsion?" "It came through his death," answered the
    other, "for his wife, since he was one of our serfs, offered it as a
    heriot." Then the provost shook his head and piously answered:
    "Because he was a good man and our faithful friend, therefore hast
    thou despoiled his wife. Render therefore her horse to this forlorn
    woman; for it is robbery to seize or detain other men's goods, since
    the horse was not thine before [the man's death]"[300].

(3) _Issues of the manor._ Before passing on to sources of income of a
more specifically ecclesiastical character, some account must be given of
the third great class of receipts which came to a convent in its capacity
of landowner, to wit the "issues of the manor." Attached to almost every
nunnery was its home farm, which provided the nuns with the greater part
of their food[301]. A large nunnery would thus reserve for its own use
several manors and granges, but usually other manors in its possession
would be farmed by bailiffs, who sold the produce at market and paid in
the profits to the treasuress or to one of the obedientiaries; or else a
manor would be leased to a tenant. The surplus produce of the home farm,
which could not be used by the nuns, was also sold. The treasuress usually
entered the receipts and expenditure of the home farm in her household
account and she had to keep two sets of records, the one a careful account
of all the animals and agricultural produce on the farm, with details as
to the use made of them; and the other (under the heading of "issues of
the manor") a money record of the sums obtained from sales of live stock,
wool or grain. An analysis of the produce of the home farm of Catesby
(1414-5)[302] shows that the chief crops grown were wheat and barley. Of
these a certain proportion was kept for seed to sow the new crops; almost
all the rest of the wheat was paid in food allowances to the servants and
1 qr. 3 bushels in alms "to friars of the four orders and other poor";
most of the barley was malted, except 6 qrs. delivered to the swineherd to
feed hogs; and what remained was stored in the granaries of the convent.
Oats and peas were also grown and part of the crop used for seed, part for
food-allowances to the servants and oatmeal for the nuns. The Prioress
also kept a most meticulous account of the livestock on her farm. All were
numbered and classified, cart-horses, brood-mares, colts, foals, oxen,
bulls, cows, stirks (three-year old), two-year old, yearlings, calves,
sheep, wethers, hogerells, lambs, hogs, boars, sows, hilts, hogsters and
pigs. In each class it was carefully set down how many animals remained in
stock at the end of the year and what had been done with the others. We
know something of the consumption of meat by the nuns of Catesby and their
servants in this year of grace 1414-5, when the old rule against the
eating of meat was relaxed; and we see something of the cares of a
medieval housewife in those days before root-crops were known, when the
number of animals which could be kept alive during the winter was strictly
limited by the amount of hay produced on the valuable meadow land. Only in
summer could the convent have fresh meat; and on St Martin's day (Nov. 11)
the business of killing and salting the rest of the stock for winter food
began[303]. From good Dame Elizabeth Swynford's account it appears that
five oxen, one stirk, thirty hogs and one boar were delivered to the
larderer to be salted; in summer time, when the convent could enjoy fresh
meat, five calves, fourteen sheep, ten hogs and twelve pigs were sent in
to the kitchen; and twenty cows were divided between the larder and the
kitchen, to provide salt and fresh beef. There is unfortunately no record
of the produce of the dairy, which supplied the convent with milk, cheese,
eggs and occasional chickens.

But the home-farm served the purpose of providing money as well as food.
The hides of the oxen and the "wool pells" of the sheep, which had been
killed for food or had fallen victim to that curse of medieval farming,
the murrain, were by no means wasted. Five hides belonging to animals
which had died of murrain were tanned and used for collars and other cart
gear on the farm; but all the rest were sold, thirty-six of them in all.
Most lucrative of all, however, was the sale of wool pells and wool, and
Dame Elizabeth Swynford is very exact; eighteen wool pells, from sheep
which the convent had eaten as mutton, sold before shearing for 35_s._
10_d._, thirty-eight sold after shearing for 9_s._ 6_d._, thirty-six lamb
skins for 1_s._; and 6_d._ was received "for wynter lokes sold." Moreover
the convent also sold one sack and eight weight of wool at £5. 4_s._ the
sack, for a total of £6. 16_s._ Altogether the "issues of the manor"
amounted to the substantial sum of £24. 8_s._ 8_d._, chiefly derived from
these sales of wool and wool pells and from the sale of some timber for
£6. 13_s._ 4_d._[304] These details about wool are interesting, for it is
well known that the monastic houses of England, especially in the northern
counties, were great sheep farmers. Most accounts mention this important
source of revenue and in the series of rolls kept by the treasuresses of
St Michael's Stamford, it is regularly entered under the heading "Fermes,
dismes, leynes et pensions," a somewhat miscellaneous classification[305].
In the thirteenth-century _Pratica della Mercatura_ of Francesco
Pergolotti there is incorporated a list of monasteries which sell wool,
compiled for the use of Italian wool merchants and giving the prices per
sack of the different qualities of wool at each house. The list contains a
section specially devoted to nunneries, in which twenty houses are
mentioned, all but two of them in Lincolnshire or Yorkshire[306]. Armed
with this information the Italians would journey from nunnery to nunnery
and bargain with the nuns for their wool: the whole crop would sometimes
be commissioned by them in advance, sold on the backs of the sheep. The
English distrusted these dark smooth-spoken foreigners; many years later
the author of the _Libel of English Policie_ charged them with dishonest
practices and complained of the freedom with which they were allowed to
buy in England:

  In Cotteswold also they ride about,
  And all England, and buy withouten doubte
  What them list with freedome and franchise,
  More than we English may gitten many wise[307].

But it must have been a great day for the impoverished nuns of Yorkshire
when slim Italian or stout Fleming came riding down the dales under a
spring sun to bargain for their wool crop. What a bustling hither and
thither there would be, and what a confabulation in the parlour between my
lady Prioress and her steward and her chaplain and the stranger sitting
opposite to them and speaking his reasons "ful solempnely." What a careful
distinguishing of the best and the medium and the worst kind of wool,
which the Italian calls _buona lana_ and _mojano lana_ and _locchi_. What
a haggling over the price, which varies from nunnery to nunnery, but
always allows the merchant to sell at a good profit in the markets of
Flanders and Italy. What sighs of relief when the stranger trots off
again, sitting high on his horse and taking with him a silken purse, or a
blood-band or a pair of gloves in "courtesy" from the nuns. What blessings
on the black-faced sheep, when the sorely-needed silver is locked up in
the treasury chest and debts begin to look less terrible, leaking roofs
less incurable, pittances less few and far between.

(4) _Miscellaneous payments._ A last source of temporal revenue consisted
in the sums paid for board and lodging by visitors, regular boarders and
schoolchildren. Though such visitors were frowned at by bishops as
subversive of discipline, the nuns welcomed their contributions to the
lean income of the convent, and in most nunnery accounts payments by
boarders will be found among other miscellaneous receipts.

(5) _Spiritualities._ In the revenues which have hitherto been considered,
the monastic rent-rolls differed in no way from those of any lay owner of
land. The source of revenue now to be distinguished was more specifically
ecclesiastical. All monasteries derived a more or less large income from
certain grants made to them in their capacity as religious houses. Most
important of these was the appropriation of benefices to their use. When a
church was appropriated to a monastery, the monastery was usually supposed
to put in a vicar at a fixed stipend to serve the parish, and the great
tithes (which would otherwise have supported a rector) were taken by the
corporation. Sometimes half a church was so appropriated and half the
tithes were taken. The practice of appropriating churches was widespread;
not only the king and other lay patrons, but also the bishops used this
means of enriching religious bodies and the favourite petition of an
impecunious convent was for permission to appropriate a church[308]. Over
and over again the gift of the advowson of a church to a monastery is
followed by appropriation[309]. The permission of the bishop of the
diocese and of the pope was necessary for the transaction, but it seems
rarely to have been refused; and

    it has been calculated that at least a third part of the tithes of the
    richest benefices in England were appropriated either in part or
    wholly to religious and secular bodies, such as colleges, military
    orders, lay hospitals, guilds, convents; even deans, cantors,
    treasurers and chancellors of cathedral bodies were also largely
    endowed with rectorial tithes[310].

The practice of appropriation became a very serious abuse, for not all
monasteries were conscientious in performing their duties to the parishes
from which they derived such a large income, and ignorant and underpaid
vicars often enough left their sheep encumbered in the mire, or swelled
with their misery and discontent the democratic revolution known by the
too narrow name of the Peasants' Revolt[311]. Moreover there is no doubt
that sometimes the monks and nuns neglected even the obvious duty of
putting in a vicar, and the hungry sheep looked up and were not fed. The
_Valor Ecclesiasticus_ throws an interesting light on this subject. The
nuns of Elstow Abbey held no less than eleven rectories, from which they
derived £157. 6_s._ 8_d._, but they paid stipends to four vicars only, and
the total of the four was £6. 6_s._ 8_d._[312] The nuns of Westwood
received £12. 12_s._ 10_d._ from two rectories and paid to a deacon in one
of them 11_s._ 4_d._[313] The Minoresses without Aldgate held four
rectories; from that of Potton (Beds.) they received £16. 6_s._ 8_d._ and
paid the vicar £2; from that of Kessingland, Suffolk, £9 and paid the
vicar £2. 4_s._ 4_d._[314] Another very common practice which cannot have
conduced to the welfare of the parishioners was that of farming out the
proceeds of appropriated churches, just as manors were farmed out. The
farmer paid the nuns a lump sum annually and took the proceeds of the
tithes. The purpose of such an arrangement was convenience, since it saved
the convent the trouble of collecting the revenues and tithes. It was open
to objection from all points of view; for on the one hand the nuns might,
and often did, make bad bargains, and on the other they were still less
likely to care for the spiritual welfare of the unfortunate parishioners,
whose souls were to all intents and purposes farmed out with their tithes;
though the payment of a vicar was sometimes made by the nuns or stipulated
for in the agreement with the farmer. The _Valor Ecclesiasticus_ gives the
total spiritual revenue of the 84 nunneries holding spiritualities as
£2705. 17_s._ 5_d._ and of this sum spiritualities to the value of £1075.
0_s._ 6_d._, belonging to 33 houses were entered as being at farm[315].

Account rolls often throw a flood of light upon the income derived from
appropriated churches. To the nuns of St Michael's Stamford had been
assigned by various abbots of Peterborough the churches of St Martin, St
Clement, All Souls, St Andrew and Thurlby, and in the reign of Henry II
two pious ladies gave them the moieties of the church of Corby and chapel
of Upton[316]. Moreover in 1354, after the little nunnery of Wothorpe had
been ruined by the Black Death, all its possessions were handed over to St
Michael's and included the appropriation of the church of Wothorpe; the
bishop stipulated that the proceeds of the priory with the rectory should
be applied to the support of the infirmary and kitchen of St Michael's and
that the nuns should keep a chaplain to serve the parish church of
Wothorpe[317]. Corby and Thurlby were afterwards farmed out by the
nuns[318] and in 1377-8 they brought in £19 and £20 respectively, while
the nuns got £26. 0_s._ 8_d._ from "the church of All Saints beyond the
water," £1. 13_s._ 4_d._ from the parson of Cottesmore and a pension of
6_s._ 8_d._ from the church of St Martin. They paid the vicar of Wothorpe
a stipend of £2 a year[319]. Over half their income was usually derived
from "farms, tithes and pensions," i.e. from ecclesiastical sources of

It was also very common to make grants of tithes out of piety to a
monastery, even when a grant of the advowson of the church was not made. A
lord would make over to it the tithes of wheat, or a portion of the
tithes, in certain parishes, or perhaps the tithes of his own demesne
land. Sometimes the rector of a parish would pay the monks or nuns an
annual rent in commutation of their tithes; sometimes he would dispute
their claim and the tedious altercation would drag on for years, ending
perhaps in the expense of a law-suit[320]. Besides advowsons and tithes
various other pensions and payments were bestowed upon religious houses by
benefactors, who would leave an annual pension to a monastery as a charge
upon a particular piece of land, or church, or upon another

Another "spiritual" source of revenue consisted in alms and gifts given to
the nuns as a work of piety. Sometimes a nunnery possessed a famous relic,
and the faithful who visited it showed their devotion by leaving a gift at
the shrine. The _Valor_ sometimes gives very interesting information about
these cherished possessions, described under the unkind heading
_Superstitio_. The Yorkshire nuns possessed among them a great variety of
relics, some of them having the most incongruous virtues. At
Sinningthwaite was to be found the arm of St Margaret and the tunic of St
Bernard "believed to be good for women lying in"[322], at Arden was an
image of St Bride, to which women made offerings for cows that had
strayed or were ill. The nuns of Arthington had a girdle of the Virgin and
the nuns of St Clement's York and Basedale both had some of her milk; at
St Clement's pilgrimages were made to the obscure but popular St
Syth[323]. In other parts of the country it was the same. St Edmund's
altar in the conventual church of Catesby was a place of pilgrimage, for
he had bequeathed his pall and a silver tablet to his sister Margaret
Rich, prioress there[324]; and in 1400 Boniface IX granted an indult to
the Abbess of Barking to have mass and the other divine offices celebrated
in an oratory called "Rodlofte" (rood-loft), in which was preserved a
cross to which many people resorted[325]. The nuns of St Michael's
Stamford not infrequently record sums received from a pardon held at one
of their churches, and almost every year they received sums of money in
exchange for their prayers for the souls of the dead. "Almes et
aventures," souls and chance payments, was a regular heading in their
account roll, and the name of the person for whose soul they were to pray
was entered opposite the money received. Miscellaneous alms from the
faithful were always a source of revenue, though necessarily a fluctuating

Such were the chief sources from which a medieval nunnery derived its
income. We must now consider the chief expenses which the nuns had to meet
out of that income. It has already been shown that the total income of a
nunnery was paid into the hands of the treasuress or treasuresses, save
when the office of treasuress was filled by the head of the house, or when
a male _custos_ was appointed by the bishop to undertake the business. It
has also been shown that the treasuress paid out certain sums to the chief
obedientiaries (notably to the cellaress), to whose use certain sources of
income were indeed sometimes earmarked, and that these obedientiaries
kept their separate accounts. The majority of nunnery accounts which have
survived are, however, treasuresses' accounts; that is to say they
represent the general balance sheet at the end of the year, including all
the chief items of income and expenditure. The different houses adopt, as
is natural, different methods of classifying their expenses[327]. The
great abbey of Romsey classifies thus: (1) _The Convent_, including sums
for clothing, for the kitchen expenses and for pittances, amounting in all
to £105. 17_s._ 10_d._ (2) _The Abbess_, who kept her separate household
in state; this includes provisions for herself and for her household and
divers of their expenses, a sum of £8. 12_s._ in gifts, a sum in liveries
for the household and spices for the guest-house and a sum in servants'
wages, amounting to £108. 17_s._ in all. (3) _Divers outside expenses_,
including repairs of houses belonging to the Romsey mills, a sum for legal
pleas, another for annuities to the convent and to the king's clerks, who
had stalls in the abbey, over £40 in royal taxes and £1. 14_s._ 8_d._ in
procurations, amounting to £108 in all. (4) _Miscellaneous expenses_
include £8. 19_s._ 4_d._ in alms to the poor, £6. 13_s._ 4_d._ in wine for
nobles visiting the abbess, a sum for mending broken crockery, a sum for
shoeing the horses of the Abbess' household, and in horse-hire and
expenses of men riding on her business, 14_s._ in oblations of the Abbess
and her household and £10 in gift to Henry Bishop of Winchester on his
return from the Holy Land. (5) _Repairs_ and other expenses at six manors
belonging to this wealthy house, amounting to £77. 2_s._ 6-1/2_d._ The
total expenses of the abbey this year (1412) came to £431. 18_s._ 8_d._,
against a revenue of £404. 6_s._ 1_d._, drawn from six manors and
including rents, the commutation fees for villein services, the sale of
wool, corn and other stores and the perquisites of the courts. The deficit
is characteristic of nunneries[328].

An interesting picture of many sides of monastic life is given by a
general analysis of the chief classes of expenditure usually mentioned in
account rolls. They may be classified as follows: (1) internal expenses of
the convent, (2) divers miscellaneous expenses connected with external
business, (3) repairs, (4) the expenses of the home farm and (5) the

(1) _The internal expenses of the convent._ The details of this
expenditure are sometimes not given very fully, because they were set
forth at length in the accounts of the cellaress and chambress; but a
certain amount of food and of household goods and clothes was bought
directly by the treasuress and occasionally the office of cellaress and
treasuress was doubled by the same nun, whose account gives more detail.
Expenditure on clothing appears in one of two forms, either as
dress-allowances paid annually to the nuns[329], or as payments for the
purchase of linen and cloth and for the hiring of work-people to spin and
weave and make up the clothes[330]. Expenditure on food is usually
concerned with the purchase of fish and of spices, the only important
foods which could not be produced by the home farm.

Among other internal expenses are the costs of the guest-house and the
alms, in money and in kind, which were given to the poor. Account rolls
sometimes throw a side light on the fare provided for visitors: for
instance the treasuress of St Radegund's, Cambridge, enters upon her roll
in 1449-50 the following items under the heading _Providencia Hospicii_:

    And paid to William Rogger, for beef, pork, mutton and veal bought for
    the guest house, by the hand of John Grauntyer, 24_s._ 8_d._ And for
    bread, beer, beef, pork, mutton, veal, sucking pigs, capons, chickens,
    eggs, butter and fresh and salt fish, bought from day to day for the
    guest house during the period of the account, as appears more fully
    set out in detail, in a paper book examined for this account, £11.
    7_s._ 4-1/2_d._ And for one cow bought of Thomas Carrawey for the
    guest house vj s viij d. Total: £13. 8_s._ 8-1/2_d._[331]

In this year the total receipts were £77. 8_s._ 6-1/2_d._ and the
expenditure £72. 6_s._ 4-3/4_d._, so that quite a large proportion of the
nuns' income was spent on hospitality. On the other hand the food was no
doubt partly consumed by these "divers noble persons," who paid the
convent £8. 14_s._ 4_d._ this year for their board and lodging. It is a
great pity that the separate guest-house account book referred to has not
survived. At St Michael's Stamford the roll for 15-16 Richard II contains
a payment of 26_s._ 10_d._ "for the expenses of guests for the whole
year," and 6_s._ 8_d._ "for wine for the guests throughout the year"[332];
this is a very small amount out of a total expenditure of £116. 15_s._
4-1/2_d._ and it seems likely that the greater part of the food used for
guests was not accounted for apart from the convent food.

The expenditure of nuns on alms is interesting, since almsgiving to the
poor was one of the functions enjoined upon them by their rule; and many
houses held a part of their property on condition that they should
distribute certain alms. Some information as to these compulsory alms,
though not of course as to the voluntary almsgiving of the nuns, is given
in the _Valor Ecclesiasticus_. A few entries may be taken at random. St
Sepulchre's, Canterbury, paid 6_s._ 8_d._ for one quarter of wheat to be
given for the soul of William Calwell, their founder, the Thursday next
before Easter[333]. Dartford was allowed £5. 12_s._ 8_d._ for alms given
twice a week to thirteen poor people[334]; Haliwell distributed 12_s._
8_d._ in alms to poor folk every Christmas day in memory of a Bishop of
Lincoln[335]. Nuneaton was allowed "for certain quarters of corn given
weekly to the poor and sick at the gate of the monastery at 12_d._ a week,
by order of the foundress, £2. 12_s._ 0_d._; for certain alms on Maundy
Thursday in money, bread, wine, beer and eels by the foundation, to poor
and sick within the monastery, £2. 5_s._ 4_d._"[336] Polesworth gave "on
Maundy Thursday at the washing of the feet of poor persons, in drink and
victuals, by the foundation £1. 6_s._ 0_d._"[337] A chartulary of the
great Abbey of Lacock, drawn up at the close of the thirteenth century,
contains an interesting list of alms payable to the poor and pittances to
the nuns themselves on certain feasts and anniversaries. It runs:

    We ought to feed on All Souls' day as many poor as there are ladies,
    to each poor person a dry loaf and as a relish two herrings or a slice
    of cheese, and the convent the same day shall have two courses. On the
    anniversary of the foundress (24 Aug. 1261) 100 poor each shall have a
    wheaten loaf and two herrings, be it a flesh-day or not, and the
    convent shall have to eat simnels and wine and three courses and two
    at supper. On the anniversary of her father (17 April 1196) each year
    thirteen poor shall be fed. On the anniversary of her husband thirteen
    poor shall be fed, and the convent shall have half a mark for a
    pittance. On the anniversary of Sir Nicholas Hedinton they should
    distribute to the poor 8_s._ and 4_d._, or corn amounting to as much
    money, i.e. wheat, barley and beans, and the convent half a mark for a
    pittance. The day of the burial of a lady of the convent 100 poor, to
    each a mite or a dry loaf.... The day of the Last Supper, after the
    Maundy, they shall give to each poor person a loaf of the weight of
    the convent loaf, and of the dough of full bread, and half a gallon of
    beer and two herrings, and half a bushel of beans for soup[338].

Account rolls sometimes contain references to food or money distributed to
the poor on the great almsgiving day of Maundy Thursday, or on special
feast days. The nuns of St Michael's Stamford regularly bought herrings to
be given to the poor on Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, St Laurence's day,
St Michael's day and St Andrew's day. The nuns of St Radegund's,
Cambridge, in 1450-1 distributed 2_s._ 1_d._ among the poor on Maundy
Thursday and gave 10_d._ "to certain poor persons lately labouring in the
wars of the lord king"[339]. The Prioress of St Mary de Pré, St Albans,
has an item "paid in expenses for straungers, pore men lasours, tennents
and fermours for brede and ale and other vitaills xxxvj_s_ viij_d_"[340].
It is interesting to note that nunneries are not infrequently found giving
alms in money or kind to the mendicant friars. The Prioress of Catesby
gave away 1 qr. 3 bushels of wheat "to brethren of the four orders and
other poor" in 1414-5[341]. The Oxford friary received from Godstow in
memory of the soul of one Roger Whittell fourteen loaves every fortnight
and 3_s._ 4_d._ in money and one peck of oatmeal and one of peas in Lent.
The Friars Minor of Cambridge were sometimes sent a pig by the Abbess of
Denny[342]. It will be seen in a later chapter that the poor Yorkshire
nunneries of St Clement's York and Moxby were considerably burdened by the
obligation to pay 14 loaves weekly to the friars of York[343]. In general,
however, it is difficult to form any just estimate as to how much
almsgiving was really done by the nuns. There is no evidence as to whether
they daily gave away to the poor, as their rule demanded, the fragments
left over from their own meals; for such almsgiving would be entered
neither in account rolls nor in chartularies and surveys dealing with
endowments earmarked for charity.

Another class of gifts which deserves some notice consists of gratuities
to friends, well-wishers or dependents of the house, for benefits
solicited or received. No one in the middle ages was too dignified to
receive a tip. The nuns of St Michael's, Stamford, regularly give what
they euphemistically term "gifts" or "courtesies" to a large number of
persons, ranging from their own servants at Christmas to men of law,
engaged in the various suits in which they were involved. To the high and
mighty they present wine, or a capon, or money discreetly jingling in the
depths of a silken purse. To the lowly they present a plain unvarnished
tip. The nuns of St Radegund's, Cambridge, pay 12_d._ "for a crane bought
and given to the chancellor of the university of Cambridge, for his good
friendship in divers of my lady's affairs in the interest of the convent";
and "the four waits of the Mayor of Cambridge" receive a Christmas box of
2_s._ 3_d._ "for their services to the lady Prioress and convent." _Dono
Data_ is a regular heading in their accounts, and in 1450-1 there is a
long list of small gifts to dependents, ranging from 1_d._ to 10_d._, and
a sum of 2_s._ for linen garments bought for gifts at Christmas[344].
Similarly the cellaress of Syon in 1536-7 gave her servants at Christmas a
reward of 20_s._ "with their aprons"[345]. Whether to ensure that a
lawsuit should go in favour of the convent, or merely to reward faithful
service or to celebrate a feast, such payments were well laid out and no
careful housekeeper could afford to neglect them.

(2) _Divers expenses_ include payments for various fines, amercements and
legal expenses and also for the numerous journeys undertaken by the
prioress or by their servants on convent business. The legal expenses
which fell upon the nuns of St Michael's, Stamford, ranged from a big suit
in London and various cases over disputed tithes at the court of the
bishop of Lincoln, to divers small amercements, when the convent pigs
"trespassed in Castle meadow"[346]. The payments for journeys often give a
vivid picture of nuns inspecting their manors and visiting their
bishop[347]. Under this heading is also included a payment for ink and
parchment and for the fee of the clerk who wrote out the account.

(3) _Repairs_ were a very serious item in the balance sheet of every
monastic house, and in spite of the amount of money, which account rolls
show to have been spent upon them, visitation reports have much to say
about crumbling walls and leaking roofs. It was seldom that a year passed
without several visits from the plumbers, the slaters and the thatchers,
to the precincts of a nunnery; and once arrived they were not easy to
dislodge. If perchance the nunnery buildings themselves stood firm, then
the houses of the tenants would be falling about their ears; and once more
the distracted treasuress must summon workmen. Usually the nuns purchased
the materials used for repairs and hired the labour separately, and the
workers were sometimes fed in the nunnery kitchen; for it was customary at
this time to include board with the wages of many hired workmen.

The accounts of St Radegund's, Cambridge, in 1449-50 will serve as an
example of the expenditure under this heading[348]. It was a heavy year,
for the nuns were having two tenements built in "Nunneslane" adjoining
their house, and the accounts give an interesting picture of the building
of a little medieval house of clay and wattle, with stone foundations,
whitewashed walls and thatched roof. First of all Henry Denesson,
carpenter, a most important person, was hired to set up all the woodwork
at a wage of 23_s._ 4_d._ for the whole piece of work; he had an assistant
John Cokke, who was paid 14_d._ for ten days' work; Simon Maydewell was
kept hard at work sawing timber for his use for ten days at 14_d._ and
over a cart load and a half of "splentes" (small pieces of wood laid
horizontally in a stud wall) were purchased at a cost of 6_s._ 2_d._ Henry
and John spent ten days setting up the framework of the two cottages, but
they were not the only workers. The "gruncill" (or beam laid along the
ground for the rest to stand on) had to be laid firmly on a stone
foundation; the walls had to be filled between the beams with clay,
strengthened with a mixture of reeds and sedge and bound with hemp nailed
firmly to the beams. The account tells us all about these operations:

    and in hemp with nails bought for binding the walls 16_d._, and in
    stone bought from Thomas Janes of Hynton to support the gruncill 6_s._
    8_d._, and in one measure of quicklime bought for the same work 3_s._,
    and in six cartloads of clay bought of Richard Poket of Barnwell
    18_d._, and in the hire of Geoffrey Sconyng and William Brann, to lay
    the gruncill of the aforesaid tenements and to daub the walls thereof
    (i.e. to make them of clay), for the whole work 17_s._ 3_d._ And in
    reeds bought of John Bere, "reder," for the aforesaid tenements 2_s._
    4_d._, and in "1000 de les segh" (sedge) for the same work 5_s._ And
    in 22 bunches of wattles 22_d._, and in boards bought at the fair of
    St John the Baptist to make the door and windows 2_s._ 10_d._, and in
    1000 nails for the said work, together with 1000 more nails bought
    afterwards 2_s._ 8-1/2_d._

Finally the houses had to be roofed with a thatch of straw and a fresh set
of workmen were called in:

    and for the hire of John Scot, thatcher, hired to roof with straw the
    two aforesaid tenements, for 12 days, taking 4_d._ a day, at the board
    of the Lady (Prioress) 4_s._ And for the hire of Thomas Clerk for
    8-1/2 days and of Nicholaus Burnefygge for 10 days, carrying straw and
    serving the said thatcher 3_s._ 1_d._; and in the hire of Katherine
    Rolf for the same work (women often acted as thatchers' assistants)
    for 12 days at 1-1/2_d._ a day, 18_d._

And behold two very nice little cottages.

But let not the ignorant suppose that this completed the expenditure of
the nuns on building and repairs. Henry Denesson, the indispensable, soon
had to be hired again to set up some woodwork in a tenement in Precherch
Street, and to build a gable there. A kitchen had to be built next to
these tenements, and the business of hiring carpenters, daubers and
thatchers was repeated; John Scot and John Cokke once more scaled the
roofs. Then a house in Nun's Lane was burnt and sedge had to be bought to
thatch it. Then three labourers had to be hired for four days to mend the
roofs of the hall, kitchen and other parts of the nunnery itself, taking
5_d._ a day and their board. Then the roofs of the frater and the granary
began to leak and the same labourers had to be hired for four more days.
Then, just as the treasuress thought that she had got rid of the
ubiquitous Henry Denesson for good, back he had to be called with a
servant to help him, to set up the falling granary again. Then a lock had
to be made for the guests' kitchen and for three other rooms in the
nunnery; and when John Egate, tiler, and John Tommesson, tenants of the
nuns, got wind that locks were being made, they must needs have some for
their tenements. Then a defect in the church had to be repaired by John
Corry and a cover made for the font. There was more purchase of reeds and
sedge, boards and "300 nails (12_d._) and 100 nails (2_d._) bought at
Stourbridge Fair" for 14_d._ Last came the inevitable plumber:

    And for a certain plumber hired to mend a gutter between the tenement
    wherein Walter Ferror dwells and a tenement of the Prior of Barnwell,
    with lead found by the said Prior, together with the mending of a
    defect in the church of St Radegund 14_d._ And in the hire of the
    aforesaid plumber to mend a lead pipe extending from the font to the
    copper in the brewhouse, together with the solder of the said plumber

In all the cost of repairs and buildings came to £8. 3_s._ 7_d._ out of a
total expenditure of £72. 6_s._ 4-3/4_d._

(4) _Expenses of the home farm._ The home farm was an essential feature of
manorial economy and particularly so when the lord of the manor was a
community. The nuns expected to draw the greater part of their food from
the farm; livestock, grain and dairy all had to be superintended. A
student of these account rolls may see unrolled before him all the
different operations of the year, the autumn ploughing and sowing, the
spring ploughing and sowing, the hay crop mown in June and the strenuous
labours of the harvest. He may, if he will, know how many sheep the
shepherd led to pasture and how many oxen the oxherd drove home in the
evening, for the inventory on the back of an account roll enumerates
minutely all the stock. There is something homely and familiar in lists
such as the tale of cattle owned by the nuns of Sheppey at the

    v contre oxen and iij western oxen fatt, ... xviij leane contre oxen
    workers, xij leane contre sterys of ij or iij yere age, xxviij
    yeryngs, xxxviii kene and heifors ... xxvi cattle of thys yere, an
    horse, j olde baye, a dunne, a whyte and an amblelyng grey, vj
    geldings and horse for the plow and harowe, with v mares, xliij hogges
    of dyvers sorts, in wethers and lammys cccc{xxx}, ... and in beryng
    ewes vij{c}, ... in twelvemonthyngs, ewes and wethers vi{c}xxxv ... in
    lambys at this present daye v{c}lx[349].

How these lean country oxen, the "one old bay, a dun, a white and an
ambling grey," bring the quiet English landscape before the reader's eyes.
Time is as nothing; and the ploughman trudging over the brown furrows, the
slow, warm beasts, breathing heavily in the darkness of their byre, are
little changed from what they were five hundred years ago--save that our
beasts to-day are larger and fatter, thanks to turnips and Mr Bakewell.
Kingdoms rise and fall, but the seasons never alter, and the farm servant,
conning these old accounts, would find nothing in them but the life he

  This is the year's round he must go
  To make and then to win the seed:
  In winter to sow and in March to hoe
  Michaelmas plowing, Epiphany sheep;
  Come June there is the grass to mow,
  At Lammas all the vill must reap.
  From dawn till dusk, from Easter till Lent
  Here are the laws that he must keep:
  Out and home goes he, back-bent,
  Heavy, patient, slow as of old
  Father, granfer, ancestor went
  O'er Sussex weald and Yorkshire wold.
  O what see you from your gray hill?
  The sun is low, the air all gold,
  Warm lies the slumbrous land and still.
  I see the river with deep and shallow,
  I see the ford, I hear the mill;
  I see the cattle upon the fallow;
  And there the manor half in trees,
  And there the church and the acre hallow
  Where lie your dead in their feretories....
  I see the yews and the thatch between
  The smoke that tells of cottage and hearth,
  And all as it has ever been
  From the beginning of this old earth[350].

The farm labourer to-day would well understand all these items of
expenditure, which the monastic treasuress laboriously enters in her
account. He would understand that heavy section headed "Repair of Carts
and Ploughs." He would understand the purchases of grain for seed, or for
the food of livestock, of a cow here, a couple of oxen there, of whip-cord
and horse-collars, traces and sack-cloth and bran for a sick horse. Farm
expenses are always the same. The items which throw light on sheep-farming
are very interesting, in view of the good income which monastic houses in
pastoral districts made by the sale of their wool. The Prioress of
Catesby's account for 1414-5 notes:

    In expences about washing and shearing of sheep v s vj d. In ale
    bought for caudles ij s. In pitchers viij d. In ale about the carriage
    of peas to the sheepcote iv d ob. In a tressel bought for new milk
    viij d. In nails for a door there iv d ob. In thatching the sheepcote
    viij d. In amending walls about the sheepcote ix d;

and in her inventory of stock she accounts for

    118 sheep received of stock, whereof there was delivered to the
    kitchen after shearing by tally 14, in murrain before shearing 12, and
    there remains 101; and for 5 wethers of stock and 2 purchased, whereof
    in murrain before shearing 3, and there remains 4; and for 144 lambs
    of issues of all ewes, whereof in murrain 23; and there remains

The nuns of Gracedieu in the same spring had a flock of 103 ewes and 52
lambs; and there is mention in their accounts of the sale of 30 stone of
wool to a neighbour[351]; and the nuns of Sheppey, as the inventory quoted
above bears witness, had a very large flock indeed.

Some of the most interesting entries in the accounts are the payments for
extra labour at busy seasons, to weed corn, make hay, shear sheep, thresh
and winnow. The busiest season of all, the climax of the farmer's year,
was harvest time; and most monastic accounts give it a separate heading.
The nuns of St Michael's, Stamford, year after year record the date "when
we began to reap" and the payments to reapers and cockers for the first
four or five weeks and to carters for the fortnight afterwards. Extra
workers, both men and women, came in from among the cottagers of the manor
and of neighbouring manors; in some parts of the country migrant
harvesters came, as they do to-day, from distant uplands to help on the
farms of the rich cornland. To oversee them a special reap-reeve was hired
at a higher rate (the nuns of St Michael's paid him 13_s._ 8_d._ in 1378);
gloves were given to the reapers to protect them from thistles[352];
special tithers were hired to set aside the sheaves due to the convent as
tithes (the convent paid "to one tither of Wothorpe," an appropriated
church, "10_s._, and to two of our tithers 13_s._ 4_d._"). The honest
Tusser sets out the usage in jingling rhyme:

  Grant haruest lord more by a penie or twoo
      to call on his fellowes the better to doo:
  Giue gloues to thy reapers, a larges to crie,
      and dailie to loiterers haue a good eie.

  Reape wel, scatter not, gather cleane that is shorne,
      binde faste, shock apace, haue an eie to thy corne.
  Lode safe, carrie home, follow time being faire,
      goue iust in the barne, it is out of despaire.

  Tithe dulie and trulie, with hartie good will
      that God and his blessing may dwell with thee still:
  Though Parson neglecteth his dutie for this,
      thank thou thy Lord God, and giue erie man his[353].

Usually the workers got their board during harvest and very well they
fared. The careful treasuresses of St Michael's get in beef and mutton and
fish for them, to say nothing of eggs and bread and oatmeal and foaming
jugs of beer. Porringers and platters have to be laid in for them to feed
from; and since they work until the sun goes down, candles must be bought
to light the board in the summer dusk. At the end of all, when the last
sheaf was carried to the barn and the last gleaner had left the fields,
the nuns entertained their harvesters to a mighty feast.

It was a time for hard work and for good fellowship. Says Tusser:

  In haruest time, haruest folke, seruants and all,
      should make all togither good cheere in the hall:
  And fill out the black boule of bleith to their song,
      and let them be merie all haruest time long.

  Once ended thy haruest let none be begilde,
      please such as did helpe thee, man, woman and childe.
  Thus dooing, with alway such helpe as they can,
      those winnest the praise of the labouring man[354].

The final feast was associated with the custom of giving a goose to all
who had not overturned a load in carrying during harvest, and the nuns of
St Michael's always enter it in their accounts as "the expenses of the
sickle goose" or harvest goose.

  For all this good feasting, yet art thou not loose
      till ploughman thou giuest his haruest home goose.
  Though goose go in stubble, I passe not for that,
      let goose haue a goose, be she leane, be she fat[355].

An echo of old English gaiety sounds very pleasantly through these harvest

(5) _The wages sheet._ The last set of expenses which the monastic
housewife entered upon her roll was the wages sheet of the household, the
payments for the year, or for a shorter period, of all her male and female
dependents, together with the cost of their livery and of their allowance
of "mixture," when the convent gave them these. We saw in the last chapter
that the nuns were the centre of a small community of farm and household
servants, ranging from the reverend chaplains and dignified bailiff
through all grades of standing and usefulness, down to the smallest
kitchen-maid and the gardener's boy.

Such is the tale of the account rolls. It may be objected by some that
this talk of tenement-building, and livestock, ploughshares and
harvest-home has little to do with monastic life, since it is but the
common routine of every manor. But this is the very reason for describing
it. The nunneries of England were firmly founded on the soil and the nuns
were housewives and ladies of the manor, as were their sisters in the
world. This homely business was half their lives; they knew the kine in
the byre and the corn in the granary, as well as the service-books upon
their stalls. The sound of their singing went up to heaven mingled with
the shout of the ploughmen in the field and the clatter of churns in the
dairy. When a prioress' negligence lets the sheepfold fall into disrepair,
so that the young lambs die of the damp, it is made a charge against her
to the bishop, together with more spiritual crimes. The routine of the
farm goes on side by side with the routine of the chapel. These account
rolls give us the material basis for the complicated structure of monastic
life. This is how nuns won their livelihood; this is how they spent it.



  Some respit to husbands the weather may send,
  But huswiues affaires haue neuer an end.
                 TUSSER, _Fiue Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie_ (1573).

Every monastic house may be considered from two points of view, as a
religious and as a social unit. From the religious point of view it is a
house of prayer, its centre is the church, its _raison d'être_ the daily
round of offices. From the social point of view it is a community of human
beings, who require to be fed and clothed; it is often a landowner on a
large scale; it maintains a more or less elaborate household of servants
and dependents; it runs a home farm; it buys and sells and keeps accounts.
The nun must perforce combine the functions of Martha and of Mary; she is
no less a housewife than is the lady of the manor, her neighbour. The
monastic routine of bed and board did not work without much careful
organisation; and it is worth while to study the method by which this
organisation was carried out.

The daily business of a monastery was in the hands of a number of
officials, chosen from among the older and more experienced of the inmates
and known as _obedientiaries_. These obedientiaries, as Mr C. T. Flower
has pointed out in a useful article[356], fall into two classes: (1)
executive officials, charged with the general government of a house, such
as the abbess, prioress, subprioress and treasuress, and (2) nuns charged
with particular functions, such as the chantress, sacrist, fratress,
infirmaress, mistress of the novices, chambress and cellaress. The number
of obedientiaries differed with the size of the house. In large houses the
work had naturally to be divided among a large number of officials and
those whose offices were heaviest had assistants to help them. A list of
the twenty-six nuns of Romsey in 1502, for instance, distinguishes besides
the abbess, a prioress, subprioress, four chantresses, an almoness,
cellaress, sacrist and four subsacrists, kitcheness, fratress, infirmaress
and mistress of the school of novices[357]. But in a small house there was
less need of differentiation, and though complaint is sometimes made of
the doubling of offices (perhaps from jealousy or a desire to participate
in the doubtful sweets of office), one nun must often have performed many
functions. It is common, for instance, to find the head of the house
acting as treasuress, a practice which undoubtedly had its dangers.

The following were the most important obedientiaries, whose duties are
distinguished in the larger convents. (1) The _Treasuress_, or more often
two treasuresses. Her duty was to receive all the money paid, from
whatever source, to the house and to superintend disbursements; she had
the general management of business and held the same position as a college
bursar to-day. (2) The _Chantress_ or _Precentrix_ had the management of
the church services, trained the novices in singing and usually looked
after the library. (3) The _Sacrist_ had the care of the church fabric,
with the plate, vestments and altar cloths and of the lighting of the
whole house, for which she had to buy the wax and tallow and wicks and
hire the candle-makers. (4) The _Fratress_ had charge of the frater or
refectory, kept the chairs and tables in repair, purchased the cloths and
dishes, superintended the laying of meals and kept the lavatory clean. (5)
The _Almoness_ had charge of the almsgiving. (6) The _Chambress_ ordained
everything to do with the wardrobe of the nuns; the _Additions to the
Rules of Syon_ thus describe her work:

    The Chaumbress schal haue al the clothes in her warde, that perteyne
    to the bodyly araymente of sustres and brethern, nyghte and day, in
    ther celles and fermery, as wel of lynnen as of wollen; schapynge,
    sewynge, makyng, repayryng and kepyng them from wormes, schakyng them
    by the help of certayne sustres depute to her, that they be not
    deuoured and consumed of moughtes. So that sche schal puruey for
    canuas for bedyng, fryses, blankettes, schetes, bolsters, pelowes,
    couerlites, cuschens, basens, stamens, rewle cotes, cowles, mantelles,
    wymples, veyles, crounes, pynnes, cappes, nyght kerchyfes, pylches,
    mantel furres, cuffes, gloues, hoses, schoes, botes, soles, sokkes,
    mugdors, gyrdelles, purses, knyues, laces, poyntes, nedelles, threde,
    wasching bolles and sope and for al suche other necessaryes after the
    disposicion of the abbes, whiche in no wyse schal be ouer curyous, but
    playne and homly, witheoute weuynge of any straunge colours of sylke,
    golde, or syluer, hauynge al thynge of honeste and profyte, and
    nothyng of vanyte, after the rewle; ther knyues unpoynted and purses
    beyng double of lynnen clothe and not of sylke[358].

(7) The _Cellaress_ looked after the food of the house and the domestic
servants, and usually superintended the management of the home farm. It
was her business to lay in all stores, obtaining some from the home farm
and some by purchase in the village market, or at periodical fairs. She
had to order the meals, to engage and dismiss servants and to see to all
repairs. As one writer very well says, her "manifold duties appear to have
been a combination of those belonging to the offices of steward, butler
and farmer's wife"[359]. The _Rules_ of Syon again deserves quotation:

    The Celeres schal puruey for mete and drynke for seke and hole, and
    for mete and drynke, clothe and wages, for seruantes of householde
    outwarde, and sche shall haue all the vessel and stuffe of housholde
    under her kepynge and rewle, kepynge it klene, hole and honeste. So
    that whan sche receyueth newe, sche moste restore the olde to the
    abbes. Ordenyng for alle necessaryes longynge to al houses of offices
    concernyng the bodyly fode of man, in the bakhows, brewhows, kychen,
    buttry, pantry, celer, freytour, fermery, parlour and suche other,
    bothe outewarde and inwarde, for straungers and dwellers, attendyng
    diligently that the napery and al other thynge in her office be
    honest, profitable and plesaunte to al, after her power, as sche is
    commaunded by her souereyne[360].

A very detailed set of instructions how to cater for a large abbey is to
be found in a Barking document called the _Charthe longynge to the office
of the Celeresse of the Monasterye of Barkinge_[361]. (8) The _Kitcheness_
superintended the kitchen, under the direction of the cellaress. (9) The
_Infirmaress_ had charge of the sick in the infirmary; the author of the
_Additions to the Rules_ of Syon, a person of all too vivid imagination,
charges her often to

    chaunge ther beddes and clothes, geue them medycynes, ley to ther
    plastres and mynyster to them mete and drynke, fyre and water and al
    other necessaryes, nyghte and day, as nede requyrethe, after counsel
    of the phisicians, ... not squames to wasche them, and wype them, nor
    auoyde them, not angry nor hasty, or unpacient thof one haue the
    vomet, another the fluxe, another the frensy, which nowe syngethe, now
    wel apayde, ffor ther be some sekenesses vexynge the seke so gretly
    and prouokynge them to ire, that the mater drawen up to the brayne
    alyenthe the mendes[362].

(10) The _Mistress of the Novices_ acted as schoolmistress to the novices,
teaching them all that they had to learn and superintending their general

Certain of these obedientiaries, more especially the cellaress, chambress
and sacrist, had the control and expenditure of part of the convent's
income, because their departments involved a certain number of purchases;
indeed while the treasuress acted as bursar, the housekeeping of the
convent was in the hands of the cellaress and chambress. Every well
organised nunnery therefore divided up its revenues, allocating so much to
the church, so much to clothing, so much to food, etc. Rules for the
disposition of the income of a house were sometimes drawn up by a more
than usually thrifty treasuress for the guidance of her successors, and
kept in the register or chartulary of the nunnery. The Register of
Crabhouse Priory contains one such document written (in the oddest French
of Stratford-atte-Bowe) during the second half of the fourteenth century:

    "The wise men of religion who have possessions," says this careful
    dame, "consider according to the amount of their goods how much they
    can spend each year and according to the sum of their income they
    ordain to divers necessities their portions in due measure. And in
    order that when the time comes the convent should not fail to have
    what is necessary according to the sum of our goods, we have ordained
    their portions to divers necessary things. To wit, for bread and beer,
    all the produce of our lands and tenements in Tilney and all the
    produce of our half church of St Peter in Wiggenhall, and, if it be
    necessary, all the produce of our land in Gyldenegore. For meat and
    fish and for herrings and for _feri_ and _asser_[363] and for cloves
    is set aside all the produce of our houses and rents in Lynn and in
    North Lynn and in Gaywood. For clothing and shoes all the produce of
    our meadow in Setchy, ... and the remnant of the land in Setchy and in
    West Winch is ordained for the purchase of salt. For the prioress'
    chamber, for tablecloths and towels and _tabites_[364] in linen and
    saye, and for other things which are needed for guests and for the
    household, is set aside all the produce of our land and tenements in
    Thorpland and in Wallington. For the repair of our houses and of our
    church in Crabhouse and for sea dykes and marsh dykes and for the
    wages of our household and for other petty expenses is ordained all
    the produce of our lands, tenements and rents in Wiggenhall, with the
    exception of the pasture for our beasts and of our fuel. Similarly the
    breeding of stock, and all the profits which may be drawn from our
    beasts in Tilney, in Wiggenhall and in Thorpland, and in all other
    places (saving the stock for our larder, and draught-beasts for carts
    and ploughs and saving four-and-twenty cows and a bull) are assigned
    and ordained for the repair of new houses and new dykes, to the common
    profit of the house[365]."

This practice of earmarking certain sources of income may be illustrated
from almost any monastic chartulary, for it was common for benefactors to
earmark donations of land and rent to certain special purposes, more
especially for the clothing of the nuns, for the support of the infirmary,
or for a special pittance from the kitchen[366]. Similarly bishops
appropriating churches to monastic houses sometimes set aside the proceeds
for special purposes[367]. The result of the practice was that the
obedientiaries of certain departments, more especially the cellaress,
chambress and sacrist, had to keep careful accounts of their receipts and
expenditure, which were submitted annually to the treasuress, when she was
making up her big account. Very few separate obedientiaries' accounts
survive for nunneries, partly because the majority were small and the
treasuress not infrequently acted as cellaress and did the general
catering herself. Cellaresses' accounts, however, survive for Syon and
Barking, chambresses' accounts for Syon and St Michael's Stamford (the
latter merely recording the payment to the nuns of their allowances) and
sacrists' accounts for Syon and Elstow[368]. In one column these accounts
set out the sources from which the office derives its income. This might
come to the obedientiary in one of two ways, either directly from the
churches, manors or rents appropriated to her, or by the hands of the
treasuress, who received and paid her the rents due to her office, or if
no revenues were appropriated to it, allocated her a lump sum out of the
general revenues of the house. Thus at Syon the cellaress drew her income
from the sale of hides, oxhides and fleeces (from slaughtered animals and
sheep at the farm), the sale of wood, and the profits of a dairy farm at
Isleworth, while the chambress simply answered for a sum of £10 paid to
her by the treasuresses. In another column the obedientiary would enter
her expenditure. This might take two forms. According to the Benedictine
rule and to the rule of the newly founded and strict Brigittine house of
Syon, all clothes and food were provided for the nuns by the chambress and
cellaress; and accordingly their accounts contain a complete picture of
the communal housekeeping. In the later middle ages, however, it became
the almost universal custom to pay the nuns a money allowance instead of
clothing, a practice which deprived the office of chambress of nearly all
its duties and possibly accounts for the rarity of chambresses' account
rolls. The Syon chambress' account is an example of the first or regular
method; the St Michael's, Stamford, account of the second. More rarely the
nuns received money allowances for a portion of their food. The growth of
this custom of paying money allowances will be described in a later
chapter[369]; here it will suffice to consider the housekeeping of a
nunnery in which that business was entirely in the hands of the chambress
and cellaress.

The accounts throw an interesting light on the provision of clothes for a
convent and its servants. An account of Dame Bridget Belgrave, chambress
of Syon (who had to look after the brothers as well as the sisters of the
house) has survived for the year 1536-7. It shows her buying "russettes,"
"white clothe," "kerseys," "gryce," "Holand cloth and other lynen cloth,"
paying for the spinning of hemp and flax, for the weaving of cloth, for
the dressing of calves' skins and currying of leather, and for 3000
"pynnes of dyuerse sortes." She pays wages to "the yoman of the
warderobe," "the grome," the skinner and the shoemakers and she tips the
"sealer" of leather in the market place[370]. Treasuresses' accounts also
often give interesting information about the purchase and making up of
various kinds of material. At St Radegund's, Cambridge, the nuns were in
receipt of an annual dress allowance, but the house made many purchases of
stuff for the livery of its household and in 1449-50 the account records

    to a certain woman hired to spin 21 lbs. of wool, 22_d._; and to Alice
    Pavyer hired for the same work, containing in the gross 36 lbs. of
    woollen thread 6_s._; and paid to Roger Rede of Hinton for warping
    certain woollen thread 1-1/2_d._; and to the same hired to weave 77
    ells of woollen cloth for the livery of the servants 3_s._ 5_d._; and
    paid to the wife of John Howdelowe for fulling the said cloth 3_s._
    6_d._; and paid to a certain shearman for shearing (i.e. finishing the
    surface of) the said cloth 14-1/2_d._

The next year the nuns make similar payments for cleaning, spinning,
weaving, warping, fulling and shearing wool (an interesting illustration
of the subdivision of the cloth industry) and disburse 9_s._ 9_d._ to
William Judde of St Ives for dyeing and making up this cloth into green
and blue liveries for the servants of the house[371].

The cellaresses' accounts, which show us how the nun-housekeeper catered
for the community, are even more interesting than the chambresses'
accounts. The convent food was derived from two main sources, from the
home farm and from purchase. The home farm was usually under the
management of the cellaress and provided the house with the greater part
of its meat, bread, beer and vegetables, and with a certain amount of
dairy produce (butter, cheese, eggs, chickens). Anything which the farm
could not produce had to be bought, and in particular three important
articles of consumption, to wit the salt and dried fish eaten during the
winter and in Lent, the salt for the great annual meat-salting on St
Martin's day, and the spices and similar condiments used so freely in
medieval cooking and eaten by convents more especially in Lent, to relieve
the monotony of their fasting fare. The nuns of St Radegund's, Cambridge,
used to get most of their salt fish at Lynn, whence it was brought up by
river to Cambridge. From the accounts of 1449-51 it appears that the
senior ladies made the occasion one for a pleasant excursion. There is a
jovial entry in 1450-1 concerning the carriage by water from Lynn to
Cambridge of one barrel[372] and a half of white herrings, two cades[373]
of red herrings, two cades of smelts, one quarter of stockfish and one
piece of timber called "a Maste" out of which a ladder was to be made
(2_s._ 4_d._), together with the fares and food of Dame Joan Lancaster,
Dame Margaret Metham, Thomas Key (the bailiff) and Elene Herward of Lynn
to Cambridge (2_s._ 8_d._). Another entry displays to us Dame Joan
Lancaster bargaining for the smelts and the stockfish at Lynn. Fish was
usually bought from one John Ball of Lynn, who seems to have been a
general merchant of considerable custom, for the nuns also purchased from
him all the linen which they needed for towels and tablecloths, and some
trenchers. Occasionally, also, however, they purchased some of their fish
at one or other of the fairs held in the district; in 1449-50 they thus
bought 8 warp[374] of ling and 6 warp of cod from one John Antyll at Ely
fair and 14 warp of ling from the same man at Stourbridge fair, an
interesting illustration of how tradesmen travelled from fair to fair. At
St John Baptist's fair in the same year they bought a horse for 9_s._
6_d._, 2 qrs. 5 bushels of salt, some timber boards and three "pitcheforke
staves." In the following year they bought timber, pewter pots, a churn,
10 lbs. of soap and 3 lbs. of pepper at the famous fair of Stourbridge,
and salt and timber at the fair of St John Baptist. In 1481-2 they bought
salt fish, salt, iron nails, paper, parchment and "other necessities" at
the fairs of Stourbridge and of St Etheldreda the Virgin[375].

The fish-stores illustrate a side of medieval housekeeping, which is
unfamiliar to-day. Fresh fish was eaten on fish-days whenever it could be
got. Most monastic houses had fishing rights attached to their demesnes,
or kept their own fish-pond or stew. The nuns of St Radegund's had fishing
rights in a certain part of the Cam known as late as 1505 as
"Nunneslake"[376]. But a great deal of dried and salted fish was also
eaten. In their storehouse the nuns always kept a supply of the dried cod
known as stockfish for their guest-house and for the frater during the
winter. It was kept in layers on canvas and was so dry that it had to be
beaten before it could be used; it is supposed to have derived its name
from the _stock_ on which it was beaten, or, as Erasmus preferred to say,
"because it nourisheth no more than a dried stock"[377]. For Lent the
chief articles of food were herrings and salt salmon, but the list of
_salt store_ purchased by the cellaress of Syon in 1536-7 shows a great
variety of fish, to wit 200 dry lings, 700 dry haberden (salted cod), 100
"Iceland fish," 1 barrel of salt salmon, 1 barrel of [white] herring, 1
cade of red herring and 420 lbs. of "stub" eels[378]. The chief food
during Lent, besides bread and salt fish, was dried peas, which could be
boiled or made into pottage. Thus Skelton complains of the monks of his

  Saltfysshe, stocfysshe, nor heryng,
  It is not for your werynge;
  Nor in holy Lenton season
  Ye wyll nethyr benes ne peason[379].

In Lent also were eaten dried fruits, in particular almonds and raisins
and figs, the latter being sometimes made into little pies called
_risschewes_[380]. The nuns of Syon purchased olive oil and honey with
their other Lenten stores. The list of condiments which they bought during
the year, for ordinary cooking purposes, or for consumption as a relief to
their palates in Lent, or as a pittance on high days and holidays,
includes, in 1536-7, sugar (749-3/4 lb.), nutmegs (18 lb.), almonds (500
lb.), currants (4 lb.), ginger (6 lb.), isinglass (100 lb.), pepper (6
lb.), cinnamon (1 lb.), cloves (1 lb.), mace (1 lb.), saffron (2 lb.),
rice (3 qrs.), together with figs, raisins and prunes[381]. Surely the
poor clown, whom Autolycus relieved so easily of his purse, was sent to
stock a convent storehouse, not to furnish forth a sheep-shearing feast
and the sister who sent him was a sister in Christ:

    Let me see, what am I to buy...? Three pound of sugar; five pound of
    currants; rice,--what will this sister of mine do with rice?... I must
    have saffron, to colour the warden pies; mace, dates,--none; that's
    out of my note; nutmegs seven; a race or two of ginger,--but that I
    may beg;--four pound of prunes and as many of raisins of the sun[382].

Lent fare was naturally not very pleasant, for all the mitigations of
almonds and figs. At other times of the year the convent ate on fish-days
fresh fish, when they could get it, otherwise dried or salt fish, and on
meat-days either beef or some form of pig's flesh, eaten fresh as pork,
cured and salted as bacon, or pickled as _sowce_[383]. Mutton was also
eaten, though much more seldom, for the sheep in the middle ages was
valued for its wool, rather than for its meat, and was indeed a scraggy
little animal, until the discovery of winter crops and the experiments of
Bakewell revolutionised stock-breeding and the English food-supply in the
eighteenth century. The nuns also had fowls on festive occasions, eggs,
cheese and butter from the dairy and vegetables from the garden. The
staple allowance of bread and beer made on the premises was always
provided by the convent, even when the nuns had a money allowance to cater
for themselves in other articles of food[384]. Some idea of the menu of an
average house is given in the Syon rule:

    For the sustres and brethren sche [the cellaress] shal euery day for
    the more parte ordeyne for two maner of potages, or els at leste for
    one gode and that is best of alle. If ther be two, that one be sewe
    [broth] of flesche and fische, after [according to what] the day is;
    and that other of wortes or herbes, or of any other thing that groweth
    in the yerthe, holsom to the body, as whete, ryse, otemele, peson and
    suche other. Also sche schal ordeyne for two sundry metes, of flesche
    and of fysche, one fresche, another powdred [salted], boyled, or
    rosted, or other wyse dyghte, after her discrecion, and after the day,
    tyme and nede requyreth, as the market and purse wylle stretche. And
    thys schal stonde for the prebende, which is a pounde of brede, welle
    weyed, with a potel of ale and a messe of mete.... On fysche dayes
    sche schal ordeyn for whyte metes, yf any may be hadde after the
    rewle, be syde fysche metes, as it is before seyd. Also, ones a wyke
    at the leste, sche schal ordeyn that the sustres and brethren be
    serued withe newe brede, namely on water dayes, but neuer withe newe
    ale, nor palled or ouer sowre, as moche as sche may. For supper sche
    schal ordeyn for some lytel sowpyng, and for fysche and whyte mete, or
    for any other thynge suffred by the rewle, lyghte of dygestyon
    equyualente, and as gode to the bodyly helthe.... On water dayes sche
    schal ordeyne for bonnes or newe brede, water grewel, albreys and for
    two maner of froytes at leste yf it may be, that is to say, apples,
    peres or nuttes, plummes, chiryes, benes, peson, or any suche other,
    and thys in competent mesure, rosten or sothen, or other wyse dyghte
    to the bodyly helthe, and sche must se that the water be sothen with
    browne brede in maner of a tysan, or withe barley brede, for coldenes
    and feblenes of nature, more thys dayes, than in dayes passed

On certain special days the nuns received a pittance, or extra allowance
of food, sometimes taking the shape of some special delicacy consecrated
to the day. On Shrove Tuesday they often had the traditional pancakes, or
fritters, called _crisps_ at Barking[386] and _flawnes_ at St Michael's,
Stamford[387]. Maundy Thursday, otherwise called Shere Thursday (the
Thursday before Easter) was the great almsgiving day of the year. On this
day the kings and queens of England, as well as the greatest dignitaries
of the church and of the nobility, were accustomed to give gowns, food and
money to the poor, who clustered round their gates in expectance of the
event, and ceremonially to wash the feet of a certain number of poor men
and women, to commemorate Christ's washing of His disciples' feet.
Benefactors who left land to monastic houses for purposes of almsgiving
often specified Maundy Thursday as the day on which the alms were to be
distributed. It was customary also for monks and nuns to receive a
pittance on this day; and welcome it must have been after the long Lenten
fast. The nuns of Barking had baked eels, with rice and almonds and wine.
The nuns of St Mary de Pré (St Albans) had "Maundy ale" and "Maundy money"
given to them. The nuns of St Michael's, Stamford, had beer and wafers and
spices[388]. There was always a feast on Christmas day and on most of the
great feasts of the church and the various feasts connected with the
Virgin. There was a pittance on the dedication day of the convent and
sometimes on other saints' days. There were also pittances on the
anniversaries of benefactors who had left money for this purpose to the
convent, and sometimes also on profession-days, which were "the official
birthdays of the nuns"[389]. In the monotonous round of convent life these
little festivities formed a pleasant change and were looked forward to
with ardour; in some of the larger houses a special obedientiary known as
the _Pittancer_ had charge over them.

Food is one of the housekeeper's cares; servants are another; and between
them they must have wrinkled many a cellaress' brow, though the servant
problem at least was a less complicated one in the middle ages than it is
to-day. The persons to whom regular yearly wages were paid by a convent
fall into four classes: (1) the chaplains, (2) the administrative
officials, steward, rent-collectors, bailiff, (3) the household staff and
(4) the hinds and farm-servants.

(1) _The chaplains._ The account rolls of a nunnery of average size
usually contain payments to more than one priest. The nuns had to pay the
stipend of their own chaplain or mass-priest, of any chaplains or vicars
whom they were bound to provide for appropriated churches, and sometimes
of a confessor. The number of chaplains naturally varied with the size of
the house and with the number of appropriated churches. Great houses such
as Barking, Shaftesbury and Wilton had a body of resident chaplains
attached to the nunnery church and paid the stipends of priests
ministering to appropriated parishes. Poor and small nunneries, such as
Rusper, paid the fee of one resident chaplain. It is worthy of note that
certain important and old established abbeys in Wessex had canons'
prebends attached to their churches. At each of the abbey churches of
Shaftesbury, St Mary's Winchester, Wherwell and Wilton there were four
prebendary canons, at Romsey there were two (one of whom was known as
sacrist). Moreover at Malling in Kent there were two secular prebends,
known as the prebends of _magna missa maioris altaris_ and _alta missa_.
These prebends were doubtless originally intended for the maintenance of
resident chaplains, but as early as the thirteenth century the prebends
were almost invariably held by non-residents and pluralists as sinecures,
the reason being, as Mr Hamilton Thompson points out, "the rise in value
of individual endowments and the consequent readiness of the Crown, as
patron of the monasteries, to discover in them sources of income for
clerks in high office." Thus these great abbeys also followed the usual
custom of hiring chaplains to celebrate in their churches, though some of
the wealthier prebends were taxed with stipendiary payments towards the
cost of these[390].

[Illustration: PLATE III


(In the top left hand corner is a nun at confession; in the other corners
are visions appearing to a nun at prayer.)]

The chaplain of a house usually resided on the premises, sometimes
receiving his board from the nuns; occasionally inventories mention his
lodgings, which were outside the nuns' cloister. Thus the Kilburn
Dissolution inventory, after describing all the household offices, goes on
to describe the three chambers for the chaplain and the hinds, the
"confessor's chamber" and the church[391]. At Sheppey the chamber over
the gatehouse was called "the confessor's chamber" and was furnished forth

    a hangyng of rede clothe, a paynted square sparver of lynen, with iij
    corteyns of lynyn clothe, a good fetherbed, a good bolster, a pece of
    blanketts and a good counterpeynt of small verder, in the lowe bed a
    fetherbed, a bolster, a pece of blanketts olde, and an image coverled,
    a greate joynyd chayer of waynscot, an olde forme, and a cressar of
    iron for the chymneye[392].

The relations between the nuns and their priest were doubtless very
friendly; he would be their guide, philosopher and friend, sometimes
acting as _custos_ of their temporal affairs and always ready with advice.

Madame Eglentyne, it will be remembered, took three priests with her upon
her eventful pilgrimage to Canterbury, and one was the
never-to-be-forgotten Sir John, whom she mounted worse than his inimitable
skill as a _raconteur_ deserved:

  Than spak our host, with rude speche and bold
  And seyde un-to the Nonnes Preest anon,
  "Com neer, thou preest, com hider thou sir John,
  Tel us swich thing as may our hertes glade,
  Be blythe, though thou ryde up-on a jade.
  What though thyn hors be bothe foule and lene,
  If he wol serve thee, rekke not a bene;
  Look that thyn herte be mery evermo."
  "Yis, sir" quod he, "yis, host, so mote I go,
  But I be mery, y-wis I wol be blamed":--
  And right anon his tale he hath attamed,
  And thus he seyde unto us everichon,
  This swete preest, this goodly man, sir John[393].

Certainly the convent never went to sleep in a sermon which had the tale
of Chauntecleer and Pertelote for its _exemplum_.

Yet the nuns were not always happy in their priests. There is the case
(not, it must be admitted, without its humour) of Sir Henry, the chaplain
of Gracedieu in 1440-41. Sir Henry was an uncouth fellow, it seems, who
was more at home in the stable than at the altar. He went out haymaking
alone with the cellaress, and in the evening brought her back behind him,
riding on the same lean jade. Furthermore "Sir Henry the chaplain busies
himself with unseemly tasks, cleansing the stables, and goes to the altar
without washing, staining his vestments. He is without devotion and
irreverent at the altar and is of ill reputation at Loughborough and
elsewhere where he has dwelt." Poor Sir Henry,--

  See, whiche braunes hath this gentil Preest,
  So greet a nekke, and swich a large breest!
  He loketh as a sperhauk with his yën;
  Him nedeth nat his colour for to dyen
  With brasil, ne with greyn of Portingale.

The bishop swore him to "behave himself devoutly and reverently
henceforward at the altar in making his bow after and before his

(2) _The administrative officials._ These varied in number with the size
of the house and the extent of its possessions. The chief administrative
official was the _steward_, who is not, however, found at all houses.
Sometimes the office of steward was complimentary and the fee attached was
nominal. The _Valor Ecclesiasticus_ shows that great men did not disdain
the post; Andrew Lord Windsor was steward of the Minoresses without
Aldgate, of Burnham and of Ankerwyke[395]. Henry Lord Daubeney was steward
of Shaftesbury[396], George Earl of Shrewsbury of Wilton[397], Henry
Marquess of Dorset of Nuneaton[398], Sir Thomas Wyatt of Malling[399], Sir
W. Percy of Hampole, Handale and Thicket[400], Lord Darcy of Swine[401],
the Earl of Derby of St Mary's Chester[402], and Mr Thomas Cromwell
himself of Syon and Catesby[403]. Some houses, such as Wilton, had more
than one steward, and Syon maintained stewards as well as bailiffs in most
of the counties in which it had land. Some of these great men were
obviously not working officials; but many of the houses maintained
stewards at a good salary, who superintended their business affairs, kept
the courts of their manors, and were sometimes lodged on the
premises[404]. The larger houses also paid one or more receivers and
rent-collectors and sometimes an auditor, but in the average house the
most important administrative official was the bailiff.

While large landowners kept bailiffs at each of the different manors which
they held, most nunneries employed a single bailiff, an invaluable
factotum who performed a great variety of business for them, besides
collecting rents from their tenants and superintending the home farm.
Thomas Key, the bailiff of St Radegund's Cambridge, 1449-51, is an active
person; he receives a stipend of 13_s._ 4_d._ per annum and an occasional
gift from the nuns; he rides about collecting their rents in
Cambridgeshire; he accompanies them to Lynn on the annual journey to buy
the winter stock of salt fish, or sometimes goes alone; he can turn his
hand to mending rakes and ladders (for which he gets 8_d._ for four days'
work), or to making the barley mows at harvest time, taking 3_d._ a day
for his pains; and indeed he is regularly hired to work during harvest, at
a fee of 6_s._ 8_d._ and two bushels of malt[405]. Often the bailiff's
wife was also employed by the nuns; the nuns of Sheppey paid their
bailiff, his wife and his servant all substantial salaries[406]. Some
nunneries had a lodging set apart for him in the convent buildings,
outside the nuns' cloister[407].

Evidence often crops up from a variety of sources concerning the relations
between the nuns and this important official. That these might be very
pleasant can well be imagined. Sometimes a bailiff of substance and
standing will place his daughter in the nunnery which he serves[408];
sometimes when he dies he will remember it in his will[409]. But all
bailiffs were not good and faithful servants. Mr Hamilton Thompson
considers that male stewards and bailiffs were often "responsible for the
financial straits to which the nunneries of the fifteenth century were
reduced, and ... certainly did much to waste the goods of the monasteries,
generally in their own interests"[410]. Such a man was Chaucer's Reeve,
though he did not waste land, for the reason that one does not kill the
goose that lays the golden eggs:

  His lordes sheep, his neet, his dayerye,
  His swyn, his hors, his stoor and his pultrye,
  Was hoolly in this reves governing,
  And by his covenaunt yaf the rekening....
  His woning was ful fair upon an heeth,
  With grene treës shadwed was his place.
  He coude bettre than his lord purchace.
  Ful riche he was astored prively,
  His lord wel coude he plesen subtilly,
  To yeve and lene him of his owne good,
  And have a thank, and yet a cote and hood[411].

Several records of law-suits are extant, in which prioresses are obliged
to sue their bailiffs in the court of King's Bench for an account of their
periods of service[412], and visitation documents sometimes give a sorry
picture of the convent bailiff. The bailiff of Godstow (1432) went about
saying that there was no good woman in the nunnery[413]; the bailiff of
Legbourne (1440) persuaded the prioress to sell him a corrody in the house
and yet he "is not reckoned profitable to the house in that office, for
several of his kinsfolk are serving folk in the house, who look out for
themselves more than for the house"[414]; the bailiff of Redlingfield
(1427) was the prioress's lover[415].

Romsey Abbey seems at various times to have been peculiarly unfortunate in
its administrative officials. In 1284 Archbishop Peckham had to write to
the abbess Agnes Walerand and bid her remove two stewards, whom she had
appointed in defiance of the wishes of the convent and who were to give an
account of their offices to his official[416]. At the close of the
fifteenth century, when the abbey was in a very disorderly state under
Elizabeth Broke, there was serious trouble again. In 1492 this Abbess was
found to have fallen under the influence of one Terbock, whom she had made
steward. She herself confessed that she owed him the huge sum of 80_l._
and the nuns declared that in part payment of it she had persuaded them to
make over to him for three years a manor valued at 40_l._ and had given
him a cross and many other things. His friends haunted her house,
especially one John Write, who begged money from her for Terbock. The nuns
suspected him of dishonesty, asked that the rolls of account for the years
of his stewardship might be seen and declared that the house was brought
to ill-fame by him[417]. In 1501 Elizabeth Broke had fallen under the
influence of another man, this time a priest called Master Bryce, but she
died the next year. Her successor Joyce Rowse was equally unsatisfactory
and equally unable to control her servants. Bishop Foxe's vicar-general in
1507 enjoined that a nun should be sought out and corrected for having
frequent access, suspiciously and beyond the proper time, to the house of
the bailiff of the monastery, and others who went with her were to be
warned and corrected too; moreover he summoned before him Thomas Langton,
Christopher George and Thomas Leycrofte, bailiffs, and Nicholas Newman,
_villicum agricultorem_, and admonished them to behave better in their
offices on pain of removal[418].

(3) The _household staff_ naturally varied in size with the size of the
nunnery. The Rule of St Benedict contemplated the performance of a great
deal if not all of the necessary domestic and agricultural work of a
community by the monks themselves. But this tradition had been largely
discarded by the thirteenth century, and if the nuns of a small convent
are found doing their own cooking and housework, it is by reason of their
poverty and they not infrequently complain at the necessity. They were of
gentle birth and ill accustomed to menial tasks. The weekly service in the
kitchen would seem to have disappeared completely. The larger houses
employed a male cook, sometimes assisted by a page, or by his wife, and
supervised by the cellaress, or by the kitcheness, where this obedientiary
was appointed. There were also a maltster, to make malt, and a brewer and
baker, to prepare the weekly ration of bread and ale; sometimes these
offices were performed by men, sometimes by women. There was a _deye_ or
dairy-woman, who milked the cows, looked after the poultry, and made the
cheeses. There was sometimes a _lavender_ or laundress, and there were one
or more women servants, to help with the housework and the brewing. The
gate was kept by a male porter; and there was sometimes also a gardener.
In large houses there would be more than one servant for each of these
offices; in small houses the few servants were men or maids of all work
and extra assistance was hired when necessary for making malt or washing
clothes. In large houses it was not uncommon for each of the chief
obedientiaries to have her own servant attached to her _checker_ (office)
and household, who prepared the meals for her mistress and for those nuns
who formed her _familia_ and messed with her. The head of the house nearly
always had her private servant when its resources permitted her to do so,
and sometimes when they did not.

(4) _The farm labourers._ Finally every house which had attached to it a
home farm had to pay a staff of farm labourers. These hinds, whose work
was superintended by the bailiff and cellaress, always included one or two
ploughmen, a cowherd and oxherd, a shepherd, probably a carter or two and
some general labourers. Again the number varied very considerably
according to the size of the house and was commonly augmented by hiring
extra labour at busy seasons. The farm was cultivated partly by the work
of these hired servants, partly by the services owed by the villeins.

The nuns, with their domestic and farm servants, were the centre of a busy
and sometimes large community, and a very good idea of their social
function as employers may be gained from the lists of wage-earning
servants to be found in account rolls or in Dissolution inventories. We
may take in illustration the large and famous abbey of St Mary's,
Winchester, and the little house of St Radegund's, Cambridge. St Mary's,
Winchester, had let out the whole of its demesne in 1537, and the
inventory drawn up by Henry VIII's commissioners therefore contains no
list of farm labourers. The household consisted of the Abbess and
twenty-six nuns, thirteen "poor sisters," twenty-six "chyldren of lordys
knyghttes and gentylmen browght vp yn the sayd monastery," three
corrodians and five chaplains, one of whom was confessor to the house, and
twenty-nine officers and servants. The Abbess had her own household,
consisting of a gentlewoman, a woman servant and a laundress, and the
prioress, subprioress, sacrist and another of the senior nuns each had her
private woman servant "yn her howse." There were also two laundresses for
the convent. The male officers and servants were Thomas Legh, _generall
Receyver_ (who also held a corrody and had two little relatives at school
in the convent), Thomas Tycheborne _clerke_ (who likewise had two little
girl relatives at school and a boy who will be mentioned), Lawrens Bakon,
_Curtyar_ (officer in charge of the secular buildings of the nunnery),
George Sponder, _Cater_ (caterer or manciple, who purchased the victuals
for the community), William Lime, _Botyler_, Rychard Bulbery, _Coke_, John
Clarke, _Vndercoke_, Richard Gefferey, _Baker_, May Wednall, _convent
Coke_, John Wener, _vndercovent Coke_, John Hatmaker, _Bruer_, Wylliam
Harrys, _Myller_, Wylliam Selwod, _porter_, Robert Clerke, _vnderporter_,
William Plattyng, _porter of Estgate_, John Corte and Hery Beale,
_Churchemen_, Peter Tycheborne, _Chyld of the hygh aulter_, Rychard
Harrold, _seruaunt to the receyver_ and John Serle, _seruaunt to the

St Radegund's, Cambridge, in 1450 was a much smaller community, numbering
about a dozen nuns. In the treasurers' accounts the wage-earning household
is given as follows, together with the annual wages paid by the nuns. The
confessor of the house came from outside and was a certain friar named
Robert Palmer, who received 6_s._ 8_d._ a year for his pains; they also
paid a salary of 5_l._ a year to their mass-priest, John Herryson, 2_s._
4_d._ to John Peresson, the chaplain celebrating (but only _per vices_,
from time to time) at the appropriated church of St Andrew's, and 13_s._
4_d._ to the "clerk" of that church, a permanent official. Thomas Key, the
invaluable bailiff and rent-collector mentioned above, got the rather
small salary of 13_s._ 4_d._, but added to it by exactly half as much
again during harvest. Richard Wester, baker and brewer to the house,
received 26_s._ 8_d._, John Cokke, maltster (and probably also cook, as
his name suggests) received 13_s._ 4_d._ The women servants included one
of those domestic treasures, who effectively run the happy household which
possesses them, or which they possess: her name was Joan Grangyer and she
is described as dairy-woman and purveyor or housekeeper to the Prioress;
the nuns paid her 20_s._ in all, including 6_s._ 8_d._ for her livery and
2_s._ 4_d._ as a special fee for catering for the Prioress. Then there was
Elianore Richemond, who seems to have been an assistant dairy-maid, for in
the following year the nuns had replaced her by another woman, hired "for
all manner of work in milking cows, making cheese and butter," etc.; her
wages were 8_s._ 4_d._, including a "reward" or gift of 20_d._ The other
women servants were Elizabeth Charterys, who received 3_s._ 1_d._ for her
linen and woollen clothes and her shoes, but no further wages, and
Dionisia _yerdwomman_, who received 9_s._ and doubtless did the rough
work. This completed the domestic household of the nuns. Their hinds
included three ploughmen, John Everesdon (26_s._ 8_d._), Robert Page
(16_s._) and John Slibre (13_s._ 4_d._ and 2_s._ 6_d._ for livery); the
shepherd, John Wyllyamesson, who received 22_s._ 8_d._ and 8_d._ for a
pair of hose; the oxherd Robert Pykkell, who took 6_s._ 8_d._; and Richard
Porter, husbandman, who was hired to work from Trinity Sunday to
Michaelmas for 13_s._ 4_d._[420]

It will thus be seen that the size of a convent household might vary
considerably. The twenty-six nuns of St Mary's Winchester had gathered
round themselves a large household of nine women servants, five male
chaplains and twenty male officers and servants; but they boarded and
educated twenty-six children, gave three corrodies and supported thirteen
poor sisters (who may however have done some of the work of the house).
The twelve nuns of St Radegund's lived more economically, with three male
and four female servants and six hinds, besides the chaplains; but even
their household seems a sufficiently large one. The ten nuns of Whitney
Priory employed two priests, a waiting maid for the prioress, nine other
women servants and thirteen hinds[421]. It is notable that the maintenance
of a larger household than the revenues of the house could support is not
infrequently censured in injunctions as responsible for its financial
straits. At Nuncoton in 1440 the Prioress said that the house employed
more women servants than was necessary[422] and a century later Bishop
Longland spoke very sternly against the same fault:

    that ye streight upon sight herof dymynishe the nombre of your
    seruants, as well men as women, which excessyve nombre that ye kepe of
    them bothe is oon of the grette causes of your miserable pouertye and
    that ye are nott hable to mayntene your houshold nouther reparacons of
    the same, by reason whereof all falleth to ruyne and extreme decaye.
    And therefore to kepe noo moo thenne shalbe urged necessarye for your
    said house[423].

On the other hand many nunneries could by no means be charged with keeping
up an excessive household. Rusper, which had leased all its demesnes, had
only two women servants in its employ at the Dissolution[424], and nuns
sometimes complained to their visitors that they were too poor to keep
servants and had to do the work of the house themselves, to the detriment
of their religious duties in the choir. At Ankerwyke one of the nuns
deposed that

    they had not serving folk in the brewhouse, bakehouse or kitchen from
    the last festival of the Nativity of St John the Baptist last year to
    the Michaelmas next following, in so much that this deponent, with the
    aid of other her sisters, prepared the beer and victuals and served
    the nuns with them in her own person.

At Gracedieu there was no servant for the infirmary and the subcellaress
had to sleep there and look after the sick, so that she could not come to
matins. At Markyate and Harrold the nuns had no washerwoman; at the former
house it was said "that the nuns have no woman to wash their clothes and
to prepare their food, wherefore they are either obliged to be absent from
divine service or else to think the whole time about getting these things
ready"; at the latter a nun said "that they have no common washerwoman to
wash the clothes of the nuns, save four times a year, and at other times
the nuns are obliged to go to the bank of the public stream to wash their
clothes"[425]. It was probably on account of the poverty of Sinningthwaite
that Archbishop Lee ordered "the susters and the nonys there [that] they
kepe no seculer women to serve them or doe any busynes for them, but yf
sekenes or oder necessitie doe require"[426].

As to the relations between the servants and their mistresses both
visitation reports and account rolls sometimes give meagre scraps of
information, which only whet the appetite for more. The payment of the
servants was partly in money, partly in board or in allowances of food,
partly in livery; stock-inventories constantly make mention of allowances
of wheat, peas, oats or oatmeal and maslin (a mixture of wheat and rye)
paid to this or that servant, and account rolls as constantly mention a
livery, a pair of hose, a pair of shoes, or the money equivalent of these
things, as forming part of the wage. The more important agricultural
servants had also sometimes the right to graze a cow, or a certain number
of sheep on the convent's pastures. Some servants, however, received wages
without board, others wages without livery. Account rolls seem to bear
witness to pleasant relations; there is constant mention of small tips or
presents to the servants and of dinners made to them on great occasions.
This was Merry England, when the ploughman's feasts enlivened his hard
work and comfortless existence; he must have his Shrovetide pancakes, his
sheep-shearing feast, his "sickle goose" or harvest-home, and his
Christmas dinner; and the household servants must as often as may be have
a share in the convent pittance. The very general custom of allowing the
female servants to sleep in the dorter (against which bishops were
continually having to make injunctions) must have made for free and easy
and close relations between the nuns and the secular women who served
them; and sometimes one of these would save up and buy herself a corrody
in the house to end her days[427]. Occasionally these close relations led
to difficulties; a trusted maid would gain undue influence over the
prioress and the nuns would be jealous of her. Thus at Heynings in 1440 it
was complained that the prioress "encourages her secular serving women,
whom she believes more than her sisters in their words, to scold the same
her sisters"[428]. Sometimes also a servant would act as a go-between
between the nuns and the outside world, smuggling in and out tokens and
messages and sundry _billets doux_[429].

On the other hand there were sometimes difficulties of a different nature.
The servants got out of hand; they brought discredit on the nuns by the
indiscretions of their lives; they gossiped about their mistresses in the
neighbourhood, or were quarrelsome and pert to their faces. At Gracedieu
in 1440-41 a nun complained "that a Frenchwoman of very unseemly
conversation is their maltstress, also that the secular serving folk hold
the nuns in despite; she prays that they may be restrained; and chiefly
are they rebellious in their words against the kitchener"[430]; evidently
the author of the _Ancren Riwle_ spake not utterly from his imagination
when he bade his ladies "be glad in your heart if ye suffer insolence from
Slurry, the cook's boy, who washeth dishes in the kitchen"[431]. At
Markyate also the servants had to be warned "that honestly and not
sturdyly ne rebukyngly thai hafe thaym in thaire langage to the
sustres"[432] and at Studley a maidservant had boxed the ears of a novice
of tender age[433]. At Sheppey in 1511 it was said that "the men servants
of the prioress do not behave properly to the prioress, but speak of the
convent contemptuously and dishonestly, thus ruining the convent"[434].

The peculiar difficulties suffered in this respect by an important house,
which maintained a large body of servants, are best illustrated, however,
in the case of Romsey Abbey. At this house in 1302 Bishop John of Pontoise

    that a useless, superfluous, quarrelsome and incontinent servant and
    one using insolent language to the ladies shall be removed within a
    month, ... and especially John Chark, who has often spoken ill and
    contumaciously in speaking to and answering the ladies, unless he
    correct himself so that no more complaints be made to the bishop[435].

John Chark possibly learned to bridle his tongue, but the tone among the
Romsey servants was not good, for in 1311 Bishop Henry Woodlock ordered
that "no women servants shall remain unless of good conversation and
honest; pregnant, incontinent, quarrelsome women and those answering the
nuns contumaciously, all superfluous and useless servants, [are] to be
removed within a month"[436]. In 1387 the difficulties were of another
order; writes William of Wykeham:

    the secular women servants of the nuns are wont too often to come into
    the frater, at times when the nuns are eating there, and into the
    cloister while the nuns are engaged there in chapter meetings,
    contemplation, reading or praying, and there do make a noise and
    behave otherwise ill, in a way which beseems not the honesty of
    religion. And these secular women often keep up their chattering,
    carolling (_cantalenas_) and other light behaviour, until the middle
    of the night, and disturb the aforesaid nuns, so that they cannot
    properly perform the regular services. Wherefore we ... command you
    that you henceforth permit not the aforesaid things, nor any other
    things which befit not the observances of your rule, to be done by the
    said servants or by others, and that you permit not these servants to
    serve you henceforth in the frater, and a servant or any other secular
    person who does the contrary shall be expelled from the monastery.
    Moreover we forbid on pain of the greater excommunication that any
    servants defamed for any offence be henceforth admitted to dwell among
    you, or having been admitted, be retained in your service, for from
    such grave scandals may arise concerning you and your house[437].

We have spoken hitherto about the regular hired servants of the house; but
it must not be forgotten that nuns normally had a larger community
dependent in part upon them. From time to time they were wont to hire such
additional labour as they required, whether servants in husbandry taken on
for the haymaking and harvest season, artificers hired to put up or repair
buildings, workers in various branches of the cloth industry to make the
liveries of the servants, itinerant candle-makers to prepare the winter
dips, or a variety of casual workers hired at one time or another for
specific purposes. The nuns of St Radegund's, Cambridge, entered in their
accounts a large number of payments besides those to their regular
servants. In moments of stress they were wont to fall back upon a paragon
named Katherine Rolf. We first meet her in 1449-50 weeding the garden for
four days, for the modest sum of 4-1/2_d._; but soon afterwards behold her
on the roof, aiding the thatchers to thatch two tenements, at 1-1/2_d._ a
day for twelve days. In the next year she is more active still; first of
all she is found helping the candle-makers to make up 14 lbs. of tallow
candles for the guest-house. Then she combs and cleans a pound of wool for
spinning. Then she appears in the granary helping the maltster to thresh
and winnow grain. In the midst of these activities she turns an honest
penny by selling fat chickens to the convent. The nuns also disburse small
sums of money to the man who cleanses the convent privies, to the
_slawterman_ for killing beasts for the kitchen, to Richard Gardyner for
beating stockfish, to Thomas Osborne for making malt, to Thomas the Smith
for providing a variety of iron implements and _cart-clowtes_, for shoeing
the horses and for mending the ploughshares, and for "blooding the horses
on St Stephen's day" (Dec. 26), to Thomas Boltesham, _cowper_, for mending
wooden utensils, to Thomas Speed for helping in the kitchen on fair-day
and to John Speed for working in the garden. Besides these they hire
various day-labourers to work in the fields during the sowing season,
hay-making and harvest, or to lop trees round the convent and hew up
firewood, or to prune and tie up the vines (for there were English
vineyards in those days). Then there is a long list of carpenters,
builders, thatchers, and plumbers engaged in making and repairing the
buildings of the convent and its tenants. Finally there are the various
cloth workers, spinners, weaver, fuller, shearman, dyer and tailor hired
to make the servants' clothes, concerning whom something has already been

Thus many persons came to depend upon a nunnery for part of their
livelihood, who were not the permanent servants of the house, and this
goes further than any imagined reverence for the lives and calling of
their inmates to explain the anxiety shown in some places for the
preservation of nunneries when the day of dissolution came. The convents
were not only inns and boarding-houses for ladies of the upper class and
occasionally schools for their daughters; they were the great employers
and consumers of their districts, and though their places must sooner or
later be taken by other employers and consumers, yet at the moment many a
husbandman and artificer must have seen his livelihood about to slip away
from him. The nuns of Sheppey, in their distant and lonely flats, clearly
employed a whole village[439]. They could not count on hiring carpenter
and thatcher for piece-work when they wanted them in that thinly populated
spot, so they must hire them all the year round. Twenty-six hinds and
seven women they had in all, working in their domestic offices or on the
wide demesne, most of which they farmed themselves, for food was far to
buy if they did not grow it. Three shepherds kept their large flock, a
cowherd drove their kine and hogs, a horse-keeper looked to their 17
horses. All the other men and women were busy with the beasts and the
crops in the field, or with work in the brew house, the "bultyng howse,"
the bakehouse and the dairy. So also at the abbey of Polesworth, where
fifteen nuns employed in all thirty-eight persons, women servants, yeomen
about the household and hinds. "In the towne of Pollesworth," said the
commissioners, who were gentlemen of the district and not minded to lose
the house:

    ar 44 tenementes and never a plough but one, the resydue be
    artifycers, laborers and vitellers, and lyve in effect by the said
    house.... And the towne and nonnery standith in a harde soile and
    barren ground, and to our estymacions, yf the nonnery be suppressed
    the towne will shortely after falle to ruyne and dekaye, and the
    people therin, to the nombre of six or seven score persones, are nott
    unlike to wander and to seke their lyvyng as our Lorde Gode best

So also at St Mary's, Winchester, whose household we have described:

    the seid Monastery ... standith nigh the Middell of the Citye, of a
    great and large Compasse, envyroned with many poore housholdes which
    haue theyr oonly lyuynge of the seid Monastery, And have no demaynes
    whereby they may make any prouysion, butt lyue oonly by theyr landes,
    making theyr prouysion in the markettes[441].

The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and a livelihood fulfils
itself in many ways; yet many labouring folk as well as gentlemen must
have felt like the commissioners at Polesworth and St Mary's, Winchester,
when the busy monastic housewives were dispersed and the grain and cattle
sold out of barn and byre. There is no-one so conservative as your
bread-winner, and for the best of reasons.



    Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen,
    six; result, happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual
    expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six; result, misery.

    _Mr Micawber._

In the history of the medieval nunneries of England there is nothing more
striking than the constant financial straits to which they were reduced.
Professor Savine's analysis of the _Valor Ecclesiasticus_ has shown that
in 1535 the nunneries were on an average only half as rich as the men's
houses, while the average number of religious persons in them was
larger[442]; and yet it is clear from the evidence of visitation documents
that even the men's houses were continually in debt. It is therefore not
to be wondered at that there was hardly a nunnery in England, which did
not at one time or another complain of poverty. These financial
difficulties had already begun before the end of the thirteenth century
and they grew steadily worse until the moment of the Dissolution. The
worst sufferers of all were the nunneries of Yorkshire and the North, a
prey to the inroads of the Scots, who time after time pillaged their lands
and sometimes dispersed their inmates; Yorkshire was full of nunneries and
almost all of them were miserably poor. But in other parts of the country,
without any such special cause, the position was little better. When
Bishop Alnwick visited the diocese of Lincoln in the first half of the
fifteenth century, fourteen out of the twenty-five houses which he
examined were in financial difficulties. Moreover not only is this true of
small houses, inadequately endowed from their foundation and less likely
to weather bad times, but the largest and richest houses frequently
complained of insufficient means. It is easy to understand the distress of
the poor nuns of Rothwell; their founder Richard, Earl of Gloucester, had
died before properly endowing the house, and the prioress and convent
could expend for their food and clothing only four marks and the produce
of four fields of land, in one of which the house was situated[443]. But
it is less easy to account for the constant straits of the great Abbey of
Shaftesbury, which had such vast endowments that a popular saying had
arisen: "If the Abbot of Glastonbury could marry the Abbess of
Shaftesbury, their heir would hold more land than the King of
England"[444]. It is comprehensible that the small houses of Lincolnshire
and the dangerously situated houses of Yorkshire should be in
difficulties; but their complaints are not more piteous than those of
Romsey, Godstow and Barking, richly endowed nunneries, to which the
greatest ladies of the land did not disdain to retire.

The poverty of the nunneries was manifested in many ways. One of these was
the extreme prevalence of debt. On the occasion of Bishop Alnwick's
visitations, to which reference has been made above, no less than eleven
houses were found to be in debt[445]. At Ankerwyke the debts amounted to
£40, at Langley to £50, at Stixwould to 80 marks, at Harrold to 20 marks,
at Rothwell to 6 marks. Markyate was "indebted to divers creditors for a
great sum." Heynings was in debt owing to costly repairs and to several
bad harvests, and about the same time a petition from the nuns stated that
they had "mortgaged for no short time their possessions and rents and thus
remain irrecoverably pledged, have incurred various very heavy debts and
are much depressed and brought to great and manifest poverty"[446]. In
some cases the prioresses claimed to have reduced an initial debt; the
Prioress of St Michael's, Stamford, said that on her installation twelve
years previously the debts stood at £20 and that they were now only 20
marks; the Prioress of Gracedieu said that she had reduced debts from £48
to £38; the Prioress of Legbourne said that the debts were now only £14
instead of £63[447]. But from the miserable poverty of some of these
houses (for instance Gokewell, where the income in rents was said to be
£10 yearly and Langley, where it was £20, less than half the amount of the
debts) it may be inferred that the struggle to repay creditors out of an
already insufficient income was a hopeless one; and the effort to do so
out of capital was often more disastrous still. Nothing is more striking
than the lists of debts which figure in the account rolls of medieval
nunneries. In thirteen out of seventeen account rolls belonging to St
Michael's Stamford[448] and ranging between 1304 and 1410, the nuns end
the year with a deficit; and in fourteen cases there is a schedule of
debts added to the account. Sometimes the amount owed is small, but
occasionally it is very large. In the first roll which has survived
(1304-5) the deficit on the account is some £5 odd; the debts are entered
as £23. 1_s._ 11_d._ on the present year (which were apparently afterwards
paid, because the items were marked "vacat pour ceo ke le deners sount
paye") and fifteen items amounting to £52. 3_s._ 8_d._ and described as
"nos auncienes dettes estre cest aan"; in fact the debts amount to
considerably more than the income entered in the roll[449]. Similarly in
1346-47 the debts amount to £51 odd and in 1376-77 to £53 odd, and in
other years to smaller sums. In some cases a list of debts due to the
convent is also entered in the account, but in only four of these does the
money owed to the house exceed the amount owing by it; and "argent
aprompté" or "money borrowed" is a regular item in the credit account.
Similarly the treasuresses' accounts of Gracedieu end with long schedules
of debts due by the house[450]. Nor was it only the small houses which got
into debt. Tarrant Keynes was quite well off, but as early as 1292 the
nuns asked the royal leave to sell forty oaks to pay their debts[451].
Godstow was rich, but in 1316 the King had to take it under his protection
and appoint keepers to discharge its debts, "on account of its poverty and
miserable state," and in 1335 the profits during vacancy were remitted to
the convent by the King "because of its poverty and misfortunes"[452]. St
Mary's, Winchester, was a famous house, but it also was in debt early in
the fourteenth century[453]. It should be noticed that the last cases (and
that of St Michael's Stamford, 1304-5) are anterior to the Black Death, to
whose account it has been customary to lay all the financial misfortunes
of the religious houses. It is undeniable that the Black Death completed
the ruin of many of the smaller houses, and that matters grew steadily
worse during the last half of the fourteenth and throughout the fifteenth
century; but there is ample evidence that the finances of many religious
houses, both of men and of women, had been in an unsatisfactory condition
at an earlier date; and even the golden thirteenth century can show cases
of heavy debt[454].

In the smaller houses the constant struggle with poverty must have
entailed no little degree of discomfort and discouragement. Sometimes the
nuns seem actually to have lacked food and clothes, and it seems clear
that in many cases the revenues of these convents were insufficient for
their support and that they were dependent upon the charity of friends. A
typical case is that of Legbourne, where one of the nuns informed Bishop
Alnwick (1440) that since the revenues of the house did not exceed £40 and
since there were thirteen nuns and one novice, it was impossible for so
many of them to have sufficient food and clothing from such inadequate
rents, unless they received assistance from secular friends[455]. Fosse
in 1341 was said to be so slenderly endowed that the nuns had not enough
to live on without external aid[456]; and in 1440 Alnwick noted "all the
nuns complain ever of the poverty of the house and they receive nothing
from it save only food and drink"[457]. Of Buckland it was stated that
"its possessions cannot suffice for the sustenance of the said sisters
with their household, for the emendation of their building, for their
clothes and for their other necessities without the help of friends and
the offering of alms"[458]. Cokehill in 1336 was excused a tax because it
was so inadequately endowed that the nuns had not enough to live upon
without outside aid[459]. Davington in 1344 was in the same position;
although the nuns were reduced to half their former number, they could not
live upon their revenues without the charity of friends[460]. Alnwick's
visitations, indeed, show quite clearly that in poor houses the nuns were
often expected to provide either clothes or (on certain days) food for
themselves, out of the gift of their friends[461]. At Sinningthwaite, in
the diocese of York, the position appears even more clearly; in 1319 it
was declared that the nuns who had no elders, relatives or friends, lacked
the necessary clothes and were therefore afflicted with cold, whereupon
the Archbishop ordered them to have clothes provided out of the means of
the house[462]. The clause of the Council of Oxford which permitted poor
houses to receive a sum sufficient for the vesture of a new member was
evidently stretched to include the perpetual provision of clothing by
external friends, and this is sometimes indicated in the wording of
legacies. Thus Roger de Noreton, citizen and mercer of York, left the
following bequest in 1390:

    I bequeath to Isabel, my daughter, a nun of St Clement's, York, to buy
    her black flannels (_pro flannelis suis nigris emendis_), according to
    the arrangement of my wife Agnes and of my other executors, at fitting
    times, according to her needs, four marks of silver[463].

Sir Thomas Cumberworth, dying in 1451, specifically directed that "ye blak
Curteyne of lawne be cut in vailes and gyfyn to pore nones"[464].

The nuns were not always able to obtain adequate help from external
friends in the matter of food and clothes; and evidence given at episcopal
visitations shows that they sometimes went cold and hungry. Complaints are
common that the allowance paid to the nuns (in defiance of canon law) for
the provision of food and of garments had been reduced or withdrawn; and
so also are complaints that the quality of beer provided by the convent
was poor, though here the propensity of all communities to grumble at
their food has to be taken into account[465]. But more specific
information is often given; and though it is clear that financial
mismanagement was often as much to blame as poverty, the sufferings of the
nuns were not for that reason any less real. The Yorkshire nunnery of
Swine is a case in point. It was never rich, but at Archbishop Giffard's
visitation in 1268 the nuns complained that the maladministration of their
fellow canons[466] had made their position intolerable. Although the means
of the house, if discreetly managed, sufficed to maintain them, they
nevertheless had nothing but bread and cheese and ale for meals and were
even served with water instead of ale twice a week, while the canons and
their friends were provided for "abundantly and sumptuously enough"; the
nuns were moreover insufficiently provided with shoes and clothes; they
had only one pair of shoes each year[467] and barely a tunic in every
three and a cloak in every six years, unless they managed to beg more from
relatives and secular friends[468]. Fifty years later there was still
scarcity at Swine, for the Prioress was ordered to see that the house was
reasonably served with bread, ale and other necessities[469]. At Ankerwyke
(1441) the frivolous and incompetent Prioress, Clemence Medforde, reduced
her nuns to similar discomfort. Margery Kirkby, whose tongue nothing
could stop, announced that "she furnishes not nor for three years' space
has furnished fitting habits to the nuns, insomuch that the nuns go about
in patched clothes. The threadbareness of the nuns" added the bishop's
clerk "was apparent to my lord. (_Patebat domino nuditas monialium._)"
Three of the younger nuns also made complaints; Thomasine Talbot had no
bedclothes "insomuch that she lies in the straw," Agnes Dychere "asks that
sufficient provision be made to her in clothing for her bed and body, that
she may be covered from the cold, and also in eatables, that she may have
strength to undergo the burden of religious observance and divine service,
for these hitherto had not been supplied to her"; and Margaret Smith also
complained of insufficient bedclothes. Poor little sister Thomasine also
remarked sadly that she had no kirtle provided for her use[470].

The history of Romsey shows that even the rich houses suffered from
similar inconveniences. In 1284 Peckham speaks of a scarcity of food in
the house and forbids the Abbess to fare sumptuously in her chamber, while
the convent went short[471]; in 1311 it was ordered that the bread should
be brought back to the weight, quantity and quality hitherto used[472];
and in 1387 William of Wykeham rather severely commanded the Abbess and
officiaries to provide for the nuns bread, beer and other fit and proper
victuals, according to ancient custom and to the means of the house[473].
Campsey was another flourishing house, but in 1532 a chorus of complaint
greeted the ears of the visitor, and (as in so many cases) the ills were
all put down to the mismanagement of the Prioress, Ela Buttry. She was not
too luxurious, but too stingy; Katherine Symon said that noble guests,
coming to the priory, complained of the very great parsimony of the
Prioress; Margaret Harmer said that the sisters were sometimes served with
very unwholesome food; Isabel Norwich said that the friends of the nuns,
coming to the house, were not properly provided for; Margaret Bacton said
that dinner was late through the fault of the cook and that the meat was
burnt to a cinder; Katherine Grome said that the beef and mutton with
which the nuns were served were sometimes bad and unwholesome and that
within the past month a sick ox, which would otherwise have died, had been
killed for food, and that the Prioress was very sparing both in her own
meals and in those with which she provided the nuns; and four other
sisters gave evidence to the same effect[474]. One has the impression that
the nuns were elderly and fussy, but there was evidently a basis for their
unanimous complaint, and it is easy to imagine that food may sometimes
have been very bad in convents which (unlike Campsey) were burdened with
real poverty[475].

Another sign of the financial distress of the nunneries was the ruinous
condition of their buildings. The remark written by a shivering monk in a
set of nonsense verses may well stand as the plaint of half the nunneries
of England:

  Haec abbathia ruit, hoc notum sit tibi, Christe,
  Intus et extra pluit, terribilis est locus iste.

("This abbey falleth in ruins, Christ mark this well! It raineth within
and without; how fearful is this place!")[476]. Time after time
visitations revealed houses badly in need of repair and roofs letting in
rain or even tumbling about the ears of the nuns; time after time
indulgences were granted to Christians who would help the poor nuns to
rebuild church or frater or infirmary. The thatched roofs especially were
continually needing repairs. It will be remembered how the Abbess Euphemia
of Wherwell rebuilt the bell tower above the dorter,

    which fell down through decay one night, about the hour of mattins,
    when by an obvious miracle from heaven, though the nuns were in the
    dorter, some in bed and some in prayer before their beds, all escaped
    not only death but any bodily injury[477].

[Illustration: PLATE IV

Brass of Ela Buttry, the stingy Prioress of Campsey ([dagger] 1546), in St
Stephen's Church, Norwich. Stingy even in death, she has appropriated to
her own use the brass of a 14th century laywoman.]

At Crabhouse in the time of Joan Wiggenhall

    the dortour that than was, as fer forthe as we knowe, the furste that
    was set up on the place, was at so grete mischeef and, at the
    gate-downe, the Prioresse dredyinge perisschyng of her sistres whiche
    lay thereinne took it doune for drede of more hermys,

and next year "sche began the grounde of the same dortoure that now
stondith and wrought thereupon fulli vij yere betymes as God wolde sende
hir good[478]." The Prioress of Swine was ordered in 1318 to have the
dorter covered without delay, so that the nuns might quietly and in
silence enter it, without annoyance from storms, and to have the roofs of
the other buildings repaired as soon as might be[479]. At St Radegund's
Cambridge, in 1373, the Prioress was charged with suffering the frater to
remain unroofed, so that in rainy weather the sisters were unable to take
their meals there, to which she replied that the nunnery was so burdened
with debts, subsidies and contributions, that she had so far been unable
to carry out repairs, but would do so as quickly as possible[480]. At
Littlemore in 1445 the nuns did not sleep in the dorter for fear it should
fall[481]. At Romsey in 1502 the wicked Abbess Elizabeth Broke had allowed
the roofs of the chancel and dorter to become defective, "so that if it
happened to rain the nuns were unable to remain either in the quire in
time of divine service or in their beds and the funds that the abbess
ought to have expended on these matters were being squandered on Master
Bryce"; the fabric of the monastery in stone walls was also going to decay
through her neglect, and so were various tenements belonging to the house
in the town of Romsey[482]. Over a hundred and twenty years before,
William of Wykeham had found Romsey hardly less dilapidated, with its
church, infirmary and nuns' rooms "full of many enormous and notable
defects," and the buildings of the monastery itself and of its different
manors in need of repair[483]. Of the unfortunate houses within the area
of Scottish inroads, Arden, Thicket, Keldholme, Rosedale, Swine, Wykeham,
Arthington and Moxby were all ruinous at the beginning of the fourteenth
century; the monotonous list includes the church, frater and chapter house
of Arden, the cloister of Rosedale, the bakehouse and brewhouse of Moxby,
the dorter and frater of Arthington[484].

In the sixteenth century the distress was, as usual, at its worst. At the
visitation of the Chichester diocese by Bishop Sherburn in 1521 the
cloister of Easebourne needed roofing and Rusper was "in magno decasu";
six years later Rusper was still "aliqualiter ruinosa"[485]. At the
Norwich visitations of Bishop Nykke the church of Blackborough was in
ruins, and the roofs of cloister and frater at Flixton were defective;
while at Crabhouse buildings were in need of repair and the roof of the
Lady chapel was ruinous[486]; Joan Wiggenhall must have turned in her
grave. Bishop Longland's visitations of the diocese of Lincoln show a
similar state of affairs. In 1531 he commanded the Abbess of Elstow "that
suche reparacons as be necessarye in and upon the buildinges within the
said monasterye, and other houses, tenements and fearmes thereto
belonging, be suffycyently doon and made within the space of oon yere,"
and the Prioress of Nuncoton, "that ye cause your firmary, your chirche
and all other your houses that be in ruyne and dekaye within your
monastery to be suffycyently repayred within this yere if itt possible
may"; and reminded the nuns of Studley that they "muste bestowe lardge
money upon suche reparacons as are to be doon upon your churche, quere,
dortor and other places whiche ar in grete decaye"[487]. At Goring, also,
the nuns all complained that the buildings were utterly out of repair,
especially the choir, cloister and dorter[488].

The frequency of fires in the middle ages was probably often to blame for
the ruin of buildings. There were then no contrivances for extinguishing
flames, and the thatched and wooden houses must have burned like stubble.
Thus it was that "thorow the negligens of woman[489] with fyre brent up a
good malt-house with a soler and alle her malt there" at Crabhouse, and
Joan Wiggenhall had to repair it at a cost of five pounds[490]. There is a
piteous appeal to Edward I from the nuns of Cheshunt, who had been
impoverished by a fire and sought "help from the King of his special grace
and for God's sake"; but "_Nihil fiat hac vice_," replied red tape[491];
an undated petition in the Record Office says that the house, church and
goods of the nuns had twice been burned and their charters destroyed[492].
In 1299 the Abbess of Wilton received permission to fell fifty oaks in the
forest of Savernake "in order to rebuild therewith certain houses in the
abbey lately burnt by mischance"[493]. At Wykeham, in Edward III's reign,
the priory church, cloisters and twenty-four other buildings were
accidentally burned down and all the books, vestments and chalices of the
nuns were destroyed[494]. Similarly the nuns of St Radegund's, Cambridge,
lost their house and all their substance by fire at the beginning of the
fourteenth century, and in 1376 their buildings were again said to have
been burned; either they had never recovered from their first disaster or
a second fire had broken out[495]. The nuns of St Leonard's, Grimsby,
apparently lost their granaries in 1311, for they sought licence to beg on
the ground that their houses and corn had been consumed by fire, and in
1459 they asked for a similar licence, because their buildings had been
burnt, and their land inundated[496]. The convent of St Bartholomew's,
Newcastle, gave misfortune by fire as one reason for wishing to
appropriate the hospital or chapel of St Edmund the King in

Sometimes poverty, misfortune and mismanagement reduced the nuns to
begging alms. About 1253 the convent of St Mary of Chester wrote to Queen
Eleanor, begging her to confirm the election of a prioress "to our
miserable convent amidst its multiplied desolations; for so greatly are we
reduced that we are compelled every day to beg abroad our food, slight as
it is"[498]. Similarly the starving nuns of Whitehall, Ilchester, were
reduced to "begging miserably," after the _régime_ of a wicked prioress
at the beginning of the fourteenth century[499]. In 1308 the subprioress
and convent of Whiston mentioned, in asking for permission to elect Alice
de la Flagge, that the smallness of their possessions had compelled the
nuns formerly to beg, "to the scandal of womanhood and the discredit of
religion"[500]. In 1351 Bishop Edyndon of Winchester "counted it a
merciful thing," to come to the assistance of the great Abbeys of Romsey
and St Mary's Winchester, "when overwhelmed with poverty, and when in
these days of increasing illdoing and social deterioration they were
brought to the necessity of secret begging"[501]. At Cheshunt in 1367 the
nuns declared that they often had to beg in the highways[502]. At Rothwell
in 1392 the extreme poverty of the nuns compelled some of them "to incur
the opprobrium of mendicity and beg alms after the fashion of the
mendicant friars"[503]. In all these cases it is evident that objection
was taken to personal begging by the nuns, and it is clear that such a
practice, which took the nuns out into the streets and into private
houses, was likely to be subversive of discipline. The custom of begging
through a proctor was open to no such objection; and it was common for
bishops to give to the poorer houses licences, allowing them to collect
alms in this manner. Early in the fifteenth century the nuns of Rowney in
Hertfordshire petitioned the Chancellor for letters patent for a proctor
to go about the country and collect alms for them, and their request was
granted[504]. Many such licences to beg occur in episcopal registers;
Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln granted them to Little Marlow (1300 and
1311)[505], St Leonard's Grimsby (1311)[506], and Rothwell (1318)[507];
and St Michael's Stamford (1359) and Sewardsley (1366) received similar
licences from his successors[508]. The distinction between begging by the
nuns and begging by a proctor is clearly drawn in the licence granted by
Bishop Dalderby to Rothwell. Addressing the clergy in the Archidiaconates
of Northampton and Buckingham he writes:

    Pitying, with paternal affection, the want of the poor nuns of
    Rothwell in our diocese, who are oppressed by such scarcity that they
    are obliged to beg the necessities of life, we command and straitly
    enjoin you, that when there shall come to you suitable and honest
    secular proctors or messengers of the same nuns (not the nuns
    themselves, that they may have no occasion for wandering thereby), to
    seek and receive the alms of the faithful for their necessities, ye
    shall receive them kindly and expound the cause of the said nuns to
    the people in your churches, on Sundays, and feast days during the
    solemnisation of mass, and promote the same by precept and by example
    once every year for the next three years, delivering the whole of
    whatever shall be collected to these proctors and messengers[509].

The Bishops sought to relieve necessitous convents by offering particular
inducements to the faithful to give alms, when they were thus requested.
Along with mending roads and bridges, ransoming captives, dowering poor
maidens, building churches and endowing hospitals, the assistance of
impecunious nunneries was generally recognised as a work of Christian
charity, and indulgences were often offered to those who would aid a
particular house[510]. The same Bishop Dalderby, for instance, granted
indulgences for the assistance of Cheshunt, Flamstead[511], Sewardsley,
Catesby, Delapré[512], Ivinghoe[513], Fosse[514], St James' outside
Huntingdon and St Radegund's, Cambridge[515]. Archbishop Kemp of York
granted an indulgence of a hundred days valid for two years to all who
should assist towards the repair of Arden (1440) and of Esholt (1445), and
Archbishop William Booth (1456) granted an indulgence of forty days to
penitents contributing to the repair of Yedingham[516]; indeed it is
probable that the money for the much needed work of roofing a building
could be collected only by means of such special appeals. The Popes also
sometimes granted indulgences; Boniface IX did so to penitents who on the
feasts of dedication visited and gave alms towards the conservation of the
churches and priories of Wilberfoss, St Clement's, York, and Handale[517].
The history of St Radegund's, Cambridge, will serve to illustrate the
method by which the Church thus organised the work of poor-relief in the
middle ages; and it will be noticed that this nunnery was an object of
care to Bishops of other dioceses beside that of Ely[518]. In 1254 Walter
de Suffield, Bishop of Norwich, granted a relaxation of penance for
twenty-five days to persons contributing to the aid of the nuns; in 1268
Richard de Gravesend, Bishop of Lincoln, ordered collections to be made in
the churches of the Archidiaconates of Northampton and Huntingdon on their
behalf; in 1277 Roger de Skerning, Bishop of Norwich, ordered collections
to be made in his diocese for the repair of the church; in 1313 the
Official of the Archdeacon of Ely wrote to the parochial clergy of the
diocese recommending the nuns to them as objects of charity, having lost
their house and goods by fire, and in the same year Bishop Dalderby
granted an indulgence on their behalf for this reason[519]; while in 1314
John de Ketene, Bishop of Ely, confirmed the grants of indulgence made by
his brother bishops to persons contributing to their relief and to the
rebuilding of the house. The next indulgence mentioned is one of forty
days granted by Thomas Arundel, Bishop of Ely, in 1376, also on the
occasion of a fire; in 1389 Bishop Fordham of Ely granted another forty
days indulgence for the repair of the church and cloister and for the
relief of the nuns[520], and in 1390 William Courtenay, Archbishop of
Canterbury, made a similar grant, mentioning that the buildings had been
ruined by violent storms; finally in 1457 Bishop Grey of Ely granted a
forty days indulgence for the repair of the bell-tower and for the
maintenance of books, vestments and other church ornaments[521]. There is
no need to suppose that St Radegund's was in any way a particularly
favoured house; and such a list of grants shows that the Church fulfilled
conscientiously the duty of organising poor-relief and that the objects
for which indulgences were granted were not always as unworthy as has
sometimes been supposed[522].

The financial straits to which the smaller convents were continually and
the greater convents sometimes reduced grew out of a number of causes; and
it is interesting to inquire what brought the nuns to debt or to begging
and why they were so often in difficulties. A study of monastic documents
makes it clear that a great deal of this poverty was in no sense the fault
of the nuns. Apart from obvious cases of insufficient endowment, the
medieval monasteries suffered from natural disasters, which were the lot
of all men, and from certain exactions at the hands of men, which fell
exclusively upon themselves. Of natural disasters the frequency of fires
has already been mentioned. Another danger, from which houses situated in
low lying land near a river or the sea were never free, was that of
floods. The inundation of their lands was declared one of the reasons for
appropriating the church of Bradford-on-Avon to Shaftesbury in 1343; and
in 1380 the nuns were allowed to appropriate another church, in
consideration of damage done to their lands by encroachments of the sea
and losses of sheep and cattle[523]. In 1377 Barking suffered the
devastation by flood of a large part of its possessions along the Thames
and never recovered its former prosperity[524]; and in 1394 Bishop
Fordham of Ely granted an indulgence for the nuns of Ankerwyke, whose
goods had been destroyed by floods[525]. In the north the lands of St
Leonard's, Grimsby, were flooded in 1459[526]; in 1445 the nuns of Esholt
suffered heavy losses from the flooding of their lands near the river
Aire, which had been cultivated at great cost and from which they derived
their maintenance[527]; and in 1434 Archbishop Rotherham appealed for help
for the nuns of Thicket, whose fields and pasturages had been inundated
and who had suffered much loss by the death of their cattle[528]. Heavy
storms are mentioned as contributing to the distress of Shaftesbury in
1365[529] and of St Radegund's, Cambridge, in 1390[530]. Moreover some
houses suffered by their situation in barren and unproductive lands.
Easebourne in 1411 complained of "the sterility of the lands, meadows and
other property of the priory, which is situated in a solitary, waste and
thorny place"[531]; Heynings put forward the same plea in 1401[532]; and
Flamstead in 1380[533].

But far more terrible than fire and flood were those two other scourges,
with which nature afflicted the men of the middle ages, famine and
pestilence. The Black Death of 1348-9 was only one among the pestilences
of the fourteenth century; it had the result of "domesticating the bubonic
plague upon the soil of England"; for more than three centuries afterwards
it continued to break out at short intervals, first in one part of the
country and then in another[534]. The epidemics of the fourteenth century
were so violent that in forty years the chroniclers count up five great
plagues, beginning with the Black Death, and Langland, in a metaphor of
terrible vividness, describes the pestilence as "the rain that raineth
where we rest should." The Black Death was preceded by a famine pestilence
in 1317-8, when there was "a grievous mortalitie of people so that the
sicke might vnneath burie the dead." It was followed in 1361 by the Second
Plague, which was especially fatal among the upper classes and among the
young. The Third Plague in 1368-9 was probably primarily a famine
sickness, mixed with plague. The Fourth plague broke out in 1375; and the
Fifth, in 1390-1 was so prolonged and so severe as to be considered
comparable with the Black Death itself. Moreover these are only the great
landmarks, and scattered between them were smaller outbreaks of sickness,
due to scarcity or to spoiled grain and fruit. The pestilences continued
in the fifteenth century (more than twenty-one are recorded in the
chronicles), but, except perhaps for the great plague of 1439, they were
seldom universal and came by degrees to be confined to the towns, so that
all who could used to flee to the country when the summer heat brought out
the disease in crowded and insanitary streets. But if country convents
escaped the worst disease, those situated in borough towns ran a heavy

Often enough these plagues were preceded and accompanied by famines,
sometimes local and sometimes general. The English famines had long been
notorious and were enshrined in a popular proverb: "Tres plagae tribus
regionibus appropriari solent, Anglorum fames, Gallorum ignis, Normannorum
lepra"[535]. The three greatest outbreaks took place in 1194-6, in 1257-9
and in 1315-6 (before the plague of 1318-9). The dearth which culminated
in the last of these famines had begun as early as 1289; and the misery in
1315 was acute:

    "The beastes and cattell also," says Stow, translating from Trokelowe,
    "by the corrupt grane whereof they fed, dyed, whereby it came to passe
    that the eating of flesh was suspected of all men, for flesh of beasts
    not corrupted was hard to finde. Horse-flesh was counted great
    delicates the poore stole fatte dogges to eate; some (as it was sayde)
    compelled through famine, in hidden places did eate the flesh of their
    owne children, and some stole others, which they devoured. Theeves
    that were in prisons did plucke in peeces those that were newly
    brought among them and greedily devoured them halfe alive."

There was another severe famine in 1322, and in 1325 a great drought, so
that the cattle died for lack of water. Famine accompanied the pestilences
of 1361, 1369, 1391 and 1439; and these are only the more outstanding
instances. Here again, however, the fourteenth century was on the whole
worse off than the fifteenth; almost every year was a year of scarcity and
the average price of wheat during the period 1261 to 1400 was nearly six
shillings (i.e. nearly six pounds of modern money)[536]. Moreover the
ravages of murrain among cattle and sheep were hardly intermittent from
the end of the thirteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century[537]. The
fatal years 1315-9 included not only a famine and a plague but also
(1318-9) a murrain among the cattle, which was so bad that dogs and
ravens, eating the dead bodies, were poisoned and died, and no man dared
eat any beef. In the year of the Black Death also there was "a great
plague of sheep in the realm, so that in one place there died in pasturage
more than five thousand sheep and so rotted that neither beast nor bird
would touch them"; and murrains accompanied the four other great plagues
of the century. Indeed dearth, murrain and pestilence went hand in hand,
in that unhappy time we call the "good old days."

These natural disasters could not but have an adverse effect upon the
fortunes of the monastic houses; and many charters and petitions contain
clauses which specifically attribute the distress of this or that nunnery
to one of the three causes described above. During the famine years of
1314-5 Walter Reynolds, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the Bishop of
Winchester, urging him to take some steps for the relief of the nuns of
Wintney, who were dispersing themselves in the world, because no proper
provision was made for their food[538], and about the same time the
convent of Clerkenwell addressed a petition to Queen Isabel, stating that
they were "moet enpouerees par les durs annez" and begging her to procure
for them the King's leave to accept certain lands and rents to the value
of twenty pounds[539]. In 1326 (after the great drought) the nuns of
King's Mead, Derby, begged the King to take them under his special
protection, granting the custody of the house to two _custodes_, on the
ground that, owing to the badness of past years and the unusually heavy
mortality among cattle their revenues were reduced and they were unable to
meet the claims made by guests upon their hospitality[540]. The ravages of
the Black Death were most severe of all and many houses never recovered
from it[541]. In the diocese of Lincoln the nunnery of Wothorpe lost all
its members save one, whom the Bishop made Prioress; and in 1354 it was
annexed to St Michael's Stamford[542]. Greenfield Priory, when he visited
it in 1350, "per tres menses stetit et stat priorisse solacio
destituta"[543]; and other houses in this large diocese which lost their
heads were Fosse, Markyate, Hinchinbrooke, Gracedieu, Rothwell, Delapré,
Catesby, Sewardsley, Littlemore and Godstow[544]. In the diocese of York
the prioresses of Arthington, Kirklees, Wallingwells and St Stephen's
Foukeholm died; the latter house, like Wothorpe, failed to recover and is
never heard of again[545]. Other parts of the country suffered in the same
way. At Malling Abbey in Kent the Bishop made two abbesses in succession,
but both died and only four professed nuns and four novices remained, to
one of whom the Bishop committed the custody of the temporalities and to
another that of the spiritualities, because there was no fit person to be
made Abbess[546]. At Henwood, in August 1349, there was no Prioress, "and
of the fifteen nuns who were lately there, three only remain"[547].

The death of the nuns themselves was, moreover, the least disastrous
effect of the pestilence; it left a legacy of neglected lands, poverty and
labour troubles which lasted for long after a new generation of sisters
had forgotten the fate of their predecessors. The value of Flixton
dwindled after the Black Death to half its former income, and the house
was never prosperous again[548]. In 1351 the nuns of Romsey petitioned for
leave to annex certain lands and advowsons and gave as one of the reasons
for their impoverishment "the diminution or loss of due and appointed
rents, because of the death of tenants, carried off by the unheard of and
unwonted pestilence"[549], and in 1352 the house of St Mary's Winchester
made special mention, in petitioning for the appropriation of a church, of
the reduction of its rents and of the cattle plague[550]. The other great
plagues of the century aggravated the distress. St Mary's Winchester and
Shaftesbury mentioned the pestilence (of 1361) in petitions to the King
three years later[551]. Four of the sixteen nuns of Carrow died in the
year of the third pestilence (1369)[552], and in 1378, three years after
the fourth pestilence, the licence allowing Sewardsley to appropriate the
church of Easton Neston, recites that the value of its lands had been so
diminished by the pestilence that they no longer sufficed to maintain the
statutory numbers[553]. In 1381 (mentioned as a plague and famine year in
some of the chronicles) a bull of Urban IV, appropriating a church to
Flamstead, after recapitulating the slender endowments of the house,
repeats the complaint that

    the servants of the said priory are for the most part dead, and its
    houses and tenants and beasts are so destroyed that its lands and
    possessions remain as it were sterile, waste and uncultivated,
    wherefore, unless the said Prioress and Convent be by some remedy
    succoured, they will be obliged to beg for the necessities of life
    from door to door[554].

In 1395, four years after the "Fifth" pestilence and itself a year of bad
plague and famine, the nuns of Legbourne complained that their lands and
tenements were uncultivated, "on account of the dearth of cultivators and
rarity of men, arising out of unwonted pestilences and epidemics"[555].
The outbreak of 1405-7 was followed by a petition from Easebourne for
licence to appropriate two churches, on the ground of "epidemics, death of
men and of servants," and because

    the lands and tenements of the Prioress and Convent notoriously suffer
    so great ruin that few tenants can be found willing to occupy the
    lands in these days, and the said lands, ever falling into a worse
    state, are so poor that they cannot supply the religious women with
    sufficient support for themselves or for the repair of their ruinous

The worst of these natural disasters was not the actual damage done by
each outbreak, but the fact that famine, murrain and pestilence followed
upon pestilence, murrain and famine with such rapidity, that the poorer
houses had no chance of recovery from the initial blow dealt them by the
Black Death. The nuns of Thetford, for instance, were excused from the
taxation of religious houses under Henry VI, on the ground that their
revenues in Norfolk and in Suffolk were much decreased by the recent
mortality and had so continued since 1349[557]. Even the well-endowed
houses found recovery difficult, and the history of the great abbey of
Shaftesbury illustrates the situation very clearly. In 1365, shortly after
the _pestis secunda_, the nuns received a grant of the custody of their
temporalities on the next voidance, and losses by pestilence were
mentioned as one reason for the decline in their fortunes. In 1380 their
lands were flooded and they suffered heavy losses in sheep and cattle. In
1382 (the year of the fifth plague) they were obliged to petition once
again for help, representing that although their house was well-endowed,

    toutes voies voz dites oratrices sont einsi arreriz a jour de huy,
    quoy par les pestilences en queles lours tenantz sont trez toutz a poy
    mortz, et par murryne de lour bestaille a grant nombre et value,
    _nemye tant seulement a une place et a une foitz, einz a diverses
    foitz en toutes leurs places_, quoy par autres grandes charges quelles
    lour convient a fine force de jour en autre porter et sustenir, q'eles
    ne purront, sinoun qe a moelt grant peine, sanz lour endangerer al
    diverses bones gentz lours Creditours, mesner l'an a bon fyn[558].

Again towards the middle of the fifteenth century Bishop Ayscough
sanctioned the appropriation of a church to the abbey, which had pleaded
its great impoverishment through pestilence, failure of crops, want of
labourers, and through the excessive demands of such labourers as could
be obtained[559]. If Shaftesbury found recovery so difficult, it may
easily be imagined what was the effect of the natural disasters of the
fourteenth century upon smaller and less wealthy houses.

The revenues of the nunneries, often scant to begin with and liable to
constant diminution from the ravages of nature, were still more heavily
burdened by a variety of exactions on the part of the authorities of
Church and State. The procurations payable to the Bishop on his visitation
fell heavily upon the smaller houses; hence such a notice as that which
occurs in Bishop Nykke's Register under the year 1520: "Item the reverend
father with his colleagues came down to the house of nuns that afternoon,
and having seen the priory he dissolved his visitation there, on account
of the poverty of the house"[560]. St Mary Magdalen's, Bristol, was on
account of its poverty exempt from the payment of such procurations[561]
and the Bishops doubtless often exercised their charity upon such
occasions[562]. Papal exactions were even more oppressive; John of
Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester, pleaded with the papal nuncio in 1285 that
he would forbear to exact procurations from the poor nuns of Wintney, whom
the Bishop himself excused from all charges in view of their deep
poverty[563]; and in 1300 Bishop Swinfield of Hereford made a similar
appeal to the commissary of the nuncio, and secured the remission of
procurations due from the nuns of Lingbrook and the relaxation of the
sentence of excommunication, which they had incurred through
non-payment[564]. The obligation to pay tithes also fell heavily upon the
poorer houses; it was for this reason that Archbishop John le Romeyn
appealed to the Prior of Newburgh in 1286 not to exact tithes from the
food of animals in Nether Sutton, belonging to the poor nuns of
Arden[565]; and in 1301 the Prior of Worcester desired his commissary to
spare the poverty of the nuns of Westwood and not to exact tithes or any
other things due to him from them or from their churches[566]. Added to
ecclesiastical exactions were the taxes due to the Crown. In 1344 the nuns
of Davington addressed a petition to Edward III, representing that, owing
to their great poverty, they were unable to satisfy the King's public aids
without depriving themselves of their necessary subsistence, a plea which
was found to be true[567]. The frequency with which such petitions for
exemption from the payment of taxes were made and granted, is in itself a
proof that the burden of taxation was a real one, for the Crown would not
have excused its dues, unless the need for such an act of charity had been
great[568]; and it is obvious that the sheer impossibility of collecting
the money from a poverty-stricken house must often have left little
alternative. The houses that did contribute were not slow to complain.
"The unwonted exactions and tallages with which their house and the whole
of the English Church has been burdened" were pleaded by the nuns of
Heynings as in part responsible for their poverty in 1401[569]; similarly
"the necessary and very costly exactions of tenths and other taxes and
unsupportable burdens" occurs in a complaint by Romsey in 1351; and the
Abbess and Convent of St Mary's, Winchester, stated in 1468, that they
were so burdened with the repair of their buildings and with the payment
of imposts, that they could not fulfil the obligations of their order as
to hospitality[570].

Nor was taxation for public purposes the only demand made upon the
religious houses. Abbeys holding of the King in chief had to perform many
services appertaining to tenants in chief, which seem oddly incongruous in
the case of nunneries. The Abbesses of Shaftesbury, St Mary's Winchester,
Wilton and Barking, were baronesses in their own right; the privilege of
being summoned to parliament was omitted on account of their sex; but the
duty of sending a quota of knights and soldiers to serve the King in his
wars was regularly exacted[571]. In 1257 Agnes Ferrar, Abbess of
Shaftesbury, was summoned to Chester to attend the expedition against
Llewelyn ap Griffith, and her successor, Juliana Bauceyn, was also
summoned in 1277 to attack that intrepid prince[572]. The Abbess of Romsey
had to find a certain number of men-at-arms with their armour for the
custody of the maritime land in the county of Southampton; she resisted
when an attempt was made to exact an archer as well and successfully
showed the King "that she has only two marks' rent in Pudele Bardolveston
in that county"[573]. Less lawful exactions were even more burdensome, and
the nunneries suffered with the rest of the nation under the demand for
loans and the burden of purveyance[574]. In December 1307 the Abbess of
Barking, in common with the heads of ten other religious houses, was
requested to lend the King

    two carts and horses to be at Westminster early on the day of St
    Stephen to carry vessels and equipments of the King's household to
    Dover, the King having sent a great part of his carts and sumpter
    horses to sea, so that he may find them ready when he arrives[575];

it is true that he engaged to pay out of his wardrobe the costs of the men
leading the carts and of the horses going and returning, but meanwhile the
Abbey lost their services, and carts and horses were very necessary on a
manor; moreover it was common complaint that the tallies given by the
King's servants for what they took were sometimes of no more value than
the wood whereof they were made:

  I had catell, now have I none;
  They take my beasts and done them slon,
    And payen but a stick of tree.

Similarly in June 1310 the King sent out a number of letters to the heads
of religious houses, requesting the "loan" of various amounts of victuals
for his Scottish expedition, and among the houses upon whom this call was
made were the nunneries of Catesby, Elstow, St Mary's Winchester, Romsey,
Wherwell, Barking, Nuneaton, Shaftesbury and Wilton[576].

The nunneries also suffered considerable pecuniary loss by the right
possessed in certain cases by the patron of a house, to take the profits
of its temporalities during voidance through the death or resignation of
its superior, sometimes enjoying them himself and sometimes granting the
custody of the house to someone else[577]. It is obvious that serious loss
might be entailed upon the community, if the patron refrained for some
time from granting his _congé d'élire_. It was for this reason that the
Convent of Whiston wrote in 1308 to the Bishop-elect of Worcester, their
patron, praying that "considering the smallness of the possessions of the
nuns of Whiston, in his patronage, which compelled the nuns formerly to
beg, and for the honour of religion and the frailness of the female sex"
he would grant them licence to elect a new prioress and would confirm the
same election; and the Prior of Worcester also addressed a letter to the
commissary-general on their behalf[578]. The King exercised with great
regularity his rights of patronage, and the direct pecuniary loss,
sustained by a house in being deprived of the profits of its
temporalities, seems to have been the least of the evils which resulted,
if the state of affairs described in the petition addressed to the crown
by the Abbess and Convent of Shaftesbury in 1382 was at all common. After
a moving description of the straits to which they were reduced[579], they
begged that the King would, on future occasions of voidance, allow the
community to retain the administration of the Abbey and of its
temporalities, rendering the value thereof to the King while the voidance
lasted, so that no escheator, sheriff or other officer should have power
to meddle with them:

    understanding, most redoubtable lord, that by means of your grace in
    this matter great relief and amendment, please God, shall come to your
    same house, and no damage can ensue to you or to your heirs, nor to
    any other, save only to your officers, who in such times of voidance
    are wont to make great destructions and wastes and to take therefrom
    great and divers profits to their own use, whence nothing cometh to
    your use, as long as the said voidance endures, if only for a short

St Mary's, Winchester, also pleaded the royal administration of its
temporalities as one reason for its impoverishment, when petitioning the
Pope for leave to appropriate the church of Froyle in 1343 and 1346[581].

Sometimes the abbeys found it cheaper to compound with the King for a
certain sum of money and thus to purchase the right of administering their
own temporalities, saving to the King, as a rule, knights' fees,
advowsons, escheats and sometimes wards and marriages. Romsey Abbey
secured this privilege, after the escheator had already entered, in 1315,
for a fine of forty marks; but in 1333, when there was another voidance,
the convent had to agree to pay £40 for the first two months and _pro
rata_ for such time as the voidance continued, saving to the King knights'
fees, advowsons and escheats[582]. In 1340 the royal escheator was ordered
to let the Prioress and Convent of Wherwell have the custody of their
temporalities, in accordance with a grant made some years previously, by
which the house was to render £230 for a year and _pro rata_[583]. In 1344
a similar order was made in the case of Wilton, whose late Abbess (prudent
woman) had seized the opportunity to purchase the right for £60 from the
King, when he lay at Orwell before crossing the sea[584]. Similarly, the
next year, Shaftesbury received the custody of its temporalities in
consideration of a fine of £100, made with the King by its Abbess, in the
second year of his reign[585]. With four great abbeys falling vacant in
little over ten years, the royal exchequer reaped a good harvest; and
though the payment of a lump sum was better than falling into the hands of
the escheator, and though the nuns would make haste to elect a new abbess
as soon as possible, a voidance was always a costly matter.

But perhaps the most serious tax upon the resources of the nunneries was
the right, possessed by some dignitaries (notably the King and the Bishop
of the diocese), to nominate to houses in their patronage persons whom the
nuns were obliged to receive as members of their community or to support
as corrodians, pensioners or boarders. The right of nominating a nun might
be exercised upon a variety of occasions. The Archbishop might do so to
certain houses in his province on the occasion of his consecration, and
this right was energetically enforced by Peckham, who nominated girls to
Wherwell, Castle Hedingham, Burnham, Stratford, Easebourne and
Catesby[586]. A Bishop possessed, in some cases, a similar right on the
occasion of his consecration. Rigaud d'Assier, Bishop of Winchester, sent
nuns to Romsey, St Mary's Winchester and Wherwell[587]; Ralph of
Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, nominated to Minchin Barrow and to
Cannington[588]; Stephen Gravesend, Bishop of London, sent a girl to
Barking[589]; and the successive bishops of Salisbury exercised the
prerogative of placing an inmate in Shaftesbury Abbey and of appointing
one of the nuns to act as her instructor[590]. The existence of this right
seems to have varied with different dioceses and its exaction with
different bishops, if it is possible to judge from the absence of
commendatory letters in some registers and their presence in others. The
Bishop of a diocese also sometimes had the right of presenting a nun to a
house when a new superior was created there. This was the case at Romsey,
where nuns were thus nominated in 1307, 1333 and 1397[591], and at Romsey
also there occurs one instance (the only one of the kind which search has
yet yielded) of the nomination of a nun by the bishop, because of "a
profession of ladies of that house which he had lately made." Bishop
Stratford thus appointed Jonette de Stretford (perhaps a poor relative)
"en regard de charite" in 1333, a month after having appointed Alice de
Hampton by reason of the Abbess' creation[592].

The King possessed in houses under his patronage rights of nomination
corresponding to those of the Bishop. That of presenting a nun on the
occasion of his coronation was frequently exercised. Edward II sent ladies
to Barking, Wherwell and St Mary's Winchester[593]; Barking received nuns
from Richard II, Henry IV and Henry VI[594] and Shaftesbury from Richard
II, Henry V and Henry VI[595]. He also possessed the right in certain
abbeys of presenting a nun on the occasion of a voidance and there are
many such letters of presentation enrolled upon the Close rolls; for
instance Joan de la Roche was sent to Wilton in 1322[596], Katherine de
Arderne to Romsey in 1333[597] and Agnes Turberville to Shaftesbury in

Sometimes similar rights to these were exercised by private persons, who
held the patronage of a house or with whom it was connected by special
ties; the family of le Rous of Imber, for example, had the right
(resigned in 1313) of presenting two nuns, with a valet, to Romsey
Abbey[599]. But the royal rights were always the most burdensome and,
though such privileges as those described above, and the even more
burdensome right to demand corrodies and pensions, normally affected only
great abbeys such as Barking, Romsey, St Mary's Winchester, and
Shaftesbury, the smaller houses (not under royal patronage) were not
always exempt from sudden demands--witness the case of Polsloe below--and
a wide range of nunneries was affected by archiepiscopal and episcopal
rights. Moreover even the great houses, in spite of their large
endowments, were crippled by the system, as may be gathered from their
constant complaints of poverty and of overcrowding. The obligation to
receive fresh inmates by nomination was especially burdensome when it was
incurred on more than one occasion by the same house and coincided with
other exactions. The case of Shaftesbury is noticeable in this connection;
the King claimed the right to administer its temporalities during
voidance, to nominate a nun on his own coronation and on the election of
an Abbess, to demand a pension for one of the royal clerks on the latter
occasion, and to send boarders or corrodians for maintenance; and the
Bishop of Salisbury could nominate a nun on his own promotion to the see
and could demand a benefice for one of his clerks on the election of an
Abbess. It is, of course, possible that all these prerogatives were not
invariably exercised and that a new inmate was not sent to Shaftesbury
every time a King was crowned, a Bishop consecrated or an Abbess elected;
but it was exercised sufficiently often to be a strain upon the house.

Even when the right of nomination was confined to one occasion, it seems
to have been generally resented and frequently resisted. The reason for
resistance lay in the fact that the house was forced to support another
inmate without the hope of receiving the donation of land or rents, which
medieval fathers gave to the convents in which their daughters took the
veil; and as the dowry system became more and more common, the hardship
of having to receive a nun for nothing would soon appear intolerable. In
some cases a sturdy resistance against this "dumping" of nuns finds an
echo in the bishops' Registers. Four houses out of the six to which
Peckham nominated new inmates attempted a refusal, and the excuses which
they offered are interesting. Two years after his consecration the nuns of
Burnham were still refusing to receive his protégée, Matilda de Weston;
they had begun by trying to question his right to nominate and he seems to
have taken legal action against them, after which they pleaded poverty
(resulting from an unsuccessful lawsuit) and also an obligation to receive
no novice without the consent of Edmund Earl of Cornwall, son of their
founder. The Archbishop directed a stern letter to them, rejecting both
their excuses and announcing his intention of pursuing his right, but the
end of the matter is not known[600]. An equally determined resistance was
offered by the Prioress of Stratford, who had been ordered to receive
Isabel Bret. In 1282 Peckham wrote to her for the third time, declaring
that her excuses were frivolous; she had apparently objected that the girl
was too young and that her house was too heavily burdened with nuns, lay
sisters and debts for another inmate to be received, but the Archbishop
declared the youth of the candidate to be rather a merit than a defect and
pointed out that, so far from being a burden to their house, she would
bring it honour, for by receiving her they would multiply distinguished
friends and benefactors and would be able to rely on his own special
protection in their affairs[601]. A further letter to the Bishop of London
is interesting, because it mentions a third objection made by the
recalcitrant nunnery.

    "We have received your letter," writes Peckham, "in favour of the
    Prioress and Convent of Stratford, urgently begging us to moderate our
    purpose concerning a certain burden which is alleged to be threatening
    them from us, on account of the insupportable weight and the poverty
    of the house and the deformity of the person, whom we have presented
    to them for admission. Concerning which we would have you know that
    already in the lifetime of your predecessor of good memory, we had
    ordered them to receive that same person and for two years we
    continued to believe that they would yield to our wishes in the
    matter, yet without burden to themselves, by the provision of the
    parents of the said little maid; especially seeing that never yet have
    we been burdensome to any monastery making a truthful plea of
    indigence. We believe that what they allege about deformity would be
    an argument in favour of our proposal; would that not only these women
    of Stratford, concerning whom so many scandals abound, but also all
    who so immodestly expose themselves to human conversation and company,
    were or at least appeared notable for such deformity that they should
    tempt no one to crime! We have moreover heard that the greater part of
    the convent would willingly consent to the reception of the girl, were
    they not hindered by the malice of the prioress; nevertheless, lest we
    should seem deaf to your entreaties, we suspend the whole business
    until we come to London, to ascertain how our purpose may be carried
    out without notable damage to them[602]."

The Archbishop had his way however; for eleven years later the will of
Robert le Bret was enrolled in the Court of Husting and contained a legacy
of rents on Cornhill "to Isabella his daughter, a nun of Stratford"[603].
Peckham also wrote in a tone of strained patience to the nuns of Castle
Hedingham, who had refused to receive Agnes de Beauchamp, warning them
that besides incurring severe punishment at his own hands, further
obstinacy would offend the Queen of England, at whose instance he had
undertaken the promotion of the said Agnes[604]. The Prioress of Catesby
was equally troublesome and as late as 1284 the Archbishop wrote
reprimanding her for her inconstancy and feigned excuses, because, after
promising to receive the daughter of Sir Robert de Caynes and after
repeated requests on his part that they should admit the girl, she and her
nuns had written asking to be allowed to admit another person in her

Real poverty often nerved the nuns to such bold resistance. In the
Register of Bishop Grandisson of Exeter there is a letter from Polsloe
Priory, written in 1329 and addressed to Queen Philippa, on the subject of
a certain Johanete de Tourbevyle[606], whom she had requested the nuns to
receive as a lay sister. Written in the French of their daily speech, with
no attempt at formal phraseology, their naive plea still rings with the
agitation of the "poor and humble maids," torn between anxiety not to
burden their impecunious house, and fear of offending the new-made Queen
of England:

    To their very honourable and very powerful and redoubtable lady, my
    lady Dame Philippa, by the grace of God queen of England, etc., her
    poor and humble maids, the nuns of Polsloe, in all that they may of
    reverence and honour; beseeching your sweet pity to have mercy on our
    great poverty. Our very noble dame, we have received your letters, by
    the which we understand that it is your will that we receive Johanete
    de Tourbevyle among us as sister of the house, to take the dress of a
    nun in secular habit. Concerning the which matter, most debonair lady,
    take pity upon us, if it please you, for the love of God and of His
    mother. For certainly never did any queen demand such a thing before
    from our little house; though mayhap they be accustomed to do so from
    other houses, founded by the kings and holding of them in chief; but
    this do not we, wherefore it falls heavily upon us. And if it please
    your debonair highness to know our simple estate, we are so poor (God
    knows it and all the country) that what we have suffices not to our
    small sustenance, who must by day and night do the service of God,
    were it not for the aid of friends; nor can we be charged with
    seculars without reducing the number of us religious women, to the
    diminution of God's service and the perpetual prejudice of our poor
    house. And we have firm hope in God and in your great bounty that you
    will not take it ill that this thing be not done to the peril of our
    souls; for to entertain and to begin such a new charge in such a small
    place, a charge which would endure and would be demanded for ever
    afterwards, would be too great a danger to your soul, my Lady, in the
    sight of God, wherefrom God by His grace defend you! Our most blessed
    Lady, may God give you a long and happy life, to His pleasure and to
    the aid and solace of ourselves and of other poor servants of God on
    earth; and we should have great joy to do your behests, if God had
    given us the power[607].

The nuns evidently asked the support of the Bishop (which accounts for the
presence of their letter in his Register) for about the same time
Grandisson also wrote an informal letter in French to the King, begging
him to give up his design to place his cousin Johanete de Tourbevyle at
Polsloe, on the ground that the nuns held all that they possessed in frank
almoign and were so poor that it would be unpardonable to entail upon
them a charge, which would become a precedent for ever:

    "Wherefore, dear Sire," he continued, "If it please you, hold us
    excused of this thing and put this thought from you. And for love of
    you, to whom we are much beholden aforetime, and to show you that we
    make no feigned pretence, ordain, if it please you, elsewhere for her
    estate, and we will very willingly give somewhat reasonable out of our
    own goods towards it; for this we may safely do[608]."

It is not impossible that the disinclination of the nunneries to receive
royal and episcopal nominees was in part due to dislike of taking an
entirely unknown person into the close life of the community, in which so
much depended upon the character and disposition of the individual. The
right seems nearly always to have been exercised in favour of well-born
girls, but though the bishops endeavoured to send only suitable novices,
their knowledge of the character of their protégées would sometimes appear
to have rested upon hearsay rather than upon personal acquaintance--"_ut
credimus_," "_come nous sumez enformez_." On at least one occasion the
nuns who resisted a bishop's nominee were to our knowledge justified by
later events. In 1329 Ralph of Shrewsbury, the new Bishop of Bath and
Wells, wrote to the Prioress and Convent of Cannington, desiring them to
receive Alice, daughter of John de Northlode, to whom he had granted the
right, "par resoun de nostre premiere creacion," on the request of Sir
John Mautravers; four years later he was obliged to repeat the order,
because the convent "had not yet been willing to receive the said Alice."
The end of the story is to be found in the visitation report of 1351[609].
It is impossible to say whether the convent corrupted Alice or Alice the
convent; but it is unfortunate that the Bishop's nominee should have been

The obligation to receive a nun on the nomination of the king or the
bishop was not the only burden upon the finances of the nunneries. Abbeys
in the patronage of the Crown were upon occasion obliged also to find
maintenance for other persons, men as well as women, who never became
members of their community. The right to demand a pension for one of the
royal clerks was sometimes exercised on the occasion of a voidance, and
the money had in most cases to be paid until such time as the young man
was provided with a suitable benefice by the Abbey. The Abbess of Romsey
was ordered to give a pension to William de Dereham in 1315 by reason of
her new election[610]; John de St Paul was sent to the same house in
1333[611], William de Tydeswell in 1349[612]. The right is also found in
exercise at Wherwell[613], St Mary's, Winchester[614], Shaftesbury[615],
Wilton[616], Delapré (Northampton)[617], Barking[618] and Elstow[619]. In
certain cases the Bishop possessed a similar right on the occasion of his
own consecration; for instance John of Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester,
wrote to the Abbess of St Mary's, Winchester, in 1283, complaining

    that whereas his predecessors had by a laudable custom presented their
    own clerks to the first benefice in the patronage of a religious house
    vacant after their establishment in the bishopric, they (the nuns) had
    recently presented a nominee of their own to a benefice then vacant.

Two years later the Abbess and Convent of Wherwell wrote to him,
voluntarily offering him the next vacant benefice in their patronage for
one of his clerks; and in 1293 he reminded the nuns of Romsey that they
were bound by agreement to do likewise[620]. Similarly Simon of Ghent,
Bishop of Salisbury, directed the Abbess of Shaftesbury to provide for
Humphrey Wace in 1297[621]. The demand to pension a clerk, like the demand
to receive a nun, was sometimes resisted by the convents. In the early
part of his reign Edward II ordered the Sheriff of Bedford

    to distrain the Abbess of Elstow by all her lands and chattels in his
    bailiwick and to answer to the King for the issues and to have her
    body before the King at the octaves of Hilary next, to answer why,
    whereas she and her convent, by reason of the new creation of an
    Abbess, were bound to give a pension to a clerk, to be named by the
    King and he had transferred the option to his sister Elizabeth
    Countess of Hereford and had asked the Abbess to give it to her
    nominee they had neglected to do so[622].

The end of the story is contained in a petition printed in the _Rolls of
Parliament_, wherein the Abbess and Convent of "Dunestowe" (Elstow)
informed the King in 1320

    que, come il les demaunde par son Brief devant Sire H. le Scrop et ses
    compaignons une enpensione pur un de ses clerks par reson de la novele
    Creacion la dite Abbesse et tiel enpensione unqs devant ces temps ne
    fust demaunde ne donee de la dite meson, fors tant soulement que la
    dereyn predecessere dona a la requeste nostre Seigneur le Roy a la
    Dameysele la Countesse de Hereford, un enpension de c s. Par qi eles
    prient que nostre Seigneur le Roy voet, si lui plest, comander de
    soursere de execucion faire de la dite demaunde, que la dite Abbay est
    foundee de Judit, jadis Countess de Huntingdon, et la dite enpension
    unques autrement done[623].

The reference to the Countess of Hereford's "dameysele" shows that the
pension was not invariably given to a clerk, and it appears that the King
tried to substitute corrodies, pensions and reception as a nun for each
other according to the exigencies of the moment. In 1318 he sent Simon de
Tyrelton to the Abbess and Convent of Barking,

    they being bound to grant a pension to one of the King's clerks, by
    reason of the new creation of an abbess, and the King having requested
    them to grant in lieu of such pension the allowance of one of their
    nuns to Ellen, daughter of Alice de Leygrave, to be received by her
    for life, to which they replied that they could not do so, for certain

In 1313, in pursuance of his right to nominate a nun on the new creation
of an abbess, he had sent Juliana de Leygrave "niece of the King's
foster-mother, who suckled him in his youth," to St Mary's, Winchester, in
order that she might be given a nun's corrody for life (the value of which
was to be given her wherever she might be) and a suitable chamber within
the nunnery for her residence, whenever she might wish to stay

The obligation to provide corrodies for royal nominees pressed more
heavily than the duty of pensioning royal clerks. A corrody was originally
a livery of food and drink given to monks and nuns, but the term was
extended to denote a daily livery of food given to some person not of the
community and frequently accompanied by suitable clothing and a room in
which to live. Hence corrodians were often completely kept in board and
lodging, having the right to everything that a nun of the house would have
(a "nun's corrody") and sometimes allowed to keep a private servant, who
had the right to the same provision as the regular domestics of the house
(a "servant's corrody"). The King, indeed, looked upon the monastic houses
of his realm as a sort of vast Chelsea Hospital, in which his broken-down
servants, yeomen and officials and men-at-arms, might end their days. Thus
he obtained their grateful prayers without putting his hand into his
purse. There must have been hundreds of such old pensioners scattered up
and down the country, and judging from the number of cases in which one
man is sent to receive the maintenance lately given to another, deceased,
some houses had at least one of them permanently on the premises. Many a
hoary veteran found his way into the quiet precincts of a nunnery:

  His helmet now shall make a hive for bees;
    And, lovers' sonnets turn'd to holy psalms,
  A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees,
    And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms.

In the intervals between feeding on prayers he must have been vastly
disturbing and enthralling to the minds of round-eyed novices, with his
tales of court and camp, of life in London town or long campaigns in
France, or of how John Copeland had the King of Scots prisoner and what
profit he got thereby.

In the last three months of 1316 Edward II sent seventeen old servants to
various religious houses, and among them Henry de Oldyngton of the avenary
was sent to Barking, to receive such maintenance as William de Chygwell,
deceased, had in that house[626]. In 1328 Roger atte Bedde, the King's
yeoman, who served the King and his father, was sent to St Mary's,
Winchester, instead of James le Porter, deceased[627]; and in 1329 the
Abbess and Convent of Shaftesbury were requested to admit to their house
Richard Knight, spigurnel of the King's chancery, who had long served the
King and his father in that office, and to administer to him for his life
such maintenance in all things as Robert le Poleter, deceased, had in
their house[628]. The unlucky convent of Wilton apparently had to support
two pensioners, for in 1328 Roger Liseway was sent there in place of Roger
Danne and the next year John de Odiham, yeoman of the chamber of Queen
Philippa, took the place of John de Asshe[629].

It was doubtless even more common for the widows of the King's dependents
to be sent to nunneries, and he must often have received such a petition
as was addressed by Agnes de Vylers to Edward III:

    A nostre Seigneur le Roi et a son Conseil, prie vostre poure veve
    Agneys, qi fut la femme Fraunceys de Vylers, jaditz Bachiler vostre
    piere, qe vous pleise de vostre grace avoir regard du graunt service
    qe le dit Fraunceys ad fait a vostre dit piere et ed vostre ayel, en
    la Terre Seinte, Gascoigne, Gales, Escoce, Flaundres et en Engleterre,
    et graunter au dit Agneys une garisoun en l'Abbeye de Berkyng, c'est
    assaver une mesoun & la droite de une Noneyme pour la sustinaunce de
    lui et de sa file a terme de lour vie, en allegaunce de l'alme vostre
    dit piere, qi promist al dit Fraunceys eide pour lui, sa femme et ses

"Il semble a conseil q'il est almoigne de lui mander ou aillours, s'il
plest a Roi," was the reply; so Agnes and her daughter might end their
days in peace, and Barking be the poorer for their appetites[630]. At
Barking the King had the right to claim a corrody at each new election of
an abbess, as Agnes de Vylers doubtless knew; as early as 1253 its Abbess
was exempted from being charged with _conversi_ and others, because she
had granted food and vesture for life to Philippa de Rading and her
daughter[631]. Other nunneries in the royal patronage were under a similar
obligation. In 1310 Juliana la Despenser was sent to Romsey, to be
provided with fitting maintenance for herself and for her maid during her
lifetime[632] and in 1319 Mary Ridel was sent to Stainfield to be
maintained for life[633]. There were the usual attempts to escape from a
costly and burdensome obligation; Romsey seems to have been successful in
repelling Juliana la Despenser, for in the following month the King sent
her to Shaftesbury, requesting the nuns to "find her for life the
necessities of life according to the requirements of her estate, for
herself and for the damsel serving her, and to assign her a chamber to
dwell in, making letters patent of the grant"[634]. Stainfield was less
successful in the matter of Mary Ridel; the usual plea of poverty was
considered insufficient and the convent was ordered to receive her, to
supply her with food, clothing and other necessities and to make letters
patent, specifying what was due to her[635].

Certain convents were in addition handicapped by the obligation to make
certain grants or liveries, in kind or in money, to other monastic houses.
The nunneries of St Clement's, York, and Moxby seem to have involved
themselves--as a condition, perhaps, of some past benefaction--in a
curious obligation to the friars of their districts. At a visitation of
the former house in 1317, Archbishop Melton found that the Friars Minor of
York, every alternate week of the year, and the Friars Preachers of York
in the same manner, had for a long time been receiving fourteen conventual
loaves; the nuns were ordered to show the friars the Archbishop's order
and to cease from supplying the loaves as long as their own house was
burdened with debt; and in no case was the grant to be made without
special leave from the Archbishop[636]. The next year, on visiting Moxby,
Melton was obliged to make an injunction as to the bread and ale called
"levedemete," which the Friars Minor were accustomed to receive from the
house; if it were owed to them it was to be given as due, if not it was
not to be given without the will of the head[637]. At Alnwick's first
visitation in 1440 the Prioress of St Michael's, Stamford, declared that
the house was burdened with the payment of an annual pension of 60_s._ to
the monastery of St Mary's, York, "and that for tithes not worth more than
forty pence annually; also it is in arrears for twenty years and
more"[638]. The nuns also had to pay various small sums to Peterborough
Abbey, by which they had been founded and to which they always remained

The support of resident corrodians and the payment of pensions and
liveries were, however, less onerous than the duty of providing
hospitality for visitors, which the nunneries performed as one of their
religious obligations. _Date_ and _Dabitur_ did not always accompany each
other. The great folk who held the Pope's indult to enter the houses of
Minoresses were probably generous donors; but the unenclosed orders had to
lodge and feed less wealthy guests and often enough they found the
obligation a strain upon their finances. When the nuns of King's Mead,
Derby, in 1326, petitioned the King to take the house into his special
protection, they explained that great numbers of people came there to be
entertained, but that owing to the reduction in their revenue they were
unable to exercise their wonted hospitality[640]; and the number of guests
was mentioned by the nuns of Heynings in 1401 as one reason for their
impoverishment[641]. At Nunappleton in 1315 the Archbishop of York had to
forbid two sets of guests to be received at the same time, until the house
should be relieved of debt; and at Moxby (which was also in debt) he
ordained that relatives of the nuns were not to visit the house for a
longer period than two days; Nunappleton was evidently a favourite resort,
for in 1346 another archbishop speaks of guests flocking--_hospites
confluentes_--to the priory and orders them to be admitted to a hostelry
constructed for the purpose. At Marrick in 1252 it was ordered that
guests were not to stay for more than one night, because the means of the
house barely sufficed for the maintenance of the nuns, sisters and

Another charge which fell heavily upon the nunneries, sometimes not
entirely by their own fault, was that of litigation. This was only an
occasional expense, but when it occurred it was heavy, and a suit once
begun might drag on for years. Moreover the incidental expenses in
journeys and bribes, which all had to be paid out of the current income of
a house already (perhaps) charged with the payment of tithes and taxes and
badly in need of repair, were often almost as heavy as the costs of the
litigation. For instance an account of Christian Bassett, Prioress of St
Mary de Pré (near St Albans), contains the following list of expenses
incurred by her in the prosecution of a law suit in 1487, during the rule
of her predecessor Alice Wafer:

    Item when I ryde to London for the suyt that was taken ayenst dame
    Alice Wafer in the commen place, for myself and my preest and a woman
    and ij men, their hyre and hors hyre and mete and drynke, in the terme
    of Ester ye secunde yere of the regne of kyng Henry the vij{th} xx. s.
    Item paid aboute the same suyt at Mydsomer tyme, for iiij men, a woman
    and iiij horses xvi s. Item paid for the costs of a man to London at
    Mighelmas terme to Master Lathell, to have knowledge whethir I shuld
    have nede to come to London or not xij d[643]. Item for the same suyt
    of Dame Alice Wafer for herself and a suster wt. her, ij men, ij
    horses, in costs at the same time xiiij s. Item for the same suyt when
    I cam from London to have councell of Master More and men of lawe for
    the same ple x s. Item whan I went to Master Fforster to the Welde to
    speke wt. him, to have councell for the wele of the place, for a
    kercher geven to hym, ij s. Item on other tyme for a couple of capons
    geven to Master Fforster ij s. Item for a man rydyng to London at
    Candilmas to speke wt. Master Lathell and Master More and for iiij
    hennys geven to them and for the costs of the same man and his hors
    iij s. iiij d. Item whan I went to London to speke wt. Master Lathell
    for to renewe our charter of the place and other maters of our place
    xj s. Item in expenses made upon Master Ffortescue atte dyvers tymes,
    whan I wente to hym to have his councell for the same suyt in the
    common place xiij s. iiij d. Item paid to a man to ryde to Hertford to
    speke wt. Norys, that he shuld speke to Master Ffortescue for the same
    ple viij d. Item in costs for a man to go to Barkhamsted to Thomas
    Cace viij d. Item whan I went to Master Ffortescue to his place, for
    mens hire and hors hire for the same mater ij s. Item whan I went to
    London at an other tyme for the same plee, for iiij men and iiij hors
    hire xvj s.[644]

After this one does not wonder that in 1517 the convent of Goring pleaded
that owing to lawsuits it was too poor to repair its buildings[645].

The account rolls of the Priory of St Michael's, Stamford, are full of
references to expenses incurred in legal business. On one occasion the
nuns bought a "bill" in the Marshalsea "to have a day of accord" and the
roll for 1375-6 contains items such as,

    Paid for a purse to the wife of the Seneschal of the Marshalsea xx d.
    Paid for beer bought for the Marshalsea by the Prioress ij s. ij d.
    Paid for capons and chickens for the seneschal of the Marshalsea xxiij
    d. ob.[646]

Poor Dames Margaret Redynges and Joan Ffychmere "del office del tresorie,"
ending the year £16. 8_s._ 8-1/2_d._ in debt, must often have sighed with

  Lawe is so lordeliche. and loth to make ende,
  Withoute presentz or pens. she pleseth wel fewe.

Nor was it only the expenses of great lawsuits which bore heavily upon the
nunneries; a great deal of lesser legal business had to be transacted from
year to year. The treasuresses' accounts of St Michael's, Stamford,
contain many notices of such business; the expenses of Raulyn at the
sessions, expenses of the clerks at the Bishop's court or at the last
session at Stamford, a suit against a neighbouring parson over tithes,
four shillings to Henry Oundyl for suing out writs; and innumerable
entries concerning the inevitable "presentz or pens," a douceur to the
Bishop's clerk, a courtesy to the king's escheator, a present to the
clerks at the sessions, a gift "to divers men of law for their help on
divers occasions." All nunneries had constantly to meet such petty
expenses as these; and if we add an occasional suit on a larger scale the
total amount of money devoured by the Law is considerable.

So far mention has been made only of such reasons for their poverty as
cannot be considered the fault of the nuns. The inclemency of nature, the
rapacity of lay and ecclesiastical authorities and the law's delays could
not be escaped, however wisely a Prioress husbanded her resources.
Nevertheless it cannot be doubted that the nuns themselves, by bad
management, contributed largely to their own misfortunes. Bad
administration, sometimes wilful, but far more often due to sheer
incompetence, was constantly given as a reason for undue poverty. It was
"negligence and bad administration" which nearly caused the dispersion of
the nuns of Wintney during the famine year of 1316[647]; and those of
Hampole in 1353[648]. At Davington in 1511 one of the nuns deposed that
"the rents and revenues of the house decrease owing to the guilt of the
officers"[649]. The fault was often with the head of the house, who loved
to keep in her own hands the disposal of the convent's income, omitted to
consult the chapter in her negotiations, retained the common seal and did
not render accounts. An illustration of the straits to which a house might
be reduced by the bad management of its superior is provided by the
history of Malling Abbey in the early part of the fourteenth century, as
told by William de Dene in his _Historia Roffensis_. In 1321 an abbess had
been deposed, ostensibly on the complaint of her nuns and because the
place had been ruined by her; but too much importance must not be assigned
to the charge, for she was a sister of Bartholomew de Badlesmere, at that
time a leader of the baronial party against Edward II, and it was by the
King's command that Hamo of Hythe, Bishop of Rochester, visited Malling
and deprived her[650]; her deposition was probably a political move. The
same cannot however be said of Lora de Retlyng, who became abbess in 1324.

    "The Bishop," says William de Dene, "although unwilling, knowing her
    to be insufficient and ignorant, set Lora de Retlyng in command as
    abbess, a woman who lacked all the capacity and wisdom of a leader and
    ruler, the nuns enthusiastically applauding; and the next day he
    blessed her, which benediction was rather a malediction for the
    convent. Then the Bishop forbade the Abbess to give a corrody to her
    maid-servant, as it had been the ill custom to do, and he sequestrated
    the common seal, forbidding it to be used, save when his licence had
    been asked and obtained"[651].

Twenty-five years passed and in 1349 the chronicler writes:

    The Bishop of Rochester visited the abbeys of Lesnes and Malling, and
    he found them so ruined by longstanding mismanagement, that it is
    thought they never can recover so long as this world lasts, even to
    the day of judgment[652].

Malling had suffered severely from the Black Death in the previous year,
but our knowledge of the character of Lora de Retlyng and the plain
statement of William de Dene ("destructa per malam diutinam custodiam"),
make it clear that bad management and not the pestilence was to blame for
its poverty[653].

Financial mismanagement was, indeed, the most frequent of all charges
brought against superiors at the episcopal visitations. When Alnwick
visited his diocese of Lincoln several cases of such incompetence came to
light. At St Michael's, Stamford (1440), it was found that the Prioress
had never rendered an account during the whole of her term of office, and
one of the nuns declared that she did not rule and supervise temporal
affairs to the benefit of the house; two years later the Bishop visited
the convent again and the Prioress herself pleaded bodily weakness, adding

    that since she was impotent to rule the temporalities, nor had they
    any industrious man to supervise these and to raise and receive the
    produce of the house, and since the rents of the house remained unpaid
    in the hands of the tenants, she begged that two nuns might be deputed
    to rule the temporalities, and to be responsible for receipts and

In 1445, however, one of the appointed treasuresses, Alice de Wyteryng,
admitted that she neither wrote down nor accounted for anything concerning
her administration, and another nun complained that, if Wyteryng were to
die, it would be impossible for any of them to say in what state their
finances stood[654]. At the poor and heavily indebted house of Legbourne
(1440) the Prioress, unknown to the Bishop, but with the consent of the
Convent, had sold a corrody to the bailiff of the house, Robert Warde, who
was nevertheless not considered useful to the house in this post; the
tenements and leasehold houses belonging to the house were ruinous and
like to fall through the carelessness of the Prioress and bailiff, and one
aggrieved nun stated that "the prioress is not circumspect in ruling the
temporalities and cares not whether they prosper, but applies all the
common goods of the house to her own uses, as though they were her
own[655]." At Godstow also it was complained that the steward had an
annual fee of ten marks from the house and was useless[656]. At Heynings
(1440) the Prioress was charged with never rendering accounts and with
cutting down timber unnecessarily, but she denied the last charge and said
she had done so only for necessary reasons and with the express consent of
the convent[657]. At Nuncoton corrodies had been sold and bondmen
alienated without the knowledge of the nuns[658]. At Harrold it was found
that no accounts were rendered, that a corrody had been sold for twenty
marks, and that when the Prioress bought anything for the convent, no
tallies or indentures were made between the contracting parties, so that
after a time the sellers came and demanded double the price agreed upon;
one nun also asked that the Bishop should prevent the selling or
alienation of woods[659]. At Langley (which was miserably poor) there was
a similar complaint of the sale of timber[660]. These are the less serious
cases of financial mismanagement; the cases of Gracedieu, Ankerwyke and
Catesby have already been considered. Sometimes the extravagance or
incompetence of a Prioress became so notorious as to necessitate her
suspension or removal; as at Basedale in 1307[661], Rosedale in 1310[662],
Hampole in 1353[663], Easebourne in 1441[664] and St Mary de Pré at the
end of the fifteenth century[665]. But more frequently the bishops
endeavoured to hem in expenditure by elaborate safeguards, which will be
described below.

Besides cases of incompetence and cases of misappropriation of revenues by
an unscrupulous prioress, the mismanagement of the nuns may usually be
traced to a desperate desire to obtain ready money. One means by which
they sought to augment their income was by the sale of corrodies in return
for a lump sum[666]. A man (or woman) would pay down a certain sum of
money, and in return the convent would engage to keep him in board and
lodging for the rest of his natural life; at Arden for instance, in 1524,
Alice widow of William Berre paid twelve pounds and was granted "mett and
drynke as their convent hath" at their common table, or when sick in her
own room, and "on honest chamber with sufficient fyer att all tyme, with
sufficient apperell as shalbe nedful"[667]. Obviously, however, such an
arrangement could only be profitable to the nuns, if the grantee died
before the original sum had been expended in boarding her. The convent, in
fact, acted as a kind of insurance agency and the whole arrangement was
simply a gamble in the life of the corrodian. The temptation to extricate
themselves from present difficulties by means of such gambles, was one
which the nuns could never resist. They would lightly make their grant of
board and lodging for life and take the badly needed money; but it would
be swallowed up only too soon by their creditors and often vanish like
fairy gold in a year. Not so the corrodian. Long-lived as Methusaleh and
lusty of appetite, she appeared year after year at their common table,
year after year consumed their food, wore their apparel, warmed herself
with their firewood. Alice Berre was still hale and hearty after twelve
years, when the commissioners came to Arden and would doubtless have
lasted for several more to come, if his Majesty's quarrel with Rome had
not swept her and her harassed hostesses alike out of their ancient home;
but she must long before have eaten through her original twelve
pounds[668]. There is an amusing complaint in the Register of Crabhouse;
early in the fourteenth century Aleyn Brid and his wife persuaded the nuns
to buy their lands for a sum down and a corrody for their joint and
separate lands. But the lands turned out barren and the corrodians went on
living and doubtless chuckling over their bargain, and "si cher terre de
cy petit value unkes ne fut achate," wrote the exasperated chronicler of
the house[669]. Bishop Alnwick found two striking instances of a bad
gamble during his visitations in 1440-1; at Langley the late Prioress had
sold a corrody to a certain John Fraunceys and his wife for the paltry sum
of twenty marks, and they had already held it for six years[670]; worse
still, at Nuncoton there were two corrodians, each of whom had originally
paid twenty marks, and they had been there for twelve and for twenty
years respectively[671].

In the face of cases like these it is difficult not to suspect that
unscrupulous persons took advantage of the temporary difficulties of the
nuns and of their lack of business acumen. There is comedy, though not for
the unhappy Convent, in the history of a corrody which, in 1526, was said
to have been granted by Thetford to "a certain Foster." Six years later
there was a great to-do at the visitation. The nuns declared that John
Bixley of Thetford, "bocher," had sold his corrody in the house to Thomas
Foster, gentleman, who was nourishing a large household on that pretext,
to wit six persons, himself, his wife, three children and a maid; but
Bixley said that he had never sold his corrody and there in public
displayed his indenture. What happened we do not know; Thomas Foster,
gentleman, must be the same man who had a corrody in 1526, and how John
Bixley came into it is not clear. It looks as though the Convent (which
was so poor that the Bishop had dissolved his visitation there some years
previously) was trying by fair means or foul to get rid of Thomas Foster
and his family; doubtless they had not bargained for a wife, three
children and a maid when they rashly granted him one poor corrody[672]. It
is easy to understand why medieval bishops, at nearly every visitation,
forbade the granting of fees, corrodies or pensions for life or without
episcopal consent; "forasmoche as the graunting of corrodyes and lyveryes
hath bene chargious, bardynouse and greuouse unto your monastery" wrote
Longland to Studley in 1531:

    As itt apperithe by the graunte made to Agnes Mosse, Janet bynbrok,
    Elizabeth todde and other whiche has right soore hyndrede your place,
    In consideracon therof I charge you lady priores upon payne of
    contempte and of the lawe, that ye give noo moo like graunts, and that
    ye joutt away Elizabeth Todde her seruant ... and that Elizabeth
    Todde haue noo kowe going nor other bestes within eny of your

and Dean Kentwood, visiting St Helen's Bishopsgate in 1432 found that
"diverce fees perpetuelle, corrodies and lyuers have been grauntyd befor
this tyme to diverce officers of your house and other persones, which have
hurt the house and be cause of delapidacyone of the godys of youre seyde
house"[674]. Even the nuns themselves sometimes realised that the sale of
corrodies had brought them no good; they often complained at visitations
that the Prioress had made such grants without consulting them; and the
convent of Heynings gave "the multiplication of divers men who have
acquired corrodies in their house," as one reason for their extreme
poverty, when they petitioned for the appropriation of the church of

The nuns were wont to have recourse to other equally improvident
expedients for obtaining money without regard to future embarrassment.
They farmed their churches and alienated their lands and granges or let
them out on long leases. These practices were constantly forbidden in
episcopal injunctions[676]; at the visitation of Easebourne in 1524 the
Prioress, Dame Margaret Sackfelde, being questioned as to what grants they
had made under their convent seal, said that they had made four, to wit,
one to William Salter to farm the rectory there, another of the proceeds
of the chapel of Farnhurst, another of the proceeds of the chapel of
Midhurst and another to William Toty for his corrody; this was
corroborated by the subprioress, who also mentioned a grant of the
proceeds of the church of Easebourne to a rather disreputable person
called Ralph Pratt; and this is only a typical case[677]. The nunnery of
Wix was reduced to such penury in 1283 on account of various alienations
that Pope Martin IV granted the nuns a bull declaring all such grants

    It has come to our ears that our beloved daughters in Christ, the
    Prioress and convent of the monastery of Wix (who are under the rule
    of a prioress), of the order of St Benedict, in the diocese of London,
    as well as their predecessors, have conceded tithes, rents, lands,
    houses, vineyards, meadows, pastures, woods, mills, rights,
    jurisdictions and certain other goods belonging to the said monastery
    to several clerks and laymen, to some of them for life, to some for no
    short time, to others in perpetuity at farm or under an annual
    payment, and have to this effect given letters, taken oaths, made
    renunciations, and drawn up public instruments, to the grave harm of
    the said monastery; and some of the grantees are said to have sought
    confirmatory letters in common form, concerning these grants, from the
    apostolic see[678].

This comprehensive catalogue gives some indication of the losses which a
house would suffer from reckless grants. The sale of timber and the
alienation or pawning of plate were other expedients to which the nuns
constantly resorted and which were as constantly prohibited by the
bishops[679]. The Prioress of Nunmonkton in 1397, "alienated timber in
large quantities to the value of a hundred marks"[680]; the cutting down
of woods was charged against the Prioresses of Heynings, Harrold, Langley,
Gracedieu, Catesby and Ankerwyke at Alnwick's visitations; at Langley it
was moreover found that the woods were not properly fenced in after the
trees were felled and so the tree-stumps were damaged[681]; the necessity
for raising the money was sometimes specifically pleaded, as at Markyate,
where a small wood had been sold "to satisfy the creditors of the
house"[682]. These sales of timber were a favourite means of obtaining
ready money; but too often the loss to the house by the destruction of its
woods far outweighed the temporary gain and the Abbeys of St Mary's
Winchester and Romsey made special mention of this cause of impoverishment
in the middle of the fourteenth century[683]. The alienation or pawning of
plate and _jocalia_ was often resorted to in an extremity. At Gracedieu in
1441 the jewels of the house had been pawned without the knowledge of the
convent, so that the nuns (as one of them complained) had not one bowl
from which to drink[684]; the next year it was asserted that the Prioress
of Catesby "pawned the jewels of the house for ten years, to wit one cup
for the sacrament, which still remained in pawn, and also other pieces of
silver"[685]. When Bishop Longland visited Nuncoton in 1531 he found that
the Prioress had in times past sold various goods belonging to her house,
"viz. a bolle ungilte playn with a couer, oon nutt gilte with a couer, ij
bolles white without couers, oon Agnus of gold, oon bocle of gold, oon
chalice, oon maser and many other things"[686]; and in 1436 it was ordered
that the chalices, jewels and ornaments of St Mary's Neasham, which were
then in the hands of sundry creditors, were to be redeemed[687]. In the
case of Sinningthwaite in 1534 the convent was in such a reduced state
that Archbishop Lee was actually obliged to give the nuns licence to
pledge jewels to the value of £15[688]. The charge of pawning or selling
jewels for their own purposes was often made against prioresses whose
conduct in other ways was bad; for instance against Eleanor of Arden in
1396[689], Juliana of Bromhale in 1404[690], Agnes Tawke of Easebourne in
1478[691] and Katherine Wells of Littlemore in 1517[692].

To financial incompetence and to the employment of improvident methods of
raising money, the nuns occasionally added extravagance. The bishops
forbade them to wear gay clothes for reasons unconnected with finance;
nevertheless their silks and furs must have cost money which could ill be
spared, and it is amusing to notice that even at Studley, Rothwell and
Langley, which were among the smallest and poorest houses in the diocese
of Lincoln and in debt, the nuns had to confess to silken veils. The
maintenance of a greater number of servants than the revenues of the house
could support was another not uncommon form of extravagance[693].
Instances of luxurious living on the part of the heads of various houses
have been given elsewhere[694]; it need only be remarked that a
self-indulgent prioress might cripple the resources of a house for many
years to come, whether by spending its revenues too lavishly, or by
raising money by the alienation of its goods.

One other cause of the poverty of nunneries must be noticed, before
turning to the attempts of bishops and other visitors to find a remedy.
Overcrowding was, throughout the earlier period under consideration, a
common cause of financial distress; and the admission of a greater number
of nuns than the revenues of the convent were able to support was
constantly forbidden in episcopal injunctions. Certainly this was not
invariably the fault of the nuns. They suffered (as we have seen) from the
formal right of bishop or of patron to place a nun in their house on
special occasions, and they suffered still more from the constant pressure
to which they were subjected by private persons, anxious to obtain
comfortable provision for daughters and nieces. It was sometimes
impossible and always difficult to resist the importunity of influential
gentlemen in the neighbourhood, whose ill-will might be a serious thing,
whether it showed itself in open violence or in closed purses. The
authorities of the church had sometimes to step in and rescue houses which
had thus been persuaded to burden themselves beyond their means. In 1273
Gregory X issued a bull to the Priory of Carrow, with the intention of
putting a stop to the practice.

    Your petition having been expounded to us, containing a complaint that
    you have, at the instant requests of certain lords of England, whom
    you are unable to resist on account of their power, received so many
    nuns already into your monastery, that you may scarce be fitly
    sustained by its rents, we therefore, by the authority of these
    present letters, forbid you henceforth to receive any nun or sister to
    the burden of your house[695].

Some nine years later Archbishop Wickwane wrote in the same strain to the
nuns of Nunkeeling and Wilberfoss:

    Because we have learned from public rumour that your monastery is
    sometimes burdened by the reception of nuns and by the visits of
    secular women and girls, at the instance of great persons, to whom you
    foolishly and unlawfully grant easy permission, we order you ...
    henceforward, to receive no one as nun or sister of your house, or to
    lodge for a time in your monastery, without our special licence[696].

Bishop Stratford, in his visitation of Romsey in 1311, forbade additions
to the nuns, the proper number having been exceeded, and again in 1327 he

    It is notorious that your house is burdened with ladies beyond the
    established number which used to be kept; and I have heard that you
    are being pressed to receive more young ladies (_damoyseles_) as nuns,
    wherefore I order you strictly that no young lady received by you be
    veiled, nor any other received, until the Bishop's visitation, or
    until they have special orders from him[697].

The situation at the great Abbey of Shaftesbury was the same. As early as
1218 the Pope had forbidden the community to admit nuns beyond the number
of a hundred because they were unable to support more or to give alms to
the poor; in 1322 Bishop Mortival wrote remonstrating with them for their
neglect of the Pope's order and repeating the prohibition to admit more
nuns until the state of the Abbey was relieved, on the ground that the
inmates of the house were far too many for its goods to support; and in
1326 (in response to a petition from the Abbess asking him to fix the
statutory number) the Bishop issued an order stating that the house was
capable of maintaining a hundred and twenty nuns and no more and that no
novices were to be received until the community was reduced to that

Episcopal prohibitions to receive new inmates without special licence were
very common, especially in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth
centuries. Bishops realised that overcrowding only increased the growing
poverty of the nunneries. In the poor diocese of York, between 1250 and
1320, the nuns were over and over again forbidden to receive nuns, lay
sisters or lay brothers without the licence of the Archbishop. Injunctions
to this effect were issued to Marrick (1252), Swine (1268), Wilberfoss
(1282), Nunappleton (1282, 1290, 1346), Hampole (1267, 1308, 1312), Arden
(1306), Thicket (1309, 1314), Nunkeeling (1282, 1314), Nunburnholme
(1318), Esholt (1318), Arthington (1318) and Sinningthwaite (1319)[699].
At Swine, after the visitation by Archbishop Walter Giffard in 1267-8, it
was noted among the _comperta_

    that the house of Swine cannot sustain more nuns or sisters than now
    are there, inasmuch as those at present there are ill provided with
    food, as is said above, and that the house nevertheless remains at
    least a hundred and forty marks in debt; wherefore the lord Archbishop
    decreed that no nun or sister should thenceforward be received there,
    save with his consent[700].

A very severe punishment was decreed at Marrick, where the Archbishop
announced that any man or woman admitted without his licence would be
expelled without hope of mercy, the Prioress would be deposed and any
other nuns who agreed condemned to fast on bread and water for two months
(except on Sundays and festivals)[701]. In other dioceses the bishops
pursued a similar policy. But it was not easy to enforce these
prohibitions. Four years after Archbishop Greenfield's injunction to
Hampole (1308) he was obliged to address another letter to the convent,
having heard that the prioress had received

    a little girl (_puellulam_), by name Maud de Dreffield, niece of the
    Abbot of Roche, and another named Jonetta, her own niece, at the
    instance of Sir Hugh de Cressy, her brother, that after a time they
    might be admitted to the habit and profession of nuns[702].

The predicament of the Prioress is easily understood; how was she to
refuse her noble brother and the Abbot of Roche? They could bring to bear
far more pressure than a distant archbishop, who came upon his visitations
at long intervals. Moreover the ever present need of ready money made the
resistance of nuns less determined than it might otherwise have been; for
a dowry in hand they were, as usual, willing to encumber themselves with a
new mouth to feed throughout long years to come.

Prohibitions from increasing the number of nuns become more rare in the
second half of the fourteenth and during the fifteenth century. Even when
the population recovered from the havoc wrought by the Black Death, the
numbers in the nunneries continued steadily to decline. Perhaps fashion
had veered, conscious that the golden days of monasticism were over; more
likely the growing poverty of the houses rendered them a less tempting
retreat. A need for restricting the number of nuns still continued,
because the decline in the revenues of the nunneries was swifter than the
decline in the number of the nuns. Thus in 1440-1 Alnwick included in his
injunctions to seven houses a prohibition to receive more nuns than could
competently be sustained by their revenues[703], and the evidence given at
his visitations shows the necessity for such a restriction. The injunction
to Heynings is particularly interesting:

    For as mykelle as we fonde that agayn the entente and the forbedyng of
    the commune lawe there are in your saide pryorye meo nunnes and
    susters professed then may be competently susteyned of the revenews of
    your sayde pryorye, the exilitee of the saide revenews and charitees
    duly considered, we commaunde, ordeyn, charge and enioyne yowe vnder
    payne etc. etc. that fro this day forthe ye receyve no mo in to nunnes
    ne sustres in your saide pryory wyth owte the advyse and assent of hus
    (and) of our successours bysshope of Lincolne, so that we or thai,
    wele informed of the yerely valwe of your saide revenews may ordeyn
    for the nombre competente of nunnes and susters[704].

Nevertheless even at Nuncoton, one of the houses to which a similar
injunction was sent, a nun gave evidence "that in her oun time there were
in the habit eighteen or twenty nuns and now there are only fourteen," and
the Bishop himself remarked that "ther be but fewe in couent in regarde of
tymes here to fore"[705]. Everywhere this decline in the number of nuns
went steadily on during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries[706]. And
from the beginning of the fifteenth century there appear, here and there
among visitatorial injunctions, commands of a very different nature; here
and there a Bishop is found trying, not to keep down, but to keep up the
number of nuns. Instead of the repeated prohibitions addressed to Romsey
at the beginning of the fourteenth century, there is an injunction from
William of Wykeham in 1387, ordering the Abbess to augment the number of
nuns, which had fallen far below the statutory number[707]. Similarly in
1432 Bishop Gray wrote to Elstow,

    since the accustomed number of nuns of the said monastery has so
    lessened, that those who are now received scarcely suffice for the
    chanting of divine service by night and day according to the
    requirement of the rule, we will and enjoin upon you the abbess, in
    virtue of obedience and under the penalties written above and beneath,
    that, with what speed you can, you cause the number of nuns in the
    said monastery to be increased in proportion to its resources[708].

At Studley in 1531, although the house was badly in debt, the nuns were
ordered to live less luxuriously and "to augment your nombre of ladyes
within the yere"[709]. In this connection Archbishop Warham's visitation
of Sheppey in 1511 is significant. The Prioress, when questioned as to the
number of nuns in the house, said that "she had heard there were
seventeen; she knew of fourteen; she herself wished to increase the number
to fourteen if she could find any who wished to enter into religion"[710].
It is an interesting reflection that Henry VIII may simply have
accelerated, by his violent measure, a gradual dissolution of the
nunneries through poverty and through change of fashion.

This account of the attempts of medieval bishops to prevent the nunneries
from burdening themselves with inmates, beyond the number which could be
supported by their revenues, leads to a consideration of the other methods
employed by them to remedy the financial distress in which the nuns so
often found themselves. These methods may be divided into three classes;
(1) arrangements to safeguard expenditure by the head of the house and to
impose a check upon autocracy, (2) arrangements to prevent rash
expenditure or improvident means of raising money, by requiring episcopal
consent before certain steps could be taken, and (3) if the incompetence
of the nuns were such that even these restrictions were insufficient, the
appointment of a male _custos_, master or guardian, to manage the finances
of the house.

Arrangements for safeguarding expenditure by the head of the house were of
four kinds: (1) provision for the consultation of the whole convent in
important negotiations, (2) provision for the safe custody of the common
seal, (3) provision for the regular presentation of accounts, and (4) the
appointment of coadjutresses to the Prioress, or of two or three
treasuresses, to be jointly responsible for receipts and expenditure. It
was a common injunction that the whole convent, or at least "the more and
sounder part of it," should be consulted in all important negotiations,
such as the alienation of property, the leasing of land and farms, the
cutting down of woods, the incurring of debts and the reception of
novices[711]. It has already been shown that Prioresses acted
autocratically in performing such business on their own initiative, and
the injunction sent by Peckham to the Abbess of Romsey shows the lengths
to which this independence might lead them[712]. Flemyng's injunction to
Elstow in 1421-2 is typical:

    That the Abbess deliver not nor demise to farm appropriated churches,
    pensions, portions, manors or granges belonging to the monastery, nor
    do any other such weighty business, without the express consent of the
    greater and sounder part of the convent[713].

At Arthington in 1318 the Prioress was specially ordered to consult the
convent in sales of wool and other business matters[714]; the Prioress of
Sinningthwaite the next year was told to take counsel with the older nuns
and in all writings under the common seal to employ a faithful clerk and
to have the deed read, discussed and sealed in the presence of the whole
convent, those who spoke against it on reasonable grounds being heard and
the deed if necessary corrected[715]. Provision for the safe custody of
the common seal, and for the assent of the whole convent to all writings
which received its imprint, was a necessary corollary to the demand that
the Prioress should consult her nuns in matters of business. Medieval
superiors were constantly charged with keeping the common seal in their
own custody[716] and nuns and bishops alike objected to a custom which
rendered the convent responsible for any rash agreement into which the
Prioress might enter. Elaborate arrangements for the custody of the seal
are therefore common in visitatorial injunctions. In 1302 Bishop John of
Pontoise wrote to Romsey that

    whereas from the bad keeping of the common seal many evils to the
    house have hitherto happened (as the Bishop has now learned from the
    experience of fact), and also may happen unless wholesome remedy be
    applied, three at least of the discreeter ladies shall be appointed by
    the Abbess and by the larger and wiser part of the convent to keep the
    seal; and when any letter shall be sealed with the common seal in the
    chapter before the whole convent, it shall be read and explained in an
    intelligible tongue to all the ladies, publicly, distinctly and openly
    and afterwards sealed in the same chapter, (not in corners or
    secretly, as has hitherto been the custom,) and signed as it is read,
    so that what concerns all may be approved by all. Which done the seal
    shall be replaced in the same place under the said custody[717].

These injunctions were repeated by Bishop Woodlock nine years later, but
in 1387 William of Wykeham laid down much more stringent rules. The seal
was to be kept securely under seven, or at least five locks and keys, of
which one key was to be in the custody of the abbess and the others to
remain with some of the more prudent and mature nuns, nominated by the
convent; no letter was to be sealed without first being read before the
whole convent in the vulgar tongue and approved by all or by the greater
and wiser part of the nuns[718]. Seven locks was an unusually large
number; usually three, or even two, were ordered. At Malling, where, as we
have seen, Bishop Hamo of Hythe unwillingly confirmed an "insufficient and
ignorant" woman as Abbess, he took the extreme step of sequestrating the
common seal and forbidding it to be used without his permission[719].

Another method of keeping some control over the expenditure not only of
the head or treasurers of the house, but also of the other obedientiaries,
was by ordering the regular presentation of accounts before the whole
convent; and in spite of the injunctions of councils and of bishops no
regulation was more often broken. Bishop Stapeldon's rules, drawn up for
the guidance of Polsloe and Canonsleigh, afford a good example of these
injunctions, and deal with the presentation of accounts by the bailiffs
and officers of the house, as well as by the Prioress:

    Item, let the accounts of all your bailiffs, reeves and receivers,
    both foreign and denizen, be overlooked every year, between Easter and
    Whitsuntide, and between the Feast of St Michael and Christmas, after
    final account rendered in the Priory before the Prioress, or before
    those whom she is pleased to put in her place, and before two or three
    of the most ancient and wise ladies of the said religion and house,
    assigned by the Convent for this purpose; and let the rolls of the
    accounts thus rendered remain in the common treasury, so that they may
    be consulted, if need shall arise by reason of the death of a
    Prioress, or of the death or removal of bailiffs, receivers or reeves.
    Item, let the Prioress each year, between Christmas and Easter, before
    the whole convent, or six ladies assigned by the convent for this
    purpose, show forth the state of the house, and its receipts and
    expenses, not in detail but in gross (_ne mie par menue parceles mes
    par grosses sommes_), and the debts and the names of the debtors and
    creditors for any sum above forty shillings. And all these things are
    to be put into writing and placed in the common treasury, to the
    intent that it may be seen each year how your goods increase or

Bishop Pontoise ordered that at Romsey an account should be rendered twice
a year and at the end thereof the state of the house should be declared by
the auditors of the convent, or at least by the seniors of the convent,
but finding the practice in abeyance in 1302 he ordered the account to be
rendered once a year[721]; his ordinance was repeated by Bishop Woodlock
in 1311[722] and by William of Wykeham in 1387[723], both of whom
specially refer to the rendering of accounts by officials and
obedientiaries as well as by the Abbess[724]. More frequently, especially
in the smaller houses, the Bishops confined their efforts to extracting
the main account from the Prioress, with the double object, so
ungraciously expressed by Archbishop Lee, "that it may appere in whate
state the housse standith in, and also that it may be knowen, whethur she
be profitable to the house or not"[725]. How far it was a common practice
that the accounts should be audited by some external person, it is
impossible to say. Our only evidence lies in occasional injunctions such
as those sent by Bishops Pontoise and Woodlock to Romsey, or by Bishop
Buckingham to Heynings; or an occasional remark, such as the Prioress of
Blackborough's excuse that she did not render account in order "to save
the expenses of an auditor"[726]; or an occasional order addressed by a
Bishop to some person bidding him go and examine the accounts of a house.
In 1314 William, rector of Londesborough, was made _custos_ of
Nunburnholme on peculiar terms, being ordered to go there three times a
year and hear the accounts of the ministers and _prepositi_ of the house;
his duties were thus, in effect, those of an unpaid auditor and no
more[727]. It is probable that the accounts of bailiffs and other servants
were audited by the _custos_, in those houses to which such an official
was attached[728]; whether his own accounts were scrutinised is another
matter. In 1309 Archbishop Greenfield wrote to his own receiver, William
de Jafford, to audit the accounts of Nunappleton[729], and after the
revelations of Margaret Wavere's maladministration at Catesby in 1445, a
commission for the inspection of the accounts was granted to the Abbot of
St James, Northampton[730]. In some cases the annual statement of
accounts was ordered to be made before the Bishop of the diocese, as well
as the nuns of the house, and in such cases he would act as auditor

It was also a common practice for the Visitor to demand that the current
balance sheet and inventory (the _status domus_) of a monastic house
should be produced, together with its foundation charter and various other
documents, before he took the evidence of the inmates at a visitation. The
register of Bishop Alnwick's visitations shows the procedure very clearly;
usually there is simply a note to the effect that the Prioress handed in
the _status domus_, but at some houses the Bishop encountered
difficulties. At St Michael's Stamford, in 1440, the old Prioress (who, it
will be remembered, had rendered no account at all during her twelve years
of office) was unable to produce a balance sheet, or one of the required
certificates, and Alnwick was obliged to proceed with her examination
"hiis exhibendis non exhibitis." He made shift however to extract some
verbal information from her; she said that the house was in debt £20 at
her installation and now only 20 marks, that it could expend £40, besides
10 marks appropriated to the office of pittancer and besides "the
perquisites of the stewardship"; she said also "that they plough with two
teams and they have eight oxen, seven horses, a bailiff, four
serving-folk, a carter for the teams, and a man who is their baker and
brewer, whose wife makes the malt"[732]. At Legbourne also the Prioress

    showed the state of the house, as it now stands, as they say, but not
    annual charges, etc.... She says that the house owed £43 at the time
    of her confirmation and installation and now only £14; nevertheless
    because the state of the house is not fully shown, she has the next
    day at Louth to show it more fully[733].

At Ankerwyke also Clemence Medforde gave in an incomplete balance sheet:

    she shewed a roll containing the rents of the house, which, after
    deducting rent-charges, reach the total of £22. 6. 7. Touching the
    stewardship of the temporalities and touching the other receipts, as
    from alms and other like sources, she shews nothing, and says that at
    the time of her preferment the house was 300 marks in debt, and now is
    in debt only £40, and she declares some of the names of the creditors
    of this sum[734].

A special demand for a complete statement of accounts was sometimes made
in cases where gross maladministration was charged against a prioress.
Thus in 1310 Archbishop Greenfield ordered an investigation of certain
charges (unspecified, but clearly of this nature) made against the
Prioress of Rosedale; her accounts,

    as well as those of all bailiffs and other officials and servants who
    were bound to render accounts, were to be examined and the prioress
    was ordered to render to the commissioners full and complete accounts
    from the time of her promotion, as well as a statement of the then
    position of the house,

and a further letter from the Archbishop to the Subprioress and nuns
ordered them to display the _status domus_ to the commissioners, as it was
when the Prioress took office and as it was at the time he wrote. She
resigned shortly afterwards, _sentiens se impotentem_; but in 1315 her
successor was enjoined to draw up a certified statement showing the credit
and debit accounts of the house and to send it to the Archbishop before a
certain date[735]. Usually the Bishop demanded not only the account roll
of a house, but also an inventory, doubtless in order that he might see
whether anything had been alienated, and these inventories sometimes
remain attached to the account of the visitation preserved in the
episcopal register[736].

If a Prioress were found to be hopelessly incompetent or unscrupulous, but
not bad enough to be deprived of her position, Bishops sometimes took the
extreme measure of appointing one or more coadjutresses, to govern the
house in conjunction with her; and often (even when there was no complaint
against the Prioress) the nuns were ordered to elect treasuresses, to
receive and disburse the income of the house from all sources. One of the
_comperta_ at the visitation of Swine in 1268 was to the effect that

    the sums of money which are bestowed in charity upon the convent, for
    pittances and garments and other necessary uses, are received by the
    Prioress; which ought the rather to be in the custody of two honest
    nuns and distributed to those in need of them, and in no wise
    converted to other uses[737].

At Nunkeeling in 1314 it was ordained that all money due to the house
should be received by two bursars, elected by the convent[738], and in
1323 Bishop Cobham of Worcester made a similar injunction at Wroxall, that
two sisters were to be chosen by the chapter, to do the business of the
convent in receiving rents, etc.[739] Elaborate arrangements for the
appointment of treasuresses were made by Bishop Bokyngham at Elstow and at
Heynings, in 1388 and 1392 respectively, and by Bishop Flemyng at Elstow
in 1421-2[740]. It will suffice here to quote the much earlier arrangement
made by Archbishop Peckham at Usk in 1284:

    "Since," he wrote, "lately visiting you by our metropolitan right, we
    found you in a most desolate state (_multipliciter desolatas_),
    desiring to avoid such desolation in future, we order, by the counsel
    of discreet men, that henceforth two provident and discreet nuns be
    elected by the consent of the prioress and community; into whose hands
    all the money of the house shall be brought, whether from granges, or
    from appropriated churches, or coming from any other offerings, to be
    carefully looked after by their consent. And as well the Prioress as
    the other nuns shall receive (money for) all necessary expenses from
    their hands and in no manner otherwise. And we will that these nuns be
    called Treasuresses, which Treasuresses thrice in the year, to wit in
    Lent, Whitsuntide and on the Feast of St Michael, shall render account
    before the Prioress for the time being and before five or six elders
    of the chapter."

In addition they were to have a priest as _custos_ or administrator of
their temporal and spiritual possessions[741].

The appointment of a coadjutress to the head of a house in the
administration of its affairs is of the same nature. The appointment of
coadjutresses was a favourite device with Archbishop Peckham, to check an
extravagant or incapable head. At the great abbey of Romsey three
coadjutresses were appointed, without whose testimony and advice the
Abbess was to undertake no important business[742]. At Wherwell one
coadjutress only, a certain J. de Ver, was appointed in 1284, and the same
year the Archbishop wrote to his commissary on the subject of the Priory
of the Holy Sepulchre, Canterbury:

    Since by the carelessness and neglect of the Prioress the goods of the
    house are said to be much wasted, we wish you to assign to her two
    coadjutresses, to wit Dame Sara and another of the more honest and
    wise ladies; but let neither be Benedicta, who is said to have greatly
    offended the whole community by her discords.

Here, as at Usk, Peckham appointed in addition a master to look after
their affairs[743]. At the disorderly house of Arthington Isabella Couvel
was in 1312 associated with the Prioress Isabella de Berghby, but the
Prioress seems to have resented the appointment and promptly ran
away[744]. In the Exeter diocese Bishop Stapeldon made Joan de Radyngton
coadjutress to Petronilla, Abbess of Canonsleigh in 1320[745]; and in the
diocese of Bath and Wells Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury in 1335 appointed two
coadjutresses to Cecilia de Draycote, Prioress of White Hall, Ilchester,
and in 1351, when his visitation had revealed many scandals at Cannington,
including the simoniacal admission of nuns and unauthorised sale of
corrodies by the Prioress, the Bishop, instead of depriving her "tempered
the rigour of the law with clemency" and appointed two coadjutresses
without whose consent she was to do nothing[746]. Bishop Alnwick made use
of this method of controlling a superior in several cases where serious
mismanagement had come to light at his visitation[747], and other
instances of this method of controlling the administration of a superior
might be multiplied from the episcopal registers.

The appointment of treasuresses and of coadjutresses and the provision for
due consultation of the chapter, custody of the common seal and
presentment of accounts had the purpose of safeguarding the nuns against
reckless expenditure or maladministration by the head of the house, and,
where the injunctions of the Visitor were carried out, such precautions
doubtless proved of use. Some further check was, however, necessary, to
safeguard the nuns against themselves, and to prevent the whole convent
from rash sales of land, alienation of goods and from all those other
improvident devices for obtaining ready money, to which they were so much
addicted. The Bishop often attempted to impose such a check by forbidding
certain steps to be taken without his own consent. The business for which
an episcopal licence was necessary usually comprised the alienation of
land or its lease for life or for a long term of years, the sale of any
corrodies or payment of any fees or pensions, and (as has already been
pointed out) the reception of new inmates, who might overcrowd the house
and thus impose a strain upon its revenues[748]. Other business, such as
the sale of woods, was sometimes included[749]. The prohibition of
corrodies, fees and pensions was doubtless intended to protect the nuns
against the exactions of patrons and other persons, who claimed the right
to pension off relatives or old servants by this means, as well as against
their own improvidence in selling such doles for inadequate sums of ready
money. As typical of such prohibitions may be quoted Alnwick's injunction
(given in two parts) to Harrold in 1442-3:

    Also we enioyne yow, prioresse, and your sucessours vndere payne of
    pry[v]acyone and perpetuelle amocyone fro your and thaire astate and
    dygnyte that fro hense forthe ye ne thai selle, graunte ne gyfe to ony
    persone what euer thai be any corrody, lyverye, pensyone or anuyte to
    terme of lyve, certeyn tyme or perpetuelly, but if ye or thai fyrste
    declare the cause to vs or our successours bysshoppes of Lincolne, and
    in that case have our specyalle licence or of our saide successours
    and also the fulle assent of the more hole parte of your couent. Also
    we enioyne yow prioresse and your successours vndere the payne of
    priuacyone afore saide that ye ne thai selle, gyfe, aleyne, ne felle
    no grete wode or tymbere, saue to necessary reparacyone of your place
    and your tenaundryes, but if ye and thai hafe specyalle licence ther
    to, of vs or our successours bysshoppes of Lincolne and the cause
    declared to vs or our successours[750].

An exceptionally conscientious Bishop would sometimes send even more full
and elaborate instructions to a nunnery on the management of its property,
and examples of such minute regulations are to be found in the injunctions
sent to Elstow Abbey at different times by Bishop Bokyngham (1387)[751],
Archbishop Courtenay (1389)[752] and Bishop Flemyng (1421-2)[753]. Bishop
Bokyngham also sent very full injunctions to Heynings in 1392 and these
may be quoted to illustrate the care which the Visitors sometimes took to
set a house upon a firm financial footing, so far as it was possible to do
so by the mere giving of good advice:

    The Prioress, indeed, shall attempt to do nothing without the counsel
    of two nuns, elected by the convent to assist her in the government
    of the aforesaid priory, both within and without; and when any
    important business has to be done concerning the state of the priory,
    the same Prioress shall expound it to the convent in common, and shall
    settle and accomplish it according to their counsel, to the advantage
    of the aforesaid house. And each year the receiver shall display fully
    in chapter to the convent in common the state of the house and an
    account of the administration of its goods, clearly and openly
    written.... Item we command and ordain that the common seal and
    muniments of the house be faithfully kept under three locks, of which
    one key shall be in the custody of the prioress, another of the
    subprioress and the third of a nun elected for this purpose by the
    convent.... Item we enjoin and command that two receivers be each year
    elected by the chapter, who shall receive all money whatsoever,
    forthcoming from the churches, manors or rents of the said priory, the
    which two elected (receivers), together with the Prioress and with an
    auditor deputed in the name of the convent, shall hear and receive in
    writing the computation, account and reckoning of all bailiffs without
    the precincts of the house, who receive any moneys, or any other goods
    whatsoever in the name of the said convent, from churches, manors or
    rents. And afterwards the same two elected receivers, before the
    Prioress and two other of the greater, elder and more prudent nuns,
    elected to this end by the convent, shall faithfully render at least
    twice every year the account and computation of all the receipts and
    expenses of the same (receivers) within the precincts of the aforesaid
    house, to the said Prioress and two sisters elected and deputed in the
    name of the convent. And when this has been done, we will and enjoin
    that twice in every year the Prioress of the aforesaid house show the
    whole state of the aforesaid house in chapter, the whole convent being
    assembled on a certain day for this purpose. And we will that the roll
    of the aforesaid balance sheet, or paper of account or reckoning,
    remain altogether in the archives of the aforesaid house, that the
    prioress and the elder and more prudent (nuns) of the aforesaid house
    may be able easily to learn the state of the same in future years and
    whenever any difficulty may arise. And let bailiffs be constituted of
    sufficient faculties and of commendable discretion and fidelity, the
    best that can be found, and let them similarly render due account
    every year before the same prioress and convent.... Furthermore we
    will that the Prioress and convent of the aforesaid house do not sell
    or concede in perpetuity or grant for a term corrodies, stipends,
    liveries or pensions to clerics or to laymen, save with our licence
    first sought and obtained[754].

At Elstow Bokyngham gave a more detailed injunction about the appointment
of bailiffs and other officers.

    Let the Abbess for the government of the aforesaid monastery have
    faithful servants, in especial for the government and supervision
    without waste of the husbandry and the manors and stock and woods of
    the aforesaid house; the which the Abbess herself is bound, if she
    can, to supervise each year in person, or else let her cause them to
    be industriously supervised by others; and to look after the external
    and internal business of the house and to prosecute it outside let her
    appoint also some man of proven experience and of mature age[755].

The purpose of those regulations and restrictions which have hitherto been
described, was to assist the nuns in managing their own finances. But the
nuns were never very good business women, and they were moreover in theory
confined to the precincts of the cloister, so that it was difficult for
them to manage their own business, unless they imperilled their souls by
excursions into the world. During the thirteenth and early fourteenth
centuries, therefore, a common method of extricating them from their
difficulties was by appointing a male guardian, known in different places
as Custos, Prior, Warden or Master, to supervise the temporal affairs of a
house and to look after its finances. In the early history of Cistercian
nunneries each house was governed jointly by a Prior and Prioress and in
some cases a few canons are found holding the temporalities jointly with
the nuns. Of these Cistercian houses Mr Hamilton Thompson says:

    As in the case of the Gilbertine priories, such nunneries are rarely
    found outside Lincolnshire and Yorkshire: they were under the bishop's
    supervision and their connexion with the order of Cîteaux was nominal.
    Their geographical distribution, as well as the fact that St Gilbert
    attempted to affiliate his nunneries to the Cistercian order and
    modelled them upon its rule, provokes the suspicion that such houses
    were a result of the growth of the Gilbertine order, and, if not
    intended to become double houses, were at any rate imitations of the
    corporations of nuns at Sempringham and elsewhere[756].

References to canons occur in connection with the houses of Stixwould,
Heynings and Legbourne in Lincolnshire[757], Catesby in
Northamptonshire[758] and Swine in Yorkshire[759]. The _comperta_ of
Archbishop Giffard's visitation of Swine in 1267-8 show that the house at
that time closely resembled the double houses belonging to the Gilbertine

    _Item compertum est_, that the two windows, by which the food and
    drink of the canons and lay brothers are conveyed (to them), are not
    at all well guarded by the two nuns who are called janitresses,
    inasmuch as suspicious conversations are frequently held there between
    the canons and lay brothers on the one hand and the nuns and sisters
    on the other. _Item compertum est_ that the door which leads to the
    church is not at all carefully kept by a certain secular boy, who
    permits the canons and lay brothers to enter indiscriminately in the
    twilight, that they may talk with the nuns and sisters, the which door
    was wont to be guarded diligently by a trusty and energetic lay

It has already been described how the ill-management of the canons and lay
brothers ("who dissipate and consume, under colour of guardianship, the
goods outside, which were wont to be committed to the guardianship of one
of the nuns") caused the nuns to go short in clothes and food and even to
be reduced to drinking water instead of beer twice a week, though the
canons and their friends "did themselves very well" (_satis habundanter et
laute procurantur_)[760]. In most cases this double constitution of nuns
and canons was in abeyance in Cistercian houses before the fourteenth
century, though a prior and canons are mentioned at Stixwould in 1308[761]
and Richard de Staunton, "canon of Catesby," was made master of that
house as late as 1316[762].

In other houses where no trace of canons has survived there are often
references to the resident Prior, especially in the dioceses of York and
Lincoln, and this official is sometimes found in Benedictine houses (e.g.
Godstow[763], St Michael's Stamford[764], and King's Mead, Derby[765]). He
seems to have acted as senior chaplain and confessor to the nuns as well
as supervising their financial business. In cases where a nunnery was in
some sort of dependence upon an abbey or priory of monks, it is usual to
find a religious of that house acting as _custos_ of the nuns. At St
Michael's Stamford, for instance, the abbots of Peterborough had the right
of nominating a resident prior, subject to the approval of the Bishop of
Lincoln, and the office was often held by a monk of Peterborough[766].
Similarly a monk of St Albans acted as _custos_ of Sopwell[767] and a
canon of Newhouse dwelt at Brodholme "to say daily mass for the sisters
and to overlook their temporalities"[768]. The joint rule of Cistercian
houses by a Prior and Prioress seems to have died out in most cases by the
end of the thirteenth century, but it was customary for some secular or
regular cleric to be appointed in most of the small and poor houses of
York and Lincoln to look after their business[769]. Usually the _custos_
appointed was the vicar or rector of some neighbouring parish. Archbishop
Romeyn, for instance, placed Sinningthwaite, Wilberfoss and Arthington
under the guardianship of the rectors of Kirk Deighton, Sutton-on-Derwent
and Kippax respectively, and he made the vicars of Thirkleby and Bossall
successively masters of Moxby[770]. Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln appointed
neighbouring rectors and vicars to be masters of Legbourne, Godstow,
Rowney, Sewardsley, Fosse, Delapré, St Leonard's Grimsby, and

Sometimes, on the other hand, canons or monks of religious houses in the
vicinity were charged with looking after the affairs of nunneries. Swine
was managed by Robert de Spalding, a canon of the Premonstratensian house
of Croxton, and in 1289-90 Archbishop Romeyn wrote remonstrating with the
Abbot of Croxton for recalling him, and begging that he might be allowed
to continue at Swine, "cum idem vester canonicus proficuos labores ibidem
impenderit ad relevacionem probabilem depressionis notorie dicte domus";
but the capable Robert was not allowed to return and in 1290 John Bustard,
canon of St Robert's Knaresborough, was appointed in his place. John was
not a success and the next year the Abbot removed him; in 1295 Robert of
Spalding became master again and in 1298 the rector of Londesborough was
appointed[772]. At Catesby in 1293 the office of master was held by a
certain Robert de Wardon, a canon of Canons Ashby, who had apparently left
the nuns and gone back to his own house, to the great detriment of the
nunnery, for Bishop Sutton wrote in 1293 to the Prior of Canons Ashby,
bidding him send back the truant[773]. Similarly a canon of Wellow is
found as warden of St Leonard's Grimsby in 1232 and in 1303[774], a monk
of Whitby as guardian of Handale and Basedale in 1268[775], a canon of
Newburgh at Arden in 1302[776] and a canon of Lincoln at Heynings in 1291:
concerning the latter Bishop Sutton wrote to the nuns that since, "because
of private business and various other impediments he is prevented from
looking after your business as much as it requires, the vicar of Upton
your neighbour is to look after your affairs in his absence," and in 1294
he was definitely replaced by the rector of Blankney[777]. It is clear
from this letter that the masters of nunneries could be non-resident and
this was no doubt usually the case when the office was held by the rector
of a neighbouring parish. Indeed sometimes the same man would be master of
more than one nunnery; as in the case of the monk of Whitby mentioned
above. It was probably rare after the beginning of the fourteenth century
for a _custos_ to reside at a nunnery, as the early Cistercian priors had

The appointment of _custodes_ to manage the finances of nunneries was a
favourite policy with Archbishop Peckham, doubtless because it facilitated
the enforcement of strict enclosure upon the nuns. At Godstow there was
already at the time a master, but Peckham also gave the custody of
Davington to the vicar of Faversham in 1279, and that of Holy Sepulchre,
Canterbury, to the vicar of Wickham in 1284, while at Usk in 1284 he
ordered the nuns to have "some senior priest circumspect in temporal and
in spiritual affairs to be, with the consent of the diocesan, master of
all your goods, internal and external, temporal and spiritual"[779]. At
other times a _custos_ would be appointed to meet a particular difficulty
when the financial state of a house had become specially weak. About 1303,
for instance, a monk of Peterborough was made for a season special warden
of St Michael's, Stamford, "with full powers over the temporalities and of
adjudicating and ordering all temporal matters both within and without the
convent as he should think profitable"; the appointment is specially
interesting because there was at the time a resident prior at St Michael's
and the "spiritual disposition of all things concerning the house" is
reserved to this prior and to the prioress[780]. A more serious crisis
occurred at the Priory of White Hall, Ilchester, which was evidently in a
disorderly condition at the beginning of the fourteenth century. In 1323
Bishop John of Drokensford wrote to Henry of Birlaunde, rector of Stoke
and to John de Herminal, announcing that the Prioress, Alice de Chilterne,
was defamed of incontinence with a chaplain and had so mismanaged and
turned to her own nefarious uses the revenues of the house that her
sisters were compelled to beg their bread; she had however submitted
herself to the Bishop, but as public affairs called him to London and as
he did not wish to leave the nunnery unprovided for, he committed the
custody to these two men, ordering them to administer the necessities of
life to the Prioress and sisters, according to the means of the house,
until his return[781]. Some ten years later Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury
similarly gave the custody of White Hall, Ilchester, to the rectors of
Limington and St John's Ilchester[782]. The nunnery of Barrow, near
Bristol, was also in a disorderly condition; in 1315 John of Drokensford
wrote to the Prioress ordering her to leave the management of secular
matters to a _custos_ appointed by him, and the same day appointed William
de Sutton; and in 1324-5, when he had been obliged to remove the Prioress
Joanna Gurney, he committed the custody of the house to William, rector of
Backwell, ordering him to do the best he could with the advice of the
subprioress and one of the nuns[783]. More often sheer financial distress,
rather than moral disorder, was the reason for which a _custos_ was
appointed to a house. At St Sepulchre's Canterbury, the rector of
Whitstable was made _custos_, "by reason of the miserable want and extreme
poverty of the said house" (1359) and for the same reason another secular
cleric received the "supervision, custody or administration" of the same
house in 1365[784]. In 1366 Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham,

    pitying the miserable state of St Bartholomew's at Newcastle-on-Tyne,
    both as to spirituals and temporals, and dreading the immediate ruin
    thereof, unless some speedy remedy should be applied, committed it to
    the care of Hugh de Arnecliffe, priest in the church of St Nicholas in
    Newcastle-upon-Tyne, strictly enjoining the prioress and nuns to be
    obedient to him in every particular and trusting to his prudence to
    find relief for the poor servants of Christ here, in their poverty and

Sometimes the nuns themselves begged for a _custos_ to assist them, in
terms which show that they found the management of their own finances too
much for them. At Godstow in 1316 the King was obliged, at the request of
the Abbess and nuns, to take the Abbey into his special protection "on
account of its miserable state," and he appointed the Abbot of Eynsham and
the Prior of Bicester as keepers, ordering them to pay the nuns a certain
allowance and to apply the residue to the discharging of their debts[786].
Similarly in 1327 the Prioress and nuns of King's Mead, Derby, represented
themselves as much reduced, and begged the King to take the house into his
special protection, granting the custody of it to Robert of Alsop and
Simon of Little Chester, until it should be relieved. Three months later
Edward III granted it protection for three years and appointed Robert of
Alsop and Simon of Little Chester custodians, who, after due provision for
the sustenance of the prioress and nuns, were to apply the issues and
rents to the discharge of the liabilities of the house and to the
improvement of its condition[787]. Some interesting evidence in this
connection was given during Alnwick's visitations of the diocese of
Lincoln. When Clemence Medforde, the Prioress of Ankerwyke, was asked
whether she had observed the Bishop's injunctions, she answered

    that such injunctions were, and are, well observed as regards both her
    and her sisters in effect and according to their power, except the
    injunction whereby she is bound to supply to her sisters sufficient
    raiment for their habits, and as touching the non-observance of that
    injunction she answers that she cannot observe it, because of the
    poverty and insufficiency of the resources of the house, which have
    been much lessened by reason of the want of a surveyor or steward
    (_yconomus_). Wherefore she besought my lord's good-will and
    assistance that he would deign with charitable consideration to make
    provision of such steward or director.... And when these nuns, all and
    several, had been so examined and were gathered together again in the
    chapter house, the said Depyng (the Visitor) gave consideration to two
    grievances, wherein the priory and nuns alike suffer no small damage,
    the which, as he affirmed, were worthy of reform above the rest of
    those that stood most in need of reform, to wit the lack of raiment
    for the habit, of bedclothes and of a steward or seneschal, but in
    these matters, as he averred, he could not apply a remedy for the
    nonce without riper deliberation and consultation with my lord[788].

Similarly the old Prioress of St Michael's Stamford, when asking for the
appointment of two nuns as treasuresses, complained "that she herself is
impotent to rule temporalities, nor have they an industrious man to
supervise these and to raise and receive (external payments)"; another nun
said that "they have not a discreet layman to rule their temporalities,"
and a third also complained of the lack of a "receiver"[789]. At Gokewell,
on the other hand, the Prioress said "that the rector of Flixborough is
their steward (_yconomus_) and he looks after the temporalities and not
she"; he was evidently a true friend to the nuns, for she said "that the
house does not exceed £10 in rents and is greatly in debt to the rector of
Flixborough"[790]. The terms of appointment of _custodes_ often specify
the inexpertness of the nuns, or their need for someone to supervise the
management of their estates[791]. Perhaps the fullest set of instructions
to a _custos_ which have survived are those given by Archbishop Melton to
Roger de Saxton, rector of Aberford, in making him _custos_ of Kirklees in

    Trusting in your industry, we by tenour of the present (letters) give
    you power during our pleasure to look after, guard and administer the
    temporal possessions of our beloved religious ladies, the Prioress and
    convent of Kirklees in our diocese, throughout their manors and
    buildings (_loca_) wherever these be, and to receive and hear the
    account of all servants and ministers serving in the same, and to make
    those payments (_allocandum_) which by reason ought to be made, as
    well as to remove all useless ministers and servants and to appoint in
    their place others of greater utility, and to do all other things
    which shall seem to you to be to the advantage of the place, firmly
    enjoining the said prioress and convent, as well as the sisters and
    lay brothers of the house, in virtue of holy obedience, that they
    permit you freely to administer in all and each of the aforesaid

It must have been of great assistance to the worried and incompetent nuns
to have a reliable guardian thus to look after their temporal affairs, and
it is difficult to understand why the practice of having a resident prior
died out at the Cistercian houses and at Benedictine houses (e.g. St
Michael's, Stamford) which had such an official in the thirteenth and
early fourteenth centuries. Even the appointment of neighbouring rectors
as _custodes_ of nunneries in the York and Lincoln dioceses ceased,
apparently, to be common by the middle of the fourteenth century[793]. It
is a curious anomaly that this remedy should have been applied less and
less often during the very centuries when the nunneries were becoming
increasingly poor, and stood daily in greater need of external assistance
in the management of their temporal affairs.



  Abstinence the abbesse myn a. b. c. me taughte.
                              _Piers Plowman._

The Benedictine ideal set study together with prayer and labour as the
three bases of monastic life and in the short golden age of English
monasticism women as well as men loved books and learning. The tale of the
Anglo-Saxon nuns who corresponded with St Boniface has often been told.
Eadburg, Abbess of Thanet, wrote the Epistles of St Peter for him in
letters of gold and sent books to him in the wilds of Germany. Bugga,
Abbess of a Kentish house, exchanged books with him. The charming Lioba,
educated by the nuns of Wimborne, sent him verses which she had composed
in Latin, which "divine art" the nun Eadburg had taught her, and begged
him to correct the rusticity of her style. Afterwards she came into
Germany to help him and became Abbess of Bischofsheim and her biographer
tells how

    she was so bent on reading that she never laid aside her book except
    to pray or to strengthen her slight frame with food and sleep. From
    childhood upwards she had studied grammar and the other liberal arts,
    and hoped by perseverance to attain a perfect knowledge of religion,
    for she was well aware that the gifts of nature are doubled by study.
    She zealously read the books of the Old and New Testaments and
    committed their divine precepts to memory; but she further added to
    the rich store of her knowledge by reading the writings of the holy
    Fathers, the canonical decrees and the laws of the Church.

So also an anonymous Anglo-Saxon nun of Heidenheim wrote the lives of
Willibald and Wunebald[794].

The Anglo-Saxon period seems, however, to have been the only one during
which English nuns were at all conspicuous for learning. There is indeed
very scant material for writing their history between the Norman Conquest
and the last years of the thirteenth century, when Bishops' Registers
begin. It is never safe to argue from silence and some nuns may still
have busied themselves over books; but two facts are significant: we have
no trace of women occupying themselves with the copying and illumination
of manuscripts and no nunnery produced a chronicle. The chronicles are the
most notable contribution of the monastic houses to learning from the
eleventh to the fourteenth centuries; and some of the larger nunneries,
such as Romsey, Lacock, and Shaftesbury, received many visitors and must
have heard much that was worth recording, besides the humbler annals of
their own houses. But they recorded nothing. The whole trend of medieval
thought was against learned women and even in Benedictine nunneries, for
which a period of study was enjoined by the rule, it was evidently
considered altogether outside the scope of women to concern themselves
with writing. While the monks composed chronicles, the nuns embroidered
copes; and those who sought the gift of a manuscript from the monasteries,
sought only the gift of needlework from the nunneries.

It is not, perhaps, surprising that the nuns should have written no
chronicles and copied few, if any, books. But it is surprising that
England should after the eighth century be able to show so little record
of gifted individuals. Even if the rule of a professedly learned order
were unlikely to prevail against the general trend of civilisation and to
produce learned women, still it might have been expected that here and
there a genius, or a woman of some talent for authorship, might have
flourished in that favourable soil; or even that a whole house might have
enjoyed for a brief halcyon period the zest for learning, when "alle was
buxomnesse there and bokes to rede and to lerne." In Germany, at various
periods of the middle ages, this did happen. The Abbey of Gandersheim in
Saxony was renowned for learning in the tenth century and here lived and
flourished the nun Roswitha, who not only wrote religious legends in Latin
verse, but even composed seven dramas in the style of Terence, a poem on
the Emperor Otto the Great and a history of her own nunnery. From the
internal evidence of her works it has been thought that this nun was
directly familiar with the works of Virgil, Lucan, Horace, Ovid, Terence
and perhaps Plautus, Prudentius, Sedulius, Fortunatus, Martianus Capella
and Boethius; but apart from this evidence of learning, her plays show
her to have been a woman of originality and some genius; they are strange
productions to have emanated from a tenth century convent[795]. It was in
Germany again, at Hohenburg in Alsace, that the Abbess Herrad in the
twelfth century compiled and decorated with exquisite illuminations the
great encyclopedia known as the _Hortus Deliciarum_. This book, one of the
finest manuscripts which had survived from the middle ages and a most
invaluable source of information for the manners and appearance of the
people of Herrad's day, was destroyed in the German bombardment of
Strasburg in 1870[796]. The same century saw the lives of the two great
nun-mystics, St Hildegard of Bingen and St Elisabeth of Schönau, who saw
visions, dreamed dreams and wrote them down[797]. In the next century the
convent of Helfta in Saxony was the home of several literary nuns and
mystics and was distinguished for culture; its nuns collected books,
copied them, illuminated them, learned and wrote Latin, and three of them,
the béguine Mechthild, the nun Saint Mechthild von Hackeborn and the nun
Gertrud the Great, have won considerable fame by their mystic
writings[798]. Even in the decadent fifteenth century examples are not
wanting of German nuns who were keenly interested in learning; and in the
early sixteenth century Charitas Pirckheimer, nun of St Clare at Nuremberg
and sister of the humanist Wilibald Pirckheimer, was in close relations
with her brother and with many of his friends and full of enthusiasm for
the new learning[799].

It is strange that in England there is no record of any house which can
compare with Gandersheim, Hohenburg or Helfta; no record of any nun to
compare with the learned women and great mystics who have been mentioned.
The air of the English nunneries would seem to have been unfavourable to
learning. The sole works ascribed to monastic authoresses are a _Life of
St Catherine_, written in Norman-French by Clemence, a nun of Barking, in
the late twelfth century[800], and _The Boke of St Albans_, a treatise on
hawking, hunting and coat armour, printed in 1486, by one Dame Juliana
Berners, whom a vague and unsubstantiated tradition declares to have been
Prioress of Sopwell. Nor do nuns seem to have been more active in copying
manuscripts. Several beautiful books, which have come down to our own day,
can be traced to nunneries, but there is no evidence that they were
written there and all other evidence makes it highly improbable that they
were. It is true that in 1335 we find this entry among the issues of the

    To Isabella de Lancaster, a nun of Amesbury, in money paid to her by
    the hands of John de Gynewell for payment of 100 marks, which the lord
    the King commanded to be paid her for a book of romance purchased from
    her for the King's use, which remains in the chamber of the lord the
    King, 66 l. 13 s. 4 d[801],

but it is unlikely that the book thus purchased by the King from his noble
kinswoman was her own work.

This period of the later ages was, indeed, unfavourable to learning among
monks as well as among nuns. As the universities grew, so the monasteries
declined in lustre; learning had no longer need to seek refuge behind
cloister walls, and the most promising monks now went to the universities,
instead of studying at home in their own houses. The standard of the
chronicles rapidly declined and the best chronicler of the fourteenth
century was not a monk like Matthew Paris, but a secular, a wanderer, a
hanger-on of princes, Froissart. As the fifteenth century passed learning
declined still further; and it is evident from the visitations of the time
that the monks, whatever else they might be, were not scholars. We should
expect the decline in learning to be more marked still among the nuns,
considering how little they had possessed in preceding centuries; and the
matter is worth some study, because it concerns not only the education of
the nuns themselves, but the education which they were qualified to give
to the children who were sent to school with them.

A word may first be said on the subject of nunnery libraries. Concerning
these we have very little information; and, such as it is, it does not
leave the impression that nunneries were rich in books. No catalogue of a
nunnery library[802] has come down to us and such references to libraries
as occur in inventories show great poverty in this respect, the books
being few and chiefly service-books. An inventory of the small and poor
convent of Easebourne, taken in 1450, shows what was doubtless quite a
large library for a house of its size. It contained two missals, two
_portiforia_ (breviaries), four antiphoners, one large _Legenda_, eight
psalters, one book of collects, one tropary, one French Bible, two
_ordinalia_ in French, one book of the Gospels and one martyrology[803].
The inventories of Henry VIII's commissioners give very little information
as to books and seem to have found few that were of any value. The books
found at Sheppey are thus described: "ij bokes with ij sylver clapses the
pece, and vj bokes with one sylver clasp a pec, l bokes good and bad" (in
the church), "vij bokes, whereof one goodly mase boke of parchement and
dyvers other good bokes" (in the vestry), and "an olde presse full of old
boks of no valew" (in a chapel in the churchyard) and "a boke of Saynts
lyfes" (in the parlour)[804]. At Kilburn were found "two books of _Legenda
Aurea_, one in print, the other written, both English, 4_d._"; the one in
print must have been Caxton's edition, thus valued, together with a
manuscript, at something like 6_s._ 8_d._ in present money for the pair!
Also "two mass books, one old written, the other in print, 20_d._, four
processions in parchment (3_s._) and paper (10_d._), two Legends in
parchment and paper, 8_d._, and two chests, with divers books pertaining
to the church, of no value"[805]. It will be noted that the books are
almost always connected with the church services. It is perhaps
significant that in only one list of the inmates of a house is a nun
specifically described as librarian[806].

Something may be gleaned also from the legacies of books left to nuns in
medieval wills. These again are nearly always psalters or service books of
one kind or another; and indeed the average layman was more likely to
possess these than other books, for all alike attended the services of the
church. Thus Sir Robert de Roos in 1392 leaves his daughter, a nun, "a
little psalter, that was her mother's"[807]; Sir William de Thorp in 1391
leaves his sister-in-law, a nun of Greenfield, a psalter[808]; William
Stow of Ripon in 1430 leaves the Prioress of Nunmonkton a small
psalter[809], William Overton of Helmsley in 1481 leaves his niece Elena,
a nun of Arden, "one great Primer with a cover of red damask"[810], and so
on. There may be some significance in the fact that John Burn, chaplain at
York Cathedral, leaves the Prioress and Convent of Nunmonkton "an English
book of Pater Noster"[811]. It strikes a strange and pleasant note when
Thomas Reymound in 1418 leaves the Prioress and Convent of Polsloe 20_s._
and the _Liber Gestorum Karoli, Regis Francie_[812], and when Eleanor Roos
of York in 1438 leaves Dame Joan Courtenay "unum librum vocatum
Mauldebuke," whatever that mysterious tome may have contained[813].

Some light is also thrown backward upon their possessors by isolated books
which have come down to our own day and are known to have belonged to
nuns. These come mostly, as might be expected, from the great abbeys of
the south, where the nuns were rich and of good birth, from Syon and
Barking, Amesbury, Wilton and Shaftesbury, St Mary's Winchester, and
Wherwell[814]. Sometimes the MS. records the name of the nun owner. Wright
and Halliwell quote from a Latin breviary, in which is an inscription to
the effect that it belonged to Alice Champnys, nun of Shaftesbury, who
bought it for the sum of 10_s._ from Sir Richard Marshall, rector of the
parish church of St Rumbold of Shaftesbury. There follows this prayer for
the use of the nun:

    Trium puerorum cantemus himnum quem cantabant in camino ignis
    benedicentes dominum. O swete Jhesu, the sonne of God, the endles
    swetnesse of hevyn and of erthe and of all the worlde, be in my herte,
    in my mynde, in my wytt, in my wylle, now and ever more, Amen. Jhesu
    mercy, Jhesu gramercy, Jhesu for thy mercy, Jhesu as I trust to thy
    mercy, Jhesu as thow art fulle of mercy, Jhesu have mercy on me and
    alle mankynde redemyd with thy precyouse blode. Jhesu, Amen[815].

A manuscript of Capgrave's _Life of St Katharine of Alexandria_, which
belonged to Katherine Babyngton, subprioress of Campsey in Suffolk, has a
very different inscription:

    Iste liber est ex dono Kateryne Babyngton quondam subpriorisse de
    Campseye et si quis illum alienauerit sine licencia vna cum consensu
    dictarum [sanctimonialium] conuentus, malediccionem dei omnipotentis
    incurrat et anathema sit[816].

Sometimes the owner of a manuscript is known to us from other sources.
There is a splendid psalter, now in St John's College, Cambridge, which
belonged to the saintly Euphemia, Abbess of Wherwell from 1226 to 1257,
whose good deeds were celebrated in the chartulary of the house[817]. In
the Hunterian Library at Glasgow there is a copy of the first English
translation of Thomas à Kempis's _Imitatio Christi_, which belonged to
Elizabeth Gibbs, Abbess of Syon from 1497 to 1518; it is inscribed

    O vos omnes sorores et ffratres presentes et futuri, orate queso pro
    venerabili matre nostra Elizabeth Gibbis, huius almi Monasterii
    Abbessa [_sic_], necnon pro deuoto ac religioso viro Dompno Willielmo
    Darker, in artibus Magistro de domo Bethleem prope sheen ordinis
    Cartuciensis, qui pro eadem domina Abbessa hunc librum conscripsit;

the date 1502 is given[818].

The books known to have been in the possession of nuns throw, as will be
seen, but a dim light upon the educational attainments of their owners.
More specific evidence must be sought in bishops' registers, and in such
references to the state of learning in nunneries as occur in the works of
contemporary writers. It is clear that nuns were expected to be
"literate"; bishops sending new inmates to convents occasionally assure
their prospective heads that the girls are able to undertake the duties of
their new state[819]. What to be sufficiently lettered meant, from the
convent point of view, appears in injunctions sent to the
Premonstratensian house of Irford, forbidding the reception of any nun
"save after such fashion as they are received at Irford and Brodholme, to
wit that they be able to read and to sing, as is contained in the statute
of the order"[820]; and again in injunctions sent by Bishop Gray to Elstow
about 1432:

    We enjoin and charge you the abbess and who so shall succeed you ...
    that henceforward you admit no one to be a nun of the said monastery
    ... unless she be taught in song and reading and the other things
    requisite herein, or probably may be easily instructed within a short

Further light is thrown on the question by an episode in the life of
Thomas de la Mare, Abbot of St Albans from 1349 to 1396. At that time the
subordinate nunnery of St Mary de Pré consisted of two grades of inmates,
nuns and sisters, who were never on good terms. The Abbot accordingly
transformed the sisters into nuns and ordained that no more sisters should
be received, but only "literate nuns." But hitherto the nuns also had been
illiterate; "they said no service, but in the place of the Hours they said
certain Lord's Prayers and Angelic Salutations." The Abbot therefore
ordered that they should be taught the service and that in future they
should observe the canonical hours, saying them without chanting, but
singing the offices for the dead at certain times. Since they had
apparently no books, from which to read the services, he gave them six or
seven ordinals, belonging to the Abbey of St Albans, which caused not a
little annoyance among the monks. In order that nuns should not be rashly
and easily admitted, he ordered that henceforth all who entered the house
were to profess the rule of St Benedict in writing[822].

The requirements seem to be that the nun should be able to take part in
the daily offices in the quire, for which reading and singing were
essential. It was not, it should be noted, essential to write, though
Abbot Thomas de la Mare required the nuns of St Mary de Pré to profess the
rule in writing and about 1330 the nuns of Sopwell (another dependency of
St Albans) were enjoined by the commissary of a previous Abbot to give
their votes for a new Prioress in writing[823]. Nevertheless, strange as
this may appear to many who are wont to credit the nuns with teaching
reading, writing, arithmetic and a number of other accomplishments to
their pupils, it is probable that some of the nuns of the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries were unable to write. The form of profession of three
novices at Rusper in 1484 has survived and ends with the note "Et quelibet
earum fecit tale signum crucis manu sua propria [Maltese cross]"[824]
which might possibly imply that these nuns could not write their names. It
is significant that the official business of convents, their annual
accounts and any certificates which they might have to draw up, were done
by professional clerks, or sometimes by their chaplains. Payment to the
clerk who made the account occurs regularly in their account rolls; and
the Visitations of Bishop Alnwick, to which reference will be made below,
show that they were often completely at a loss, when writing had to be
done and there was no clerk to do it.

Again it would seem clear that the nun who was fully qualified to "bear
the burden of the choir" ought to be able to understand what she read, as
well as to read it, and this raises at once the study of Latin in
nunneries. Here again the nuns do not emerge very well from inquiry. Some
there were no doubt who knew a little Latin, even in the fourteenth,
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; but the more the inquirer studies
contemporary records, the more he is driven to conclude that the majority
of nuns during this period knew no Latin; they must have sung the offices
by rote and though they may have understood, it is to be feared that the
majority of them could not construe even a _Pater Noster_, an _Ave_ or a
_Credo_. Let us take the evidence for the different centuries in turn. The
language of visitation injunctions affords some clue to the knowledge of
the nuns. It must be remembered that throughout the whole period Latin was
always the learned and ecclesiastical language; and the communications
addressed by a bishop to the monastic houses of his district, notices of
visitation, mandates and injunctions would normally be in Latin; and when
he was addressing monks they were in fact almost always in this tongue.
After Latin the language next in estimation was French. This had been the
universal language of the upper class and up till the middle of the
fourteenth century it was still _par excellence_ the courtly tongue. But
it was rapidly ceasing to be a language in general use and the
turning-point is marked by a statute of 1362, which ordains that
henceforth all pleas in the law courts shall be conducted in English,
since the French language "is too unknown in the said realm." At the close
of the century even the upper classes were ceasing to speak French and the
English ambassadors to France in 1404 had to beseech the Grand Council of
France to answer them in Latin, French being "like Hebrew" to them[825].
In the fifteenth century French was a mere educational adornment, which
could be acquired by those who could get teachers.

The linguistic learning of English nuns at different periods was similar
to that of the gentry outside the convent. It was not possible after the
beginning of the fourteenth century (perhaps even during the last half of
the thirteenth century) to assume in them that acquaintance with Latin,
the learned and ecclesiastical tongue, which was generally assumed in
their brothers the monks. Their learning was similar to that of
contemporary laymen of their class, rather than of contemporary monks; and
it went through exactly the same phases as did the coronation oath. About
1311 the King's oath occurs in Latin among the State documents, with the
note appended that "if the King were illiterate" he was to swear in
French, as Edward II did in 1307; but in 1399 when Henry IV claimed the
throne, he claimed it in English, "In the name of the Fadir, Son and Holy
Gost, I Henry of Lancastre, chalenge þis Rewme of Yngland"[826]. Similarly
towards the close of the thirteenth century the English bishops begin to
write to their nuns in French, because they are no longer "literate," in
the sense of understanding Latin. Throughout this century the nuns are
able to speak the courtly tongue; they use it for their petitions; and
Chaucer's Prioress boasts it among her accomplishments at the close of the

  And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly
  After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
    For French of Paris was to her unknowe.

But French, like Latin, is beginning to die away. It hardly ever occurs in
petitions after the end of the century; and in the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries the Bishops almost invariably send their injunctions to the nuns
in English. The majority of nuns during these two centuries would seem to
have understood neither French nor Latin[827].

The evidence of the bishops' registers is worth considering in more
detail. The bishops were genuinely anxious that the reforms set forth in
their injunctions should be carried out by the nuns, and they were
therefore at considerable pains to send the injunctions in language which
the nuns could understand. There are few surviving injunctions belonging
to the thirteenth century; and their evidence is missed. Archbishop Walter
Giffard in 1268[828] and Archbishop Newark in 1298[829] write to the nuns
of Swine in Latin, a language which they seem to have employed habitually
when writing to nunneries. Archbishop Peckham sometimes writes to the
Godstow nuns in Latin (1279) and sometimes in French (1284)[830]; it is to
be noted that his French letter is of a more familiar type. Bishop
Cantilupe of Hereford writes about 1277 to the nuns of Lymbrook in Latin,
but his closing words raise considerable doubt as to whether an
understanding of Latin can be generally assumed in nunneries at this
period, for he says "you are to cause this our letter to be expounded to
you several times in the year by your penancers, in the French or English
tongue, whichever you know best"[831].

The evidence for the next century is even less ambiguous, for nearly all
injunctions are in French and sometimes it is specifically mentioned that
the nuns do not understand Latin. Bishop Norbury in 1331 translates his
injunctions to Fairwell into French[832], because the nuns do not
understand the original in Latin, and Bishop Robert de Stretton, writing
to the same house in 1367, orders his decree to be "read and explained in
the vulgar tongue by some literate ecclesiastical person on the day after
its receipt"[833]. Bishop Stapeldon's interesting injunctions to Polsloe
and Canonsleigh in 1319 are in French, but he seems to assume some
knowledge of Latin in the nuns, for he orders that if it be necessary to
break silence in places where silence is ordained, speech should be held
in Latin, though not in grammatically constructed sentences, but in
isolated words[834]. In 1311 Bishop Woodlock sending a set of Latin
injunctions to the great Abbey of Romsey, announces that he has caused
them to be translated into French, that the nuns may more easily
understand them[835]; but Wykeham writes to them in Latin in 1387[836]. In
the Lincoln diocese during this century the custom of the bishops varies.
Gynewell writes to Heynings and to Godstow in French, but to Elstow in
Latin[837]; Bokyngham writes to both Heynings and Elstow in Latin, but in
ordering the nuns of Elstow in 1387 to keep silence at due times, he adds
"Et vulgare gallicum addiscentes inter se eo utantur colloquentes"[838], a
significant contrast to Stapeldon's recommendation of Latin in similar
circumstances some seventy years earlier.

When we pass from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century it is clear that
even French was becoming an unknown tongue to the nuns; nearly all
injunctions are from this time forward written in English. At Redlingfield
in 1427, the seven nuns and two novices were assembled in the chapter
house, where the deputy visitor read his commission, first in Latin and
then in the vulgar tongue, in order that the nuns might better understand
it[839]. It is true that Bishops Flemyng and Gray send Latin injunctions
to Elstow and Delapré Abbeys in 1422 and 1433 respectively; but Flemyng
orders "that the premises, all and sundry, be published and read openly
and in the vulgar mother tongue eight times a year"[840], and Gray writes
that his injunctions are to be translated into the mother tongue and
fastened in some conspicuous place[841]. The best evidence of all for the
state of learning in nunneries during the first half of the fifteenth
century is to be found in the invaluable records of Alnwick's visitations
of the Lincoln diocese. Now it should be noted that when Alnwick visited
houses of monks or canons, the sermon, which was generally preached on
such occasions by one of the learned clerics who accompanied him, was
invariably preached in Latin. Moreover, all injunctions sent to male
houses after visitation were sent in Latin also. The assumption still was
that these monasteries were homes of learning and acquainted with the
language of learning. With the nunneries it was otherwise. The sermons
were always preached "in the vulgar tongue" and the injunctions were
always sent in English. It was not even pretended that the nuns would
understand Latin. Moreover it is quite plain that when the preliminary
notices of visitation had been sent in Latin, they had been very
imperfectly understood; and that when it was necessary for a Prioress
herself to draw up a certificate in writing, she was often quite unable to
do so.

A few extracts from Alnwick's records will illustrate the complete
ignorance of Latin and general illiteracy in these houses. At Ankerwyke
(1441) it is noted:

    And then when request had been made of the prioress by the reverend
    father for the certificate of his mandate conveyed to the said
    prioress for such visitation, the same prioress, instead of the
    certificate delivered the original mandate itself to the said reverend
    father, affirming that she did not understand the mandate itself, nor
    had she any man of skill or other lettered person to instruct what she
    should do in this behalf[842].

At Markyate (1442), when the same certificate was asked for, the Prioress

    said that she had not a clerk who was equipped for writing such a
    certificate, on the which head she submitted herself to my lord's
    favour and then showed my lord in lieu of a certificate the original
    mandate itself and the names of the nuns who had been summoned[843].

Similarly the Prioress of Fosse showed the original mandate in place of
the certificate, and the Prioresses of St Michael's Stamford and Rothwell
had failed to draw up the certificate[844]. The Prioress of Gokewell
(1440) was said to be "exceedingly simple," all the temporalities of the
house being ruled by a steward; she also declared that "she knows not how
to compose a formal certificate, in that she has no lettered persons of
her counsel who are skilled in this case," and she had been unable to find
the document reciting the confirmation of her election[845]. The poor
convent of Langley seems to have been reduced to complete confusion by the
episcopal mandate. The Prioress

    says that she received my lord's mandate on the feast of St Denis
    last. Interrogated whether she has a certificate touching execution
    thereof, she says no, because she did not understand it, nor did her
    chaplain also, to whom she showed it; concerning the which she
    surrendered herself to my lord's favour. Wherefore, when the original
    mandate had been delivered to my lord and read through in the vulgar
    tongue, my lord asked her if she had executed it. She says yes, as
    regards the summons of herself and her sisters.... Interrogated if she
    has the foundation charter of the house and who is the founder, she
    says that Sir William Pantolfe founded the house, but because they are
    unversed in letters they cannot understand the writings[846].

It is unnecessary to multiply the evidence of visitation records for the
rest of the fifteenth and for the early sixteenth century: the general
effect is to show us nuns who know only the English language[847]. Let us
turn to the interesting corroborative evidence provided by those who were
at pains to make translations for their use. It must be admitted that this
evidence only confirms the suggestion made above that the nuns often did
not understand the very services which they sang, let alone the Latin
version of their rule, or the Latin charters by which they held their
lands. That they often sang the services uncomprehendingly like parrots is
actually stated by Sir David Lyndesay, the Scottish poet, in his _Dialog
concerning the Monarché_ (1553). He apologises for writing in his native
tongue, unlike those clerks, who wish to prohibit the people from reading
even the scriptures for themselves, and adds

  Tharefore I thynk one gret dirisioun
  To heir thir Nunnis & Systeris nycht and day
  Syngand and sayand psalmes and orisoun,
  Nocht vnderstandyng quhat thay syng nor say,
  Bot lyke one stirlyng or ane Papingay
  Quhilk leirnit ar to speik be lang usage
  Thame I compair to byrdis in ane cage[848].

Several translations of the rule of St Benet were made for the special use
of nuns, who knew no Latin. A northern metrical version of the early
fifteenth century explains

  Monkes and als all leryd men
  In Latin may it lyghtly ken,
  And wytt tharby how they sall wyrk
  To sarue god and haly kyrk.

  Bott tyll women to mak it couth,
  That leris no latyn in thar youth,
  In inglis is it ordand here,
  So that thay may it lyghtly lere[849].

About a century later, in 1517, Richard Fox, the Bishop of Winchester,
published for the benefit of the nuns of his diocese another English
translation of the Rule of St Benedict. In the preface he rehearses how
nuns are professed under the Rule and are bound to read, learn and
understand it:

    and also after their profession they should not onely in them selfe
    kepe observe execute and practise the said rule but also teche other
    and heir sisters the same, and so moche that for the same intent they
    daily rede and cause to be rede some parte of the sayd rule by one of
    the sayd sisters amonges them selfe as well in their Chapiter House
    after the redinge of the Martyrologe as some tyme in their Fraitur in
    tyme of refections and collacions, at the which reding is always don
    in the latin tonge, whereof they have no knowledge nor understandinge
    but be utterly ignorant of the same, whereby they do not only lose
    their tyme but also renne into the evident danger and perill of the
    perdicion of their soules.

He adds that in order to save the souls of his nuns, and in particular to
ensure that novices understand the Rule before profession,

    so that none of them shall nowe afterward probably say that she wyste
    not what she professed, as we knowe by experience that some of them
    have sayd in tyme passed, for these causes at thinstant requeste of
    our ryght dere and well-beloved daughters in oure Lorde Jhesu, the
    Abbasses of the Monasteries of Rumsay, Wharwel, Seynt Maries within
    the Citie of Winchester and the Prioresses of Wintnay, our right
    religious diocesans, we have translated the sayd rule unto our moders
    tonge; comune, playne rounde Englishe, easy and redy to be understande
    by the sayde devoute religiouse women[850].

The inconvenience of not being able to read the foundation charter and
other legal documents of the house, as confessed by the Prioress of
Langley at Alnwick's visitation, was very great; and about 1460 Alice
Henley, the Abbess of Godstow, caused a translation to be made of the
Latin register, in which were copied all the charters of her abbey. The
translator's preface to the work is interesting:

    The wyseman tawht hys chyld gladly to rede bokys and hem well
    vndurstonde for, in defaute of vndyrstondyng, is ofttymes caused
    neclygence, hurte, harme and hynderaunce, as experyence prevyth in
    many a place. And for as muche as women of relygyone in redynge bokys
    of latyn, byn excusyd of grete vndurstandyng, where it is not her
    modyr tonge; Therfore, how be hyt that they wolde rede her bokys of
    remembraunce of her munymentys wryte in latyn, for defaute of
    undurstondyng they toke ofte tymes grete hurt and hyndraunce; and,
    what for defaute of trewe lernyd men that all tymes be not redy hem to
    teche and counsayl, and feere also and drede to shewe her euydence
    opynly (that oftyntyme hath causyd repentaunce). Hyt wer ryht
    necessary, as hyt semyth to the undyrstondyng of suche relygyous
    women, that they myght haue, out of her latyn bokys, sum wrytynge in
    her modyr tonge, wher-by they might haue bettyr knowlyge of her
    munymentys and more clerely yeue informacyon to her serauntys, rent
    gedurarys, and receyuowrs, in the absent of her lernyd councell.
    Wher-fore, a poore brodur and welwyller ... to the goode Abbas of
    Godstowe, Dame Alice henley, and to all her couent, the whych byn for
    the more party in Englyssh bokys well y-lernyd, hertyly desyryng the
    worship, profyt and welfare of that deuoute place, that, for lak of
    vndurstondyng her munymentys sholde in no damage of her lyflod
    huraftur fallyn, In the worship of our lady and seynt John Baptist
    patron of thys seyd monastery, the sentence for the more partyre of
    her munymentys conteynd in the boke of her regystr in latyn, aftyr the
    same forme and ordyr of the seyd boke, hath purposyd with goddys grace
    to make, aftur hys conceyt, fro latyn into Englyssh, sentencyosly, as
    foloweth thys symple translacion[851].

It will be noticed that the benevolent translator of this Godstow register
says that the nuns are for the most part well learned in English books.
The same impression is given by the translations which were made for the
nuns of Syon. The most famous of these is the _Myroure of Oure Ladye_,
written for the nuns by Thomas Gascoigne (1403-58) and first printed in
1530. This book contains a devotional treatise on divine service, with a
translation and explanation of the "Hours" and "Masses" of our Lady, as
they were used at Syon. The author explains his purpose thus:

    Forasmoche as many of you, though ye can synge and rede, yet ye can
    not se what the meanynge therof ys; therefore to the onely worshyp
    and praysyng of oure lorde Jesu chryste and of hys moste mercyfull
    mother oure lady and to the gostly comforte and profyte of youre
    soules, I haue drawen youre legende and all youre seruyce in to
    Englyshe, that ye shulde se by the vnderstondyng therof, how worthy
    and holy praysynge of oure gloryous Lady is contente therin & the more
    deuoutely and knowyngly synge yt & rede yt and say yt to her worshyp.

He adds that he has explained the various parts of the divine service for
"symple soulles to vnderstonde," but that he has translated few psalms,
"for ye may haue them of Rycharde hampoules drawynge, and out of Englysshe
bibles, if ye haue lysence therto"[852].

From a passage in the _Myroure_ it appears that the sisters were
accustomed to spend some of their time in reading and advice is given to
them as to the sort of books to read and the way in which to profit by
them; from this it is quite clear that secular learning had no place among
them, their reading being confined to works of ghostly edification[853].
It was their ignorance of Latin which caused the insertion of English
rubrics in the Latin _Processionale_ of the house and which inspired
Richard Whytford, one of the brothers, to translate the splendid
_Martilogium_, which is now in the British Museum, "for the edificacyon of
certayn religyous persones unlerned that dayly dyd rede the same martiloge
in Latyn, not understandynge what they redde"; his translation was printed
by Wynkyn de Worde in 1526[854]. Gascoigne's mention of English bibles is
interesting. Miss Deanesly, in her study of _The Lollard Bible_, has shown
that "it is likely that English nuns were the most numerous orthodox users
of English bibles between 1408 and 1526," but that the evidence for this
use is slight and drawn almost entirely from Syon and Barking, two large
and important houses[855]. Her conclusion is that

    it was not the case that the best instructed nuns used Latin Bibles
    and the most ignorant English ones: but that the best instructed nuns
    were allowed to use English translations, perhaps by themselves,
    perhaps to help in the understanding of the Vulgate, while the smaller
    nunneries and least instructed nuns almost certainly did not have them
    at all.

This goes to confirm the conclusion that even in the greatest houses,
where the nuns were drawn from the highest social classes and might be
supposed to be best educated, the knowledge of Latin was dying out.

Other occupations besides reading filled the working hours of the nuns and
of these spinning and needlework were the most important. Most women in
the middle ages possessed the art of spinning and Aubrey's Old Jacques may
have remembered aright how "he saw from his house the nuns of the priory
(Kington St Michael) come forth into the nymph-hay with their rocks and
wheels to spin," though his memory misled him sorely as to the number of
these ladies. Sometimes a visitation report gives us a glimpse of the nuns
at work: at Easebourne in 1441 the nuns say that the Prioress "compels her
sisters to work continually like hired workwomen and they receive nothing
whatever for their own use from their work, but the prioress takes the
whole profit"[856] and at Catesby in the following year a young nun
complains that the Prioress "setts her to make beds, to sewing and
spinning and other tasks"[857]. Nevertheless it does not seem that the
nuns were in the habit of spinning the wool and flax for their own and
their servants' clothes and account rolls often contain payments made to
hired spinsters, as well as to fullers and weavers.

It is more probable that they busied themselves with needlework and
embroidery, which were the usual occupations of ladies of gentle
birth[858]. Very few traces have unfortunately survived of the work of
English nuns. In earlier centuries English needlework had been famous and
the nuns had been pre-eminent in the making of richly embroidered
vestments. In the thirteenth century, too, English embroidery far
surpassed that made in other countries and it has been conjectured that
"the most famous embroidered vestments now preserved in various places in
Italy are the handiwork of English embroiderers between 1250 and 1300
though their authorship is not as a rule recognised by their present
possessors"[859]. Some of these may have been made by nuns; it is thought
that the famous Syon cope, for long in the possession of the nuns of Syon,
may have been made in a thirteenth century convent in the neighbourhood of
Coventry; but such examples of medieval embroidery as have survived
usually bear no trace of their origin; since a vestment cannot be signed
like a book and it must be remembered that there was a large class of
professional "embroideresses" in the country.

Some, however, of the splendid vestments and altar cloths possessed by the
richer nunneries were probably the work of the nuns. At Langley in 1485
there were, among other rich pieces of embroidery

    iiij fronteys (altar frontals) of grene damaske powdered with swanys
    and egyls, ... iiij fronteys of blake powdered with swanys and rosys,
    ... a vestment of blew silke brodyt complete with all yt longyth to
    hyt, a vestment of grene velwett complete with a crucifixe of silver
    and gylte apon ye amys, a complete vestiment of red velwet, a
    vestiment of swede (sewed) work complete, a vestiment of blake damaske
    brodyrt with rosys and sterys, a complete vestiment of white brodyrte
    with rede trewlyps (_true-love knots_), ... j gret cloth (banner) of
    rede powderyd with herts heds and boturfleys ... a large coverlet of
    red and blew with rosys and crossys, a tapett of ye same; j large
    coverlett of rede and yowlowe with flowrs de luce, a tapett of ye
    same; a large coverlett of blew and better blew with swanys and coks,
    a tapett of ye same; a coverlett of grene and yowlowe with borys and
    draguyns, a tapett of ye same; ... a coverlett of ostrych fydyrs and
    crounyd Emmys (_monogram of the Blessed Virgin Mary_); a coverlet of
    grene and yowlowe with vynys and rosys; a coverlet of grene and
    yowlowe with lylys and swannys; a coverlet of blew and white whyl
    knotts (_wheel knots_) and rosys; a coverlet of red and white with
    traylest (_trellis_) and Bryds; a coverlet of red and blew with
    sterrys and white rosys in mydste; a coverlet of yowlowe and grene
    with egyles and emmys; v coveryngs of bedds, yat hys to sey A coveryng
    of red saye, a coveryng of panes (_stripes_) of red and grene and
    white saye, a coveryng of red and blake saye, a coveryng of red and
    blew poudyrd with white esses and sterys, a blew saye with a red

Many of these embroideries and tapestries were doubtless legacies or
gifts; but it is impossible not to picture the white fingers of the nuns
at work on swans and roses, harts' heads and butterflies, stars and
true-love knots. One may deduce that the nuns of Yorkshire, at least,
busied themselves in these pursuits from an injunction sent to Nunkeeling,
Yedingham and Wykeham in 1314 that no nun should absent herself from
divine service "on account of being occupied with silk work" (_propter
occupacionem operis de serico_)[861].

Reference to the sale of embroidery by nuns is surprisingly rare in
account rolls. The household roll of the Countess of Leicester in 1265
contains an item, "Paid to the nuns of Wintney, for one cope to be made
for the use of Brother J. Angelus by the gift of the Countess at Panham
10_d._"[862], which small sum must have been a part payment in advance,
perhaps towards the purchase of materials; the nuns of Gracedieu, too,
sold a cope to a neighbouring rector for £10, early in the fifteenth
century[863], and on one occasion the cellaress of Barking derived a part
of her income for the year from the sale of a cope[864], but search has
revealed no further instances. The nuns also probably made little presents
for their friends, such as purses (though the Gracedieu nuns always bought
the purses which they gave to their bailiff, to Lady Beaumont, or to other
visitors) and the so-called "blood-bands." In an age when bleeding was the
most common treatment for almost every illness and when monks, in
particular, were regularly bled several times a year, these little
bandages were common presents, being sometimes made of silk. The author of
the _Ancren Riwle_ thus bade his anchoresses "make no purses to gain
friends therewith, not blodbendes of silk, but shape and sew and mend
church vestments and poor people's clothes"[865]. The nuns of the diocese
of Rouen in the mid-thirteenth century were accustomed to knit or
embroider silken purses, tassels, cushions or needlecases for sale or as
gifts, and Archbishop Eudes Rigaud was continually forbidding them to do
any silk work except for church ornament[866]. There is some reason to
think that the nuns, then as now, sometimes eked out their income by doing
fine needlework for ladies of the world, though there is no mention of it
in nunnery accounts, or indeed in any English records. Among the
correspondence of Lady Lisle in the first half of the sixteenth century,
however, are several letters to and from a certain Antoinette de Favences
at Dunkirk, who would appear to have been a nun, for she signs herself
_sister_ Antoinette de Favences and is addressed by Lady Lisle as _Madame_
and _Dame_. This woman was employed to make caps and coifs for Lady
Lisle's family and friends and there is much correspondence between them
as to night-caps which are too wide, lozenge-work and such matters; in one
letter Lady Lisle speaks of sending "16 rozimbos and 2 half angels of
Flanders, a Carolus of gold," in payment for the caps[867].

What other accomplishments the nuns may have possessed we do not know.
They were possibly skilled in herbs and in the more simple forms of home
medicine and surgery, for it was the function of the lady of the manor to
know something of these things, though doctors were available (for nuns as
well as for lay folk) in more serious illnesses[868]. They doubtless bled
each other as did the monks, else how was the wicked Prioress of Kirklees,
who slew Robin Hood, so skilled?:

  Doun then came Dame Priorèss
      Doun she came in that ilk,
  With a pair of blood-irons in her hand,
      Were wrappèd all in silk....

  She laid the blood-irons to Robin's vein
      Alack the more pitye!
  And pierc'd the vein and let out the blood
      That full red was to see.

There is an occasional brief reference to the recreation of nuns in their
"seynys" in visitations[869], but the precaution was less necessary and
less frequent than it was in houses of monks[870]. No doubt, also, the
nuns sometimes nursed their boarders, some of whom must have been old and
ailing; wills are occasionally dated from nunneries[871]. The nuns of
Romsey had a hospital attached to the house, in which were received as
sisters any parents and relatives of the nuns, who were poor and ill[872],
but this does not prove that the nuns nursed them, and references in
visitation reports show that even sick nuns were often looked after by lay
servants in the infirmary, or if permanently disabled, occupied a separate
room, with a separate maid to attend them. It is not likely that the nuns
left their convents, save very occasionally, to undertake sick-nursing;
this would have been against the spirit of their rule, for their main
business was not (as was that of the sisters who looked after spitals) to
care for the sick, but to live enclosed in their houses, following the
prescribed round of church services. It is however of interest that the
will of Sir Roger Salwayn, knight of York (1420) contains this legacy:
"Also I will that the Nunne that kepid me in my seknes haue ij nobles, and
that ther be gif into the hous that she wonnes in xxs, for to syng and
pray for me"[873]. Nuns may have emerged sometimes to nurse friends and
relatives, whose sick-beds they were always allowed to attend; but there
is no documentary evidence for the belief of modern writers, who would
fain turn the nun into a district visitor, smoothing the pillows of all
who ailed in her native village.

These then were the educational attainments of the English nuns in the
later middle ages: reading and singing the services of the church,
sometimes but not always writing, Latin very rarely after the thirteenth
century, French very rarely after the fourteenth century; needlework and
embroidery; and perhaps that elementary knowledge of physic, which was the
possession of most ladies of their class. It was, in fact, very little
more than the education possessed by laywomen of the same social rank
outside and there is little trace of anything approaching scholarship. The
study of the education of the nuns during this period leads naturally to
one of the most vexed questions in the field of monastic history, the
extent to which the nunneries acted as girls' schools. There is no doubt
that every nunnery was prepared to educate young girls who entered in
order to take the veil; if the nunnery were fairly large these _scolae
internae_ probably included several novices at a time. At Ankerwyke in
1441 three young nuns complained that they had no governess to instruct
them in "reading, song and religious observance," and mention is made of
three other sisters "of tender age and slender discretion, seeing that the
eldest of them is not more than thirteen years of age"; the Bishop
appointed a nun to be their teacher, "enjoining her to perform the charge
laid upon her and to instruct them in good manners"[874]. Similarly at
Thetford, where there were three novices in 1526, the Bishop found "non
habent eruditricem"[875]. At the larger houses, such as Romsey, the
_magistra noviciarum_ was a regular obedientiary[876].

[Illustration: PLATE V


(In the bottom left hand corner the mistress of the novices, with birch in
hand, is instructing two young novices; in the bottom right hand corner
the abbess and a nun are at prayer.)]

The vexed question, however, does not concern these schools for novices.
It has been the custom, not only of writers on monasticism but also of the
man in the street, to assume that the nunneries were almost solely
responsible for the education of girls in the middle ages. There was
little evidence for the assumption, but it was always made, and until the
combined attack made upon it in 1910 by Mr Coulton and Mr Leach it was
unchallenged[877]. With the publication of bishops' registers, however, we
have something more definite to go upon and it is now possible to come to
some sort of conclusion, based on the evidence of visitation injunctions,
account rolls and other miscellaneous sources. This conclusion may be
summarised as follows. It was a fairly general custom among the English
nuns, in the two and a half centuries before the Dissolution, to receive
children for education. But there are four limitations, within which and
only within which, this conclusion is true. _First_, that by no means all
nunneries took children and those which did take them seldom had large
schools; _secondly_, that the children who thus received a convent
education were drawn exclusively from the upper and the wealthy middle
classes, from people, that is to say, of birth and wealth; _thirdly_, that
the practice was a purely financial expedient on the part of the nuns, at
first forbidden, afterwards restricted and always frowned upon by the
bishops, who regarded it as subversive of discipline; and _fourthly_, that
the education which the children received from the nuns, so far as
book-learning as distinct from nurture is concerned, was extremely
exiguous. In fine, though nunneries did act as girls' schools, they
certainly did not educate more than a small proportion even of the
children of the upper classes, and the education which they gave them was
limited by their own limitations[878].

That the custom of receiving schoolgirls was fairly general appears from
the wide area over which notices of such children are spread. The
references range in date from 1282 to 1537; they give us, if a doubtful
reference to King's Mead, Derby, be accepted, the names of forty-nine
convents, which at one time or other had children in residence. These
convents are situated in twenty-one counties. The greater number of
references naturally occur in those dioceses for which the episcopal
registers are most complete; Yorkshire affords fifteen names and two which
are doubtful; Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire,
Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire and Leicestershire, counties in
the large Lincoln diocese, afford seventeen between them, five from
Lincolnshire and two from each of the others. These references do not
prove that the houses in question had continuously throughout their career
a school for girls; sometimes only one or two children are mentioned and
usually the evidence concerns but a single year out of two and a half
centuries. Sometimes, however, a happy chance has preserved several
references to the same house, spread over a longer period, from which it
is perhaps not too rash to conclude that it was the regular practice of
that house to receive children. For Elstow, for instance, there is an
early reference to a boy of five sent there for education by St Hugh,
Bishop of Lincoln, towards the close of the twelfth century. In 1359
Bishop Gynewell prohibited all boarders there, except girls under ten and
boys under six. In 1421 Bishop Flemyng prohibited all except children
under twelve and in 1432 Bishop Gray altered this to girls under fourteen
and boys under ten, and children are mentioned at Alnwick's visitation in
1442. Similarly at Godstow there are references to children in 1358, 1445
and 1538, at Esholt in Yorkshire in 1315, 1318 and 1537, at Sopwell in
1446 and 1537, at Heynings in 1347, 1387 and 1393, at Burnham in 1434 and

The mention of boys in these references needs perhaps some further
emphasis, for it is not usually recognised that the nunneries occasionally
acted as dame-schools for very young boys. "Abstinence the abbesse myn
a.b.c. me taughte," says Piers Plowman, "And conscience com aftur and
kennide me betere." It is true that a Cistercian statute of 1256-7 forbade
the education of boys in nunneries of that order[879], but the ordinance
soon became a dead letter, and five of the convents at which Alnwick found
schoolboys (c. 1445) were Cistercian houses. Boys were specifically
forbidden at Wherwell in 1284, at Heynings in 1359 and at Nuncoton in
1531, which argues that they were then present, and they are mentioned at
Romsey (1311), at five Yorkshire convents (1314-17), at Burnham (1434), at
Lymbrook (1437), at Swaffham Bulbeck (1483) and at Redlingfield (1514), a
chronologically and geographically wide range of houses. Occasionally some
details as to a particular boy may be gleaned; the five year old Robert de
Noyon, sent by Bishop Hugh to Elstow "to be taught his letters," the two
Tudor boys commended to Katharine de la Pole, the noble Abbess of Barking;
the little son and heir of Sir John Stanley, who made his will in 1527 and
then became a monk, leaving the boy to be brought up until twelve years of
age by another Abbess of Barking, after which he was to pass to the care
of the Abbot of Westminster; and Cromwell's son Gregory and his little
companion, sent to be supervised, though not taught by Margaret Vernon,
Prioress of Little Marlow[880]. But as a rule the boys in nunneries were
very young; it was not considered decorous for them to stay with the nuns
later than their ninth or tenth year; the bishop forbade it and besides,
the education which the good sisters could give them would not have been
considered sufficient. The rule which gives a man child to a man for
education is of very old standing.

Such is the evidence for concluding that the custom of receiving children
for education in nunneries was widespread. It remains to consider
carefully the limitations within which this conclusion is true. In the
first place, not all nunneries received children. It is obviously
impossible, considering the gaps in our evidence, to attempt an exact
estimate of the proportion which did so. Some sort of clue may be obtained
by an analysis of the Yorkshire visitations of Archbishops Greenfield and
Melton at the beginning of the fourteenth century (1306-20) and of
Alnwick's Lincoln visitations (1440-5). The Yorkshire evidence is rather
scanty, being based on the summaries of injunctions, which are given in
the _Victoria County Histories_, and any statistics must needs be
approximate only. The two archbishops between them visited nineteen
nunneries and mention of children is made at twelve, i.e. about
two-thirds. The information given by the invaluable Alnwick is more exact.
From the _detecta_ of some of the nuns and from the number of prohibitions
of this practice, it is obvious that Alnwick was accustomed to ask at his
visitations whether children were sleeping in the nuns' dorter; he also
made careful inquiry as to the boarders. The probability, therefore, is
that we have in his register an exact record of those houses in which
children were received. Analysis shows that of the twenty houses which he
visited he found children, often boys as well as girls, at twelve, i.e. a
little over two-thirds, which is substantially the same result as was
given by the Yorkshire analysis a century earlier. The estimate is
interesting, but it cannot be considered conclusive without the
corroborative evidence from other dioceses, which is unfortunately
lacking. It is a hint, a straw, which shows which way the wind of research
is blowing, for if it is unsafe to argue from silence that the nuns of
other convents did take pupils, it is equally unsafe to argue that they
did not.

The fact is, however, clearly established that all nunneries did not take
children; possibly about two-thirds of them did. The further fact has then
to be recognised that even those nunneries had not necessarily what we
should regard as a school for girls. Not only does it sometimes seem as
though children were taken occasionally and intermittently, rather than
regularly, but the numbers taken were rarely great. Sometimes we do hear
of a house with a large number of pupils. At St Mary's Winchester in 1536
there were as many as twenty-six children, to twenty-six nuns; and at
Polesworth in 1537 Henry VIII's commissioners state vaguely that "repayre
and resort ys made to the gentlemens childern and studiounts that ther doo
lif, to the nombre sometyme of xxx{ti} and sometyme xj{ti} and moo." There
were fifteen nuns in the house at the time and it is likely that the
number of children given is a pardonable exaggeration by local gentlemen
who were interested in preserving the nunnery; but it seems undoubted that
there was a comparatively large school there. At Stixwould, again, in 1440
there were about eighteen children to an equal number of nuns. These,
however, are the largest schools of which we have record. At St Michael's
Stamford in 1440 there were seven or eight children to twelve nuns, at
Catesby in 1442 six or seven children to seven nuns. At Swaffham Bulbeck,
where there were probably eight or nine nuns, there were nine children in
1483. These also are schools, though small schools. But at other houses
there were only one or two children at a time. The accounts of the
Prioress of St Helen's Bishopsgate in 1298 mention only two children,
there were only two at Littlemore in 1445 and two at Sopwell at the time
of the Dissolution. It must be remembered that many nunneries were
themselves very small and their inmates could not have looked after a
large number of children. The examples quoted above suggest that the
number of children hardly ever exceeded the number of nuns. To what
conclusion are we driven when we find that a possible two-thirds of the
convents of England received children and that the largest school of which
we have record numbered only twenty-six children (or thirty if we take the
higher and less probable figure for Polesworth), while most had far fewer?
Surely to represent a majority of girls, or even a majority of girls of
gentle birth, as having received their nurture in convents, would be on
the evidence absurd.

The second limitation of convent education in medieval England is
contained in the words "girls of gentle birth." Tanner's statement that
"the lower rank of people, who could not pay for their learning"[881], as
well as noblemen's and gentlemen's daughters, were educated in nunneries
has not a shred of evidence to support it, though it has been repeated _ad
nauseam_ ever since he wrote it. Every scrap of evidence which has come
down to us goes to prove that the girls educated in nunneries were of
gentle birth, daughters of great lords, or more often daughters of country
gentlemen, or of those comfortable and substantial merchants and
burgesses, who were usually themselves sprung from younger sons of the
gentry. The implication is plain in Chaucer's description, in _The Reves
Tale_, of the Miller's wife, who was "y-comen of noble kin" and daughter
of the parson of the toun, and who "was y-fostred in a nonnerye":

  Ther dorste no wight clepen hir but "dame" ...
  And eek, for she was somdel smoterlich
  She was as digne as water in a dich;
  And ful of hoker and of bisemare.
  Her thoughte that a lady sholde hir spare,
  What for hir kinrede and hir nortelrye
  That she had lerned in the nonnerye.

An analysis of some of the schoolgirls whose names have come down to us
confirms this impression. The commissioners who visited St Mary's,
Winchester, in 1536 drew up a list of the twenty-six "chyldren of lordys,
knyghttes and gentylmen brought up yn the saym monastery." They were

    Bryget Plantagenet, dowghter unto the lord vycounte Lysley (i.e.
    Lisle); Mary Pole, dowghter unto Sir Geffrey Pole knyght; Brygget
    Coppeley, dowghter unto Sir Roger Coppeley knyght; Elizabeth Phyllpot,
    dowghter unto Sir Peter Phyllpot, knyght; Margery Tyrell; Adrian
    Tyrell; Johanne Barnabe; Amy Dyngley; Elizabeth Dyngley; Jane Dyngley;
    Frances Dyngley; Susan Tycheborne; Elizabeth Tycheborne; Mary Justyce;
    Agnes Aylmer; Emma Bartue; Myldred Clerke; Anne Lacy; Isold Apulgate;
    Elizabeth Legh; Mary Legh; Alienor North; Johanne Sturgys; Johanne
    Ffyldes; Johanne Ffrances; Jane Raynysford.

The house was evidently at this time a fashionable seminary for young
ladies. It must be remembered that it was a general custom among the
English nobility and gentry to send their children away to the household
of a lord, or person of good social standing, in order to learn breeding
and it was not uncommon to send boys to the household of an abbot. In 1450
Thomas Bromele, Abbot of Hyde, thus entertained in his house eight
"gentiles pueri," there were many "pueri generosi" at Westacre in 1494,
and Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, is stated by Parsons
to have had, among his 300 servants, "multos nobilium filios"[882]. It was
doubtless much in the same way that the children of lords, knights and
gentlemen were put in the charge of the Abbess of St Mary's Winchester, a
great lady, who had her own "gentlewoman" to attend upon her and her own
private household. It is probable that the nuns taught these children, but
the boys who went as wards to abbeys seem often to have taken their tutors
with them, or at least to have been taught by special tutors. At
Lilleshall, for instance, the commissioners found four "gentylmens sons
and their scolemaster"[883] and it is significant that when little Gregory
Cromwell was sent to be brought up by Margaret Vernon, Prioress of Little
Marlow, he was taught by a private tutor and not by the nun.

Other references to the children received in nunneries confirms the
impression that they were of gentle birth. At Polesworth, as at St Mary's,
Winchester, the commissioners specified "gentylmens childern and
studiounts." At Thetford a daughter of John Jerves, _generosus_, is
mentioned in 1532 and two daughters of Laurens Knight, _gentleman_, were
at Cornworthy, c. 1470. The accounts of Sopwell in 1446 mention the
daughter of Lady Anne Norbery; at Littlemore in 1445 the daughter of John
FitzAleyn, steward of the house, and the daughter of Ingelram Warland are
boarders. Among the Carrow boarders, who may be set down as children, are
the son and two daughters of Sir Roger Wellisham, the daughter of Sir
Robert de Wachesam, a niece of William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, and
girls with such well-known names as Fastolf, Clere, Baret, Blickling,
Shelton and Ferrers, though the last two may be adult boarders. The
Gracedieu boarders nearly all bear the names of neighbouring gentry and
one was the daughter of Lord Beaumont. In the course of time, as the urban
middle class grew and flourished, the daughters of the well-to-do
_bourgeoisie_ were sometimes sent to convents for their education. Thus
among the Carrow boarders we find a daughter of John de Erlham, a merchant
and citizen of Norwich, and Isabel Barber, daughter of Thomas Welan,
barber, who afterwards, however, became a nun. It is plain from the wills
which have been preserved that the wealthy Norwich burgesses were in the
habit of sending their daughters as nuns to Carrow, and it is a natural
supposition that they should have sent them sometimes as schoolgirls; but
by birth and by wealth these city magnates were not far removed from the
neighbouring gentry. The school at Swaffham Bulbeck in 1483 was less
fashionable than that at Carrow and did not cater for the nobly born; it
was a small house and the names of the children suggest a sound middle
class establishment, perhaps the very one in which Chaucer's Miller's wife
of Trumpington was educated, full of the sons and daughters of the
burgesses of Cambridge, Richard Potecary of Cambridge, William Water,
Thomas Roch, unnamed fathers "of Cambridge," "of Chesterton," Parker "of
Walden," and "the merchant."

None of these examples can possibly be twisted into a case for the free,
or even the cheap, education of the poor. Just as we never find low-born
girls as nuns, so we never find them as schoolgirls and for the same
reason; "dowerless maidens," as Mr Leach says, "were not sought as nuns."
As will be seen hereafter, the reception of school children was
essentially a financial expedient; one of the many methods by which the
nuns sought to raise the wind[884]. The fees paid by these children are
recorded here and there, in nunnery accounts; education was apparently
thrown in with board, and the usual rate for board for children during the
century and a half before the Dissolution seems to have been about 6_d._ a
week, though the charge at Cornworthy c. 1470 was 10_d._ a week and at
Littlemore in 1445 only 4_d._ a week[885]. Occasionally the good nuns
suffered, like so many schoolmistresses since their day, from the
difficulty of extracting fees. Among the debts owing to the nuns of Esholt
at the Dissolution was one of 33_s._ from Walter Wood of Timble in the
parish of Otley for his child's board for a year and a half; and at
Thetford in 1532 the poor nuns complained that "John Jerves, gentleman,
has a daughter being nurtured in the priory and pays nothing." The most
melancholy case of all has been preserved to us owing to the fact that the
nuns, goaded to desperation, sought help from the Chancellor. About 1470
Thomasyn Dynham, Prioress of Cornworthy, made petition to the effect that
Laurens Knyghte, gentleman, had agreed with Margaret Wortham the late
Prioress, that she should take his two daughters "to teche them to scole,"
viz. Elizabeth, aged seven years, and "Jahne," aged ten years, at the
costs and charges of Laurens, who was to pay 20_d._ a week for them. So at
Cornworthy they remained during the life of Margaret, to the great costs
and charges and impoverishing of the said poor place, by the space of five
years and more, until the money due amounted to £21. 13_s._ 4_d._, "the
which sum is not contented ne paid, nor noo peny thereof." Laurense
meanwhile departed this life, leaving his wife "Jahne" executrix, and
Jahne, unnatural mother that she was, married again a certain John
Barnehous and utterly refused to pay for her unhappy daughters. One is
uncertain which to pity most, Thomasyn Dynham, a new Prioress left with
this incubus on her hands, or Elizabeth and Jane Knyghte, trying hard to
restrain their appetites and not to grow out of their clothes under her
justly incensed regard. Jane was by now grown up and marriageable
according to the standards of the time and it is tantalising not to know
the end of the dilemma. A proneness to forget fees seems to have been
shared by greater folk than Mistress Knyghte, as the petition of Katherine
de la Pole, Abbess of Barking, concerning Edmond and Jasper Tudor, whose
"charges, costs and expenses" she had taken upon herself, will show.

Both this matter of fees and the names of schoolgirls which have survived
are against any suggestion that the nuns gave schooling to poor girls.
There is not the slightest evidence for anything like a day school, and
the only hint for any care for village girls on the part of the nuns is
contained in a letter from Cranmer, when fellow of Jesus College, to the
Abbess of Godstow:

    Stephen Whyte hath told me that you lately gathered round you a number
    of wild peasant maids and did make them a most goodly discourse on the
    health of their souls; and you showeth them how goodly a thing it be
    for them to go oftentimes to confession. I am mighty glad of your

But this is obviously an isolated discourse and in any case it has nothing
to do with education. So far as it is possible to be certain of anything
for which evidence is scanty, we may be certain that poor or lower-class
girls were no more received in nunneries for education, than they were
received there as nuns. No single instance has ever been brought of a
lowborn nun or a lowborn schoolgirl, in any English nunnery, for the three
centuries before the nunneries were dissolved.

The third limitation to which convent education was subjected is an
important one; the reception of children by the nuns was never approved
and always restricted by their ecclesiastical superiors. The greater
number of references to schoolchildren which have come down to us are
these restrictive references. The attitude of monastic visitors towards
children was in essence the same as their attitude towards boarders. The
nuns received both, because they were nearly always in low water
financially and wished to add to their scanty finances by the familiar
expedient of taking paying guests. But the bishops saw in all boarders,
whether adults or schoolchildren, a hindrance to discipline; they objected
to them for the same reason that they objected to pet dogs and silver
girdles and with just as little success.

The ecclesiastical case against schoolchildren may be found delightfully
set forth in the words addressed, it is true, to anchoresses, but
expressing the same spirit as was afterwards shown by Eudes Rigaud, Johann
Busch and other great medieval visitors towards nuns. Aelred, the great
twelfth century Abbot of Rievaulx, writes thus:

    Allow no boys or girls to have access to you. There are certain
    anchoresses, who are busied in teaching pupils and turn their chambers
    into a school. The mistress sits at the window, the child in the
    cloister. She looks at each of them; and, during their puerile
    actions, now is angry, now laughs, now threatens, now soothes, now
    spares, now kisses, now calls the weeping child to be beaten, then
    strokes her face, bids her hold up her head, and eagerly embracing
    her, calls her her child, her love[887].

Similarly the author of the _Ancren Riwle_ warns his three anchoresses:

    An anchoress must not become a schoolmistress, nor turn her
    anchoress-house into a school for children. Her maiden may, however,
    teach any little girl, concerning whom it might be doubtful whether
    she should learn among boys, but an anchoress ought to give her
    thoughts to God only[888].

The gist of the matter was that the children constituted a hindrance to
claustral discipline and devotion. It is plain, however, that in this, as
in so many other matters, the reformers were only "beating the air" in
vain with their restrictions. Sympathy must be with the needy nuns, for
even if discipline were weakened thereby, the reception of children was in
itself a very harmless, not to say laudable expedient; and so the
neighbouring gentry as well as the nuns considered it.

An analysis of the attitude of medieval visitors to schoolchildren shows
us the usual attempt to limit what it was beyond their power to prohibit.
Eudes Rigaud, the great Archbishop of Rouen, habitually removed all the
girls and boys whom he found in the houses of his diocese, when he visited
them during the years 1249 to 1269. But in England, at least, the nuns
very soon became too strong for the bishops, who gradually adopted the
policy of fixing an age limit beyond which no children might remain in a
nunnery and sometimes of requiring their own licence to be given before
the boys and girls were admitted. Since the danger of secularisation could
not be removed, it was at least reduced to a minimum, by ensuring that
only very young boys and only girls, who had not yet attained a
marriageable age, should be received. The age limit varied a little with
different visitors and different houses. In the Yorkshire diocese early in
the fourteenth century the age limit was twelve for girls; boys are rarely
mentioned, but at Hampole in 1314 the nuns were forbidden to permit male
children over five to be in the house, as the bishop finds has been the
practice. Bishop Gynewell in 1359 allowed girls up to ten and boys up to
six at Elstow, but forbade boys altogether at Heynings. Bishop Gray
allowed girls under fourteen and boys under eight at Burnham in 1434 and
Bishop Stretton in 1367 allowed boys up to seven at Fairwell. The age
limit tended, it will be seen, to become higher in the course of time;
Alnwick writing to Gracedieu in 1440, forbade all boarders "save
childerne, males the ix and females the xiiij yere of age, whom we
licencede you to hafe for your relefe"[889]; he allowed boys often at
Heynings and Catesby and boys of eleven (an exceptionally high age) at

There was a special reason, besides the general interference with
discipline, for which the bishops objected to children in nunneries. It
seems very often to have been the custom for the nuns to take, as it were,
private pupils, each child having its own particular mistress. This custom
grew as the practice of keeping separate households grew. Thus at Catesby
the Prioress complained to Alnwick that sister Agnes Allesley had "six or
seven young folk of both sexes, that do lie in the dorter"; at St
Michael's Stamford, he found that the Prioress had seven or eight
children, at Gracedieu the cellaress had a little boy and at Elstow, where
there were five households of nuns, it was said that "certain nuns"
brought children into the quire. In fact, the nuns would appear to have
kept for their own personal use the money paid to them for the board of
their private pupils. This was a sin against the monastic rule of personal
poverty and the bishops took special measures against such manifestations
of _proprietas_. William of Wykeham in 1387 forbids the nuns of Romsey to
make wills and to have private rooms or private pupils, giving this
specific reason, and at St Helen's Bishopsgate in 1439 Dean Kentwode
enjoined "that no nonne have ne receyve noo schuldrin wyth hem ... but yf
that the profite of the comonys turne to the vayle of the same howse."
Similarly the number of children who might be taken by a single nun was
sometimes limited; Gynewell wrote to Godstow in 1358 "that no lady of the
said house is to have children, save only two or three females sojourning
with them" and at Fairwell in 1367 no nun might keep with her for
education more than one child.

Another habit against which bishops constantly legislated was that of
having the children to sleep in the dorter with the nuns. This practice
was exceedingly common, for many of the nunneries which took children were
small and poor; they had possibly no other room to set aside for them, and
no person who could suitably be placed in charge of them. Moreover in some
cases adult boarders and servants also slept in the dorter. Alnwick was
constantly having to bid his nuns "that ye suffre ne seculere persones,
wymmen ne children lyg by nyghte in the dormytory," but Atwater and
Longland in the sixteenth century still have to make the same injunction.
Bokyngham in 1387 ordered that a seemly place outside the cloister should
be set apart for the children at Heynings; the reason was that (as
Gynewell had expressly stated on visiting this house forty years before)
"the convent might not be disturbed." Indeed little attempt was made by
the nuns to keep the children out of their way. They seem to have dined in
the refectory, when not in the separate rooms of their mistresses, for
Greenfield forbids the Prioress and Subprioress of Sinningthwaite (1315)
to permit boys or girls to eat flesh meat in Advent or Sexagesima, or
during Lent eggs or cheese, in the refectory, "contrary to the honesty of
religion," but at those seasons when they ought to eat such things, they
were to be assigned other places in which to eat them. There are
references, too, to disturbances and diversions created by the children in
the quire. At Elstow in 1442 Dame Rose Waldegrave said that "certain nuns
do sometimes have with them in time of mass the boys whom they teach and
these do make a noise in quire during divine service"[890]. To us the
picture of these merry children breaking the monotony of convent routine
is an attractive one; more attractive even than the pet dogs and the
Vert-Verts. But to stern ecclesiastical disciplinarians it was not so
attractive, and their constant restriction, though it never succeeded in
turning out the children, must have kept down the number who were

The evidence which has so far been considered shows that, though the
reception of children to be boarded and taught in nunneries was fairly
common, it was subjected to well marked limitations. There remains to be
considered one more question the answer to which is in some sort a
limitation likewise. What exactly did the nuns teach these children? We
are hampered in answering this question by the difficulty of obtaining
exact contemporary evidence. Most modern English writers content
themselves with a glib list of accomplishments, copied without
verification from book to book, and all apparently traceable in the last
resort to Fuller and John Aubrey, the one writing a century, the other
almost a century and a half after the nunneries had been dissolved. Fuller
(whom Tanner copies) says:

    Nunneries also were good Shee-schools, wherein the girles and maids of
    the neighbourhood were taught to read and work; and sometimes a little
    Latine was taught them therein. Yea, give me leave to say, if such
    Feminine Foundations had still continued ... haply the weaker sex
    (besides the avoiding modern inconveniences) might be heightened to a
    higher perfection than hitherto hath been obtained[891].

Aubrey, speaking of Wiltshire convents says:

    There the young maids were brought up ... at the nunneries, where they
    had examples of piety, and humility, and modesty, and obedience to
    imitate, and to practise. Here they learned needle-work, the art of
    confectionary, surgery (for anciently there were no apothecaries or
    surgeons--the gentlewomen did cure their poor neighbours: their hands
    are now too fine), physic, writing, drawing etc.[892]

One would have thought the familiar note of the _laudator temporis acti_
to be plainly audible in both these extracts. But a host of modern writers
have gravely transcribed their words and even, taking advantage no doubt
of Aubrey's "etc." (much virtue in etc.), improved upon them. In the work
of one more recent writer the list has become "reading, writing, some
knowledge of arithmetic, the art of embroidery, music and French 'after
the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,' were the recognised course of study,
while the preparation of perfumes, balsams, simples and confectionary was
among the more ordinary departments of the education afforded"[893].
Another adds a few more deft touches: "the treatment of various disorders,
the compounding of simples, the binding up of wounds, ... fancy cookery,
such as the making of sweetmeats, writing, drawing, needlework of all
kinds and music, both vocal and instrumental"[894]. The most recent writer
of all gives the list as "English and French ... writing, drawing,
confectionary, singing by notes, dancing, and playing upon instruments of
music, the study also of medicine and surgery"[895]. Though the historian
must groan, the student of human nature cannot but smile to see music
insinuate itself into the list and then become "both instrumental and
vocal"; confectionery extend itself to include perfumes, balsams, simples,
and the making of sweetmeats; arithmetic appear out of nowhere; and (most
magnificent feat of the imagination) dancing trip in on light fantastic
toe. From this compound of Aubrey, memories of continental convents in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and familiarity with the convent
schools of our own day, let us turn to the considered opinion of a more
sober scholar, who bases it only upon contemporary evidence:

    "No evidence whatever," says Mr Leach, "has been produced of what was
    taught in nunneries. That ... something must have been taught, if only
    to keep the children employed, is highly probable. That the teaching
    included learning the Lord's Prayer, etc. by heart may be conceded.
    Probably Fuller is right in guessing that it included reading; but it
    is only a guess. One would guess that it included sewing and spinning.
    As for its including Latin, no evidence is forthcoming and it is
    difficult to see how those who did not know Latin could teach

Direct evidence is therefore absolutely lacking; all we can do is to
deduce probabilities from what we know of the education of the nuns
themselves, and it must be conceded that this was not always of a very
high order. It is quite certain, from the wording of some of the
visitation injunctions, that the quality and extent of the teaching must
have varied considerably from house to house. It was probably good (as the
education of women then went) at the larger and more fashionable houses,
mediocre at those which were small and struggling. Latin could not have
been taught, because, as has already been pointed out, the nuns at this
period did not know it themselves; but the children were probably taught
the _Credo_, the _Ave_ and the _Pater Noster_ in Latin by rote. They may
have been taught French of the school of Stratford atte Bowe, as long as
that language was fashionable in the outside world and known to the nuns,
but it died out of the convents after the end of the fourteenth century.
It seems pretty certain that the children must have been taught to read.
"Abstinence the abbesse myn a.b.c. me taughte," says Piers Plowman; the
Abbess of St Mary's Winchester buys the matins books for little Bridget
Plantagenet; and it will be remembered that the nuns of Godstow were said
about 1460 (fifteen years after Alnwick visited the house and gave
permission for children to be boarded there) to be "for the more party in
Englyssh bokys well y-lernyd." Caesarius of Heisterbach has a delightful
story, repeated thus in a fifteenth century _Alphabet of Tales_:

    Caesarius tellis how that in Freseland in a nonrie ther was ii little
    maydens that lernyd on the buke, and euer thai strafe whethur of thaim
    shulde lern mor than the toder. So the tane of thaim happened to fall
    seke and sho garte call the Priores vnto hur & sayd: "Gude ladie!
    suffre nott my felow to lern vnto I cover of my sekenes, and I sall
    pray my moder to gif me vj d & that I sall giff you & ye do so, ffor I
    drede that whils I am seke, that sho sall pas me in lernyng, & that I
    wolde not at sho did." And at this wurde the priores smylid & hadd
    grete mervayle of the damysell conseyte[897].

Whether girls were taught to write, as well as to read, is far more
doubtful. It is probable that the nuns did not always possess this
accomplishment themselves, nor did sober medieval opinion consider it
wholly desirable that girls should know how to write, on account both of
the general inferiority of their sex, and of a regrettable proclivity
towards clandestine love letters[898]. Still, writing may sometimes have
formed part of the curriculum; there is no evidence either way. For
drawing (by which presumably the art of illumination must be meant) there
is no warrant; a medieval nunnery was not a modern "finishing" school.

So much for what may be called book learning. Let us now examine for a
moment the other accomplishments with which nunnery-bred young ladies have
been credited. We may, as Mr Leach suggests, make a guess at spinning and
needlework, though here also there is no evidence for their being taught
to schoolgirls. Jane Scroupe, into whose mouth Skelton puts his "Phyllyp
Sparowe," was apparently being brought up at Carrow, and describes how she
sewed the dead bird's likeness on her sampler,

  I toke my sampler ones,
  Of purpose, for the nones,
  To sowe with stytchis of sylke
  My sparow whyte as mylke.

Confectionery does not seem very probable, for at this period the cooking
for the convent was nearly always done by a hired male cook and not (as
laid down in the Benedictine rule) by the nuns themselves, who were apt to
complain if they had to prepare the meals. For "home medicine" there is
absolutely no evidence, though all ladies of the day possessed some
knowledge of simples and herb-medicines and the girls may equally well
have learned it at home as among the nuns. It is probable that the
children learned to sing, if the nuns took them into the quire; but for
this there is no definite evidence, nor has any document been quoted to
prove that they learned to play upon instruments of music. It is true that
the flighty Dame Isabel Benet "did dance and play the lute" with the
friars of Northampton[899] and that "a pair of organs" occurs twice in
Dissolution inventories of nunneries[900], but an organ is hardly an
instrument of secular music to be played by the daughter of the house in a
manorial solar; and Dame Benet's escapade with the lute was a lapse from
the strict path of virtue. Finally to suggest that the nuns taught dances
verges upon absurdity. That they did sometimes dance is true, and grieved
their visitors were to hear it[901]; but what Alnwick would have said to
the suggestion that they solemnly engaged themselves to teach dancing to
their young pupils is an amusing subject for contemplation. Evidence for
everything except the prayers of the church and the art of reading is
non-existent; we can but base our opinion upon conjecture and probability;
and the probability for instrumental music is so slight as to be
non-existent. If it be argued that gentlewomen were expected to possess
these arts, it may be replied that the children whom we find at nunneries
probably had opportunity to learn them at home, for they seem sometimes
to have spent only a part of the year with the nuns. It is true that board
is sometimes paid for the whole year, and that little Bridget Plantagenet
stayed at St Mary's Winchester for two or three years, while her parents
were absent in France; moreover we have already heard of poor Elizabeth
and Jane Knyghte, left for over five years at Cornworthy. But an analysis
of the Swaffham Bulbeck accounts shows that the children (if indeed they
are children) stayed for the following periods during the year 1483, viz.,
two for forty weeks, one for thirty weeks, one for twenty-six weeks, two
for twenty-two weeks, one for sixteen weeks, one for twelve weeks and one
for six weeks. It is much more likely that girls were sent to the nuns for
elementary schooling than for the acquirement of worldly accomplishments.

As has already been pointed out, it is difficult to get any specific
information as to the life led by the schoolchildren in nunneries. But by
good fortune some letters written by an abbess shortly before the
Dissolution have been preserved and give a pleasant picture of a little
girl boarding in a nunnery. The correspondence in question took place
between Elizabeth Shelley, Abbess of St Mary's Winchester, and Honor,
Viscountess Lisle, concerning the latter's stepdaughter, the lady Bridget
Plantagenet, who was one of the twenty-six aristocratic young ladies then
at school in the nunnery[902]. Lord Lisle was an illegitimate son of
Edward IV, and had been appointed Lord Deputy of Calais in 1533; and when
he and his wife departed to take up the new office, they were at pains to
find suitable homes for their younger children in England. A stepson of
Lord Lisle's was boarded with the Abbot of Reading and his two younger
daughters, the ladies Elizabeth and Bridget Plantagenet, were left, the
one in charge of her half-brother, Sir John Dudley, and the other in that
of the energetic Abbess of St Mary's Winchester. It must be admitted that
the correspondence between the abbess and Lady Lisle shows a greater
preoccupation with dress than with learning. The Lady Bridget grew like
the grass in springtime; there was no keeping her in clothes.

    "After due recommendation," writes the abbess, "Pleaseth it your good
    ladyship to know that I have received your letter, dated the 4th day
    of February last past, by the which I do perceive your pleasure is to
    know how mistress Bridget your daughter doth, and what things she
    lacketh. Madam, thanks be to God, she is in good health, but I assure
    your ladyship she lacketh convenient apparel, for she hath neither
    whole gown nor kirtle, but the gown and kirtle that you sent her last.
    And also she hath not one good partlet to put upon her neck, nor but
    one good coif to put upon her head. Wherefore, I beseech your ladyship
    to send to her such apparel as she lacketh, as shortly as you may
    conveniently. Also the bringer of your letter shewed to me that your
    pleasure is to know how much money I received for mistress Bridget's
    board, and how long she hath been with me. Madam, she hath been with
    me a whole year ended the 8th day of July last past, and as many weeks
    as is between that day and the day of making this bill, which is
    thirty three weeks; and so she hath been with me a whole year and
    thirty three weeks, which is in all four score and five weeks. And I
    have received of mistress Katherine Mutton, 10_s._, and of Stephen
    Bedham, 20_s._; and I received the day of making this bill, of John
    Harrison, your servant, 40_s._; and so I have received in all, since
    she came to me, toward the payment for her board, 70_s._ Also, madam,
    I have laid out for her, for mending of her gowns and for two matins
    books, four pair of hosen, and four pairs of shoes, and other small
    things, 3_s._ 5_d._ And, good madam, any pleasure that I may do your
    ladyship and also my prayer, you shall be assured of, with the grace
    of Jesus, who preserve you and all yours in honour and health. Amen."

But for the matins books, sandwiched uncomfortably between gowns and
hosen, there is no clue here as to what the Lady Bridget was learning.

The tenor of the next letter, written about seven months later, is the
same, for still the noble little lady grew:

    "Mine singular and special good lady," writes the Abbess, "I heartily
    recommend me to your good ladyship; ascertaining you that I have
    received from your servant this summer a side of venison and two dozen
    and a half of pee-wits."

(What flesh-days there must have been in the refectory!)

    "And whereas your ladyship do write that you sent me an ermine cape
    for your daughter, surely I see none; but the tawny velvet gown that
    you write of, I have received it. I have sent unto you, by the bringer
    of your letter, your daughter's black velvet gown; also I have caused
    kirtles to be made of her old gowns, according unto your writing; and
    the 10_s._ you sent is bestowed for her, and more, as it shall appear
    by a bill of reckoning which I have made of the same. And I trust she
    shall lack nothing that is necessary for her."

Another letter shows that the wardrobe difficulty was no whit abated, but
the Abbess dealt with it by the rather hard-hearted expedient of sending
poor Bridget away on a visit to her father's steward at Soberton in
Hampshire, in her outgrown clothes, in order that he might be moved to
amend her state. Clearly it was not always easy to get what was requisite
for a schoolgirl from a gay and busy mother, disporting herself across the

    "This is to advertise your ladyship," says the Abbess, "Upon a
    fourteen or fifteen days before Michaelmas, mistress Waynam and
    mistress Fawkenor came to Winchester to see mistress Bridget Lisle,
    with whom came two of my lord's servants, and desired to have mistress
    Bridget to sir Anthony Windsor's to sport her for a week. And because
    she was out of apparel, that master Windsor might see her, I was the
    better content to let her go; and since that time she came no more at
    Winchester: Wherein I beseech your ladyship think no unkindness in me
    for my light sending of her: for if I had not esteemed her to have
    come again, she should not have come there at that time."

The reason why lucky little Bridget was enjoying a holiday appears in a
letter from the steward, Sir Anthony Windsor, to Lord Lisle, in which he
not only takes a firm line over the dress problem (as the Abbess foresaw),
but seems also to cast some aspersion upon the nunnery; the nuns, he
evidently thought, had no idea how to feed a growing girl, or how to spoil
her, as she ought to be spoiled:

    Also mistress Bridget recommendeth her to your good lordship, and also
    to my lady, beseeching you of your blessing. She is now at home with
    me, because I will provide for her apparel such things as shall be
    necessary, for she hath overgrown all that she ever hath, except such
    as she hath had of late: and I will keep her here still if it be your
    lordship's and my lady's pleasure that I shall so do, and she shall
    fare no worse that I do, for she is very spare and hath need of
    cherishing, and she shall lack nothing in learning, nor otherwise that
    my wife can do for her.

Apparently she never went back to the nunnery, and a few years later it
was dissolved:

  And when (s)he came to Saynte Marie's aisle
    Where nonnes were wont to praie,
  The vespers were songe, the shryne was gone,
    And the nonnes had passyd awaie.

A word should perhaps be added as to the "piety and breeding," which Lady
Bridget and other little schoolgirls learned from the nuns, for good
sentimentalists of later days often looked back and regretted the loss of
a training, presumably instinct with religion and morality. It is well
nigh impossible to generalise in this matter, so greatly did convents
differ from each other. St Mary's Winchester was of very good repute, and
for this we have not only the testimony of the local gentlemen, who were
commissioned to visit it by Henry VIII in 1536, but also of the visitation
which was held by Dr Hede in 1501. Undoubtedly the aristocratic young
ladies who went there did not lack the precept and example of pious and
well bred mistresses. The statement of the commissioners at Polesworth
that the children there were "right virtuously brought up" has often been
quoted. So also has the plea of Robert Aske, who led the ill-fated
Pilgrimage of Grace, by which the people of Yorkshire sought to bring back
the old religion, and in particular the monastic houses; in the abbeys, he
said, "all gentlemen (were) much succoured in their needs, with many their
young sons there assisted and in nunneries their daughters brought up in
virtue"[903]. Less well-known is the tribute of the reformer Thomas Becon
(1512-67), the more striking in that he was a staunch Protestant, who had
suffered for his faith. Although he refers in disparagement to the
nunneries of his own day, his description of the relations between nuns
and their pupils cannot be founded solely upon an imaginary golden age:

    "The young maids," he writes, "were not enforced to wear this or that
    apparel; to abstain from this or that kind of meats; to sing this or
    that service; to say so many prayers; to shave their heads; to vow
    chastity; and for ever to abide in their cloister unto their dying
    day. But contrariwise, they might wear what apparel they would, so
    that it were honest and seemly and such as becometh maidens that
    profess godliness. They might freely eat all kinds of meats according
    to the rule of the gospel, avoiding all excess and superfluity, yea,
    and that at all times. Their prayers were free and without compulsion,
    everyone praying when the Holy Ghost moved their hearts to pray; yea,
    and that such prayers as present necessity required, and that also not
    in a strange tongue, but in such language as they did right well
    understand. To shave their heads and to keep such-like superstitious
    observances as our nuns did in times past and yet do in the kingdom of
    the pope, they were not compelled. For all that they were commanded to
    do of their schoolmistresses and governesses was nothing else than the
    doctrine of the gospel and matters appertaining unto honest and civil
    manners; whom they most willingly obeyed. Moreover, it was lawful for
    them to go out of the cloister when they would, or when they were
    required of their friends; and also to marry when and with whom they
    would, so that it were in the Lord. And would God there were some
    consideration of this matter had among the rulers of the christian
    commonwealth, that young maids might be godly brought up, and learn
    from their cradles 'to be sober-minded, to love their husbands, to
    love their children, to be discreet, chaste, housewifely, good,
    obedient to their husbands'"[904].

These eulogies are all necessarily tinged by the knowledge that the
nunneries either were about to disappear, or had disappeared, from
England. They had filled a useful function and men were willing to be to
their faults a little blind. It cannot be doubted that the gentry and the
substantial middle class appreciated them; up to the very eve of the
Dissolution legacies to monastic houses are a common feature in wills.
Only an inadequate conclusion, however, is to be reached from a study of
tributes such as those of the commissioners at St Mary's Winchester and
Polesworth and of Robert Aske. If we turn to pre-Reformation visitation
reports, which are free from the desire to state a case, the evidence is
more mixed. It is only reasonable to conclude that many nunneries did
indeed bring children up, with the example of virtue before their eyes,
and the _omnia bene_ of many reports reinforces such a conclusion. But it
is impossible also to avoid the conviction that other houses were not
always desirable homes for the young, nor nuns their best example. When
Alnwick visited his diocese in the first half of the fifteenth century
there were children at Godstow, where at least one nun was frankly immoral
and where all received visits freely from the scholars of Oxford; nor was
the general reputation of the house good at other periods. There were
children also at Catesby and at St Michael's Stamford, which were in a
thoroughly bad state, under bad prioresses. At Catesby the poor innocents
lay in the dorter, where lay also sister Isabel Benet, far gone with
child; and they must have heard the Prioress screaming "Beggars!" and
"Whores!" at the nuns and dragging them round the cloister by their
hair[905]. At St Michael's Stamford, all was in disorder and no less than
three of the nuns were unchaste, one having twice run away, each time with
a different partner. The visitation of Gracedieu on the same occasion
shows too much quarrelling and misrule to make possible a very high
opinion of its piety or of its breeding. If we turn to another set of
injunctions, the great series for the diocese of York, it must be conceded
that though the gentry of the county doubtless found the convents useful
as schools and lodging houses, it is difficult to see how Aske's plea that
"their daughters (were) brought up in virtue" could possibly have been
true of the fourteenth century, when the morals and manners of the nuns
were extremely bad. There is not much evidence for the period of which
Aske could speak from his own knowledge; but at Esholt, where two children
were at school in 1537, one of the nuns was found to have "lyved
incontinentlie and vnchast and ... broght forth a child of her bodie
begotten" and an alehouse had been set up within the convent gates, in
1535[906]. The only safe generalisation to make about this, as about so
many other problems of medieval social history, is that there can be no
generalisation. The standard of piety and breeding likely to be acquired
by children in medieval nunneries must have differed considerably from
time to time and from house to house.



    Where is the pain that does not become deadened after a thousand
    years? or what is the nature of that pleasure or happiness which never
    wearies by monotony? Earthly pleasures and pains are short in
    proportion as they are keen; of any others, which are both intense and
    lasting, we can form no idea.... To beings constituted as we are, the
    monotony of singing Psalms would be as great an affliction as the
    pains of hell and might even be pleasantly interrupted by them.

    JOWETT, Introduction to Plato's _Phaedo_.

St Benedict's common sense is nowhere more strikingly shown than in his
division of the routine of monastic life between the three occupations of
divine service, manual labour and reading. Not only has this arrangement
the merit of developing the different sides of men's natures, spirit, body
and brain, but it fulfils a deep psychological necessity. The essence of
communal life is regularity, but no human being can subsist without a
further ingredient of variety. St Benedict knew well enough that unless he
provided the stimulus of change within the Rule, outraged nature would
seek for it outside. Hence the careful adjustment of occupations to
combine variety with regularity. The services were the supreme joy and
duty of the monk and nun and the life of the convent was centred in its
church. But these services were not excessively long and were divided from
each other by periods of sleep by night and of work, or study, or
meditation by day, after the manner which Crashaw inimitably set forth in
his _Description of a Religious House and Condition of Life_:

  A hasty portion of prescribèd sleep;
  Obedient slumbers, that can wake and weep,
  And sing, and sigh, and work, and sleep again;
  Still rolling a round sphere of still-returning pain.
  Hands full of hearty labours; pains that pay
  And prize themselves; do much, that more they may,
  And work for work, not wages; let tomorrow's
  New drops wash off the sweat of this day's sorrows.
  A long and daily-dying life, which breathes
  A respiration of reviving deaths.

The monastic day was divided into seven offices and the time at which
these were said varied slightly according to the season of the year. The
night office began about 2 a.m., when the nuns rose from their beds and
entered their choir, where Matins were said, followed immediately by
Lauds. The next service was Prime, said at 6 or 7 a.m., and then
throughout the day came Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline, with an
interval of about three hours between them. The time of these monastic
Hours (as they were called) changed gradually after the time of St
Benedict, and later None, which should have been at 3 p.m., was said at
noon, leaving the nuns from about 12 midday to 5 p.m. in the winter and 1
p.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer for work. Compline, the last service of all,
was said at 7 p.m. in winter and at 8 p.m. in summer, after which the nuns
were supposed to retire immediately to bed in their dorter, where (in the
words of the Syon _Rule_) "none shal jutte up on other wylfully, nor spyt
up on the stayres, goyng up or down, nor in none other place repreuably,
but yf they trede it out forthwyth"![907] They had in all about eight
hours sleep, broken in the middle by the night service; and they had three
meals, a light repast of bread and beer after Prime in the morning, a
solid dinner to the accompaniment of reading aloud, and a short supper
immediately after vespers at 5 or 6 p.m.[908]

Except for certain specified periods of relaxation, strict silence was
supposed to be observed for a large part of the day, and if it were
necessary for the nuns to communicate with each other, they were urged to
do so in an abbreviated form, or by signs. Thus in 1319 Bishop Stapeldon
of Exeter wrote to the nuns of Polsloe

    that silence be kept in due places, according to the Rule and
    observances of St Benedict; and, if it be desirable that any word be
    spoken in the aforesaid places, for any reasonable occasion, then let
    it be gently and so low that it be scarce heard of the other nuns, and
    in as few words as may be needed for the comprehension of those who
    hear; and better in Latin than in any other tongue; yet the Latin need
    not be well-ordered by way of grammar, but thus, _candela_, _liber_,
    _missale_, _gradale_, _panis_, _vinum_, _cervisia_, _est_, _non_,
    _sic_ and so forth[909].

The nuns of Syon had a table of signs drawn up for them by Thomas Betsone,
one of the brethren of the house, a person of extraordinary ingenuity and
no sense of humour[910]. The sort of dumb pandemonium which went on at the
Syon dinner table must have been more mirth provoking than speech. The
sister who desired fish would "wagge her hande displaied sidelynges in
manere of a fissh taill," she who wanted milk would "draw her left little
fynger in maner of mylkyng"; for mustard one would "hold her nose in the
uppere part of her righte fiste and rubbe it," and another for salt would
"philippe with her right thombe and his forefynger ouere the left thombe";
another, desirous of wine, would "meue her fore fynger vp and downe vpon
the ende of her thombe afore her eghe"; and the guilty sacristan, struck
by the thought that she had not provided incense for the mass, would "put
her two fyngers vnto her nose thirles (nostrils)." There are no less than
106 signs in the table and on the whole it is not surprising that the Rule
enjoins that "it is never leful to use them witheoute some reson and
profitable nede, ffor ofte tyme more hurt ethe an euel sygne than an euel
worde, and more offence it may be to God"[911].

[Illustration: PLATE VI


The time set apart in the monastic day for work was divided between brain
work and manual labour. In the golden days of monasticism the time devoted
to reading enabled the monasteries to become homes of learning; splendid
libraries were collected for the use of the monks and in the scriptorium
men skilled in writing and in illumination copied books and maintained the
great series of chronicles, in which the middle ages live again. The nuns
of certain Anglo-Saxon houses, and of certain continental houses at a
later date, had some reputation for learning. In early days, too, the
hours devoted to labour were spent in the fields, or more often in the
workshops of the house; and those who had been skilled in crafts in the
world continued to exercise them. The nuns of Anglo-Saxon England were
famed for the needlework executed during the hours of work. Besides this
labour the Rule ordained that the monks and nuns should take it in turns
to serve their brethren in the kitchen every week and an eleventh century
chronicler records "in the monasteries I saw counts cooking in the
kitchens and margraves leading the pigs out to feed"[912]. It was by
reason of this intellectual and manual labour that the early monks
rendered, as it were incidentally, an immense service to civilisation.
Their aim and purpose was the salvation of their souls, but because the
Rule under which they lived declared that labour was one of the means to
that salvation, they added many of the merits of the active to those of
the contemplative life. The early Benedictines were great missionaries,
ardent scholars, enlightened landowners and even energetic statesmen. The
early Cistercians made the woods and wildernesses, in which they settled,
blossom like a rose. But apart from the social services thus rendered to
civilisation, the threefold division of monastic life into prayer, study
and labour was vital to monasticism itself, since it afforded the
essential element of variety in routine.

The benefits of routine are obvious: any life which exists for the regular
performance of specific duties, above all any life which is carried on in
a community, must depend very largely upon fixed hours and carefully
organised occupations. The Rule of St Benedict made a serious attempt to
render monastic life possible and beneficial to the average human being,
by the combination of regularity and variety which has been described
above. There was constant change of occupation, but there was no waste and
no muddle. It is extremely significant that monasticism broke down
directly St Benedict's careful adjustment of occupations became upset.
With the growing wealth of the monasteries manual labour became
undignified; some orders relied on lay brethren, the majority on servants.
Gone was the day when counts cooked in the kitchens; in the fourteenth
century monks and nuns paid large wages to their cooks and even in a small
nunnery it was regarded as legitimate cause for complaint not to have a
convent servant. Learning also fell away after the growth of the
universities in the twelfth century; the poverty of the monastic
chronicles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is one witness to the
fact; the necessity to send injunctions to nunneries first in French and
then in English, as the knowledge of Latin and then of French died out in
them, is another. Of the three occupations, learning, manual labour and
divine service, only the last was left. Is it surprising that that also
began to be looked upon as a weary and monotonous routine, when the monks
and nuns came to it, not fresh from the stimulus of study or of labour,
but from indolence, or from the worldly pleasures of the tavern, the hunt,
the gambling board, the flirtation, the gossip, wherewith they often
filled the spare time, which the wise Benedictine Rule would have filled
with a change of occupation?

All safeguards against a petrifying routine were now broken down. We are
wont to-day to look with disquiet upon the life of a clerk in an office,
endlessly adding up rows of figures, with an interval for luncheon; but
the clerk has his evenings, his Sundays, his annual holiday, his life as
son, or husband, or father. For the medieval monk there was no such
relaxation. When the salutary labour of hand and brain ordained by St
Benedict no longer found a place in his life, he was delivered over bound
to an endless routine of dorter, church, frater and cloister, which
stretched from day to night and from night to day again. For nuns the
monotony was even greater, for they had lost more completely than monks
their early tradition of learning and they could not pass happy years in
study at a university (as a few monks from great abbeys were able to do),
nor find some solace in exercising the functions of a priest; moreover
women were more apt even than men to enter the religious life without any
real vocation for it, since there was hardly any other career for
unmarried ladies of gentle birth. It would be an exaggeration to say that
this uneventful life was necessarily distasteful. To the majority it was
doubtless a happy existence; monotony appears peace to those who love it.

  No cruel guard of diligent cares, that keep
  Crown'd woes awake, as things too wise for sleep:
  But reverent discipline and religious fear,
  And soft obedience, find sweet biding here;
  Silence and sacred rest; peace and pure joys;
  Kind loves keep house, lie close and make no noise.

Here behind the walls of the convent "a common grayness silvered
everything" and all care was remote, save that, never to be escaped by
womankind, of making two ends meet.

Nevertheless the danger was there. Only a minority, one may be sure,
revolted actively against the duties which are sometimes, most
significantly, called "the burthen of religion"[913]. That minority is
known to us, for the sinner and the apostate, whether inspired by lust or
by levity, mere victims to their own weakness, or active rebels against an
intolerable dulness, have left their mark in official documents. But the
number can only be guessed at of those others, who carried in their hearts
for all their staid lives the complaint of the Latin song:

  Sono tintinnabulum
  Repeto psalterium,
  Gratum linquo somnium
  Cum dormire cuperem,
      Heu misella!
  Nichil est deterius tali vita
  Cum enim sim petulans et lasciva[914].

  The bell I am ringing,
  The psalter am singing,
  And from my bed creeping
  Who fain would be sleeping,
      Misery me!
  O what can be worse than this life that I dree,
  When naughty and lovelorn and wanton I be?

"Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room" is a charming justification
of the sonnet, but it is neither good psychology nor good history.

It can never be too often repeated that many monks and nuns entered
religion as a career while still children, with no particular vocation for
the religious life. To such, even though they might experience no longing
for the forbidden pleasures of the world, the monotony of the cloister
would often be hard to bear. Their young limbs would kick against its
restrictions and the changing moods of adolescence would turn and twist in
vain within the iron bars of its unadaptable routine. Even to those no
longer young happiness would depend at the best upon the fostering of a
quick spiritual life, at the worst upon lack of imagination and of
vitality. The undaunted daughter of desires, the man in whom religion
burned as a strong fire, could find happiness in the life. But lesser
brethren could not. Ennui, more deadly even than sensual temptation, was
the devil who tormented them. So in the convents of the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries, a sympathetic eye and an understanding mind will
diagnose the fundamental disease as reaction against routine by men and
women in whom Nature, expelled by a pitchfork, had returned a thousand
times more strong.

This reaction from routine took several forms. It is somewhere at the
bottom of all the more serious sins, which the pitchfork method of
attaining salvation brought upon human creatures with bodies as well as
souls. In this chapter, however, we are concerned not with these graver
faults of immorality, but with things less gross, and yet in their
cumulative effect no less fatal to monastic life. Such was the neglect of
that praise of God, which was the primary _raison d'être_ of the monk and
nun, so that services sometimes became empty forms, to be hurried through
with scant devotion, occasionally with scandalous irreverence. Such was
the deadly sin of _accidie_, the name of which is forgotten today, though
the thing itself is with us still. Such were the nerves on edge, the small
quarrels, the wear and tear of communal life; such also the gay clothes,
the pet animals and the worldly amusements, with which nuns sought to
enliven their existence. For all these things were in some sense a
reaction from routine.

Carelessness in the performance of the monastic hours was an exceedingly
common fault during the later middle ages and often finds a place in
episcopal injunctions. Sometimes monks and nuns "cut" the services, as at
Peterborough in 1437, when only ten or twelve of the 44 monks came on
ordinary days to church[915], or at Nuncoton in 1440, where many of the
nuns failed to come to compline, but busied themselves instead in various
domestic offices, or wandered idly in the garden[916]. Often they came
late to matins, a fault which was common in nunneries, for the nuns were
prone to sit up drinking and gossiping after compline, instead of going
straight to bed[917]; and these nocturnal carousals, however harmless in
themselves, did not conduce to wakefulness at one a.m. Consequently they
were somewhat sleepy, _quodammodo sompnolentes_, at matins and found an
almost Johnsonian difficulty in getting up early. At Stainfield in 1519
Atwater found that half an hour sometimes elapsed between the last stroke
of the bell and the beginning of the office and that some of the nuns did
not sing but dozed, partly because they had not enough candles, partly
because they went to bed late; they also performed the offices very
negligently[918]. But most often of all the fault of monks and nuns lay in
gabbling through the services as quickly as possible in order to get them
over. They left out syllables at the beginning and end of words, they
omitted the _dipsalma_ or _pausacio_ between two verses, so that one side
of the choir was beginning the second half, before the other side had
finished the first; they skipped sentences; they mumbled and slurred over
what should have been "entuned in their nose ful semely."

Episcopal injunctions not infrequently animadvert against this irreverent
treatment of the offices. At Catesby in 1442 Isabel Benet asserted that
"divine service is chanted at so great speed that no pauses are made," and
at Carrow in 1526 several of the older nuns complained that the sisters
sang and said the service more quickly than they ought, without due
pauses. A strong injunction sent to Nuncoton in 1531 declares that the
hours have been "doon with grete festinacon, haste and without deuocon,
contrarye to the good manner and ordre of religion"[919]. Indeed so
common was the fault that the Father of Evil was obliged to employ a
special devil called Tittivillus, whose sole business it was to collect
the dropped syllables and gabbled verses and carry them back to his master
in a sack. One rhyme distinguishes carefully between the contents of his

  Hii sunt qui psalmos corrumpunt nequiter almos,
  Dangler, cum jasper, lepar, galper quoque draggar,
  Momeler, forskypper, forereynner, sic et overleper,
  Fragmina verborum Tutivillus colligit horum[920].

A holy Cistercian abbot once interviewed Tittivillus; this is the tale as
the nuns of Syon read it in their _Myroure of Oure Ladye_:

    We rede of an holy Abbot of the order of Cystreus that whyle he stode
    in the quyer at mattyns, he sawe a fende that had a longe and a greate
    poke hangynge about hys necke, and wente aboute the quyer from one to
    an other, and wayted bysely after all letters, and syllables, and
    wordes, and faylynges, that eny made; and them he gathered dylygently
    and putte them in hys poke. And when he came before the Abbot,
    waytynge yf oughte had escaped hym, that he myghte have gotten and put
    in hys bagge; the Abbot was astoned and aferde of the foulenes and
    mysshape of hym, and sayde vnto hym. What art thow; And he answered
    and sayd. I am a poure dyuel, and my name ys Tytyuyllus, and I do myne
    offyce that is commytted vnto me. And what is thyne offyce sayd the
    Abbot, he answeryd I muste eche day he sayde brynge my master a
    thousande pokes full of faylynges, and of neglygences in syllables and
    wordes, that ar done in youre order in redynge and in syngynge. And
    else I must be sore beten[921].

Carelessness in the singing of the services was not, however, the most
serious result of reaction against routine. If the men and women of
sensibility failed to keep intelligence active in the pursuit of spiritual
or temporal duties, if they cared no longer to use brain and spirit as
they performed the daily round, _accidia_[922], that dread disease, half
ennui and half melancholia, which, though common to all men, was
recognised as the peculiar menace of the cloister, lay ever in wait for
them. Against this sin of intellectual and spiritual sloth all the great
churchmen of the middle ages inveigh, recognising in it the greatest
menace of religious life, from which all other sins may follow[923]. If
_accidia_ once laid hold upon a monk he was lost; ceasing to perform with
active mind his religious duties, he would find them a meaningless,
endless routine, filling him with irritation, with boredom and with a
melancholy against which he might struggle in vain. The fourth century
cenobite Cassian has left a detailed description of the effects of
_accidia_ in the cloister, declaring that it was specially disturbing to a
monk about the sixth hour "like some fever which seizes him at stated
times," so that many declared that this was "the sickness that destroyeth
in the noon day," spoken of in the ninetieth psalm[924]. Many centuries
later Dante crystallised it in four unsurpassable lines. As he passed
through the fifth circle of hell he saw a black and filthy marsh, in which
struggled the souls of those who had been overcome by anger; but deeper
than the angry were submerged other souls, whose sobs rose in bubbles
through the muddy water and who could only gurgle their confession in
their throats. These were the souls of men who had fallen victims to the
sin of _accidia_ in their lives

      Fitti nel limo dicon: Tristi fummo
          Nel' aer dolce che dal sol s' allegra,
          Portando dentro accidioso fummo:
      Or ci attristiam nella belletta negra.

    Fixed in the slime, they say, "Sullen were we in the sweet air, that
    is gladdened by the sun, carrying lazy smoke in our hearts; now lie we
    sullen here in the black mire"[925].

But the working of the poison is most brilliantly described by Chaucer, in
his _Persones Tale_:

    "After the sinnes of Envie and of Ire, now wol I speken of the sinne
    of Accidie. For Envye blindeth the herte of a man, and Ire troubleth a
    man; and Accidie maketh him hevy, thoghtful and wrawe. Envye and Ire
    maken bitternesse in herte; which bitternesse is moder of Accidie and
    binimeth him the love of alle goodnesse. Thanne is Accidie the
    anguissh of a trouble herte.... He dooth alle thing with anoy and with
    wrawnesse, slaknesse and excusacioun, and with ydelnesse and
    unlust.... Now comth Slouthe, that wol nat sufre noon hardnesse ne no
    penaunce.... Thanne comth drede to biginne to werke any gode werkes;
    for certes he that is enclyned to sinne, him thinketh it is so greet
    an empryse for to undertake to doon werkes of goodnesse.... Now comth
    wanhope, that is despeir of the mercy of God, that comth somtyme of to
    muche outrageous sorwe, and somtyme of to muche drede; imagininge that
    he hath doon so much sinne, that it wol nat availlen him, though he
    wolde repenten him and forsake sinne: thurgh which despeir or drede he
    abaundoneth al his herte to every maner sinne, as seith seint
    Augustin. Which dampnable sinne, if that it continue unto his ende, it
    is cleped sinning in the holy gost.... Soothly he that despeireth him
    is lyk the coward champioun recreant, that seith creant withoute nede.
    Allas! allas! nedeles is he recreant and nedeles despeired. Certes the
    mercy of God is euere redy to every penitent and is aboven alle hise
    werkes.... Thanne cometh sompnolence, that is sluggy slombringe, which
    maketh a man be hevy and dul in body and in soule; and this sinne
    comth of Slouthe."

He proceeds to describe further symptoms,

    "Necligence or recchelnesse ... ydelnesse ... the sinne that man
    clepen _Tarditas_" and "Lachesse,"

and concludes thus,

    "Thanne comth a manere coldnesse, that freseth al the herte of man.
    Thanne comth undevocioun, thurgh which a man is so blent, as seith
    seint Bernard, and hath swiche langour in soule, that he may neither
    rede ne singe in holy chirche, ne here ne thinke of no devocioun, ne
    travaille with his handes in no good werk, that it nis him unsavory
    and al apalled. Thanne wexeth he slow and slombry, and sone wol be
    wrooth, and sone is enclyned to hate and to envye. Thanne comth the
    sinne of worldly sorwe, swich as is cleped _tristicia_, that sleeth
    man, as seint Paul seith. For certes swich sorwe werketh to the deeth
    of the soule and of the body also; for therof comth, that a man is
    anoyed of his owene lyf. Wherfore swich sorwe shorteth ful ofte the
    lyf of a man, er that his tyme be come by wey of kinde"[926].

This masterly diagnosis of the sin of spiritual sloth and its branches is
illustrated by several stories which bear unmistakably the impress of a
dreadful truth. Johann Busch's account of his early temptations and doubts
has often been quoted. A strong character, he overcame the temptation and
emerged stronger[927]. But Caesarius of Heisterbach has two anecdotes of
weaker brethren which show how exactly Chaucer described the anguish of a
troubled heart. The first is of particular interest to us because it
concerns a woman:

    "A certain nun, a woman of advanced age, and, as was supposed, of
    great holiness, was so overcome by the vice of melancholy
    (_tristitiae_) and so vexed with a spirit of blasphemy, doubt and
    distrust, that she fell into despair. And she began altogether to
    doubt those things which she had believed from infancy and which it
    behoved her to believe, nor could she be induced by anyone to take the
    holy sacraments; and when her sisters and also her nieces in the flesh
    besought her why she was thus hardened, she answered "I am of the
    lost, of those who shall be damned." One day the Prior, growing angry,
    said to her, "Sister, unless you recover from your unbelief, when you
    die I will have you buried in a field." And she, hearing him, was
    silent but kept his words in her heart. One day, when certain of the
    sisters were to go on a journey I know not whither, she secretly
    followed them to the banks of the river Moselle, whereon the monastery
    is situated, and when the ship, which was carrying the sisters, put
    off, she threw herself from the shore into the river. Those who were
    in the ship heard the sound of a splash, and looking out thought her
    body to be a dog, but one of them, desiring (by God's will) to know
    more certainly what it was, ran quickly to the place and seeing a
    human being, entered the river and drew her out. Then when they
    perceived that it was the aforesaid nun, already wellnigh drowned,
    they were all frightened, and when they had cared for her and she had
    coughed up the water and could speak, they asked her, "Why, sister,
    didst thou act thus cruelly?" and she replied, pointing to the Prior,
    "My lord there threatened that I should be buried when dead in a
    field, wherefore I preferred to be drowned in the flood rather than to
    be buried like a beast in the field." Then they led her back to the
    monastery and guarded her more carefully. Behold what great evil is
    born of melancholy (_tristitia_). That woman was brought up from
    infancy in the monastery. She was a chaste, devout, stern and
    religious virgin, and, as the mistress [of the novices] of a
    neighbouring monastery told me, all the maidens educated by her were
    of better discipline and more devout than others"[928].

The other anecdote tells of an old lay brother, who at the end of a long
life fell into despair:

    "I know not," says Caesarius, "by what judgment of God he was made
    thus sad and fearful, that he was so greatly afraid for his sins and
    despaired altogether of the life eternal. He did not indeed doubt in
    his faith, but rather despaired of salvation. He could be cheered by
    no scriptural authorities and brought back to the hope of forgiveness
    by no examples. Yet he is believed to have sinned but little. When the
    brothers asked him, 'What makes you fear, why do you despair?' he
    answered, 'I cannot pray as I was used to do, and so I fear hell.'
    Because he laboured with the vice of _tristitia_, therefore he was
    filled with _accidia_, and from each of these was despair born in his
    heart. He was placed in the infirmary and on a certain morning he
    prepared him for death, and came to his master, saying, 'I can no
    longer fight against God.' And when his master paid but little
    attention to his words, he went forth to the fish pond of the
    monastery near by and threw himself into it and was drowned"[929].

Only a small minority, it is needless to say, was driven to this anguish
of despair. For the majority the strain of conventual life found outlet,
not in these black moods, but in a tendency to bicker one with another, to
get excitement by exaggerating the small events of daily existence into
matter for jealousies and disputes. For the strain was a double one; to
monotony was added the complete lack of privacy, the wear and tear of
communal life; not only always doing the same thing at the same time, but
always doing it in company with a number of other people. The beauty of
human fellowship, the happy friendliness of life in a close society are
too obvious to need description.

  For if heuene be on this erthe · and ese to any soule,
  It is in cloistere or in scole · by many skilles I fynde;
  For in cloistre cometh no man · to chide ne to fighte,
  But alle is buxomnesse there and bokes · to rede and to lerne,
  In scole there is scorne · but if a clerke wil lerne,
  And grete loue and lykynge · for eche of hem loueth other[930].

But it is necessary also to remember the other side of the picture.
Personal idiosyncrasies were no less apt to jar in the middle ages than
they are today; there are unfortunates who are born to be unpopular; there
are tempers which will lose themselves; and in conventual life there is no
balm of solitude for frayed nerves. These nuns were very human people; a
mere accident of birth had probably sent them to a convent rather than to
the care of husband and children in a manor-hall; just as in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a mere accident of birth made one son
the squire, another the soldier and a third the parson. No special
saintliness of disposition was theirs and no miracle intervened to render
them immune from tantrums when they crossed the convent threshold. Nothing
is at once more striking and more natural than the prevalence of little
quarrels, sometimes growing into serious disputes, among the inmates of
monasteries. Browning's Spanish Cloister was no mere figment of his
inventive brain; indeed it is, if anything, less startling than the
medieval Langland's description of the convent, where Wrath was cook and
where all was far from "buxomnesse." Certainly Langland's indictment is a
violent one; the satirist must darken his colours to catch the eye; and,
had Chaucer been the painter, we might have had a dispute couched in more
courteous terms and more "estatlich of manere." But the satirist's account
is significant, because his very office demands that he shall exaggerate
only what exists; his words are a smoke which cannot rise without fire. So
Langland may speak through the lips of Wrath, with two white eyes:

  I have an aunte to nonne · and an abbesse bothe,
  Hir were leuere swowe or swelte · þan suffre any peyne.
  I haue be cook in hir kichyne · and þe couent serued
  Many monthes with hem · and with monkes bothe.
  I was þe priouresses potagere · and other poure ladyes
  And made hem ioutes of iangelynge · þat dame Iohanne was a bastard,
  And dame Clarice a knightes doughter · ac a kokewolde was hire syre,
  And dame Peronelle a prestes file · Priouresse worth she neuere
  For she had childe in chirityme · all owre chapitere it wiste ·
  Of wycked wordes I, Wrath · here wortes imade,
  Til "thow lixte" and "thow lixte" lopen oute at ones,
  And eyther hitte other · vnder the cheke;
  Hadde thei had knyves, by Cryst · her eyther had killed other[931].

From "thow lixte" to "Gr-r-r you swine" how little change!

Sober records bear out Langland's contention that Wrath was at home in
nunneries. Some of the worst cases have already been described; election
disputes, disputes arising from a prioress's favouritism, Margaret Wavere
dragging her nuns about the choir by their hair, and screaming insults at
them, Katherine Wells hitting them on the head with fists and feet[932].
Doubtless quarrels seldom got as far as blows; but bad temper and wordy
warfare were common. Insubordination was sometimes at the root of the
discord; nuns refused to submit meekly to correction after the
proclamation of their faults in chapter, or to obey their superiors. The
words of another satirist show that the monastic vow of obedience
sometimes sat lightly upon their shoulders:

  Also another lady there was
  That hyght dame dysobedyent
  And sche set nowght by her priores.
  Ans than me thowght alle was schent,
  For sugettys schulde euyr be dylygent
  Bothe in worde, in wylle and dede,
  To plese her souerynes wyth gode entent,
  And hem obey, ellys god forbede.
  And of alle the defawtes that I cowde se
  Thorowgh schewyng of experience,
  Hyt was one of the most that grevyd me,
  The wantyng of obedyence
  For hyt schulde be chese in consciens
  Alle relygius rule wytnesseth the same
  And when I saw her in no reverence,
  I myght no lenger abyde for schame,
  For they setten not by obedyence.
  And than for wo myne hert gan blede
  Ne they hadden her in no reuerence,
  But few or none to her toke hede[933].

Again the colours are darkened, but the eyes of the satirist had seen.

At St Mary's, Winchester, insubordination was evidently the chief fault.
William of Wykeham writes to the Abbess:

    By public rumour it has come to our ears that some of the nuns of the
    aforesaid house ... care not to submit to or even to obey you and the
    deans and other obedientiaries lawfully constituted by you in those
    things which concern regular observances nor to show them due
    reverence, and that they will not bear or undergo the reproofs and
    corrections inflicted upon them by their superiors for their faults,
    but break out into vituperation and altercation with each other and in
    no way submit to these corrections; meanwhile other nuns of your house
    by detractions, conspiracies, confederacies, leagues, obloquies,
    contradictions and other breaches of discipline (_insolenciis_) and
    laxities (concerning which we speak not at present)

neglect the rule of St Benedict and other due observances. The Abbess is
warned to punish the nuns and to enforce the rule more firmly than
heretofore and to furnish the Bishop with the names of rebels. At the same
time he addresses a letter to the nuns bidding them show obedience to
their superiors and receive correction humbly "henceforth blaming no one
therefore nor altercating one with another, saying that these or those
were badly or excessively punished"[934]. It would seem that discipline
had become lax in the convent and that the Bishop's attempt to introduce
reform by the agency of the abbess was meeting with opposition from unruly
nuns. Visitors were forced constantly to make the double injunction that
nuns should show obedience to their superiors and that those superiors
should be equable and not harsh in correction:

    Also we enioyne you, pryoresse, ... that oftentymes ye come to the
    chapitere for to correcte the defautes of your susters, and that as
    wele then as att other tymes and places ye treyte your said susters
    moderlie wyth all resonable fauour; and that ye rebuke ne repreue
    thaym cruelly ne feruently at no tyme, specyally in audience of
    seculeres, and that ye kepe pryvye fro seculeres your correccyons and
    actes of your chapitere.... Also we enioyne yowe of the couent and
    eueryche oon of yowe vndere peyn of imprisonyng, that mekely and
    buxumly ye obeye the prioresse procedyng discretely in hire
    correccyone, and also that in euery place ye do hire dewe reuerence,
    absteynyng yowe fro all elacyone of pryde and wordes of disobeysaunce
    or debate[935].

Sometimes it was one unruly member who set the convent by the ears. There
is an amusing case at Romsey, which is reminiscent of David Copperfield:

    On 16 January 1527 in the chapter house of the monastery of Romsey,
    before the vicar general, sitting judicially, Lady Alice Gorsyn
    appeared and confessed that she had used bad language with her sisters
    [her greatest oath evidently transcended "by sëynt Loy"] and spread
    abroad reproachful and defamatory words of them. He absolved her from
    the sentence of excommunication and enjoined on her in penance that if
    she used bad language in future and spread about defamatory words of
    them, a red tongue made of cloth should be used on the barbe under the
    chin (_in sua barba alba_) and remain there for a month[936].

a kinder punishment than the scold's bridle or the ducking stool of common
folk. Occasionally an inveterate scold would be removed altogether by the
Bishop and sent to some convent where she was not known; two nuns were
transferred from Burnham to Goring in 1339 "for the peace and quiet of the
house" and in 1298 a quarrelsome nun of Nuncoton was sent to Greenfield to
be kept in solitary confinement as long as she remained incorrigible,
"until according to the discipline of her order she shall know how to live
in a community"[937]. It was more difficult to restore peace when a whole
nunnery was seething with dispute and heart-burnings. General injunctions
to cease quarrelling would seem to show that this was sometimes the case,
and, without having recourse to such an extreme instance as that of
Littlemore in the sixteenth century, it is possible to quote from bishops'
registers documents which go far to bear out even Langland's picture. One
such document may be quoted in illustration, the _comperta_ of Archbishop
Giffard's visitation of Swine in 1268:

    It is discovered that Amice de Rue is a slanderer and a liar and
    impatient and odious to the convent and a rebel; and so are almost all
    the convent when the misdeeds of delinquents are proclaimed in
    chapter; wherefore the prioress or whoever is acting for her is not
    sufficient, without the help of the lord archbishop, to make
    corrections according to the requirements of the rule.... Item, it is
    discovered that three sisters in the flesh and spirit, to wit, Sibyl,
    Bella and Amy, frequently rebel against the corrections of the
    Prioress, and having leagued together with them several other sisters,
    they conspire against their sisters, to the great harm of the regular
    discipline; and Alice de Scrutevil, Beatrice de St Quintin and Maud
    Constable cleave to them.... Item, it is discovered that the Prioress
    is a suspicious woman and too credulous and breaks out at a mere word
    into correction, and frequently punishes unequally for the same fault
    and pursues with long rancour those whom she dislikes, until the time
    of their vindication cometh; whence it befals that the nuns, when they
    suspect that they are going to be burdened with too heavy a
    correction, procure the mitigation of her severity by means of the
    threats of their relatives. Item, it is discovered that the nuns and
    the sisters are at discord in many things, because the sisters contend
    that they are equal to the nuns and use black veils even as the
    nuns[938], which is said not to be the custom in other houses of the
    same order[939].

Apostasy, _accidia_, quarrels, all rose in part from monotony. The
majority of nuns were probably content with their life, but they strove to
bring some excitement and variety into it, not only unconsciously by
cliques and contentions, but also by a conscious aping of the worldly
amusements which enlivened their mothers and sisters outside the convent
walls. The châtelaine or mistress of a manor, when not busied with the
care of an estate, amused herself in the pursuit of fashion; even the
business-like Margaret Paston hankered after a scarlet robe. She amused
herself with keeping pets, those little dogs which scamper so gaily round
the borders of manuscripts, or play so gallant a part in romances like
the Châtelaine of Vergi. She hawked and she hunted, she danced and she
played at tables[940]. All these occupations served to break the monotony
of daily life. The nuns, always in touch with the world owing to the
influx of visitors and to the neglect of enclosure, remembered these
forbidden pleasures. And they sought to spice their monotonous life, as
they spiced their monotonous dishes. Gay clothes, pet animals, a dance, a
game, a gossip, were to them "a ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for
fastyngdayes." So we find all these worldly amusements in the convent.

Dear to the soul of men and women alike, dear to monks and nuns as well as
to the children of the world, were the gay colours and extravagant modes
of contemporary dress. Popular preachers inveighed against the devils'
trappings of their flocks, but when those trappings flaunted themselves in
the cloister there was matter for more than words. As early as the end of
the seventh century St Aldhelm penned a severe indictment of the
fashionable nuns of his day:

    A vest of fine linen of a violet colour is worn, above it a scarlet
    tunic with a hood, sleeves striped with silk and trimmed with red fur;
    the locks on the forehead and the temples are curled with a crisping
    iron, the dark head-veil is given up for white and coloured
    head-dresses, which, with bows of ribbon sewn on, reach down to the
    ground; the nails, like those of a falcon or sparrow-hawk, are pared
    to resemble talons[941].

Synods sat solemnly over silken veils and pleated robes with long trains;
they shook their heads over golden pins and silver belts, jewelled rings,
laced shoes, cloth of burnet and of Rennes, dresses open at the sides, gay
colours (especially red) and fur of _gris_[942]. High brows were
fashionable in the world and the nuns could not resist lifting and
spreading out their veils to expose those fair foreheads ("almost a
spanne brood, I trowe"); when Alnwick visited Goring in 1445 he

    saw with the evidence of his own eyes that the nuns do wear their
    veils spread out on either side and above their foreheads, (and) he
    enjoined upon the prioress ... that she should wear and cause her
    sisters to wear their veils spread down to their eyes[943].

The words of Beatrix's maid in _Much Ado About Nothing_ spring to the
mind: "But methinks you look with your eyes as other women do." For three
weary centuries the bishops waged a holy war against fashion in the
cloister and waged it in vain, for as long as the nuns mingled freely with
secular women it was impossible to prevent them from adopting secular
modes. Occasionally a conscientious visitor found himself floundering
unhandily through something very like a complete catalogue of contemporary
fashions. So Bishop Longland at Elstow in 1531:

    We ordeyne and by way of Iniuncon commande undre payne of disobedyence
    from hensforth that no ladye ne any religious suster within the said
    monasterye presume to were ther apparells upon ther hedes undre suche
    lay fashion as they have now of late doon with cornered crests, nether
    undre suche manour of hight shewing ther forhedes moore like lay
    people than religious, butt that they use them without suche crestes
    or secular fashions and off a lower sort and that ther vayle come as
    lowe as ther yye ledes and soo contynually to use the same, unles itt
    be at suche tymes as they shalbe occupied in eny handycrafte labour,
    att whiche tymes itt shalbe lefull for them to turne upp the said
    vayle for the tyme of suche occupacon. And undre like payne inoyne
    that noon of the said religious susters doo use or were hereafter eny
    such voyded shoys, nether crested as they have of late ther used, butt
    that they be of suche honeste fashion as other religious places both
    use and that ther gownes and kyrtells be closse afore and nott so depe
    voyded at the breste and noo more to use rede stomachers but other
    sadder colers in the same[944].

It is interesting to conjecture how the nuns obtained these gay garments
and ornaments. The growing custom of giving them a money allowance out of
which to dress themselves instead of providing them with clothes in kind
out of the common purse, certainly must have given opportunity for buying
the gilt pins, barred belts and slashed shoes which so horrified their
visitors. We know from Gilles li Muisis that Flemish nuns at least went
shopping[945]. But an even more likely source of supply lies, as we shall
see, in the legacies of clothes and ornaments, which were often left to
nuns by their relatives[946].

Not only in their clothes did medieval nuns seek to enliven existence
after the manner of their lay sisters. The bishops struggled long and
unsuccessfully against another custom of worldly women, the keeping of pet
animals[947]. Dogs were certainly the favourite pets. Cats are seldom
mentioned, though the three anchoresses of the _Ancren Riwle_ were
specially permitted to keep one[948], and Gyb, that "cat of carlyshe
kynde," which slew Philip Sparrow, apparently belonged to Carrow; perhaps
there was spread among the nunneries of England the grisly tradition of
the Prioress of Newington, who was smothered in bed by her cat[949].
Birds, from the larks of the Abbaye-aux-Dames at Caen, to the parrot
Vert-Vert at Nevers, are often mentioned[950]. Monkeys, squirrels and
rabbits were also kept. But dogs and puppies abounded. Partly because the
usages of society inevitably found their way into the aristocratic
convents, partly because human affections will find an outlet under the
most severe of rules:

  (Objet permis à leur oisif amour,
  Vert-Vert était l'âme de ce séjour),

the nuns clung to their "smale houndes." Archbishop Peckham had to forbid
the Abbess of Romsey to keep monkeys or "a number of dogs" in her own
chamber and she was charged at the same time with stinting her nuns in
food; one can guess what became of the "rosted flesh or milk and
wastel-breed"[951]. At Chatteris and at Ickleton in 1345 the nuns were
forbidden to keep fowls, dogs or small birds within the precincts of the
convent or to bring them into church during divine service[952]. This
bringing of animals into church was a common custom in the middle ages,
when ladies often attended service with dog in lap and men with hawk on
wrist[953]; Lady Audley's twelve dogs, which so disturbed the nuns of
Langley, will be remembered[954]. Injunctions against the bringing of dogs
or puppies into choir by the nuns are also found at Keldholme and Rosedale
early in the fourteenth century[955]. But the most flagrant case of all is
Romsey, to which in 1387 William of Wykeham wrote as follows:

    Item, because we have convinced ourselves by clear proofs that some of
    the nuns of your house bring with them to church birds, rabbits,
    hounds and such like frivolous things, whereunto they give more heed
    than to the offices of the church, with frequent hindrance to their
    own psalmody and that of their fellow nuns and to the grievous peril
    of their souls; therefore we strictly forbid you, all and several, in
    virtue of the obedience due unto us, that you presume henceforward to
    bring to church no birds, hounds, rabbits or other frivolous things
    that promote indiscipline; and any nun who does to the contrary, after
    three warnings shall fast on bread and water on one Saturday for each
    offence, notwithstanding one discipline to be received publicly in
    chapter on the same day.... Item, whereas through the hunting-dogs and
    other hounds abiding within your monastic precincts, the alms that
    should be given to the poor are devoured and the church and cloister
    and other places set apart for divine and secular services are foully
    defiled, contrary to all honesty, and whereas, through their
    inordinate noise, divine service is frequently troubled, therefore we
    strictly command and enjoin you, Lady Abbess, in virtue of obedience,
    that you remove these dogs altogether and that you suffer them never
    henceforth, nor any other such hounds, to abide within the precincts
    of your nunnery[956].

But the crusade against pets was not more successful than the crusade
against fashions. The feminine fondness for something small and alive to
pet was not easily eradicated and it seems that visitors were sometimes
obliged to indulge it. The wording of Peckham's decree leaves an opening
for the retention of one humble and very self-effacing little dog, not
prone to unseemly yelps and capers before the stony eye of my lord the
Archbishop on his rounds; Dean Kentwode in the fifteenth century ordered
the Prioress of St Helen's Bishopsgate, to remove dogs "and content
herself with one or two"[957], and in 1520 the Prioress of Flixton was
bidden to send all dogs away from the convent "except one which she
prefers"[958]. Perhaps the welcome of a thumping tail and damp,
insinuating nose occasionally overcame the scruples even of a Bishop, who
probably kept dogs himself and mourned

        if oon of hem were deed,
  Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte.

Dogs kept for hunting purposes come into rather a different category. It
is well known that medieval monks were mighty hunters before the
Lord[959], and the mention of sporting dogs at Romsey and at Brewood
(where Bishop Norbury found _canes venatici_[960]) encourages speculation
as to whether the nuns also were not "pricasours aright" and

      yaf not of that text a pulled hen
  That seith that hunters been nat holy men.

It is significant that Dame Juliana Berners is supposed by tradition
(unsupported, however, by any other evidence) to have been a prioress of
Sopwell. The gift of hunting rights to a nunnery is a common one; for
instance, Henry II granted to Wix the right of having two greyhounds and
four braches to take hares through the whole forest of Essex[961].
Doubtless these rights were usually exercised by proxy[962]; but
considering the popularity of hunting and hawking as sports for women, a
popularity so great that no lady's education was complete if she knew not
how to manage a hawk and bear herself courteously in the field, it is
surprising that there is not actual mention of these pastimes among nuns
as well as among monks.

Besides gay clothes and pets other frivolous amusements broke at times the
monotony of convent life. Dancing and mumming and minstrelsy were not
unknown and the nuns shared in the merrymaking on feasts sacred and
profane, as is witnessed by the account rolls of St Mary de Pré (1461-90),
with their list of payments for wassail at New Year and Twelfth Night, for
May games, for bread and ale on bonfire nights and for harpers and players
at Christmas[963]. In 1435 the nuns of Lymbrook were forbidden "all maner
of mynstrelseys, enterludes, daunsyng or reuelyng with in your sayde holy
place"[964], and about the same time Dean Kentwode wrote to St Helen's
Bishopsgate: "Also we enioyne you that all daunsyng and reuelyng be
utterly forborne among yow, except Christmasse and other honest tymys of
recreacyone among yowre self usyd in absence of seculars in all
wyse"[965]. The condemnation of dancing in nunneries is not surprising,
for the attitude of medieval moralists generally to this pastime is summed
up in Etienne de Bourbon's aphorism, "The Devil is the inventor and
governor and disposer of dances and dancers"[966]. Minstrels were
similarly under the ban of the church, and clerks were forbidden by canon
law and by numerous papal, conciliar and episcopal injunctions to listen
to their "ignominious art"[967], a regulation which, needless to say, went
unobeyed in an age when many a bishop had his private _histrio_[968], and
when the same stern reformer Grosseteste, who warned his clergy "ne mimis,
ioculatoribus aut histrionibus intendant," loved so much to hear the harp
that he kept his harper's chamber "next hys chaumbre besyde hys
stody"[969]. Langland asserts that churchmen and laymen alike spent on
minstrels money with which they well might have succoured the poor:

  Clerkus and knyghtes · welcometh kynges mynstrales,
  And for loue of here lordes · lithen hem at festes;
  Muche more, me thenketh · riche men auhte
  Haue beggars by-fore hem · which beth godes mynstrales[970].

Even in monasteries they found a ready welcome[971] and the reforming
council of Oxford passed an ineffectual decree forbidding their
performances to be seen or heard or allowed before the abbot or monks, if
they came to a house for alms[972]. Indeed there was sometimes need for
care. Where but at one of those minstrelsies or interludes forbidden at
Lymbrook did sister Agnes of St Michael's Priory, Stamford, meet a
jongleur, who sang softly in her ear that Lenten was come with love to
town? The Devil (alas) had all the good tunes, even in the fifteenth
century. "One Agnes, a nun of that place," reported the Prioress, "has
gone away into apostasy cleaving to a harp-player, and they dwell
together, as it is said, in Newcastle-on-Tyne"[973]. For her no longer the
strait discipline of her rule, the black-robed nuns and heaven at the
end. For her the life of the roads, the sore foot and the light heart; for
her the company of ribalds with their wenches, and all the thriftless,
shiftless player-folk; for her, at the last, hell, with "the gold and the
silver and the vair and the gray, ... harpers and minstrels and kings of
the world"[974], or a desperate hope that the Virgin's notorious kindness
for minstrels might snatch her soul from perdition[975].

But the merrymakers in nunneries were not necessarily strange jongleurs or
secular folk. The dancing and revelry, which were forbidden at Lymbrook
and allowed in Christmastime at St Helen's, were probably connected with
the children's feast of St Nicholas. As early as the twelfth century the
days immediately before and after Christmas had become, in ecclesiastical
circles, the occasion for uproarious festivities[976]. The three days
after Christmas were appropriated by the three orders of the Church. On St
Stephen's Day (Dec. 26) the deacons performed the service, elected their
Abbot of Fools and paraded the streets, levying contributions from the
householders and passers-by; on St John the Evangelist's Day (Dec. 27) the
deacons gave way to the priests, who "gave a mock blessing and proclaimed
a ribald form of indulgence"; and on Innocents' Day it was the turn of the
choir or schoolboys to hold their feast. In cathedral and monastic
churches the Boy Bishop (who had been elected on December 5th, the Eve of
St Nicholas, patron saint of schoolboys) attended service on the eve of
Innocents' Day, and at the words of the Magnificat "He hath put down the
mighty from their seat" changed places with the Bishop or Dean or Abbot,
and similarly the canons and other dignitaries of the church changed
places with the boys. On Innocents' Day all services, except the essential
portions of the mass, were performed by the Boy Bishop; he and his staff
processed through the streets, levying large contributions of food and
money and for about a fortnight his rule continued, accompanied by
feasting and merrymaking, plays, disguisings and dances. These Childermas
festivities took place in monastic as well as in secular churches, but
they seem to have been more common in nunneries than in male communities.
Our chief information about the revelries comes from Archbishop Eudes
Rigaud's province of Rouen[977]; but English records also contain
scattered references to the custom. Evidently a Girl Abbess or Abbess of
Fools was elected from among the novices, and at the _Deposuit_ she and
her fellow novices, or the little schoolgirls, took the place of the
Abbess and nuns, just as the Boy Bishop held sway in cathedral churches,
and feasting, dancing and disguising brought a welcome diversion into the
lives of both nuns and children. Even the strict Peckham was obliged to
extend a grudging consent to the _puerilia solemnia_ held on Innocents'
Day at Barking and at Godstow (1279), insisting only that they should not
be continued during the whole octave of Childermas-tide and should be
conducted with decency and in private:

    The celebration of the Feast of Innocents by children, which we do not
    approve, but rather suffer with disapproval, is on no account to be
    undertaken by those children, nor are they to take any part in it,
    until after the end of the vespers of St John the Evangelist's Day;
    and the nuns are not to retire from the office, but having excluded
    from the choir all men and women ... they are themselves to supply the
    absence of the little ones lest (which God forbid) the divine praise
    should become a mockery[978].

A more specific reference still is found at Carrow in 1526; Dame Joan
Botulphe deposed at a visitation that it was customary at Christmas for
the youngest nun to hold sway for the day as abbess and on that day (added
the soured ancient) was consumed and dissipated everything that the house
had acquired by alms or by the gift of friends[979]. The connection
between these revels and the Feast of Fools appears clearly in the
injunction sent by Bishop Longland to Nuncoton about the same time:

    We chardge you, lady priores, that ye suffre nomore hereafter eny
    lorde of mysrule to be within your house, nouther to suffre hereafter
    eny suche disgysinge as in tymes past haue bene used in your monastery
    in nunnes apparell ne otherwise[980].

The admission of seculars dressed up as nuns, and of boys dressed up as
women, the performance of interludes and the wild dancing were reason
enough for the distaste with which ecclesiastical authorities regarded
these festivities. For the nuns clearly did not exclude strangers as
Peckham had bidden. Indeed it seems probable that where they did not elect
a Girl Abbess, they admitted a Boy Bishop, either from some neighbouring
church, or just possibly one of their own little schoolboys. Among the
accounts of St Swithun's monastery at Winchester for 1441 there is a

    for the boys of the Almonry together with the boys of the chapel of St
    Elizabeth, dressed up after the manner of girls, dancing, singing and
    performing plays before the Abbess and nuns of St Mary's Abbey in
    their hall on the Feast of Innocents[981];

and the account of Christian Bassett, Prioress of St Mary de Pré, contains
an item "paid for makyng of the dyner to the susters upon Childermasday
iij s iiij d, item paid for brede and ale for seint Nicholas clerks iij
d"[982]. The inventories of Cheshunt and Sheppey at the time of the
Dissolution contain further references to the custom and seem to show that
nunneries occasionally "ran" a St Nicholas Bishop of their own: at
Cheshunt there was found in the dorter "a chisell (chasuble) of white
ffustyan and a myter for a child bysshoppe at xx d"[983], and at Sheppey,
in a chapel, "ij olde myters for S. Nicholas of fustyan brodered"[984].

These childish festivities sound harmless and attractive enough, and
modern writers are sometimes apt to sentimentalise over their abolition by
Henry VIII[985]. But in this, as in his injunction of enclosure, Henry
was fully in accordance with the best ecclesiastical precedent. For the
Boy Bishop was originally a part of the Feast of Fools and the Feast of
Fools had an ancient and disreputable ancestry in the Roman Saturnalia. At
a very early date a regulation made to curtail such performances at St
Paul's declared that "what had been invented for the praise of sucklings
had been converted into a disgrace"[986]. In 1445, at Paris, it was stated
by the Faculty of Theology at the University that the performers

    appeared in masks with the faces of monsters or in the dresses of
    women, sang improper songs in the choir, ate fat pork on the horns of
    the altar, close by the priest celebrating mass, played dice on the
    altar, used stinking incense made of old shoes, and ran about the
    choir leaping and shouting[987];

and about the same time the Synod of Basle had specifically denounced the
children's festival in hardly less violent terms as

    that disgraceful, bad custom practised in some churches, by which on
    certain high days during the year some with mitre, staff and
    pontifical vestments like Bishops and others dressed as kings and
    princes bless the people; the which festival in some places is called
    the Feast of Fools or Innocents or Boys, and some making games with
    masks and mummeries, others dances and breakdowns of males and
    females, move people to look on with guffaws, while others make
    drinkings and feasts there[988].

It is only necessary to compare these denunciations with such accounts of
the festivities in nunneries as have survived, to understand that the
revelling and disguising were less harmless than modern writers are apt to
represent them. Mr Leach attributes the schoolboys' feast to the fact that
regular holidays were unknown in the medieval curriculum and that the boys
found in the ribaldries of Childermastide some outlet for their long
suppressed spirits. Similarly the cramped and solemn existence led by the
nuns for the rest of the year probably made their one outbreak the more
violent. Nevertheless one cannot avoid feeling somewhat out of sympathy
with the bishops. "Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall
be no more cakes and ale?" Nuns were ever fond of ginger "hot i' the



  All things are to be common to all.
                              _Rule of St Benedict_, ch. XXXIII.

  The Rule of seint Maure or of seint Beneit,
  Because that it was old and somdel streit
  This ilke monk leet olde thinges pace
  And held after the newe world the space.
                              CHAUCER, Prologue, ll. 173-6.

The reaction from a strict routine of life led monks and nuns to a more
serious modification of the Rule under which they lived than that
represented by pet dogs and pretty clothes, which were after all only
superficial frivolities. They sought also to modify two rules which were
fundamental to the Benedictine ideal. One was the rigidly communal life,
the obligation to do everything in company with everyone else. The other
was the obligation of strict personal poverty. A monastery was in its
essence a place where a number of persons lived a communal life, owning no
private property, but holding everything in the name of the community. The
normal routine of conventual life, as laid down in the Benedictine Rule,
secured this end. The inmates of a house spent almost the whole of their
time together. They prayed together in the choir, worked together in the
cloister, ate together in the frater, and slept together in the dorter.
Moreover the strictest regulations were made to prevent the vice of
private property, one of the most serious sins in the monastic calendar,
from making its appearance. All food was to be cooked in a common kitchen
and served in the common frater, in which no meat was allowed. All clothes
were to be provided out of the common goods of the house, and it was the
business of the chamberer or chambress to see to the buying of material,
the making of the clothes and their distribution to the religious; so
carefully was _proprietas_ guarded against, that all old clothes had to be
given back to the chambress, when the new ones were distributed. Above
all it was forbidden to monks and nuns to possess and spend money, save
what was delivered to them by the superior for their necessary expenses
upon a journey[989].

But this combination of rigid communism with rigid personal poverty was
early discovered to be irksome. It seems as though the craving for a
certain privacy of life, a certain minimum of private property, is a
deeply rooted instinct in human nature. Certainly the attempt of
monasticism to expel it with a pitchfork failed. Step by step the rule was
broken down, more especially by a series of modifications in the
prescribed method of feeding and clothing the community. Here, as in the
enclosure question, the monks and nuns came into conflict with their
bishops, though the conflict was never so severe. Here also, the result of
the struggle was the same. A steady attempt by the bishops to enforce the
rule was countered by a steady resistance on the part of the religious and
the end was usually compromise.

The most marked breakdown of the communal way of life in the monasteries
of the later middle ages is to be seen in the gradual neglect of the
frater, in favour of a system of private messes, and in the increasing
allocation of private rooms to individuals. The strict obligation upon all
to keep frater daily was at first only modified in favour of the head of
the house, who usually had her own lodgings, including a dining hall, in
which the rule permitted her to entertain the guests who claimed her
hospitality and such nuns as she chose to invite for their recreation.
From quite early times, however, there existed in many houses a room known
as the _misericord_ (or indulgence), where the strict diet of the frater
was relaxed. Here the occupants of the infirmary, those in their seynies
and all who needed flesh meat and more delicate dishes to support them,
were served. From the fourteenth century onwards, however, the rules of
diet became considerably relaxed and flesh was allowed to everyone on
three days a week[990]. This meant that the _misericord_ was in constant
use and in many monasteries the frater was divided into two stories, the
upper of which was used as the frater proper, where no meat might be
eaten, and the lower as a _misericord_[991]. According to this
arrangement a nun might sometimes be dining in the upper frater, sometimes
in the _misericord_ and sometimes in the abbess' or prioress' lodgings;
and, of these places, there was a distinct tendency for the upper frater
to fall into disuse, since it could in any case only be used on fish (or,
according to later custom, white meat) days.

But a habit even more subversive of strictly communal life and more liable
to lead to disuse of the frater was rapidly spreading at this period. This
was the division of a nunnery into _familiae_, or households, which messed
together, each _familia_ taking its meals separately from the rest. The
common frater was sometimes kept only thrice a week on fish days,
sometimes only in Advent and Lent, sometimes (it would seem) never. This
meant the separate preparation of meals for each household, a practice
which, though uneconomical, was possible, because each nun's food
allowance was fixed and could be drawn separately. Moreover, as we shall
see hereafter, the growing practice of granting an annual money allowance
to each individual, though used for clothes more often than for food,
enabled the nuns to buy meat and other delicacies (if not provided by the
convent) for themselves. The aristocratic ladies of Polsloe even had their
private maids to prepare their meals[992].

This system was evidently well established at a comparatively early date.
It is mentioned in Peckham's injunctions in 1279 and in Exeter and York
injunctions belonging to the early years of the fourteenth century. To
illustrate how it worked, we may analyse the references to _familiae_ in
Alnwick's visitations of the diocese of Lincoln (1440-5)[993]. The number
of households in a nunnery necessarily differed with the size of the
house and it is not always easy to determine the proportion of households
to nuns, because internal evidence sometimes shows that all the inmates
were not present and enumerated at the visitation. Thus at Elstow the
abbess "says that there are five households of nuns kept in the monastery,
whereof the first is that of the abbess, who has five nuns with her; the
second of the prioress, who has two; the third of the subprioress, who has
two; the fourth of the sacrist, who has three; and the fifth of Dame
Margaret Aylesbury, who has two"; but only thirteen nuns gave
evidence[994]. In this house the frater was kept on certain days of the
week, one nun deposing "that on the days whereon they eat together in
frater, they eat larded food in the morning and sup on flesh, and they eat
capons and other two-footed creatures in frater." At Catesby the prioress
deposed that she had four nuns in her _familia_ and that there were three
other households in the cloister. At Stixwould there were "five separate
and distinct households"; at Nuncoton there were three; at St Michael's
Stamford, the prioress and subprioress each had one, but all ate together
in the frater on fish-days; at Stainfield the prioress, the cellaress and
the nun-sisters each kept a household. At Gokewell and Langley the nuns
were said to keep divers households "by two and two" and at Langley the
prioress added, "but they do eat in the frater every day"; also she says
that she herself has three women who board with her and the subprioress
one; also she says that the nuns receive naught from the house but their
meat and drink and she herself keeps one household on her own account. At
Gracedieu the prioress deposed

    that frater is not kept nor has it been kept for seven years and that
    the nuns sit in company with secular folk at table in her hall every
    day and that they have reading during meals; also she says there are
    two households only in the house, to wit in her hall and the
    infirmary, where there are three at table together;

here the prioress' hall simply took the place of the frater. There were
four households at Godstow and apparently several at Legbourne.

This division into households which messed separately went hand in hand
with another practice, which also softened the rigours of a strictly
communal life, to wit the allocation of separate rooms to certain nuns.
The obedientiaries of a house often had private offices, or _checkers_, in
which to transact their business, and the custom grew by which the head of
each _familia_ had her own room, in which her household dined. The
visitation reports continually refer to these private cells and to their
use as dining rooms and places of reception for visitors. Sometimes the
nuns even slept in them, though the dorter was always much more strictly
kept than the frater; at Godstow in 1432 for instance, Bishop Gray enjoins
"that the beds in the nuns' lodgings (_domicilia_) be altogether removed
from their chambers, save those for small children" (apparently their
pupils) "and that no nun receive any secular person for any recreation in
the nuns' chambers under pain of excommunication"[995]. Some light is
thrown upon these _camerae_ by the inventories of medieval nunneries. Thus
the inventory of the Benedictine Priory of Sheppey made at the Dissolution
describes the contents of "the greate chamber in the Dorter," which was
used as a treasury in which to keep the linen, vestments and plate of the
house, and in which one of the nuns Dame Agnes Davye seems to have slept;
there follows a description of the chambers of eight nuns, with the
furniture in each, from which it is clear that they had brought their own
furniture with them to the monastery. These "chambers" may have been
separate rooms or may have been partitions of the dorter, but if the
latter they were evidently so large as to be to all intents and purposes
separate rooms, for the furniture commonly includes painted cloth or paper
hangings for the room, a chest and a cupboard, besides the bed; in three
there is mention of windows and in two of fire irons. The most likely
conjecture is that the dorter was used as a treasury and bedroom for one
nun and the other chambers are separate rooms[996]. At some other houses
the dorter is mentioned but was clearly divided into separate cells by
wainscot partitions, and the wainscotting was sometimes sold at the

The attitude of ecclesiastical authorities to the modification of the
communal rule involved in _familiae_ and _camerae_ was, for various
reasons, one of strict disapproval. The custom of providing separate
messes was extremely uneconomical; the passing of much time in private
rooms was open to suspicion, especially when male visitors were received
there; communal life was an essential part of the monastic idea; finally
the amenities of private life were apt (as we shall see) to bring in their
train the amenities of private property. The policy of the bishops was,
for all these reasons, to restore communal life. They made general
injunctions that frater and dorter should duly be kept by all the nuns,
they made special injunctions for the abolition of separate households,
and above all they condemned private rooms:

    "Also we enioyne yow, pryoresse," writes Alnwick to Catesby in 1442,
    "that ye dispose so for your susters that the morne next aftere
    Myghelmasse day next commyng wythe owten any lengare delaye, ye and
    thai aftere yowre rewle lyfe in commune, etyng and drynkyng in oon
    house, slepyng in oon house, prayng and sarufyng [serving] God in oon
    oratorye, levyng vtterly all pryuate hydles [hiding-places], chaumbres
    and syngulere housholdes, by the whiche hafe comen and growen grete
    hurte and peryle of sowles and noyesfulle sklaundere of your

But such injunctions were not easily enforced, and the politic bishops
sometimes tried to reduce rather than to abolish the households and
private rooms. It was often necessary--and indeed reasonable--to recognise
the three _familiae_ of the abbess' or prioress' lodgings, the
_misericord_ or infirmary and the frater[999]. Sometimes the bishops tried
to enforce the rule, laid down by the legate Ottobon (1268), to limit the
number who dined at the superior's table, viz. that at least two-thirds of
the convent were to eat each day in the frater[1000]. At Godstow Bishop
Gray, in 1432, allowed three households besides that of the frater[1001].
The condemnation of private rooms, and more especially of the reception of
visitors therein, was more severe; but here too, it was necessary in
large convents for the obedientiaries to have their offices, and other
individuals were sometimes given special permission to use separate
_camerae_. Some bishops allowed them to sick nuns, but others enforced the
use of the common infirmary[1002].

It has already been said that this approximation to private life was bound
to bring with it an approximation to private property and it remains now
to analyse the process by which these new methods of providing food, and
even more effectively, new methods of providing clothes, resulted in a
spread of _proprietas_, which was considered perfectly legitimate by the
nuns and within limits condoned by the bishops. The impression left upon
the mind by a study of monastic records during the last two centuries of
the middle ages is that in many houses the rule of strict personal poverty
was in practice almost completely abrogated, for it is quite obvious that
the nuns had the private and individual disposal of money and goods.
Indeed some convents seem almost like the inmates of a boarding house,
each of whom receives lodging and a certain minimum of food from the
house, but otherwise caters for herself out of her private income. This is
a considerable departure from the rule of St Benedict, and it is worth
while to analyse the sources from which the nuns drew the money and goods
of which they disposed. These sources may be classified under five
headings: (1) the annual allowance of pocket money (called _peculium_)
which was allowed to each nun from the funds of the house and out of which
she had to provide herself with clothes and other necessities; (2)
pittances in money; (3) gifts in money and kind from friends; (4)
legacies; (5) the proceeds of their own labour.

(1) The practice of giving a _peculium_ in money out of the common funds
of the house to monks and nuns began at quite an early date (it is
mentioned at the Council of Oxford in 1222) and was so much an established
custom in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that to withhold it was
considered by bishops a legitimate cause of complaint against superiors.
The amount of the _peculium_ varied at different houses. In the majority
of cases it was intended to be used for clothes and its payment is
sometimes entered in account rolls. At Gracedieu the nuns had "salaries"
of 6_s._ 8_d._ a year each for their vesture and the careful treasuress
enters all their names[1003]. At St Michael's, Stamford, a chambress'
account, which has been preserved among the treasuress' accounts, shows
that in 1408-9 the prioress was paid 5_s._ for her "camise" and all the
other eleven nuns 4_s._ each, while the two lay sisters had 3_s._
each[1004]. Similarly at St Radegund's, Cambridge, a certain pension from
St Clement's Church was ear-marked for the clothing of the nuns and was
paid over directly to them[1005]; and the Prioress of Catesby in 1414-5
includes under "customary payments" money paid "to the lady Prioress and
her six nuns and to one sister and her three brethren by the year for
clothing"[1006]. The fact that the _peculium_ was a payment made from the
common funds and not the privately owned income of an individual allowed
it to escape the charge of _proprietas_, but it was nevertheless an
obvious departure from the Benedictine rule, which forbade the individual
disposal of property and made quite different arrangements for the
provision of clothing.

(2) Another class of payments made to individuals from the convent funds
was that of pittances. A pittance was originally an extra allowance of
food and it was quite common for a benefactor to leave money to a convent
for a pittance on the anniversary of his death. These pittances were,
however, sometimes paid in money and most account rolls will provide
examples of both. The nuns of Barking receive "Ruscheaw silver" as well
as the little pies called "risshowes" in Lent; the nuns of St Mary de Pré
(St Albans) had "Maundy silver" as well as ale and wine on Maundy
Thursday; the nuns of St Michael's Stamford receive their pittances
sometimes in money, sometimes in spices or pancakes, wine or beer. The
nuns of Romsey had a pittance of 6_d._ each on the feast of St Martin and
another of 6_d._ each "when blood is let"[1007].

(3) The third source from which nuns obtained private possessions lay in
the gifts, both in money and in kind bestowed upon them by their friends.
It has already been shown, in Chapter I, that there was a growing tendency
in the later middle ages for a nun to be supported by means of an annuity,
paid by her relatives and often ending with her life. The fact that these
annuities were ear-marked for the support of individuals must have
increased the temptation to regard them as the property of those
individuals, a temptation which was not present in the old days when an
aristocratic nun brought with her a grant of land to the house. One is
tempted to conjecture that individuals occasionally retained in their own
hands the expenditure of part at least of their annuities. Specific
information from English sources is unfortunately rare; but in the diocese
of Rouen in the middle of the thirteenth century Archbishop Eudes Rigaud
sometimes found it necessary to enjoin that certain nuns who possessed
rents which were reserved for their own use, should either transfer them
to the common funds, or else dispose of them only with the consent of the
prioress, a significant modification, which suggests that he was unable to
eradicate a deeply rooted custom, although it was strictly against the
rule[1008]. It was some twenty years later (c. 1277) that Bishop Thomas of
Cantilupe, writing to the nuns of Lymbrook, enjoined:

    Let none of you keep in her own hand any possession or rent for
    clothing and shoeing herself, even with the consent of the prioress,
    albeit such possession or rent may be given to her by parents or
    friends, because the goods of your community suffice not thereto; but
    let it be given up wholly to your prioress, that out of it she may
    minister to those to whom the gift was made, according to their needs;
    otherwise they may easily fall into the sin of property and a secular
    craving for gifts, thus rashly violating their vow[1009].

There are also occasional references to "poor" nuns, without such
annuities or dress-allowances, which suggest that the annuitants had
personal disposal of their own money. Thus John Heyden, esq., in 1480,
bequeaths "to every nun in Norfolk not having an annuity 40d"[1010], and
Bishop Gray in 1432 refers to "a certain chest within the monastery [of
Godstow] for the relief of needy nuns," to which the sum of a hundred
shillings was to be restored[1011].

But whether or not nuns were in the habit of retaining in their own
possession regular annuities, it is plain that they did so retain the
various gifts in kind and in money, brought to them from time to time by
their friends; and, judging from the constant references in the visitation
reports, these presents must have been fairly numerous. They varied from
the gifts, rewards, letters, tokens and skins of wine, which the
gatekeeper of Godstow smuggled in to the nuns from the scholars of Oxford,
to the more sober presents of money, clothes and food given to them by
fond relatives for their relief "as in hire habyte and sustenaunce."

(4) One kind of gift deserves, however, a more careful consideration, for
the preservation of many thousands of medieval wills allows us to speak in
detail of legacies to individual nuns, which occur sometimes in company
with legacies to the whole community, sometimes alone. These bequests took
many different forms. Sometimes a father leaves an annuity for the support
of his daughter in her convent[1012]. More frequently a nun becomes the
recipient of a lump sum of money and from the wording of the legacies it
is perfectly clear that these sums are to be delivered into her own hands
for her own use. Let us, for instance, analyse the legacies left by Sir
John Depeden, a northern knight who was a good friend to poor nuns. He
first of all leaves twenty shillings each to the following twelve
nunneries, that they may pray for his soul and his wife's: Esholt,
Arthington, Wilberfoss, Thicket, Moxby, Kirklees, Yedingham, Clementhorpe,
Hampole, Keldholme, Marrick (all in Yorkshire) and Burnham (in
Buckinghamshire). He then continues:

    And I give and bequeath to dame Joan Waleys, nun of Watton, to her own
    use (_ad usum suum proprium_), 40_s._ And I give and bequeath to dame
    Margaret Depeden, nun of Barking, to her own use, 5 marks and one salt
    cellar of silver. And I give and bequeath to Elizabeth, daughter of
    John FitzRichard, nun of Appleton, to her own use, 40_s._;

moreover he leaves to the Prioress of the last mentioned house 6_s._ 8_d._
and to each nun there 2_s._[1013] There is an obvious distinction here
between the lump sums left to the common funds of the twelve nunneries
grouped together and the gifts to individuals which follow. It is moreover
quite common for a testator, who wishes to give money in charity to a
whole house (as distinct from one who makes a bequest to a relative or
friend therein), to distinguish the amounts to be paid to the prioress and
to each of the nuns. Thus John Brompton, merchant of Beverley (n.d., c.
1441-4) while leaving a lump sum of 20_s._ to the nuns of Watton "for a
pittance," 10_s._ to the nuns of Nunkeeling and 5_s._ to the nuns of
Burnham, thus provides for all the inmates of Swine:

    Item I bequeath to the Prioress of Swine, 3_s._ 4_d._, and to each nun
    of the said house 2_s._, and to the vicar there 3_s._ 4_d._ and to
    each chaplain there celebrating divine service in the churches of the
    said town 12_d._, item to Hamond, servant there 12_d._, and to each
    woman serving the aforesaid nuns within the aforesaid abbey,

Thus also James Myssenden of Great Limber (1529) distinguishes between the
convent and the individual nuns of Nuncoton: "To the monastery of Cotton,
3l. 6s 8d, to Dame Johan Thomson, prioress of the same 40s, to Dame
Margaret Johnson 6s 8d, to Dame Elynor Hylyarde 6s 8d, to every other nun
of the convent 12d"; and Dame Jane Armstrong, vowess, of Corby, in the
same year leaves the nuns of Sempringham 6_s._ 8_d._, "of which Dame Agnes
Rudd is to have 40d"[1015]. Similar instances may be multiplied from any
collection of wills[1016].

Moreover it seems plain that the money thus willed was actually paid over
to individuals by their convent. The account roll of the treasuress of St
Radegund's Cambridge, in 1449-50, contains an item:

    And to Dame Alice Patryk lately dead in full payment of all debts
    3_s._ 4_d._ from the legacy of Peter Erle, chaplain, lately deceased.
    And to Dame Joan Lancaster in part payment of 6_s._ 8_d._ bequeathed
    to her by the aforesaid Peter 3_s._ 4_d._, and to Dame Agnes Swaffham,
    subprioress, in part payment of 6_s._ 8_d._, 20_d._[1017]

But it was not only money which was bequeathed to nuns. They often
received quite considerable legacies of jewels and plate, robes and
furniture. What would we not give today to look for a moment at the
beautiful things which Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham, left to his
sister Joan, the Prioress of Swine, in 1404?

    Item, one large gilded cup, with a cover and a round foot, and in the
    bottom a chaplet of white and red roses and a hind carven in the midst
    and all round the outside carven with eagles, lions, crowns and other
    ingenious devices (_babonibus_), and in the pommel a nest and three
    men standing and taking the chicks from the nest, of the weight of 18
    marks.... Item a robe of murrey cloth of Ypres (? _yp'n_) containing a
    mantle and hood furred with budge (? _purg'_), another hood furred
    with ermine, a cloak furred with half vair, a long robe (_garnach'_)
    furred with vair.... Item one bed of tapestry work of a white field,
    with a stag standing under a great tree and on either side lilies and
    a red border, with the complete tester and three curtains of white

In the same year Anne St Quintin left the same noble lady "one silken
quilt and one pair of sheets of cloth of Rennes"[1019]. Eleven years
earlier Sir John Fairfax, rector of Prescot, had left his sister Margaret
Fairfax, Prioress of Nunmonkton (of whom we have already heard much that
was not to her good):

    one silver gilt cup with a cover, and one silver cup with a cover, one
    mazer with a cover of silver gilt, one pix of silver for spices, six
    silver spoons, one cloak of black cloth furred with gray, one round
    silver basin and ten marks of silver[1020].

Master John de Wodhouse in 1345 leaves Dame Alice Conyers, nun of
Nunappleton, "fifteen marks [and] a long chest standing against my bed at
York, one maser cup with an image of St Michael in the bottom and one cup
of silver, which I had of her gift, with a hand in the bottom holding a
falcon"[1021], and Isabella, widow of Thomas Corp, a London pepperer, in
1356, leaves

    to Margaret, sister of William Heyroun, vintner, nun at Barking, a
    silver plated cup with covercle, twelve silver spoons, two cups of
    mazer and a silver enamelled pix, together with three gold rings, with
    emerald, sapphire and diamond respectively and divers household

Possibly some of these splendid pieces of plate found their way to the
altar, and the cups and spoons to the frater of the house, but the nuns
undoubtedly sometimes kept them for private use in their own _camerae_.
Here also were kept the beds, such as that splendid one left by Bishop
Skirlaw to his sister, the "bed of Norfolk" which Sir Robert de Roos left
to his daughter Joan (1392)[1023], the "bed of worstede with sheets, which
she kindly gave me," left by William Felawe, clerk, to Katherine Slo,
Prioress of Shaftesbury (1411)[1024]. Doubtless Juliana de Crofton, nun
of Hampole, knew what use to make of "six shillings and eightpence and a
cloak lined with blue and two tablets and one saddle with a bridle and two
leather bowls"[1025]; here at one gift was the wherewithal for writing a
letter to announce a visit and for paying that visit on horseback, in gay
and unconventual attire. Indeed the constant legacies of clothes to nuns
go far to explain where it was that they obtained those cheerful secular
garments, against which their bishops waged war in vain. In days when
clothes were made of heavy and valuable stuffs and richly adorned, it was
a very common custom for a woman to divide up her wardrobe between
different legatees, and men also handed on their best garments. When in
1397 Margaret Fairfax is found using "divers furs and even gray fur
(_gris_)"[1026], one remembers, with a sudden flash of comprehension, the
"cloak of black cloth furred with gray" which her brother left her four
years earlier. What did Elizabeth de Newemarche, nun, do with the mantle
of brounemelly left her by Lady Isabel Fitzwilliam?[1027] What did Sir
William Bonevyll's sister at Wherwell do with "his best hoppelond with the
fur"?[1028] What above all did the Prioress of Swine do with all those
costly fur trimmings left her by the Bishop of Durham? Yorkshire nunneries
were apt to be undisciplined and worldly; great ladies there, if
Archbishop Melton is to be believed, sometimes considered that they might
dress according to their rank[1029]. We may safely guess that the Prioress
of Swine, like her contemporary at Nunmonkton, wore the furs; and
visitation records do not lead us to suppose that other nuns sold their
blue-lined cloaks and houppelonds for the sake of their convents, or
bestowed them on the poor.

It is a common injunction that nuns are to wear no other ring than that
which, at their consecration, made them brides of Christ[1030]; but the
rule was often disobeyed and Dame Clemence Medforde's "golden rings
exceeding costly with divers precious stones"[1031] are explained when we
remember the "three gold rings, one having a sapphire, another an emerald
and the third a diamond" which the rich pepperer's widow left to Dame
Margaret Heyroun[1032]. Madame Eglentyne herself may have owed to one of
the many friends, who held her digne of reverence, her "peire of bedes,
gauded al with grene," of small coral. When Sir Thomas Cumberworth died in
1451 he ordered that "the prioris of Coton, of Irford, of Legburn and of
Grenefeld have Ilkon of yam a pare bedys of corall, as far as that I have
may laste, and after yiff yam gette [give them jet] bedes"[1033], and so
also Matilda Latymer left her daughter at Buckland a set of "Bedys de
corall"[1034] and Margerie de Crioll left a nun of Shaftesbury "my
paternoster of coral and white pearls, which the Countess of Pembroke gave

(5) The fifth and last source from which nuns could derive a private
income was by the work of their own hands and brains. It has been stated
above that very little is known about the sale of fine needlework by nuns,
but a very interesting case at Easebourne seems to show that they
sometimes considered themselves entitled to retain for their own private
use the sums which they earned. In 1441 one of the complaints against the
gay prioress was that she "compels her sisters to work continually like
hired workwomen, and they receive nothing whatever for their own use from
their work, but the prioress takes the whole profit." The bishop's
injunction is extremely significant:

    the prioress shall by no means compel her sisters to continual work of
    their hands and if they should wish of their own accord to work, they
    shall be free to do so, but yet so that they may reserve for
    themselves the half part of what they gain by their hands; the other
    part shall be converted to the advantage of the house and unburdening
    it from debt[1036].

In fine, the Bishop is obliged to acquiesce in a serious breach of the
Benedictine rule: the plea of the nuns to commit the sin of _proprietas_
is considered as a reasonable demand; and the compromise that half their
earnings should go to the common fund is intended rather to check the
prioress than the nuns. From the injunctions of other bishops it would
appear that the private boarders and private pupils taken by individual
nuns sometimes paid their fees to those individuals and not to the
house[1037]; the "household" system made the reception of such boarders

From whatever source nuns obtained control of money and goods, whether
from the _peculium_, from gifts, from legacies, or from the proceeds of
their own labour, one thing is clear: in a fourteenth or fifteenth century
house, where the system of the _peculium_ and the _familia_ obtained,
there was a considerable approximation to private life and to private
property. The control of money and goods and the division into households,
catering separately for themselves, worked in together. The responsibility
of the convent towards its members was sometimes limited to a bare minimum
of food, such as the staple bread and beer, and perhaps a small dress
allowance. All the rest was provided by the nuns themselves. In strict
theory annuities, gifts and legacies, were put into common stock and
administered by the convent. In practice they were obviously retained in
individual possession and administered as private property by the nuns.
Even legacies of lump sums to a whole convent were probably divided up
between the nuns, an equal sum being paid to each and perhaps double to
the prioress.

An analysis of the conditions revealed at Alnwick's visitation of the
Lincoln diocese in 1440-5 throws an exceedingly interesting side-light,
not only on the vow of monastic poverty, as understood in the fifteenth
century, but also on the domestic economy of the houses, the majority of
which were small and poor. It may also conveniently be compared with the
evidence given by the same visitations as to the system of _familiae_ in
these houses. At some the house supplied all food and clothes or a
_peculium_ for clothes, at some it provided only a bare minimum of food,
at some neither dress nor dress allowance was provided. At Legbourne

    every nun has one loaf, one half gallon of beer a day, one pig a year,
    18_d._ for beef, every day in Advent and Lent two herrings, and a
    little butter in summer and sometimes two stone of cheese a year and
    8_d._ a year for raiment and no more;

the sum of 2_s._ 2_d._ a year for beef and clothes was certainly not
excessive[1038]. At Stixwould

    every nun receives in the year one pig, one sheep, a quarter of beef,
    two stones of butter, three stones of cheese, every day in Advent and
    Lent three herrings, six salt fish and twelve doughcakes a year; and
    they were wont to have 6_s._ 8_d._ for their raiment, but for several
    years back (one nun said for twenty years) as regards raiment they
    have received nothing.

At St Michael's Stamford, the house provided only "bread and beer and a
mark for fish and flesh and other things and as to their raiment they
receive naught of the house"; out of the mark the nuns catered for
themselves. Other houses provided still less out of the common funds; at
Gokewell the nuns received nothing from the house but bread and beer and
at Markyate (a poor house, of not unblemished reputation and badly in
debt) "they receive of the house only bread, beer and two marks for their
raiment and what else is necessary for their living, which are less than
enough for their sundry needful wants"; Alnwick ordered all victuals to be
given them "of the commune stores of the house owte of one selare and one
kytchyne" and fixed the dress allowance at a noble yearly, but he did not
say how the house was to raise funds. At Nuncoton the allowance was 8_s._
a year, but when Alnwick came the nuns had received only 1_s._ each. At
Fosse, Langley and Ankerwyke the houses provided meat and drink, but no
dress or dress allowance; and at Catesby it was complained that "the
prioress does not give the nuns satisfaction in the matter of their
raiment and money for victuals and touching the premises the prioress is
in the nuns' debt for three-quarters of the year"[1039]. From these
references it is plain that the nuns usually bought their own clothes and
often catered for themselves in flesh food; also that the poverty of many
houses was so great that the nuns could not have lived decently without
the help of friends, whether because their dress allowances were always in
arrears, or because the house recognised no responsibility to clothe them
from its exiguous funds. Yet as regards food at least, the habit of
catering separately for separate messes was undoubtedly less economical
than the regular maintenance of a common table would have been.

A highly interesting light on the control of money allowances for the
purchase of food by the individual nuns of a convent is thrown by convent
account rolls. These accounts show two different methods of catering in
force. In one all the housekeeping was done by the cellaress, who bought
such stores as were needed to supplement the produce of the home farm and
provided the nuns with the whole of their food. This is the normal method,
which accords with the Rule; it is to be found in the Syon cellaresses'
rolls and in the roll of Elizabeth Swynford, Prioress of Catesby
(1414-15). The latter sets forth: (1) the produce of the home farm, how
many animals were delivered to the larder, how many to the kitchen, how
much grain was malted, etc.; (2) the payments for food bought to
supplement this home produce:

    in flesh and eggs bought from the feast of St Michael until Lent
    33/0-1/2, and in expenses of the house from Easter unto the feast of
    St Michael in beef and eggs bought, £7. 1. 9., ... in 2 barrels 4
    kemps of oil and salt fish bought in time of Lent £3. 0. 6,

besides sundry odd purchases of red herrings, pepper, saffron, salt,
garlic and fat[1040].

But some account rolls show an entirely different method of housekeeping.
By this the convent provided the nuns with their daily ration of bread and
beer and perhaps with a certain amount of green food and dairy produce,
but paid them an allowance of money with which to buy their meat and fish
food for themselves. On this system the convent still had to provide the
nuns with their pittances, though often enough these too were paid in
money, and usually also with the bulk of their Lenten fare of salt fish
and spices, which was bought in large quantities at a time and stored. An
extreme example of this system is found in the account of Christian
Bassett, Prioress of St Mary de Pré (St Albans) in 1486-8. Under the
heading _Comyns, Pytances and Partycions_ she pays to herself as prioress:

    for her comyns for xxj monethes ... vj l. viij s iiij d. ... Item paid
    to dame Alice Wafyr for her comyns for xxj monethes ... vj l. viij s
    iiij d. ... Item paid to vij susters of the same place for their
    comons for xxj monethis ... xxj li. vj s viij d. Item paid to dame
    Johan Knollys for her comyns for v monethis xvj s viij d. ... Item
    paid for brede and ale and fewell departyd amongs the susters by a
    yere and a half lij s. Item paid for ij bushell of pesyn departyd
    amongs the susters in Lente xvj d.

The rest of the section contains notices of special pittances, paid
sometimes in money and sometimes in kind; for instance 10_s._ 6_d._ is
paid for "Maundy Ale" and 10_d._ for wine on two Maundy Thursdays, but the
sisters also get "Maundy money" amounting to 21_d._ One interesting item
runs: "delyvered of the rente in Cambrigge amongs the susters for the tyme
of this accompte xlviij s"; these rents, which are entered among the
receipts, were no doubt ear-marked for the nuns, possibly as _peculia_ for
the purchase of clothes, possibly as a pittance[1041]. The same system of
housekeeping was obviously also in vogue at St Michael's, Stamford, at the
time of Alnwick's visitation; but the account rolls of this house are not
easy to interpret, because although they contain no reference to catering,
other than certain pittances and feasts on Maundy Thursday and other
festal occasions, neither do they contain any reference to commons money.
No separate cellaress' accounts have survived to throw any further light
upon the subject. At Elstow Abbey some years later the practice of paying
"commons" money was well established[1042].

It is tempting to conjecture what considerations may have prevailed to
make some houses substitute money grants for the provision of food in
kind. The tendency certainly grew with the custom of forming _familiae_
which messed separately and it certainly increased with time. Even at
Catesby, which we saw to be a typical example of communal housekeeping in
1414-5, it seems to have become customary to give money for some at least
of the victuals in 1442. The tendency also grew with poverty, as appears
from Alnwick's visitations, though it is not clear whence the nuns
obtained the wherewithal to feed themselves adequately, unless they had
the use of extra funds of their own. It may also be conjectured that the
system would be easier to work in a town than in the depths of the
country. In a town the nuns could buy in the open market, and it was as
easy for individuals to buy in small quantities as for the cellaress to
buy wholesale. In the country, however, the convent would not only be more
dependent on the home farm, but such purchases as had to be made at
occasional fairs and weekly markets could more easily be made in bulk, a
consideration which also accounts for the fact that the barrels and cades
of salt fish for Lent were usually laid in wholesale by the cellaress.
Moreover it would often be convenient for a town house to lease out the
greater number of its demesnes and to depend upon what it could purchase
for its daily fare. St Mary de Pré is particularly interesting in this
respect; the 1486-8 account shows no sign of any home farm; the income of
the house is derived almost entirely from "rents of assise and rents farm"
within the town of St Albans and in other places and from tithes, and the
proportion of farms or leases is noticeably large. Even the bread and beer
distributed among the sisters did not come from a home farm; it was bought
with 52_s._ received from the Abbot of St Albans for that purpose; the
kitchener of the parent abbey similarly provided the nuns with 12_s._,
"for potage money departyd amongs the susters for a yere," and at the
forester's office they received 8_s._ for their fuel.

Occasional references show what a variety of household charges the nuns
sometimes had to bear out of their _peculia_, and the other sources of
their private income. At Campsey in 1532, for instance,

    the subprioress says that the prioress will not allow her servants to
    go out upon the necessary errands of the nuns, but they hire outsiders
    at their own cost and Dame Isabella Norwiche says that sick nuns in
    the time of their sickness bear the cost of what is needful to them
    and it is not provided at the charge of the house[1043].

At Sheppey also, in 1511, there was no infirmary and when ill the nuns had
to hire women for themselves and pay for them out of their own
money[1044]. At Langley in 1440 Alnwick ordered that each nun should have
yearly a cartload of fuel, cut at the cost of the house, but carried at
the cost of the nuns[1045]. At Wherwell there was a custom by which, on
the first occasion that a nun took her turn in reading from the pulpit, a
certain sum of money or a pittance was exacted from her for the benefit of
the convent, a custom forbidden by Bishop John of Pontoise in 1302[1046];
and there is mention of another pittance in 1311, when Bishop Woodlock
ordered that for digging the grave and preparing the coffin of a nun who
had died and for pittances to the sisters on the day of her burial, the
goods of the deceased nun should not be expended, because she ought not to
have private property, but the common goods of the church were to be
spent; which seems like locking the stable door after the horse has

It is interesting to trace the attitude of ecclesiastic authorities to
these various manifestations of _proprietas_. The bishops found some
difficulty in persuading nuns, accustomed to expend money for themselves
and to dine in _familiae_ in separate rooms, accustomed also to receive
gifts and legacies in money and kind, that they must hold all things in
common. At Arthington, in 1307, two nuns, Agnes de Screvyn (who had
resigned the post of Prioress in 1303) and Isabella Couvel, asserted that
certain animals and goods belonging to the priory were their private
property and Archbishop Greenfield bids the Prioress admonish them to
resign these within three days "to lawful and honest uses," according to
her judgment[1048]. Similarly Bishop Bokyngham writes to Heynings in 1392:

    We order that cows, sows, capons, hens and all animals of any kind
    soever, together with wild or tame birds, which are held by certain of
    the nuns (whether with or without licence) ... shall be delivered up
    to the common use of the convent within three days, without the
    alienation or subtraction of any of them[1049].

In the light of these passages it is interesting to find that cows and
pigs are among the legacies sometimes left to nuns[1050]. At Nuncoton, in
1440, where certain nuns were in the habit of wandering in their gardens
and gathering herbs instead of attending Compline,

    Dame Alice Aunselle prays that they may all live in common and that no
    nun may have anything, such as cups and the like, as her own; but that
    if any such there be, they be kept in common by their common servant
    and that they may not have houses or separate gardens appointed, as it
    were, to them[1051],

which illustrates how easily the household system slid into _proprietas_.
It was sometimes even necessary to forbid nuns to make wills and bequeath
their property. This was forbidden by the Council of Oxford in 1222[1052]
and in 1387 William of Wykeham sent a stern injunction to the nuns of
Romsey, pointing out that by making wills they were falling into the sin
of property[1053]. In 1394, on the death of Joan Furmage, Abbess of

    the bishop ordered the Abbey to be sequestrated and annulled the will
    by which she had alienated the goods of the house in bequests to
    friends, declaring such a disposition to be injurious to the community
    and contrary to the usage of religious women[1054].

The history of the attitude of ecclesiastical authorities to two sources
of private income, the _peculium_ and the gifts from friends to
individuals, is of even greater significance than these attempts to cope
with private goods, for it shows how powerless the bishops were against
the steady weakening of discipline in monastic houses. Here, as in the
enclosure struggle and the struggle against _familiae_, they were forced
into compromise at best and at worst into acquiescence. At its first
appearance the custom of giving a _peculium_ to individuals was severely
condemned as a manifest breach of the rule:

    "Moneys shall not be assigned to each separately for clothes," says
    the Council of Oxford in 1222, "But such shall be diligently attended
    to by certain persons deputed to this purpose, chamberers or
    chambresses, who according to the need of each and the resources of
    the house, shall minister garments to them.... Also it shall not be
    lawful for the chamberer or chambress to give to any monk, canon or
    nun, monies or anything else for clothes, nor shall it be lawful for
    monk, canon or nun to receive anything; otherwise let the chamberer be
    deposed from office and the monk, canon or nun go without new clothes
    for that year"[1055].

Similarly, in the Constitutions of the legate Ottobon in 1268, the
_peculium_ is grouped with other forms of property; ch. XL enacts that no
religious is to possess property and that the head of the house is to make
diligent search for such property twice a year[1056], and ch. XLI enacts
that no money is to be given to a religious for clothes, shoes and other
necessities, but he is to be given the article itself[1057]. In 1438 a
severe injunction from Bishop Spofford of Hereford to the nuns of Aconbury
shows the close connection between the _peculium_ and the private _camera_
of the nuns[1058]. Yet in 1380 we find a bishop of Salisbury assigning a
weekly allowance of 2_d._ to each nun of Shaftesbury from the issues of
the house[1059]; and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries nuns
regularly complain to their visitors when their allowances are in arrears
and the bishops regularly ordain that the money is to be paid[1060]. In
the thirteenth century it is a fault in the Prioress to give the nuns a
_peculium_; in the fifteenth century it is a fault to withhold it.

The custom as to presents from friends was that the nuns might receive
gifts, only by the permission of their superior, to whom everything must
be shown[1061]. Thus Archbishop Wickwane writes to Nunappleton in 1281:
"that no nun shall appropriate to herself any gift, garment or shoes of
the gift of anyone, without the consent and assignment of the
prioress"[1062]; Archbishop Greenfield in 1315 forbids the nuns of
Rosedale to accept or give any presents without the consent of the
Prioress[1063]; and Archbishop Bowet in 1411 enacts that any nun of
Hampole receiving gifts or _legacies_ from friends is at once on returning
to reveal them to the Prioress[1064]. Occasionally a Prioress, whether out
of zeal for the Rule or for some other reason, showed herself unwilling to
allow the nuns to receive presents. The nuns of Flixton in 1514
complained: "that they receive no annual pensions and that the prioress is
angry when anything is given to them by their friends"[1065] and Alnwick
in 1441 wrote to the Prioress of Ankerwyke, whose nuns complained both of
insufficient clothes and of her bad temper when their friends came to see

    And what euer thise saide frendes wyll gyfe your sustres in relefe of
    thaym as in hire habyte and sustenaunce, ye suffre your sustres to
    take hit, so that no abuse of euel come therbye noyther to the place
    ne to the persones therof[1066].

It was indeed almost a necessity to encourage the reception of presents,
when (as so often happened towards the close of the middle ages) nuns were
dependent for clothes upon their friends. But with Bishop Praty ordering
that the nuns of Easebourne shall receive half the sums paid them for
their work, and with Bishop Alnwick encouraging presents and enforcing the
payment of _peculia_, it is plain that the Lady Poverty had fallen upon
evil days.



    De sorte qu'une Religieuse hors de sa clôture est comme une pierre
    hors de son centre; comme un arbre hors de terre; comme Adam et Eve
    hors du Paradis terrestre; comme le corbeau hors de l'arche qui ne
    s'arreste qu'à des charognes; comme un poisson hors de l'eau, selon le
    grand Saint Antoine et Saint Bernard; comme une brebis hors de sa
    bergerie et en danger d'estre devorée des loups, selon Saint Theodore
    Studite; comme un oiseau hors de son nid et une grenouille hors de son
    marais, selon le même Saint Bernard; comme un mort hors de son
    tombeau, qui infecte les personnes qui s'en approchent, selon Pierre
    le Vénérable et la Règle attribuée à Saint Jérôme; et par consequent
    dans un état tout à fait opposé à la vie Régulière qu'elle a

    J. B. THIERS (1681).

The famous chapter LXVI of the Benedictine Rule enunciated the principle
that the professed monk should remain within the precincts of his cloister
and eschew all wandering in the world[1067]. It is clear, however, that
the Rule allowed a certain latitude and that monks and nuns were to be
allowed to leave their houses under certain conditions and for necessary
causes. Brethren working at a distance or going on a journey may be
excused attendance at the divine office, if they cannot reach the church
in time[1068]. Brethren sent upon an errand are forbidden to accept
invitations to eat outside the house without the consent of their
superior[1069]. Moreover longer journeys are plainly contemplated, in
which they might have to spend a night or more outside their
monastery[1070]. But no one might ever leave the cloister bounds without
the permission of the superior; and it was the obvious intention of St
Benedict to reduce to a minimum all wandering in the world. Strictly
speaking this system of enclosure applied equally to monks and to nuns;
but from the earliest times it was considered to be a more vital necessity
for the well being of the latter; and the history of the enclosure
movement is in effect the history of an effort to add a fourth vow of
claustration to the three cardinal vows of the nun[1071]. The reasons for
this severity are sufficiently obvious, and show that curious
contradiction of ideas which is so common in all general theories about
women. On the one hand the immense importance attached by the medieval
Church to the state of virginity, exemplified in St John Chrysostom's
remarks that Christian virgins are as far above the rest of mankind as are
the angels, made it all important that this priceless jewel should not be
exposed to danger in a wicked world[1072]. On the other hand the medieval
contempt for the fragility of women led to a cynical conviction that only
when they were shut up behind the high walls of the cloister was it
possible to guarantee their virtue; _aut virum aut murum oportet mulierem
habere_[1073]. Both views received support from the deep-rooted idea as
old as the Greeks and an unconscionable time in dying, that "a free woman
should be bounded by the street door"[1074]. Medieval moralists were
generally agreed that intercourse with the world was at the root of all
those evils which dimmed the fair fame of the conventual system, by
affording a constant temptation to frivolity and to grosser misconduct.
Moreover the tongue of scandal was always busy and the nun's reputation
was safe only if she could be placed beyond reproach. Hence those
regulations which Mr Coulton compares to "the minutely ingenious and
degrading precautions of an oriental harem"[1075].

Based upon such considerations as these, the movement for the enclosure of
nuns began very early in their history and continued with unabated vigour
long after the Reformation[1076]. Some years before the compilation of the
Benedictine Rule St Caesarius of Arles, in his Rule for nuns, had
forbidden them ever to leave their monastery; and from the sixth to the
eleventh century decrees were passed from time to time by various
provincial councils, advocating a stricter enclosure of monks and nuns,
but especially of the latter. Already by the twelfth century monasticism
had declined from its first fervour, and it is significant that the
reformed orders which sprang up during the great renaissance of that
century all made a special effort to enforce enclosure upon their nuns.
The nuns of Prémontré and Fontevrault were strictly enclosed and in the
middle of the following century the statutes promulgated by the
Chapter-General of the Cistercian Order (1256-7) contain a clause ordering
nuns to remain in their convents, except under certain specified
conditions, while the rule given by Urban IV to the Franciscan nuns (1263)
went further than any previous enactments in binding them by a vow of
perpetual enclosure, against which no plea of necessity might avail.
Various synods and councils continued to repeat the order that nuns were
not to leave their houses, except for a reasonable cause, but it is plain
from the evidence of ecclesiastics, moralists and episcopal visitations
that the nuns all over Europe paid small heed to their words. Finally, at
the beginning of the new century, came the first general regulation on the
subject which was binding as a law upon the whole church, the famous Bull
_Periculoso_, promulgated by Boniface VIII about the year 1299.

This decree, often afterwards confirmed by Popes and Councils, remained
the standard regulation upon the subject and in view of its cardinal
importance its terms are worthy of notice:

    Desiring to provide for the perilous and detestable state of certain
    nuns, who, having slackened the reins of decency and having
    shamelessly cast aside the modesty of their order and of their sex,
    sometimes gad about outside their monasteries in the dwellings of
    secular persons, and frequently admit suspected persons within the
    same monasteries, to the grave offence of Him to Whom they have, of
    their own will, vowed their innocence, to the opprobrium of religion
    and to the scandal of very many persons; we by the present
    constitution, which shall be irrefragably valid, decree with healthful
    intent that all and sundry nuns, present and future, to whatever order
    they belong and in whatever part of the world, shall henceforth remain
    perpetually enclosed within their monasteries; so that no nun tacitly
    or expressly professed in religion shall henceforth have or be able to
    have the power of going out of those monasteries for whatsoever reason
    or cause, unless perchance any be found manifestly suffering from a
    disease so great and of such a nature that she cannot, without grave
    danger or scandal, live together with others; and to no dishonest or
    even honest person shall entry or access be given by them, unless for
    a reasonable and manifest cause and by a special licence from the
    person to whom [the granting of such a licence] pertains; that so,
    altogether withdrawn from public and mundane sights, they may serve
    God more freely and, all opportunity for wantonness being removed,
    they may more diligently preserve for Him in all holiness their souls
    and their bodies.

The Bull further, in order to avoid any excuse for wandering abroad in
search of alms, forbids the reception into any non-mendicant order of more
sisters than can be supported without penury by the goods of the house;
and, in order to prevent nuns being forced to attend lawcourts in person,
requires all secular and ecclesiastical authorities to allow them to plead
by proctors in their courts; but if an Abbess or Prioress has to do
personal homage to a secular lord for any fief and it cannot be done by a
proctor, she may leave her house with honest and fit companions and do the
homage, returning home immediately. Finally Ordinaries are enjoined to
take order as soon as may be for proper enclosure where there is none to
provide that it is strictly kept according to the terms of the decree, and
to see that all is completed by Ash Wednesday, notifying any reasonable
impediment within eight days of Candlemas[1077].

For the next three centuries Councils and Bishops struggled manfully to
put into force the Bull _Periculoso_, but without success; the constant
repetition of the order that nuns should not leave their convents is the
measure of its failure. In the various reformed orders, which were founded
in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the insistence upon enclosure
bears witness to the importance which was attached to it as a vital
condition of reform: Boniface IX's ordinances for the Dominicans (1402),
St Francis of Paula's rule for his order in Calabria (1435), the rule of
the Order of the Annunciation, founded by Jeanne, daughter of Louis XI, at
the close of the fifteenth century, Johann Busch's reforms in Saxony, the
reformed rules given by Étienne Poncher, Bishop of Paris, to the nuns of
Chelles, Montmartre and Malnouë (1506) and by Geoffrey de Saint Belin,
Bishop of Poitiers, to the nuns of the Holy Cross, Poitiers (1511), all
insist upon strict enclosure[1078]. Similarly a long list might be drawn
up of general and provincial councils and synods which repeated the
ordinance, culminating in the great general Council of Trent, which
renewed the decree _Periculoso_ and was itself followed by another long
series of provincial councils, which endeavoured to put its decree into
force. But these efforts were still attended by very imperfect success,
for the worldly nuns of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries chafed at
the irksome restriction no less than did their predecessors of the middle
ages. When, in 1681, Jean-Baptiste Thiers published his treatise on the
enclosure of nuns he announced his reason to be that no point of
ecclesiastical discipline was in his day more completely neglected and

This brief sketch of the enclosure movement in the Western Church is
necessary to a right understanding of the special attempts which were made
in England to keep the nuns in their cloisters by means of an absolute
enforcement of the Benedictine Rule. Visitatorial injunctions on this
subject during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and up to the
Reformation were based upon three enactments: the constitutions of the
legate Ottobon in 1268, the vigorous reforms of Archbishop Peckham
(1279-92) and the Bull _Periculoso_. The Cardinal Legate Ottobon had come
to England in 1265, on the restoration of Henry III after Evesham, with
the purpose of punishing bishops and clergy who had supported the party of
Simon de Montfort and the barons. When peace was finally signed in 1267,
largely by his intervention, he was able to turn his attention to general
abuses prevalent in the English church and one of the reforms which he
attempted to enforce was the stricter enclosure of nuns. Chapter LII of
his _Constitutions_ [_Quod moniales a certis locis non exeant_] is an
amplification of the Benedictine rule of enclosure, made far more rigid
and severe. "Lest by repeated intercourse with secular folk the quiet and
contemplation of the nuns should be troubled," minute regulations were
laid down as to their movements. They were allowed to enter their chapel,
chapter, dorter and frater at due and fixed times; otherwise they were to
remain in the cloister; and none of these places were to be entered by
seculars, save very seldom and for some sufficient reason. No nun was to
converse with any man, except seriously and in a public place, and at
least one other nun was always to be present at such conversations. No nun
was to have a meal outside the house except with the permission of the
superior and then only with a relative, or some person from whose company
no suspicion could arise. All other places, beyond those specified, were
entirely forbidden to the nuns, with the exception, in certain
circumstances, of the infirmary. No nun was to go to the different
offices, except the obedientiaries, whose duties rendered it necessary and
they were never to go without a companion. The Abbess or head of the house
was never to leave it, except for its evident advantage or for urgent
necessity, and she was always to have an honest companion, while the
lesser nuns were never to be given licence to go out, except for some fit
cause and in company with another nun. Finally nuns were not to leave
their convents for public processions, but were to hold their processions
within the precincts of their own houses. The legate strictly enjoined
that "the prelates to whose jurisdiction belonged the visitation of each
nunnery should cause these statutes to be observed"[1080].

It will be realised that these injunctions were exceedingly severe and
that the visitors were not likely to find their task a sinecure. There is
little evidence for determining how far any serious attempt was made to
enforce the legate's Constitutions[1081], but if we may judge from the
language of Peckham, some ten years later, any attempts which may have
been made had not been strikingly successful. One of the first actions of
this energetic archbishop on his elevation to the see of Canterbury was to
carry out a visitation of the nunneries of Barking and Godstow and to
send to both houses injunctions laying great stress on strict enclosure
(1279). In 1281 he followed up these injunctions by two general decrees
for the enclosure of nuns; and in 1284 he visited the three nunneries of
Romsey, Holy Sepulchre (Canterbury) and Usk and sent injunctions enforcing
the Constitutions of 1281[1082]. In these injunctions he laid down with
great exactness the conditions to be observed in granting nuns permission
to leave their convents. The Godstow injunction runs thus:

    For the purpose of obtaining a surer witness to chastity, we ordain
    that nuns shall not leave the precincts of the monastery, save for
    necessary business which cannot be performed by any other persons.
    Hence we condemn for ever, by these present [letters] those sojourns
    which were wont to be made in the houses of friends, for the sake of
    pleasure and of escaping from discipline [_ad solatium et ad
    subterfugium disciplinae_]. And when it shall befall any [nuns] to go
    out for any necessity, we strictly order these four [conditions] to be
    observed. First, that they be permitted to go out only in safe and
    mature company, as well of nuns as of secular persons helping them.
    Secondly that having at once performed their business, so far as it
    can be by them performed, they return to their house; and if the
    performance of the business demand a delay of several days, after the
    first or second day it shall be left to proctors to finish it. Thirdly
    that they never lodge in the precincts of men of religion or in the
    houses of clergy, or in other suspected habitations. Fourthly that no
    one absent herself from the sight of her companion or companions, in
    any place where human conversation might be held, nor listen to any
    secret whispering, except in the presence of the nuns her companions,
    unless perchance father or mother, brother or sister have something
    private to say to her[1083].

The Barking injunctions are slightly different and the first condition
imposed therein is interesting: "That they be sent forth only for a
necessary and inevitable cause, that is in particular the imminent death
of a parent, beyond which cause we can hardly imagine any other which
would be sufficient"[1084]. These injunctions are very severe, since they
limit the occasions upon which a nun might leave her convent to the
performance of some negotiation connected with the business of the house
and to attendance at the deathbeds of relatives and entirely forbid all
visits for pleasure to the houses of friends.

In 1281 Peckham published a mandate directed against the seducers of nuns;
after excommunicating all who committed or attempted to commit this crime
and declaring that absolution for the sentence could be given only by a
Bishop or by the Pope (except on the point of death), he proceeded to deal
with the question of the enclosure of nuns, on the ground that their
wandering in the world gave opportunity for such crimes, and sternly
forbade them to pay visits for the sake of recreation, even to the closest
relatives, or to remain out of their houses for more than two days on
business[1085]. The same year he also dealt with the subject in the course
of a set of constitutions, concerning various abuses, which he considered
to be in need of reform. The language of the chapter in which he treats of
the claustration of nuns is in parts the same as that of the ordinance
against seducers, but it is less severe, for it enacts only that nuns
shall not stay "more than three natural days for the sake of recreation,
or more than six days for any necessary reason, save in case of illness."
Moreover the Archbishop adds: "we do not extend this ordinance to those
who are obliged to beg necessities of life, while they are begging"[1086].
It was this modified version of his ordinance which he tried to impose in
his visitation of 1284, for at Romsey he recognised that the nuns might be
leaving the house for recreation and not merely upon the business of the
convent; the Abbess, for instance, is to take her three coadjutresses with
her when she goes out on business, and two of them if she go _causa
solatii_. At this house he forbade nuns to go out without a companion, or
to stay for more than three days with seculars and condemned their
practice of eating and drinking in the town: no nun, either on leaving or
returning to the convent, was to enter any house in the town of Romsey, or
to eat or drink there, and no cleric or secular man or woman was to give
them any food outside the precincts[1087]. At St Sepulchre (Canterbury)
Peckham regulated the visits of nuns to confessors outside the house, and
at Usk he ordered that no nun was to go out without suitable companions,
or to stay more than three or four days in the houses of secular

The next effort made in England to enforce enclosure upon nuns was the
result of Boniface VIII's Bull _Periculoso_. Bishops' registers about the
year 1300 sometimes contain copies of this severe enactment. One of the
earliest efforts to carry it out was made by Simon of Ghent, Bishop of
Salisbury, who on November 28th, 1299, issued a long letter to the Abbess
of Wilton (obviously inserted in the register as a specimen of a circular
sent to each nunnery in the diocese), embodying the text of the bull and
ordering her to put it into force, and in 1303 he issued a mandate for the
enclosure of the nuns of Shaftesbury, Wilton, Amesbury, Lacock, Tarrant
Keynes and Kington[1089]. The Register of Godfrey Giffard, Bishop of
Worcester, contains a note in the year 1300:

    As to the shutting up of nuns. It is expedient that a letter of
    warning be sent according to the form of the constitution and directed
    to every house of nuns, that they do what is necessary for their
    inclusion and cause themselves to be enclosed this side the Gule of

The Bishop seems however from the beginning to have doubted his capacity
to carry out the decree, for further on the register contains another
note, "As to whether it is expedient to enclose the nuns of the diocese of
Worcester"[1090]. An undated note of _Inhibiciones facte monialibus de
Werewell_ in the Register of John of Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester, among
other documents belonging to 1299-1300, is probably in part a result of

    We forbid on pain of excommunication any nun or sister to go outside
    the bounds of the monastery until we have made some ordinance
    concerning enclosure. Item let no one be received as nun or sister
    until we have enquired more fully into the resources of the house.
    Item we order the abbess to remove all secular women and to receive
    none henceforth as boarders in their house. Item let her permit no
    secular clerk or layman to enter the cloister to speak with the

But the most detailed information as to the efforts of a conscientious
bishop to enforce Boniface VIII's decree in England is contained in the
Register of Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln. Dalderby was a new broom in the
diocese and he determined to sweep clean. On June 17th, 1300, he directed
a mandate to the archdeacons of his diocese ordering each to associate
with himself some other mature and honest man and to visit the religious
houses in his own archdeaconry, explaining the terms of the new bull
intelligibly to the nuns and ordering them to remain within their
nunneries and to permit no one to enter the precincts contrary to the
tenour of the decree, until the Bishop should be able to visit them in
person; the heads of the houses were to be specially warned to carry out
the decree and for better security a sealed copy of it was to be deposited
in each house by the commissioners[1092].

In the course of the next two months Dalderby visited, either in person or
by commissioners, Marlow, Burnham, Flamstead, Markyate, Elstow, Goring,
Studley, Godstow, Delapré (Northampton) and Sewardsley[1093]. At each
house the bull was carefully explained to the nuns in the vulgar tongue,
they were ordered to obey it and a copy was left with them. But this
campaign was not unattended with difficulties. The nuns were bitterly
opposed to the restriction of a freedom to which they were accustomed and
which they heartily enjoyed, and an entry in Dalderby's Register,
describing his visitation of Markyate, shows that even in the middle ages
a bishop's lot was not a happy one:

    On July 3rd, in the first year [of his consecration], the Bishop
    visited the house of nuns of Markyate and on the following day he
    caused to be recited before the nuns of the same [house] in chapter
    the statute put forth by the lord Pope Boniface VIII concerning the
    enclosure of nuns, explained it in the vulgar tongue and giving them
    a copy of the same statute under his seal, ordered them in virtue of
    obedience henceforth to observe it in the matter of enclosure and of
    all things contained in it, and especially to close all doors by which
    entrance is had into the inner places of their house and to permit no
    person, whether dishonest or honest, to enter in to them, without
    reasonable and manifest cause and licence from the person to whom [the
    granting of such a licence] pertains. Furthermore he specially
    enjoined the Prioress to observe the said statute in all its articles
    and to cause it to be observed by the others. But when the Bishop was
    going away, certain of the nuns, disobedient to these injunctions,
    hurled the said statute at his back and over his head, and as well the
    Prioress as the convent appeared to consent to those who threw it,
    following the bishop to the outer gate of the house and declaring
    unanimously that they were not content in any way to observe such a
    statute. On account of which, the Bishop, who was then directing his
    steps to Dunstable, returned the next day and having made inquisition
    as to the matters concerned in the said statute, imposed a penance on
    four nuns, whom he found guilty and on the whole convent for their
    consent, as is more fully contained in his letters of correction sent
    to the aforesaid house.

Afterwards he sent letters to the recalcitrant convent warning them for
the third time (they had already been warned once by the Official of the
Archdeacon of Bedford and a second time at the visitation which has just
been described) to keep the new decree, on pain of the major
excommunication, from which only the Pope could absolve them[1094].

There was opposition at other convents, too, though we hear of no more
attacks on the episcopal shoulders. On August 19th Dalderby wrote as
follows to Master Benedict de Feriby, rector of Broughton, Northants (a
church in the presentation of the Abbess and Convent of Delapré):

    It has come to our ears, by clamorous rumour, that some of the nuns of
    our diocese, spurning good obedience, slackening the reins of honesty
    and shamelessly casting aside the modesty of their sex, despise the
    papal statute concerning enclosure directed to them, as well as our
    injunctions made to them upon the subject, and frequent cities and
    other public places outside their monasteries, and mingle in the
    haunts of men;

he proceeded to order Feriby to visit nunneries wherever he considered it
expedient to do so, and to punish those who were guilty of breaking the
statute, signifying to the Bishop, by a certain date, the names of all
who had been accused of doing so, whether they had been found guilty or
not[1095]. This mandate is no doubt in part explained by two other letters
which he dispatched on the same day; one of them was directed to the
Archdeacon of Northampton and set forth (in language which often repeats
_verbatim_ the phrases of the papal bull) that at the Bishop's recent
visitation of Delapré (Northampton) he had found three nuns in apostasy,
having cast off their habits after being a long time professed, and left
their house to live a secular life in the world[1096]. The other letter
contains a sentence of the greater excommunication against a nun of
Sewardsley, for similar conduct[1097]. These cases of apostasy were less
rare than might be imagined; Dalderby had to deal with two others during
his episcopate, one at St Michael's, Stamford[1098], and the other at
Goring[1099]; and during the rule of his predecessor Sutton three nuns had
escaped from Godstow and one from Wothorpe[1100]. They illustrate the
undoubted truth that it was only the existence (already in the thirteenth
century) of very grave disorders, which led reformers like Ottobon,
Peckham and Boniface VIII to "beat the air" with such severe restrictions.

These three documents, the Constitutions of Ottobon and of Peckham and the
Bull _Periculoso_, were the standard decrees on the subject of the
claustration of nuns in England and were used as a model by visitors in
the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. William of Wykeham, for example,
in the exceptionally full and formal injunctions which he sent to Romsey
and to Wherwell in 1387 continually refers by name to Ottobon and to
Peckham, and the wording of the Bull _Periculoso_ is followed _verbatim_
in the mandate directed by Bishop Grandisson of Exeter to Canonsleigh in
1329 and in the commission sent by his successor Bishop Brantyngham to two
canons of Exeter in 1376, concerning the wanderings of the nuns of
Polsloe. But a study of the visitation documents of the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries makes it clear that the nuns never really made any
attempt to obey the regulations which imposed a strict enclosure upon
them; and that the bishops upon whom fell the brunt of administering
_Periculoso_ themselves allowed a considerable latitude, directing their
efforts towards regulating the conditions under which nuns left their
convents, rather than to keeping them within the precincts. _Le mieux est
l'ennemi du bien_ and the steady opposition of the nuns forced a
compromise upon their visitors. The canonist John of Ayton, reciting the
decrees of Ottobon and of Boniface, with their injunction that bishops
shall "cause them to be observed," exclaims

    Cause to be observed! But surely there is scarce any mortal man who
    could do this: we must therefore here understand "so far as lieth in
    the prelate's power." For the nuns answer roundly to these statutes or
    to any others promulgated against their wantonness, saying "In truth
    the men who made these laws sat well at their ease, while they laid
    such burdens upon us by these hard and intolerable restrictions!"
    Wherefore we see in fact that these statutes are a dead letter or are
    ill-kept at the best. Why, then, did the holy fathers thus labour to
    beat the air? Yet indeed their toil is none the less to their own
    merit; for we look not to that which is but to that which of justice
    should be[1101].

Dalderby's experience at Markyate shows that John of Ayton's picture was
not too highly coloured, and since it was impossible to enforce "hard and
intolerable restrictions" without at least a measure of co-operation from
the nuns themselves, the bishops took the only course open to them in
trying to minimise the evil. Their expedients deserve some study, and as a
typical set of episcopal injunctions dealing with journeys by nuns outside
their cloisters it will suffice to quote those sent by Walter Stapeldon,
Bishop of Exeter, to the nunneries of Polsloe and Canonsleigh. These rules
were drawn up in 1319, only twenty years after the publication of the Bull
_Periculoso_, but they are already far removed from the strict ideal of
Boniface VIII. Stapeldon was a practical statesman and he evidently
realised that the enforcement of strict enclosure was impossible in a
diocese where the nuns had been used to considerable freedom and where all
the counties of the West saw them upon their holidays.

The clauses dealing with the subject run as follows:

    _De visitacione amicorum._ No lady of religion is to go and visit her
    friends outside the priory, but if it be once a year at the most and
    then for reasonable cause and by permission; and then let her have a
    companion professed in the same religion, not of her own choice, but
    whomsoever the Prioress will assign to her and she who is once
    assigned to her for companion shall not be assigned the next time, so
    that each time a lady goes to visit her friends her companion is
    changed; and if she have permission to go to certain places to visit
    her friends, let her not go to other places without new permission.
    _De absencia Dominarum et regressu earum._ Item, when any lady of
    religion eats at Exeter, or in another place near by, for reasonable
    cause and by permission, whenever she can she ought to return the same
    or the following day and each time let her have a companion and a
    chaplain, clerk or serving-man of good repute assigned by the
    prioress, who shall go, remain and return with them and otherwise they
    shall not go; and then let them return speedily to the house, as they
    be commanded, and let them not go again to Exeter, wandering from
    house to house, as they have oftentimes done, to the dishonour of
    their state and of religion. _De Dominabus "Wakerauntes"_ [i.e.
    _vagantibus_]. Item, a lady who goes a long distance to visit her
    friends, in the aforesaid form, should return to the house within a
    month at the latest, or within a shorter space if it be assigned her
    by the Prioress, having regard to the distance or proximity of the
    place, where dwell the friends whom she is going to visit, but a
    longer term ought the Prioress never to give her, save in the case of
    death, or of the known illness of herself or of her near friends.
    _Pena Dominarum Vagancium._ And if a lady remain without for a long
    time or in any other manner than in the form aforesaid, let her never
    set foot outside the outer gate of the Priory for the next two years;
    and nevertheless let her be punished otherwise for disobedience, in
    such manner as is laid down by the rule and observances of the order
    of St Benet for the fault; and leave procured by the prayer of her
    friends ought not to excuse her from this penance[1102]. No lady of
    your religion, professed or unprofessed, shall come to the external
    offices outside the door of the cloister to be bled or for any other
    feigned excuse, save it be by leave of the Prioress or of the
    Subprioress, and then for a fit reason and let her have with her
    another professed lady of your religion, to the end that each of them
    may see and hear that which the other shall say and do[1103].

The main lines along which the bishops attempted to regulate the movements
of the nuns outside their houses appear clearly in these injunctions. It
was their invariable practice to forbid unlicensed visits, in accordance
with the Benedictine rule; no nun might leave her house without a licence
from her superior and such licences were not to be granted too
easily[1104] or with any show of favouritism[1105]; sometimes the licence
of the Bishop was required as well[1106]. Such licences were not to be
granted often (once a year is usually the specified rule)[1107] and the
bishops sometimes tried to confine the visits of nuns to parents or to
near relatives[1108]. An attempt was also made to regulate the length of
the visits. A maximum number of days was fixed and the nun was to be
punished if she outstayed her leave[1109], except when she was detained by
illness. This maximum differed from time to time and from place to place.
Bishop Stapeldon, it will be recalled, allowed the nuns in his diocese to
remain away for a month and longer; how he reconciled such laxity with his
conscience and the Bull _Periculoso_ is not plain. Archbishop Greenfield,
at the same date, permitted his Yorkshire nuns a maximum visit of fifteen
days[1110], and in 1358 Bishop Gynewell of Lincoln forbade the nuns of
Godstow to remain away for longer than three weeks[1111]. When Alnwick
visited the diocese of Lincoln in 1440-5, he made careful inquiry into
the length of the visits paid by the nuns and at Goring, Gracedieu,
Markyate, Nuncoton and St Michael's, Stamford, he found that the superior
usually gave the nuns licence to remain away a week, though the Prioress
of Studley gave exeats for three or four days only[1112]. A week does not
seem a very lengthy absence, but Alnwick would have lifted horrified
eyebrows at the action of his predecessor Gynewell, for he ordered the
superiors "that ye gyfe no sustere of yowres leue to byde wythe thaire
frendes whan thai visite thaym, overe thre dayes in helthe, and if thai
falle seke, that he do fecche thaym home wythe yn sex dayes"[1113]. He
shared the views of an even stricter reformer, Peckham[1114]. It was often
stipulated that the nuns, whether they went on long or on short journeys,
were to go only to the place which they had received permission to
visit[1115]; and sometimes they were specially told that if they were
obliged to spend the night away from their friends they were to do so,
whenever possible, in another nunnery[1116]. But they were strictly
forbidden to harbour in the houses of monks, friars, or canons[1117]. On
short journeys, or on errands which could be speedily accomplished, they
were forbidden to eat or drink out of their monasteries or to make
unnecessary delay, but were to return at once and in no case to be out
after nightfall[1118]. Moreover it was invariably ordered that a nun was
on no account to leave her house, without another nun of mature age and
good reputation who would be a constant witness to her behaviour[1119];
and both were to wear monastic dress[1120].

The chief aim of the ecclesiastical authorities was, however, to secure
that leave of absence should be granted only for a reasonable cause. All
conciliar and other injunctions for enclosure added a saving clause of
"manifest necessity" and this gave an opening for an infinite variety of
interpretation. The nuns, indeed, could fall back upon a threefold line of
defence against the intolerable restrictions. They could appeal to the
undoubted fact that strict and perpetual enclosure went beyond the
requirements of their rule. They could adduce the custom by which, as long
as their memory ran, nuns had been allowed to leave their convents under
conditions. Finally they could with a little skill, stretch the "manifest
necessity" clause to cover almost all their wanderings. Thus it happened
that in enforcing the Bull _Periculoso_ the visitors of the later middle
ages found themselves obliged to define, more or less widely according to
local conditions, what was and what was not a reasonable cause, and to
combat one after another certain specific excuses put forward by the nuns.
The sternest reformers were agreed that enclosure might be broken, when
the lives of the nuns were endangered. Fire, flood, famine, war and the
ruin of their buildings were universally accepted as reasonable
excuses[1121]. A nun could leave her house to be superior of another
nunnery (a not infrequent practice), or to found new houses or to
establish reform elsewhere.[1122] Moreover when a culprit stood in need
of condign punishment, she might be and often was sent to another house
to do penance among strangers, who would neither sympathise with her nor
run the risk of being contaminated by her[1123].

At this point, however, agreement ceased. The question of illness was
beset with difficulties. It was agreed that a nun might leave her house,
if she suffered from some contagious disease which threatened the health
of her sisters[1124], but opinions differed as to whether any relaxation
was to be allowed in less severe cases, when only her own health was in
question. The visitors sometimes issued licences for nuns to leave their
houses in order to recruit their health; thus in 1303 Josiana de Anelaby,
Prioress of Swine, had licence to absent herself from her house on account
of ill-health[1125], in 1314 Archbishop Greenfield licenced a nun of
Yedingham, who was suffering from dropsy, to visit friends and relatives
with honest company, for the sake of improving her health[1126] and in
1368 Joan Furmage, Abbess of Shaftesbury, actually received a dispensation
to leave the abbey for a year, and reside in her manors, for the sake of
air and recreation[1127]. It is significant that the _Novellae
Definitiones_ of the Cistercian Order in 1350 strictly forbade nuns to go
to the public baths outside their houses, which shows that they had been
in the habit of doing so[1128]. But strict reformers were always opposed
to such licences, and the specific prohibition of exeats for purposes of
cures and convalescences was common in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, when the practice had become almost universal in France[1129].

Again there was some difference of opinion as to whether a nun might leave
her house, in order to enter one professing a stricter rule. Such a desire
was in theory laudable and by Innocent III's decretal _Licet_ the
principle was laid down that a bishop was bound _de jure_ to grant leave
for migration "sub praetextu majoris religionis et ut vitam ducant
arctiorem," as long as the motive of the petitioner was love of God and
not merely _temeritas_[1130]. But _temeritas_ was often to be suspected;
women, as St Francis de Sales complained, were full of whimsies[1131];
ennui, fancy, a craving for change, a friend in another house, might
masquerade as a desire to lead a stricter life elsewhere. Moreover a nun
who desired to remove herself was not unlikely to encounter opposition
from her own convent. An interesting case of such opposition occurred at
Gracedieu in 1447-8. Margaret Crosse, a nun of that house, desired to be
transferred to the Benedictine Priory of Ivinghoe "of a straiter order of
religion and observance, not for a frivolous or empty reason, but that she
may lead a life altogether and entirely harder." She obtained letters of
admission from the Prioress of Ivinghoe, but when she came to ask for
leave to migrate, the Prioress and Convent of Gracedieu refused to release
her from her obedience and confiscated the letters. Bishop Alnwick then
wrote to Gracedieu, requiring the Prioress either to let her go, or to
furnish him with a reason for their refusal. The Prioress and Convent
replied with some acerbity. Margaret, they said, desired to lead a life of
less and not of more restraint and her real object was to join her sister,
who was at that time Prioress of Ivinghoe, if indeed her request were not
a mere pretext for apostasy; for

    the said Margaret Crosse has caused and commanded certain goods,
    property and jewels belonging to our priory to be stealthily conveyed
    by certain of the said Margaret's friends in the flesh from our priory
    to foreign and privy places, and to such conveyance done in her name
    has lent her authority, with the purpose, as is strongly suspected, of
    taking advantage of the darkness one night ... and transferring
    herself utterly and entirely of her own motion to places wholly
    strange, without having or asking and against our will[1132].

Moreover had the holy father considered the merits of their house and the
loss to it, if Margaret seceded?

    Inasmuch as in our priory according to the observances of the rule God
    is served and quire is ruled both in reading and singing and chanting
    the psalms and toiling in the vineyard of the Lord of Sabaoth at the
    canonical hours by day and night, while we also patiently endure
    grievous cares, fastings and watchings and further are instant
    together in contemplation, even as the holy Spirit designs to give us
    His inspiration. And the said Margaret Crosse, who is sufficiently
    trained in such regular observances and is very needful for the
    service of God in our priory aforesaid, wherein such regular
    observances and contemplations are not so fully kept as in our
    aforesaid priory ... would give herself to secular business in all
    matters, rather than to such contemplation or observance of the rule;
    and thereout shall arise to us and our priory not only grievous ill
    repute, but also no small loss, especially in that such chantings and
    regular observances would in likelihood suffer damage by reason of the
    said Margaret's absence[1133].

There is an air of verisimilitude about the injured convent's argument,
though the visitation report of 1440-1 does not show them as the strict
and pious community which they claim to be; but what came of the affair we
do not know.

One plea to lead a stricter life was, however, less open to suspicion;
that was the request to be enclosed as an anchoress. Sometimes an
anchoress had a companion, sometimes a servant[1134], but in any case her
life was stricter than that of a nun, for she devoted herself to constant
prayer and was bound to remain always in her little cell, which was
usually attached to a church. There are several instances of nuns who left
their communities to lead a solitary life in some anchorage. On one
occasion when the nuns of Coldingham had been dispersed by the Scots,
Beatrice de Hodesak left her convent and with the permission of the
Archbishop and of her Prioress retired to an anchorage at St Edmund's
Chapel, near the bridge of Doncaster; another anchoress Sibil de Lisle was
already living there (c. 1300)[1135]. Twenty years later Archbishop Melton
gave Margaret de Punchardon, nun of Arden, permission to be enclosed, as
an anchoress, in the cell attached to St Nicholas' Hospital at Beverley,
in company with Agnes Migregose [? Mucegrose, i.e. Musgrave] already a
recluse there[1136]. The register of Bishop Gray of Lincoln contains an
interesting commission (1435-6) addressed to the Abbot of Thornton,
bidding him enclose Beatrice Franke, a nun of Stainfield, in the parish
church of Winterton, together with the Abbot's certificate that he has
examined her and found her steadfast in her purpose and therefore

    shutting up the aforesaid sister Beatrice in a building and enclosure
    constructed on the north side of the church and making fast the door
    thereof with bolts, bars and keys, we left her in peace and calm of
    spirit, as it is believed by the more part, in the joy of her

Some nunneries themselves had anchorages attached, for instance
Davington[1138], Polesworth[1139] and Carrow; and Julian of Norwich,
anchoress at the parish church of Carrow in the fourteenth century, was
one of the most famous mystical writers of the middle ages[1140].
Anchoresses do not seem always to have been content with their life and
the strict preliminary examination of Beatrice Franke "concerning her
withdrawal from the life of a community to the solitary life, concerning
the length of time wherein she had continued in this purpose, concerning
the perils of them that choose such a life and afterwards repent thereof"
was probably a necessary precaution. The register of Bishop Dalderby of
Lincoln contains a mandate to the nuns of Marlow, to readmit one such
faint-heart, Agnes de Littlemore, a lay sister of the house, who had left
it to become an anchoress and had repented of her decision[1141].

Illness and the desire to embrace a stricter rule were exceptional causes
for a temporary breach of enclosure. The great difficulty in administering
_Periculoso_ arose over more usual pretexts. The least objectionable
occasion for leaving cloistral precincts was when convent business
demanded it and this happened frequently to the superior and the
treasuress or cellaress. The journeys which were frequently taken by the
head of a house have already been considered[1142]; but the obedientiaries
also found much scope for wandering in the duties of their offices. The
treasuress and cellaress might be obliged day by day to visit, in the
course of their duties, offices and buildings which lay outside the walls,
and if they were not sober minded women there were ample opportunities for
lingering and gossiping with secular persons and with servants. The
Constitutions of the Legate Ottobon in 1268 attempted to minimise this
danger by enacting that no nun was to go into the different _officinae_,
except those whose offices rendered it necessary to do so, and they were
never to go unaccompanied[1143]. The complaints brought by the nuns of
Gracedieu in 1440-1 against their self-confident cellaress Margaret Belers
show that some such regulation was necessary; it was said that she was
accustomed to visit all the offices by herself, even the granges and other
places where menfolk were working, and that she went there (good zealous
housewife!) "over early in the morning before daybreak"; whereupon Bishop
Alnwick ordered the Prioress to "suffre none of thaym, officiere ne other,
to go to any house of office wythe owte the cloystere, but if ther be an
other nunne approveded in religyone assigned to go wythe hire, eyther to
be wytnesse of others conversatyon"[1144]. Convent business, however,
frequently took the officials further afield than outlying granges and
they undertook journeys hardly less often than did the head of the house.
The Cistercian statutes of 1256-7, in forbidding nuns to leave their
convents, make exception "for the Abbess with two or at most three nuns
and for the cellaress with one, who are permitted to go forth to look
after the business of the house or for other inevitable causes"[1145]. The
evidence of account rolls is invaluable in this connection and shows us
the nuns going marketing or seeking tithes from recalcitrant farmers, or
interviewing tenants about rent. The Chambress of Syon went to London
three times in 1536, doubtless to buy the russets, white cloth, kerseys,
friezes and hollands which figure so largely in her account and to take
the spectacles to be mended; she was a thrifty lady and her expenses were
only 6_d._, 2_d._ and 20_d._ respectively. Her sister the cellaress also
went to London that year and spent 6_d._ on the jaunt[1146]. The nuns of
St Michael's, Stamford, sometimes took long journeys on convent business;
in 1372-3 Dame Katherine Fitzaleyn went "to London and other places about
our tithes," at the heavy cost of 15_s._ 8_d._[1147] From Stamford to
London was a considerable journey, but the convent could not afford to
lose its tithes. The same business took Dame Katherine to the capital
another year; she hired three horses for six days and a serving man to go
with them and she took with her Dame Ida, in accordance with the
regulations; the whole cost of the expedition was £2. 11_s._, a very large
sum, and we will hope that the tithes brought in more than enough to cover

Sometimes, again, nuns left their houses to take part in ecclesiastical
ceremonies, such as processions. There does not seem much harm in the
whole convent sallying forth on these solemn occasions and indeed bishops
sometimes gave orders that they were to do so. In 1321 Rigaud de Asserio,
Bishop of Winchester, sent a letter to the Prior of St Swithun's monastery
"to pray for peace, with solemn processions"; he was to cause the Abbot
and Convent of Hyde, the Abbess and Convent of St Mary's, Winchester, and
all the other religious houses and parish priests of Winchester to come
together in the Cathedral and then to proceed in solemn procession through
the town[1149]. The strictest disciplinarians, however, looked with
suspicion even upon religious processions and sought to keep nuns within
the precincts of their cloister. Ottobon's Constitutions contain a proviso
that nuns are not to go out for public processions, but are to hold their
processions within the bounds of their own house[1150] and the prohibition
was repeated by Thomas of Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, writing to
Lymbrook in 1277[1151], and by William of Wykeham (who specifically based
his words upon Ottobon), writing to Romsey in 1387[1152]. A century later
the custom was forbidden in France at the provincial Council of Sens, in
1460 and again in 1485, where it was referred to as "a dangerous and evil
abuse"[1153]. Some explanation of this severity, which seems excessive,
may perhaps be gleaned from an injunction sent by Bishop Longland to
Elstow in 1531:

    Moreover forasmoche as the ladye abbesse and covent of that house be
    all oon religious bodye unite by the profession and rules of holy
    sainct benedicte, and is nott conuenyent ne religious to be disseuerd
    or separate, we will and Inioyne that frome hensforth noon of the said
    abbesse seruauntes nor no ther secular person or persones, whatsoeuer
    he or they be, goo in eny procession before the said abbesse betwene
    hir and hir said covent, undre payne of exccommunycacon, and that the
    ladye abbesse ne noon of hir successours hereafter be ladde by the
    arme or otherwise in eny procession ther as in tymes paste hath been
    used, undre the same payne[1154].

Other religious ceremonies of a less formal nature occasionally called
nuns, in a body or individually, out of their cloister. For instance some
of the greater abbeys were accustomed to receive into their fraternity
benefactors and persons of distinction, both men and women, whom they
wished to honour, nor were kings too proud to call themselves the
_confratres_ of Bury St Edmunds or St Albans and to receive from the monks
the kiss of peace[1155]. The ceremony took place with great solemnity in
the chapter-house and it is recorded that on one occasion (in 1428), when
the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Gloucester and their households were
received into the Fraternity of St Albans, Cecilia Paynel and Margaret
Ewer, nuns of Sopwell, were also admitted. At another time the Prioress of
Sopwell, together with a certain John Crofton and his wife, were received
and gave the abbey a pittance and wine and a sum of money; while on
another occasion still the Prioress and another nun of St Mary de Pré were
similarly made _consorores_ of the abbey, and marked their appreciation by
the gift of a frontal for the high altar in the lady chapel[1156]. Sopwell
and St Mary de Pré were dependents of St Albans and it is not improbable
that their superiors and seniors often visited it on great occasions such
as this; certainly the great magnates of the realm often called at Sopwell
on their way from St Albans, and nuns of the house figure in its book of
benefactors as donors of embroidery to the church[1157], while in matters
of government the Abbot always kept a tight hand upon both houses. Again
nuns sometimes attended the funerals of great folk; not only priors and
prioresses, but also canons and nuns were expected to be present at Sir
Thomas Cumberworth's funeral and "month's-mind"[1158] and in an account
roll of St Michael's, Stamford, there is an entry "paye a nos
compaygnounes alaunt a Leycestre al enterment la Duchesse ij s"[1159].

Attendance at religious processions and ceremonies might be, and
attendance at funerals undoubtedly was, regarded by the more moderate and
reasonable visitors as a legitimate reason for going outside the precincts
of the cloister. One other excuse of the same nature, however, sometimes
took a nun away from her convent for a considerable length of time and was
never looked upon with any favour by the authorities of the church. Yet it
is an excuse which we have the best of reasons for recognising, which is,
indeed, bound up with all that most people know of the medieval nun--for
Chaucer has taught us that nuns were wont to go upon pilgrimages. All
pilgrimages did not, indeed, involve as long a journey as that taken by
Madame Eglentyne. The ladies of Nuncoton could make a pilgrimage to St
Hugh of Lincoln, without being away for more than a night and the ladies
of Blackborough would not have to follow for a long distance the milky way
to Walsingham[1160]. Nevertheless it is unnecessary to go further than
Chaucer to understand why it was that medieval bishops offered a strenuous
opposition to the practice; one has only to remember some of the folk in
whose company the Prioress travelled and some of the tales they told. If
one could be certain that she rode with her nun and her priests, or at
least between the Knight and the poor Parson! But there were also the
Miller and the Summoner and, worst of all, that cheerful and engaging
sinner the Wife of Bath. If one could be certain that she listened only to
the tale of Griselda, or of Palamon and Arcite, or yawned over Melibeus,
and that she fell discreetly to the rear when the company laughed over the
"nyce cas of Absalon and hende Nicholas"! If one could be certain that it
was to the Wife of Bath alone that the Merchant made his apology

  Ladies, I prey yow that ye be nat wrooth;
  I can nat glose, I am a rude man.

Certainly the Wife of Bath was a host in herself, but the plural is
ominous and the two nuns were the only other ladies in the company. The
sterner moralists of the middle ages bear out Chaucer's picture of a
typical pilgrimage with most unchaucerian denunciation[1161]. Pilgrims got
drunk at times, as drunk as the Miller, "so that vnnethe up-on his hors he
sat," on the very first day of the journey, as drunk as the "sory palled
gost" of a cook, when the cavalcade reached that

                        litel toun
  Which that y-cleped is Bob-up-&-doun
  Under the Blee in Canterbury weye.

Again, there are pilgrims, says Etienne de Bourbon, "who when they visit
holy places sing lecherous lays, whereby they inflame the hearts of such
as hear them and kindle the fire of lechery"; and like an echo rise the
well-known words:

  Ful loude he song "Come hider, love, to me,"
  This somnour bar to him a stif burdoun
  Was never trompe of half so greet a soun,

and shrill and clear sound the miller's bagpipes, bringing the pilgrims
out of town[1162]. No place for a cloistered nun was the inn though one
feels that mine host's wife, "big in arme," would have kept the Tabard
respectable, whatever might be said of the Chequer-on-the-Hoop. No place
for her the road to Canterbury, nor yet Canterbury itself, where the monk
with the holy-water sprinkler was so anxious for a peep at her face and
where she hobnobbed over wine in the parlour, with the hostess and the
Wife of Bath[1163].

Madame Eglentyne, for all her simplicity, must have circumvented her
Bishop before she got there. For the Bishops were quite clear in their
minds that pilgrimages for nuns were to be discouraged. They were of
Langland's way of thinking:

  Right so, if thow be religious, renne thow neuere ferther,
  To Rome ne to Rochemadore, but as thi reule techeth,
  And holde the vnder obedyence, that heigh wey is to heuene[1164].

As early as 791 the Council of Fréjus had forbidden the practice[1165] and
in 1195 the Council of York decreed "In order that the opportunity of
wandering about may be taken from them [the nuns], we forbid them to take
the road of pilgrimage"[1166]. In 1318 Archbishop Melton strictly forbade
the nuns of Nunappleton to leave their house "by reason of any vow of
pilgrimage, which they might have taken; if any had taken such vows she
was to say as many psalters as it would have taken days to perform the
pilgrimage so rashly vowed"[1167]. One has a melancholy vision of Madame
Eglentyne saying psalters interminably through her "tretys" nose, instead
of jogging along so gaily with her motley companions and telling so
prettily her tale of little St Hugh. But the nuns of Nunappleton retained
their taste for pilgrimages and nearly two centuries later (in 1489) we
find Archbishop Rotherham admonishing their successors:

    yat ye prioresse lycence none of your susters to goe pilgremage or
    visit yer frendes w{t}oute a grete cause, and yen such a sister
    lycencyate by you to have w{t} her oon of ye most sadd and well
    disposid sistirs to she come home agayne[1168].

At Wix, twenty years later, the nuns were forbidden to undertake
pilgrimages without the consent of the diocesan[1169], and in 1531 Bishop
Longland wrote to the Prioress of Nuncoton:

    Forasmoche as by your negligent sufferaunce dyuers of your susters
    hath wandred a brode in the world, some under the pretence of
    pylgrymage, some to see ther frends, and otherwise whereby hath growen
    many Inconuenyences insolent behauiours and moche slaunder, as well to
    your house as to those susters, as by the texts of my said visitation
    doth euydently appere, I chardge you lady priores that from hensforthe
    ye neyther licence ne suffre eny your susters to goo out of your

without good cause and company of a "wise sobre and discrete suster," and
an injunction not to "tary out of the monastery in the nighte tyme"[1170].
But most significant of all is a case which occurred at the little
Cistercian priory of Wykeham in Yorkshire in the fifteenth century. In
1450 Archbishop Kemp wrote to the Prioress, bidding her readmit an
apostate nun Katherine Thornyf:

    who, seduced by the Angel of Darkness, under the colour of a
    pilgrimage in the time of the Jubilee, without leave of the
    archbishop, or officials or even of the prioress, set out on a
    journey to the court of Rome, in the company of another nun of the
    house, who, as it was reported, had gone the way of all flesh and on
    whose soul the Archbishop prayed for mercy. After the death of this
    nun, Katherine Thornyf had lived in sin with a married man in London.

Then she had been moved to penitence, after who knows what agony of soul,
and had gone to the Archbishop seeking absolution; and so the prodigal,
weary of her husks, came back to the nunnery she had left[1171]. The
melancholy tale is borne out by all we know about medieval pilgrimages.
Centuries before--in 774--an Archbishop of Milan had written to an
Archbishop of Canterbury, advising that the Synod should prohibit women
and nuns from travelling to Rome, on account of the dangers and
temptations of the journey, "for very few are the cities in Lombardy ...
France ... Gaul, wherein there is not to be found a prostitute of English
race"[1172]; and the trouvère Rutebeuf, in the thirteenth century, spoke
with less pity and a more biting satire of the pilgrimages of French nuns
to Paris and Montmartre[1173].

Excursions on convent business or for attendance at ecclesiastical
ceremonies (other than pilgrimages) were regarded as legitimate, though
strict disciplinarians sought to restrict them to occasions of real
urgency. But for the most part we hear about journeys undertaken for
pleasure and not for business, or at any rate the elastic term business is
stretched to cover some very pleasant wandering in the world and much
hobnobbing with friends. In spite of the Bull _Periculoso_[1174] bishops
were never able to prevent nuns from going to stay with their friends, and
sometimes the ladies made very long journeys for this purpose. Bishop
Stapeldon, for instance, ordained that when the nuns of Canonsleigh in
Devon went to visit their friends "in Somerset, Dorset, Devonshire or in
Cornwall" they might not stay for longer than a month; but if they went
outside these four counties the Abbess might allow them to stay longer
still, having regard to the distance of their destination and to the time
which would be spent in travelling[1175]. The bishops indeed were forced
to regard such visits as "reasonable occasions" for a breach of enclosure,
and their efforts, as has already been shown, were confined to regulating
rather than to stopping the practice; for the relatives of the nuns, as
well as the ladies themselves, would have been the first to resent any
interference with their visits. Whatever might be the theory of the Church
on the subject, blood was thicker than holy water; family affections and
family interests persisted in the cloister and the nun was welcomed at
many a hospitable board for her family's sake as well as for her own. All
this seems natural and obvious today and few would think the worse of the
nuns for their opposition to the stricter form of enclosure. Nevertheless
the authorities of the Church had reason for their distrust of these
absences from the convent. Once away from the cloister and staying in a
private house there was nothing to keep a nun from joining in the secular
revelries of friends, and though her behaviour might be exemplary the
convent rule aimed at keeping her unspotted even by temptation. An
anecdote related by Erasmus in his dialogue "Ichthyophagia" shows that the
danger of allowing nuns to visit their friends might be a real one. Two
nuns had gone to stay with their kinsfolk, and at supper

    they began to grow merry with wine; they laughed and joked and kissed
    and not over-modestly neither, till you could hardly hear what was
    said for the noise they made.... After supper there was dancing and
    singing of lascivious songs and such doings I am ashamed to speak of,
    inasmuch as I am much afraid the night hardly passed very

Moreover even if nuns visited their friends for a very short time, staying
only one night, or even returning before nightfall to the convent, there
was danger that they might join in the various revelries practised among
secular folk, and reprobated by the Church as occasions for unseemly and
licentious behaviour. Bishop Spofford of Hereford, indeed, found it
necessary in 1437 to send a special warning against doing so to the nuns
of Lymbrook; the Prioress was to "yife no lycence too noon of hur sustres
her after to go to no port townes, no to noon othir townes to comyn wakes
or festes, spectacles and othir worldly vanytees, and specially on
holy-dayes, nor to be absent lyggying oute by nyght out of thair
monastery, but with fader and moder, except causes of necessytee"[1177].
The words which the Good Wife spoke to her daughter come to mind:

  Go not to þe wrastelings ne schotynge at cok
  As it were a strumpet or a giggelot,
  Wone at hom, doughter, and love þi work myche[1178].

Clemence Medforde, Prioress of Ankerwyke, went to a wedding at
Bromhale[1179]; yet weddings were of all those "comyn wakes and festes"
most condemned by the Church for the unseemly revelries which followed
them. _The Christen State of Matrimony_, written in 1543, throws a flood
of light upon the subject:

    When they come home from the Church, then beginneth excesse of eatyng
    and dryncking--and as much is waisted in one daye, as were sufficient
    for the two newe maried Folkes halfe a yere to lyve upon.... After the
    Bancket and Feast, there begynnethe a vayne, madde and unmanerlye
    fashion, for the Bryde must be brought into an open dauncynge place.
    Then is there such a rennynge, leapynge, and flyngynge among them,
    then is there suche a lyftynge up and discoverynge of the Damselles
    clothes and other Womennes apparell, that a Man might thynke they were
    sworne to the Devels Daunce. Then muste the poore Bryde kepe foote
    with al Dauncers and refuse none, how scabbed, foule, droncken, rude
    and shameles soever he be. Then must she oft tymes heare and se much
    wyckednesse and many an uncomely word; and that noyse and romblyng
    endureth even tyll supper[1180].

It may be urged that the Brides of Heaven need not necessarily have
attended these merry-makings after the ceremony; but the example of Isabel
Benet, nun of Catesby, and the tenour of certain episcopal injunctions,
show that nuns by no means despised dancing[1181]. The strict
disciplinarian's view of weddings is shown in the fact that members of the
Tertiary Order of St Francis were forbidden to attend them; and even the
civic authorities of London found it necessary to regulate the disorders
which were prevalent on such occasions[1182].

Again not only weddings, but also christenings, often involved unseemly
revels and this could not fail to affect nuns who, despite canonical
prohibition, were somewhat in demand as godmothers. Christening parties
were gay affairs; the gossips would return to the house of the child's
parents to eat, drink and make merry: "adtunc et ibidem immediate venerunt
in domam suam ad comedendum et bibendum et adtunc sibi revelaverunt de
baptismo"[1183]. If Antoine de la Sale's witty account of the "third joy
of marriage" has any truth[1184], and it is upheld by more sober
documents, bishops did well to mislike the christening parties for nuns;
Mrs Gamp was quite at home in the middle ages; she was probably a crony of
the Wife of Bath. It was in fact forbidden for monks and nuns to become
godparents, not only, as Mr Coulton has pointed out, "because this
involved them in a fresh spiritual relationship incompatible with their
ideal, but because it entangled them with worldly folk and worldly
affairs"[1185]. Thus in 1387 William of Wykeham wrote to the nuns of
Romsey: "We forbid you all and singly to presume to become godmothers to
any child, without obtaining our licence to do so, since from such
relationships expense is often entailed upon religious houses"[1186]. At
Nuncoton in 1440 two nuns asked that their sisters might be forbidden the
practice and Alnwick enjoined "that none of yowe have no children at the
fount ne confirmyng"[1187] and nearly a century later a similar injunction
was sent by Bishop Longland to Studley[1188].

There does indeed seem a certain incongruity in the presence of one who
had renounced the world at a wedding or a christening, even had such
ceremonies not been accompanied by very worldly revels. But they were less
incongruous than was the attendance of Mary, daughter of Edward I, the
nun-princess of Amesbury, upon her step-mother Queen Margaret and later
upon her niece Elizabeth de Burgh, during their confinements. A king's
daughter, however, could not be subjected to ordinary restraints; Mary led
a particularly free life, constantly visiting court and going on
pilgrimages, and there is no reason to suppose that ordinary nuns shared
her privileges[1189].

Naturally occasions when a nun was away from her convent for the night,
whether on business or on pleasure, were comparatively rare. For the most
part the bishops had to deal with casual absences during the day and it
was found extraordinarily difficult to confine such excursions to the
"convent business" and "necessary reasons" laid down by the various
enactments on enclosure. There seems to have been a great deal of
wandering about without any specific purpose. Short errands perhaps took
the nuns out for a few hours, or they went simply for air and exercise.
Their rule and their bishops would have had them hear the "smale fowles
maken melodye" and tread "the smalle, softe, sweete grass" within the
narrow cloister court, or at least in the privacy of their own
gardens[1190]. But the nuns liked highways and hedges, and often in
springtime it was farewell their books and their devotion. Certainly the
convent often did come out to take the air in its own meadows; John Aubrey
(in a much-quoted passage) tells of the nuns of Kington in Wiltshire, and
how "Old Jacques" could see them from his house

    come forth into the nymph-hay with their rocks and wheels to spin: and
    with their sewing work. He would say that he had told threescore and
    ten, but of nuns there were not so many, but in all, with lay sisters
    and widows, old maids and young girls, there might be such a

Sometimes, indeed, at the busy harvest-time, when every pair of hands was
needed on the manor farm, the nuns even went hay-making in the meadows.
The visitations of Bishop Alnwick provide two instances of this and show
also the abuses to which it might give rise, since the fields were full of
secular workers. At Nuncoton in 1440 the subprioress deposed that

    in the autumn season the nuns go out to their autumn tasks, whereby
    the quire is not kept regularly[1192], and ... in seed time the nuns
    clear the crops of weeds in the barns, and there secular folks do come
    in and unbecoming words are uttered between them and the nuns,
    wherefrom, as is feared, there are evil consequences[1193].

At Gracedieu the subprioress mentioned that "sometimes the nuns do help
secular folk in garnering their grain during the autumn season," but the
most amusing revelations concern the conduct of the haughty cellaress
Margaret Belers, who, whether on account of her autocratic government or
because she was of better birth than they, was regarded by her sisters
with the utmost jealousy. Belers, ran one of the _detecta_ to the Bishop,

    goes out to work in autumn alone with Sir Henry [the chaplain], he
    reaping the harvest and she binding the sheaves, and at evening she
    comes riding behind him on the same horse. She is over friendly with
    him and has been since the doings aforesaid.

Here was a pretty scandal; the Bishop (hiding, we will hope, a smile) made
inquiries; Sir Henry was charged with the heinous crime of going
hay-making with Dame Belers. But Sir Henry specifically denied his
solitary roaming in the fields with the cellaress; he said however "that
he has been in the fields with the others and Belers, carting hay and
helping to pile the sheaves in stacks in the barns"; and Alnwick contented
himself with enjoining the Prioress "that ye suffre none of your susters
to go to any felde werkes but alle onely in your presence"[1194].

Such field work, when it was undertaken, must have afforded not only
wholesome exercise, but a very pleasant relaxation from the cramping life
of the cloister; and the necessities of harvest overrode all rules.
Whether the nuns took part in farm work at other seasons of the year is
more difficult to discover; one is tempted to think that they must
sometimes have given a helping hand with their own cattle and poultry,
especially at very poor houses. The private cocks and hens which
occasioned such rivalry at Saint-Aubin[1195], the never-to-be-forgotten
donkey of Alfrâd[1196], bear witness not only to the sin of _proprietas_,
but also to the personal care of the nuns for such livestock. But
authority discouraged the practice at a later date, partly because it
encouraged private property, partly because it brought the nuns into too
close contact with the world[1197]. Nowhere has the attitude been better
stated than in the amusing description given in the _Ancren Riwle_ of the
anchoress' cow:

    An anchoress that hath cattle appears as Martha was, a better
    housewife than anchoress: nor can she in any wise be Mary, with
    peacefulness of heart. For then she must think of the cow's fodder and
    of the herdsman's hire, flatter the heyward, defend herself when her
    cattle is shut up in the pinfold and moreover pay the damage. Christ
    knoweth it is an odious thing when people in the town complain of the
    anchoresses' cattle. If, however, any one must needs have a cow, let
    her take care that she neither annoy, nor harm any one, and that her
    own thoughts be not fixed thereon[1198].

The more human bishops made allowance for a natural instinct by giving the
convent permission to go for walks, though as a rule the grounds of the
nunnery were specified:

    "Let the door be closed at the right time," wrote Archbishop Courtenay
    to Elstow in 1390, "And let no nun go out without licence of the
    abbess or other president, yet so that leave of walking for recreation
    in the orchard or in any other seemly and close place at suitable
    times be not out of malice denied to the nuns provided that the
    younger do not go without the society of the elder"[1199].

Bishop Spofford of Hereford went even further; after forbidding any
revelries to be held in the nunnery of Lymbrook, he added:

    "and what dysport of walkyng forward in dewe tyme and place, so that
    yee kepe the dewe houres and tymes of dyuyne seruyce with inforth, and
    with honest company, and with lycence specyally asked and obteyned
    [from] the pryoresse or suppryoresse in her absence, and at yee be two
    to geder at the leest, we holde us content" (1437)[1200].

So in 1367 Robert de Stretton, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, forbade
any nun of Fairwell to go into Lichfield without the Prioress' leave,
ordering that she should be accompanied by two sisters and should "make no
vain and wanton delays," but added that "this is not intended to interfere
with the laudable custom of the whole or greater part of the convent
walking out together on certain days to take the air"[1201]. This
forerunner of the schoolgirls' "crocodile" was not, however, what the nuns
desired. It was wandering about the roads in twos and threes (sometimes,
alas, in ones also) that they really enjoyed, and against this freedom the
bishops continually fulminated. It must be remembered that walking in the
public streets in the middle ages was very different from what it is
today; it is impossible otherwise, as Mr Coulton has pointed out, to
explain the extraordinary severity of all rules for the deportment of
girls[1202]. The streets were full of rough pastimes, hocking and
hoodsnatching, football and the games of noisy prentices in the town; and
in the country villages they resounded with the still more boorish sports
of country folk and with the shrill quarrels of alewives and regrateresses
and all the good-natured but short-tempered people, whom court rolls show
us raising the hue and cry upon each other and drawing blood from each
other's noses. There is perhaps solicitude for the nuns in the injunction
which Bishop Fitzjames sent in 1509 to the convent of Wix in Essex,
forbidding them to permit "any public spectacles of seculars,
javelin-play, dances or trading in streets or open places"[1203]. Manners
were free in that age and the nuns would see and hear much that were best
hidden from their cloistered innocence. Moreover if once they began to
stop and pass the time of day with their neighbours, religious and
secular, or to go into houses for some more private gossip, there was no
knowing where such perilous familiarity would end; and the outspokenness
with which bishops condemned such conduct by references to Dinah, the
daughter of Jacob, leaves no doubt as to what they feared[1204].

But nothing availed to keep the nuns within their cloisters; and hardly a
set of episcopal injunctions but bears witness to the freedom with which
they wandered about the streets and fields. The nuns of Moxby are not to
go out of the precincts of their monastery often, nor at any time to
wander about the woods[1205]. Alas, poor ladies:

  In somer when the shawes be sheyne,
    And leves be large and long,
  Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
    To here the foulys song.

The nuns of Cookhill are more urban; they are not to wander about in the
town (1285)[1206] and the nuns of Wroxall are not to go on foot to
Coventry or to Warwick "cum eles ount fet desordement en ces houres"
(1338)[1207]. The nuns of White Hall, Ilchester, "walk through the strets
and places of the vill of Ilchester and elsewhere, the modesty of their
sex being altogether cast off and they do not fear to enter the houses of
secular men and suspected persons" (1335)[1208]. The nuns of Polsloe are
not to go without permission into Exeter and are to return at once when
their errand is accomplished, instead of "wascrauntes de hostel en hostel,
si come eles unt maynte foiz fait, en deshonestete de lur estat et de la
Religioun" (1319)[1209]--an echo here of the Good Wife's advice, "and run
thou not from house to house, like a St Anthony's pig"[1210], or of the
reminiscences of that other Wife of Bath:

  For ever yet I lovede to be gay,
  And for to walke, in March, Averille and May,
  Fro hous to hous, to here sondry talis[1211].

The nuns of Romsey "enter houses of laymen and even of clerics in the
town, eating and drinking with them" (1284)[1212]. The nuns of Godstow
"have often access to Oxford under colour of visiting their friends"
(1445)[1213]. The nuns of Elstow are a great trial to their diocesan;
Bishop Gynewell finds that "there is excessive and frequent wandering of
nuns to places outside the same monastery, whereby gossip and laxity are
brought about" (1359)[1214]; Bishop Bokyngham boldly particularises:

    We order the nuns on pain of excommunication, to abstain from any
    dishonest and suspicious conversation with secular or religious men
    and especially the access and frequent confabulations and colloquies
    of the canons of the Priory of Caldwell or of mendicant friars, in the
    monastery or about the public highways and fields adjoining

But the sisters of Elstow remain on good terms with their neighbours;
Bishop Flemyng forbids the nuns "to have access to the town of Bedford or
to the town of Elstow or to other towns or neighbouring places" and
straitly enjoins the canons "that no canon of the said priory, under what
colour of excuse soever, have access to the monastery of the nuns of
Elstow; nor shall the same nuns for any reason whatever be allowed to
enter the said priory, save for a manifest cause, from which reproach or
suspicion of evil could in no way arise; nor even shall the same canons
and nuns meet in any wise one with another, in any separate or private
places; nor shall they talk together anywhere one with another, save in
the presence and hearing of more than one trustworthy, who shall bear
faithful witness of what they say or do" (1421-2)[1216]. The nuns of
Nuncoton in the sixteenth century are even more addicted to the society of
canons and Bishop Longland writes to them in stern language:

    And that ye, lady prioresse, cause and compell all your susters (those
    oonly excepte that be seke) to kepe the quere and nomore to be absent
    as in tymes past they haue been wont to use, being content yf vj haue
    been present, the residue to goo att lybertie where they wold, some
    att thornton [Augustinian house at Thornton-upon-Humber], some at
    Newsom [or Newhouse, a Premonstratensian house close to Nuncoton, in
    the same parish of Brocklesby], some at hull, some att other places
    att their pleasures, which is in the sight of good men abhomynable,
    high displeasur to God, rebuke shame and reproache to religion and due
    correction to be doon according unto your religion frome tyme to

Indeed these colloquies with monks and canons in their own monastery were
nothing unusual. Bishops and Councils constantly forbade nuns to frequent
houses of monks, or to be received there as guests, but the practice
continued. Sometimes they had an excuse; the nuns of St Mary's,
Winchester, were in the habit of going to St Swithun's monastery to
confess to one of the brothers, who was their confessor and in ill-health,
and Bishop Pontoise appointed another monk in his place, who should come
to the nuns when summoned, thus avoiding the risk of scandal[1218].
Similarly Peckham forbade the nuns of Holy Sepulchre, Canterbury, to enter
"any place of religious men or elsewhere, under colour of confessing,"
unless they had no other confessor, in which case they were to return
directly their business was accomplished and not to stay eating and
drinking there[1219]. But sometimes the nuns had less good reason. At
Elstow, as we know, they gossiped in the fields and highways; and if nuns
were sometimes frivolous, so were monks. What are we to think of that nun
of Catesby (gone to rack and ruin under the evil rule of Margaret Wavere),

    on Monday last did pass the night with the Austin friars at
    Northampton and did dance and play the lute with them in the same
    place until midnight (saltauit et citherauit usque ad mediam noctem)
    and on the night following she passed the night with the Friars
    preachers at Northampton, luting and dancing in like manner[1220].

There rises to the memory an irresistibly comic sonnet of Wordsworth:

  Yet more--round many a convent's blazing fire
  Unhallowed threads of revelry are spun;
  There Venus sits disguised like a nun,--
  While Bacchus, clothed in semblance of a friar
  Pours out his choicest beverage high and higher
  Sparkling, until it cannot choose but run
  Over the bowl, whose silver lip hath won
  An instant kiss of masterful desire--
  To stay the precious waste. Through every brain
  The domination of the sprightly juice
  Spreads high conceits to madding Fancy dear,
  Till the arched roof, with resolute abuse
  Of its grave echoes, swells a choral strain,
  Whose votive burthen is "Our kingdom's here."

Alack, had the nun of Catesby forgotten that "even as the cow which goeth
before the herd hath a bell at her neck, so likewise the woman who leadeth
the song and dance hath, as it were, the devil's bell bound to hers, and
when the devil heareth the tinkle thereof he feeleth safe, and saith he:
'I have not lost my cow yet'"?[1221] Had she forgotten the awful vision of
that holy man, to whom the devil appeared in the form of a tiny
blackamoor, standing above a woman who was leading a dance, guiding her
about as he wished and dancing on her head?[1222] But indeed Isabel (or
Venus) Benet was not the woman to care for so slight a matter as the rule
of her order or the dreams of holy men[1223]. Her case provides an
admirable illustration of the motives which prompted the extreme severity
of episcopal attempts to enforce enclosure and to cut nuns off from the
society of neighbouring monasteries[1224].

[Illustration: PLATE VII

"Isabel Benet did pass the night with the Austin friars at Northampton and
did dance and play the lute with them." (See page 388.)

The Legend of Beatrice the Sacristan. (See page 511.)


Even if they did not often go to such extremes as to spend a night dancing
with friars, the nuns foregathered sometimes in the most strange places.
The complaint that priests and monks and canons were tavern-haunters
occurs with wearisome iteration in medieval visitation documents, but
surely a tavern was the last place where one would expect to find a nun;
"Deus sit propitius isti potatori," were a strange invocation on lips that
prayed to "Our blisful lady, Cristes moder dere." Yet nuns sometimes
abused their liberty to frequent such places. Archbishop Rotherham wrote
to the Prioress of Nunappleton in 1489 "yat noon of your sistirs use ye
alehouse nor ye watirside, wher concurse of straungers dayly
resortes"[1225]; and at Romsey in 1492 Abbess Elizabeth Broke deposed that
she suspected the nuns of slipping into town by the church door and prayed
that they might not frequent taverns and other suspected places, while her
Prioress also said that they frequented taverns and continually went to
town without leave[1226]. Bald statements, but it is easy to call up a
picture of what lies behind them, for of medieval taverns we have many a
description touched by master hands. So we shall see nuns at the tunning
of Elynour Rummynge, edging in by the back way "over the hedge and pale,"
to drink her noppy ale[1227]. Or again we shall see Beton the Brewster
standing in her doorway beneath the ivy bush, hailing Dame Isabel and Dame
Matilda, as they patter along upon their "fete ful tendre"; and we shall
hear her seductive cry "I have good ale, gossip" (no nun ever despised
good ale--only when it was _valde tenuis_ did she object) "I have peper
and piones and a pounde of garlike, A ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for
fasting days." We shall never--thanks to Langland--have any difficulty in
seeing that interior, when the nuns have scuttled through the door, the
heat, the smell of ale and perspiring humanity, the babel of voices as all
the riff-raff of the village greets the nuns and gives them "with glad
chere good ale to hansel"; and the scene that follows, "the laughyng and
lowrying and 'let go the cuppe,'" the singing, the gambling, the drinking,
the invincible good humour and the complete lack of all decency. We can
only hope that Dame Isabel and Dame Matilda left before Glutton got
drunk[1228]. But it is consoling to reflect that the alehouses frequented
by the nuns of Nunappleton and of Romsey were probably less low places,
for it is not easy to picture Chaucer's Prioress on a bench between
Clarice of Cokkeslane and Peronelle of Flanders. Probably their taverns at
the waterside were more like the Chequer-on-the-Hoop, where Madame
Eglentyne and the Wife of Bath pledged each other in the hostess'
parlour[1229]; or like the tavern where the good gossips

  Elynore, Jone and Margery
  Margaret, Alis and Cecely

met and feasted, all unknown to their husbands and cherished the heart
with muscadel[1230]; or liker still, perhaps, to that lordly tavern kept
by Trick, where the city dames come tripping in the morning, as readily as
to minster or to market and where he draws them ten sorts of wine, all out
of a single cask, crying: "dear ladies, Mesdames, make good cheer, drink
freely your good pleasure, for we have leisure enough"[1231]. But however
select the house, whether they met there buxom city dames drinking away
their husbands' credit, or merely Tim the tinker and twain of his
prentices, whether they were quizzed by "those idle gallants who haunt
taverns, gay and handsome," or hobnobbed with "travellers and tinkers,
sweaters and swinkers," the alehouse was assuredly no place for

Enough has been said to show why the authorities of the Church tried so
hard to force enclosure upon nuns, and why they strove at least to limit
excursions to "necessary occasions" and "convent business," to prevent
unlicensed wandering and to provide that no nun went out without a
companion. And enough has perhaps also been said to show how completely
they failed. The modern student of monasticism, bred in an age which
regards freedom as its _summum bonum_ and holds discipline at a discount,
cannot but feel sympathy with the nuns. The enclosure movement did go
beyond the restriction imposed upon them by their rule; they were
themselves so often unsuited to the life into which circumstances, rather
than a vocation, had forced them; and they would have been something less
than human if they had not answered--as John of Ayton made them
answer--"In truth the men who made these laws sat well at their ease while
they laid such burdens upon us." It was the bishops, not the popes and the
councils, who knew where the shoe pinched. Dalderby, rubbing his insulted
shoulders, Alnwick, laboriously framing his minute injunctions, Rigaud,
going away from Saint-Saëns "quasi impaciens et tristis," these had little
time to sit well at their ease; and the compromises which were forced upon
them are the best proof that the ideal of _Periculoso_ was too high.
Nevertheless sympathy with the nuns must not blind us to the fact that
hardly a moralist of the middle ages but inveighs against the wandering of
nuns in the world and adds his testimony to the fact (already clear from
the visitation _comperta_) that all the graver abuses which discredited
monasticism rose in the first instance from the too great ease with which
monks and nuns could leave their convents. "De la clôture," as St François
de Sales wrote long afterwards, "dépend le bon ordre de tout le reste." It
is significant that on the very eve of the Reformation in England a last
attempt was made to enforce a strict and literal enclosure. That ardent
reformer of nunneries, Bishop Fox, frankly pursued the policy in his
diocese of Winchester and was apparently accused of undue severity, for in
1528 he wrote to Wolsey in defence of his action:

    Truth it is, my lord, that the religious women of my diocese be
    restrained of their going out of their monasteries. And yet so much
    liberty appeareth some time too much; and if I had the authority and
    power that your grace hath, I would endeavour me to mure and enclose
    their monasteries according to the observance of good religion. And in
    all other matters, concerning their living or observance of their
    religion, I assure your grace they be as liberally and favourably
    dealt with as be any religious women within this realm[1233].

Wolsey himself was driven to the same conclusion as to the necessity of
enclosure, and tried to enforce it at Wilton, after the scandals which
came to light there before the election of Isabel Jordan as Abbess. His
chaplain, Dr Benet, who had been sent to reform the nunnery, wrote to him
on July 18th and described his difficulty in "causing to be observed" the
unpopular decree:

    Please it your grace to be advertised, that immediately after my
    return from your grace I repaired to the monastery of Wilton, where I
    have continually made mine abode hitherto and with all diligence
    endeavoured myself to the uttermost of my power to persuade and train
    the nuns there to the accomplishment of your grace's pleasure for
    enclosing of the same; whom I find so untoward and refusal (_sic_) as
    I never saw persons, insomuch that in nowise any of them, neither by
    gentle means nor by rigorous,--and I have put three or four of the
    captains of them in ward,--will agree and consent to the same, but
    only the new elect and her sisters that were with your grace; which
    notwithstanding, I have closed up certain doors and ways and taken
    such an order there that none access, course or recourse of any person
    shall be made there.[1234]

About the same time the Abbess-Elect herself wrote to Wolsey, telling him

    since my coming home I have ordered me in all things to the best of my
    power, according to your gracious advertisement by the advice of your
    chancellors and have ofttime motioned my sisters to be reclused within
    our monastery; wherein they do find many difficulties and show divers
    considerations to the contrary;

she besought him to have patience and promised to "order my sisters in
such religious wise and our monastery according to the rule of religion,
without any such resort as hath been of late accustomed"[1235]. Evidently
nuns had not changed since the day when the sisters of Markyate threw the
Bull _Periculoso_ at Bishop Dalderby's retreating back.

But their struggles were in vain and a worse fate awaited them. The
Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII was preceded by an order to
his commissioners, that they should enforce enclosure upon the nuns. The
injunction met with the usual resistance at the time and later apologists
of the monastic houses have blamed the King for undue and unreasonable
harshness. But if Henry VIII was too strict, so also was Ottobon, so
Peckham, so Boniface VIII, so almost every bishop and council of the past
three hundred years. In this at least, low as his motives may have been,
the man who was to claim the headship of the English Church was the lineal
descendant of the most masterful of medieval popes. The instructions given
to the commissioners were the last of a long series of injunctions, in
which it was attempted to reform the nunneries by shutting them off from
the world. It is plain that even in the thirteenth century some such
reform was necessary, and the history of the fourteenth, fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries only shows the necessity becoming more urgent.
Whatever may have been Henry VIII's motives, however greedy, however
licentious, however unspiritual, it would be impossible to contend that
his decree of enclosure was not in accordance with the best ecclesiastical
tradition and amply justified by the condition of the monastic houses.



  Ès maisons de nonnains aucun sont bien venut,
  Et as gens festyer n'a nul règne tenut;
  On y va volentiers et souvent et menut
  Mais mieuls sont festyet jovène que li kenut.
                              GILLES LI MUISIS ([dagger] 1352).

In the last chapter the question of enclosure was considered only from one
point of view, that of keeping the nuns within the precincts of their
cloister. But there was another side to the problem. In order to preserve
them unspotted from the world it was necessary not only that the nuns
should keep within their cloisters, but that secular persons should keep
outside. It was useless to pass regulations forbidding nuns to leave their
houses, if visitors from the world had easy access to them and could move
freely about within the precincts. Ottobon, Peckham, Boniface VIII, Henry
VIII, and all who legislated on the subject from the earliest years to the
Council of Trent, combined a prohibition against the entrance of seculars,
with their prohibition against the exit of nuns[1236]. Some intercourse
with seculars was bound to occur, even in the best regulated nunnery. The
nuns were often served by layfolk and it was a recognised obligation that
they should show hospitality to guests. In both cases they were of
necessity brought in contact with worldly folk, and as usual they made the
most of their opportunity.

Even more disturbing to monastic discipline were the casual visits of
friends in the neighbourhood, coming to see and talk with the nuns for a
few hours. Visitation documents show that there was a steady intercourse
between the convent and the world. Letters and messages passed between the
nuns and their friends outside, and a great many of the private affairs of
the convent found their way to the ears of seculars. "From miln and from
market, from smithy and from nunnery, men bring tidings" ran the
proverb[1237], and complaints were common that the secrets of the chapter
were spread abroad in the country side. At the ill-conducted house of
Catesby in 1442 the Prioress (herself the blackest sheep in all the flock)
complained that

    secular folk have often recourse to the nuns' chambers within the
    cloister, and talkings and junketings take place there without the
    knowledge of the Prioress; ... also the nuns do send out letters and
    receive letters sent to them without the advice of the prioress. Also
    ... that the secrets of the house are disclosed in the neighbourhood
    by such seculars when they come there. Also the nuns do send out the
    serving-folk of the priory on their businesses and do also receive the
    persons for whom they send and with whom they hold parleyings and
    conversations, whereof the Prioress is ignorant[1238].

At Goring in 1530 the Prioress complained that one of the nuns persisted
in sending messages to her friends[1239], and at Romsey in 1509 Alice,
wife of William Coke, the cook of the nunnery, was enjoined "that she
shall not be a messenger or bearer of messages or troths or tokens between
any nun and any lay person on pain of excommunication and as much as in
her lies shall hinder communications of lay persons with nuns at the
kitchen window"[1240]. At St Helen's, Bishopsgate, it was even necessary
to order the nuns to refrain from kissing secular persons[1241].

Sometimes the visitation _detecta_ or _comperta_ or injunctions give
specific details as to the visitors who were most assiduous in haunting a
nunnery. It is amusing to follow the reference to scholars of Oxford in
the records of those houses which were in the neighbourhood of the
University. Godstow was the nearest and the students seem to have regarded
it as a happy hunting ground constituted specially for their recreation.
Peckham, in his set of Latin injunctions to the Abbey, wrote after giving
minute regulations as to the terms upon which nuns might converse with

    When the scholars of Oxford come to talk with you, we wish no nun to
    join in such conversations, save with the licence of the Abbess and
    unless they be notoriously of kin to her, in the third grade of
    consanguinity at least; we order the nuns to refuse to converse with
    all scholars so coming; nor shall you desire to be united in any
    special tie of familiarity with them, for such affection often excites
    unclean thoughts[1242].

The most detailed information, however, is to be found in the injunctions
sent by Bishop Gray to Godstow in 1432:

    That no nun receive any secular person for any recreation in the nuns'
    chambers under pain of excommunication. For the scholars of Oxford say
    they can have all manner of recreation with the nuns, even as they
    will desire.... Also that the recourse of scholars of Oxford to the
    monastery be altogether checked and restrained.... Also that (neither)
    the gatekeeper of the monastery, nor any other secular person convey
    any gifts, rewards, letters or tokens from the nuns to any scholars of
    Oxford or other secular person whomsoever, or bring back any such
    scholars or persons to the same nuns, nay, not even skins containing
    wine, without the view and knowledge of the abbess and with her
    special licence asked and had, under pain of expulsion from his office
    (and) from the said monastery for ever; and if any nun shall do the
    contrary she shall undergo imprisonment for a year[1243].

In a commission addressed two years later to the Abbot of Oseney and to
Master Robert Thornton the Bishop spoke in very severe terms of the bad
behaviour of the nuns, and ordered the commissioners to proceed to Godstow
and to inquire whether a nun, who had been with child at the time of his
visitation, had been preferred to any office or had gone outside the
precincts and whether his other injunctions had been obeyed, especially
"if any scholars of the university of Oxford, graduate or non-graduate,
have had access to the same monastery or lodging in the same, contrary to
the form of our injunctions aforesaid"[1244]. But the situation was
unchanged when, thirteen years later, Alnwick came to Godstow. Elizabeth
Felmersham, the Abbess, deposed

    that secular folk have often access to the nuns during the divine
    office in quire, and to the frater at meal-time.... She cannot
    restrain students from Oxford from having common access in her despite
    to the monastery and the claustral precincts. The nuns hold converse
    with the secular folk that come to visit the monastery, without asking
    any leave of the abbess.

Other nuns deposed that sister Alice Longspey[1245] often conversed in the
convent church with Hugh Sadler, a priest from Oxford, who obtained access
to her on the plea that she was his kinswoman and that Dame Katherine

    holds too much talk with the strangers that come to the monastery in
    the church, in the chapter-house, at the church-door, the hall door
    and divers other places; nor is she obedient to the orders and
    commands of the abbess according to the rule[1246].

Other houses also found the clerks of Oxford too attractive. At Alnwick's
visitation of Littlemore Dame Agnes Marcham (a lady with a tongue) spoke
of "the ill-fame which is current thereabouts concerning the place," and

    that a certain monk of Rievaulx, who is a student at Oxford and is of
    the Cistercian order, has common and often access to the priory,
    eating and drinking with the prioress and spending the night therein,
    sometimes for three, sometimes for four days on end. Also she says
    that master John Herars, master in arts, a scholar of Oxford and a
    kinsman of the prioress, has access in like manner to the priory,
    breakfasting, supping and spending the night in the same[1247].

The state of the house in the sixteenth century was infinitely worse and
it well merited its early suppression in 1526[1248]. At another house,
Studley, visited by Alnwick in 1445, the significant request was made:

    that the vicar of Bicester, who is reckoned to be of ripe judgment and
    age and sufficient knowledge, may be appointed as confessor to the
    convent and in no wise an Oxford scholar, since it is not healthy that
    scholars of Oxford should have a reason for coming to the

Nor does the proximity of Cambridge appear to have had a less disturbing
effect upon morals and discipline. In 1373 it was found that the Prioress
of St Radegund's

    did not correct Dame Elizabeth de Cambridge for withdrawing herself
    from divine service and allowing friars of different orders, as well
    as scholars, to visit her at inopportune times and to converse with
    her, to the scandal of religion[1250],

and in 1496, when John Alcock, Bishop of Ely, converted the nunnery into
the college afterwards known as Jesus College, its dilapidation was
ascribed to "the negligence and improvidence and dissolute disposition and
incontinence of the religious women of the same house, by reason of the
vicinity of Cambridge University"[1251]. Plainly the scholars who hung
about the portals and tethered their horses in the paddocks of Godstow,
and who gossiped with the sisters of Studley and Littlemore and St
Radegund's, were not of the type of that clerk of Oxenford, who loved his
twenty red and black-clad books better than "robes riche or fithele or gay
sautrye"; and it is to be feared that their speech was not "souninge in
moral vertu." Rather they belonged to the tribe of Absolon, who could trip
and dance in twenty manners:

  After the scole of Oxenforde tho,
  And with his legges casten to and fro,
  And pleyen songes on a small rubible,

or of hende Nicholas ("of derne love he coude and of solas"), or of those
two clerks of Cambridge, Aleyn and John, who harboured with the Miller of
Trumpington, or of "joly Jankin," the Wife of Bath's first husband. The
nuns certainly got no good from these young men of light heart and
slippery tongue.

Sometimes, as it appears from the cases of Alice Longspey, Katherine
Okeley and Elizabeth de Cambridge, certain nuns rendered themselves
particularly conspicuous for intercourse with seculars, or certain men
were assiduous nunnery-haunters and forbidden by name to frequent the
precincts. At a visitation of St Sepulchre's, Canterbury, in 1367-8, it
was found that

    Dame Johanna Chivynton, prioress there, does not govern well the rule
    nor the religion of the house, because she permits the rector of Dover
    Castle and other suspect persons to have too much access to sisters
    Margery Chyld and Juliana Aldelesse, who have a room contrary to the
    injunction made there on another occasion by the Lord [Archbishop],
    and these suspect persons often spend the night there[1252].

At Nuncoton in 1531 Longland writes:

    We chardge you, lady prioresse, undere payne of excommunicacon that ye
    from hensforth nomore suffre Sir John Warde, Sir Richard Caluerley,
    Sir William Johnson, nor parson ..., ne the parson of Skotton, ne Sir
    William Sele to come within the precincts of your monasterye, that if
    they by chance do unwares to you that ye streight banish them and
    suffre not theme ther to tary, nor noone of your sustres to commune
    with them or eny of them. And that ye voyde out of your house Robert
    lawrence and he nomore resorte to the same[1253].

Incidents such as these can be multiplied from the records of episcopal
visitations[1254] and general complaints are even more common. It appears
that secular persons set at naught the rule which confined them to the
prioress' hall, the parlour and the guest-house, and penetrated at will
into the private parts of the monastery, haunting now the cloister, now
the infirmary, now the frater, now the choir[1255]. Bishop Gynewell's
injunction to Heynings in 1351 called attention to a state of affairs
which was common enough in the century which opened with _Periculoso_:

    "Because," he wrote, "we have heard that great disturbance of your
    religion hath been made by seculars, who enter into your cloister and
    choir, we charge you that henceforth ye suffer no secular man, save
    your patron or other great lord[1256] to enter your cloister, nor to
    hold therein parley or other dalliance with any sister of your house,
    whereby your silence or religion may suffer blame"[1257].

Moreover it is clear that the nuns sometimes escaped to the guest-house to
enjoy a gossip with their visitors; at Alnwick's visitation of Heynings in
1440 a lay sister deposed "that the nuns do hold drinkings of evenings in
the guest-chamber even after compline, especially when their friends come
to visit them" and the Bishop enjoined

    for as muche as we founde that there are vsede late drynkynges and
    talkyng by nunnes as wele wythe yn as wythe owte the cloystere wythe
    seculeres, where thurgh some late ryse to matynes and some come not at
    thayme, expressly agayns the rule of your ordere, we charge yow and
    yche oon singulere that fro this day forthe ye neyther vse spekyng ne
    drynkyng in no place aftere complyne, but that after collacyone and
    complyne sayde ych oon of yow go wythe owte lengere tarying to the
    dormytorye to your reste[1258].

In the course of time a series of regulations was devised to govern the
entrance of seculars into the nunneries, hardly less detailed than those
which governed the visits of nuns to the world. An attempt was made to
prevent certain classes of persons from being allowed to sleep in a house;
also to keep all visitors out of certain places and during certain hours;
and elaborate rules were made fixing the conditions under which nuns might
hold conversations or exchange letters with seculars. The rule which
forbade nuns to harbour in houses of religious men was often supplemented
by a regulation forbidding friars, or other men belonging to religious
orders, from being received as guests by nuns. At Godstow in 1284 Peckham
forbade the reception of religious men for the night[1259] and in 1358
Bishop Gynewell enjoined the same convent "for certain reasons, that no
friars of any order whatever be harboured by night within the doors of
your house, nor by day save it be for great necessity and reasonable
cause, and not habitually"[1260]. William of Wykeham directed a special
mandate on the subject to Wherwell in 1368:

    "Lately," he says, "it has come to our ears by popular report of
    trusty men, that contrary to the honesty of religion you admit various
    religious men, especially of the mendicant orders, lightly and
    promiscuously to pass the night in your habitations, from which grows
    much matter for laxity and scandal, since the cohabitation of
    religious clerks and nuns is altogether forbidden by the constitutions
    of the holy fathers."

He proceeds to forbid the reception of friars or other religious men to
lodge in the abbey, though food might be given them in alms[1261]. As in
the rules regulating visits paid by nuns, attempts were sometimes made
though not insisted upon with any severity, to restrict the visitors who
might spend the night to near relatives. At Godstow, for instance, Bishop
Gray ordered in 1432 that strangers "in no wise pass the night there,
unless they be father and mother, brother and sister of that nun for whose
sake they have so come to the monastery"[1262]; and Archbishop Lee wrote
to Sinningthwaite in 1534 forbidding any visitor to have recourse to the
Prioress or nuns "onles it be their fathers or moders or other ther nere
kynesfolkes, in whom no suspicion of any yll can be thought"[1263].

The chief efforts of the authorities were, however, directed not towards
keeping certain persons altogether out of the nunneries, but towards
keeping all visitors out of certain parts of the house and during certain
hours. The general rule was that no secular was to enter after sunset or
curfew, and elaborate arrangements were made for locking and unlocking the
doors at certain times. At Esholt and Sinningthwaite Archbishop Lee

    that the prioress provide sufficient lockes and keys to be sett upon
    the cloyster doores, incontinent after recept of thies injunctions and
    that the same doores surely be lockid every nyght incontinent as
    complane is doone, and not to be unlocked in wynter season to vij of
    the clock in the mornyng and in sommer vnto vj of the clock in the
    mornyng; and that the prioresse kepe the keyes of the same doores, or
    committ the custodie of them to such a discrete and religious suster,
    that no fault nor negligence may be imputed to the prioresse, as she
    will avoyde punyshment due for the same[1264].

[Illustration: PLATE VIII


At the same time, for better security, he ordered the nuns to be locked
into their dorter every night until service time. Sometimes the nuns
objected to being shut in the house so early in the summer time, when the
days were long and the trees in the convent garden green. The nuns of
Sheppey were plaintive on the subject in 1511. Amicia Tanfeld said

    that the gate of the cloister is closed immediately after the bell
    rings for vespers and remains shut until it rings for prime[1265];
    this, in the opinion of the convent is too strict, especially in
    summer time, because it might remain open until after supper, as she

Elizabeth Chatok, _cantarista_[1266], said the same "clauditur nimis
tempestive tempore presertim estiuali"; perhaps she was thinking of better
singers than herself, who piped their vespers outside that closed door,

  And songen, everich in his wyse
  The most solempne servyse
  By note, that ever man, I trowe,
  Had herd; for som of hem song lowe
  Some hye and al of oon accord[1267].

Her sisters agreed with her, but the stern archbishop took no notice of
their plaints[1268].

Strict regulations were also made for keeping secular visitors out of
certain parts of the convent. The dorter, frater, fermery, chapter and
cloister and the internal offices of the house were supposed to be entered
only by the nuns[1269]:

    "And in order that the quiet of your cloister be in future observed
    better than has been customary," wrote Peckham to the nuns of Wherwell
    in 1284, "we order ... that no secular or religious person be
    permitted to enter the cloister, nor the interior offices, save for a
    manifest and inevitable reason, that is bodily infirmity, for which a
    confessor or doctor or near relative may be allowed to enter, but
    always in safe and praiseworthy company. So that no one shall hear the
    confession of a healthy nun or woman in cloister or chapter or in the
    interior offices.... And we consider healthy anyone who is able,
    conveniently and without danger to life, to enter the church or the

At Romsey he further ordered four nuns to be made scrutineers: "Who shall
expel from the cloister as suspect all persons of whatsoever condition
wishing to stare at the nuns or to chatter with them"[1271]. But the rule
was constantly broken and it has been shown that seculars penetrated to
all parts of the convents. Injunctions order them to be excluded now from
dorter, now from frater, now from fermery, according as visitation showed
them to be in the habit of entering one part of a house or another.
Sometimes special orders were given for the making and locking of doors
separating the cloister from the outside court, or the nuns' choir from
the rest of the church, a necessary precaution when the nave of a
conventual church was used as a parish church. Bishop Longland wrote to
Elstow (1531):

    Forasmoche as the more secrete religious persones be kepte from the
    sight and visage of the world and straungers, the more close and
    entyer ther mynd and devoc[i]on shalbe unto god, we ordeyn and Inioyne
    to the lady abbesse that before the natiuyte of our lorde next
    ensewing she cause a doore with two leves to be made and sett upp att
    the lower ende of the quere and that doore to be fyve foote in hight
    att the leaste and contynually to stand shitt the tymes of dyvyne
    seruice excepte it be att comming in or out of eny off the ladyes and
    mynystres off the said churche. And under like payne as is afore we
    chardge the said ladye abbess that she cause the doore betwene the
    convent and the parishe churche contynually to be shitt, unless itt be
    oonly the tymes of dyvyne service, and likewise she cause the cloistre
    door towardes the outward court to be continually shitt, unles itt be
    att suche tymes as eny necessaryes for the convent shall be brought in
    or borne out att the same, and thatt she suffre noo other back doures
    to be opened butt upon necessarye, grett and urgent causes by her

Special attempts were made to prevent secret communications between nuns
and secular persons in corners and passages or through windows, and to
block up unnecessary doors by which persons might enter:

    "We ordeyn and injoyne yow, prioresse and convent," writes Dean
    Kentwode to St Helens, "That ye, ne noone of yowre sustres use nor
    haunte any place withinne the priory, thoroghe the wiche evel
    suspeccyone or sclaundere mythe aryse; weche places for certeyne
    causes that move us, we wryte here inne owre present iniunccyone, but
    wole notyfie to yow, prioresse: nor have no lokyng nor spectacles
    owtewarde, thorght the wiche ye mythe fall into worldly

Archbishop Lee showed no such desire to spare the feelings of the nuns of
Esholt by not openly specifying the places where they were wont to whisper
with their friends:

    Item where there is on the backside of certen chambres, on the south
    side of the church where the sustres worke, an open way goyng to the
    watirside, and to the brige goyng over the water, without wall or
    doore, so that many ylles may be committed by reason hereof; wherfore
    in avoyding such inconveniences that myght folow yf it shuld so
    remayne, by thies presentes we inioyne the prioresse, that she,
    incontinent withoutzt delay aftre the recept herof cause a strong and
    heigh wall to be made in the said voyde place[1274].

Above all it was reiterated at visitation after visitation that no nun was
to receive a man in her private chamber or to hold conversations with any
stranger there and that certain conditions were to be observed in all
conversations between the nuns and their visitors. Archbishop Rotherham's
injunction to Nunappleton in 1489 is typical:

    Item yat none of your sustirs bring in, receyve or take any laie man,
    religiose or secular into yer chambre or any secret place, daye or
    knyght, not w{t} yaim in such private places to commyne ete or drynke
    w{t}out lycence of you, Prioresse[1275].

At Sopwell in 1338 an interesting addition was made to the ordinary rule:

    And because it is seemly that ladies of religion in the presence of
    seculars should bear themselves according to rule in dress and in
    deportment, we will and ordain that none of you henceforward come to
    the parlour to talk with seculars if she have not her cowl and her
    headdress of kerchiefs and veil, according to the rule (_son cool et
    son covert de cuverchiefs et de veil ordine_), as beseemeth your
    religion. And none save honest persons shall be suffered to enter, and
    if such person wish to remain for a meal, let him eat in the parlour,
    by permission of the confessor, and on no account in the chambers
    without our express permission, or that of our own prior, if we be
    absent. Concerning the workmen, whom you need for your necessities, to
    wit tailors and furriers, we will for that such workmen a place be
    ordained near the cloister, where such workmen may do their works, and
    that they be by no means called into the chambers, nor into any
    private place. And let the workmen be such that no suspicion of evil
    may be roused by them[1276].

At Barking Peckham ordered in 1279 that no secular man or woman was to
enter the nuns' chambers, unless a nun were so ill that it was necessary
to speak to her there, in which case a confessor, doctor, father or
brother might have access to her[1277].

The rules laid down for the holding of conversations between nuns and
visitors required that the permission of the head of the house should
first be obtained, and that the meeting should take place in the
_locutorium_ or parlour, or occasionally in the abbess's hall[1278], and
in the hearing of "at least one other nun of sound character," or more
frequently two other nuns. Sometimes it was added that conversations were
not to be too lengthy:

    "Let it not be permitted to any nun," wrote Peckham to Romsey, "to
    hold converse with any man save either in the parlour or in the side
    of the church next the cloister. And in order that all suspicion may
    henceforth be removed, we order that any nun about to speak with any
    man, save in the matter of confession, have with her two companions to
    hear her conversation, in order that they may either be edified by
    useful words, if these are forthcoming, or hinder evil words, lest
    evil communications corrupt good manners"[1279].

Alnwick's injunction to Godstow in 1445 was couched in very similar terms:

    That ye suffre none of your susters to speke wythe any seculere
    persone ne religiouse, but all onely in your halle in your presence
    and audience, or, by your specyalle licence asked and had, in the
    presence of two auncyent nunnes approuved in the religyon so that ye
    or the said two nunnes here and see what that say and do, and so that
    thaire spekyng to gedre be not longe but in shorte and few

It was also attempted to exercise control over communication between the
nuns and the world by means of messages and letters. Alnwick sent
injunctions on this point to Langley, Markyate and St Michael's, Stamford
("ne that ye suffre none of youre sustres to receyve ne sende owte noyre
gyfte ne lettre, but ye see the gyftes and wyte what is contyened in the
lettres")[1281], and in 1432 Dean Kentwode wrote to St Helen's,

    Also we ordeyne and injoyne yow, that noone of yow speke, ne comone
    with no seculere persone; ne sende ne receyve letteres myssyves or
    gyftes of any seculere persone, withowte lycence of the prioresse: ...
    and such letters or gyftes sent or receyved, may turne into honeste
    and wurchepe and none into velanye or disclaundered of yowre honeste
    and religione[1282].

It is common to find among episcopal injunctions to nunneries one to the
effect that no secular woman is to sleep in the dorter with the nuns. The
fact that this injunction had constantly to be repeated shows that it was
as constantly broken. Servants, boarders and school children seem in many
houses to have shared the dorter with the nuns, an arrangement which must
have been exceedingly disturbing to all parties. Alnwick found the
practice at eleven out of the twenty houses which he visited in 1440-5.
At Catesby, Langley, Stixwould and St Michael's, Stamford, little girls,
between the ages of five and ten, used to sleep with the nuns; there were
six or seven of them at that ill-conducted house, Catesby, in the charge
of Agnes Allesley, who was so disobedient to the bishop[1283]. At
Gracedieu the cellaress had a boy of seven with her in the dorter[1284].
At Legbourne a nun complained that "the Prioress suffers secular women,
both boarders and servants, to lie by night in the dorter among the nuns,
against the rule"[1285] and at Heynings (which was much haunted by
visitors) a lay sister deposed that "the infirmary is occupied by secular
folk, to the great disturbance of the sisters; ... also that secular
serving women do lie among the sisters in the dorter, and especially one
who did buy a corrody there"[1286]. At the other houses (Godstow, Nuncoton
and Stainfield) it was simply mentioned that secular persons lay in the
dorter, without details as to whether they were servants, boarders or
children[1287]. In all cases Alnwick strictly forbade the practice, and a
prohibition to this effect is common in episcopal injunctions[1288].

These injunctions against the use of the dorter by seculars illustrate
another aspect of the movement for enclosure. The majority of the other
injunctions which have been quoted were attempts to regulate the
intercourse of nuns with casual visitors, strangers who came for a day, or
perhaps for two or three days. But a far more dangerous menace to the
quiet of the cloister lay in the constant presence of secular boarders and
corrodians, who made their home in a nunnery. Ladies who wished to end
their days in peace sometimes went there as boarders or as corrodians; it
is, no doubt, decent sober women such as these, who are sometimes
exempted by name in episcopal injunctions ordering the exclusion of
boarders from a house. But more often women would seek the temporary
hospitality of a nunnery when, for some reason, they wished to leave their
homes. A monastic house was, on the whole, a safe refuge, and many a
knight going to the wars went with a lighter heart when he knew that his
wife or daughter was sleeping within convent walls. In 1314 John of
Drokensford, Bishop of Bath and Wells, licensed the Prioress of Cannington
to lodge and board the wife and two daughters of John Fychet during his
absence abroad[1289], and in 1372 William of Wykeham sent letters to the
Abbesses of Romsey and Wherwell on behalf of another wife left alone in

    "The noble Earl of Pembroke," wrote the Bishop, "has begged us by his
    letters to direct our special letters to you on behalf of the noble
    and gently-born lady, Lady Elizabeth de Berkele, a kinswoman of the
    aforesaid Earl, that she may lodge within your house ... while Sir
    Maurice Wytht [_sic_ ? knyght] the same lady's husband, remains in the
    company of the aforesaid Earl in parts beyond the sea";

and so, in spite of a recent prohibition to these houses to receive
boarders, they are to take in Lady Berkeley[1290]. Sometimes the wording
of these licences shows that the ladies required only a temporary shelter
and had by no means retired from the world. Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury
gave leave to Joan Wason and Maude Poer to stay at Cannington from
December 1336 till the following Easter, and Isabel Fychet received a
similar licence; in 1354 Isolda wife of John Bycombe was licensed to stay
there from March till August[1291]. Sometimes these ladies brought their
servants or gentlewomen with them; Joan Wason and Maude Poer had
permission to take two "dammoiselles" and Isabel Fychet one maid to
Cannington; when Lady Margery Treverbyn, a widow, went with every
profession of piety to Canonsleigh in 1328, she was accompanied by "a
certain priest, a squire (_domicellus_) and a damsel (_domicella_)"[1292];
the widow of Sir John Pateshull was licensed to dwell in Elstow with her
daughter and maids in 1350[1293]; the _familia_ of Elizabeth Berkeley is
mentioned in William of Wykeham's licence and in 1291 John le Romeyn,
Archbishop of York, gave the convent of Nunappleton permission to receive
Lady Margaret Percy as a boarder for a year, "provided that her household
during that time shall not be other than respectable (_honesta_)"[1294].
In the list (compiled by Mr Rye) of boarders in Carrow Priory during the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, several ladies are mentioned as being
accompanied by servants; Lady Maloysel and servant, Isabell Argentoin and
servant, the Lady Margaret Kerdeston and woman, Margaret Wryght and
servant, Lady Margaret Wetherby, her servant Matilda and her chaplain
William. The same list shows that not only women but men were received as
boarders, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by their wives, and
though some of the names given are doubtless those of little boys, who
were receiving their education in the nunnery, others can be clearly
identified as adults[1295]. The Paston Letters afford a famous case in
which both a girl and her betrothed, who had quarrelled with her parents,
were lodged for a time in a nunnery. Margery Paston had fallen in love
with her brother's bailiff, Richard Calle, to the fury of her family, who
swore that "he should never have their good will for to make her to sell
candle and mustard in Framlingham." The two lovers plighted their troth, a
ceremony as binding in the eyes of the Church as marriage itself, and
Richard Calle appealed to the Bishop of Norwich to set the matter beyond
doubt by an inquiry. The spirited Margery "rehearsed what she had said,
and said, if those words made it not sure, she said boldly that she would
make that surer or than she went thence, for she said she thought in her
conscience she was bound, whatsoever the words were," whereupon her
mother refused to receive her back into her house, and the Bishop himself
was obliged to find a lodging for her. This he did at first with some
friends and afterwards at a nunnery, where Richard Calle also was lodged,
for John Paston mentions him shortly afterwards in a letter to his
brother, "As to his abiding it is in Blakborow nunnery a little fro Lynn
and our unhappy sister's also"[1296].

It is plain from visitation records that the boarders who flocked to the
nunneries were exceedingly disturbing to conventual life and sometimes
even brought disrepute upon their hostesses by behaviour more suited to
the world than to the cloister. Alnwick's register contains some amusing
and instructive evidence on this point. At Langley, a very worldly and
aristocratic person, Lady Audley, was occupying a house or set of rooms
(_domum_) within the Priory, paying 40_s._ yearly and keeping the house in
repair; but she had no intention of giving up the ways of the world; pet
dogs were her hobby, and the helpless Prioress complained to Alnwick (a
Bishop must sometimes have had much ado to keep a straight face at these

    Lady Audley, who boards in the house, has a great abundance of dogs,
    insomuch that whenever she comes to church there follow her twelve
    dogs, who make a great uproar in church, hindering them in their
    psalmody and the nuns hereby are made terrified![1297]

"Let a warning be directed to Lady Audley to remove her dogs from the
church and the choir," says a note in the Register; and Lady Audley,
followed by her twelve dogs, recedes for ever from our view, unless
reincarnated four centuries later in the person of Hawker of Morwenstow. A
boarder at Legbourne had a different taste in pets. Dame Joan Pavy
informed the Bishop: "That Margaret Ingoldesby, a secular woman, lies of a
night in the dorter among the nuns, bringing with her birds, by whose
jargoning silence is broken and the rest of the nuns is disturbed"[1298].
Exasperated Dame Joan, trying to steal some sleep before groping her way
down to matins! She had never heard of Vert-Vert, nor even of Philip
Sparrow and she would not have been of the young and pretty novices, whose
toilet the immortal parrot superintended with a connoisseur's eye. The
Bishop cut the Gordian knot for her by ordering all seculars to be turned
out of the dorter. At Stixwould there were two widows, Elizabeth Dymmok
and Margaret Tylney, with their maidservants, staying with the Prioress,
and two other adult women staying with the cellaress; and

    there is in the same place a certain woman suspect [she was probably a
    servant] who dwells within the cloister precincts, Joan Bartone by
    name, to whom one William Traherne had had suspicious access, bringing
    her therafter before the ecclesiastical judge in a matrimonial suit,
    and she is very troublesome to the nuns[1299].

At Gracedieu it was found that the Prioress divulged the secrets of the
house to her secular boarders[1300]. At other houses also it was
complained that the boarders not only disturbed convent life, but
attracted many visitors. At Nuncoton the Subprioress "prays that the
lodgers be removed from the house, so that they mingle not among the nuns,
for if there were none the Prioress might be able to come constantly to
frater; and because there is great recourse of strangers to the lodgers,
to the sore burthen of the house"; another nun also deposed "that there is
great recourse of guests on account of the lodgers" and a third asked that
boarders of marriageable age should be altogether removed from the house,
frater and dorter, "by reason of the divers disadvantages which arise to
the house out of their stay"[1301]. At Godstow in 1432 Bishop Gray

    that Felmersham's wife with her whole household, and other women of
    mature age be utterly removed from the monastery within one year next
    to come, seeing that they are a cause of disturbance to the nuns and
    an occasion of bad example by reason of their attire and those who
    come to visit them[1302].

It is indeed easy to understand why bishops objected so much to the
reception of these worldly women as boarders. If instead of Felmersham's
wife we read "the wife of Bath" all is explained. That lady was not a
person whom a Prioress would lightly refuse; the list of her pilgrimages
alone would give her the _entrée_ into any nunnery. Smiling her
gat-toothed smile and riding easily upon her ambler, she would enter the
gates and alight in the court, and what a month of excitement would pass
before she rode away again. It is hard not to suspect that it was she who
introduced "caps of estate" (were they "as broad as is a buckler or a
targe"?) to the Prioress of Ankerwyke and crested shoes to the nuns of
Elstow; and it may have been she (alas) who taught some of them to step
"the olde daunce"[1303]. Bad enough for their peace of mind to meet her at
a pilgrimage, but much worse to have her settled in their midst, gossiping
as endlessly as she gossiped in her prologue, and amplifying her
reminiscences for a less sophisticated audience. This was one reason why
the bishops made a special injunction against the reception of married
women. The presence of men was open to even more serious objections. At
Hampole in 1411 the Archbishop of York made the significant injunction
that the Prioress was not to allow any _corrodiarii_ or others to retain
suspected women with them in the house[1304]. At St Michael's, Stamford,
in 1442 Alnwick discovered

    that Richard Gray lately boarding in the priory together with his
    legitimate wife, _procreavit prolem de domina Elizabetha Wylugby
    moniali ibidem_, and boarded there until last Easter against the
    injunction of the lord (bishop)[1305].

So also at Easebourne in 1478 it was deposed that "a certain Sir John
Senoke[1306] much frequented the priory or house, so that during some
weeks he passed the night and lay within the priory or monastery every
night, and was the cause ... of the ruin" of two nuns who had gone into
apostasy at the instigation of various men[1307].

The reception of secular women as boarders without the consent of the
diocesan was forbidden as early as 1222 by the Council of Oxford[1308] and
the bishops henceforth pursued a steady policy of ejection:

    "Since," wrote Bishop Flemyng to Elstow, "from the manifest
    conjectures and assurances of our eyes we have learned that by reason
    of the stay of lodgers, especially of married persons, in the said
    monastery, the purity of religion (and) pleasantness of honest
    conversation and character, (which) in their fragrance in our judgment
    far surpass temporal goods, and the destruction of which far exceeds
    the waste of temporal wealth, have suffered grave shipwreck, and may
    suffer, as is likely, more heavily in future, we ordain, enjoin and
    charge you who are now abbess and the other several persons who shall
    be abbesses in the said monastery, under pain of deprivation, beside
    the other penalties written beneath, which likewise, if you do
    contrary to that which we command, it is our will that you incur
    thereupon, that henceforward you admit or allow to be admitted or
    received to lodge or stay within the limits of the cloister, no
    persons male or female, how honest soever they be, who are beyond the
    twelfth year of their age, nor any other persons soever, and married
    persons in special, without the site of the same monastery, unless you
    have procured express and special licence in the cases premised from
    ourselves or from our successors, who for the time being shall be
    bishops of Lincoln"[1309].

Always the reason given is that these boarders are a disturbance to
conventual discipline:

    "Item because religion has been much disturbed among you by reason of
    secular women lodging in your house," wrote Bishop Gynewell to
    Heynings in 1351, "we forbid on pain of excommunication that after the
    feast of St Michael next to come any secular woman be allowed to
    remain in your Priory, save your servants who be necessary for your

    "Also for as myche as we fynde detecte," Alnwick wrote nearly a
    century later to the same house, "that for the multitude of
    sujournauntes wythe [yow] as wele wedded as other ofte tymes the
    qwyere and the rest of yowe in your obseruances is troubled, we charge
    [yow] pryoresse vnder payne of the sentence of cursyng that fro this
    day forthe ye receyve no sodeiyourauntes that pas[se a man] x yere, a
    woman xiii yere of age, wytheowten specyalle leve of hus or our
    successours bushops of Lincolne asked [and had]"[1311].

But the attempt to clear the convents of secular boarders was entirely
unsuccessful. The bishops had two powerful forces against them, the desire
of the impoverished nuns to make money and the desire of seculars for a
quiet and inexpensive hostel; and the nuns continued to take boarders, in
spite of a series of prohibitions. At Romsey, for instance, Peckham
forbids boarders, c. 1284; in 1311 Bishop Woodlock has to repeat the
prohibition "because of the continual sojourn of seculars we find the
tranquillity of the nuns to be much disturbed and scandals to arise in
your monastery"; in 1346 Edynton orders the removal of all secular persons
within a month; in 1363 he has to write again, complaining that he has
heard by public report that they have not obeyed his former letter and
ordering them to remove all _perhendinatrices_ within fifteen days[1312].
At Godstow injunctions to this effect are made in succession by Gynewell
(1358), Gray (1432-4) and Alnwick (1445)[1313]; at Elstow by Gynewell
(1359), Bokyngham (1387), Flemyng (1421-2) and Gray (c. 1432)[1314].
Moreover the bishops themselves were sometimes obliged to leave the nuns a
loophole of escape, by excepting certain women from the general
prohibition; thus Alnwick excepted the two widows Elizabeth Dymmok and
Margaret Tylney at Stixwould[1315]; Brantyngham excepted "the noble woman
Lady Elizabeth Courtenay, wife of the noble man Sir Hugh de Courtenay,
Knight" at Canonsleigh (1391)[1316]; and Archbishop Rotherham at
Nunappleton (1489) excepted children "or ellis old persones, by which
availe biliklyhood may growe to your place"[1317]. Often too they were
persuaded to grant licences to boarders, at the prayer of influential
persons who must not be offended[1318]. The largest loophole which they
were obliged by the pressure of circumstances to leave open was, however,
the permission to receive small children for education[1319].

It is clear from the evidence of visitation documents that nuns often took
boarders of their own free will, for the sake of the money which thus
accrued to their impecunious houses; certainly no episcopal injunction was
more consistently disobeyed. On the other hand great ladies often thrust
themselves upon a convent, which dared not say them nay, and it is not at
all unusual to find the nuns complaining of the disturbance caused to
their daily life by visitors. The matter was complicated by the fact that
the exercise of hospitality was one of the chief functions of monastic
houses in the middle ages, and was so far regarded as a right by their
neighbours that remonstrances were actually made if the quality of the
entertainment offered was not considered sufficiently good. At Campsey in
1532 one of the nuns declared that "well-born guests (_hospites
generosae_) coming to the priory complained of the excessive parsimony of
the Prioress"[1320]. Complaints by the nuns of the spiritual disturbance
caused by this influx of visitors, show that the right was vigorously
exercised. In 1364 the Pope granted permission to Margaret de Lancaster,
an Augustinian Canoness of the same nunnery of Campsey, to transfer
herself to the Order of St Clare, she having already caused herself to be
enclosed at Campsey in order to avoid the number of nobles coming to the
house[1321]; and in 1375 he commanded the Bishop of St Andrews to make
order concerning the Prioress and nuns of the Benedictine convent of North
Berwick, "who have petitioned for perpetual enclosure, they being much
molested by the neighbourhood and visits of nobles and other secular
persons"[1322]. Even enclosure was not always a protection against
visitors; for the Popes constantly granted indults to great persons,
allowing them to enter, with a retinue, the houses of monks and nuns
belonging to enclosed orders. A few instances may be taken at random. John
of Gaunt in 1371 received an indult to enter any monasteries of religious
men and women once a year, with thirty persons of good repute[1323]; Joan
Princess of Wales in 1372 was given permission to enter monasteries of
enclosed nuns with six honest and aged men and fourteen women and to eat
and drink, but not to pass the night therein[1324]; Thomas of Gloucester
and his wife, the notorious Eleanor de Cobham, had an indult to enter
monasteries of enclosed monks and nuns six times a year, with twenty
persons of either sex[1325]. Sometimes, it is true, the visitors were
forbidden to eat, drink or spend the night in the house[1326], but often
they received special permission to do so; thus in 1408 Philippa, Duchess
of York, was given an indult allowing her to take five or six matrons and
to stay in monasteries of enclosed nuns for three days and nights at a
time[1327] and in 1422 Joan Countess of Westmoreland received one to enter
any nunnery with eight honest women, and to stay there with the nuns,
eating, drinking and talking with them and spending the night[1328]. An
indult granted in 1398 to Margery and Grace de Tylney "noblewomen," to
enter "as often as they please with six honest matrons, the monastery of
enclosed nuns of the Order of St Clare, Denney"[1329], and a faculty
granted in 1371 to "John, Cardinal of Sancti Quatuor Coronati"[1330],
empowering him to give leave to a hundred women of high birth of France
and England, to enter nunneries once a year, accompanied each by four
matrons[1331], give some idea of the extent to which it was usual for
guests to visit even houses belonging to enclosed orders.

Nuns do not seem to have concerned themselves with political movements,
unlike the monks, who in great abbeys were sometimes keen politicians. But
it sometimes happened that the strife and intrigue and tragedy of the
outside world entered into quiet convents, through this custom of using
them as boarding houses. Not otherwise can we account for a curious case
in which the nuns of Sewardsley were involved in 1470, when a certain
Thomas Wake accused Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, of making an image of
lead to be used in witchcraft against the King and Queen, which image he
said had been shown to various persons and exhibited in the nunnery of
Sewardsley[1332]. Moreover echoes of great doings came to nuns when the
hapless wives and daughters of the King's enemies were placed in their
custody, a kindlier fate than imprisonment in a fortress or in charge of
some loyal noble's sharp-tongued wife. The course of Edward II's troubled
reign may be traced in the story of the women who were successively sent
as prisoners, or (worse still) as nuns, to various priories. The first to
suffer was the King's niece Margaret; she had been married by him to Piers
Gaveston and had seen her husband miserably slain at Thomas of Lancaster's
behest; she was married again to Sir Hugh Audley and ten years later, poor
pawn in the game of politics, she suffered for her second husband's share
in Lancaster's rebellion, when the crime of Blacklow Hill was expiated on
the hill of Pontefract.

    "Margarete countesse de Cornewaille," says the chronicle of
    Sempringham, "La femme Sire Hugh Daudelee, e la niece le roi, fu
    ordinee a demorer en guarde a Sempringham entre les nonaignes, a quel
    lieu ele vint le xvi jour de Mai (1322) e la demorra"[1333].

In the same year the Abbess of Barking was ordered "to cause the body of
Elizabeth de Burgo, late wife of Roger Damory, within her abbey, to be
kept safely and not to permit her to go outside the abbey gates in any
wise until further orders"[1334]. In 1324 another rebel, Roger Mortimer,
broke his prison in the Tower and escaped across the sea to France. But
three poor children, his daughters, could not escape, and on April 7th of
the same year the sheriff of Southampton received an order to cause
Margaret, daughter of Roger Mortimer of Wygmore, to be conducted to the
Priory of Shouldham, Joan, his second daughter, to the Priory of
Sempringham, and Isabella, his third daughter, to the Priory of Chicksand,
"to be delivered to the priors of those places (all were Gilbertine
houses) to stay amongst the nuns in the same priories." The Prior of
Shouldham had 15_d._ weekly for Margaret's expenses and a mark yearly for
her robe, and each of the other two little girls received 12_d._ weekly
for expenses and a mark for her robe[1335]. The she-wolf of France bided
her time, and when the game was hers she was no less swift to avenge her
wrongs; to Sempringham (where her lover's daughter had gone two years
before) now went the two daughters of the elder Hugh Despenser, to pray
for the souls of a father and brother done most dreadfully to death[1336].
The perennial wars with Scotland also found their echo in the nunneries.
In 1306 the Abbess of Barking was ordered "to deliver Elizabeth, sister of
William Olifard [? Olifaunt] Knight, who is in their custody by the King's
permission to Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, the King having granted her
to the said Henry"[1337]; she was doubtless a relative of that "Hugh
Olyfard, a Scot, the King's enemy and rebel," who together with one
"William Sauvage the King's approver" had broken his prison at Colchester
some three years before, and fled into sanctuary in the convent
church[1338]. Barking was a favourite prison, doubtless on account of its
situation, and in 1314 the sheriffs of London were ordered "to receive
Elizabeth, wife of Robert de Brus, from the Abbess of Berkyngg, with whom
she had been staying by the King's order and to take her under safe
custody to Rochester and there deliver her to Henry de Cobham, constable
of the castle"[1339].

The mention of the Scot Hugh Olyfard, who took sanctuary in the church of
Barking, recalls another reason for which the world might break into the
cloister. The terrified fugitive from justice would take sanctuary in a
convent church if it lay nearest to him, and the peace of chanting nuns
would be rudely broken, when that unkempt and desperate figure sprang up
the choir between them and flung itself upon their altar steps. The hand
of a master has drawn for us what the trembling novices saw, peeping from
their stalls:

    ... the breathless fellow at the altar foot,
  Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there
  With the little children round him in a row
  Of admiration, half for his beard and half
  For that white anger of his victim's son
  Shaking a fist at him with one fierce arm,
  Signing himself with the other because of Christ
  (Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
  After the passion of a thousand years),
  Till some poor girl, her apron o'er her head
  Which the intense eyes looked through, came at eve
  On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,
  Her pair of ear-rings and a bunch of flowers
  The brute took growling, prayed and then was gone[1340].

But sometimes more than a momentary disturbance was occasioned to the
nunnery; in 1416, for instance, Edith Wilton, Prioress of Carrow, was
attached, together with one of her nuns, on the charge of harbouring in
sanctuary the murderers of William Koc of Trowse, at the appeal of his
widow Margaret. She was arrested, imprisoned and called to answer at
Westminster, but after the court had adjourned many times she was
acquitted[1341]. An abbess of Wherwell was involved in a lawsuit over a
case of sanctuary for somewhat different reasons; she claimed the right of
seizing chattels of fugitives in the hundred of Mestowe[1342], a right
which was disputed by the crown officials. One Henry Harold of Wherwell
had killed his wife Isabel and fled to the church of Wherwell and the
Abbess had promptly seized his chattels to the value of over £35, by the
hands of her reeve[1343].

These cases of violence will lead us to the consideration of breaches of
enclosure which were in no sense the fault of the unhappy nuns. Visits
from their peaceful friends they welcomed; the sojourn of great folk they
bore; but they would fain have passed their days undisturbed by war's
alarms and by the assault and battery of private feuds. But it was not to
be. Alarums and excursions sometimes shattered their peace and, especially
in the Northern counties, violent attacks at the hands of robbers, lawless
neighbours, or enemies of the realm were only too common. Disorder was
general and grew worse in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries. The nunnery of Markyate was once assaulted in the night by
fifty robbers and the nuns pillaged and robbed of everything
valuable[1344], and in 1408 the Bishop of Ely gave an indulgence for the
relief of the nuns of Rowney, "whose chalices, books, ornaments and other
goods have been stolen by evil men, so that they have not the wherewithal
to perform the divine office"[1345].

Neighbourly disagreements sometimes developed into petty warfare, as the
Paston Letters show, and an almost exact parallel to the dispute between
John Paston and Lord Molynes over the manor of Gresham is to be found in a
complaint made in 1383 by the Prioress of Brodholme, who asserted that a
gang of men (whom she named)

    "had broken her close at Brodholme, felled her trees and underwood,
    dug in her soil, carried off earth, trees, underwood and other goods,
    depastured her corn and grass, assaulted her servants and besieged her
    and her nuns in the Priory and threatened them with death"[1346].

Such instances might be multiplied[1347]. Sometimes the presence of
secular boarders led to unpleasant experiences for the nuns. The Lincoln
registers record two such cases, which incidentally furnish an additional
reason why the reception of boarders was frowned upon by the Church. In
1304 certain

    "satellites of Satan whose names we know not" (Bishop Dalderby informs
    his official), "lately came in great numbers to the monastery of the
    nuns of Goring, where they boldly laid violent hands upon Henry,
    chaplain of the parish church and brother John le Walleys, lay brother
    of the same place (from whom they drew blood) and upon certain nuns of
    the house who struggled to guard their monastery, and then they
    entered and rode their horses up to the high altar of the church,
    polluting that holy place shamefully with the footprints and dung of
    their horses."

Their object was apparently to seize a certain Isabella de Kent, a married
woman then dwelling in the nunnery, and they pursued her to the belfry,
where she had taken refuge and dragged her away with them[1348]. An even
worse disturbance took place at Rothwell in 1421-2. A gang of ruffians
broke open the cloister and doors, seized one Joan (a boarder) and carried
her away to a lonely house, where their leader forcibly violated her, with
every circumstance of brutality. She escaped back to the priory, whereupon
the leader

    entering the same priory a second time, like a tyrant and pirate with
    a far greater multitude of like henchmen and people untamed and savage
    in his company, with naked swords and other sorts of divers weapons of
    offence, fell ... upon the same woman, who was then in the presence of
    the prioress and the nuns in the hall of the said priory and ...
    daringly laid wicked, sacrilegious and violent hands, notwithstanding
    the worship both of their persons and of the place, upon the prioress
    and nuns of the said place, honourable members of the church and
    persons hallowed to God accordingly--who endeavoured gently to appease
    their baseness and savagery, so far as their sex as women allowed--and
    cudgelled them with cruel strokes, threw them down on the ground and,
    trampling on them with their feet, mercilessly kicked them and
    violently dragged off their garments of their habits over their heads,
    and even as robbers, having caught their prey, carried off the said
    woman, dragging her with them out of the priory[1349].

Even more significant is the licence granted to the Abbess and Convent of
Tarrant Keynes in 1343 to cut down two hundred acres of under-wood in
their demesne land, "on their petition setting forth that their house and
possessions in the county of Dorset had been burned and destroyed by an
invasion of the king's enemies in those parts"[1350]; or the permission
given to the Abbess of Shaftesbury in 1367 to crenellate her Abbey,
presumably for purposes of defence[1351]. The south coast was a constant
prey to pirates, and it was still within the memory of man that, at the
beginning of the French war

    the Normayns Pycardes and Spanyerdes entred into the toune (of
    Southampton) and robbed and pilled the toune, and slewe dyvers and
    defowled maydens, and enforced wyves, and charged their vessels with
    the pyllage and so entred agayne into their shyppes[1352].

The sanctity which attached to the person of a nun was apt to be forgotten
in the brutal warfare of the day and the Abbess might well fear for her
flock. The English nunneries did not, indeed, experience anything to
compare with the unimaginable sufferings endured by French convents during
the hundred years' war[1353]. But they were by no means immune from the
effects of civil war; Wilton, Wherwell and St Mary's, Winchester, were all
burned during the struggle between Stephen and Matilda[1354], and during
the Wars of the Roses the nuns of Delapré were unwilling witnesses of the
Battle of Northampton (1460), which was held "in the medowys beside the
Nonry"; after the fight was over the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury
and the Bishop of London rested at the nunnery and many of the slain were
buried in its churchyard[1355].

The most striking example of the effect of warfare upon monastic houses in
England is, however, provided by the history of the northern monasteries,
which were throughout their history (but especially during the first part
of the fourteenth century) in danger from the inroads of the Scots. So
great was the destruction wrought in 1318 that it was necessary to make a
new assessment of church property for purposes of taxation, in part of the
province of York[1356]. Nor was the trouble purely material, though the
poverty of the nunneries (in particular) was sometimes abject and the
harrying of their lands must have made prosperity at all times a vain
hope. The moral results of such disorder were even more serious. It was
almost impossible to maintain an ordinary communal life, when at any
moment it might be necessary to disperse the nuns and quarter them in
other houses out of the line of the marauders' march. Even in houses which
were never actually attacked, the prevalent unrest, the lawlessness which
is naturally engendered by border warfare, must have been disorganising
and demoralising. It is easy to understand why cases of immorality and
grave disorder are more prevalent in the convents of the north of England
than in those of any other district.

In 1296 the chronicler of Lanercost describes thus the first great raid of
the Scots:

    In this raid they surpassed in cruelty all the fury of the heathen;
    when they could not catch the strong and young people, who took
    flight, they imbrued their arms, hitherto unfleshed, with the blood of
    infirm people, old women, women in childbed and even children two or
    three years old, proving themselves apt scholars in atrocity, insomuch
    that they raised little span-long children pierced on pikes, to expire
    thus and fly away to the heavens. They burnt consecrated churches;
    both in the sanctuary and elsewhere they violated women dedicated to
    God [i.e. nuns] as well as married women and girls, either murdering
    them or robbing them, after gratifying their lust. Also they herded
    together a crowd of little scholars in the schools of Hexham and
    having blocked the doors set fire to that pile [so] fair [in the sight
    of God]. Three monasteries of holy collegiates were destroyed by them,
    Lanercost, of the Canons Regular; and Hexham of the same order and
    [that] of the nuns of Lambley; of all of these the devastation can by
    no means be attributed to the valour of warriors, but to the dastardly
    conduct of thieves, who attacked a weaker community, where they would
    not be likely to meet with any resistance[1357].

Some allowance must be made for the indignation of a canon of Lanercost,
whose own house had been burnt; but even so it is plain that the religious
houses must have endured terrible things at the hands of the Scots; and
the peril of the nuns was to honour as well as to life and home.

In several cases record of the actual dispersal of the nuns has been
preserved, though such dispersal lasted only for a short time. The priory
of Holystone, which lay right upon the border, was in a particularly
exposed position and in 1313, when Bruce was devastating the northern
counties, a letter from the Bishop of Durham bears vivid testimony to its
miserable plight:

    "The house of the said nuns," he says, "situated in the March of
    England and Scotland, by reason of the hostile incursions which daily
    and continually increase in the March, is frequently despoiled of its
    goods and the nuns themselves are often attacked by the marauders,
    harmed and pursued and, put to flight and driven from their home, are
    constrained miserably to experience bitter suffering. Wherefore we
    make these things known to you, that you may compassionate their
    poverty, which is increased by the memory of happier things, and that
    your pity and benevolence may be shown them, lest (to the disgrace of
    their estate) they be forced publicly to beg"[1358].

The expiration of the truce with Scotland in 1322 was followed by another
raid and by Edward II's unsuccessful campaign, in the course of which the
Scots overran Yorkshire and very nearly captured the King at Byland Abbey.
The canons of Bridlington (whither he fled) departed with all their
valuables to Lincolnshire, sending an envoy to purchase immunity from
Bruce at Melton. The poor nuns of Moxby and Rosedale did not escape so
easily. In November Archbishop Melton wrote to the Prioress of Nunmonkton,
ordering her to receive two nuns of the house of Moxby, which had been
"destroyed and devastated by the Scots"; the Prioress tried to excuse
herself, on the plea that it was unseemly for Austin nuns to be received
in a Benedictine convent and that her house barely sufficed to support
herself and her sisters; but the Archbishop sternly replied that he was
sending the nuns for a time only and that it behoved the convent of
Nunmonkton to receive them, in order to avoid their being dispersed in the
world. He added that he had placed a like burden upon other nunneries in
his diocese which had escaped the horrors of the invasion, and a note in
his Register shows that two nuns were sent to Nunappleton, two to
Nunkeeling and two to Hampole, while the Prioress went to Swine. Three
days later he boarded out the nuns of Rosedale, who had received similar
injuries at the hands of the Scots, sending one to each of the houses of
Nunburnholme, Sinningthwaite, Thicket, Wykeham and Hampole[1359]. The
dispersal of the nuns of Rosedale did not extend beyond six months and the
nuns of Moxby probably returned about the same time, for they were back in
their own house in 1325, when their Prioress resigned "super lapsu
carnis"[1360]. The moral record of both houses--and indeed of the majority
of Yorkshire nunneries--is bad at this period, and at least part of the
responsibility must be laid at the door of the Scottish invasions.

Yorkshire also suffered in the invasion which ended with the Battle of
Neville's Cross (1346), when the Scots

    went forth brenning and destroying the county of Northumberland; and
    their currours ran to York and brent as much as was without the walls
    and returned again to their host within a days journey, of

One of these marauding bands ("the most outrageoust people in all the
country," Froissart calls them) came galloping into that lonely and
beautiful dale, where the nunnery of Ellerton stands beside the brown
torrent of Swale. They entered the house and carried away seven charters
and writings, so the nuns complained later[1362]; what else they did in
that quiet spot and whether the nunnery of Marrick on the hill above
escaped them history will not tell us. Such disasters were common enough
in the north. The records of Armathwaite in Cumberland show that an
unlucky proximity to the border might hamper a convent throughout the
whole of its career. In 1318 pasture for cattle in Inglewood Forest was
granted to "the poor nuns of Armathwaite, who had been totally ruined by
the Scots"; in 1331 they were excused a payment of ten pounds for the same
reason; and in 1474 they were obliged to apply for a ratification of their
possessions, because their house had been almost destroyed by the Scots,
who had not only spoiled them of their church ornaments, books, relics and
jewels, but also of all their charters and evidences[1363]. The obscure
little nunnery of Lambley on Tyne suffered in the same way, for in the
Receiver's Account made at its dissolution in 1536 there occurs, under the
heading _Decasus Redditus_, the entry of a tenement in Haltwhistle called
Redepath, "eo quod comburatum (_sic_) per Scottos"[1364].

But the most horrible story of outrage suffered by a nunnery in time of
war is that strange tale reported by the anonymous monk of St Albans, who
wrote a _Chronicon Angliae_ between the years 1376 and 1379[1365]. The
suffering of French nunneries at the hand of Free Companies and English
was not more terrible than the fate of these English nuns at the hand of
their own countrymen. In 1379 an army was mustered in England to replace
Duke John of Brittany upon his throne, which had been annexed by Charles V
of France. The main army, under John FitzAlan of Arundel, Marshal of
England (the same who had "two and fiftie new sutes of apparell of cloth
of gold or tissue") was delayed in England for some months, first by a
difficulty in raising the money to equip it, and then by contrary winds,
and it was December before Sir John was ready to sail. Complaints came
from all hands of the depredations committed along the coast by the
lawless soldiers, but their other misdeeds were insignificant compared
with the crime recorded in the St Albans Chronicle:

    "When," says the chronicler, "Sir John Arundel and his companions were
    come to the sea and no breeze favoured them, he ordered that a more
    favourable wind should be awaited. Meanwhile he proceeded to a certain
    monastery of virgin nuns, which stood not far away, and entering with
    his men, he asked the mother of the monastery to permit his fellow
    soldiers, engaged on the king's service, to lodge there. But the nun,
    considering in her mind that danger might arise from such guests and
    that his request was absolutely contrary to religion, pointed out to
    him with due reverence and humility that many of his followers were
    young and might easily be moved to commit an inexpiable crime, which
    would not only bring ill fame upon the place but would also be a
    danger and an evil to himself and his men, who should shun not only an
    offence against chastity but all manner of crimes, if they acted as
    befitted men about to go to the wars. But he began to insist with
    great fervour, declaring that her suspicions were false and her
    imaginings without truth, whereupon she prostrated herself on the
    ground before him, and answered, 'My lord, I know that your men are
    unbridled and fear not even God. It is expedient neither for us nor
    for you that they should enter our cloister. Wherefore I beseech and
    counsel you with clasped hands, that you give up this intention and
    seek other hosts (who abound in the neighbourhood) for yourself and
    for your men.' But he persisted and, contemptuously bidding her arise,
    swore that he would in no wise give up his determination to have
    hospitality for his people there. Wherefore he straightway ordered his
    men to enter the building and to occupy the public and private rooms
    until the time came for setting sail. And they, inspired (it is
    thought) by a devil, burst into the cloister of the monastery, and as
    is the wont of such an undisciplined mob, broke the one into this, the
    other into that room, wherein the maidens, daughters of the
    neighbouring gentry, were lodged to be taught; and many of these were
    already prepared to take upon them the habit of holy religion and had
    set their mind on the purpose of virginity. These, scorning reverence
    for the place and casting aside the fear of God, the men oppressed and
    violated by force. Nor did their lust rage against these alone, for
    they feared not to pollute the widow's continence and the conjugal
    tie. For many widows had gathered there to receive hospitality, as is
    customary in such abbeys, either for lack of property or in order the
    more perfectly and safely to preserve their chastity. They forced into
    public adultery the married women who had gathered there for the same
    reasons, and not content (it is said) with these misdeeds they
    subjected the nuns themselves to their lust. Whereupon at first those
    who suffered the injury, and soon all who dwelt in the neighbourhood
    and who heard the news of so great a crime, heaped very horrible
    curses upon their heads and called down upon them whatever misfortune
    and whatever adversity God might be able to raise against them."

The chronicler goes on to relate how, undeterred and indeed encouraged by
Sir John Arundel, the men spread over the country-side and pillaged it,
carrying off a bride and stealing plate from the altar of a church, for
which sacrilege they were solemnly excommunicated. At last, however, Sir
John (in spite of the protests of the shipman who was to carry him)
decided to set sail. His men carried off with them the stolen bride and a
number of wives, widows and virgins from the abbey, forced the wretched
women on board and put to sea. But a storm came on and the ships were
driven out into the Atlantic. In the midst of the roaring tempest the
guilty soldiers seemed to see a spectre, more awful than death itself,
which stalked among them on the deck and foretold the loss of all who
sailed upon Sir John Arundel's ship. Even more pitiable was the condition
of the women:

    "Hard it is to relate," says the chronicler, "what clamour, what
    lamentation, what groans, what tears, arose among the women, who by
    force or of their own will had boarded the ship, when buffeted by the
    winds and waves they rose to the skies and descended to the depths;
    for now they saw not the spectre of death, but death itself among
    them, and could not doubt that they must die. What mental anguish,
    what bodily fear, what remorse and anxiety assailed the conscience of
    the men, who to satisfy their lust had dragged these women into the
    peril of the seas, they were best able to describe who, although
    sharers in so great a crime, were nevertheless permitted by God's
    mercy to reach a port of safety. Wherefore the men were doubtful what
    to do in the midst of the clamour, for on the one hand the wind and
    storm, on the other the tears and cries of the women, urged them to
    action. First, therefore, they tried to lighten the vessel, throwing
    overboard first the worthless baggage, then precious things, that
    perchance a hope of safety might arise. But when they perceived their
    desperate plight to be rather increased than diminished, they cast the
    blame of their misfortune upon the women, and in a spirit of madness
    they seized hold of them (with the same hands wherewith before they
    had sweetly caressed them, the same arms wherewith they had lustfully
    embraced them) and threw them into the sea, to be devoured by fishes
    and sea beasts, to the number (it is said) of sixty women. But not
    even thus was the tempest stayed, but rather it grew greater so that
    it deprived them of all hope of escaping the danger of death."

The story is soon ended. The ships were driven onto the coast of Ireland,
Sir John Arundel's vessel ran upon a rock, and he was drowned, with all
his suits of apparel, his goods and his horses; and twenty-five other
vessels of the ill-fated expedition, laden with soldiers and horses and
baggage, also went down in the storm. Public opinion did not fail to
attribute these disasters to the crimes of which Sir John and his troops
had been guilty; and so, with dramatic fitness, ends this tale of the
golden days of chivalry[1366]. Side by side with it must be set another
episode, drawn from an earlier age and from an epic instead of a
chronicle. It was part of the chivalrous convention to show a special
respect to nunneries, in their double character of religious and
aristocratic institutions. Yet the most striking account of a nunnery in
the twelfth century, when this convention was at its height, has for
subject a brutal sacrilege committed by a great baron upon a church of
nuns. This is the famous episode of the burning of Origny in the _chanson
de geste_ "Raoul de Cambrai." The writer of the poem makes Raoul's knights
recoil in shame from a crime in which their allegiance has made them
unwilling partners, and manifests the utmost horror and pity at this
action so opposed to all the ideals of chivalry; but it is only one of the
many proofs that the golden idol had feet of clay. Whether or not the
account was founded upon an actual incident is unknown; but it deserves
quotation because it illustrates all too clearly the fate of nuns when
their quiet houses stood in the way of warring knights. It represents one
side of chivalry as truly as "Queen Guenever in Almesbury, a nun in white
clothes and black" represents another. In the same century that produced
"Raoul de Cambrai" a chronicler, writing of the wars of Stephen and
Matilda in England, records, "Burnt also was the abbey of nuns of Wherwell
by a certain William of Ypres, an evil man, who respected neither God nor
man, because certain supporters of the Empress had taken refuge therein";
and another:

    The famous town [of Winchester] was given to the flames, wherein a
    convent of nuns with its offices, and more than twenty churches, with
    the greater part of the town and the monastery of St Grimbald's and
    the dwellings attached to it, were reduced to ashes[1367].

What these bald statements mean the _chanson de geste_ can tell us better.

Raoul de Cambrai, the greatest villain who ever led knights to war, had in
his train a young knight Bernier. One day he set out to pillage Origny, in
which town was a famous convent, where Bernier's fair mother Marcens had
retired to end her days in peace. But as he hurled himself, with four
thousand men, upon the town, the gates of the convent opened

    and the nuns came forth from the church, gentle ladies, each with her
    psalter, for there they did the service of God. Marcens was there, who
    was Bernier's mother. "Mercy, Raoul, in the just God's name! You do
    great sin if you allow harm to come to us, for easily can we be driven
    forth." In her hand she held a book of the time of Solomon and she was
    saying an orison to God.

After a tender inquiry for her son, Marcens proceeded to plead with Raoul
to raise the siege; clearly the burgesses regarded the abbess of the great
convent as their leader and a fit person to negotiate with their enemy.

    "Sir Raoul," she said, "shall I beseech you in vain to withdraw you?
    We be nuns, by all the saints of Bavaria; we shall never hold lance
    nor banner, nor by our hand shall any man be brought to his grave."

But Raoul answered her with a stream of coarse abuse, showing even less
respect for her sex and calling than Sir John Arundel showed to the
abbess who refused him lodging[1368]. Marcens put aside his charges with a
word of dignified denial and proffered him terms of truce:

    "Sir Raoul, we know not how to wield arms; easily can you destroy us
    and put us to flight. We have neither shield nor lance for our
    defence. All our livelihood we have from this altar and within this
    town; noble men hold this place dear and send us silver and pure gold.
    Therefore do you grant us a truce for hearth and church and go you and
    take your ease in our meadows; of our own substance we will feed you
    and your knights and your squires shall have corn and oats and plenty
    to eat for your steeds." "By the body of St Richier," answered Raoul,
    "For love of you and since you ask it, I will grant you the truce,
    whoever may dislike it."

But Raoul de Cambrai had no regard for his knightly word; he quarrelled
with the townsfolk and swore to burn Origny about their ears.

    "The rooms burn," the _chanson_ continues, "The ceilings crumble: the
    barrels catch fire and their hoops burst. Woe and sin it is, for the
    children burn too. Evil has Count Raoul done, for the day before he
    gave his faith to Marcens that they should not lose so much as a fold
    of silk; and on the morrow he burned them in his wrath. In Origny,
    that great and rich town, the sons of Herbert, who love the place had
    put Marcens, Bernier's mother, and a hundred nuns to pray to God.
    Count Raoul, the hot-heart, sets fire to the streets; the houses burn,
    the ceilings melt, the wine spills and the cellars flow with it; the
    bacon burns, the larders fall, the fat makes the great fire burn more
    fiercely. It strikes up to the tower and to the high belfry and the
    roofs fall in, so great is the blaze between the two walls. The nuns
    are burnt, all hundred of them are burnt (woe it is to tell); burnt is
    Marcens that was Bernier's mother, and Clamados the daughter of Duke
    Renier. The smell of burning flesh rises from the flames and the brave
    knights weep for pity. When Bernier sees the fire grow worse, he is
    near mad with grief. Could ye but have seen him sling on his shield!
    With drawn sword he comes to the church and sees the flames pouring
    from the doors; no man can come within a shaft's throw of the fire.
    Bernier sees a rich marble pavement, and upon it lies his mother, with
    her tender face laid on the ground and her psalter burning upon her
    breast. Then says the boy, 'I am on a foolish errand. Never will any
    succour avail her now. Ha! sweet mother, yesterday you kissed me; you
    have but a poor heir in me, for I can neither aid nor help you. God,
    who will judge the world, keep your soul!'"[1369]

So ends this terrible episode; but that chivalry in this matter at least
suffered no change from the twelfth to the fourteenth century Froissart's
account of the burning of this same Origny-Saint-Benoît by the peerless
John of Hainault and his troops in 1339 will show[1370]. If the code of
knighthood and the fear of God could not save the nuns from mischances
such as these, it is plain that no injunctions against the breach of their
enclosure could have done so. These were the risks of war, which nuns
shared in common with all unhappy women. But the siege of Origny and even
the outrage at Goring were still exceptional events; and the Church found
its chief problem not in these unwelcome incursions, but in the number of
welcome visitors who hung about the nunneries. "The Lord deliver them from
their friends" was in effect the bishop's prayer. The expulsion of these
friends was a necessary corollary to the enclosure movement; and, like the
injunctions to nuns to keep within their cloister, the injunctions to lay
folk to keep outside remained a dead letter. John of Ayton's conclusion is
true here also:

    Why, then, did the holy fathers thus labour to beat the air? Yet
    indeed their toil is none the less to their own merit; for we look not
    to that which is, but to that which of justice should be.



    A child of our grandmother Eve, a female; or, for thy more sweet
    understanding, a woman.
                              _Love's Labour's Lost_, I, i, 266-8.

It is difficult to form any exact impression of the moral state of the
English nunneries during the later middle ages. Certainly there is
widespread evidence of frailty on the part of individuals, and there are
one or two serious cases in which a whole house was obviously in a bad
condition. It is certain also that we retain the record of only a portion
of the cases of immorality which existed; some never came to light at all,
some were hushed up and the records of others are buried in Bishops'
Registers, which are either unpublished or lost. On the other hand it is
necessary to guard against exaggeration. The majority of nuns certainly
kept their lifelong vow of chastity. Moreover when the conditions of
medieval life are taken into account, the lapses of the nuns must, to
anyone who considers them with sympathy and common sense, appear
comprehensible. The routine of the convent was not always satisfying to
the heart, and the temptations to which nuns were submitted were certainly
grosser and more frequent than they are in similar institutions today.

Several considerations may fairly be urged in mitigation of the nuns. The
initial difficulty of the celibate ideal need not be laboured. For many
saints it was the first and necessary condition of their salvation; but
for the average man it has always been an unnatural state and the monastic
orders and the priesthood were full of average men. It is not surprising,
therefore, that the history of ecclesiastical celibacy is one of the
tragedies of religious life. The vow was constantly being broken. The
_focaria_ or priest's mistress is a well-known figure in medieval history
and fiction; and the priest who lived thus with an unofficial wife was
probably less dangerous to his female parishioners than was he who lived
ostensibly alone. A crowd of clerks and chaplains, sometimes attached to
some church, chantry or great man's chapel, sometimes unattached, filled
the country with an "ecclesiastical proletariat," all vowed to chastity;
and any student of the criminal records of the middle ages knows how often
these men were concerned in cases of rape and other crime. A survey of the
monastic visitations of a careful visitor such as Alnwick shows that
consorting with women was a common charge against the monks and there is
some evidence which points to a suspicion of grosser forms of vice. It
would be strange indeed if the nuns were an exception to the rule. Even if
they kept their vow, they kept it sometimes at a cost which psychologists
have only recently begun to understand. The visions which were at once the
torture and the joy of so many mystic women, were sexual as well as
religious in their origin, as in their imagery[1371]. The terrible
lassitude and despair of _accidia_ grew in part at least from the
repression of the most powerful of natural instincts, accentuated by the
absence of sufficient counter interests and employments.

The whole monastic ideal is, however, bound up with the vow of chastity
and, had only women with a vocation entered nunneries, the danger of the
situation would have been small. Unfortunately a large number of the girls
who became nuns had no vocation at all. They were given over to the life
by their families, sometimes from childhood, because it was a reputable
career for daughters who could not be dowered for marriage in a manner
befitting their estate[1372]. They were often totally unsuited for it, by
the weakness of their religions as well as by the strength of their sexual
impulses. The lighthearted _Chansons de Nonnes_[1373], whose theme is the
nun unwillingly professed, had a real basis in fact. If cases of
immorality in convents seem all too frequent, it should be remembered how
young and often how unwilling were those who took the vows:

  Je sent les douls mals  leis ma senturete
  Malois soit de deu      ki me fist nonnete.

The blame is justly placed and the wonder is not how many but how few nuns
went astray.

Again the nunneries of the middle ages were subjected to temptations which
rarely occur in our own time. The chief of these was the ease with which
the nuns moved about outside their houses in a world where sex was
displayed good-humouredly, openly, grossly, by the populace, and with all
the subtle charm of chivalry by the upper classes. The struggle to enforce
enclosure had its root in the recognition of this danger, as episcopal
references to the story of Dinah show; and it has already been seen how
unsuccessful that struggle was. Nuns left their precincts, visited their
friends, attended feasts, listened to wandering minstrels, with hardly any
restraint upon their movements. It is true that in church and cloister the
praise of virginity was forever dinned into their ears; but outside in the
world it was not virginity that was praised. Were it a miller's tale or a
wife of Bath's prologue, overheard on a pilgrimage, were it only the lilt
of a passing clerk at a street corner,

  Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
    The small rain down can rain?
  Christ, if my love were in my arms
    And I in my bed again,

the nun's mind must often have been troubled, as she turned her steps back
to her cloister. Moreover their guest rooms were full of visitors, men as
well as women; if they copied so eagerly the fine dresses and the pet dogs
of worldly ladies, is it strange that they sometimes copied their lovers
too? Other conditions besides the imperfect enforcement of enclosure
increased the danger. The disorders of the times, ranging from the armed
forays of the Scots in the north to the lawlessness of everyday life in
all parts of the country, were not conducive to a fugitive and cloistered
virtue[1374]. Nor was the constant struggle against financial need,
leading as it did to many undesirable expedients for raising money, really
compatible with either dignity or unworldliness. There is a poverty which
breeds plain living and high thinking, a fair Lady Poverty whom St Francis
wedded. But there is also an unworthy, grinding poverty, which occupies
the mind with a struggle to make two ends meet and dulls it to finer
issues. Too often the poverty of the nunneries was of the last type.

Let it be conceded, therefore, that the celibate ideal was a hard one,
that the nuns were often recruited without any regard for their fitness to
follow it, and that some of the conditions of convent life, insufficiently
withdrawn from the temptations and disorders of the outside world, served
to promote rather than to restrain a breach of it. With these preliminary
warnings, an attempt may be made to estimate the moral state of the
English nunneries. The evidence for such a study falls into three classes,
the purely literary evidence of moralist and story-teller, the general
statements of ecclesiastical councils and the exact and specific evidence
of the Bishops' Registers. The literary evidence will be treated more
fully in a further chapter and need not detain us here. Langland's nun,
who had a child in cherry time, Gower's voice crying against the frailty
of woman kind, the "Dame Lust, Dame Wanton and Dame Nice," who haunted the
imaginary convent of the poem _Why I can't be a Nun_, are all well known,
as are the serious _exempla_, the pretty Mary-miracles, and the ribald
tales, which have for their subject an erring nun. They are useful as
corroborative evidence, but without more exact information they would tell
us little that is of specific value. Similarly the enactments of church
councils and general chapters are quite general. By far the most valuable
evidence as to monastic morals is contained in the Bishops' Registers,
whether in the accounts of visitations and the injunctions which followed
them, or in the special mandates ordering inquiry into a scandal, search
after an apostate, or penance upon a sinner. The visitation documents are
particularly useful. Where full _detecta_ are preserved, the moral state
of a house is vividly pictured; there you may see the unworthy Prioress,
whose bad example or weak rule has led her flock astray; there the nuns
conniving at a love affair and assisting an elopement, or complaining
bitterly of the dishonour wrought upon their house. If the register of
visitations be a full one, it is possible to form an approximately exact
estimate of the moral condition of all the nunneries in a particular
diocese at a particular time, in so far as it was known to the Bishop. If
a diocese possess a long and fairly unbroken series of registers, as at
York and Lincoln, the moral history of the house may be traced over a
long period of years. Supplementary evidence is sometimes also to be found
in the Papal Registers, when the Pope had been petitioned in favour of
some nun, or had heard rumours of the evil state of some nunnery; but
Papal letters on the subject are comparatively rare. The mass of the
information which follows is therefore derived from the invaluable records
of the bishops.

It seems quite clear that the nuns who broke their vows were always
willing parties to the breach. Few men would have been bold enough to
ravish a _Sponsa Dei_. Sometimes a bishop was led to suppose that a nun
had been carried away against her will, but he always found out in the end
that she had been in the plot; all abductions were in reality elopements.
In the Register of Bishop Sutton of Lincoln there is notice of an
excommunication pronounced in 1290 against the persons who abducted Agnes
of Sheen, a nun of Godstow. The Bishop announces that she and another nun
were journeying peacefully towards Godstow in a carriage belonging to
their house, when suddenly, in the very middle of the King's highway at
Wycombe, certain sons of perdition laid violent hands upon them and
dragged the unwilling Agnes out of her carriage and carried her off. But
he seems to have received a different account of the affair later, for in
the following year he announces that Agnes of Sheen, Joan of Carru and "a
certain kinswoman of the Lady Ela, Countess of Warwick," professed nuns of
Godstow, have fled from their house and, casting off their habit, are
living a worldly and dissolute life, to the scandal of the neighbourhood;
and he pronounces excommunication against the nuns and all their

Some nuns contrived to meet their lovers secretly, within the precincts of
their own convents, or outside during the visits which they paid so freely
despite the Bull _Periculoso_; they made no effort to leave their order,
and were only discovered if their behaviour were such as to create a
public scandal among the other nuns, or in the neighbouring villages.
Others, smitten deeply by "amor che a nullo amato amar perdona," hailed
insistently by the call of life outside, cast off their habits and left
their convents. They risked their immortal souls by doing so, for the
Church condemned the crime of apostasy far more severely than that of
unchastity, since it involved the breach of all the monastic vows, instead
of only one, and brought religion into dishonour in the eyes of laymen.
The nun who sinned was given a penance; the nun who apostatised was
excommunicated; and there were few who could withstand for long the sense
of utter isolation, even from a God whose love they had scorned. The bride
of Christ who could live happily under the shadow of the ban, who could
marry knowing her union to be unrecognised and even cursed by the
Church[1376], must have been of a most unmedieval scepticism, a most
unfeminine indifference to the scorn of her fellows; or drowned so deep in
love that she counted Heaven well lost. There were not many such; and the
majority of apostates returned to their order, worn out by remorse or by
persecution, or convinced at last that mortal love was but what the author
of _Hali Meidenhad_ named it, "a licking of honey off thorns."

It is no wonder that the majority of these apostates returned. What were
they but individuals? Against them was arrayed the might of two great
institutions, the Church and the State. Sometimes the might of the Church
alone availed to retrieve them; terror brought them of their own free
will, or they found themselves caught in a net of threats and
excommunications, involving not only themselves, but all who helped them.
When Isabel Clouvill, Maud Titchmarsh and Ermentrude Newark, for some time
nuns professed in the house of St Mary in the Meadows (Delapré),
Northampton, left their convent and went to live in sin in the world, they
were excommunicated. Moreover their Bishop ordered the Archdeacon of
Northampton to summon them to return within a week, and all who received
them in their houses or gave them any help and counsel, were to be warned
to desist within three days and to be given a penance. The names of the
villages where they were received were to be notified to the Bishop and
their aiders and abettors were to appear before him[1377]. How many people
would suffer for long the displeasure of the Church for the sake of three
runaway nuns? Lovers might be faithful, but even lovers must eat and drink
and sleep beneath a roof: a nun was no nut-brown maid to live content in
greenwood, "when the shawes be shene." If the pair could escape to a town
where their story was not known, there was some chance for them; but
sooner or later the Church found them out.

Suppose they scorned the Church; suppose powerful friends protected them,
or careless folk who snapped their fingers at the priest and knew too much
about begging friars to hold one amorous nun a monstrous, unexampled
scandal. Then the Church could call in the majesty of the State to help,
and what was a girl to do? Can one defy the King as well as the Bishop? To
a soul in hell must there be added a body in prison? Elizabeth Arundell
runs away from Haliwell in 1382, nor will she return. The Prioress
thereupon petitions the King; let His Highness stretch forth the secular
arm and bring back this lamb which wanders from the fold. His Highness
complies; and his commission goes forth to Thomas Sayvill,
sergeant-at-arms, John Olyver, John York, chaplain, Richard Clerk and John
Clerk to arrest and deliver to the Prioress of Haliwell in the diocese of
London, Elizabeth Arundell, apostate nun of that house[1378]. The
sheriffs of London and Middlesex and Essex and Hertford, as well as a
sergeant-at-arms and three other men, are all set hunting for Joan
Adeleshey, nun of Rowney, who is wandering about in secular dress to the
great scandal of her order[1379]. The net is wide; in the end the nun
nearly always comes back. She comes to the Bishop for absolution. He sends
a letter on her behalf to her convent, bidding them receive her in
sisterly wise, but abate no jot of the penance imposed on her. The
prodigal returns kneeling at the convent gate and begging admission, for
it is an age of ceremony and in these dramatic moments onlookers learn
their lesson[1380]. The gates swing open and close again: Sister Joan is

The most interesting of all the stories of apostasy which have been
preserved is the romantic affair of Agnes de Flixthorpe (alias de
Wissenden), nun of St Michael's, Stamford, which for ten years continually
occupied the attention of Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln[1381]. The story of
this poor woman is a tragic witness to the desperation into which convent
life could throw one who was not suited for it, as well as to the
implacable pursuit of her by the Church; for indeed the Hound of Heaven
appears in it in the aspect of a bloodhound. In 1309 Dalderby
excommunicated Agnes for apostasy and warned all persons against receiving
her into their houses or giving her any help. The next year he was obliged
to call in the secular arm against her. She was then living at Nottingham
and the Archdeacon of Nottingham was instructed to warn her to return.
Shortly afterwards the Bishop wrote to the Abbot of Peterborough, asking
him to see to her being taken back to her house and there imprisoned and
guarded. The combined efforts of the Sheriff, the Archdeacon of Nottingham
and the Abbot of Peterborough would appear to have succeeded. The hapless
woman was taken back to her house by force and still obdurate; and the
Bishop ordered her to be confined in a chamber with stone walls, each of
her legs shackled with fetters until she consented to resume her habit.
Her perseverance seems, however, to have worn out the nuns, and in 1311
the Bishop wrote to one Ada, sister of William de Helewell, instructing
her to take custody of Agnes. The reason for thus placing her in secular
charge was that her case was now _sub judice_, for two months later the
Bishop sent two commissioners to inquire into the whole question of the
apostasy. Agnes had declared that she was never professed at all, because
she had been married to one whose name she refused to give, before she
entered religion; and she still, said the bishop, continued in obstinacy.

But the Church did not easily relax its clutch. After three months the
Bishop wrote to his colleague the Bishop of Exeter, stating that Agnes de
Flixthorpe, after having been professed for twenty years, left her house
and was found wearing a man's gilt embroidered gown, that she was brought
back to her house, excommunicated and kept in solitude, and that she
remained obstinate and would not put on the religious habit. The Bishop,
thinking it desirable that she should be removed from the diocese for a
time, prayed his brother of Exeter that she might be received into the
house of Cornworthy, there to undergo penance and to be kept in safe
custody away from all the sisters. A clerk, Peter de Helewell (the
Helewells seem to have had some special interest in her), duly conveyed
Agnes far away from the level fields of the Midlands and the friends who
had hidden her from her persecutors, to the little Devonshire priory.
Solitude and despair for the moment broke her spirit and the next year,
in 1312, she declared her penitence and the Bishop of Exeter was
commissioned to absolve her; but she was kept in solitary confinement at
Cornworthy until 1314, when Peter de Helewell once more journeyed across
to Devonshire and brought her back to Stamford. Her native air blew hope
and rebellion once more into that wild heart. Four years later Dalderby
addressed a letter to the Prioress stating that Agnes de Flixthorpe had
three times left her order and resumed a secular habit and was now in the
world again and had been for two years past; reiterating once more the
futile injunction that the Prioress "under pain of excommunication and
without any dissimulation" was to bring her back and to keep her in safe
custody and solitude; the unfortunate Prioress had doubtless had more than
enough of Agnes de Flixthorpe and wished for nothing better than to leave
her in the world. The story ends abruptly here and it will never be known
whether Agnes de Flixthorpe was caught again.

It was perhaps merciful to receive again apostates whose hearts failed
them and who besought with tears to be reconciled to the Church. But the
forcible return of a hardened sinner cannot have raised the moral tone of
a house. Sometimes these nuns had lived for two or three years in the
world before they were brought back. Sometimes they broke out again,
yielded their easy virtue to a new lover, or fled once more into the
world. At Basedale (1308) Agnes de Thormondby had three times fallen thus
and left her order[1382]; and cases of more than one lover are not rare.
Sometimes the prioress of a house struggled to preserve her flock from
contagion by refusing to admit the returned sinner; thus the Prioress of
Rothwell in 1414 declined to comply with the Bishop's mandate to receive
back a certain Joan, saying that by her own confession the girl had lived
for three years with one William Suffewyk; whereupon the Bishop cited her
for disobedience and repeated his order[1383]. The only recorded case of a
woman being refused admission concerns a sister and not a professed nun;
in 1346 the Archbishop of York warned the Prioress of Nunappleton on no
account to receive back Margaret, a sister of the house, who had left it
pregnant, as he found that in the past she had on successive occasions
relapsed and been in a similar condition[1384]. It is significant that the
same Archbishop wrote to the Convent of Sinningthwaite (where they
opportunely preserved "the arm of St Margaret and the tunic of St Bernard,
believed to be good for women lying in") concerning one of their nuns
Margaret de Fonten, who had left the house pregnant, that "as she had only
done so once" her penance was to be mitigated[1385]. There can be no
plainer commentary on the literary theme of the nun unwillingly professed
than these cases of recurring frailty and apostasy. In the world these
girls might have been happy wives, each with a lover or two beside their
lords, like the ladies admired by Aucassin; for convents they were totally
unsuited and obeyed their natures only with woe and disgrace to themselves
and to their orders.

The pages of the Registers throw some light upon the partners of their
misdemeanours. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the
convents of France and Italy were the haunts of young gallants,
_monachini_, who specialised in intrigues with nuns[1386]. But the
seduction of a _Sponsa Dei_ was not a fashionable pursuit in medieval
England, and it was not as a rule lords and gentlemen who hung about the
precincts. Now we hear of a married man boarding in the house[1387], now
of the steward of the convent[1388], now of the bailiff of a manor[1389],
now of a wandering harp-player[1390], now of a smith's son[1391], now of
this or that layman, married or unmarried. But far more often the theme is
_Clericus et Nonna_. Nuns' lovers were drawn from that great host of
vicars, chaplains and chantry priests, themselves the children of the
Church and under the vow of chastity, whose needs were greatest and whose
very familiarity with the bonds of religion possibly bred contempt. As
visitors in their convents, or as acquaintances outside, the nuns were
constantly meeting members of this band of celibates, who roamed about "as
thick as motes in the sunbeam." They knew well how to sing, with Chaucer's
Pardoner, "Come hider, love, to me," and little enough like priests they
looked with their short tunics, peaked shoes and silvered girdles,

  Bucklers brode and swerdes long,
  Baudrike with baselardes kene,
  Sech toles about her necke they hong,
  With Antichrist seche prestes been.

Love would light on Alison, even were the lover a clerk and she a nun, and
sometimes where the priest had tempted he could absolve. What the young
man of fashion was to the Italian convent of the sixteenth century, the
chaplain was to the English convent of the fourteenth and fifteenth.
Sometimes the seducer was attached to the convent as chaplain and even
dwelt within the precincts. Bishop Sutton had to write to the Prioress of
Studley bidding her send away from the house John de Sevekwurth, clerk,
who had borne himself in such unseemly wise while he dwelt there, that he
had seduced two of the nuns[1392]. The chaplain of the house was involved
in cases at White Hall, Ilchester (1323)[1393], Moxby (1325)[1394] and
Catesby (1442)[1395], which may lend some support to the complaints of
Gower[1396] and other medieval moralists and an additional sting to the
good humoured chaff addressed by Chaucer's host to the nun's priest, Sir
John. That the spiritual father of the nuns could thus abuse his position
would seem almost incredible to anyone unfamiliar with medieval sources;
yet Gower goes further still, suggesting that even the visitors of the
convents were not always beyond suspicion[1397].

More often the lover had no connection with the nunnery, but had some post
as chaplain or vicar in the neighbourhood[1398]. Opportunities for a
meeting were not hard to obtain in the houses and gardens of the
town[1399], even in the church and precincts of the priory itself[1400],
as visitation _comperta_ show. Nor were cloistered monks proof against
temptation. They knew only too well what passionate hearts could beat
beneath a monastic habit and they knew the merry rhyme of Cockaygne land,
where every monk had his nun. It has already been shown that nuns and
monks met freely and that Bishops were constantly sending injunctions
against the admission of monks and friars to convents and the visits paid
by nuns to monasteries[1401]. Yet we hear of a nun of St Sepulchre's,
Canterbury, whose name scandal connected with the cellarer of the
Cathedral (1284)[1402]; of a nun of Lymbrook, who was the mistress of
William de Winton, Subprior of Leominster Priory, and not his only
mistress (1282)[1403]; of a nun of Swine, who had had two monks of the
Abbey of Meaux for her lovers (1310)[1404]. Bishop Alnwick's visitation of
the Lincoln diocese brought to light two such cases and in both the monk
was not the nun's sole lover. Agnes Butler (_alias_ Pery _alias_
Northampton) ran away from St Michael's, Stamford, for a day and a night
with Brother John Harreyes, an Austin friar; her secret was kept, but when
Alnwick visited her house in 1440 she had run away again, this time with a
harp-player, and had been living with him a year and a half at
Newcastle-on-Tyne, a far enough cry from Stamford[1405]. In 1445, when the
Bishop went to Godstow, he found Dame Alice Longspey grievously suspected,
by reason of her confabulations alone in the convent church with an Oxford
chaplain, who gave himself out to be her kinsman. A week later, while
visiting Eynsham Abbey, he received a further sidelight on her character
from the evidence of the abbot that

    one brother John Bengeworthe, a monk, who had been imprisoned for his
    ill desert, brake prison and went into apostasy, taking with him a nun
    of Godstow, but he has now been brought back to the monastery and is
    still doing penance.

The nun was Alice Longspey and it is significant that this particular
escapade had been concealed from the Bishop at his recent visitation of
Godstow[1406]. The most spirited enterprise of all, however, was the
combined effort of William Fox, parson of Lea (near Gainsborough) and John
Fox and Thomas de Lingiston, Friars Minor of Lincoln, who were indicted
before the Kings Justices at Caistor, because they came to Brodholme
Nunnery (one of the only two Premonstratensian houses in the kingdom) on
January 15th, 1350, and then and there "violently took and carried away,
against the peace of their lord the King, a certain nun, by name Margaret
Everingham, a sister of the said house, stripping her of her religious
habit and clothing her in a green gown of secular habit, taking also
divers goods to the value of 40 shillings"[1407].

Much as the church hated sin, it hated scandal even more and a nun might
often hope to have her frailty concealed by her fellows. Sometimes they
may have condoned it, for they are occasionally found assisting an
elopement[1408]; sometimes they feared episcopal interference and an evil
reputation for their house. But it was not always possible to conceal
these unhallowed unions and when a child was born the wretched nun could
not hope to escape disgrace and punishment[1409].

  And dame Peronelle a prestes file--Priouresse worth she neuere
  For she had childe in chirityme--all owre chapitere it wiste.

Usually Dame Pernell fled in despair to any friendly asylum which she
could find and only returned to her house after the birth and disposal of
her child. Sometimes she remained there in what privacy she might; and the
affair was managed with as little scandal as possible. The nuns of St
Michael's, Stamford, knew that their sister Margaret Mortimer had had a
child on this side of Easter; but even the Subprioress did not know (or
said she did not know) "of whom she conceived or whether she bare male or
female; howbeit she was absent from quire for a fortnight"[1410]. Once we
hear of an apostate, deserted and pregnant, coming back to St Mary's,
Winchester, and the wise and humane William of Wykeham writes to the
Abbess bidding her receive the girl gently and kindly, and keep her in
safety until the birth of her child, after which he will himself make
ordinance concerning her[1411]. It is hard to discover what became of
these most unwelcome children. It is not surprising that they sometimes
died[1412]. But if they lived their origin probably weighed but lightly on
them in those days, when it was regarded as no dishonour to have bastards,
who were often acknowledged by their fathers and provided for in their
wills side by side with true born sons and daughters. It is true that,
like other illegitimates, they could not be ordained or hold
ecclesiastical preferment, without a special dispensation. But even the
son of a nun could obtain such dispensation[1413] and even the daughter of
a nun did not always go undowered. There were not many monastic parents
like that seventeenth century abbess of Maubuisson who was rumoured to
have twelve children, who were brought up diversely, each according to the
rank of the father[1414], or like the Prior of Maiden Bradley, as
described by Henry VIII's commissioner, "an holy father prior and hath but
vj children and but one dowghter mariede, yet of the goods of the
monasteries trysting shortly to mary the rest, [and] his sones be tale men
waytting upon him"[1415]. Yet we hear of at least one Prioress who sold
the goods of her house to make a dowry for her daughter[1416].

If it be sought to know whether any houses were particularly liable to
scandals and enjoyed a bad name, it must be answered that it is almost
impossible to say. But isolated cases of immorality and apostasy come from
nunneries so widely distributed in different dioceses, that one must
conclude that most of them had at one time or another a sinner in their
midst. Often enough the case was isolated; occasionally there was scandal
about the general condition of a house in its neighbourhood. The
discipline and morals of convents were apt to vary with that of their
heads. It is significant that when a house is in a bad moral state the
fault may nearly always be traced to a weak or immoral prioress. So it was
at Wintney in 1405, at Redlingfield in 1427, at Markyate in 1433, at
Catesby in 1442, at St Michael's, Stamford, in 1445, at Littlemore in
1517, and at several Yorkshire nunneries. It is plain also that when a
convent was very small and poor, it was apt to become lax and disorderly.
The small Yorkshire houses bear witness to this and if further proof be
required the state of Cannington in 1351 and Easebourne in 1478 may be
quoted from among several other instances.

Cannington in Somerset was a small and poor house, but its nuns were drawn
from some of the best county families. In 1351 it was visited by
commissioners of Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, and they
found something more like a brothel than a priory. Maud Pelham and Alice
Northlode (a young lady whom the Bishop had forced on the unwilling
convent, on his elevation to the See some twenty years before) were in the
habit of frequently admitting and holding discourse with suspected
persons. The inevitable chaplain was again the occasion for a fall. On
dark nights they held long and suspicious confabulations with Richard
Sompnour and Hugh Willynge, chaplains, in the nave of the convent church.
Hugh was apparently only too willing and Richard was even as Chaucer's
summoner, "as hot he was and lecherous as a sparrow," for (say the
commissioners) "it is suspected by many that as a result of these
conversations they fall into yet worse sin." Moreover

    "the said sisters, and in particular the said Maud, not content with
    this evil behaviour, are wont _per insolencias, minas et tactus
    indecentes_ to provoke many of the serving men of the place to sin,"
    and, "to make use of her own words she says that she will never once
    say _Mea culpa_ for these great misdeeds, but turning like a virago
    upon the prioress and the other sisters who abhor the aforesaid
    things, when they reproach her, she threatens to do manly execution
    upon them with knives and other weapons."

Nor was this all:

    In the said visitation the charge was made, dreadful to say, horrible
    to hear, and was proven by much evidence as to notoriety and by
    confession, that a certain nun of the said house, Joan Trimelet,
    having cast away the reins of modesty ... was found with child, but
    not indeed by the Holy Ghost, and afterwards gave birth to offspring,
    to the grave disgrace and confusion of her religion and to the scandal
    of many.

These were the most serious charges; but the same visitation revealed that
the Prioress was weak and had been guilty of the simoniacal reception of
four nuns, for the sake of scraping together some money, while the
subprioress was incurably lazy, refused to attend matins and other
canonical hours, and neglected to correct her delinquent sisters[1417]. It
is plain that the whole house was utterly demoralised and the
demoralisation was possibly of long standing, for there had been one of
the usual election quarrels in the early part of the century, and in 1328
the then Bishop had issued a commission to inquire into the illicit
wanderings of certain nuns[1418]. Yet the priory was a favourite resort of

Easebourne, again, was a poor but very aristocratic house, containing
towards the close of the fifteenth century from six to ten nuns. In 1478
Bishop Story of Chichester visited it and found grave need for his
interference. One of the nuns, Matilda Astom, deposed

    that John Smyth, chaplain, and N. Style, a married man in the service
    of Lord Arundel, had and were accustomed to have great familiarity
    within the said priory, as well as elsewhere, with Dame Joan
    Portsmouth and Dame Philippa King, nuns of the said priory, but
    whether the said Sir John Smyth and N. Style abducted, or caused to be
    abducted, the said Joan Portsmouth and Philippa King she knows not, as
    she says.

(Another nun deposed that they did.)

    And moreover she says that a certain William Gosden and John Capron of
    Easebourne aforesaid, guarded and kept in their own houses the said
    Joan and Philippa for some time before their withdrawal from the said
    priory and took their departure with them and so were great
    encouragers to them in that particular.

Another nun, Joan Stevyn, deposed that the two nuns had each had, long
before their withdrawal, "children or a child." Another said that Sir John
Senoke (i.e. Sevenoaks, clearly the same as John Smyth)

    much frequented the priory, so that during some weeks he passed the
    night and lay within the priory every night, and was cause, as she
    believes, of the ruin of the said Sir John Smyth (_sic_, MS. ? Joan
    Portsmouth). Also she says Sir John Smyth gave many gifts to Philippa

All the nuns agreed in blaming the Prioress for not having properly
punished the two sinners and one raked up a vague story that "she had had
one or two children several years ago"; but as she admitted that this was
hearsay and as the Prioress was then at least fifty years old, too much
credit must not be given to it. On the same day a certain "Brother William
Cotnall," evidently attached in some capacity, perhaps as _custos_, to the
house, appeared before the Bishop and confessed that he had sealed a
licence to Joan Portsmouth to go out of the Priory and had himself sinned
with Philippa King. The two priests, Smyth and Cotnall, had not only
debauched the convent, but had done their best to ruin it financially; for
they had persuaded the Prioress to pawn the jewels of the house for
fifteen pounds, in order to purchase a Bull of Capacity for Cotnall, who
had then sealed with the common seal of the convent, against the wish of
the Prioress, a quittance for John Smyth concerning all and every sort of
actions and suits which the convent might have against him, and especially
the matter of the jewels[1419].

But if small houses fell easily into disorder, great abbeys were not
exempt from contagion. Cases of immorality are found at Wilton,
Shaftesbury, Romsey, St Mary's Winchester, Wherwell and Elstow, all of
them abbeys and among them the oldest and richest in the land. It is the
same with two other houses, famous in legend, Amesbury, where Guinevere
"let make herself a nun and wore white clothes and black," and Godstow,
where Fair Rosamond lay buried in the chapter house. Here, where
deathless romance had its dwelling place, it is not strange that the
winged god ever and again took his toll of the nuns. But what sorry
substitutes for Guinevere and Rosamond were the trembling apostates, who
fled into hiding to bear their miserable infants and were haled back by
bishops to do penance in the cloister.

  Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy

The ancient house of Amesbury fell into evil ways in the twelfth century.
In 1177 its abbess was said to have borne three children and its nuns were
notorious for their evil lives, whereupon the convent was dissolved, most
of the nuns being placed in other houses, and Amesbury was then
reconstituted as a cell of Fontevrault and peopled with a prioress and
twenty-four nuns, brought over from that house[1420]. Queen Eleanor, widow
of Henry III, took the veil there and by her influence Edward I allowed
his daughter Mary to become a nun there, together with twelve noble
maidens[1421]. But the sin of Guinevere haunted it. About Mary herself
there is an ancient unexplained scandal, for in a papal mandate she is
declared to have been seduced by John de Warenne, the rather disreputable
Earl of Surrey[1422]; and she seems to have been as much out of her house
as in it, for she constantly visited court and went on pilgrimages. Later
still the papal benevolence was exerted on behalf of Margaret Greenfield,
nun of Amesbury, who had borne a child after her profession (1398)[1423],
and Cecily Marmyll, who "after having lived laudably for some time in the
said monastery, allowed herself to be carnally known by two secular
priests and had offspring by each of them" (1424)[1424]. These ladies were
doubtless well born, with wealthy friends, who could afford to petition
the Pope and buy restoration to the monastic dignities and offices, which
they had lost by their fault. The story of Godstow is very similar. There
seems to have been some scandal about the morals of the subprioress in
1284, but Peckham announced that he did not believe a word of it[1425]. In
1290, however, a nun of noble birth was (as we saw) carried off from her
carriage; and she and two others were apostate in the following year.
Another apostate repented and was absolved in 1339. In 1432 a nun was
found by the bishop with child and in 1445 Dame Alice Longspey indulged in
the escapades already described with an Oxford priest and a monk of
Eynsham. All through the career of the convent, it was continually being
warned against the recourse of scholars from Oxford. Both Amesbury and
Godstow enjoyed fame and good repute and at the latter children were
received for education. Their history shows that even the most
aristocratic and popular houses fell sometimes on evil days and sometimes
sheltered unworthy inmates.

It is of considerable interest to study the condition of all the nunneries
in a particular part of the country at a particular date. An analysis of
the references to the Yorkshire houses has been made elsewhere[1426]; here
we may study a diocese in which the conditions of daily life were less
abnormal than they were on the Scottish border. A rather imperfect view of
the state of the diocese of Lincoln between the years 1290 and 1360 may be
gleaned from the registers of Bishops Sutton, Dalderby, Burghersh and
Gynewell; it is imperfect because there are not many visitation records,
and information has chiefly to be derived from episcopal mandates for the
return of apostates[1427], which leave us with little knowledge of the
internal discipline of houses from which nuns did not happen to run away.
The names of eleven out of the four and thirty[1428] nunneries of the
diocese occur in connection with apostates during these years, six
Benedictine, four Augustinian and one Cluniac. The apostasy of three
Godstow nuns in 1290 has already been described[1429]. There was an
apostate at Wothorpe in 1296[1430] and two years later a nun of Harrold
was found guilty of unchastity[1431]. Apostates are also mentioned from
Sewardsley in 1300[1432], from Goring in 1309 and again in 1358[1433],
from Markyate in 1336[1434] and from St Leonard's, Grimsby, in 1337[1435].
At Burnham there is the case of Margery Hedsor, who was excommunicated at
intervals for apostasy between 1311 and 1317[1436]. St Mary in the Meadows
(Delapré), Northampton, seems to have been in a bad state, for in 1300
three nuns, said to have been professed for some years, were
excommunicated for leaving their convent and living in carnal sin in the
world, and in 1311 there was another apostate from the house[1437]. St
Michael's, Stamford, provides the curious story of Agnes de Flixthorpe,
and the almost equally tragic case of Agnes Bowes, ex-Prioress of
Wothorpe, all of whose fellows had died in the Black Death and whose house
had therefore been annexed to St Michael's, Stamford, in 1354. She was
evidently unable to settle down in her new home and she ran away from it
five years later[1438]. In the plague year 1349, Ella de Mounceaux, a nun
of Nuncoton, who had obtained leave of absence and instead of returning
had become the mistress of John Haunsard, appeared with tears before the
Bishop and begged to be sent back to her house[1439].

This list of apostates is, as has been said, necessarily incomplete and
gives no details as to the state of the nunneries absolved. A much more
exact impression can be gained of the diocese a century later, during the
twenty years between 1430 and 1450, when Bishops Gray and Alnwick were
visiting the religious houses under their control; Alnwick's Register is
particularly valuable, since the verbal evidence of the nuns is preserved.
If we take Gray's Register first, we find serious charges of general
misconduct made against three houses, Markyate and Flamstead in 1431 and
Sewardsley in 1432. The Bishop wrote to a canon of Lincoln that

    abundant rumour and loud whisperings have brought to our hearing that
    in the priories of the Holy Trinity of the Wood by Markyate and of St
    Giles by Flamstead ... certain things forbidden, hateful, guilty and
    contrary to holy religion and regular discipline are daily done and
    brought to pass in damnable wise by the said prioresses, nuns and
    other, servingmen and agents of the said places; by reason whereof the
    good report of the same places is set in jeopardy, the brightness and
    comeliness of religion in the same persons are grievously spotted,
    inasmuch as the whole neighbourhood is in commotion herefrom.

The canon is accordingly told to inquire into the scandals and punish
delinquents[1440]. Unfortunately the result of the inquiry has not been
preserved; three years later the Bishop deputed another commissioner to
inquire into the condition of Markyate and from his letters of commission
it is plain that he had himself visited the house, but that the Prioress
and sisters had managed to conceal their misdeeds from him. Since then he
had learnt that one of the nuns, Katherine Tyttesbury, had been guilty of
immorality and apostasy and that the Prioress herself had failed to obey
his injunctions. The commissioner was therefore ordered to go to Markyate,
absolve the apostate if she made submission and, if necessary, depose the
Prioress. The result of the inquiry was that the Prioress, Denise
Loweliche, was charged with having consorted with Richard, the steward of
the Priory, for five years and more, up to the time of his death, so that
"public talk and rumour during the said time were busy touching the
premises in the town of Markyate and other places, neighbouring and
distant, in the diocese of Lincoln and elsewhere." The Prioress denied the
charge and begged to be allowed to clear herself, so the commissioner
ordered her, in addition to her own oath, to find five out of her ten nuns
as compurgatresses, i.e. to swear to her innocence. She sought in vain for
help among her sisters; at the appointed hour she begged for an extension
of time and the commissioner granted her this boon, "so that she might be
able meanwhile to communicate and take counsel with her sisters," and also
"of a more liberal grace," declared himself ready to take the word of four
nuns on her behalf. The picture of the wretched Prioress going from nun
to nun, imploring each to forswear herself, with heaven knows what threats
and entreaties, is a melancholy one. Not even four nuns could be found to
swear to her innocence, so clear and notorious was her guilt, and she laid
her formal resignation in the hands of the bishop[1441].

The other nunnery against which a general charge of immorality was made by
the Bishop in 1434 was the Cistercian house of Sewardsley, of which he
said that the Prioress and nuns,

    following the enticements of the flesh and abandoning the path of
    religion and casting aside the restraint of all modesty and chastity,
    are giving their minds to debauchery, committing in damnable wise in
    public and as it were, in the sight of all the people, acts of
    adultery, incest, sacrilege and fornication[1442].

The report of the inquiry held has not been preserved, but there was
obviously something seriously amiss. Gray had also to deal with individual
cases of immorality at three other houses. Already at Elstow in 1390
Archbishop Courtenay on his metropolitan visitation had made a general
injunction that

    no nun convicted or publicly defamed of the crime of incontinency, be
    deputed to any office within the monastery and especially to that of
    gatekeeper, until it be sufficiently established that she has made
    purgation of her innocence[1443],

an injunction repeated _verbatim_ by Bishop Flemyng of Lincoln in
1421[1444]. Now in 1432 Gray found that a nun named Pernell had been
"several times guilty of fleshly lapse" and was leading an apostate life
in secular dress outside the house; which speaks but ill for the moral
state of an important abbey[1445]. In the same year he found one of the
nuns of Godstow _enceinte_[1446], and in 1433 inquiry showed that Ellen
Cotton, nun of Heynings, had recently had a child[1447].

The worst cases found by Alnwick when he visited the religious houses of
the diocese ten years later have already been described and the evidence
of his register can be summarised briefly. All was well at Elstow,
Heynings and Markyate; Dame Pernell [Gauthorpe], Dame Ellen Cotton and
Dame Katherine Tyttesbury were all dwelling peaceably among their sisters;
even the disreputable Denise Loweliche was still, in spite of her
resignation, ruling as Prioress of Markyate. An echo of old difficulties
remained, however, at this last house and one nun begged the Bishop to
speak to the Prioress, "to the end that she take better heed to the nuns
who have previously erred, so that they be kept more strictly from erring
again than is wont"[1448]; evidently discipline was not strict. At Godstow
disorders had not yet ceased. The nuns received visitors and paid visits
freely and scholars of Oxford still haunted the house; moreover one of the
nuns, Dame Alice Longspey (of whom we have heard before), was of very easy
virtue[1449]. In two other houses Alnwick found great disorder prevailing:
the _régime_ of Margaret Wavere, Prioress of Catesby, has already been
described, her bad language, her temper, her dishonesty and her priestly
lover; and her chief accuser Isabel Benet had borne a child to the
chaplain of the house[1450]. Similarly we have seen into what a
disreputable state St Michael's, Stamford, fell under an aged and impotent
Prioress; how one nun ran away with an Austin friar and then with a
wandering harp-player, and how two others had borne children or were
notoriously held to be unchaste; this is one of the worst houses which the
records of medieval nunneries have brought to light[1451]. Finally there
is the doubtful case of Ankerwyke, where the Prioress is said through
negligence to have allowed no less than six nuns to go into apostasy, a
fact which she freely admitted; but whether they had merely removed
themselves through discontent with an unpopular prioress, or whether they
had eloped it is impossible to say. At any rate they had not

It is interesting to attempt a statistical estimate of the moral condition
of the Lincoln nunneries during the twenty years from 1430 to 1450. It is
possible to do so with some accuracy because the nuns giving evidence in
each convent are enumerated in Alnwick's reports. If we omit the general
charges against Sewardsley and Flamstead and the ambiguous apostasy of the
six nuns of Ankerwyke, we have twelve out of 220 nuns guilty of immoral
behaviour, or a little over five per cent.; but this is certainly an
understatement, having regard to the loss of the Sewardsley and Flamstead
inquiries and of other visitations by the two bishops, to say nothing of
possible concealment by the nuns. Between them Gray and Alnwick have left
on record visitations or inquiries relating to twenty-four houses and
cases of immorality came to light at eight, that is to say at one-third of
the number visited. All except two of these, Elstow and Heynings, were
very seriously affected, more than one nun having succumbed to sin; and
the Prioress was found guilty in two and probably suspected in two others.
The situation seems a serious one and Alnwick's visitations of the houses
of monks and canons which were in his diocese show that the men were more
lax in their behaviour than the women.

A similar statistical estimate can be made of the condition of convents in
the diocese of Norwich during the visitation by Bishop Nykke or his
commissary in 1514[1453]. Eight convents, containing between them
seventy-two nuns, were visited and only one case of immorality was found,
at Crabhouse[1454]. This is a far more favourable picture than that
presented by the diocese of Lincoln in the previous century. Again in 1501
Dr Hede visited the nunneries of the diocese of Winchester as commissary
of the Prior of Canterbury, during the vacancy of the sees of Canterbury
and Winchester[1455]. The diocese contained only four houses, but three of
them were important abbeys, St Mary's, Winchester, with fourteen nuns,
Wherwell with twenty-two and Romsey with forty; the fourth was Wintney
Priory, with ten nuns. All seem to have been in perfect order except
Romsey, which had fallen into decay under the _régime_ of an abbess who
had herself been guilty of adultery, and where one of the nuns was
charged with incontinence with the vicar of the parish church.
Unfortunately the record of the visitation is left incomplete and there
are no injunctions; hence it is impossible to say whether the last charge
was true, but the abbey had been in a disordered state for some years
past[1456]. Another diocese for which an estimate can be made is
Chichester, but it contained only two nunneries, Rusper and Easebourne. At
Bishop Story's visitation in 1478 all was well at Rusper, a poor and
ruinous little house containing seven nuns; but all was very far from well
at Easebourne, where six nuns remained and two had gone into apostasy
after conducting themselves in the thoroughly dissolute manner described
above[1457]. At Bishop Sherborne's visitation in 1524 the number of nuns
at Rusper had fallen to four, but there was no complaint except that a
certain William Tychenor had frequent access to the priory and sowed
discord between the Prioress and her three sisters. At Easebourne there
were eight nuns, but the house seems not to have recovered its tone after
the scandals of 1524. The subprioress deposed that some twelve years
before a certain Ralph Pratt had seduced a sister; yet the convent had
granted him the proceeds of the church of Easebourne and he still had much
access to the priory[1458]. It is a pity that more of these statistical
estimates, imperfect as they are, cannot be made.

It remains to consider what steps were taken to punish offenders and to
reform evils. The crime of seducing a nun was always considered an
extremely serious one; she was _Sponsa Dei_, inviolable, sacrosanct.
Anglo-Saxon law fined the ravisher heavily, and a law of Edward I declared
him liable to three years imprisonment, besides satisfaction made to the
convent. There is, however, no evidence that the State imprisoned or
otherwise punished persons guilty of this crime, though it was always
ready to issue the writ _De apostata capiendo_, for the recovery of a monk
or nun who had fled. Whenever the lover of a nun is found undergoing
punishment, it is always a punishment inflicted by the Church. If a man
had abducted a nun, or were accused of seducing her, he was summoned
before the Bishop or Archdeacon and required to purge himself of the
charge. If he pleaded "Not guilty" a day was appointed, on which he had
to clear himself by the oath of a number of compurgators. Thus the
Prioress of Catesby's lover, the priest William Taylour, was summoned
before Bishop Alnwick in the church of Brampton; there he denied the crime
and was told to bring five chaplains, of good report, who had knowledge of
his behaviour, in a few days' time to the parish church of Rothwell[1459].
The result of his attempt to find compurgators is not known, but the
Prioress had already failed to get four of her nuns to support her and had
been pronounced guilty. One wonders what happened when the man produced
compurgators and the lady failed to do so: for these misdemeanours _à
deux_ the compurgatorial system would seem a little uncertain.

If a man's guilt were proven by his failure to provide compurgators or to
come before the Bishop, it remained to decree his punishment. The obdurate
were excommunicated until such time as they submitted. The penitent were
adjudged a penance. There is abundant evidence that the penance given by
the Church was always a severe one. The classical instance is that of Sir
Osbert Giffard in 1286. The Giffards were a large and influential West
country family and in the last quarter of the thirteenth century several
of the children of Hugh Giffard of Boyton rose to high positions in the
Church. His eldest son, Walter, became in turn Bishop of Bath and Wells
and Archbishop of York, dying in 1279, and his second son Godfrey became
Bishop of Worcester. Of his daughters one, Juliana, is found as Abbess of
Wilton in 1275, another, Mabel, as Abbess of Shaftesbury in 1291, and a
third, Agatha, would seem to have held a position of some importance at
Elstow, though she was never Abbess there[1460]. These great ladies do not
seem to have had a very good influence in their nunneries, in spite of the
exalted position of their brothers. In 1270 the Bishop of Lincoln writes
apologetically to Walter Giffard, Archbishop of York, concerning scandals
which have arisen in Elstow, "whence more frequently than in any other
house beneath our rule scandals of wicked deeds arise," and it is clear
from his letter that the Abbess and the Bishop's sister were
implicated[1461]. In 1298 also the Abbess and nuns of Shaftesbury had
incurred excommunication "for their offences against God and by the
creation of scandal"[1462]. But the most serious mishap occurred at Wilton
in 1286. Here Juliana Giffard[1463] had under her rule a young relative
named Alice Giffard, and in this year Sir Osbert Giffard, knight (whose
exact relationship to the Abbess and the Bishop and to Alice is not
clear), "with sacrilegious hand ravished and abducted in the silence of
the night sisters Alice Russel and Alice Gyffard, professed according to
the rule of St Benedict in the monastery of Wylton." Archbishop Peckham
and the Bishop of Salisbury forthwith excommunicated Sir Osbert, who
eventually made his submission. It was indeed an unfortunate scandal to
occur in a Bishop's family and created a great stir in the country round.
Godfrey's concern is shown by the appearance in his Worcester Register of
the Bishop of Salisbury's letter to the Sub-dean of Salisbury and others
announcing the penance to be imposed upon the abductor[1464].

This penance was as follows:

    The bishop enjoined upon him that he should restore the aforesaid
    sisters and all goods of the monastery withdrawn and should make all
    the satisfaction that he possibly could to the abbess and convent. And
    that on Ash Wednesday in the church of Salisbury, the said crime being
    solemnly published before the clergy and people, he should humbly
    permit himself to be taken to the door of the church, with bare feet,
    in mourning raiment and uncovered head, with other penitents and
    should be beaten with sticks about the church on three holy days and
    on three Tuesdays through the market of Salisbury and so often and in
    like manner about the church of Wylton and through the market there
    and he should be likewise beaten about the church of Amesbury and the
    market there and about the church of Shaftesbury and the market there.
    In his clothing from henceforth there shall not appear any cloaks of
    lamb's wool, gilt spurs or horse trappings, or girdle of a knight,
    unless in the meantime he should obtain special grace of the king, but
    he shall take journey to the Holy Land and there serve for three

The penance was thus severe; but it is another matter to say that it was
always duly performed. A man who had already risked his immortal soul
once, by the seduction of a nun, might well choose to undergo
excommunication and risk it a second time, by refusing to do penance. The
lover of a nun of Harrold in 1298 was thus excommunicated for refusing to
be beaten through the market-place[1466]. Moreover there were endless ways
of delaying the humiliating ceremony. Take the case of Richard Gray, the
married boarder to whom Elizabeth Willoughby bore a child at St Michael's,
Stamford. On July 3rd, 1442, in the parish church of Wellingborough, the
Bishop caused him to swear upon the Holy Book that he would abjure the
priory and all communication with Elizabeth. He then sentenced him to four
floggings round one of the churches of Stamford on four Sundays or feast

    carrying in his hand before the procession of the same church a taper
    of one pound's worth of wax, being clothed in his doublet and linen
    garments only, and on the last of the said four days, after the
    procession is finished, he has to offer the said taper to the high
    altar of the said Church.

Moreover he was to perform a like penance on four Fridays, going round the
market-place of Stamford, and within a month he was also to make
pilgrimage on horseback to Lincoln Cathedral and when he came within five
miles of Lincoln, to dismount and go barefoot to the cathedral and there
offer to the high altar a taper of one pound's weight. The very evening,
however, that this severe penance was imposed, Richard Gray came before
the Bishop again and made lowly supplication that he would deign to temper
the penance; whereupon Alnwick, "moved with compassion on him," commuted
the penance round the market-place to a payment of twenty shillings to the
nuns of St Michael's, to be paid within a month, and another twenty
shillings to the fabric of the cathedral church, to be paid within six
weeks. Gray was to bring the Bishop letters testimonial as to the payment
of the forty shillings and the performance of the penance at Lincoln, also
within six weeks. But Richard had no intention of buying expensive wax
candles, paying forty shilling fines, catching cold in his shirt at
Stamford or humiliating himself at Lincoln. When summoned to do his
penance he appealed to the court of Canterbury. The Bishop then got
licence from the commissary of the official in that court to proceed
against the delinquent and summoned him to show cause why he had not done
penance. On November 15th, 1442, the slippery Richard appeared by proxy
before the Bishop's commissioner and said that he was "withheld by so many
and so sore infirmities of fevers and other kinds, lying in his bed every
other day, that he could not without grievous bodily harm appear in person
in or on the same day and place." The commissioner postponed his
appearance until December 11th and eventually he appeared on that day, but
showing no cause why he had not performed his penance, and was
excommunicated again by the Bishop, at which point he drops out of
history, with his penance still unperformed[1467].

It was no doubt an easier matter to exact penance from a nun. The apostate
was excommunicated until she made submission and returned to her convent.
Sometimes a very obdurate sinner was transferred to do penance at another
nunnery; the punishment was a common one in the diocese of York[1468] and
a wicked Prioress of Redlingfield was sent to Wix in 1427[1469]; but
nunneries not unnaturally sometimes objected to having to support at their
cost an evilly disposed woman from another house[1470]. More commonly the
sinner did penance in her own house. If particularly obdurate, she was
imprisoned for a time and even, if need be, shackled, in some secure place
in the convent[1471]. A severe penance was imposed in 1321 by Archbishop
Melton upon Maud of Terrington, an apostate nun of Keldholme, who had for
long lived in sin in the world. She was to be last in choir at all the
canonical hours, and when not in choir to be confined in solitude. She was
never to go out of the precincts of the cloister and was to be forever
debarred from speaking with lay folk and from sending or receiving
letters. She was not to be allowed to wear the black Benedictine veil,
which marked her as a nun, until such time as the Archbishop should
mitigate her penance, and should fast with bread and vegetables on
Wednesdays and bread and water on Fridays. For the rest of her life she
was never to wear a shift next her skin. On Wednesdays and Fridays she was
to go barefoot in the presence of the convent round the cloister, all
secular persons having been excluded, and there receive two beatings by
the hand of the Prioress and on each other day of the week she was to
receive one such discipline. Every week she was to say two psalters,
besides _Placebo_ and _Dirige_ and the commendation for the dead, which
she was to say each day for the remission of her sins. She was never to be
present at the daily consultations of the chapter, or at any other
convent business, but "let her lie prone before the convent at the
entrance of the choir, to be spurned by their feet, if they will"[1472].

This was a particularly severe, not to say inhuman, penance and it is
unlikely that such was the rule even in the case of obdurate offenders. A
guilty nun at Crabhouse in 1514 is told to sit last among her sisters for
a month and to say seven psalters during that period[1473] and a novice at
Redlingfield in 1427 is to go in front of the solemn procession of the
convent on Sunday, wearing no veil and clad in white flannel[1474]. The
former was not an apostate, though she had had a child, and the latter was
not yet professed and had been led away by the bad example of her
Prioress; nevertheless these penances seem sufficiently mild, in
comparison with the orthodox view of their offence. Fasting and
penitential psalms and some outward mark of degradation, such as the loss
of the veil and of the place in choir and chapter, to which the nun's
standing in the convent entitled her, were common penances. A guilty nun
was also debarred from holding any conventual office; but it must be
admitted that this salutary precaution was not always strictly carried
out. Occasionally a visitor is obliged to make a general injunction
against the holding of office by nuns convicted or suspected of
incontinence; Archbishop Courtenay mentions specifically the office of
portress[1475], a necessary precaution when one remembers how often the
French and Italian _tourière_ of a later date was little better than a
procuress. Frequently notorious evil-doers retained their position, and it
is surprising to notice how often persons who were obviously unsuitable
and immoral were elected to the headship of a house, or continued to hold
that position after conviction. Sabina de Apelgarth, who had been in
apostasy when a simple nun of Moxby in 1310, is found holding office in
1318, for Archbishop Melton orders her to be removed from all offices and
not to go outside the convent and couples his injunction with a general
prohibition against any office being held by a nun convicted _de lapsu
carnis_. Yet she apparently became Prioress of the house, for her removal
on account of further misconduct is noted in 1328[1476]. Isabel de
Berghby, Prioress of Arthington, apostatised in 1312, but returned
eighteen months later and was re-elected Prioress in 1349[1477]. In 1310
Isabella de St Quintin was ordered to be removed from the office of
cellaress in the presence of the whole convent of Nunkeeling, and the nuns
were ordered not to appoint her to any other office nor allow her to leave
the house; but in 1316 Isabella de St Quintin was elected Prioress[1478].
Denise Loweliche, the Prioress of Markyate, who had been so ready to add
perjury to incontinence in 1433 and had resigned only because she could
not find four nuns to swear to her innocence, was still, despite her
resignation, Prioress when Alnwick visited the house in 1442. Abbess
Elizabeth Broke of Romsey was similarly re-elected, after having been
found guilty of perjury and adultery[1479]. Even the wicked Prioress of
Littlemore (1517) was deprived but "allowed to perform the functions of
her office for the present, provided she did nothing without the advice of
the Bishop's commissary" and she was still acting-Prioress and behaving as
badly as ever when the house was visited again some nine months
later[1480]. Moreover it was possible for an influential sinner to obtain
a dispensation reinstating her to her position and allowing her to hold
office. Some curious papal mandates to this effect are extant. Joan
Goldesburgh, a nun of Nunmonkton, is so dispensed in 1450 "to receive and
hold any dignities, even of Abbess and Prioress, even conventual, of her
order, even if they be elective and have cure of souls"[1481], and two
nuns of Amesbury were restored to their voice and place in stall and
chapter, and rendered eligible for all offices even that of Abbess in 1398
and 1424[1482]. On the other hand such a dispensation shows that the
penance had been rigorously enforced; one of the nuns (a serious offender
who had had children by two priests) is said to have lived laudably in the
nunnery for six years since her condemnation. Occasionally, moreover, the
office of head of the house is specifically excepted in the

Besides punishing offenders, the Bishops took steps to effect a general
reform of convents which they found in an unsatisfactory moral state, by
removing as far as possible the conditions which facilitated immorality.
Such steps usually consisted in forbidding the nuns to wander about freely
outside their houses and in prohibiting the visits of men, except under
safeguards. Sometimes a careful Bishop issues a special injunction against
a particular visitor, sometimes he enumerates painfully a list of
chaplains and others whose access to the precincts of a nunnery is
forbidden. These attempts to enforce enclosure have been dealt with
elsewhere[1484], and a study of convent morals shows how necessary a
principle of monastic life it was and how closely the breach of it was
connected with moral decay. The attempt at reform by stricter enclosure
was, as we know, not a success. The Bishops "beat the air" in vain with
their restrictions. In the nature of the case the control exercised by any
Bishop over the monastic houses of his diocese varied according to his own
energy or leisure. If visitation were made only at rare intervals, abuses
persisted and became public scandals before they were reformed, and even
after visitation it by no means followed that abuses would be
corrected[1485]. The fact is that the medieval bishops were too badly
overworked to be able to keep any systematic control over the monastic
houses in their dioceses, in spite of the energy which some of them gave
to the task and in spite of a liberal use of commissioners.

To pass a final judgment on the moral state of English nunneries, as
revealed by the bishops' registers during the later middle ages, is, as
has already been suggested, a difficult task. From the monastic standard
it cannot be said to have been high, but from the human standard it is not
difficult to excuse these women, professed so young and with so little
regard for vocation, _suos calores macerantes juveniles_. The nun was not
a saint; she was "a child of our grandmother Eve, a female, or for thy
more sweet understanding, a woman"; and only a habit of making allowances
for human nature can give a right understanding of her. The explanation of
the matter seems to be that monasticism as a career is not for _l'homme
moyen sensuel_, or even for _la femme moyenne sensuelle_; and in the later
middle ages many folk of average, or more than average, passions entered
it. Indeed its whole career is from the beginning a magnificent series of
recoveries from a melancholy series of relapses. Even in the Anglo-Saxon
period, the golden age of the English nunneries, the scandal of Coldingham
has to be set against the glory of Whitby[1486]. In the height of the
twelfth century the misdeeds of Amesbury provoke episcopal, royal, and
papal interference and nuns from the new order of Fontevrault are brought
in to reform the house[1487]. In the middle of the splendid thirteenth
century that hammer of the monks, Bishop Grosseteste, who _in religiosos
terribiliter et in religiosas terribilius consuevit fulgurare_, conceived
himself justified in employing measures of incredible brutality for
assuring himself of the virtue of his nuns[1488]; and the evidence of
bishops' registers for the second half of the century does not give an
impression of much greater strictness of life than is found in the
nunneries of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when monasticism had,
by the admission of its apologists, passed its prime[1489].

Nevertheless there was a steady movement downhill in the history of the
monasteries during the last two centuries and a half before the
dissolution[1490]. They shared in the growing degradation of the Church in
its head and members. The "mighty lord who broke the bonds of Rome" may
have been actuated merely by a desire to break the bonds of matrimony, but
there was some need for reform among the monastic houses. It is true that
the so-called scandalous _comperta_ of Henry VIII's visitors cannot be
taken at their face value; these men had been sent to make a black case
and they made it, nor was their own character such as to encourage the
slightest belief in their words. Yet in those _comperta_ themselves there
is nothing which is unfamiliar to the student of episcopal registers for
two centuries before, and charges which a Layton made with levity, an
Alnwick was forced sometimes to make with despair[1491]. Yet this may be
said for the nunneries of the age, over and above the allowance for human
frailty: not all, nor even the majority, were tainted with serious sin,
though all were worldly. We think a house particularly disordered, only
because we have record of its failings; of its virtues we have no record
in inquisitions which were directed towards the discovery of abuses. It is
true that this cuts both ways, and that in dioceses where few or no
registers and reports remain the fair fame of the nuns remains
unblemished, whatever their lives may have been. Happy the nunnery that
has no history. Nevertheless in this as in so many other tales of human

  The evil that men do lives after them--
  The good is oft interred with their bones,

and it will never be known what lives of self-sacrifice and devotion may
be hidden behind the _Omnia bene_ of an obscure visitation record. The
words of the sixteenth century poem are the wisest judgment on medieval

  For sum bene devowte, holy and towarde,
  And holden the right way to blysse;
  And sum bene feble, lewde and frowarde,
  Now god amend that ys amys.

The dissolution of the monasteries amputated in England a limb of the
Church, which though diseased was yet far from putrid. We have no means of
guessing what the later history of the nunneries might have been. The
English nunneries compare on the whole favourably with contemporary French
and German houses, as revealed by the visitations of Rigaud and Busch, and
they certainly never reached such a laxity of morals and such a complete
absence of any spirituality as was reached by the convents of the Latin
countries at a later date. It was never, in the middle ages, the mode to
be a _monachino_ as it was later in France and Italy[1492]. The life of a
nun had not yet lost all of its original purpose and meaning and the
careers of a Virginia Maria de Leyva, of a Lucrezia Buonvisi, of an
Angélique d'Estrées, even of such a virtuous flirt as Felice Rasponi,
would not have been possible then[1493]. No Casanova could have found in
medieval England opportunity for those astounding intrigues with the M.M.
of Venice and the M.M. of Chambéry, which fill so large a place in his
_Memoirs_ and are so significant a commentary upon monastic life in the
eighteenth century[1494]. The reason lies perhaps in the less inflammable
temperament of the North, but still more in the different standards of the
time. The middle ages expressed and satisfied their passions freely, but
debauchery was then less all-pervading and less elegant. Passion was not
yet degraded to fashion and the lover had not yet become the gallant. The
sins of these fifteenth century nuns are a matter of rude nature and not
of "all the adulteries of art." That which was expelled with a pitchfork
had not yet returned with a fan. The distinction is a relevant one. A vow
broken for love may yet have force and reality; a vow broken for amusement
has none. The medieval nunneries never sank to the moral degradation of a
more refined and artificial age.



  And whan they had resceyuede [t]her charge
  They spared nether mud ne myer,
  But roden over Inglonde brode and large,
  To seke owte nunryes in every schyre.
                              _Why I can't be a Nun_ (15th century).

A community, living together under a somewhat rigid rule and obliged to
concern itself with a large measure of temporal business, has to face many
difficulties and abuses. The strictness of its discipline and the
prosperity of its affairs will necessarily depend very largely upon the
character and intelligence of the individuals who compose it. A diseased
limb may corrupt the whole body politic; or on the other hand a low state
of vitality in the body politic may render the limb liable to corruption.
Again rule and routine inevitably tend in the course of time to become
slackened, as human nature wins its way against the austerity of a
primitive ideal. Every community, therefore, needs some sort of machinery
on the one hand for keeping itself up to the mark and on the other for the
external inspection and regulation of its affairs. The monastic houses of
the middle ages were provided with internal machinery for self-reform in
the daily meeting of the whole convent in the chapter house, to transact
business and to denounce and punish faults. The external machinery was
provided by an elaborate system of visitation by ecclesiastical
authorities, sometimes by a parent house, sometimes by the chapter-general
of the order, sometimes by the bishop of the diocese; by means of such
visitation breaches of discipline and morality could be rectified and the
temporal business of the house could be scrutinised for evidence of

The daily routine of the chapter house is too well known to need a
detailed description here. The whole monastic community was bound by the
rule to meet every day, usually after Prime, in the chapter house on the
east side of the cloister, with the head of the house (to use modern
terminology) in the chair. At this meeting a chapter of the Rule was
solemnly read, after which the corporate business of the house was
discussed. Leases, sales, and corrodies were approved or disapproved, and
the common seal of the convent was affixed to letters and grants, in the
presence of all the monks or nuns. The neglect to transact common business
by common advice in chapter was not infrequently a legitimate source of
complaint by a convent against its superior. Besides temporal business of
this kind, the moral and spiritual welfare of the convent was considered.
Wrongdoers publicly accused themselves of fault, or were publicly accused
by their fellows, and correction was administered by a "discipline," or by
some other penance. By means of the chapter, a convent of reasonable
seriousness and goodwill could keep up its own standard of life and
control its own backsliders.

Undoubtedly the chapter was a useful instrument of self-reform, but its
efficacy obviously depended entirely on whether the convent as a whole
were desirous of keeping the Rule and punishing black sheep. If the number
of sheep who were black, or even grey, preponderated and if laxity were
general in the community, the chapter would not concern itself to raise
its own standard. From the frequent injunctions of medieval bishops that
the daily meeting in the chapter should not be omitted, it would appear
that not only the public transaction of business, but also the public
confession and punishment of faults was sometimes neglected. Moreover,
unless entered into with modesty and a sense of responsibility, the right
of every member to charge another with fault was a sure source of discord,
for it certainly provided ample opportunity for frail human nature to
exhibit malice. The younger nuns were apt to indulge in what their elders
regarded as impudent criticism; private grudges found an opportunity to
vent themselves; and rival cliques sometimes turned the meeting into an
unseemly hubbub. It was perhaps for this reason that the Abbot of St
Albans, visiting Sopwell in 1338, decreed that

    for the avoidance of evils and for the promotion and maintenance of
    peace and charity, but three voices shall henceforth be heard in
    chapter, to wit those of the president, of the subprioress or of
    another official of the order, and of her who shall be challenged or
    accused of a fault[1495].

Another common abuse was the gossip to which such revelations in chapter
sometimes gave rise, gossip which was not confined to the ears of the
nuns. Bishop Flemyng's injunction to Elstow in 1421-2 "that the Abbess
shall narrowly espy what secrets of chapter be in any way disclosed,
punishing severely also those who trangress in this matter"[1496] is only
one of many similar injunctions; and visitation reports sometimes show
considerable interference by lay folk in cloister disputes. During the
election quarrel which raged at Nunkeeling from 1316 to 1319 Archbishop
Melton accused certain nuns of revealing the secrets of the chapter to
seculars and adversaries outside, and during a similar quarrel at
Keldholme a number of laymen were cited, together with certain nuns, for
obstructing the appointment of a new prioress in 1308[1497]. One is left
with the impression that the nuns called in the support of their friends
and kinsfolk in the world, if they found themselves at odds with their
Prioress. In the feud between the wicked Prioress of Littlemore and her
nuns (1518) both parties had adherents in Oxford: the Prioress brought in
her friends to subdue the nuns and the nuns fled to theirs, when they
could no longer bear the Prioress[1498]. At Hampole, where Archbishop
Bowet found the Prioress and nuns out of all charity with each other in
1411, he even had to ordain that no nun, having any complaint against the
Prioress, was to ignore the Archbishop's authority and call in the aid of
any secular or regular person. If any sister wished to complain and could
find another to join with her, she was to have access to the Archbishop,
the necessary expenses being given her by the Prioress. If the Prioress
refused leave or delayed it beyond three days, the two nuns were to have
access to the Archbishop, without incurring the charge of apostasy[1499].
Sometimes the revelation of convent _secreta_ was made in a spirit of pure
gossip, rather than with the object of obtaining external aid; the
complaint of the nuns of Catesby in 1442 that the Prioress' mother "knows
well the secrets of the chapter and publishes them in the town; so also
does the Prioress publish them," and that of the nuns of Gracedieu in
1440-1 that "the Prioress makes the secrets of their religious life common
among the secular folk that sit at table with her" are typical of many

The meeting of the chapter, therefore, though a useful instrument of
self-reform, when the necessary goodwill was present, was liable to
abuses. It was apt to be neglected; it gave rise to ill-feeling; and it
sometimes led to undesirable gossip, both inside and outside the house. It
is obvious, moreover, that a measure of external control was necessary to
keep up the standard of life in the many monastic houses of Europe and to
reform common breaches of discipline. This external control was exercised
in the middle ages by three distinct authorities: (1) a parent house, (2)
the chapter general of the Order and (3) the diocesan of the see.

Certain houses, which had founded other houses as offshoots or colonies,
retained the right to visit and reform their daughter-houses. Some
monasteries had small outlying priories, known as "cells," founded
originally to look after distant estates of the house; sometimes such
cells contained only one or two monks, living in an ordinary dwelling
house, and had no real existence apart from the parent house. Sometimes,
however, the cells grew and achieved an independent existence, though
still maintaining their connection with their founders. This frequently
happened to the English cells of foreign houses, and certain cells of
English houses also grew into independent priories. Among nunneries,
originally founded as cells of foreign houses, may be mentioned Lyminster
in Sussex. Few English nunneries had cells; but Seton in Coupland was a
cell of Nunburnholme. The connection between mother house and cell is
illustrated by a licence granted by Archbishop Greenfield to the Prioress
of Nunburnholme in 1313 to visit, "your cell of Seton in Coupland, which
is subject to your monastery," taking with her two honest nuns of the
house, in order to visit the nuns of Seton, and returning without
delay[1501]. The visitation of the cell was usually included in that of
the mother house and the larger independent cells were often subject to
episcopal visitation.

Rather different in origin from a cell was a house founded by a monastery,
less as a colony than as a distinct but dependent institution. The most
interesting example of this is provided by the great Abbey of St Albans,
which founded two nunneries, St Mary de Pré and Sopwell. Both the
nunneries were always very dependent on St Albans and are often mentioned
in the chronicles of that house. St Mary de Pré, having been founded in
the twelfth century as a hospital for leprous women living under a rule,
became later an ordinary nunnery, containing nuns, and both lay sisters
and lay brothers; in the time of Abbot Thomas de la Mare (1349-96) the
rank of sister was abolished and a higher standard of education was
insisted upon for the nuns, who were to profess the rule of St
Benedict[1502]. Sopwell was also founded in the twelfth century as a
Benedictine nunnery[1503]. In both houses nuns were admitted only by
consent of the Abbot of St Albans, who also claimed the right to appoint
their prioress. In both the temporal affairs of the convent were
administered by wardens, appointed by the Abbot from among the monks of
the abbey[1504]. The close connection was not always maintained without
friction. At Sopwell the nuns more than once tried to elect their own
prioress and seem to have found the Abbot somewhat high-handed[1505]. In
1481 Abbot Wallingford sent the archdeacon and subprior of the house to
remove the prioress from office on account of her age and infirmities and
to put Elizabeth Webbe in her place, but some years later the archdeacon
deposed Elizabeth, whereupon she brought an action against him in the
Court of Arches and was reinstated. Thereupon "two monks of St Albans,
sent by the archdeacon, came to the nunnery, broke down Elizabeth's door
with an iron bar, beat her and put her in prison," after which she
appealed to Archbishop Morton as Chancellor[1506]. She may have been at
the bottom of the famous letter written by Morton to the Abbot of St
Albans in 1490, accusing him of changing prioresses at Pré and at Sopwell
as he pleased and deposing good and religious persons for the benefit of
the evil and vicious, and stating that the Prioress of St Mary de Pré,
Helen Germyn, was a married woman who had left her husband for a lover and
that she and some of her nuns were leading immoral lives with monks of St
Albans[1507]. The same letter accused the monks put in as wardens of using
their opportunities to dissipate the goods of the house, and the turbulent
Prioress of Sopwell, Elizabeth, is found complaining to the Chancellor
that a deed of lease by the convent had been secretly altered to their
disadvantage by their "keeper" and his clerk, who had been bribed by a

It is difficult to say how much truth there was in these charges and they
certainly do not seem to show overmuch care for the reform of the daughter
houses by their august parent. But it would not be fair to judge St Albans
by this quarrel at the end of its career, and there is evidence to show
that past abbots tried conscientiously to maintain good order in the
dependent nunneries. Among other rights the abbot possessed that of
visitation, and chance has fortunately preserved an interesting set of
injunctions sent by Abbot Michael to Sopwell, after a visitation held in
1338[1509]. The orders given to the Warden of Sopwell by Abbot Thomas
(1349-96) have also been preserved in the _Gesta Abbatum_[1510].

Another nunnery founded by a famous abbey of monks was St Michael's,
Stamford, founded by William of Waterville, Abbot of Peterborough in
1155; and this house remained for long dependent upon its parent
abbey[1511]. In its early years it was customary for the prioress in the
name of the chapter to pay an annual pension of a mark of silver to the
Abbot and to make formal recognition of subjection, once every year, on
the morrow of the Feast of St Michael. The Abbot had the right of
receiving the profession of the sisters and his consent was necessary to
the election of the prioress. He also had the appointment of the warden or
prior, who looked after the temporalities of the house. In 1270 Bishop
Gravesend sanctioned the personal visitation of the house once a year by
the abbot and two or three monks, with power to correct and reform, and
the Register of the Abbey records such visitations in 1297, 1300, 1303 and
1323. The tendency was, however, for the diocesan to oust the abbey from
the control of the house; from time to time he claimed and exercised the
right of instituting the warden, and from the end of the thirteenth
century he regularly instituted the prioress. From this time the bishops'
registers show that the regulation and reform of the house were in the
hands of the bishop and it was duly visited by Alnwick in the fifteenth
century. The accounts of St Michael's, Stamford, show that the nuns still
had dealings with the Abbey; but Peterborough did not retain over this
nunnery the exclusive rights of appointment and visitation, which St
Albans, owing to its exemption from diocesan control, exercised to the end
over Sopwell and St Mary de Pré. There is no mention of either of these
houses in the episcopal registers.

Nunneries subject to visitation by a parent abbey were highly exceptional.
Another exceptional method of external control was visitation by the
chapter-general of the order, to which the nunnery belonged. Nuns as well
as monks were constantly legislated for by these chapters-general, but
they were very rarely visited, because (as we shall see) they were almost
all subject to visitation by the bishop of their diocese. A trace of
visitation by order of the chapter-general seems to survive in a letter
from the Abbot of Stratford (4 December, 1491), preserved among the
Cistercian documents in the archives at Dijon[1512]. The Abbot relates
that he had visited Cokehill, found it in a very unsatisfactory condition
and tried in vain to depose the prioress; at other times, however,
Cokehill was visited by the Bishops of Worcester. The Cistercian order
claimed exemption from episcopal visitation for male houses and we shall
see that it made occasional attempts to exert its right over nunneries

By far the most common method of reforming nunneries from outside was by
means of the control of the bishop of the diocese[1513]. It is an
interesting fact that not even the greatest and most important Benedictine
abbeys of women, such as Shaftesbury, Amesbury and Romsey, succeeded in
obtaining an exemption from episcopal jurisdiction such as was enjoyed by
St Albans and some other houses; and nunneries belonging to "exempt"
orders were invariably under episcopal control. Bishops, who would never
have dreamed of interfering with houses of Cistercian or Cluniac monks,
visited the nuns of those orders as a matter of course and no objection
was as a rule raised by the houses or by the orders. There is, it is true,
one extremely interesting case in which this right of visitation was
contested. In 1276 the nuns of Sinningthwaite contested the right of
Archbishop Giffard of York to visit them and appealed against him to the
Pope. Unfortunately the papal decision is not recorded, but as they were
regularly visited until their dissolution, it was evidently against them.
They possibly acted in collusion with the Cistercian abbots of their
diocese, for in the same year Archbishop Giffard ordered them to have
Friars Minor as their confessors, in spite of the inhibition of Cistercian
abbots, who had no jurisdiction over them[1514]. The Cokehill case quoted
above may represent a similar attempt of the Cistercian chapter-general
to control a nunnery belonging to the order. For the historian of the
English nunneries it is an exceedingly fortunate thing that the diocesans
enjoyed this unchallenged right of visitation over almost all the
nunneries in the kingdom; for the episcopal registers are the best source
of monastic history and an exempt house (save when it was a famous abbey
with a chronicle) is not infrequently a house without history, because
without visitation records.

Since the periodical visitation by the diocesan was not only the main
method of external control and reformation, but also incidentally gave
rise to the records on which so much of this history of nunneries is
based, it is worth while to study what exactly happened when a bishop, or
his commissioners, came to inspect a nunnery. A regular routine was
followed, which can easily be reconstructed from such full records as
those kept by Bishop Alnwick of Lincoln[1515]. A formal summons was sent
by the bishop to the house to be visited, warning the convent to hold
itself in readiness for visitation by himself, or by one or more
commissioners (named). On the appointed day he rode up to the house,
accompanied by his clerks, and was met at the door of the church by the
convent and conducted to the high altar. Here high mass was celebrated and
the bishop, his clerks and the convent then adjourned to the chapter house
for the business of visitation. The proceedings began with the preaching
of a sermon by one of the bishop's clerks; in houses of monks this was
given in Latin until the end of our period, but knowledge of Latin had
died out in nunneries before the fifteenth century and at Alnwick's
visitation the sermon was always preached in the vulgar tongue, on some
such text as "_Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion and behold king Solomon_"
(Cant. iii. 11), "_Present your bodies a living sacrifice ... unto God_"
(Rom. xii. 1), or others less specifically appropriate to nuns. When this
had been finished, the head of the house was required to present a
certificate of receipt of the summons to visitation, which had to be drawn
up according to a common form; and this not infrequently caused some delay
in nunneries, where the inmates were often too ignorant of Latin to draw
up the document correctly, unless they could call in the help of a
clerk[1516]. The head of the house then produced the certificate of her
election, confirmation by the diocesan and installation. Here again there
was sometimes a delay, for prioresses were occasionally all at sea over
documents and the necessary certificates were apt to be lacking at the
last minute. Thus Dame Alice Dunwyche, the incompetent old Prioress of
Gracedieu, was unable to produce any evidence of her confirmation in 1440
and the bishop had to appoint a special commissary to inquire into the
matter; three months later the commissary examined two laymen brought by
her as witnesses to her confirmation and installation[1517]. Meanwhile the
visitation would continue; and the last formality to be observed was the
production by the prioress of the foundation charter of the house, and the
financial balance sheet (or _status domus_) for the year, this last an
important item, since it enabled the bishop to see at a glance whether the
financial affairs of the convent were in a satisfactory condition[1518].
This completed the preliminary business.

There now followed the main business of the visitation, the verbal
examination of the nuns, in order to detect what abuses might stand in
need of reform. Some abuses were patent to the eyes of the bishop; he
could see garments in holes, and veils spread wide to show fair foreheads;
he might have caught the scuttle of little dogs round corners as he rode
in at the gates, or the whisk of a boarder's murrey-coloured skirts behind
a pillar. But the bulk of his information had to be obtained by careful
cross-examination. The chapter house was cleared and he proceeded to
question the nuns separately and in private, beginning with the prioress.
Experience would teach him what were the most common breaches of
discipline about which to make specific inquiry, but the nuns were
encouraged to complain freely and the bishop's clerks were kept busy
scribbling notes of what each shrill tale-bearer told, to be written out
afterwards under her name as _detecta_, or things discovered to the

These _detecta_ are an amusing commentary on life in a community and grist
(it must be admitted) to the cynic's mill. Serious charges of immorality
are mingled with trivialities, much as the chroniclers of the period
mingle battles, monastic gossip and sea monsters cast upon the shore. The
beer is too light; swine do come into the churchyard and root up the earth
and befoul the churchyard; all corrections are made with so great
harshness and so much ado that charity and loving-kindness are banished
from the house; the nuns do hold drinkings of evenings in the
guestchamber, even after Compline; the prioress has pawned the jewels of
the house; sister so-and-so is defamed with sir so-and-so, sometime
chaplain in that place and did conceive of him and bear a child; the
buildings and tenements of the priory are dilapidated and many have fallen
to the ground because of default in repairs; secular persons do lie in the
dorter near the nuns; the nuns wear silken veils and robes; in the
prioress' default six nuns have now left the house in apostasy; the nuns
frequent taverns and continually go into town without leave; silence is
not observed in due places; the nuns do help secular folk in garnering
their grain during the autumn season; the nuns are somewhat sleepy and
come late to matins; the prioress does not render an account. Besides this
infinite variety of complaint, the _detecta_ exhibit also an infinite
variety of motive, ranging from the disciplinarian's zeal for reform to
the private grudge of one individual against another. Sometimes the
prioress and the nuns engage in mutual recriminations: she is harsh, or
autocratic, or incompetent, they are lax or disobedient. Sometimes, on the
other hand, a whole convent declares _omnia bene_. About some houses there
still hangs a gentle atmosphere of peace and goodwill, others are rent
with feud and petty bickering, others are in a condition of very lax
morality. Human nature is truly unchanging, for all the types to be met
with in a modern community, be it school or college, ship or government
office, have their prototypes among these medieval monks and nuns. The
amateur in human nature and the social historian alike may find in these
little studied monastic _detecta_ material of more absorbing interest and
entertainment than is to be found in any other class of medieval

After the bishop had heard the evidence of the nuns, given thus
chaotically, the next business was to summarise, in some sort of order,
the result of the inquiry. Such complaints of the nuns as the bishop
considered worthy of notice were therefore classified as _comperta_, or
things discovered by the bishop. If any member of the convent had been
accused of serious breaches of the rule, she was summoned and the articles
of accusation were read to her, and one by one she was invited to admit or
to deny them. If she pleaded guilty, a penance was enjoined upon her. If
she denied the charge, she was ordered to find a certain number of
compurgators, who would swear to her innocence, and to produce them by a
certain hour. The number of cases in which misconduct was sufficiently
serious to make this necessary was not great. During Alnwick's visitation
it happened at Catesby, where the prioress and Isabel Benet were charged
with immorality; the prioress denied the charge, but was unable to find
four sisters to vouch for her and was adjudged guilty; Isabel Benet
admitted misconduct, but not with the man whose name was coupled with
hers, and she seems to have cleared herself of intercourse with him by the
oath of four of the nuns[1519]. Usually the bishop showed himself lenient
and allowed the agitated sinner an extension of time, if she could not
find her compurgators within the period allotted to her[1520]. Whether
this leniency is to be attributed to Christian charity, or to a desire to
avoid scandal, is not clear; but if a prioress could not in two hours find
four nuns to swear that she was not guilty, the value of their oaths, when
they appeared after four hours' canvassing, would not appear to be very
great. Yet it is impossible not to understand the bishop's desire to give
a sinner the benefit of the doubt; fright and admonition alone might
reform her, and it was exceedingly difficult to deal with a really bad
prioress, when she could not be ejected from her order.

The bishop having dealt with individual offenders, the whole convent was
summoned once more to the chapter house. The _detecta_ and _comperta_ were
read aloud to the nuns and the bishop made verbal injunctions upon points
which stood in special need of reform. He then dissolved the visitation;
or, if any further business remained to be dealt with, prorogued it until
a later date. Then he rode away again, and the fluttered convent settled
down again to gossip and to await further injunctions. For the admonitions
of the bishop at the visitation were only _interim_ injunctions; his
business was not finished until he had sent to the nunnery a set of
written injunctions, embodying the reforms shown to be necessary by the
_comperta_. These written injunctions were sent to the convent shortly
after the visitation. Sometimes the clerk who brought them was ordered to
expound them, or some reverend commissioner was sent to complete at the
same time any special business arising out of the visitation. For
instance, when Peckham sent a set of injunctions on April 20th, 1284, to
the Priory of the Holy Sepulchre, Canterbury, which had been visited by
commissioners on his behalf, he also addressed a letter to his commissary
Martin, bidding him go in person to the house and expound the injunctions
to the nuns. At the same time he was ordered (1) to appoint two
coadjutresses to the prioress, who had been wasting the goods of the
house; one of these was named and Martin was particularly warned against
appointing another nun, who was said to be contumelious; (2) to beseech
the Vicar of Wickham on behalf of the Archbishop to undertake the office
of master of the house, so as to order its temporal affairs; (3) to
receive the compurgation of Isabella de Scorue, who was defamed with the
cellarer of the cathedral church and to forbid all the nuns access to the
cathedral and the cellarer access to the priory[1521]. These pieces of
specific and administrative business were not mentioned in Peckham's more
general injunctions. The injunctions were left in the hands of the convent
and from that moment became as canonically binding upon the nuns, as was
their original rule; any breach of them was liable to punishment by
excommunication. The prioress was usually ordered to display them in a
place where they could be easily read by the sisters, or to have them
solemnly read aloud in chapter a certain number of times each year.

It was by this machinery of visitation and injunction that the diocesans
endeavoured to control and reform the nunneries. But how far was the
control adequate and the reform successful? It is obvious that the
efficacy of the visitation system depended on three things: (1) the
success of the cross-examination in drawing the real state of the convent
from the nuns, (2) the regularity with which visitation was repeated, (3)
the ability of the bishop to enforce his injunctions. As to the first of
these conditions, the extent to which breaches of discipline came to light
depended on the skill of the bishop in cross-examination on the one hand,
and on the other the honesty of the nun's desire to assist him. If a
convent were seriously discontented the chances were that charges would be
freely made: thus Alnwick experienced no difficulty in extracting an
almost unanimous testimony against the Prioress of Catesby. But this did
not always happen; as is shown by Gray's letter bidding his commissary
visit Markyate in 1433:

    When we some time ago made actual visitation ... of the priory of the
    Holy Trinity of the Wood by Markyate ..., we, making anxious inquiry
    touching the state of the same priory and the concerns of religion in
    the same, found that in such our visitation certain crimes,
    transgressions and offences worthy of reformation were discovered to
    us, by occasion whereof ... we enjoined upon the prioress and convent
    of the same place certain injunctions.... But ... it has lately come
    to our hearing, as loud whispering abounds and the notoriousness of
    the fact has made public, that more grievous offences than were
    discovered to us in the same our visitation were before the beginning
    of the same unhappily brought to pass and done in the same priory, the
    which the said prioress and her sisters of their design aforethought
    concealed from us undiscovered at the time of such our

One of the matters thus concealed was the immorality of the prioress with
the steward of the house, a fact which seems to have been notorious
throughout the neighbourhood.

When such a grave defect could be successfully hidden from the bishop at
his visitation, it is obvious that he could do little against a unanimous
determination on the part of a convent to keep him in the dark. He was
really dependent upon disagreement within the house; a conscientious nun
or a nun with a grudge served him equally well. But it seems likely that
concealment was not seldom practised, for, as Mr Coulton points out,
"among the earliest and most frequently-repeated general chapter statutes
are those providing against (_a_) conspiracy of the Religious against
reformation, or (_b_) vengeance wreaked afterwards upon brethren who have
dared to reveal the truth"[1523]. Some of the _detecta_ at Alnwick's
visitation throw light on the efforts made (usually by the prioress) by
conspiracy and by vengeance to prevent the nuns from testifying. At
Catesby the evil prioress, Margaret Wavere, had excellent reasons for
fearing a disclosure of her way of life. Sister Juliane Wolfe deposed
"that the prioress did threaten that, if the nuns disclosed aught in the
visitation, they should pay for it in prison." Dame Isabel Benet (by no
means a paragon of virtue herself) deposed that "in the last visitation
which was made by the Lord William Graye, the prioress said that for a
purse and certain moneys a clerk of the said bishop made known what every
nun disclosed in that visitation." Sister Alice Kempe said that "because
the nuns at the last visitation disclosed what should be disclosed, the
prioress whipped some of them." All of these articles the prioress denied,
but she was undoubtedly guilty and was unable to find compurgators[1524].
At Legbourne the prioress took a course with which one cannot avoid a
certain sympathy. Dame Joan Gyney deposed that

    the prioress, after she received my lord's mandate for the visitation,
    called together the chapter and said, if there were aught in need of
    correction among them, they should tell it her; because she said it
    was more suitable that they should correct themselves than that others
    should correct them[1525].

At Ankerwyke Prioress Clemence Medforde, conscious of many misdeeds and of
the cordial dislike of her nuns, "did invite several outside folk from the
neighbourhood to this visitation at great cost to the house, saying to
them, 'Stand on my side in this time of visitation, for I do not want to
resign.'" She admitted the entertainment of her friends, "but it was not
to this end"[1526]. Recriminations after the visitation are even commoner
than preliminary attempts to circumvent it. At Gracedieu the ill-tempered
old prioress confessed, on being confronted with the _detectum_ of one of
her nuns to that effect, that she

    since and after the visitation last held therein by his [Alnwick's]
    predecessor, did reproach her sisters, because of the disclosures at
    the same visitation and did blame them therefore and has held and
    holds them in hatred, by reason whereof charity and loving-kindness
    were utterly banished and strivings, hatreds, back-bitings and
    quarrellings have ever flourished[1527].

The second condition for the efficacy of episcopal visitation as a method
of reform is the regularity of such visitation. Obviously if visitations
are very rare the hold of the diocesan on a house will be weak; for much
water may flow under the bridge between one visitation and the next. The
general rule in vogue in the middle ages was that each house should be
visited once in every three years, which was in theory a very adequate
arrangement. It seems clear, however, that it was not always carried out.
The work was done by one overworked bishop in person or by commissioners
specially appointed by him for the visitation of each house. In a big
diocese, such as Lincoln or York, which abounded in monastic houses, the
work of visitation was a really considerable labour, for it was only one
part of the bishop's multifarious duties; and it is impossible not to
conclude that the regularity of visitation differed very much from diocese
to diocese and from time to time. The bishops themselves varied very much
in energy and conscientiousness, but on the whole it is evident that they
took their duties seriously and honestly endeavoured to keep up the
standard of life in their dioceses. No one can put down the record of
Rigaud's visitations of the diocese of Rouen, Greenfield's visitations of
the diocese of York, and Alnwick's visitations of the diocese of Lincoln,
without a profound respect for those prelates. But though they did much,
they could not do enough.

There is a good deal of incidental evidence in the visitation reports,
which shows that visitations were held too seldom to be really effectual.
Gracedieu, for instance, had not been visited between 1433, when Gray
came, and 1440-1; and by this last date it had fallen into such laxity
that reform must have been difficult. Markyate was unvisited between 1433
and 1442, in spite of the deprivation of the prioress for immorality and
the apostasy of one of the nuns in 1433. There are few houses in the
annals of English nunneries in so bad a state as Littlemore was in 1517;
yet the Prioress, forced at last to confess her misdeeds, which comprised
not only habitual incontinence but the persecution of her nuns, stated
that though these things had been going on for eight years, yet no inquiry
had been made and, as it seems, no visitation of the house had been held;
only on one occasion certain injunctions of a general kind had been sent
her[1528]. On the other hand the registers show that a real attempt was
often made to grapple with a really serious case. St Michael's, Stamford,
for instance, was visited by Alnwick in 1440 and found to be in a
disorderly state; he gave careful _interim_ injunctions on the spot and
sent written injunctions afterwards. The house, however, was ruled by a
thoroughly incompetent prioress, and the bishop seems to have made
inquiries and found that his reforms had not been carried out, for in 1442
he came again,

    and then after the cause of such his visitation had been set forth and
    explained to the said prioress and nuns by the same reverend father,
    to wit because his injunctions at his first visitation ... were not
    duly kept, he proceeded to his preparatory inquiry.

This inquiry showed that matters were if anything worse than before; and
in 1445 the bishop visited the house again[1529]. Similarly, when once
Bishop Atwater had awakened to the moral condition of Littlemore in the
next century, he took pains to reform it. The scandals were brought to
light at the visitation by his commissary Dr Horde in 1517; a few months
later the bishop summoned the prioress before him to answer the charges
made against her and after a lapse of nine months the house was visited
again in 1518[1530].

But if visitations were sometimes not held regularly enough to be really
effective, a still greater cause of weakness was the great difficulty
experienced by the bishops in controlling the religious houses in the
period between one visitation and the next and in enforcing their
injunctions. A bishop might send a set of the most salutary injunctions to
an undisciplined house; but how was he to secure that the nuns followed
them, save by the most solemn threats of excommunication, which they seem
often enough to have disregarded. Markyate, St Michael's, Stamford, and
Littlemore went steadily from bad to worse between each of the visitations
made by Gray, Alnwick and Atwater respectively. In 1442

    Dame Elizabeth the prioress [of St Michael's], being asked whether she
    has observed and caused to be observed by the others my lord's
    injunctions made to them at another time, says that, so far as she has
    been able she has kept them and caused them to be kept by the others:
    howbeit she says that she does not lie in the dorter, or keep frater,
    or even keep cloister or church according to my lord's injunction and
    this because of her bodily incapacity. And she avers that my lord
    granted her a dispensation touching these things, the which my lord
    utterly disavows[1531].

These were comparatively trivial faults; since the last visitation one of
the nuns had had a child; and at the next visitation, three years later,
the same fate was found to have overtaken another, which is a significant
commentary on the effectuality of episcopal control.

The fundamental difficulty was that the bishop was obliged in the nature
of things to trust largely to the prioress and to the nuns themselves to
enforce his decrees. _Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?_ Sometimes the very
women whom he singled out for special trust were subsequently found to be
worse than their sisters. Indeed it is sometimes difficult to account for
the principle on which coadjutresses were appointed. It surely seems
somewhat like tempting providence that Alnwick should have selected Isabel
Benet, the only other nun in the house who was defamed of incontinence, to
be administrator in place of the suspended Prioress of Catesby, and it is
not surprising to read of the later escapade of that lady at a dance with
the friars of Northampton and of their refusal to obey his ordinance
against private rooms[1532]. The only intelligible principle of the bishop
would appear to have been that applied by Henry VII to the Earl of
Kildare, "All Ireland cannot rule this man; then he shall rule all
Ireland." It is moreover significant (as has already been pointed
out)[1533] that in the majority of cases a prioress, however wicked, was
suspended rather than deprived; even Denise Loweliche and Katherine Wells
remained in office after their resignation. It was indeed too embarrassing
to know what to do with a sinner. She could not be expelled from her
order; if she were kept in the same house in a subordinate position she
would probably make her successor's life a burden; if she were transferred
to another house she would probably corrupt a hitherto unblemished flock.
The bishops did their best in the face of great difficulties, but it is
plain that the prioresses sometimes thought little enough of their
authority. The rather disreputable old Abbess of Romsey, Joyce Rowse, said
openly to her nuns that when the inquiry (held in 1492) was finished she
would do as she had done before; and she kept her word[1534]. At Ankerwyke
in 1441 one little nun of tender age explained to the bishop "that the
prioress doth not provide this deponent with bed-clothes, insomuch that
she lies in the straw; and when my lord had commanded this deponent to lie
in the dorter, and this deponent asked bed-clothes of the prioress, she
said chidingly to her, 'Let him who gave you leave to lie in the dorter
supply you with raiment'"[1535].

Though the bishops for the most part did their work conscientiously it is
difficult, in the light of the considerations which have been urged above
to conclude that their visitations had a lasting effect. But if the
visitations and the injunctions based on them were sometimes of small
value for their purpose, they have an incidental value to historians which
cannot be overestimated. There have come down to us in the bishops'
registers a comparatively small number of complete visitation reports,
comprising _detecta_ and _comperta_ (or sometimes _comperta_ only) and
injunctions[1536], and a much larger number of injunctions, without the
_comperta_ on which they were based. The similarity in wording of
episcopal injunctions, combined with the fact that the most important
collection of complete reports (Alnwick's visitations) was until recently
unknown, has led many writers to argue that injunctions were mere general
"common form," without any relation to specific abuses found at the house
to which they were sent, "left," as Mr Hamilton Thompson says, "like
portentous visiting cards upon a convent, to show that the diocesan had
duly called"[1537]. The point is of great importance, for it involves the
reliability of injunctions as evidence of the state of a particular
convent at a particular time.

The answer to this view of "common form" is easily found if we study the
process by which injunctions were composed, as revealed in the great
series of visitations by Bishop Alnwick. They were drawn up with great
care by the bishop's registrar and he based them upon two sources, the
_detecta_ and _comperta_ of each visitation, which had been noted down on
the spot by clerks, and the sets of injunctions sent to other religious
houses, which were regularly copied into the episcopal register as models
for future use. It is inherent in the nature of the case that monasteries
subject to the same original rule and statutory regulations and living
under almost identical conditions, should be subject to similar breaches
of discipline. It is only necessary to study those _detecta_ which have
been preserved to perceive how universal, in all dioceses and among both
sexes, were (for instance) the customs of drinking after Compline, forming
separate "households," taking unlicensed boarders, making unwise grants of
corrodies and long leases, wandering abroad in the world, and wearing
worldly garments. The registrar did not wish to invent new wording every
time these offences occurred; he used a common form for them. But "common
form" has here a different sense from that in which it is used by those
who question the value of injunctions as evidence. The registrar never
made an injunction which was not based upon a _detectum_ made at the house
to which the injunction was directed. Injunctions are common form only
because they deal with common errors. If an almost similar set be sent to
two houses, it is because the houses have displayed (as is indeed only
natural) almost similar faults; and where the two sets differ, they differ
not accidentally, but of careful purpose. It was the business of the
registrar to express the injunctions in general terms, even though a fault
may have been that of a single individual, because they were intended to
be canonically binding upon the whole convent. The reason why injunctions
have survived in much greater numbers than the _detecta_ upon which they
were based, is that the clerks copied into the bishop's register only
common forms, which would be likely to be useful. The record of individual
evidence would not help them; but a carefully worded injunction might be
used over and over again, whenever the fault with which it dealt recurred
at the same or another house. No one who has studied the relation of
_detecta_ and injunctions in Alnwick's book of visitations can doubt the
value of the latter as evidence, when they appear alone; the very process
by which "Dame Alice Decun says that only two little girls, of six or
seven years, do lie in the dorter" is transmuted into the common
injunction "that ye suffre ne seculere persones wymmen ne childern lyg by
nyghte in the dormytory" is patent in the register.

If the reliability of the injunctions be thus accepted, it is almost
unnecessary to point out what an invaluable source of evidence is to be
found in the bishops' registers. Controversialists have fought _ad
nauseam_ over the truth or falsehood of the "scandalous _comperta_" of
Henry VIII's commissioners, without understanding that for nearly three
hundred years before the Dissolution the _comperta_ and injunctions in the
registers give a picture of English monasticism coloured by no ulterior
motive. Even after a large number of the registers have been published,
historians are still content to paint monastic life in the later middle
ages from the monastic rule, ignoring the evidence of practice which is
always necessary to supplement the evidence of theory. Not even the
chronicles of an earlier age are more interesting; the record of Alnwick
is as valuable as that of Jocelin of Brakelonde. In dioceses where
registers were regularly kept and have survived uninjured and where
injunctions were punctiliously copied, the history of a house may be
traced throughout the whole period covered by this book. The dioceses of
Winchester, Lincoln and York are most fortunate in this respect. To select
a few examples at random, there are extant records of the visitation of
Romsey Abbey by Archbishop Peckham in 1284, by Bishop John of Pontoise in
1302, by Bishop Henry Woodlock in 1311, by Bishop William of Wykeham in
1387, by Archbishop Morton (through his vicar-general, Robert Shirbourne)
in 1492, by Dr Hede, commissary of the Prior of Canterbury, during the
vacancies of the sees of Canterbury and Winchester in 1502, by Bishop Fox
(through his vicar-general, John Dowman) in 1507, again (through Master
John Incent) in 1523 and again (through the vicar-general) in 1527[1538].
It is thus possible to describe with approximate accuracy the life of
this great convent during the whole period from 1284 to the Dissolution.
Similarly records have survived of visitations of Elstow Abbey by Bishop
Gynewell in 1359, Bishop Buckingham in 1387, Archbishop Courtenay in 1389,
Bishop Flemyng in 1421-2, Bishop Gray in 1434, Bishop Alnwick in 1442-3,
and Bishop Longland in 1530 and 1531. Of Nunappleton Priory there are
recorded visitations by Archbishop Wickwane in 1281, Archbishop Melton in
1318, Archbishop Zouche in 1346, Archbishop Rotherham in 1489 and
Archbishop Lee in 1534. Moreover mandates concerning isolated pieces of
business, elections, permits to receive boarders, orders to reform
specific abuses, are scattered through the registers and provide useful
supplementary information.

All houses are not as well represented. In some dioceses injunctions are
rarely recorded: the fine series of registers for Hereford yield
surprisingly few. Some houses emerge only rarely into the light with a
single set of injunctions; others (and among them important houses such as
Lacock and Amesbury) lack even a single visitation report to rescue their
inmates from oblivion. But the geographical range of the surviving reports
is sufficiently great to enable the formation of an accurate general
account of English nunneries during the later middle ages. One warning
only must be borne in mind by the reader. If it is unhistorical to write
an account of monastic houses based solely upon the rule, it is also
unhistorical to write one based solely on visitation documents. The
_detecta_ made to a bishop were, and were intended to be, revelations of
faults; it was not the function of the bishop's clerk to catalogue
virtues, though sometimes a string of "_omnia bene_," or a curt note to
the effect that my lord, finding little in need of reformation, passed on,
bears positive witness to a convent's good life. It must always be
remembered, in estimating the state of a house from a set of _detecta_ and
injunctions, that though they are indubitably the truth, they are not the
whole truth. Goodness is after all largely a matter of proportion; and
though convents are to be found which were positively bad, in others there
were probably virtues of kindness, piety and a brave struggle against
poverty, which would counterbalance (if we knew them), the unfavourable
impression left by a string of accusations. Moreover by far the larger
number of the _detecta_ witnesses to a growing worldliness and to minor
breaches of the rule, rather than to serious moral defects. If the
community concerned were other than a nunnery ostensibly following a
strict rule, we should hardly consider the faults to be faults at all. The
immorality, bad temper and financial mismanagement revealed at some houses
would be reprehensible in all communities at all ages; but in themselves
boarders, pretty clothes, pet dogs and attendance at christenings are not
heinous crimes. It is necessary, in dealing with medieval nuns as with all
other subjects, to preserve a sense of proportion and a firm hold upon
human nature.



  "Or dient et content et fablent."
                              _Aucassin et Nicolette._

"La science," said a wise Frenchman, "atteint l'exactitude; il appartient
à l'art seul de saisir la vérité." And another, "L'histoire vit de
documents, mais les documents sont pareils aux lettres écrites avec les
encres chimiques; ils veulent, pour livrer leur secret, qu'on les
réchauffe, et les éclaire par transparence, à la flamme de la vie." The
quotations are complementary, for what, after all, is literature but a
form of life; the quintessence of many moods and experiences, the diffused
flame concentrated and burning clearly in a polished lamp. The historian
who wishes to reach beyond accuracy to truth must warm those invisible
writings of his at the flame of literature, as well as at his own life. He
must vitalise the visitation reports for himself (it is not difficult,
they move and live almost without him); but he must make use also of the
life of writers long since dead. There is hardly a branch of literature
which has not its contribution for him. The story-teller has his tale,
which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner. The
ballad-man has his own pithy judgment in the guise of an artless rhyme.
The teacher has his admonitions, whence may be learnt what men conceived
to be the nun's ideal and purpose in this cloistered life. The moralist
has his satire, to show wherein she fell short of such lofty heights. And
the poet himself will hold his mirror up to nature, that we may see after
five hundred years what he saw with his searching eyes, when Madame
Eglentyne rode to Canterbury, or when the nuns of Poissy feasted a
cavalcade from court. The world was subject matter for all these, whether
they wrote with a purpose or without one; there is life even in the
crabbed elegiacs of Gower, grumbling his way through the _Vox Clamantis_;
there is much life in the kindly counsels of the _Ancren Riwle_; there is
God's plenty indeed in the stories and songs which the people told. It is
the historian's business to call in these literary witnesses to supplement
his documents. To the account-roll and the bishop's register must be added
the song, the satire and the sermon. Alnwick's visitations, with the story
of "Beatrix the Sacristan" behind them, have twice as much significance;
Madame Eglentyne and Margaret Fairfax lend to each other a mutual
illumination; little captured Clarice Stil needs Deschamps' Novice of
Avernay by her side before her case can be well understood. It is of these
composite portraits that truth is put together and history made.

An analysis of the classes of medieval literature in which there is
mention of nuns shows from how wide a field the historian can draw. The
most obvious of these classes is that which contains biographies and
autobiographies of saints and famous women who were nuns. Such are the
writings of the great trio who made famous the nunnery of Helfta in the
thirteenth century, the béguine Mechthild of Magdeburg and the nuns
Mechthild of Hackeborn and Gertrud the Great[1539]; the lives and writings
of Luitgard of Tongres[1540], of St Clare[1541] and of St Agnes of
Bohemia[1542]; the memoir and letters of Charitas Pirckheimer, Abbess of a
Franciscan convent at Nuremberg, who was a sister of the humanist
Wilibald Pirckheimer and herself a scholar of repute[1543]. The
autobiographies of one or two nuns in the later sixteenth century (for
instance St Theresa[1544] and Felice Rasponi[1545]) have a certain
retrospective value; and the lives of the three béguine mystics, St
Douceline[1546], St Lydwine of Schiedam[1547] and St Christina of
Stommeln[1548] afford supplementary evidence, which is interesting as
showing the similarities and dissimilarities between regular and secular
orders. For present purposes, however, these works may be neglected. Their
interest is always rather particular than general, since they deal with
great individuals, and the information which they give as to the life of
the average nun is conditioned always by the fact that a woman of genius
will mould her surroundings to her own form, even in a convent. This is
true of the medieval saints; while the careers of women such as Charitas
Pirckheimer, Felice Rasponi and St Theresa owe much of their significance
to the special circumstances of the time. An additional reason for
neglecting biographies and autobiographies lies in the fact that the class
is unrepresented in English literature belonging to this period. The short
panegyric of Euphemia of Wherwell is the sole approach to a biography of
an English nun which has survived, unless we are to count the description
of Joan Wiggenhall's building activities. For some reason which it is
impossible to explain, monasticism did not produce in England during the
later middle ages any women of sanctity or genius who can compare with the
great Anglo-Saxon abbesses[1549].

Outside the personal records of great individuals, our informants fall (as
has already been suggested) into four classes: the people, with their
songs and stories, the teachers, with their didactic works, the moralists,
with their satires and complaints, and finally the men of letters, poets
and "makers," for whom the nun is sometimes subject-matter. First, and
perhaps most interesting of all, must come the people and the people's
songs, for in the literature of the continent there exists a class of
lyrics ("Klosterlieder," "Nonnenklagen," "Chansons de Nonnes") which is
specially concerned with nuns[1550]. There is much to be learned about all
manner of things from such popular poetry. So the people feel about life,
and so (reacting upon them) it makes them feel. Songs crooned over the
housework or shouted at the plough steal back into the singer's brain and
subtly direct his conscious outlook; this was the wise man's meaning, who
said that he cared not who made the laws of a nation if he might make its
ballads. Now it is extremely significant that almost all the popular songs
about nuns, the songs which

  The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
  And the free maids that weave their thread with bones
  Do use to chant,

are upon one theme. They deal always with the nun unwillingly professed.
It was the complaint of the cloistered love-birds which these knitters

  How can a bird that is born for joy
      Sit in a cage and sing?

What, one may ask, is the reason for this unanimity of outlook? Why do the
people see a nun only as a love-bird shut within a cage and beating its
wings against the bars? Partly, no doubt, because such songs always "dally
with the innocence of love"; the folk are capable of a deep melancholy, as
of a gaiety which is light as thistledown; but Love is and was their lord
and king, and so even the nun must be in love when they sing her. It may
be, however, that there is a deeper meaning in the _chansons de nonnes_.
The nunneries were aristocratic; the ideal of the religious life was out
of the reach of women who lived among fields and beasts of the field.
These spinsters and these knitters in the sun, who seem so gay and
peaceful, we know what their lives were like:

                      Poure folke in cotes,
  Charged with children, and chef lordes rente,
  That thei with spynnynge may spare spenen hit in hous-hyre,
  Bothe in mylk and in mele to make with papelotes[1551];

carding and combing, clouting and washing, suffering much hunger and woe
in winter time; no time to think, and hardly time to pray; but always time
to sing. "The wo of those women that wonyeth in cotes" solaced itself in
song; but when the echo of the convent bell came to the singer at her
clouting, or to her husband, as he drove his plough over the convent
acres, they recognised a peace which was founded upon their labours and
which, though it could not exist without them, they could never
share[1552]. If the songs which the slaves of Athens sang among
themselves in the slave quarter at night had come down to us, they would
surely have thrown a new light upon those grave philosophers, artists and
statesmen, to whom the world owes almost all that it cherishes of wisdom
and of beauty. Nor would the Athenians be less great because we knew the
slaves. Even so it is no derogation to the monastic ideal to say that the
common people, shut out of it, looked at it differently from the great
churchmen, who praised it; and, unlike those of the Athenian slaves, their
songs still live. The popular mind (these songs would seem to say) had
little sympathy for that career in which the daughters of the people had
no share. It is immaterial whether they looked upon it with the eye of the
fox in the fable, declaring that the grapes were sour, or whether the
lusty common sense of those living close to nature gave them a contempt
for the bloodless ecstasies they could not understand. At all events the
cloister mirrored in their songs is a prison and a grave:

  Mariez-vous, les filles,
  Avec ces bons drilles,
  Et n'allez jà, les filles,
  Pourrir derrièr' les grilles[1553].

That was how the people and the nightingale envisaged it; and no mystic
will be the less wise for pondering that brutal last line, the eternal
revolt of common sense against asceticism.

All over western and southern Europe this theme was set to music, now with
gaiety and insouciance, now with bitterness. The wandering clerk goes
singing on his way:

  Plangit nonna fletibus      The nun is complaining,
  Inenarrabilibus,            Her tears are down raining,
  Condolens gemitibus         She sobbeth and sigheth,
  Dicens consocialibus:       To her sisters she crieth:
      Heu misella!                Misery me!

  Nichil est deterius         O what can be worse than this
  Tali vita,                    life that I dree,
  Cum enim sim petulans       When naughty and lovelorn,
  Et lasciva.                   and wanton I be.

And he can tell the nun's desire

  Pernoctando vigilo          All the night long I unwillingly wake,
  Cum non vellem              How gladly a lad in mine arms would I take.
  Iuvenem amplecterer
  Quam libenter![1554]

For those who know no Latin it is the same. "In this year," [1359] says a
Limburg chronicle, "Men sang and piped this song":

  Gott geb im ein verdorben jar         God send to him a lean twelve months
  der mich macht zu einer nunnen        Who in mine own despite,
  und mir den schwarzen mantel gab      A sooty mantle put on me,
  der weissen rock darunten!            All and a cassock white!

  Soll ich ein nunn gewerden            And if I must become a nun,
  dann wider meinen willen              Let me but find a page,
  so will ich auch einem knaben jung    And if he is fain to cure my pain
  seinen kummer stillen,                His pain I will assuage.

    Und stillt he mir den meinen nit      His be the loss, then, if he fail
    daran mag he verliesen[1555].         To still my amorous rage.

In Italy at Carnival time in the fifteenth century the favourite songs
tell of nuns who leave their convents for a lover[1556]. But above all the
theme is found over and over again in French folk songs: "the note, I
trowe, y maked was in Fraunce." Two little thirteenth century poems have
survived to show how piquant an expression the French singers gave to it.
In one of these the singer wanders out in the merry month of May, that
time in which the "chanson populaire" is always set, in deep and
unconscious memory of the old spring festivals, celebrated by women in the
dawn of European civilisation. He goes plucking flowers, and out of a
garden he hears a nun singing to herself:

  ki nonne me fist               Jesus lou maldie.
  je di trop envie               vespres ne complies:
  j'amaisce trop muels           moneir bone vie
  ke fust deduissans             et amerousete.

      Je sant les douls mals         leis ma senturete.
      malois soit de deu             ki me fist nonnete.

  Elle s'escriait                comceux esbaihie!
  e deus, ki m'ait mis           en cest abaie!
  maix ieu en istrai             per sainte Marie;
  ke ne vestirai                 cotte ne gonnette.

      Je sant les douls mals         leis ma senturete.
      malois soit de deu             ki me fist nonnete.

  Celui manderai                 a cui seux amie.
  k'il me vaigne querre          en ceste abaie;
  s'irons a Parix                moneir bone vie,
  car it est jolis               et je seux jonete.

      Je sant les douls mals         leis ma senturete.
      malois soit de deu             ki me fist nonnete.

  quant ces amis ot              la parolle oie,
  de joie tressaut,              li cuers li fremie,
  et vint a la porte             do celle abaie:
  si en gatait fors              sa douce amiete.

      Je sant les douls mals         leis ma senturete.
      malois soit de deu             ki me fist nonnete[1557].

    "The curse of Jesus on him who made me a nun! All unwillingly say I
    vespers and compline; more fain were I to lead a happy life of gaiety
    and love. _I feel the delicious pangs beneath my bosom. The curse of
    God on him who made me be a nun!_ She cried, God's curse on him who
    put me in this abbey. But by our Lady I will flee away from it and
    never will I wear this gown and habit. _I feel, etc._ I will send for
    him whose love I am and bid him come seek me in this abbey. We will go
    to Paris and lead a gay life, for he is fair and I am young. _I feel,
    etc._ When her lover heard her words, he leapt for joy and his heart
    beat fast. He came to the gate of that abbey, and stole away his
    darling love. _I feel, etc._"

In the other song the setting is the same;

  L'autrier un lundi matin
  m'an aloie ambaniant;
  s'antrai an un biau jardin,
  trovai nonette seant.
  ceste chansonette
  dixoit la nonette
  "longue demoree
  faites, frans moinnes loialz
      Se plus suis nonette,
      ains ke soit li vespres,
      je morai des jolis malz"[1558].

    "Lately on a Monday morn as I went wandering, I entered into a fair
    garden and there I found a nun sitting. This was the song that the nun
    sang: 'Long dost thou tarry, frank, faithful monk. If I have to be a
    nun longer I shall die of the pains of love before vespers.'"

The end hardly ever varies. The nun is either taken away by a lover (as in
the first of these songs), or finds occasion to meet one without leaving
her house (as in the second); or else she runs away in the hope of finding
one like the novice of Avernay in Deschamps' poem, who had learned nothing
during her sojourn "fors un mot d'amourette," and who wanted to have a
husband "si comme a Sebilette."

  Adieu le moniage:
  Jamaiz n'y entreray.
  Adieu tout le mainage
  Et adieu Avernay!
  Bien voy l'aumosne est faitte:
  Trop tart me suy retraitte,
  Certes, ce poise my,
  Plus ne seray nonnette
      (Oez de la nonnette
      Comme a le cuer joly:
      S'ordre ne ly puet plere)[1559].

    "Farewell nunhood, never shall I enter thy state. Farewell all the
    household and farewell Avernay! The alms are given, too late have I
    left the world. Of a truth this wearies me; I will be a nun no more.
    (Hear this tale of the nun, whose heart was gay and whose order could
    not please her)."

It is but rarely that the singer's sympathy is against the prisoned nun;
and although one or two charming songs may be fou