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Equal in Monastic Profession: Religious Women in Medieval France.

Attention to the history of mediaeval female religious has gratifyingly increased in recent years, but there is still much to be done, and new studies are very welcome. Johnson uses cartularies and visitations of twenty-six nunneries in northern France from the eleventh to the thirteenth century to offer much vivid and detailed evidence of their administrative, fiscal and social concerns. Particularly valuable is her emphasis on relations between convents and their social context: there is extended treatment of the family, the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the community as contexts for nuns' individual and corporate lives.

Johnson's argument recognizes that the history of women is not merely an endless recitation of oppression, and she supplies much evidence of the status and perceived usefulness of religious women and their houses. But to claim equality because some female sub-cultures offer experiences of prestige and authority to their members is to claim too much, and Johnson's own argument repeatedly acknowledges nunneries' dependence and relative poverty. Her valuable insistence on the status of nuns sits confusingly with some of her own evidence, which is far from showing that nuns and monks had a |symmetrical life' (p. 266), and her related argument that |behaviour' is more revealing than |words' does not always disentangle the complex relations between the mysogynistic assumptions of much monastic writing and the quotidian co-operation of religious men and religious women. (Hence, from a writer uniquely qualified to evaluate Heloise's administration of the Paraclete in the context of other nunneries' practice, the disappointingly speculative and romantic account of |the best-known French nun': a competent abbess, Johnson argues, |Heloise does not need the Rule she requests from Abelard, yet the request is no forgery: she is trying |to ensnare her wary former lover and husband into continuing their correspondence', p. 243.)

Problems in its argument notwithstanding, the range and detail of the book make it a useful contribution to the growing literature on nunneries, and its extensive materials, if not always its conclusions, are to be gratefully welcomed as important reading in the history of mediaeval women.

In reprints, a map of the nunneries' sites would be a useful addition.
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Author:Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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