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‘Sisters Under the Skin’? Anglo-Saxon Nuns and Nunneries in Southern England

medieval nuns

‘Sisters Under the Skin’? Anglo-Saxon Nuns and Nunneries in Southern England

By Barbara Yorke

Reading Medieval Studies, Volume 5, 1989

medieval nuns

Introduction: The history of female monastic life in Anglo-Saxon England has generally been seen as falling into two distinct phases conveniently separated by the Carolingian Renaissance and the Viking invasions of the ninth century.

The nunneries of the first phase are the ‘double monasteries’, mixed communities of nuns and monks or priests which in England always seem to have been under the control of an abbess. Scarcely any of these double monasteries survived as nunneries into the second phase, and it is generally assumed that the Vikings delivered the coup de grace to those which were still in existence in the ninth century.


The nunneries of the second phase were predominantly new foundations and most had a continuous history as communities of Benedictine nuns until the Reformation. Given this natural dichotomy, there has been a tendency among historians to specialise in the study of one group or another, or to draw contrasts between the two periods with the stricter claustration and poorer intellectual standards of the Benedictine period compared unfavourably with the greater opportunities for participation in and equality with the world of the male religious which apparently existed earlier.

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