Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why I Love Life in a Medieval Nunnery by Margaret Frazer

There is a quiet there. A silence made of small sounds too familiar to be heard: the hush of soft-soled shoes on stone floors; the whisper of long skirts as women move, wordless, about their well-practiced duties.

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.

I remember in my early days in St. Frideswide’s, the nunnery I created for The Novice’s Tale, the first novel in my Dame Frevisse series, a morning when I had to leave off my writing for the day, dress in “office clothes”, and go to stand on a corner waiting for a bus to take me to yet another temp job. The day was February at its most bleak: grim, gray, cold, and slush-ridden. Traffic roared past, and all the buses were full or, when one paused with at least standing room left, I failed to scale the dirty snowbank faster than others eager to crowd into the fusty heat beyond the hissing doors. As one bus after another came and went – with nothing to be won by actually getting on one except a day in a cubicle under merciless fluorescent lights -- I thought (quite pathetically, as I recall), “I want to go back to my nunnery!”

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.

That said, I know it’s not a life I want for myself full time. No nunnery for me. But that morning at the cold, slush-ridden bus stop, it was good to think about another way of living, good to remember there have been – and are -- other ways to live than in the noise and rush and onward thrust of modern city life. It was the quiet of “my” nunnery I wanted – that ordered, peaceful place where the life of the soul is as honored as the life of the body.

Or is until, as a novelist, I have to kill someone and get on with the plot.


  1. Love this description of a medieval nunnery! Thanks for pointing out the typical size of nunneries and the exaggerated idea we have of them being chock full of superfluous women. Sometimes it's hard to remember that the reasons chroniclers often recorded facts was because they were unusual, not because they were the norm.

  2. The image of the buses hurtling past and making you desire the peace of the nunnery is great. To think that most only had twelve women in them, I wonder how in the jealousies they managed with few in number, or was that something that could help save them, for they knew they had to work things out - even if it was put up with it?

  3. Ms Frazier's words never fail to catch my interest and to paint a verbal picture that is truly amazing. I hear the sounds, see the sights and catch the spirit. Please continue to thrill your readers by continuing your wonderful series!

  4. I've just been reading the book "Virgins of Venice", which seems to suggest the phenomenon of large nunneries full of "surplus" women was more likely in, for instance, Italy than in most other countries. (Also, V of V is about the 16th-17th centuries, so further removed in time from the Frevisse stories.)

  5. Chris' point is excellent about a different place and a different time making, well, a difference. So much of what people think they know about the Middle Ages applies to one time and place, not to all times. I grumble a lot about that! Jel, you're very probably very right about the small group dynamics working for the nuns. They were, in effect, a corporate entity working toward a common goal -- economic as well as spiritual survival. They might well grate on one another sometimes, but would get past it in most cases. And when they didn't, that's when they got into the records!

  6. Thanks for this post! It's nice to learn what a medieval nunnery was really like, rather than hear about the stereotypes about "superfluous" and frustrated women being stuffed into convents by the boatload. Today it's hard for many people to comprehend that a woman would willingly and happily choose such a life. A dear friend of mine, a college-educated woman in her mid-twenties, wants to be a nun, and even some of our fellow Catholics act like she's lost her mind.

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