Recovering the Histories of Women Religious in England in the Central Middle Ages: Wilton Abbey and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin
By Katie Ann-Marie Bugyis
Journal of Medieval History, Volume 42, Number 3, 2016
Introduction: Over the past 20 years, significant scholarly effort has been devoted to reassessing the literacies and intellectual activities of communities of women religious in England throughout the Middle Ages. Substantial attention had been, and continues to be, devoted to recovering the literary cultures of early Anglo-Saxon women religious.
This attention has not been without just cause. Many of their achievements had been neglected by earlier scholars or ascribed to the male contingent joined to or affiliated with these abbesses’ communities. Credit certainly needed to be given where credit was due, but this recognition had a profound impact upon the broader historiography on medieval English women religious. The early Anglo-Saxon period was elevated to a relative ‘golden age’ for women religious, against which later periods could only pale in comparison and, thus, warrant characterisation in terms of decline or, worse, decadence and corruption.
These characterisations have now been called into question. Discoveries of new manuscript and documentary evidence, together with critical re-readings of more well-known sources, have revealed that, though there may not have been a ‘continuous’ tradition of literary culture in communities of women religious from the early Anglo-Saxon period to the dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s, it was recurrently ‘renewed and reinvented’ throughout the Middle Ages, as Stephanie Hollis has observed.