e-book Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women

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Reviewed by Constance H. Once in a blue moon a book comes along which changes the whole way in which we look at a field of study--that is what Roberta Gilchrist's Gender and Material Culture has done for the study of medieval nuns. This consideration of all the medieval houses of nuns in Britain by a York-trained archeologist, now at the Center for East Anglian Studies in Norwich where she is also archeologist for the cathedral, overturns many outworn notions about nuns in late medieval England being poor, scandalous, or ineffective.

Gilchrist has assembled in this study all the information for religious women in Britain found in antiquarian studies, in such local and specialized histories as the Victoria County Histories, in monographs by Burton, Elkins, Thompson and others, and from Knowles' various collaborations on religious houses. She has not only added such evidence as aerial photographs and manuscript plans, combining her material in new ways which utilize well the visual possibilities of tables, charts, and photographs, but she brings to these materials the archaeologist's eye for material detail and interest in spatial relationships.

It is particularly in her feminist devotion to considerations of gender that Gilchrist creates a new picture of the lives of medieval religious women in Britain showing that women's monastic communities were an important aspect of late medieval culture because they often provided valuable services to their communities.

By looking at gender as a legitimate category of analysis and at the history and archaeology of women's religious communities as topics which can be effectively studied on their own, Gilchrist uncovers some startling facts and clears the ground for additional productive work. In her reassessment, particularly of the material remains of medieval religious women's lives, Gilchrist has exposed many of the misogynous assumptions of earlier authorities which still tend to contaminate our work, or which discouraged study of medieval women before it got started.

For example on page 23, "For some time male historians of male monasticism claimed that sources for religious women were simply not available or adequate--a claim admirably discounted by the recent proliferation of work on religious women by female historians. Not least of her startling findings is her carefully-documented one of a propensity for women's houses to have north- facing cloisters.

This is handled in a canny way which belies all quibbles about either necessities of sites, or women's communities' lesser flexibility in choice of site. For Gilchrist shows that even in places where the drainage possibilities would seem to have made a south-facing cloister preferable, nuns in certain parts of Britain chose to build or to adapt existing buildings so as to face cloisters away from the sun. She explores a variety of iconographic and other possibilities to explain this finding--among other things, such north-facing cloisters are associated with areas which had double communities at one time or another.

That nuns should make what appears a positive choice for the bleaker, northern prospect may seem counter-intuitive, but then isn't the whole message of the humility and poverty of Christian monastic community, one in opposition to monastic wealth? Gilchrist's findings, moreover, perhaps tie in with some from France by Bernadette Barriere who has done excavations at Coyroux. There Cistercian nuns similarly appear to have preferred buildings for their abbey which were considerably less substantial than those for neighboring Cistercian men at Obazine.

At Coyroux the situation is certainly not one in which economic reasons had any bearing on their choices--for the nuns shared endowment with the monks of Obazine, yet chose a more ascetic site and buildings. That medieval nuns should choose for themselves different standards by which to live than did the houses of monks which we usually cite-- those with rich endowments and glorious buildings--suggests that we too might fruitfully employ different, or at least additional, standards for judging both nuns and monks in the Middle Ages, than those traditionally applied to male monasteries.

When the traditional standards are employed, women's religious houses too often come off badly--they are described as poorer, less-well-endowed, less well-managed, smaller, and over-crowded versions of men's religious houses. Often this is not even literally true; there are many more large and wealthy houses of nuns than most studies of monasticism have implied.

There were also many more small houses of monks--poor, ill-managed, and short- lived--than there were Clunys or Clairvauxs. Gilchrist's study thus suggests the need for a more balanced view than simply that women's houses were poor and men's rich. For Gilchrist is correct in asserting, as on page "The archeology of nunneries has remained unwritten because monasteries for women have been judged against standards which are male.

But it is at this point that some of us may wish to slightly nuance Gilchrist's interpretation. For she asserts that women's communities should be judged by their own standard because "nunneries were founded for a different purpose than monasteries for men," But were women's communities founded for different purposes? I find it dangerous, for historians of women to treat communities of medieval nuns as a separate category which cannot bear comparison to that of medieval monks.

Moreover, there is great difficulty in extrapolating intentions of founders and donors from the material remains themselves. My own reading of monastic records for houses of both men and women, for both England and France, has made me increasingly convinced that women's religious houses were founded for the same purposes of prayer and service as were men's houses. Certainly a comparison of the many of the charters of bequests for Cistercian houses for monks and nuns in France suggests that there was little difference in the intentions of those who founded or endowed religious houses for women, from those who founded men's houses.


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Both women's and men's communities were given funds for anniversaries, for pittances, for perpetual masses, for burial-- that such gifts requiring the services of a priest were more costly to a community of nuns is, of course, a different problem. But the frequent bequests I have seen, particularly in the later middle ages, made to "the poor nuns who will pray for their souls" by wealthy men and women, are gifts which confirm that if there were any gendered differences in the perceived efficacy of prayers in the late middle ages, it may well have been in favor of those by women.

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Indeed, the increasing foundation of women's religious houses in the later middle ages might in itself suggest that donors and patrons were finding that women's houses fulfilled their intentions better than did houses of religious men. Thus, while Gilchrist may be correct that medieval nuns often fulfilled different purposes for their communities than did medieval monks, I am convinced nonetheless that medieval people founded women's religious houses for the same reasons that they founded men's.

The difference lies in how well those donor's expectations were fulfilled. But Gilchrist's standards by which nuns may be judged positively--ones of humility, prayer, and service--are ones which should not only be applied to houses of nuns, but should be applied to all religious communities.

We too often forget that the foundation of religious communities was not for the purpose of building solid physical plants, establishing adequate endowments, or for innovative administration of property, but for prayer! Finally, Gilchrist's study brings up the much-vexed problem of Cistercian women--particularly in Britain, which she treats with great caution.

But it seems to me that Gilchrist has fallen prey to what I'd like to call "the double standard of proof" as applied to Cistercian women. In general terms, this is our tendency to uphold or to be held to much higher standards of proof about women's history than were ever used by earlier historians writing the earlier "master narrative" of a "history" which was in fact "men's history.

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Professor Roberta Gilchrist FBA - University of Reading

I bring up this quibble because to get it right makes Gender and Archaeology all the more useful, but also because it is a good example of a pitfall into which many other medieval feminists' reassessments may fall. Here, in contrast, the concept of life course theory is developed for the first time in a detailed archaeological case study. The author argues that medieval Christian understanding of the "life course" commenced with conception and extended through the entirety of life, to include death and the afterlife.

Five thematic case studies present the archaeology of medieval England c. A wide range of sources is critically employed: osteology, costume, material culture, iconography and evidence excavated from houses, churches and cemeteries in the medieval English town and countryside. Medieval Life reveals the intimate and everyday relations between age groups, between the living and the dead, and between people and things. Norwich Cathedral Close : the evolution of the English cathedral landscape by Roberta Gilchrist Book 17 editions published between and in English and held by WorldCat member libraries worldwide "This study explores the development of Norwich cathedral close from its foundation in up to c.

Archaeological, visual and historical evidence is used to reconstruct the landscape and buildings of the close, and transformations in their use and meaning over time. Patterns observed at Norwich are placed in comparative context with other cathedral-priories and appropriate urban and rural sites, to draw out the development of the English cathedral landscape over six centuries.

Contemplation and action : the other monasticism by Roberta Gilchrist Book 11 editions published in in English and held by WorldCat member libraries worldwide "This book considers the archaeology of 'the other monasticism', a range of religious vocations and associated settlements - hospitals, preceptories of the military orders, monasteries for women and hermitages - that were constant and integral to medieval life, yet have remained on the margins of modern scholarship.

Archaeological and historical evidence is brought together in an examination of the meaning of monasticism to medieval people. Monastic identities are explored through the connection between material culture and issues such as belief, gender, membership of a monastic order, patronage and a sense of liminality, or otherness. Requiem : the medieval monastic cemetery in Britain by Roberta Gilchrist Book 6 editions published in in English and held by WorldCat member libraries worldwide "This volume challenges previous assumptions about medieval burial through comprehensive study of excavated monastic cemeteries.

Some graves are analysed from more than 70 cemeteries in England, Wales and Scotland, focusing principally on medieval religious houses c to c C. The book is complemented by a fully accessible, web-mounted database archived with the Archaeology Data Service. Advances in monastic archaeology Book 9 editions published in in English and held by WorldCat member libraries worldwide. Reflections : 50 years of medieval archaeology, by Roberta Gilchrist Book 11 editions published between and in English and held by WorldCat member libraries worldwide "This volume celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Society for Medieval Archaeology established in , presenting reflections on the history, development and future prospects of the discipline.

The papers are drawn from a series of conferences and workshops that took place in , in addition to a number of contributions that were commissioned especially for the volume. They range from personal commentaries on the history of the Society and the growth of the subject, to historiographical, regional and thematic overviews of major trends in the evolution and current practice of medieval archaeology in Britain. Critical overviews are presented of the archaeology of medieval landscapes, buildings and material culture; new developments in the scientific study of medieval health, diet and materials; and, innovations in social approaches to medieval archaeology.

A series of papers on southern Europe provide a comparative perspective, featuring overviews on medieval archaeology in Italy, Spain and southeastern Europe. The Archaeology of rural monasteries Book 8 editions published in in English and held by WorldCat member libraries worldwide. Glastonbury Abbey : archaeological investigations, by Roberta Gilchrist Book 10 editions published between and in English and held by WorldCat member libraries worldwide This is a comprehensive study of the archaeological archives and artefact collections of Glastonbury Abbey, together with a new geophysical survey of the site.

Previous interpretations are challenged and new evidence is presented for the Saxon and later medieval phases of the abbey, including an important complex of early glass-working furnaces, dated c The study reveals, for the first time, archaeological evidence for the Norman and later medieval monastic ranges and the luxurious abbot?

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The archaeology of Reformation, by Archaeology of Reformation Conference Book 1 edition published in in English and held by WorldCat member libraries worldwide. Religious women in medieval East Anglia : history and archaeology c by Roberta Gilchrist Book 4 editions published in in English and Undetermined and held by 81 WorldCat member libraries worldwide. The archaeology of Reformation, : papers given at the Archaeology of Reformation Conference, February , hosted jointly by Society for Medieval Archaeology, Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology by Archaeology of Reformation Conference Book 10 editions published between and in English and held by 72 WorldCat member libraries worldwide.

Archaeology, politics and the public : papers given to the Young Archaelogists' Conference in York in by Young Archaeologists' Conference Book 4 editions published in in English and held by 50 WorldCat member libraries worldwide. Buildings and beliefs : understanding a medieval parish church Visual 3 editions published between and in English and held by 23 WorldCat member libraries worldwide Takes the viewer to All Saints Church North Street in York, and shows how the church building's architectural features, including the multiple changes that were made over the years, can tell us a great deal about the social and religious beliefs of the people who built and used it.

Medieval archaeology Book 3 editions published in in English and held by 20 WorldCat member libraries worldwide. Norwich Cathedral close by Roberta Gilchrist Book 1 edition published in in English and held by 10 WorldCat member libraries worldwide.