I’ve long had a vague feeling, at the back of my mind, that the women’s colleges of
as created in the nineteenth century, shared many characteristics with medieval
Vague, that is, until my recent immersion in research for my work-in-progress, The Novice’s Tale, set in the 14th century and partly in Godstow Abbey, near Oxford. This has confirmed that feeling in a number of interesting ways.
I am not saying that those who ran those women’s colleges devoted their lives to worship, like their medieval forebears, but that the way they organised their institutions was remarkably similar. There were other points of similarity, too. When I was a student at an
college, it was
still all-female, and was one of the last to admit both sexes. We were, I now
realise, at a transitional stage. All of the older dons were unmarried and
lived in college, in ‘sets’, consisting of a sitting room cum study, in which
they conducted tutorials, plus bedroom, bathroom, and small kitchen. Their
rooms were cared for by college servants (‘scouts’), they ate most of their
meals in the college Hall, and they foregathered with their colleagues in the
Senior Common Room. It was the form of female college life as portrayed in
Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (without
the crime!). She had attended my own college during World War I, and some
aspects of that earlier life still remained in my time there. Oxford
However, things were changing.
A number of the younger dons were married, and although they still had rooms in college, they had homes outside, inhabited by husbands and children. Some of the very youngest were not yet married, and did live in college, but drove fast cars, instead of riding the ancient upright bicycles, and were sometimes quite glamorous.
It is in the older form of this collegiate life that we can see parallels with medieval nunneries.
When the women’s colleges were set up, they were, naturally, modelled on the men’s colleges. These in turn had begun life in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as ecclesiastical institutions, intended to educate men for the church and other professions, men who had taken at least minor orders. They therefore closely resembled monasteries and nunneries in their organisation, so it is not too fanciful to see a direct line of descent to the nineteenth and early twentieth century women’s colleges.
There were even some correspondences in the buildings. The central Hall of a college (like those in the Inns of Court) harks back to the hall of a medieval manor, with a dais at one end for the high table. In the frater or refectory of a nunnery the senior nuns would sit here, as the fellows of a college do now, while the junior nuns and novices, like the students, dined at lower tables. A comfortable Senior Common Room has replaced the hard stone seats of the chapter house, but like the chapter house it is used for meetings.
Traditional colleges are enclosed within walls and built around a series of quadrangles, sometimes with cloistered walks, again retaining the layout of medieval monasteries and nunneries. There is a gatehouse, generally with a wicket set into a larger gate, which is presided over by a porter, again on the medieval model. At night, the gate is closed and locked.
All the traditional colleges, including the women’s colleges, have a chapel, like the chapel or church or abbey which was an intrinsic part of a medieval nunnery or monastery.
The wealthiest colleges – primarily the older men’s colleges – are supported by the endowment of property from benefactors through the ages, as the monasteries and nunneries were. The nineteenth century women’s colleges were less fortunate.
When we look at the occupations of the nuns in a medieval nunnery, we can see further parallels to a woman’s college. A nunnery of medium or large extent was a major institution, involving not only the professed nuns but also novices and often schoolchildren (including young boys), lay sisters, male and female servants, some senior male staff, and a home farm with a full complement of agricultural workers. To manage such a large institution, the senior nuns were required to take on managerial roles which would not seem out of place in any similar modern institution, including women’s colleges.
At the top of the hierarchy, if the nunnery had the rank of abbey, was the abbess. In the smaller nunneries she was a prioress. Under the abbess was the prioress, and there might also be a subprioress. The abbess was the overall head of the institution, supervising her ‘obedientiaries’ or senior nuns, chairing meetings of Chapter, dealing with senior figures outside the nunnery, and corresponding with the bishop and other important men. Abbesses also had the right to sit in the House of Lords, the only women to sit in Parliament until the twentieth century.
Reporting to the abbess, a group of obedientiaries had defined roles in the organisation. One of the most important was the treasuress, who handled all income and expenditure. Her role corresponded closely to that of the bursar of a college. Agreement would be reached amongst the ‘managing committee’ of senior nuns as to what proportion of the budget should be allocated to the various spending departments, for example to purchase food or clothing. Some of the endowments granted to the nunnery would have been ear-marked for specific purposes, and these would be taken into account in the planning. A modern parallel might be scholarships restricted to students from a particular county or to the offspring of indigent clergymen.
My college had both a treasurer and a bursar, the bursar and her assistant having taken over a number of the roles below, including those of fratress and cellaress. A housekeeper in charge of the scouts (who replaced the lay servants of the past) took the place of the kitcheness and had some of the duties of the cellaress.
The care of the church in the medieval nunnery was in the hands of the sacrist. This meant not only being responsible for the fabric of the church and arranging for repairs when necessary, but also caring for the valuable church plate, altar clothes and vestments, and providing the candles for both the church and the nunnery generally. She would purchase wax and tallow and arrange for candle-making at least once a year, either by a local candle-maker, or by one of the itinerant makers, who would come to the nunnery for the number of days needed to make the supply.
The precentrix or chantress was in charge of all the music and the church services. She would train the novices in the complex singing of the services, arrange for the copying of music, and usually also served as the librarian in charge of the institution’s books. If the nunnery had a scriptorium for the copying of texts, this would come under her care.
The chapel in a modern college clearly does not play anything like so important a part in the lives of the members as it did in the medieval period. The chapel and choir in my college was a personal interest of one of the dons. In some of the men’s colleges nowadays, of course, especially those with famous choirs, there will usually be one or more organ scholars, a chaplain, and a choirmaster, as well as teachers in the choir school. Now that colleges have much larger collections of books than a medieval nunnery, the role of librarian has assumed a correspondingly greater importance.
The frater or refectory was run by the fratress. This involved responsibility for all the tables and chairs, the dishes and table linen, the cleaning of the frater and the lavatorium where the nuns washed before eating. She would supervise the laying and clearing of meals by the servants, but was not responsible for the food itself.
The cellaress carried a particularly heavy burden. It was she who was responsible for seeing that the nunnery always had sufficient stores of food and drink, no simple task in the days before refrigeration. She arranged for supplies from the home farm and bought in anything which it could not supply, and as a result also supervised the home farm. She was in charge of hiring and firing servants, allocating their duties and overseeing their behaviour. As a result, she carried out most of the duties undertaken in a country manor by the steward, housekeeper, and butler.
The actual preparation of the food fell to the kitcheness, although she probably did not do much of the cooking herself, but managed the kitchen staff, mainly seculars, who could be male or female. She reported to the cellaress, and must have worked closely with her.
The chambress was responsible for all the clothes and bedding of the nuns and the servants, which involved buying cloth, employing seamstresses to make it up into garments, sheets, and blankets, in some cases overseeing full cloth production – preparation of the raw wool, spinning, weaving, fulling and dyeing. It should be remembered that in many cases the religious institutions, like the great estates, tried as much as possible to be self-sufficient, so they would have had a supply of wool from their own sheep.
The duties of the chambress have lapsed in the modern world, when students provide their own clothes, and – as far as I know – none of the women’s colleges has ever had its own flock of sheep!
If the nuns fell ill, they were cared for by the infirmaress who would need to combine the skills of an apothecary and a physician. The infirmary was generally a separate building, to avoid spreading infection, and she would prepare her medicines in a still room.
Nowadays this is not a duty undertaken by one of the dons. Members of the college with minor illnesses are treated by the college nurse. Anything more serious falls to the NHS.
The poor who came to the nunnery for help would receive money, clothes, and food from the almoness, while guests of the nunnery (travellers or secular women who retired there), would be in the care of the hospitalless.
Colleges still support charities, and welcome (paying) guests when rooms are available.
Last, but by no means least, of the major officials in a medieval nunnery, was the mistress of the novices. She was responsible for teaching and training the novices, and also supervised their behaviour. Some girls were given to the nunnery as oblates (‘gifts to God’) at a very young age, others joined later, either because they had no marriage prospects, their families wanted to dispose of them, or they had a genuine vocation. If the nunnery had a school, the mistress of the novices was usually in charge of this as well.
Clearly all the dons in a college, apart from those with a pure research appointment, fulfil the functions of the mistress of the novices, teaching the students, while some have a particular responsibility for behaviour and discipline, generally the dean.
A medieval nunnery also employed a great many other people. The steward tended to be an honorary position, often held by a nobleman, more like a patron than the usual idea of a medieval steward. Colleges now often have a ‘visitor’, a similar honorary position, held by some distinguished individual.
Nuns could conduct services, but could neither hear confession nor administer the sacraments, therefore they had a chaplain, generally with his own lodgings within the enclave but outside the nuns’ quarters.
The most important lay officer was the bailiff, who rode around the many properties of the nunnery (which might be scattered) collecting the rents. He might also be in charge of fetching supplies, if these needed to be purchased some distance away.
As well as household maids, and personal maids for some of the senior nuns, there would be a large domestic staff, both men and women: cook and kitchen servants, brewer, maltster, baker, laundress, dairy woman (to milk the cows and make butter and cheese) and grooms to look after the stable. The home farm employed the usual workers: ploughmen, cowherd, oxherd, swineherd, shepherd, carters, farm labourers, and (at harvest and other busy times) casual labourers.
Certain essential craftsmen might also be employed or hired from the nearest village – blacksmith, wheelwright, thatcher, carpenter, mason, and others.
The modern college is spared the need for many of these people, but will still buy in the services of those like builders as the need arises, just as the medieval nunnery did.
What I find most striking is the skill and competence of the nuns who managed a medieval nunnery. These were complex organisations. The nuns needed to be able to read and write and keep accounts. The money management alone was demanding, especially when the income from rents or the produce of the home farm could fluctuate alarmingly. A number of obedientiaries have left behind comprehensive manuals of instruction for their successors on how to carry out their responsibilities.
I suppose the usual general idea we may have of a medieval nunnery is that it was a group of unworldly women, shut away from secular life and contact with the outside world, their lives devoted entirely to prayer. The truth could hardly be more different, although prayer was certainly important. As an alternative to being married off to some distasteful husband and forced to bear child after child, with all the desperate risks of death in childbirth, these women could lead a fulfilling life where they had real careers and responsibilities, beyond anything most of them would have experienced in the secular world. Those early dons in the women’s colleges, fighting for women’s rights to an education and a more fulfilling life, were – in a curious and ironic way – carrying on the work of those celibate and enclosed sisters in the medieval nunnery.