Work as a Manifestation of Faith in the English Nunnery: Barking Abbey, Essex

Work as a Manifestation of Faith in the English Nunnery: Barking Abbey, Essex

By Terri Barnes

Quidditas, Vol.32 (2011)

Barking Abbey, circa 1500

Abstract: This paper discusses various occupations held by nuns in the late-medieval and early-modern English convent, and argues that while the nuns did have extraordinary opportunities for self-management when compared to secular women, nuns carried out those responsibilities in part as extensions and expressions of their faith.

This paper looks at offices held by the nuns at Barking Abbey in Essex, from the late Medieval period up to the Abbey’s dissolution in the sixteenth century as a result of the shifting political and religious sands under King Henry VIII. Barking Abbey was a large, wealthy institution that needed capable administration, and for its officer-nuns this meant high levels of responsibility. Though management opportunities may have garnered respect for the women, this paper asserts that any work the nuns did was seen in the light of centuries-old monastic traditions that viewed labor as both a way to ensure their institution’s survival and a way to get closer to God.

Introduction: Historians have generally regarded the late Medieval and Early Modern periods in England as a time when women of higher social status had two “occupational” options: marriage or the convent. If married, the primary job of an elite woman was to provide heirs, preferably male, in order to continue her husband’s family line. For women of the gentry classes, life choices hinged on their father’s ability to raise a dowry large enough to enable them to marry.

If only a small dowry could be raised, a young woman would likely find herself “married” to the church and in a life spent behind cloister walls. But where opportunities to work and achieve were concerned, this option may have been the best of all, for it was inside the nunnery where women gained a level of education, authority, and responsibility that was unmatched by most of their secular sisters.

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