Voices from a Distant Land: Fragments of a Twelfth-Century Nuns’ Letter Collection
By Alison Beach
Speculum, Vol. 77, No. 1 (2002)
Introduction: Late in the nineteenth century, while working in the archives of the Benedictine monastery of Admont, the monk-librarian Jakob Wichner discovered four parchment leaves wrapped around the nuns’ wine service register for the year 1431. He recognized that these fragments, though badly damaged and stained with wine, contained a collection of twelfth-century Latin letters linked in some way to Admont’s female community. He concluded that what he had discovered was probably the remains of a formulary, a collection of model letters designed for imitation, once belonging to the nuns. Wichner transcribed and printed two of the letters in the appendix to his article “Das ehemalige Nonnenkloster O.S.B. zu Admont,” which appeared in 1881.
Wichner’s discovery was more important than he realized. On a recent visit to the monastery, I had the opportunity to examine the letter fragments and noticed immediately the opening lines of several letters beyond the two he transcribed. Preserved on these unimpressive-looking parchment leaves are copies of nineteen complete and partial Latin letters written by Admont’s nuns – an extraordinary collection that contains both routine correspondence related to patronage and remarkably powerful letters that detail the exigencies of individuals. In these fragments echo women’s voices speaking of their intersecting spiritual, economic, and personal concerns, voices offering us a rare glimpse both of the lives of Admont’s twelfth-century nuns and of their continuing interaction with the world outside the cloister.