Emilie Murphy on nuns, language, authorship and formal complaints




Emilie Murphy wrote several splendid pieces for the RECIRC, using the Benedictine convent at Brussels as an enlightening case study to examine issues of authority in English convent in exile. 

In a log dated 19 February 2016, Emilie Murphy discussed ‘How to be understood in an English convent abroad’. The case study is based in her work in the Archive of the Archdiocese of Mechelen. In this piece, she studies a letter written by Ursula Hewicke to Archbishop Jacobus Boonen on 7 April 1623, at the very beginning of the Brussels troubles (and she shares with us a few pictures of Hewicke’s lovely handwriting). For the onset, this letter testifies to the nuns’ difficulties with foreign languages and with the procuring of the correct interpreter to plead their cause. Click here to read.

In a related blog dated 19 April 2016, Emilie explored ‘How to wield authority in an English convent abroad”; here, she studied the tactics involved in the wielding of authority in a fractious and divided community, and particularly in the dispute which opposed Abbesse Mary Percy to the convent’s confessor, Robert Chambers. The piece highlights to importance of the roles played by translators, without whom many of the dissenting nuns would have been doomed to silence, for lack of the necessary linguistic skills to formulate their complaints. Click here to view the blog. 

Emilie went on to retrace the etiquette of conventual complaining in the seventeenth-century Benedictine convent of Brussels in “‘How to complain in an English convent abroad’, dated 15 June 2016. When a convent was in turmoil, when some nuns were in conflict with others, and even questioned the authority of their Abbess, were they within their right to complain to clerical authorities? How should one proceed, according to protocol, for an appeal to be perceived as legitimate? Read Emilie Murphy’s piece on complaining here.

Her last post, dated 12 August 2016, discussed ‘English Catholic nuns: neglected female authors and their reception and circulation’. In this piece, E. Murphy shared her thoughts on the project she carried out in the archives of nine out of twenty-two English convents in exile. She showed how female religious writers have been left out of the literary canon, if not entirely silenced. As she began work, she was aware of roughly forty convent authors; her research has enabled her to discover another 150 women writers, most of whom were religious. This raises the question of individual and collective authorship, and of the circulation of those writings. See this piece here

Launching the blog

Until quite recently, the history of early modern English nuns remained the niche of Catholic scholars and Catholic presses. But although post-Reformation English nuns were left out of the national historical construct for a long time, it is now being revealed that they did take an active part in the construction of English history. In the 2000s, the tide truly turned for the study of early modern English nuns, thanks to the ambitious AHRC and Leverhulme project Who were the nuns?  A prosopographical study of the English convents in exile, 1600-1800, based at Queen Mary University of London, and carried by Caroline Bowden. The project website and database have now become the go-to place for anyone interested in early modern English nuns.

These initial insights have since provided invaluable stepping-stones for other studies to explore the links between the exiled convents and their local environments, as well as their attachment to a decidedly English cultural tradition. In addition, a growing number of literary studies have shed light upon the writing activities of the monasteries. Thanks to these recent studies across a range of disciplines, we know more than ever before about English religious women in exile. Their real lives had little to do with the stereotypes found in English anti-Catholic pamphlets which contributed to robbing these communities of their resolve and their diligence in popular imagination.  Yet there is much that remains to be explored.

The purpose of this blog is quite simply to give the growing number of scholars working on English nuns a convenient one-stop-shop where, hopefully, they can find useful information. Who is currently working on what? Are there any recent publications? Any relevant conferences? Where are the primary sources that we have identified? Basically, this is the place where I will endeavour to gather all the information I have on all things related to #nuntastic research. All contributions are welcome.  All opinions and all mistakes my own.