Women Read. Differently? Reading Practices in Medieval German Women Convents from the 13th to the 15th Centuries

Women Read. Differently? Reading Practices in Medieval German Women Convents from the 13th to the 15th Centuries

Racha Kirakosian / Meret Wüthrich / Linus Möllenbrink, University of Freiburg; Mareike E. Reisch, Stanford University / University of Freiburg
DFG; Profilfeld Kulturen der Gegenwart und Vergangenheit, University of Freiburg; Erzbischof Hermann Stiftung
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
09.03.2023 - 11.03.2023
Meret Wüthrich / Mareike Reisch / Racha Kirakosian, University of Freiburg

The conference addressed questions about literary cultures and reading practices by primarily religious women in the long Middle Ages from multiple perspectives. It brought together leading scholars in the fields of medieval text studies and history of religion in order to investigate how manuscript transmission, cloister topography, liturgy, and other aspects of medieval life may help us to detect traces of gendered readership – that is if they exist at all.

ANN MARIE RASMUSSEN (Waterloo) opened the conference by asking “What is reading?”. She argued that the contemporary understanding of reading as an individual, silent exercise takes its roots in the early modern period. In the Middle Ages, reading is rather closely tied to vocality and does not necessarily aim to generate new knowledge. According to Rasmussen, the model of deep reading as an attentive, immersive and contemplative process relying on written language and enabling the reader to draw analogies describes best the medieval understanding of reading. Rasmussen emphasised that in the Middle Ages, reading and literacy were strongly tied to cultural and religious circumstances as well as socially defined gender roles. Following this observation, Rasmussen argued that women read differently insofar as their access to literacy and literature was (and still is) determined by culturally embedded gender differences.

MORGAN POWELL (Zurich) argued that in 12th-century vernacular literature a new reading paradigm was established, one that was inherently female gendered. According to Powell, this paradigm intertwines “image-literarcy” and “letter-literarcy”. Drawing on examples from the “Saint Albans Psalter”, the “Speculum Virginum”, and Priester Wernher’s “Driu liet von der maget”, Powell discussed the functions of a supposedly female gendered reading process in medieval texts.

LANDON REITZ (Cincinnati) discussed Margret Ebner’s (self-)image as a reading mystic in her “Revelations”. Reitz argued that this image differs strongly from the ones in other contemporary mystical texts written by women. For Margret Ebner, reading can induce different situations: Firstly, it can lead to an encounter with God, secondly, it can ease her suffering, and lastly, it can also worsen her suffering. While reading can provoke these states, the same can also interrupt Margret’s reading. Thus, reading is staged as a physical activity. Reitz concluded that in her “Revelations” Margret Ebner evokes an image of herself as a reading mystic and in so doing offers her reading practices as a model for the recipients.

LINUS MÖLLENBRINK (Freiburg) traced Mary Magdalene’s role as an icon of reading and devotion back to the High Middle Ages, focusing on depictions of Mary Magdalene as a “naked reader”. Möllenbrink showed that the image of a naked reader, widely known since the 18th century, is mainly associated with a sexualised naked female body. Furthermore, it has been interpreted as the visualisation of a supposedly biological difference between male and female reading practices. Drawing on late-medieval images of Mary Magdalene as a naked reader, Möllenbrink argued that a medieval beholder of the images would have neither perceived the naked body as a sexualised object nor as depicting a gendered mode of reading. Rather, the nakedness symbolised a Mary Magdalene stripped of her sins and leading a life close to Christ. Thus, these images should be understood as portraying her as a role model for medieval readers, men and women alike.

CAROLYN MUESSIG (Calgary) focused on the Benedictine abbess Umiltà of Faenza as a case study to show how religious women negotiated their way through legal restrictions of canon law and how they established authority through their preachings. Muessig argued that Umiltà’s sermons were read and preached both inside and outside of convent walls. Even though the sermons reached a broad audience, Umiltà never used the verb “to preach” in her texts to circumnavigate the restrictive language of canon law. By looking closely at the strategies through which Umiltà of Faenza established authority in her sermons, Muessig called not only for an integration of female sermons into the history of preaching, but also for granting these texts attention in their own right in order to find out how women negotiated legal restrictions, and how they wrote and preached.

PATRICIA STOOP (Antwerp) examined the production and use of sermons in religious female communities in the Low Countries. Stoop pointed out that repeated reading, hearing, and studying of texts is one focal point of sermons, leading to a better and deeper understanding of their message. Furthermore, this deep reading practice is the starting point for creative writing: the nuns compiled their internalised texts and knowledge, producing new texts that were distributed, transmitted, and adapted among a network of female convents. Thus, Stoop concluded reading and writing are reciprocal activities.

BJÖRN KLAUS BUSCHBECK (Zurich) examined the book transfer in the context of the Dominican reform movement. Looking at St. Katharina and Heilig Kreuz at Regensburg, Heilig Grab at Bamberg, and St. Agnes at Freiburg, Buschbeck argued that book transfers to a newly reformed convent followed a uniform template. The books travelling with reform parties consisted of a standardised set of Latin liturgical manuscripts, ensuring that the new convent was able to fulfil its liturgical duties. Furthermore, the reform sisters brought with them a less standardised and less well-recorded set of paraliturgical and devotional texts both in Latin and the vernacular, meant for private reading. This evidence of book transfer and book ownership, Buschbeck concluded, calls for a re-evaluation of the assumed distinction between the use of the vernacular for private devotion and the Latin for liturgical purposes in the context of late medieval women’s convents.

MERET WÜTHRICH (Freiburg) focused on literary and scribal activities developed in the decades following the reform of the Dominican convent of St. Mary Magdalene Freiburg. By identifying several female scribes active in the convent at the turn of the 16th century, Wüthrich demonstrated that in the years after the reform, a lively reading and writing culture was established in the convent. This was followed, at the end of the century, by a second generation of scribes. These nuns built on the existing stock of texts and knowledge and thus contributed to the convent’s further literalisation.

LINUS UBL (Jerusalem) put to test the narrative that only observant nuns read and wrote, calling for a shift away from the binary ‘observant – non-observant’ towards a more individual and case-based perspective. Based on two case studies – St. Katharina at Augsburg and Inzigkofen – Ubl argued that the literary activities and networks of individual monasteries depended less on whether the convent was observant or not, but rather on the accessibility of texts. Another important factor was the nuns’ socio-economic standing as well as the convent’s context. Thus, personal networks often played a greater role than the question of observance. Ubl called for a stronger focus on single manuscripts, scribes, and book owners rather than on entire convents, their libraries, and collections.

JESSICA BARR (Amherst) examined the divergence between attitudes towards death and dying in texts written by medieval mystics and in the hagiographical writings about them. Looking at the Helfta mystics and at Beatrice of Nazareth, Barr argued that the writings of the Helfta women demonstrate an anxiety of death that complicates their desire to die in order to be with God. Beatrice of Nazareth, in her treatise “Seven Ways of Loving God”, demonstrates a similarly complex attitude towards death: death is the desirable passage to union with God, but living in a state of spiritual yearning is necessary for true Minne, and waiting for death becomes as important as dying itself. Her clerical biographer, however, interprets her work as expressing a simple desire to die. Instead of the fear of death that appears in some of the Helfta writings, Beatrice’s vita depicts her as fearing her own desire. Barr concluded that hagiographical writing tends to reduce the complexity of these women mystics’ theologies of death to a simple desire to die.

LINA HERZ (Hamburg) examined the adaptation and translation processes commissioned and executed by women in non-religious contexts. Looking at the activities of Elisabeth of Nassau-Saarbrucken and of Dorothea Schlegel, she called for a re-evaluation of the understanding of the works by these two women. Elisabeth of Nassau-Saarbrucken commissioned the translation and adaptation of four French texts. Modern scholarship has regarded these texts as so-called women’s literature. Based on an analysis of “Loher und Maller”, Herz argued that this text should rather be considered a novel on friendship. Dorothea Schlegel adapted “Loher and Maller” into modern German, emphasising the aspect of friendship which played into the ideals held by Romanticists. Herz concluded that texts translated and adapted by women should not be read as women’s literature. Rather they should be read as texts that emerged in certain socio-cultural and poetological settings.

ALMUT M. V. SUERBAUM (Oxford) drew attention to song and song production as a form of creative reading. She based her talk on the premises that reading is related to performance and that, in religious contexts, reading fulfils the functions of summarising and contemplating knowledge. The carnival songs of the “Pfullinger Liedersammlung” served Suerbaum as a case study. She argued that these songs are deeply embedded in religious thought. In comparing these songs to statements about carnival in Henry Suso ’s “Vita”, Suerbaum showed that in medieval religious contexts, carnival could speak to different forms of experiences: It could relate to an outer (worldly) or to an inner (spiritual) experience. Suerbaum concluded that singing can be understood as a creative process that aims to internalise knowledge. As such, singing is a form of reading and allows us to draw some conclusions about reading: reading is part of a multisensory experience in which the biological sex plays a secondary role, given that singing as a form of experiential reading is not exclusive to women.

EVA SCHLOTHEUBER (Dusseldorf) focused on the letter culture of the nuns of the Lüne convents in northern Germany. Schlotheuber argued that the long-held consensus that women did not produce texts themselves and were only passive recipients has to be re-evaluated when we regard inner conventual records and the networks among female convents. The surviving letters testify to a high level of education and linguistic skills both in Latin and the vernacular. In these letterbooks we encounter active nuns who organised their convent lives themselves and intervened in all areas, including religious issues. For cloistered nuns, written interaction was the basal requirement in order to communicate and participate in discourses in- and outside the convent walls. Therefore, as Schlotheuber argued, these nuns did read (and write) differently, according to their needs and legal possibilities.

SARA S. POOR (Princeton) asked how religious women wrote and read about saints’ lives. Using the example of Kunigunde Niklasin’s “Libellus of St. Catherine” and its use in the Dominican convent at Nuremberg, Poor showed through a close analysis of narrative strategies that the “Libellus” was used during table readings. Furthermore, Poor demonstrated how the reading of the text did not only serve to praise St. Catherine but also to portray her as a model for the audience’s own life. Poor elucidated the ways in which Kunigunde Niklasin portrayed St. Catherine in the “Libellus” as a preacher. Thus, the literary activity in the process of creating the “Libellus” was a way to invoke St. Catherine’s preachings and readings.

The talks and discussion made clear that reading – and more comprehensively a reading culture –included various activities, from singing to preaching, redacting to creating text. Reading in the medieval sense is always an active process. Women might have read ‘as women’ insofar as their daily life was governed by communities of women. Their gender was, however, secondary to other aspects of religious and personal life that shaped their practices such as the liturgy, song, and communication with others. Women in the Middle Ages were prolific readers and as such they also created writings to be read by others in turn. Reading in the Middle Ages was a multimedial activity that asked for attention and dedication, skills that convent women were highly trained in. We found that attributions of gendered readership are more often projected from modern discourses rather than historical realities.

Conference overview:

Racha Kirakosian (Freiburg) / Linus Möllenbrink (Freiburg): Welcome and Introduction

Session 1
Chair: Racha Kirakosian (Freiburg)

Ann Marie Rasmussen (Waterloo): What is Reading?

Morgan Powell (Zurich): Reading as (a) Woman. Twelfth-Century Foundations of a Gendered Reading Paradigm

Session 2
Chair: Markus Stock (Toronto)

Landon Reitz (Cincinnati): Images of a Reading Mystic. Between Practice and Icon

Linus Möllenbrink (Freiburg): The Naked Reader. Mary Magdalene as Image of the Reading Woman

Session 3
Chair: Julie Hotchin (Canberra)

Carolyn Muessig (Calgary): Listening to Women’s Voices in their Written Sermons

Patricia Stoop (Antwerp): “Reading the Fruits on the Tree of Life Planted in the Paradise of Holy Scripture”. The Production and Use of Sermons in Female Communities in the Low Countries

Evening Event

Exhibition “Reading Women” by Artist Carrie Schneider (New York)

Regina D. Schiewer (Eichstätt): Theologinnen. Freiburger Klöster und Konvente

Session 4
Chair: Lea von Berg (Freiburg)

Björn Klaus Buschbeck (Zurich): Nuns Travelling with Manuscripts. Book Ownership and the Dominican Observant Reform in Fifteenth-Century Southern Germany

Meret Wüthrich (Freiburg): Reading and Writing in a Freiburg Convent. The Penitents of St. Mary Magdalene and Their Books

Linus Ubl (Jerusalem): Non-observant Nuns = non-reading Women? Historical Perspectives

Session 5
Chair: Martina Backes (Freiburg)

Jessica Barr (Amherst): Reading Women Writing Death. Beatrice of Nazareth and the Nuns of Helfta

Lina Herz (Hamburg): Dorothea Schlegel liest Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken. Oder die Frage nach interfemininer Rezeptionskultur zwischen 1450 und 1805

Workshops: Medieval Material Culture in Freiburg

Guided tour through the Freiburg Cathedral by Martina Backes (Freiburg)

Manuscript workshop at the University Library by Julia Buschhüter, Balázs J. Nemes and Meret Wüthrich (all Freiburg)

Session 6
Chair: Mareike E. Reisch (Stanford/Freiburg)

Almut M. V. Suerbaum (Oxford): Song Production as Creative Reading. Late-medieval Religious Songs for and by Women

Cancelled: Claire Taylor Jones (Notre Dame): Women’s Liturgical Reading. The “Regensburg Lectionary”, Oxford, Keble College, MS 49

Session 7
Chair: Michael Stolz (Bern)

Eva Schlotheuber (Dusseldorf): Kommunikation mit dem Stift. Die Briefkultur norddeutscher Nonnen

Sara S. Poor (Princeton): Reading St. Catherine. Kunigund Niklasin’s Reboot of the Catherine Miracles in SBB, Msc. Hist 154

Racha Kirakosian (Freiburg): Conclusion