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Mysticism and Identity among the English Poor Clares

  • Liam Peter Temple


This article explores the newly catalogued manuscripts of the English Poor Clares preserved in Palace Green Library, Durham. It argues that the collection advances our understanding of the spirituality of the Poor Clares, a group who have received substantially less attention than their Benedictine and Carmelite counterparts. Focusing on manuscript evidence relating to mysticism at the convents of Aire and Rouen, it suggests three areas of interest to scholars of English women religious and recusant Catholic spirituality. First, it explores how a dual understanding of unio mystica in the convents converted wider concepts of anonymity and self-effacement into a radical form of authorial poverty. Through this, the nuns sought not only to unite with God but also achieve a symbolic union with each other. Secondly, it explores how the physical objects of the crucifix and Eucharist served to inspire a deeper mystical pattern of growth within the souls of the nuns. It suggests that feast days and specific times of the year, especially building up to Easter, had a profound effect on spiritual outpourings. Finally, the article explores the importance of the concept of the “heavenly Jerusalem” to the Poor Clares, revealing its centrality to their understanding of their life as a pilgrimage and their own lived experience as exiles.

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I am deeply grateful to Durham University for awarding me an IMEMS Library Fellowship which made this research possible. Thanks also to the staff of Palace Green Library for being so efficient and knowledgeable about the collection. I am thankful to Natasha Anson and Rachael Duff for reading an earlier draft of this article. I am also grateful to Sister Mary Bede for sharing information about manuscripts at Much Birch with me during my research.



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1 The manuscripts were catalogued in 2007 when the Poor Clare community at Darlington (which had returned to England from the continent in the late eighteenth century) merged with an existing group of nuns at Much Birch in Hereford.

2 See Jaime Goodrich's comment that “no group of these women is as overdue for recognition as the Franciscan nuns” in her “‘Ensigne-Bearers of Saint Clare’: Elizabeth Evelinge's Early Translations and the Restoration of English Franciscanism,” in English Women, Religion, and Textual Production, 1500–1625, ed. Micheline White (London: Routledge, 2011), 83. For the attention paid to other English nuns see Hallett, Nicky, Lives of Spirit: English Carmelite Self-Writing of the Early Modern Period (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007); and Lux-Sterritt, Laurence, English Benedictine Nuns in Exile in the Seventeenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).

3 For the history of the Poor Clares in England up to the Reformation see Roest, Bert, Order and Disorder: The Poor Clares between Foundation and Reform (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 122127. For the Irish context see McShane, Bronagh A., “Negotiating religious change and conflict: Women religious communities in early modern Ireland, c.1530–c.1641,” British Catholic History 33, no. 3 (2017): 357382.

4 Marshall, Peter, “Crisis of Allegiance: George Throckmorton and Henry Tudor,” in Catholic gentry in English society: George Throckmorton and Henry Tudor, ed. Marshall, Peter and Scott, Geoffrey (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009), 54.

5 Peters, Henriette, Mary Ward: A World in Contemplation (Leominster: Gracewing, 1994), 8991. Subsequent convents were founded at Aire (1629), Rouen (1644), and Dunkirk (1652).

6 Littlehales, Margaret Mary, Mary Ward: Pilgrim and Mystic (Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates, 1998), 49. Acquaviva insisted that Jesuits should not be ‘stocked and linked to a particular place’ but rather ‘go where we see the greater need and necessity of the souls’, quoted in Colombo, Emanuele, “‘Infidels’ at Home: Jesuits and Muslim Slaves in Seventeenth-Century Naples and Spain,” Journal of Jesuit Studies 1 (2014), 199.

7 Walker, Claire, “Continuity and Isolation: The Bridgettines of Syon in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in Syon Abbey and Its Books: Reading, Writing and Religion, c. 1400–1700, ed. Jones, E. A. and Walsham, Alexandra (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010), 160.

8 Goodrich, Jaime, “Authority, Gender and monastic piety: controversies at the English Benedictine convent in Brussels, 1620–1623,” British Catholic History 22, no. 1 (2016): 110111. For more on Baker and Cambrai, see Temple, Liam Peter, “The Mysticism of Augustine Baker, OSB: A Reconsideration,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 19, no. 3 (2017): 213230; Walker, Claire, “Spiritual Property: The English Benedictine Nuns of Cambrai and the Dispute over the Baker Manuscripts,” in Women, Property, and the Letters of the Law in Early Modern England, eds. Wright, Nancy E., Ferguson, Margaret W., and Buck, A. R. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 237255; and Lux-Sterritt, English Benedictine Nuns in Exile.

9 Goodrich, “‘Ensigne-Bearers of Saint Clare,’” 92.

10 Walker, Claire, Gender and Politics in Early Modern Europe: English Convents in France and the Low Countries (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 44.

11 Goodrich, “‘Ensigne-Bearers of Saint Clare,’” 90, 98. The reforms of Saint Colette in 1410 reaffirmed the ideals of absolute poverty and austerity. See Roest, Order and Disorder, 169–176.

12 Coolahan, Marie-Louise, “Identity Politics and Nuns’ Writing,” Women's Writing 14, no. 2 (2007): 309.

13 While most of their collection was donated to Durham University in 2007, some of the works, especially the important chronicles detailing their history and some of the works from Rouen, remained with the nuns as they resettled at Much Birch in Hereford. This information is taken both from the Durham University catalogue of the Poor Clare material and personal private correspondence with Sister Mary Bede, the current archivist at Much Birch. I am grateful to Sister Bede for her letters outlining the remaining material at the convent. The Durham catalogue can be accessed at: (Accessed 23 July 2018).

14 Hallett, Nicky, “Shakespeare's sisters: Anon and the authors in early modern convents,” in The English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800: Communities, Cultures and Identity, ed. Bowden, Caroline and Kelly, James E. (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 140.

15 Scott, Joan W., “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (1986): 10531075; and Scott, , Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). Some of the resulting literature includes Marotti, Arthur F., “Alienating Catholics in Early Modern England: Recusant Women, Jesuits and Ideological Fantasies,” in Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism in Early Modern English Texts, ed. Marotti, Arthur F. (New York: St. Martin's, 1999); Dolan, Frances E., Whores of Babylon: Catholicism, Gender, And Seventeenth Century Print Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), chap. 3; Peters, Christine, Women in Early Modern Britain, 1450–1640 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), chap. 5; and Salzman, Paul, Reading Early Modern Women's Writing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

16 Coolahan, Marie-Louise, “Transnational Reception and Early Modern Women's ‘Lost’ Texts,” Early Modern Women 7 (2012): 261270; Coolahan, , “Reception, reputation, and early modern women's missing texts,” Critical Quarterly 55, no. 4 (2013): 314; and Challoner, Richard, Memoirs of Missionary Priests and Other Catholics of Both Sexes, 2 vols. (London: 1741/1742).

17 North, Marcy, The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 117118.

18 Jenna D. Lay, “The Literary Lives of Nuns: Crafting Identities Through Exile,” in Bowden and Kelly, English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800, 81.

19 Coolahan, “Identity Politics,” 311.

20 Coolahan, “Identity Politics,” 308–309.

21 Goodrich, Jaime, “A Poor Clare's Legacy: Catherine Magdalen Evelyn and New Directions in Early Modern Women's Literary History,” English Literary Renaissance 46, no. 1 (2016): 11.

22 Poor Clare Darlington (hereafter cited as PCD) MS 58, 155–157, 274. See Peter Marchant, Déclarations sur la règle première de Madame Sainte Claire pour le couvents des Pauvres clarisses (St. Omer, 1650).

23 PCD MS 58, flyleaf inscription.

24 Bowden, Caroline, “Collecting the Lives of Early Modern Women Religious: obituary writing and the development of collective memory and corporate identity,” Women's History Review 19, no. 1 (2010): 13.

25 PCD MS 47, 53. References to performing the Divine Office “according to the coustome of the Frier-Minors,” suggests this may well be a manuscript from Aire where such overt pro-Franciscanism would have been well received.

26 PCD MS 47, 191.

27 PCD MS 47, 192.

28 PCD MS 47, 194.

29 See McGinn, Bernard, “Unio Mystica/Mystical Union,” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism, ed. Hollywood, Amy and Beckman, Patricia Z. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 200210.

30 Any research concerning mysticism demands an exploration of the meaning of the term itself. While the scholarship of Denys Turner, Leigh Eric Schmidt, and Bernard McGinn has established that “mysticism” was a fluid term throughout the history of Christianity, meaning different things to different generations, it is still possible to pinpoint what the mystical element of Christianity was understood to be at any one time. See section two of this article and the definition of Nicholas of the Holy Cross for a seventeenth-century understanding. Turner, Denys, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Turner, , “Mysticism,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Hastings, Adrian, Mason, Alistair, and Pyper, Hugh (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 460462; Schmidt, Leigh Eric, “The Making of ‘Mysticism’ in the Anglo-American World: From Henry Coventry to William James,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, ed. Lamm, Julia A. (Malden: Blackwell, 2013), 452–72; and McGinn, Bernard, “The Venture of Mysticism in the New Millennium,” New Theology Review 21, no. 2 (2008): 7079.

31 PCD MS 1, 5–8.

32 PCD MS 62, 155–156.

33 PCD MS 62, 158.

34 Fr. Augustine Baker, O.S.B.: The Anchor of the Spirit; The Apologie; Summarie of Perfection, ed. John Clark (Salzburg: Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 2008), 96.

35 Clark, Fr. Augustine Baker, O.S.B., 97.

36 Clark, Fr. Augustine Baker, O.S.B., 100–101.

37 PCD MS 66.

38 Walker, Gender and Politics; Walker, “Spiritual Property”; Walker, “An Ordered Cloister? Dissenting Passions in Early Modern Cloisters,” in Gender and Emotions in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Destroying Order, Structuring Disorder, ed. Susan Broomhall (London: Routledge, 2016), 197–214; Bowden, Caroline, “Patronage and Practice: Assessing the Significance of the English Convents as Cultural Centres in Flanders in the Seventeenth Century,” English Studies 92, no. 5 (2011), 483495; Bowden, , “Building libraries in exile: The English convents and their book collections in the seventeenth century,” British Catholic History 32, no. 3 (2015), 343382; Lux-Sterritt, English Benedictine Nuns in Exile; Wolfe, Heather, “Reading Bells and Loose Papers: Reading and Writing Practices of the English Benedictine Nuns of Cambrai and Paris,” in Early Modern Women's Manuscript Writing, ed. Burke, Victoria E. and Gibson, Jonathan (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 135156; Wolfe, “Dame Barbara Constable: Catholic Antiquarian, Advisor, and Closet Missionary,” in Catholic Culture in Early Modern England, ed. Ronald Corthell, Frances E. Dolan, Christopher Highley, and Arthur F. Marotti (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 158–188; and Hyning, Victoria Van, “Augustine Baker: Discerning the ‘Call’ and Fashioning Dead Disciples,” in Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period, ed. Copeland, Clare and Machielsen, Jan (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 143168.

39 Genelle Gertz, “Barbara Constable's Advice for Confessors and the Tradition of Medieval Holy Women,” in Bowden and Kelly, English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800, 123–138; and Lay, Jenna, “An English Nun's Authority: Early Modern Spiritual Controversy and the Manuscripts of Barbara Constable,” in Gender, Catholicism, and Spirituality: Women and the Roman Catholic Church in Britain and Europe, ed. Lux-Sterritt, Laurence and Mangion, Carmen M. (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011), 99114.

40 More, Gertrude, The Holy Practises of a Devine Lover, or, The Sainctly Ideots Devotions (Paris, 1657); and More, The Spiritual Exercises of the Most Vertuous and Religious D. Gertrude More of the Holy Order of S. Bennet and English Congregation of Our Ladies of Comfort in Cambray (Paris, 1658).

41 PCD MS 72.

42 Goodrich, “‘Ensigne-Bearers of Saint Clare,’” 88.

43 PCD MS 4; PCD MS 6; PCD MS 14; and PCD MS 31.

44 PCD MS 52, 1–3.

45 Morgan, David, The Sacred Heart of Jesus: The Visual Evolution of a Devotion (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008), 56.

46 PCD MS 52, 1–3.

47 Nicholas of the Holy Cross, The cynosura, or, A saving star that leads to eternity discovered (London, 1670), 259.

48 PCD MS 29.

49 Kevin L. Hughes, “Francis, Clare, and Bonaventure,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, 282; and McGinn, Bernard, The Flowering of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1998), 43.

50 PCD MS 10, 22.

51 PCD MS 7, 12.

52 PCD MS 52, 7. Information on the translated works is available in the Durham manuscript catalogue.

53 PCD MS 50, 120–195.

54 Ibid. Preface, “To my most Religious Sisters.”

55 PCD MS 10. A singular reference to “Mary Barbara” at the end of one prayer is attributable to an Aire choir nun of the same name. She was professed in 1756 aged 21 and died 13 years later in 1769.

56 PCD MS 10, 295.

57 PCD MS 10, 298–299.

58 PCD MS 10, 301.

59 PCD MS 10, 147.

60 PCD MS 6, 112.

61 PCD MS 6, 167–168, 182.

62 Mueller, Joan, A Companion to Clare of Assisi: Life, Writings and Spirituality (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 40.

63 PCD MS 10, 24–25.

64 PCD MS 10, 65. Other mentions are given to Saint Dominic, one “Mr Ivanus” who founded “the Religious of our Lady of Mercy,” Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, Margaret of Hungary, and Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (66–67).

65 PCD MS 13, 58.

66 PCD MS 13, 58–59.

67 PCD MS 13, 2–3, 8.

68 PCD MS 10, 107.

69 PCD MS 31, 293.

70 PCD MS 66, 332–333.

71 PCD MS 66, 334, 337.

72 PCD MS 48, 54.

73 PCD MS 10, 115.

74 PCD MS 10, 87.

75 PCD MS 31, 304, 308.

76 PCD MS 31, 309.

77 PCD MS 7, 9–10.

78 A flyleaf inscription identifying the work was lent to Sister Magaret Winifrid in 1771 suggests the work was popular after Cornwallis had died.

79 A second copy (PCD MS 12) has a flyleaf inscription of Sister Mary Belasyse, a Rouen nun who died in 1823. This copy ends with a small prayer to Saint Clare and Saint Francis and is dated 1714.

80 PCD MS 34, 25.

81 PCD MS 34, 23.

82 Walker, Claire, “Priests, nuns, presses and prayers: The Southern Netherlands and the contours of English Catholicism,” in Catholic Communities in Protestant States: Britain and the Netherlands c. 1570–1720, ed. Kaplan, Benjamin J., Moore, Bob, Van Nierop, Henk, and Pollman, Judith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 139155.

83 Bowden, Caroline, “English Convents and Questions of National Identity, c. 1600–1688,” in British and Irish Emigrants and Exiles in Europe, 1603–1688, ed. Worthington, David (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 298. See also Highley, Christopher, “‘The lost British lamb’: English Catholic exiles and the problem of Britain,” in British Identities and English Renaissance Literature, ed. Baker, David J. and Maley, Willy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 3750; and Highley, , Catholics Writing the Nation in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

84 Walker, Gender and Politics, 119.

85 See Walker, Claire, “Prayer, Patronage and Political Conspiracy: English Nuns and the Restoration,” Historical Journal 43, no. 1 (2000): 123; Walker, “Loyal and Dutiful Subjects: English Nuns and Stuart Politics,” in Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450–1700, ed. James Daybell (London: Routledge, 2004), 228–242; and Bowden, Caroline, “The Abbess and Mrs. Brown: Lady Mary Knatchbull and Royalist Politics in Flanders in the late 1650s,” Recusant History 24, no. 3 (1999): 288308.

86 PCD MS 12, 1.

87 PCD MS 34, 25.

88 PCD MS 34, 3.

89 PCD MS 34, 4. See also PCD MS 7 in which the nuns were advised to “spend this day as if it were your last” (11).

90 PCD MS 34, 32.

91 PCD MS 34, 28.

92 PCD MS 34, 29.

93 PCD MS 34, 77.

94 Bowden, Caroline, ed., English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800, vol. 1, History Writing (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012), 92.

95 Bowden, English Convents in Exile, vol. 1, History Writing, 96.

96 PCD MS 2, 125–126.

97 PCD MS 2, 129.

98 MS 31, 152–153. See also PCD MS 10, 5–10; PCD MS 33, 75.

99 PCD MS 7, 5.

100 PCD MS 7, 1.

101 PCD MS 30, unnumbered page in section entitled “The chief points of our holy ceremonys in which we ought daily to renew ourselves.”

102 PCD MS 34, 31.

103 PCD MS 6, 2 “The Sighs of decaying love.”

104 PCD MS 6, 1.

105 PCD MS 6, 1.

106 PCD MS 6, 2.

107 PCD MS 6, 3.

108 Mecham, June L., “A Northern Jerusalem: Transforming the Spatial Geography of the Convent of Wienhausen,” in Defining the Holy: Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Spicer, Andrew and Hamilton, Sarah (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 152154.

109 PCD MS 34, 65–66.

110 PCD MS 34, 64–66.

111 PCD MS 34, 71.

112 PCD MS 8, 89–91.

113 See Goodrich, “A Poor Clare's Legacy” for an extensive analysis of these themes.

114 PCD MS 28, 123–124.

115 PCD MS 28, 125.

116 PCD MS 28, 141.

117 Sister Mary Bede, the current archivist at Much Birch, has confirmed that the works which remain with the nuns dating from the period cover many of the same themes.

I am deeply grateful to Durham University for awarding me an IMEMS Library Fellowship which made this research possible. Thanks also to the staff of Palace Green Library for being so efficient and knowledgeable about the collection. I am thankful to Natasha Anson and Rachael Duff for reading an earlier draft of this article. I am also grateful to Sister Mary Bede for sharing information about manuscripts at Much Birch with me during my research.

Mysticism and Identity among the English Poor Clares

  • Liam Peter Temple


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