Conventual buildings and the monastic ideal

Our common modern saying “A place for everything, and everything in its place” can be used to illustrate the monastic conception of space: each room, and within each room, each feature, was to serve a dedicated function. Today, let us take a look at conventual buildings, and how English nuns in exile managed their spaces in the seventeenth century, in sometimes trying circumstances.

The documents of early modern English nuns testified that many felt attracted to what they perceived as the strictest Order, which implied punctilious conformity with the Decrees of Trent and an uncompromising adherence to the all-important rules of monastic life, especially regarding austerity and regularity. Regulars followed the Rule (from the Latin, regula) of their founders, which regulated their every waking moment. In order to provide an environment which was conducive to a regulated life, time and space were carefully rationalised. Nicky Hallett and Caroline Bowden have dealt with the ordering of time,[1] and today, I would like to say a word about space which, like time, was attributed to specific functions. Here is an example from the Benedictines of Ghent:

Their inclosure must bee invironed with high Walls, which may contayne that parte of the Church, to witt the Quyre allotted to their proper use, together with the Cloyster, Dormitory, Refectory, and all the Offices and buildings, which are appertaining to the proper use of the professed Religious, together with the Gardens, Orchards, and such like, soe that none from abroade may enter into this Inclosure, by any Stayres, or Gates, but Onely by one dore or gate, if it may be any wise so contrived commodiously.[2]

It was crucial for the communities to function within a decent environment which would fit their contemplative and enclosed mode of life. In this post, I would like to explore some of the ways in which the buildings of the English convents in exile reflected their ideal for contemplative life, but also the pragmatic realities of their circumstances and, more generally, the impossibility of monastic separation from the world.

In order to plan for purpose-built convents which would reflect perfectly the monastic ideal of an ordered and secluded life, communities needed a suitable location and sufficient funds. Their building programmes could be ambitious, sometimes erecting anew or, more often than not, converting existing buildings into quarters which better met the needs of a monastery. In theory, 17th-century nuns observed a much stricter enclosure than their medieval ancestors. They should not leave the convent and outsiders were not allowed to enter the enclosure. [3] According to the decrees of the Council of Trent, relayed by the Instructions on ecclesiastical buildings published by Carlo Borromeo (1599), the architecture of female conventual buildings must be adapted to ensure complete separation from the world. It was first necessary to build very high walls around the houses and especially the gardens, and to ensure that windows facing the streets would neither allow the Sisters to see out, nor to be seen from the outside. Windows were sometimes tinted, and always fitted with bars. The visiting rooms or parlours – the only rooms designed to receive visitors – were also fitted with grids, which were lined with fabric so that visitors would not see the nuns, or vice versa. They were kept under the close scrutiny of the tourier.

Further to preserve the principle of clausura, a convent should not have more than two gates: one for voluminous deliveries and building work, the other for visits. The gates required two keys to be opened; one was kept by the portress, whilst the abbess had custody of the other. Small packages were delivered through “turns” or “wheels”, a type of revolving till through which objects could be passed without any contact between the deliverers or recipients.

Image borrowed from Rapatz, Vanessa L. “Abigail’s turn in The Jew of Malta.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 56, no. 2, 2016, p. 247+. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 22 Sept. 2020.

 

The lay Sisters responsible for receiving deliveries were chosen with special care, since they were entrusted with the management of a major point of permeability in the enclosure. In Paris, Benedicta Pease’s mortuary notice paid tribute to her great discretion during her twenty years of service, noting that she was “very diligent & observant in the keeping al the times & Regularitys that belonged to her state”; as a trustworthy converse, she worked at the cellars and the turns and “did not in all that time, being above 20 year at the turnes, draw to herselfe particuler amitys, or seeke acquaintances, but always earned herself in a good & retired way.”[4]

In order for a convent to function properly, it must also create its own dedicated liturgical space (ie a church with its choir and its sacristy), and its living space (the nuns’ cells, a library, a refectory, a kitchen, a cellar, a chapter room, a work room, an infirmary, parlours, a novitiate and sometimes classrooms, a cloister, a courtyard and a garden.) Not all nuns could claim access to all areas. Whilst some parts of the building were open to converse and choir Sisters alike, some areas were more exclusive and reserved for the solemn-vowed choir Sisters. There, they enjoyed their own night quarters and their day room; they also occupied their own part of the choir, which they accessed through a hallway and a separate door, which opened onto their own enclosure and was not accessible to lay Sisters. A third distinct group was that of the novices, who also lived in their own quarters.[5]

From Anon., Chronicle of the First Monastery Founded at Brussels for English Benedictine Nuns, A.D. 1597, Saint Mary’s Abbey, Bergholt, 1898

Plan of the convent of the Augustinian Canonesses of Notre Dame of Sion, in Paris

 

While waiting for the construction of this perfect conventual space, most communities had to adapt to living conditions the reality of which was far removed from the prescriptions of the Council of Trent. Often, the buildings were not spacious enough to create so many dedicated and separate spaces. The Poor Clares who settled in Gravelines began building their monastery in 1611 and, from the start, their first preoccupation was to mark out clausura very clearly, even if it remained rudimentary:

They presently with all speed put up a little wooden grate in the place where they spoke, & then none enter’d any more into their house. Another grate they likewise put up in the side of a little chapel that joyn’d therto, where they heard Mass, for before that they were forced to go into that Chapell among the seculars.[6]

In their eagerness to hasten the work, the Sisters took to carrying stones, sand and water and helping to build the first enclosing wall. They got up at 3 a.m. to get work done before the builders arrived, also digging up the earth to build their first cellar. Despite their enthusiasm, construction had to be undertaken in spurts and stopped when resources ran out. As soon as possible, they also set up a garden, where they grew the herbs they needed. When their resources allowed, they acquired a little more land, and once more it was they who, in person, took to demolishing the small existing buildings to recover the tiles and stones, which they cleaned for reuse in the construction. [7] The process of building could take years; yet from the start they endeavoured to distinguish the spaces inside the unfinished building. In order to separate the choir Sisters from the converses and novices, the abbess erected a small grate (“a little raile of sticks”) separating them from each other according to their quality. Other convents went through similar processes: in 1630, six years after the start of its construction, the convent of the Benedictines of Cambrai still had very few dedicated spaces and had to deal with the proximity of immediate neighbours. Little by little, it would add buildings and thus allow the community to evolve in a rigorously allocated space, in accordance with the Constitutions of the Order. Plans for the Brussels monastery show that it gradually acquired a chapel, cloisters, a refectory, a dormitory, an apartment for the abbess, and a large garden. [8]

In Paris, for lack of funds, the Benedictine Sisters were long subjected to a somewhat itinerant life; they moved six times before they found the ideal location and the necessary resources for their permanent monastery. Finally, it was in the parish of St Hippolyte that built their monastery rue du champ de l’Alouette.

1713 Paris map (by Hubert Jaillot) showing the buildings of the English Benedictines on the Champ de l’Alouette at the periphery of the city.

Thanks to a generous French patron who wanted to help oppressed Catholics in England, they acquired a house where they settled in April 1664. Their friend provided them with a notary, an architect and a team of masons, to consider transforming the house into a convent. With them, they decided which rooms would be the church, the choir, the refectory, and so for all the traditional conventual spaces. In time, they then bought the adjoining house, with its large garden. The end result was a very typical monastery of the time, as can be seen in the description given by the revolutionaries charged with emptying the premises and taking down its inventory in 1792. There was a cloister, a refectory, a kitchen, three visiting rooms and a garden on the ground floor. The chapel was on the first floor, “divided into two parts separated by a grid; one of these parts is intended for the public and the other forms the religious choir”. There were also a small sacristy and various paintings and engravings of devotion. Still on the first floor, under the chapter, were the community hall and two rooms decorated with devotional paintings and furnished with tables and straw chairs. The three rooms serving as the infirmary contained six beds and all that was needed for treatment. This floor housed eleven cells, each containing a bed, a cupboard, a small table and a chair. On the second floor were ten cells similar to those on the first, the robée, containing a cupboard and three linen chests, and a cell serving as a library, containing a cupboard of about a thousand volumes.

As well as choir Sisters, lay Sisters, novices and schoolgirls and boarders, some premises housed an extra category of people: seculars. Those were often rich widows who saw the convent as a place of retreat or retirement from the world. They sometimes entered with their maids, and exceptionally, even with their children. For these residents, quarters should be set up, if the buildings allowed it, to provide them with apartments which befitted their social status, but without endangering the enclosure and the spiritual austerity of the convent. These ladies did not have access to the inner sanctum of the enclosure, and went to the chapel through specific passages, to occupy a space in the church which was reserved for them. With all these different kinds of residents and these complex spaces, the convents became microcosms of the city, mirroring its social classes and its age groups; they harboured clearly-outlined groups, each enjoying varying degrees of privilege and prestige, which mirrored the city’s distinctions between privileged and poorer neighbourhoods.

From Anon., Chronicle of the First Monastery Founded at Brussels for English Benedictine Nuns, A.D. 1597, Saint Mary’s Abbey, Bergholt, 1898.

In exile on the Continent, English Catholic architecture adopted the features of a Roman Catholic architecture which claimed to be universal. Like local convents, the English communities implemented an acquisition policy in real estate, annexing adjacent properties until some of them grew to resemble little fortified citadels.[9] In the public eye, conventual estates became larger and larger and sometimes were adorned with finery which testified to a certain affluence (high spires, aerial windows, surrounding walls crowned with white stone, quality stained glass windows, a choir decorated with beautiful statues, etc.).

 

However, unlike many of their Continental counterparts, the English convents did not quite find their place within elite town planning in the city centre or in noble residential areas. With some notable exceptions, such as the Brussels Benedictine convent, which had benefitted from very strong local support with the nobility and the clergy, they were most often relegated to the outskirts, inside the city walls but far from the centre (see the peripheral location of the Benedictines on the Paris map above, for instance).

1649 map of Brussels by Johannes Blaeu, showing the rather exceptionally central location of the English Benedictines. My thanks to hawk-eyed Daniel Haynes @bibliohead who spotted the convent for me.

 

Some chronicles tell success stories, as was the case for the Benedictine convent of Dunkirk, whose the foundation began in 1662 thanks to donations from the Caryll family. Work continued for almost 16 years, reaching an ideal configuration in 1684. The church and other buildings formed three sides of a quadrangle, the fourth side opening onto a large garden. Inside the church were two choirs, that of the converse in front, at ground level, and that of the choir Sisters at the rear, raised by a step. They accessed the choir through their own door, opening onto the corridors of their own enclosure. The nuns were separated from the public by a grid, hung with fabric, which meant that church-goers could hear their music and singing but could never see them. They were, in the words of Craig Monson “disembodied voices”.[10] In fact, the choir was the only place in which nuns, as a group, were allowed to be heard outside their convent on a regular basis. Through their music and singing, their spirituality spilled out into the city, as it were. The Benedictines of Brussels, for instance, attracted growing crowds to their office at their church as the beauty of their singing gained an excellent reputation in the city.[11] Others used the grates of their visiting rooms to edify their visitors their pious discourses on matters of religion, sometimes even effecting conversions.[12]

1649 map by Johannes Blaeu, showing the location of the Sepulchrine convent in Liège, near the fortified city walls.

Thanks to its connections, the Dunkirk convent enjoyed a large cloister which displayed the coat of arms of the main families of the convent. The work room (also called the workshop) was spacious, and received daylight through six large stained-glass windows also decorated with the coats of arms of the greatest patrons. The refectory was adorned with portraits of all the abbesses and of some of the most remarkable Sisters. The chronicle noted the continental influence on the architecture of this particular room, as it was paved with bricks in the middle, “like most foreign homes”; the term “foreign” illustrates the state of mind of the nuns who, despite their exile, continued to feel English and to consider Continental styles and customs as alien. Around this brick floor was a parquet floor, raised by one step, and it was on this parquet that the tables were placed. The stairwell, commissioned by the Caryll family, was made especially in England, using oak wood cut from the Caryll estate. We know, moreover, that Lord Caryll supplied the oak necessary for almost all the wooden constructions for the monastery of Dunkirk. The complex also included a school and a boarding house.[13]

However, for many English convents, life in exile was not a life of plenty; neighbouring populations naturally supported the local convents which had been established there for generations, first and foremost. English patrons were subject to severe economic sanctions in England. The 1640s and 1650s were particularly hard, with the impact of the Civil Wars and the Republic; the account books of convents show the quasi-interruption of most of their income and a steep drop in recruitment. The Ghent Benedictines nearly went bankrupt after the Civil War cost them the 100,000 florins they had invested in England. In 1650, Abbess Mary Roper was unable to allow the profession of four of her novices, whose parents could not pay their dowries. As a consequence, these women chose to leave, although others in similar circumstances opted to stay on, prolonging their novitiate for up to seven years in the hope that their family’s situation would improve sufficiently to provide for them.[14] Some communities were reduced to begging for sustenance. At Brussels, nuns were unable to obtain the payment of the interest on their dowries, which they had placed in England; they had no choice but to ask for the authorisation to beg for alms so as not to become destitute.

Faced with these limited resources, some convents are forced to make decisions that sometimes turned out to be counterproductive. In Gravelines, the Poor Clares decided to spare some money by not erecting a spire on their steeple. The bell was simply on the end of the steeple and fastened with stones. That expression of poverty and humility befitted the order of St. Clare but, exposed to the elements, the bell rope rotted away rapidly; the steeple itself began to leak and was gradually eaten away by damp, requiring new work. Moreover, their cellar also collapsed, after only a few months, because it lacked proper arches.[15] A few years later (May 28, 1654), the convent suffered from the explosion of 800 barrels of gunpowder at the nearby depot. The tragedy claimed 400 lives and devastated part of the city, including its castle and parish church. The explosion was so violent that the nuns were thrown to the ground, objects crashing down all around them. The windows were blown out, the doors smashed in, the gate of the enclosure completely torn off. The walls suffered huge cracks and some became unstable, while the roof crumbled down in placed. Yet the nuns emerged unscathed from their heap of stone and dust, which they did not fail to interpret as a miracle.[16]

At Ghent, the original buildings of the Benedictines turned out to be so humid that in 1629 several Sisters died of consumption, pneumonia and other respiratory ailments. The community was decimated.[17] The Superior therefore decided to borrow 35,000 florins from an emigré of Irish origin, a certain O’Brook, naturalized Hoobrock. However, the generous advance only came in very small and very belated sums. Work was considerably delayed and the Ghent community, after suffering from insalubrious conditions, then contracted a crippling debt as well.

From Anon., Annals of the English Benedictines of Ghent, now at St Mary’s Abbey, Oulton Oulton, 1894.

Difficulties with the locations of their houses plagued the lives of other English nuns: the Benedictine convent of Pontoise, for instance, also suffered from its proximity to a watercourse: in ten years, the garden endured four floods, overturning the walls of the enclosure, partially destroying several of their buildings and decimating their vegetable garden and their orchard. Each time, the nuns were deprived of the expected harvest. To the loss of resources was compounded by the cost of repairs and the disturbance to the quiet of monastic life caused by the presence of the builders.

Despite their high walls, enclosed convents were not impervious to harm coming from outside. In 1635 Louvain, the Augustinian Canonesses were terrified by the sounds of canon fire and armed battles when the Prince of Orange besieged the city. The presence of mercenaries worried them so much that, to protect their orchard, they employed two Irish soldiers as guards. But they were powerless when it came to stopping the twenty-kilogramme cannonball which fell on one of the cells and partially destroyed the lay quarters. [18] Symbolically, this incident showed that outside events affected monastic life very tangibly. War had consequences on nuns who had never seen a battlefield. Some communities were subjected to months of anxiety when wars raged in their cities. In 1622, the Augustinian Canonesses of Louvain were terrified by the wars raging on their doorstep between the French and the Hollanders on one side, and the Spanish on the other; half the nuns decided to seek refuge in the safer city of Bruges for a time. The others took refuge in a few secure rooms, reorganising all their distribution of sacred and secular spaces, after a cannonball destroyed part of the convent. There, they heard the terrifying sounds of war and gunfire, bullets flying all around and above their buildings. Their orchard wall was partially destroyed and their enclosure very unsafe; the nuns decided to enroll two Irish soldiers in their orchard to protect themselves from thieves amongst the men in the garrison.[19] Brussels was threatened too. Gravelines was also the theatre of several battles between the French and the Spanish in 1644, 1652 and again in 1658, when the city was besieged for a month.[20] In 1658, the Poor Clares of Dunkirk were forced to flee for Ghent after the French lost the city to the Spanish, who surrendered it to the English. The Franciscan nuns initially settled in Nieuport had to resettle in Bruges, since their original location endangered their very future “by reason of its bad Aire and subjectness to warres, in both which our Monestary was ready to disolve, noe members dareing to Come unto us”.[21]

As a rule, the intrusion of external elements into the convent could only be negative. Events such as explosions or canon fire were very rare, but even during times of peace, outside elements could threaten the harmony of the convent. Sometimes, disorder and discord came from unlikely quarters, even from the person who should promote monastic serenity: the nuns’ confessor. At Brussels, confessor Francis Ward was the subject of repeated complaints from some of the Benedictine Sisters. In January 1623, Mary Roper wrote to the Archbishop that Ward was “in perpetual conversation with his penitents”, even at undue hours; she denounced what she called, in the veiled language of allusions, “indiscreet familiarities”.[22] Her Sister, Scholastica Smith, corroborated her statements; according to her, Ward spent far too much time in the sacristy, where he received his penitents against all the rules of the convent.[23] Smith complained that his penitents “[did] not speak of anything other than their spiritual father”, and were besotted with him. Lucy Knatchbull reported that Ward habitually took their pulse through the grid. One day, when he seemed to feel unwell, one of his penitents brought him candles to warm himself up, as well as wine and sugar, which she passed through the grate of the sacristy window. Others took his hands in theirs through the bars, and kissed them. When he injured his foot, one of them managed to bandage it, stroke it and kiss it languorously. [24] The rumour continued to swell until the young and attractive priest was sent elsewhere. When the enclosure was broken to allow real physical contact with the outside, the integrity of monastic life was in danger.

Such examples were symptomatic of a community in the midst of discord, where the safety of the enclosure was repeatedly compromised. The Benedictines of Brussels spent almost thirty years tearing each other apart. It was clear that some of its nuns wished to venture beyond the grates. In fact, novice Frances Evers – who was in conflict with Abbess Percy – managed to escape from the convent through the kitchen turn. [25] She claimed that the idea came to her when she saw how her Superior used the turn to bring the children of her family into the convent, thus ignoring the rule of the enclosure herself. [26] Such episodes highlighted the possible flaws in a conventual structure where everything was done so that the outside world never disturbed the contemplation and serenity of the cloistered interior. Yet such an ideal of perfect separation from the world could never be fully implemented. This was clearly exploited in anti-Catholic publications such as Thomas Robinson’s The Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon, in which the author – who had lived for some time with the monks – purported to report on the egregious sexual scandals he claimed to have witnessed between the nuns and their confessor.[27] The illustration facing the title page showed the grate as a decoy, a mere pretence at separation and enclosure, and one which could easily be used by both nuns and clergy to dupe the unsuspecting public into thinking they lives holy lives behind their walls.

Later, Aphra Behn’s Convent of Pleasure (1668) would also highlight the fact that enclosure, intended as a protection from the distractions of the outside world, could be perceived as a licence for all manner of abuses to be perpetrated in secrecy. Separation from the world was not only impossible to implement fully, it was also a double-edged sword: it could promote holiness as much as it could arouse suspicion.

[1] Caroline Bowden, ‘“A distribution of tyme”: Reading and Writing Practices in the English Convents in Exile’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 31:1/2 (2012), pp. 99-116 ; Nicky Hallett, ” ‘So short a space of time’: Early Modern Convent Chronology and Carmelite Spirituality,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 42.3: (2012), pp. 539-66.

[2] Statutes Compyled for the Better Observation of the Holy Rule of the Most Glorious Father and Patriarch S. Benedict (Gand, 1623), First parte, p. 19. Italics mine.

[3] Archives Départementales du Nord, Ms 20H-1, ‘Constitutions compiled for the better observation of the holie Rule of our most glorious Fa: and Patriarch S. Bennet Confirmed by the Regiment of the English Benedictine Congregation, and by it Delivered to the English Religious Dames of the Same Order and Congregation, living in Cambray, and to all their Successors’, Chapitre 2, pp. 15-17.

[4] Reverend Mother Prioress of Colwich and J. S. Hansom (eds.), ‘The English Benedictines of the convent of our Blessed Lady of Good Hope in Paris, now St. Benedict’s Priory, Colwich, Staffordshire’, Catholic Record Society, Misc. VII, Vol. 9 (1911), pp. 371-72.

[5] Caroline Bowden, ‘Community Space and Cultural Transmission: Formation and Schooling in English Enclosed Convents in the Seventeenth Century’, History of Education, 34.4 (2005): 365-86.’, p. 372.

[6] Archives of the Much Birch convent, Gravelines Chronicles MS, f. 15.

[7] Caroline Bowden (ed.) English Convents in Exile, 6 vols. (Londres : Pickering and Chatto, 2012-2013), vol. 3, Life Writing (édité par Nicky Hallett), pp. 338-43.

[8] Caroline Bowden, ‘Community Space and Cultural Transmission’, p. 373.

[9] Helen Hills, ‘Enamelled with the Blood of a Noble Lineage’ : Tracing Noble Blood and Female Holiness in Early Modern Neapolitan Convents and their Architecture’, Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, 73.1 (2004), pp. 1-40, p. 33.

[10] Craig Monson, Disembodied Voices. Music and Culture in an Early Modern Italian Convent. Beverley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.

[11] Andrew Cichy, ‘Parlour, court and cloister: musical culture in English convents during the seventeenth century’, in Caroline Bowden and James Kelly (eds), The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800 (Farham: Ashgate, 2014), pp175-90.

[12] Liesbeth Corens, ‘Catholic nuns and English identities: English Protestant travellers on the English convents in the Low Countries, 1660–1730’, Recusant History 30 (2011), 441-59.

[13] See also Linda Lierheimer, ‘Redefining Convent Space : Ideals of Female Community among Seventeenth-Century Ursuline Nuns’, Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 24 (1997), pp. 211-20. Roberta Gilchrist, Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women. (London: Routledge, 1994).

[14] M. J. Rumsey, M. J. (ed.), ‘Abbess Neville’s Annals of Five Communities of English Benedictine Nuns in Flanders 1598–1687’, Catholic Record Society, Misc. V, vol. 6 (1909), pp. 1–72, p. 33.

[15] Caroline Bowden (ed.) English Convents in Exile, 6 vols. (Londres : Pickering and Chatto, 2012-2013), vol. 3, Life Writing (édité par Nicky Hallett), pp. 341.

[16] Nicky Hallet (ed.), Life Writing, pp. 31431.

[17] M. J. Rumsey (ed.), ‘Abbess Neville’s Annals of Five Communities of English Benedictine Nuns in Flanders 1598–1687’, Catholic Record Society, Misc. V, Vol. 6 (1909), pp. 1–72; p. 25.

[18] Caroline Bowden, ‘Community Space and Cultural Transmission’, p. 378.

[19] Hamilton, Adam (ed.), The Chronicle of the English Augustinian Canonesses Regular of the Lateran at St. Monica’s in Louvain. Now at St. Augustine’s Priory, Newton Abbot, Devon, 2 vols., Edinburgh and London : Sands & Co., 1904-1906;  v2, 124-133.

[20] Raymond De Bertrand, Histoire du couvent des pauvres Clarisses anglaises de Gravelines, Dunkirk, 1957, pp. 59 and 73.

[21] Richard Trappes-Lomax (ed.), Trappes-Lomax, Richard (ed.), ‘The English Franciscan Nuns, 1619-1821, and the Friars Minor of the same province, 1618-1761’, Catholic Record Society, Franciscana vol. 24 (1922), p. 35.

[22] Archdiocesan Archives of Mechelen (AAM), boite12/1, 20 janvier 1623, Mary Roper à l’archevêque de Malines.

[23] AAM, boite 12/2, Scholastica Smith, document sans date.

[24] Ibid., Lucy Knatchbull, document sans date.

[25] AAM, boite 12/2, 29 avril 1629, Mary Percy à l’archevêque de Malines

[26] AAM, boite12/2, Scholastica Smith, document sans date.

[27] Thomas Robinson, The Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon in Portugall: Dissected and Laid Open by One that was Sometime a Yonger Brother of the Convent, London, 1622.


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