Anonymous Then, Invisible Now: The Readers of Sermon a Dames Religioses

Paper delivered at Nuns’ Literacies Conference, Antwerp, 6th June 2013.

Incipit: Edmund of Abingdon wrote a guide to the religious life in the first part of the thirteenth century, known as the Speculum religiosorum or, in its lay form Speculum ecclesie; it is generally believed he composed it while staying at Merton Priory during the suspension of the schools at Oxford in 1213-14. The original Latin text no longer exists, although what is believed to be an accurate copy dating from the late-fourteenth or early-fifteenth century is found in Oxford Bodleian MS Hatton 26. Over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Speculum was translated into Anglo-Norman (which I will refer to as the Mirour de Seinte eglyse though it is variously titled in the manuscripts) for different readers: a lengthy chapter (36) on the three degrees of contemplation is found in manuscripts considered to be intended for religious readers, although this is a somewhat reductive argument, since the readership is defined by the length of the chapter.

Explicit: A more general conclusion to be reached from this study of manuscripts of the Mirour de Seinte Eglyse is that it is not sufficient to assume from a palaeographical study that all parts of a manuscript belonging to a male religious house were originally intended for that readership, or to conclude from a consideration of the text itself that a manuscript referring to sisters was read by sisters. the inclusion of elite spiritual material is not sufficient to prove a rleigious readership, and nor are references to sisters proof of female readers; on the other hand paleographical evidence pointing to male lay ownership need not exclude readership by nuns of at least part of a manuscript at some stage in its history. The nuns for whom this translation of Edmund’s Speculum was made may have been anonymous; as scholars we should not compound their near-invisibility by ignoring the evidence of them as devotional and penitential treaders. We need to take into account a full history of a manuscript and we need to consider readers not just as patrons or owners of manuscripts, but in their full engagement with books as ‘material carriers’ of the texts as they hold them in their hands, read them or hear them read outloud, gaze at their illustrations and meditate on their contents.

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