Saturday, May 28, 2011
Why I Love Life in a Medieval Nunnery by Margaret Frazer
Then the slow striking of a bell that brings them from all their varied work to the single, central purpose of their lives, their voices raised now, blending together in the daily-changing, yearly-returning garland of psalms and prayers in the church that is the heart of this small grouping of rooms around the green cloister garth.
A meal then, eaten in quiet under the low voice of one of them reading aloud; and a return to work or perhaps to study now. Then prayers again. And again. The hours for prayer coming all through a day, separating the daily from the divine, an endless reminding of the eternal that lies beyond the passing needs of everyday.
Then supper, with afterward an hour when all the women’s voices are set free and flow into talk, into chatter perhaps, into ease from the day’s duties done, before last prayers, and silence again, and bed.
Ore et labore.
Prayer and work.
Not, of course, that any nunnery was as forever-peaceful as the one imagined above. But neither does it seem that medieval English nunneries were full of Naughty Nuns – disobedient, slovenly, lustful, renegade, fodder-for-cheap-novels nuns, desperately unhappy with their lot and letting the world know it. Very early in my reading of such works as Eileen Powers’ Medieval English Nunneries, I caught on to the fact that – just as with modern news – it’s the troublemakers who get into the records, the troublemakers who get noticed and noted, not the far larger number of people who live quiet, orderly lives. Yes, there were nunneries where scandalous things happened, but given the number of nunneries there were in medieval England, and the span of centuries covered by contemporary reports, such outbreaks look more like temporary, isolated aberrations than a constant thing. Reflection suggests that the majority of nuns lived their lives quietly, within acceptable parameters, even if not always in strict accordance with the Rule. They were, after all, only human.
But what of all those many women we “know” were dumped into nunneries because they were superfluous females, women who must therefore have been intensely resentful, rebellious, depressed, repressed, etc.? Ah, facts, pesky facts. Judging by how many English nunneries there were and the known numbers of nuns in each (medieval bishops kept meticulous accounts), there must have been very few superfluous women in medieval England, because most nunneries were small. A dozen nuns was a generous amount for any but the most socially prestigious, royally-founded abbeys.
But if the nunneries weren’t full of resentful, rule-breaking nuns forced into a life they did not want, what were all those women doing in nunneries? Well, simply put, it would seem they were there by choice -- that they chose to become nuns.
Consider that choice in the context of actual medieval life as lived (versus modern clichéd perceptions of “medieval”). The life of the spirit – of the soul – was thought to be the most valuable life there was. A life given over to prayer, not just for the self but for the world, was supposed to be the richest life there was, albeit one most people could not hope (or, frankly, want) to have. A woman who chose to become a nun was choosing to forgo worldly life for the infinitely more valuable life of the soul.
That said, the fact remains that they were still individuals, were still in the world, however cloistered they might be, because a nunnery was a workaday place as well as a place of prayer. A nunnery was a complex corporate entity with levels of managerial responsibilities webbing not only through the nunnery itself but outward into the numerous aspects of worldly medieval life that sustained the spiritual one. Nuns were expected to be corporate managers as well as sustainers of their own and other people’s spirituality. That dichotomy of purpose is one of the reasons that a medieval nun and a nunnery work so well in a history mystery novel. I’m not only able to explore an under-utilized aspect of medieval life from the angle of reality (rather than histrionics), but Dame Frevisse, with her keen, curious mind and deep spiritual life, brings a unique (but definitely medieval) viewpoint to everything around her. That includes both her fellow nuns with their widely varying personalities (some of whom are, after all, not as suited to the spiritual life as they might be) and all the men and women who populate the many layers and facets of medieval society surrounding the nunnery.
The tensions of this duality add fascinating difficulties to all the usual problems involved in a murder and mystery, and allow readers that deep immersion into a truly different time and place that is the one of the pleasures of reading historical novels. Human passions may remain the same through the centuries, but what sparks them changes with the world they grow in. I love my “life in a medieval nunnery” because by being there I’ve been able to explore not only the worldly passions of the body but the spiritual passions of those who quest for the peace and glory of soul said to lie beyond the bounds of everyday.
Or is until, as a novelist, I have to kill someone and get on with the plot.