First and foremost, may you be safe and healthy.
As spring deepens and the lengthening days are raucous with birdsong and bright with blossoms and tender leaves, I am at home tending the garden, moving shrubs, transplanting saplings nurtured over the past few years, pruning, weeding. A nesting pair of crows have been assisting me, pruning dead twigs from the crowns of a Japanese maple and a redbud outside my office windows. At first I gathered the twigs that fell to the ground and piled them where the couple might pick over them, but I soon understood that I’d been mistaken—the crows had judged them unacceptable. Now I thank them for the pruning assistance as I toss the discards in the yard waste bin. The crows know…
Speaking of crows… As book lovers, you may have heard about publishers deciding to hold back books due to be published as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, and you might be wondering what’s happening with the 12th Owen Archer mystery, A Choir of Crows.
I am delighted to announce that Severn House has decided we all need a dose of Owen, Lucie, Magda, Michaelo, and company sooner rather than later. Publication has been moved forward! The hardcover of A Choir of Crows will be available in the UK on 31 May, and both the hardcover and e-book will be available in the US and Canada on 2 July. I hope this news brightens your day.
I am aware that bookshops in the UK find it almost impossible to order new books, both brick and mortar and online bookshops, a complex situation that may or may not change by late May. At the moment the Book Depository and Waterstones online are accepting preorders. I will have a better idea when we’re closer to publication date and let you know what options might be available. I welcome you to keep me posted in comments regarding your attempts to preorder a copy. Together we can make this work for all of us—bookshops, publishers, and readers.
In the US, I’m teaming up with a local bookshop, Third Place Books, for what will almost certainly be an online launch in early July. Online will mean more of you can participate, or at least view it! Right now it’s available for preorder at Third Place Books and your local bookshop, as well as online.
More sweet news (for me)… I was delighted to see the Kate Clifford series on a New York Public Library list, 30 Historical Mystery Series to Get You Through Any Crisis: “Set in 15th century York, Kate Clifford is a young widow trying to get herself out of the debt left to her by her two-timing husband. Estranged from her family and raising the children of her husband’s dead mistress, Kate relies on her intelligence and intuition as well as her wily servants to get her out of trouble both political and murderous. Turns out York is a minefield of deceit, betrayal and murder. Well known for her Owen Archer series, Robb writes mysteries that are intricate, dense with historical detail and great characters that truly satisfy history and mystery lovers alike.” And The Apothecary Rose appeared on a list, 10 Great Medieval Mystery Books. I’m feeling the love.
Lastly, I am happy to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Severn House to write two additional Owen Archer novels! So when I’m not gardening or taking long walks I am working on Owen Archer #13, tentatively titled The Riverwoman’s Dragon. I am dedicating it to my dear friend Joyce Gibb who died on Christmas Eve. Beginning with A Gift of Sanctuary, Joyce was my sounding board on early drafts, reading chunks of the manuscript as I wrote, offering insights. I miss her more than I can say. Over the years she urged me to give Magda Digby a central role in a book, and this past autumn I decided that #13 would be the one. She cheered me on.
The book is set in late spring 1375 at the beginning of a plague summer. You can imagine my unease when the topic on which I settled in the autumn began to seem horribly current in winter. But letting fictional characters express my feelings is cathartic, and spending my days in the mind of Magda Digby is a joy.
Be safe! Be well!
I am delighted to expand on my brief review of The White Nuns: Cistercian Abbeys for Women in Medieval France (University of Pennsylvania Press 2008) by interviewing the author, Dr. Constance Hoffman Berman to celebrate Women’s History Month.
First, so that you need not page back, here’s my initial impression: The first three chapters upend all I thought I knew about Cistercian convents—i.e., that they were few and far between, poor, and badly managed. All wrong. Why? Here’s the jacket copy: “Modern studies of the religious reform movement of the central Middle Ages have often relied on contemporary accounts penned by Cistercian monks, who routinely exaggerated the importance of their own institutions while paying scant attention to the remarkable expansion of abbeys of Cistercian women. Yet by the end of the thirteenth century there were more houses of Cistercian nuns across Europe than of monks. [!] …[Berman] charts the stages in the nuns’ gradual acceptance by the abbots of the Cistercian Order’s General Chapter and describes the expansion of the nuns’ communities and their adaptation to a variety of economic circumstances in France and throughout Europe. While some sought contemplative lives of prayer, the ambition of many of these religious women was to serve the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Focusing in particular on Cistercian nuns’ abbeys founded between 1190 and 1250 in the northern French archdiocese of Sens, Berman reveals the frequency with which communities of Cistercian nuns were founded by rich and powerful women, including Queen Blanche of Castile, heiresses Countess Matilda of Courtenay and Countess Isabelle of Chartres, and esteemed ladies such as Agnes of Cressonessart. She shows how these founders and early patrons assisted early abbesses, nuns, and lay sister by using written documents to secure rights and create endowments, and it is on the records of their considerable economic achievements that she centers her analysis.” I love this book! The women are so remarkable and inspiring that it’s astonishing to me that they were almost forgotten. Fascinating reading.
Of course I wanted more, and Dr. Berman kindly obliged. Enjoy!
Q: What prompted this project?
A: At the time I began the work no one believed there were Cistercian nuns, but in order to show that there were I found myself querying a sacred narrative of the early Cistercians. I was attacked viciously for suggesting that institution evolved gradually and for asserting that problems were not resolved before they had occurred. That was paralyzing for a time, but I did not altogether lose sight of how much good material I had, and I did not lose sight of the fact that the story I wanted to tell was not a composite of various instances or anecdotes from different communities, but one in which I could present different sorts of founders, of abbeys, and of management styles by abbesses. I wanted to argue for the variety of foundations for Cistercian nuns and their economic practices, but also for the diversity of female founders and leaders of such abbeys throughout a substantial region that included growing cities and sparse wastelands. This was all very slow going. While my research could have resulted in a series of shorter books about single dioceses or the like, what would have been lost was the story of how these abbeys, particularly those in the vicinity of Paris had histories that were interlocked in some ways, but that also had carefully delineated zones of influence.
Q: Aside from the discovery of this lack in the literature, what struck you most in your research?
A: I’ve been most struck not just by how many abbeys of Cistercian nuns there were and how many of their records survive, but how much those documents shed light on secular women who had sufficient power and authority to be involved in these religious foundations at a time when the traditional narratives would tell us that neither monastic nor secular women had much influence. If those nuns were lost to history because someone else controlled the narrative, so were many of their female founders and supporters who exercised their access to property to encourage prayers for souls. If many of those women had no “power” or authority, they nonetheless used their access to property to exercise what a recent author has called “agency.” That’s important, even if you might think that medieval religious women are just a big bore. The nuns themselves resisted the depredations of monks and clerics, but also collaborated with secular women who remained outside the monastic enclosure because if they became religious women, their property rights would have been lost.
Q: In popular media nuns are too often depicted as unworldly, indeed a bit simple. Yet in your book and elsewhere in my research I’ve seen instead a wealth of evidence to the contrary. They are instead efficient and ambitious in their property acquirement and management. As were their female benefactors. What are some of your favorite examples of this?
A: Many of the women in this study had some tie to Blanche of Castile, Queen of France, but one who is less known, Blanche’s half-cousin Alice of Mâcon, who became the first abbess of Notre-Dame of Lys (1248-1259), Blanche’s second foundation for Cistercian nuns near Melun, east of Paris. and it was she who brought nuns from Maubuisson (Blanche’s first foundation) to establish Lys in 1248. (The jacket illustration is from le Lys.) Alice and her husband had sold her inheritance of the county of Macon to the King and after she was widowed in 1240 become a Cistercian nun at Maubuisson. She must have established many of the details of construction and provisioning at Lys in the 1240s when Blanche was preoccupied with her son’s Crusade and with taking over the regency. But surviving documentation from le Lys is sparse and has sometimes been misinterpreted with regard to the relationship between Blanche and her son. Details of acquisitions made by Alice in the 1250s survive only for the grange of Mâlay near Sens where Alice seems to have given particular attention to viticulture. In 1252 when Abbess Alice paid 194 livres tournois to Felix of Pontarlier and his wife Isabelle, for rights in a house, cellar and its appurtenances in the parish of Saint-Hilaire of Sens. That she was using livres tournois suggests that these funds were coming from the income from the sale of her county that she was still paid in that currency even after she became a nun. The urban property for storing wine, possibly before shipping it down-river to Paris was matched by properties acquired in 1253 at Mâlay itself when Alice paid 665 livres tournois to the bourgeois Peter of Châteauvieux of Sens and his wife Felicia for a house, barn, barnyard, vineyards and other rights in the censive and lordship of the Lord King at Mâlay-le-Roi. This village in the Vanne River valley east of Sens had already had a religious presence for some years, with a hospice or cell belonging earlier to the monks of Val-des-Choux. Until her death in 1259 Alice expended additional livres tournois for rights in the parish of Mâlay. Her managerial abilities in property acquisition were probably matched by her leadership of the community of nuns itself. Managerial activity further east, at Notre-Dame-des-Prés, near Troyes, is seen in viticultural acquisition is seen in a single year (1282) by that community’s Abbess Isabelle and her purchases paying a total of 62 livres at Chaumont, Moussey and Rivières. She is described as acting in these charters and sealing them with her seal, although a brother John, conversus, occasionally acted in her stead.
To the west of Paris, we see Matilda of Amboise, the daughter of one of Blanche’s cousins, Isabelle countess of Chartres, engaged in support of at least four communities of Cistercian nuns. Her mother had supported houses of Cistercian nuns at Lieu les- Romorantin and Eau-lez-Chartres and a smaller community near Tours on the Loire at Moncy. In the 1240s, Matilda of Amboise also had become associated with yet a fourth community of nuns that the abbey of the Cistercian nuns of Perray-aux-Nonnains to replace an earlier community of monks that had been founded there circa 1190. In 1249 Matilda of Amboise became the new countess when her mother Isabelle died. She confirmed to the nuns of Lieu their rights in the woods near the abbey and its great pond where they could make ditches to limit access, have rabbit warrens and rights to hunt small animals for feeding the sick, where the nuns could “guard, sell, give, uproot and reduce to agriculture.” This was to fund anniversaries for herself and for the souls of her father, Sulpice of Amboise, her mother, Isabelle of Chartres, and her husband Richard of Beaumont. The direct line died out with Matilda’s death in 1256 and so did the single-minded patronage that Cistercian nuns had received at these four houses from Isabelle and Matilda. Given that both of them had been heiresses in their own right, but without any direct heir after Matilda, they were able to be particularly beneficent patrons of Cistercian nuns for most of their careers. Perhaps here we see something about elderly women without surviving children.
Finally, three women associated with the abbey of Saint-Antoine-des-Champs located just outside the walls of Paris. Most striking is Blanche of Paciac, a bourgeoise and the daughter of Raoul of Paciac, citizen and possibly notary of Paris, and his wife Sedilia who made a donation to Saint-Antoine at the time of Blanche’s entrance as a nun at Saint-Antoine circa 1259/1260. In 1277 the properties purchased with the cash brought when Blanche entered the abbey were recorded by the abbess of Saint-Antoine and the abbot of Cîteaux in 1277: “In order that Blanche may be remembered perpetually and especially that after her death she be included in the prayers of the nuns serving the Lord at this house.” In 1259 just before she became a nun Blanche had given 400 livres parisis to Saint-Antoine; she gave an additional 1500 livres tournois in 1260. These funds allowed Saint-Antoine’s abbesses to consolidate rights at major rural centers at Aulnay, north of Paris, at Beaumont to the northeast and at Montreuil to the east of the city.
Property at Aulnay was given by Lady Agnes of Cressonessart, whose Cressonessart husband and son, and her brother Robert of Mauvoisin had been Crusaders who turned back from the Fourth Crusade and became leaders of the Albigensian Crusade. Lady Agnes made and facilitated others’ early gifts to Saint-Antoine at Aulnay and was clearly a leader of the early community of Saint-Antoine. Although she probably took the nuns’ habit in 1212, she never became abbess of that monastery. Instead she retreated to her own property to live out her life, establishing that half of that property’s produce would support her as a lifetime annuity and making a post-mortem gift of the whole to Saint-Antoine to pray for her soul and that of her two late husbands. Later acquisitions at Aulnay came from Blanche of Paciac’s funds as did some of those at the viticultural property east of Paris at Montreuil.
At Beaumont-sur-Oise half a century later, the entire estate at Champagnes was acquired in 1264 using the funds that had been brought by Blanche of Paciac. In that year the nuns paid 280 livres to the widow and children of the late owner, the knight Thibaut of Champagnes. The family retained some nearby property and in 1269 Saint-Antoine paid 74 livres to the eldest son, John and his wife, for six arpents and additional 50 livres an additional three arpents when their daughter entered the abbey. In 1284 this son was an executor for his late mother, who is described as “the late Jeanne of Faisiac, once wife of lord Thibaut of Champagnes, knight.” In 1267 she had used other property at Beaumont to establish with Saint-Antoine a life-rent for herself, describing herself as Lady Jeanne, widow of the late Lord and Knight Thibaut of Champagnes, and now wife of the Knight, Lord William Eschalez of Montreuil-sur-Vincennes (where the nuns had their third grange east of Paris). She transferred to Saint-Antoine all rights she still had at Champagnes in return for twenty livres paid quarterly. Like Lady Agnes of Cressonessart in 1212, Lady Jeanne of Faisiac or Champagnes in 1267 had established an annuity with the nuns of Saint-Antoine. Unlike Lady Agnes, who became a sister or nun of Saint-Antoine, Lady Jeanne had chosen to remarry. What is most striking is how far across Paris (from Beaumont to Montreuil) were the properties of first and then second husband.
Q: You’ve opened the floodgates for future research. How would you encourage scholars interested in pursuing this?
A: For those looking for models for further research, or just looking for better understanding of how the documents were gradually focused into this story, I offer references here to some of the tables that are included, which provide valuable evidence about management of property, record-keeping and recruiting. In Chapter 4, table 1: Voisins: Widows as Donors, ca, 1217-26, provides the argument for the foundation of a house of Cistercian nuns not by a single famous woman of power or her family, but by a coalition of widows, many of them widows of knights. Chapter 4, table 3: Port-Royal provides different examples of evidence from a censier or rent roll created by the nuns of Port-Royal; it lists rents owed by the nuns as well as rents paid to them. Chapter 5, table 6: Lieu-Notre-Dame, provides examples of many more lists of payments on newly reclaimed land. Extracts from an entire volume of accounts for Blanche of Castile’s foundation at Maubuisson are found in Chapter 6, tables 12 and 13, Maubuisson, while table 11: Maubuisson, provides a partial list of the contents of that volume. Chapter 7, table 19: Saint-Antoine provides lists of holdings purchased by Saint-Antoine using the monetary gifts from a single woman donor and entrant. Chapter 7, table 21: Saint-Antoine, provides a list of individual holdings that were part of a larger property west of Paris purchased by those nuns. Elsewhere tables for Saint-Antoine show the nuns of that abbey consolidating holdings both inside Paris and beyond, using sophisticated contracts called augmentations of rent, and recording losses in income after 1348. Appendix Four provides valuable documentation on the size of certain houses of nuns. Any of this might enrich an author’s or a reader’s understanding of medieval women and the considerable opportunities that could be enjoyed by many more of them than was once thought.
Thank you so much, Dr. Berman!
Fans of the Owen Archer series have worried that the long hiatus between the publication of A Vigil of Spies and A Conspiracy of Wolves would now be repeated. Fear not, readers! I’m delighted to report that I’ve delivered the manuscript of the 12th Owen Archer mystery, to my publisher, Severn House. My editor’s comments:
“… a wonderfully compelling, intricately plotted mystery, which also offers a fascinating insight into day-to-day life in the late 14th century – a dangerous, plague-ridden world, where life was often harsh, brutish – and cut unexpectedly short. A world dominated by the all-powerful Church and its attendant politics: I particularly liked the vivid evocation of a bustling, thriving York Minster in its medieval heyday, which forms the backdrop to so much of the action. As with A Conspiracy of Wolves, the stunning city of York is brought vividly to life during a particularly turbulent time in its richly colourful history, as the obscenely powerful Percy and Neville families battle for advancement, and almost every citizen seems to be a spy for one faction or another – with Owen and his family caught in the middle of the lethal power games playing themselves out.”
I think she likes it!
So now, without further ado, I present the gorgeous cover, and my publisher’s description of the contents.
December, 1374. With the great and the good about to descend on York for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as the new archbishop, the city authorities are in a state of high alert. When two bodies are discovered in the grounds of York Minster, and a flaxen-haired youth with the voice of an angel is found locked in the chapter house, Owen Archer, captain of the city bailiffs, is summoned to investigate. Tension deepens when an enigmatic figure from Owen’s past arrives in the city. Why has he returned from France after all these years – and what is his connection with the bodies in the minster yard and the fair singer?
Before Owen can make headway in the investigation, a third body is fished out of the river – and the captain finds himself with three mysterious deaths to solve before the all-powerful Neville family arrives in York.
Publication dates for the hardcover: UK 30 June 2020; US and world 6 October 2020
Meanwhile, if you’ve been waiting for the trade paperback of A Conspiracy of Wolves, it is now out in the UK, and will appear in the US & Canada 7 April!
[Editor’s note: It has been awhile since I hosted a guest on my blog. I cannot help but think that my dear friend Joyce Gibb who died on Christmas Eve arranged this connection. A Jungian by training herself, she would have applauded with glee to know that days after her death I found myself chatting with today’s guest, Susan Rowland, writer and Jungian scholar. When she told me about the reissue of her book THE SLEUTH AND THE GODDESS: HESTIA, ARTEMIS, ATHENA AND APHRODITE IN WOMEN’S DETECTIVE FICTION I asked whether she would consider writing a piece for my blog. To my great delight, she agreed. Please join me in welcoming Susan.]
Genre novels, such as mysteries, are stunningly successful while being historically undervalued. Like much that is undervalued, detecting fiction became a repository of marginalized ideas in general and what is termed the ‘feminine’ in particular. It holds the shadow or the underside to dominant values. So, for example, crime fiction genres stem from the revolt of Romanticism against mechanical ‘reason.’ They provided humane reasoning against the blunt instrument that is the law.
In fact, as Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey proclaims, fictional detectives are modern knight errants. Their good deeds rescue justice from the cruelties of the powerful. Although knightly heroism has been a largely masculine tradition, many types of detective fiction serve a narrative form dedicated to reconciling feminine and masculine energies: the grail quest. Modern mysteries continue the work of medieval romances. Structured around a lost cup or grail, ostensibly that used by Christ, they quest for what was a feminine symbol in ancient fertility rites.
In such ritual and the successor romances, the masculine spear and feminine cup are re-united to heal a sick king who is also the wasteland, the dying world. Today, this is exactly what fictional detectives do. They blend finding material clues (the scientific, legal masculine) with delving into marginalized areas of domesticity and intimacy (feminine feeling). By doing so, they can ask the right questions to achieve the grail. The cup is not an object but rather an objective, the truth about a murder that will heal the wounds of that particular society. In fact, these novels are themselves grail forms that forge connectivity between people and places. As such, detective Owen Archer is superb, not in spite of, but because, he is presented so vividly as a flawed human being who grows, breathes and loves.
We can go further with marginalized feminine patterns. In my newly reissued book, The Sleuth and the Goddess (Routledge 2019), I explore how four patterns identified with the goddesses, Hestia, Artemis, Athena and Aphrodite, recur throughout women’s detective fiction. They can also be found in male authors since femininity and masculinity are creative aspects possible to both women and men. Here Hestia is the complexity of home and interiority; Artemis that of hunting, the wild, and mysteries of death and birth. Aphrodite fosters the erotic body as a knowing body while Athena is arch-strategist, one who compromises to protect the community, and finds a way to accommodate the furies of revenge.
Furthermore these four feminine strategies are not consciously deployed. Most mystery writers do not deliberately scatter devices associated with pagan gods. Rather, these patterns emerge within the imagination and help to evolve the repetitive elements of genres. One way of revealing the living energy within Candace Robb’s sleuth, Owen Archer, is to look for the goddesses. Fascinatingly, we find multiple goddesses, not a divinity reigning alone.
This discovery really bowled me over when writing the book. Feminine patterns in fictional detectives are just like feminine patterns (or archetypal stories) in people. Like real people, characters have many archetypal potentials that creatively interact as their plots/lives demand. Inspired authors seed these complexities as the elementals of life.
Turning to Owen Archer, we see a significant Hestian drive. As hearth guardian and its primal fire, Hestia’s sense of home operates within a family, a community and even in the planet. Owen is Hestian in his ‘obsession’ (says a friend) to protect his family, but his care extends to all in his charge. Part of his Hestian feminine is embodied in Lucie, a wife whose dreams he trusts as prophetic. That trust and those dreams are Hestian insight or inner-sight, more than compensating for his physical loss of an eye. Yet Owen does not find peace by dwelling always by his hearth. Like most fictional detectives Owen is also driven by Artemis, avatar of the feminine as wild nature.
Restless if too long indoors, Owen feels affinity for solitude and wilderness that is Artemis. He is a dedicated hunter after truth and skillful tracker of miscreants. One of the great achievements of Robb’s writing is the way small details imply deeper impulses. In The King’s Bishop, Owen encounters a “frantic wingbeat” in an Abbey nave that sounds “otherworldly”. In finding the spiritual in nature and in insisting on leaving the door open so that the trapped bird might be free, Archer is truly Artemis, the feminine who wielded bow and arrow. In the same novel, his friendship with Magda is explored, a midwife and wise woman whose care for the gynecological enacts another aspect of the complexity of Artemis.
In addition, scarred by a past vicious attack, Owen’s story arc is akin to disabled Hephaestus, husband to dazzling Aphrodite, to becoming the goddess’s lover, Ares or Mars. The novels reveal that Owen’s marriage is blessed by his disfigured body becoming the erotic desired and desiring body. For Aphrodite is the feminine pattern of the beauty that provokes erotic love, not conventional beauty. With Lucie, Owen comes to understand love and eros as a sometimes overwhelming force in human affairs.
Ostensibly, Aphrodite would appear less implicated in detective fiction than the fierce pursuit of Artemis. Actually, Aphrodite rises from the waters of mysteries in two key ways. Firstly, eros points to knowing in the body in addition to mental cognition. Secondly, the slaughtered body is a source of the sacred. Aphrodite is outraged at murder, for it curtails the bodily pleasures that are her domain.
With Aphrodite, Owen Archer exists in a sensuous world of scent, taste, touch and physical contact, pleasurable and painful. His body is alive in the writing in ways integral to his intuition and detection. Of course, such Aphrodite ways are not limited to him. When a friend under suspicion cannot bear the smell of the river Thames because it reeks of the drowned body of his love, the body is a place that creates meaning. Robb’s wonderfully sensate portrayal of medieval life is one of the joys of her work. In these mysteries, history is not a mere account of the past but rather a grail by which its essence is summoned.
Ultimately, of course, Owen Archer is Athena, who protects her city and was crucial to the founding of legal justice. Aeschylus’s play The Eumenides records how Athena persuades the Furies to live inside the city as honored guests. Instead of endless bloodletting, they will be a source of fertility: the grail achieved. Any detective who respects the law to safeguard the community is Athenian. Yet this goddess is also wily to enable her to thrive in the patriarchal pantheon. Owen is even more Athena in his strategies for survival in an imperfect world.
Lastly, Athena was goddess of ceramics and weaving. Here she is the artfulness of the detecting genre itself, which contains and processes our desires for violence. Athena as mysteries compensates for, as well as exposes, real injustices.
My book, The Sleuth and the Goddess offers more on these feminine patterns in mysteries by women. Owen Archer is an Athena hero weaving pragmatic strategy for his community. Yet he is also distinguished by his Hestian integrity, Artemisian purity and Aphrodisian body-knowing. I delight in Owen Archer’s archetypal quests and eagerly await more.
Susan Rowland is author of two books on mystery fiction by women, From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell (2000) and The Sleuth and the Goddess (rpr. 2019). Her first novel, Murder by Alchemy is with Artellus Literary Agency. Website: susanrowland-books.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you, Susan!
Readers, please feel free to ask questions of Susan in the comments. I will pass them on!
Happy New Year! Wishing you all peace and joy in 2020.
I have no appetite for year end “best of” lists, but I appreciate a December tradition at the literary website The Millions (themillions.com), “A Year in Reading”. Writers share short lists of books they’ve read in the past year, often with a theme or trend, and almost never all new books, but a variety. Far more eclectic and interesting to me. In that vein, I share a list of highlights from my reading this past year (not by any means a complete list!).
The White Nuns: Cistercian Abbeys for Women in Medieval France, Constance Hoffman Berman (University of Pennsylvania Press 2018)
The first three chapters upend all I thought I knew about Cistercian convents—i.e., that they were few and far between, poor, and badly managed. All wrong. Why? Here’s the jacket copy: “Modern studies of the religious reform movement of the central Middle Ages have often relied on contemporary accounts penned by Cistercian monks, who routinely exaggerated the importance of their own institutions while paying scant attention to the remarkable expansion of abbeys of Cistercian women. Yet by the end of the thirteenth century there were more houses of Cistercian nuns across Europe than of monks. [!] …[Berman] charts the stages in the nuns’ gradual acceptance by the abbots of the Cistercian Order’s General Chapter and describes the expansion of the nuns’ communities and their adaptation to a variety of economic circumstances in France and throughout Europe. While some sought contemplative lives of prayer, the ambition of many of these religious women was to serve the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Focusing in particular on Cistercian nuns’ abbeys founded between 1190 and 1250 in the northern French archdiocese of Sens, Berman reveals the frequency with which communities of Cistercian nuns were founded by rich and powerful women, including Queen Blanche of Castile, heiresses Countess Matilda of Courtenay and Countess Isabelle of Chartres, and esteemed ladies such as Agnes of Cressonessart. She shows how these founders and early patrons assisted early abbesses, nuns, and lay sister by using written documents to secure rights and create endowments, and it is on the records of their considerable economic achievements that she centers her analysis.” I love this book! The women are so remarkable and inspiring that it’s astonishing to me that they were almost forgotten. Fascinating reading.
Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval English Nunneries, Anne Bagnall Yardley (Palgrave Macmillan 2006)
The 12th Owen Archer has a musical theme and I wanted to know how music was taught and organized in medieval English nunneries. I’ve learned a great deal about singing medieval music as a member of the Medieval Women’s Choir, and observed how our director composes additional voices and rearranges some pieces to suit our talents. I was curious about how much original music a cantrix might have composed for her abbey. As I suspected, a skilled cantrix shaped the music to meet the abilities of the nuns she led in song. This book breaks down the roles of the various obedientiaries involved in the singing of the Daily Office, and how they functioned according to the records of specific abbey. This is a wonderful study, rich in detail, an absorbing read.
Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner (Princeton University Press 2019)
Speaking of detail, this biography is so rich I’m reading it slowly—I read a few chapters quickly, then go back and read them again. I’m storing up bits and pieces to use in my novels, of course! I’ve read several earlier, acclaimed biographies of Chaucer, yet Turner’s book contains much that is new to me, and valuable insights. Highly recommended!
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick 2007)
Just for fun, I chased down this Newberry Award winning book after someone mentioned it as a good introduction to the middle ages for children. It’s a delight, written for the classroom so children can take on the roles (with some stage directions) of the individuals in a medieval village.
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (MCD 2018)
A modern retelling of Beowulf, mind bending and powerful. As with Susan Signe Morrison’s fabulous Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife (Top Hat Books 2015), the retelling enriches my reading of the original.
I love folktales retold, especially by women, and devoured the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, Russian folktales enriched by her beautiful imagination. (The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, and The Winter of the Witch Del Ray 20178-19)
And for an absolutely brilliant and engaging retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, do read Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Ray 2019). Feminist. Wonderful.
I also read a number of Agatha Christie mysteries and a chunk of her autobiography in preparation for an event in September, celebrating her birthday, focusing primarily on the Poirot series. A long while since I’d read her books. My takeaways:
I was impressed with her cleverness. A master of misdirection.
I was surprised by how little she dwelt on the consequences, the lives lost.
Poirot does ethically questionable things with the confidence he’s in the right.
There is little depth to the books, which is what readers have come to expect.
So a mixed review: All in all, clever, but with little heart.