What conventual archives can tell you even before you look inside the boxes

After the long disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I had not had the pleasure of working in monastic archives for quite some time. My last research trip dated back to 2018 and it was right here, in the wonderful archives of the Benedictine Abbey of Douai, Upper Woolhampton, where I sit as I type these words. For five days of blessed peace, quiet and silence, I have been happily reconnecting with the smells, textures and colours of seventeenth-century manuscripts (and with their age-old dust, too). Time seems to expand, away from the daily deluge of demanding and urgent emails; and with that, it seems the mind can breathe again, and think. At last.

The library and archive building at Douai Abbey.

Douai Abbey church.








As I contemplate the amazing range of documents collected in the Douai archives, I am struck by the immense responsibility of such places: archives preserve the histories of dozens of communities through the ages, from their foundations to the present day. If those boxes happened to disappear, the memory of hundreds, even thousands of religious men and women would be plunged into oblivion forever.

Abbess’s pectoral cross and ring from St Scholastica’s Abbey, Teignmouth.

Opening each box is not unlike opening a present, and wondering what is going to be inside; each document is a little discovery, a voyage through time and space, an intangible thread suddenly connecting the researcher to the person who wrote that manuscript, and also to the people and places it evokes. Finding just the right information, or an unexpected object, is a thrill. I am quite sure every researcher has experienced that ‘wow’ moment at least one time in their career.

But it also seems to me that one can already catch a glimpse of the histories of those communities without opening one single box. Let me explain what I mean. For instance, should you wish to look at the documents of any given community in any archive, you might be surprised at the size on their collections. Some are modest, tiny even, but others are enormous, covering shelf after shelf, in dozens of boxes. From such discrepancies emerge questions: what happened? Did the documents get lost in transit, or maybe destroyed in a fire or a natural disaster of some sort? Or maybe they were expunged willingly, either by their owners or by their opponents (as was the case, say, in Revolutionary France)? Conversely, if the collection is large, does this mean the community was well-established and wealthy, and therefore able to acquire more books, or write more than its counterparts? Or was it representative, but was simply lucky to be better preserved? Does it mean that this community was longer-lived than the others, thereby accumulating more documents?

Beyond size – and this is quite striking at Douai – there is the story told by the boxes’ reference numbers. Take the example of the English Benedictines convents founded in the seventeenth century on the Continent. Should you have an interest in the Ghent community, you will find that its reference is BO, which can be intriguing at first glance. Yet it is logical: after leaving the Continent for England and settling first in Preston (Lancs), then at Caverswall Castle (Staffs), the nuns finally moved to Oulton (Staffs), hence the reference BO (Benedictines, Oulton). If there is no separate collection for the Ghent house, it is because the history of the community did not stop when they left Ghent: rather movingly, the early modern documents are part and parcel of the modern community archive; documents relating to the Ghent Constitutions, for instance, are in the same box as the Constitutions of the 20th-century convent at Oulton. They belong together. Hence, at Douai, the reference numbers for all 17th-century conventual archives reflect the location of the community at the time when they entrusted their documents to Douai for safe keeping. For instance, the Brussels Benedictines are filed under the letter T for Teignmouth, or the Carmelites of Lierre under CD, for Carmelites, Darlington.

The collection of the Benedictines of Ghent, marked as ‘Benedictines, Oulton’.

Still without opening the boxes, you will see yet another indication of the extraordinary peregrinations of those witnesses of the past. Let us take the Ghent house again as a case study: at Oulton, boxes had been numbered simply box 1, box 2, and so forth. There was no need for a more complex referencing system. This had to be changed when they arrived at Douai, so the prefix BO was added. And more recently, proper cataloguing was the occasion of a more rationalised approach to the boxing of certain items, so the reference numbers have changed again (this time, hopefully, for good).

Gathering unnumbered documents


The same applies to the Carmelites of Antwerp, whose collection has been recently sorted and boxed differently, or the Carmelites of Lierre where, for example, the material which used to be in CD box 3 is now referenced CD box 28 after recent sorting and cataloguing.
Undoubtedly, this can be a bit of a headache when searching for precise documents with references which no longer apply, but it testifies to the fact that those archives are still very much living things: they evolve, they relocate as they move to other depositories, they change appearances as they get filed and itemized in more modern ways, and they are given new reference numbers in the same way we change passports every so often.

And amazingly, this is all before you even take the lid off a box, such is the witnessing power of archives. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and dive back in …


Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2022, July 13). What conventual archives can tell you even before you look inside the boxes. Early Modern Exiled Nuns. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/o6y1

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