Delving into conventual archives as a PhD candidate

Claire Schiano (PhD candidate at Aix-Marseille Université) shares her experience in the conventual archives of the Much Birch community of Poor Clare religious.

Planning my research trip

Before starting my primary sources research project, I spent the first months of my doctoral studies reading secondary sources. Once I had become familiar enough with the English Poor Clares’ spiritual doctrine and their involvement in the English Mission, I started to read and analyzed printed and digitized primary material. Thus, I worked on different volumes of the English Convents in Exile: 1600-1800[1] compiling the Rouen Chronicles, or more devotional material such as The Circumcision or The Disposition for a Happy Death[2]. I have also worked on the diverse editions of the Rule of Saint Clare (available on EEBO) printed in English especially for Post-Reformation convents in exile; and the French Histoire des pauvres filles clarisses de Gravelines.

These readings narrowed the focus of my research and paved the way for new lines of thinking. I first decided to focus on English Poor Clares because I was certain that enough primary material existed. Thanks to the help of Dr. Liam Temple, I was able to establish a non-exhaustive list of potential interesting material. I defined a chronological period and decided to focus on documents from 1600 to 1750. I included some earlier documents related to the dissolution of the monasteries in England or the departure of the English nuns to foreign convents before the creation of English religious communities.

Thus, I decided to plan my first research trip to Much Birch (Hereford) archives in May 2019. Since this is a private archive – as well as a religious one—I had to ask the community’s consent to consult their documents. Sister Mary Bede, the convent archivist, provided me with much precious information about the primary material and kindly allowed me to stay in the guest wing of the convent. Sister Mary Bede generously allowed me to use my digital camera and my laptop.

 Primary Sources

Much Birch archives gather various kinds of primary sources from a large period of time (1530-2019). It held precious primary material that belonged to the Early Modern English Poor Clares of Gravelines, Dunkirk, Ayre and Rouen.

During the French revolution, the English nuns who had fled to France returned to England, where the Toleration Act permitted the practice of Catholicism for the first time since the beginning of the Reformation. They took much of their archives with them, which thus found their way back to England. The four communities scattered in different religious places in England with their documents, but due to their declining number, finally joined Much Birch Convent in 2007.

Most parts of the archives have been donated to Durham University while the other parts still remain within the Poor Clares Community in Much Birch. The numerous changes of locations sometimes blurred the traceability of certain sources and made it complicated to understand to which community belonged certain documents. For instance, some primary sources from Gravelines were mixed with some French Ursulines documents as a result of their cohabitation around 1814.

As the material I discovered is of a very diverse nature, I have decided to classify it in three different categories.

Spiritual, Historical and Communal Material

I have found a lot of prayer books and spiritual manuals in the “BW Collection” that is exclusively composed of handwritten books. These books were used to guide the nuns in their daily individual and communal spiritual journey. This collection contains books such as Stations of Good Friday or Elevation to Jesus Christ when Holy Sacrement is Exposed. The “BP Collection” contains printed Rules and Status of the communities that can be found online on EEBO.

Some other documents like Rules of the Lay Sisters when in Refectorian or the Ceremonies and Observances for the use of the Mistress of the Novices were dedicated to nun’s duties during the day and were meant to clearly define and establish the different roles of each nun within the community. Those types of books provide very detailed instructions about certain tasks, duties and ceremonies that constitute a fascinating insight in the nuns’ religious life.

I was also allowed to photograph obituaries and chronicles that were not available on Who Were The Nuns. It included a typed version of the Graveline Chronicles that is different from the Registers of the English Poor Clares at Gravelines, including those who founded filiations at Aire, Dunkirk and Rouen, 1608-1837[3] edited and published by the Catholic Record Society. This unique document recounts the History of the English Poor Clare from the nuns’ departure from England to the Netherland, to their life in Antwerp then Saint-Omer, the building of the first Poor Clare convent exclusively dedicated to English women and later the creation of other foundations. I also completed my list of primary sources with the Death Register of the Rouen Poor Clares 1647 – 1779[4] , that were edited and published some time before by Dr. Caroline Bowden on Queen Mary University website.

Artistic and Graphic Material

Among the large number of handwritten and printed books I also discovered a very interesting type of primary sources material: a graphic and artistic one. With the help of the archivist, I digitized plans from the Ayre convent that were drawn on a large paper roll. Plans of other convents were to be found in a modernized printed version in secondary sources material. This material is priceless because it allowed me to have a clear idea of the convent’s architecture and the distribution of space. I also found a fascinating 17th century plan of burials belonging to the Rouen community; this document is of an inestimable value because it shows two things: that the nuns kept a meticulous record of the burial locations of their sisters of benefactors; and that the different spaces within the cloister are provided with different symbolic and emotional values and would explain the choice of certain locations for certain types of religious or benefactors.

I also came across very unexpected and surprising material such as a book of straw works made by the Rouen community. This fine art was the speciality of this community and consisted in collages made of pieces of coloured straw, organized to create a picture and was meant to be sent to benefactors.

Similarly, they did what is called « quilling » or « paper filigree ». In this meticulous work of art, the nuns rolled different stripes of paper and glued them on the edge in order to ornament a painting or engraving.

           

That kind of work reveals a real savoir-faire on the part of the English religious and refute the idea of the cloister defined as a fruitless space cut off from the rest of the world. Another astonishing element was the presence of a great number of big painted wooden crosses stored in a jute bag.

                 

Sister Mary Bede explained that these crosses were part of the nuns’ morning and evening rituals and were to be put on the bed during the day, and hung on the wall at the bottom of their bed during the night.

Archival Enquiries and Secondary Sources

During this research trip, I have been amazed by the great work of compiling of primary and secondary sources made by the next generations of Poor Clares. In order to create a more complete narrative of their own communal history, the nuns have accomplished an admirable work of collecting, copying original documents and cross-referencing data. Thus, the archives contain many files gathering information (letters, selected excerpts of chronicles or obituaries, portraits) about a certain abbess, benefactor or person of notes. Much Birch archives are testament of a great will on the part of the religious to preserve and enrich their history by exchanging new material with other religious houses and archiving properly their documents.

Some secondary sources such as Hidden Wheat: The Story of an Enclosed Franciscan Community, 1621-1971 have proved to be a very useful overview of the history of the English Poor Clare from the creation of their first convent to their coming back in England during the French Revolution.

Outcome of this Research Trip

This research trip enabled me to photograph a large amount of primary material of different natures and times. In collaboration with Sister Mary Bede, was able to collect very unique and precious manuscripts and graphic materials. I have dedicated the past four months to the transcription and analysis of these manuscripts. Becoming more familiar with these documents has helped me to refine my analysis and discern some outstanding details in the English nuns’ daily life, such as the creation and repartition of the conventual space, or the role of the senses in female piety.

 

[1] See the three volumes of Caroline Bowden (gen. ed.), English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800, Pickering & Chatto, London, 2012.

[2] Spirituality, vol. 2, in English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800, Londres: Pickering & Chatto, 2012.

[3] Registers of the English Poor Clares at Gravelines, including those who founded filiations at Aire, Dunkirk and Rouen, 1608-1837, Catholic Record Society, Misc. IX, Vol. 14, 1914.

[4] Death Register of the Rouen Poor Clares 1647 – 1779, ed. Caroline Bowden.