This study uncovers the liturgical and pastoral ministries performed by Benedictine women religious in England from 900 to 1200. Three ministries are examined in detail – the proclamation of the gospel, the practice of penance, and the administration of the Eucharist – but they are prefaced by portraits of the very monastic officers that most often performed them – cantors, sacristans, prioresses, and abbesses. The research presented in this study challenges past scholarly accounts of these ministries that either locate them exclusively in the so-called “golden age” of double monasteries headed by abbesses in the seventh and eighth centuries, or read the monastic and ecclesiastical reforms of the tenth through twelfth centuries as effectively relegating women religious to complete dependency on the sacramental care of ordained men. This study shows that far from becoming wholly dependent on such care, many women religious in central medieval England continued to exercise prominent liturgical and pastoral roles in their communities, much like those assumed by their earlier Anglo-Saxon foremothers and by their contemporary Benedictine brothers.
To uncover these liturgical and pastoral ministries, this study investigates a variety of textual sources and material evidence – monastic rules, customaries, penitentials, ecclesiastical decrees, canon law collections, theological treatises, chronicles, saints lives, miracle collections, letters, charters, cartularies, wills, mortuary rolls, manuscript illuminations, seals, sculptures, and grave goods. But most innovative and central to this study are the close paleographical and codicological analyses of the surviving liturgical manuscripts that were produced by and for houses of Benedictine women religious in central medieval England. When identified and then studied as a whole – which they have not been until this point – these books provide a treasure-trove of unexamined evidence for understanding the lives of women religious. The manuscripts analyzed include psalters, prayerbooks, gospel books, lectionaries, homiliaries, calendars, pontificals, and ordinals. These books serve as the foundational documents of practice for this study, for they offer witnesses not only to the liturgical and pastoral ministries that women religious performed, but also to the productions of female scribes as copyists, correctors, and even creators of liturgical texts.