“A distribution of tyme”: Reading and Writing Practices in the English Convents in Exile

Caroline Bowden, Queen Mary, University of London
Vol. 31, No. 1/2 (Spring/Fall 2012), 99-116

Research by historians and literary scholars into English convents in exile (1600-1800) has been growing in recent years, revealing just how many sources have survived and are still to be investigated. In spite of a number of catastrophic events that interrupted the largely quiet progress of their religious life, the English communities managed to retain many of their manuscripts, and other documents from the convents have survived in outside repositories. This paper provides contextual background for understanding the demand for texts to support the nuns’ monastic obligations on a daily basis and for special occasions such as the practice of spiritual exercises. It will argue that many English texts were generated within the convents to meet the need for works of guidance to be used in private reading. The sources are primarily from two enclosed convents—the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre at Liège and the Poor Clares at Rouen—whose manuscripts are little known. Taking as a starting point the “distribution of tyme” or timetable from Liège, the paper will first consider the kinds of texts needed to follow the day outlined by their foundress. It will then examine texts created to support the spiritual exercises and finally consider three spiritual texts for personal reading at Rouen as exemplars of other manuscripts created specifically for English convents in exile. The paper argues that the shortage of specialized texts in English drove the members of the convents to create new texts to support their religious life, and in so doing, they formed significant textual communities for women in the early modern period.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]