Medieval Women and Power: Female Abbatial Lordship

John Rylands Research Institute Visiting Research Fellow, Dr Laura Gathagan from SUNY Cortland, has spent the last two months investigating part of the Beaumont Charters collection. She writes:

The Beaumont Charters are a collection of manuscripts from Normandy, many of which date back to the Anglo-Norman realm; that is, when the Dukes of Normandy were also the Kings of England in the 11th century. These may seem like letters from a distant world and, in some cases, they are. Primarily in Latin, these documents are carefully written, sometimes in miniature, on small pieces of parchment, some measuring only 8.5 x 18 cm. Beautiful ‘hands’ or scripts relay legal agreements, notices and announcements often involving land estates and rents.  Sometimes the wax seal, used to verify the documents’ validity, has also survived.

My project surveys and examines the documents from the monastic community of Holy Trinity in Caen, Normandy. There are nine manuscripts in the Beaumont collection from Holy Trinity and they give clues to the lives and experience of nuns and their abbess in the wealthiest female house in Normandy. Mathilda of Flanders, the first Norman queen of England, wife and co-ruler of William the Conqueror, founded the female Benedictine community of nuns on the eve of the Conquest in June of 1066. Like Battle Abbey in England, the roots of this nunnery were entwined in the Norman Conquest and Norman royal identity.

BMC 29
Grant by Gislain de la Pommeraye to the Abbey of Notre Dame in Ardenne, 1219 (BMC 29).

Mathilda and William’s daughter, Cecelia, joined the community as a child and eventually served as the community’s second abbess. In the 21st century, the idea of dedicating a child to the restrictions of monastic life seem cruel. However, medieval parents probably saw it quite differently. For Cecelia, abbatial power meant she was autonomous in a way her married sisters were not. She made all the decisions that governed her own life. She had authority over her monastic community and only answered to the bishop in Bayeux. Sheltered from the dangers of marriage and childbirth, the women at Holy Trinity were free to see their families, come and go regularly into the city of Caen, and took part in city festivals and markets. They were also granted their own market in Caen; once a year, the abbess’s coat of arms was hung on all the city walls. For the next three days, she and her nuns received all the tolls and taxes paid to the city during the fair. Unlike some later communities of nuns who were strictly cloistered, the women at Holy Trinity actively participated in the daily life and special events of their city.

Female abbatial authority, and its privileges, is a topic historians are just now beginning to examine. The Beaumont Charters shed light on the significant power the abbess held in the city of Caen and her properties – as far away as the Jersey Islands and throughout England. One of the most interesting features of the Beaumont Charters produced by Holy Trinity is the emphasis they place on the abbess’s judicial function. As the landlord of large properties throughout the Anglo-Norman realm, the abbess also had the right to deliver justice and adjudicate disputes between her tenants. She had her own abbatial law court and ruled on cases brought before her. One of the Beaumont Charters, BMC 62, is a letter, dated 1262, from the ‘baillie’ or sheriff of Caen, apologizing to the abbess for removing a prisoner from her prison in Ouistreham on the Norman coast. He assures her that he will quickly return her prisoner and affirms that she has jurisdiction over him. This is the only evidence historians have found that an abbess in Normandy had her own jail. How many other abbesses had the same facilities? Without BMC 62, we would never know to ask the question, much less search for an answer.

BMC 73
Grant by Achard the deacon to the Abbey of La Trinité in Fécamp, on his becoming a monk there, c.1200 (BMC 73).

Sources like the Beaumont Charters allow historians of the Middle Ages to uncover women in powerful roles that might not align with modern conceptions of the medieval world.

The abbesses of Caen left behind letters to the future. They consciously preserved documents that historians read today. As the French Revolution raged, monasteries were destroyed, and their records burned. The last abbess of Caen, Marie de Pontecoulant, died in 1806. She hid the documents of Holy Trinity that she considered precious, and arranged for their escape to England after her death. The Rylands Library was able to acquire and preserve these letters from the past in safety so that the world of powerful medieval abbesses could be revealed.


2 comments on “Medieval Women and Power: Female Abbatial Lordship

  1. This is so interesting! Can you recommend somewhere where I can learn more about medieval abbesses?

  2. John Hodgson

    Laura replies:

    Thanks so much for your response to my blog post. There are no full-length treatments of medieval abbesses in the Anglo-Norman world (which, naturally, is one of the reasons for my research!). There have been works published in English on specific abbesses – very famous ones – such as Hildegard of Bingen and Heloise of the Paraclete (the famous 12th-century wife and partner of Abelard). Here are a few book titles and journal articles that you might find interesting:

    Heloise and the Paraclete: A Twelfth-Century Quest (The New Middle Ages) by Mary Martin McLaughlin and Bonnie Wheeler (London: Palgrave, 2005)

    Elisabeth van Houts, “Women and the writing of history in the early Middle Ages: the case of Abbess Matilda of Essen and Aethelweard” Early Medieval Europe 1:1 (1992) 53-68.

    Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard von Bingen and Her World, Ed. Barbara Newman. Pp. ix, 278. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    “Praesidentes negotiis: abbesses as managers in twelfth-century France, ” in Portraits of Medieval and Renaissance Living: Essays in Memory of David Herlihy. Ed. Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. and Steven A. Epstein (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 189-205.

    Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom’s Wellsprings. Ed. Miriam Schmitt and Linda Kulzer. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996)

    I hope you enjoy them!

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