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LANGUAGE AND POWER IN AN ENGLISH CONVENT IN EXILE, c. 1621 – c. 1631*

  • EMILIE K. M. MURPHY (a1)
Abstract

Scholarship on transnational encounter has predominantly focused on men's cross-cultural interactions. This article breaks new ground by exploring women's roles in similar forms of linguistic and power negotiation within the context of English convents founded in Europe during the seventeenth century. Moreover, recent scholarship on English convents has so far remained silent on the question of how these women negotiated the language barriers that many of them faced. This article proposes an answer by examining the correspondence sent in the 1620s from the English Benedictine convent in Brussels. These letters reveal the changing ways in which English nuns relied on both male and female translators to communicate. In so doing, this article expands existing scholarly understanding of epistolary and literary culture by exploring the authorial strategies employed in the convent, which afforded the nuns a sense of authority over their texts. The letters were vital avenues for the women to express dissent, and raise concerns over the way their community was governed. Finally, despite being enclosed institutions, English convents in exile were not monoglot spaces but porous sites of multi-lingual encounter.

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Department of History, University of York, York, yo10 5dd emilie.murphy@york.ac.uk
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*

I am grateful to Marie-Louise Coolahan, John Gallagher, Jaime Goodrich, and Mark Jenner for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article. My sincere thanks also to Virginia Reinburg, Patricia Ranum, Jenny Hillman, Guillaume Coatalen, Una McIlvenna, Paul Arblaster, Robin Macdonald, Gabor Gelleri, Linda Briggs, Daniel Trocmé-Latter, Nuria Gisbert, Leslie Tuttle, Daren Hodson, Estelle Paranque, Jamie Tucker, and Chloe Jepps for helping me to overcome my own language barriers. The research for this article was funded by the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007–2013 / ERC Grant Agreement n. 615545).

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1 Frances Gawen to Jacobus Boonen, [1622]; Archief van het Aartsbisdom Mechelen, Mechelen, Belgium, Regulieren Brussel, Engelse Nonnen, Doos 12/3. Hereafter only box number will be given. All letters unfoliated.

2 ‘[J]e ne puisse manquer de vous informer de la division que je crains entre les Religieuses, a raison de ce noveau Confesseur…que nous sera cause d'un extreme disordre et confusion, jusques a tant qu'on declarera qu'il n'y a qu'un chef, c'est a dir un Confesseur principal par l'ordre du quel tout cela doit estre gouverné, et que l'aultre confesseur luy est adjusté en façon d'inferieur avec subordination au principal.’ Ibid.

3 ‘Aussi, Madame l'abbesse a tort, puissque elle voudroit empescher la liberté que nos statutes donnent a la Thourier vinet estre expressement interrogée de madame si quelque une penson moyne avoit envoyée des lettres a Monsiegneur l'Archiuesque ces jours passes.’ Ibid.

4 ‘Je vous supplie de nous donner l'assistance de quelque un par dehors Monsieur Colf: ou de quelque aultre habil homme, et de nous octroyer une licence general de luy librement parle a la grille au descen de Madame, car aultrement n'avones personne pour traduire et porter nos lettres et messages, quand il y a besoign de vous escrit.’ Ibid.

5 Bossy, John, English Catholic community, 1570–1850 (London, 1975), p. 6 .

6 Bowden, Caroline and Kelly, James, eds., The English convents in exile, 1600–1800: communities, culture and identity (Farnham, 2013).

7 See Burke, Peter and Porter, Roy, eds., The social history of language (Cambridge, 1987); and Burke, Peter, Languages and communities in early modern Europe (Cambridge, 2004).

8 See, for example, Palmer, Patricia, Language and conquest in early modern Ireland (Cambridge, 2004); Dursteler, E. R., ‘Speaking in tongues: language and communication in the early modern Mediterranean’, Past and Present, 217 (2012), pp. 4777 ; Wyatt, Michael, The Italian encounter with Tudor England: a cultural politics of translation (Cambridge, 2005).

9 See, for example, Brotton, Jerry, Trading territories: mapping the early modern world (London, 1997); Palmer, Patricia, Language and conquest in early modern Ireland: English Renaissance literature and Elizabethan imperial expansion (Cambridge, 2001); Parker, Charles H., Global interactions in the early modern age, 1400–1800 (Cambridge, 2010).

10 Walker, Claire, Gender and politics in early modern Europe: English convents in France and the Low Countries (New York, NY, 2003), p. 14 .

11 Peters, Henriette, Mary Ward: a world in contemplation, trans. Butterworth, Helen (Leominster, 1994), p. 75 .

12 Chambers, Mary, The life of Mary Ward (2 vols., London, 1882), i, pp. 128 , 159; Peters, Mary Ward, p. 80.

13 Janssen, Geert H., ‘The exile experience’, in Bamji, Alexandra, Janssen, Geert H., and Laven, Mary, eds., The Ashgate research companion to the Counter Reformation (Aldershot, 2013), pp. 7390 (at p. 84).

14 Walker, Gender and politics, p. 38.

15 Highley, Christopher, Catholics writing the nation in early modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2008), p. 183 .

16 For a concise overview of such scholarship, see Lehfeldt, Elizabeth A., ‘The permeable cloister’, in Poska, Allyson M., Couchman, Jane, and McIver, Katherine A., eds., The Ashgate research companion to women and gender in early modern Europe (Aldershot, 2013).

17 Goodrich, Jaime, ‘Authority, gender, and monastic piety: controversies at the English Benedictine convent in Brussels, 1620–1623’, British Catholic History, 33 (2016), pp. 91114 (at p. 96).

18 Ursula Hewicke to Jacobus Boonen, 7 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/1.

19 Bilinkoff, Jodi, Related lives: confessors and their female pentitents, 1450–1750 (Ithaca, NY, 2005); Smith, Helen, Grossly material things: women and book production in early modern England (Oxford, 2012), esp. ‘Women at the scene of writing’, pp. 1652 ; Hosington, Brenda M., ‘Women translators and the early printed book’, in Gillespie, Vincent and Powell, Susan, eds., A companion to the early printed book in Britain, 1476–1558 (Woodbridge, 2014), pp. 248–71; Goodrich, Jaime, Faithful translators: authorship, gender and religion in early modern England (Evanston, IL, 2014).

20 Walker, Claire, ‘“Doe not supose me a well mortifyed nun dead to the world”: letter-writing in early modern English convents’, in Daybell, James, ed., Early modern women's letter writing, 1450–1700 (New York, NY, 2001), p. 159 .

21 I have limited my corpus to 190 letters, but due to the haphazard nature of the archive there may well be more extant from this period that have been missed. Moreover, it is likely that scores more letters were sent that do not survive as Ursula Hewicke wrote in one of her letters ‘if my Lord have not caused the English letters that he received from hence to be burned’, Doos 12/2. The subsequent figures should therefore be considered as broadly representative, rather than exact.

22 Daybell, James, Women letter-writers in Tudor England (Oxford, 2006), p. 19 .

23 Statutes compyled for the better obseruation of the holy Rule of the most glorious Father and patriarch S. Benedict (1632), pp. 8–9.

24 Ibid., p. 9.

25 Goodrich, ‘Authority, gender, and monastic piety’, pp. 91–114.

26 Ursula Hewicke to Jacobus Boonen, 7 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/1.

27 Mary Vavasour to Jacobus Boonen, 8 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/2.

28 See, for example, Aurea James to Jacobus Boonen, [1622–3], Doos 12/2.

29 Goodrich, ‘Authority, gender and monastic piety’, p. 97.

30 ‘…une du principall occation de si tant de paix estoit que Monsiegneur le susdict menit avec luy Monsieur Colford pour estre l'interpretaur’. Scholastica Smith to Jacobus Boonen, 11 June 1622, Doos 4.

31 ‘…de celle qui sont les plus notees d'estre sie particulierement unie ensemble’. Mary Percy to Jacobus Boonen, 16 May 1623, Doos 12/2.

32 Mary Wintour to Jacobus Boonen, [1622–3], Doos 12/2. The converse sisters, also known as lay sisters, were usually from less-elite backgrounds than the choir nuns, and entered the communities with reduced dowries. These women were exempt from choir duties in order to serve the physical and temporal needs of the choir sisters.

33 ‘…car ceste monastere icy ne peut pas nullement subsister a la facon qu'il est. et je ne vois pas que remede on y pourra donner sans des faire la maison et en faire trois avec des aultres aydes qu'on pourroit avoir d'Angleterre, car le desu mon, Corruption, et mauvaise humeurs des plusieurs icy dedans sont trop grandes pont y adiouster de remede que pourroir valoir’. Gabriel Colford to Jacobus Boonen, 18 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/2.

34 ‘…peu occurrence’. Aurea James to Jacobus Boonen, [1627?], Doos 12/3. Mary Wintour to Jacobus Boonen, 16 Mar. 1627, Doos 12/3.

35 Mary Percy to Jacobus Boonen, 16 Feb. 1628, Doos 12/2.

36 ‘…factieux esprit’. Agatha Wiseman and Martha Colford sent a copy of this treatise to Jacobus Boonen, Doos 12/3.

37 ‘…pour autant que je ne puisse escrire moy mesme en francois, avec l'approbation de vostre Reverence j'escriveray mes lettres en englois, au Prieur, du Chartreux, afin qu'il les mets en Latin, ce que je m'asseur, il fera tres fidelement’. Mary Percy to Jacobus Boonen, 8 Sept. 1621, Doos 12/2.

38 ‘[J]e vous supplieroy d'envoyer une petit mot de vostre main a D. Catherine celle qui a la charge du Parloir a fin qu'elle ne face pas difficulte de me permettre’. Frances Gawen to Jacobus Boonen, 5 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/1.

39 ‘Je vous envoyais le veille de Pasques par Un gentil homme Anglois qui partist d'icy pour aller a Malines, les papiers des Religieuses Anglois traduictes par le Reverend Pere Norton. monsieur Daniel et moy mesme, en trois pacquets, mais le tout mis en un petit sacq de toille addresse a Vostre Seigneurie Illustrissme.’ Gabriel Colford to Jacobus Boonen, 18 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/2.

40 Scholastica Smith to Jacobus Boonen, [1622–3], Doos 12/2.

41 Ursula Hewicke to Jacobus Boonen, 7 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/1.

42 Aurea James to Jacobus Boonen, [1622–3], Doos 12/2.

43 Eugenia Poulton, Lucy Knatchbull, Elizabeth Southcott, Alexia Blanchard, and Magdalen Digby to Jacobus Boonen, 18 May 1623, Doos 12/1.

44 Gertrude Arundell to Jacobus Boonen, [1621–8], Doos 12/2.

45 Scholastica Smith to Jacobus Boonen [Dec. 1622], Doos 12/2.

46 Clare Curson to Jacobus Boonen, 13 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/2.

47 Bilinkoff, Related lives, p. 47.

48 James Daybell ‘Female literacy and the social conventions of women's letter-writing in England, 1540–1603’, in Early modern women's letter writing, pp. 67–9. Also see Daybell, James, The material letter in early modern England (New York, NY, 2012).

49 Daybell, James, ‘The materiality of early modern women's letters’, in Daybell, James and Gordon, Andrew, eds., Women and epistolary agency in early modern culture, 1450–1690 (London, 2016). For more on gender, letters, and materiality, see Wiggins, Alison, Bess of Hardwick's letters: language, materiality and early modern epistolary culture (London, 2017).

50 Frances Gawen to Jacobus Boonen, 29 July 1623, Doos 12/1.

51 Elizabeth Southcott to Jacobus Boonen, 23 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/1. See also Potentiana Deacon to Jacobus Boonen, 26 Feb. 1623, Doos 12/2.

52 Lucy Knatchbull to Jacobus Boonen, [1622–3], Doos 12/2.

53 ‘…en tout le temps que j'avoit le soing du Parloir m'e cestoit un extreme difficulté d'aller a Madame pour communiquer avec elle des affaires necessaire a cause de la souvent examination quelle faisoit touchant les Religieuses que parloit avec Monsieur mon Pere’. Martha Colford to Jacobus Boonen, [1622], Doos 12/1.

54 ‘Monsieur me respondoit quil donnoit librement congé de parler de bouch ou par escrit pour estre translaté de luy’, Doos 12/1.

55 ‘…le principal occation de mon infirmité car en cela Monsieur le vicaire m'e commandoit une chose et Madame une autre’, Doos 12/1.

56 Katherine Paston to Jacobus Boonen, [1622–3], Doos 12/2.

57 ‘…l'un est qu'aucunes prenent trop de liberte de conferrer et converser ensemble dedans le Monastere et avec aucuns de dehors, et particulierement avec Monsieur Danielle et Monsieur Colford car sous pretexte qu'ilz sont leurs interpretes elles pensent parler a eux en tout tamps et a toute heure’. Mary Percy to Jacobus Boonen, 16 May 1623, Doos 12/2.

58 Mary Percy to Jacobus Boonen, [1622], Doos 12/2.

59 See letters from Potentiana Deacon and Scholastica Smith to Jacobus Boonen on 13 and 14 Dec. 1622, Doos 12/1.

60 Aurea James to Jacobus Boonen, [1622–3], Doos 12/2.

61 ‘…et que je puisse aprendre francois de luy’. Frances Gawen to Jacobus Boonen, [1622], Doos 12/3.

62 Frances Gawen to Jacobus Boonen, 13 Apr. 1623, Doos 12/1.

63 Ursula Hewicke, Frances Gawen, Scholastica Smith, Mary Vavasour, and Katherine Paston.

64 ‘Il est fort a craindre que le bon Pere Chambers nous veult bien tost abandoner tout entierement, sans y vouloir demeurer d'avantage, pour ne rien icy recevoir, si non tous les jours plus de mescontentement et du degoust de la main de Madame…je vous supplie treshumblement au nom des plusieurers des mes soeures.’ Frances Gawen to Jacobus Boonen, [1622–3], Doos 12/3.

65 ‘…ces Religieuses qui sont troublé euse escrit leur mesme in particulier a vostre Seigneurie mais a cause manquent leur Interpreteur ce pourquoy j'ay escrit un leur endroit et pour moy mesme aussy’. Martha Colford to Jacobus Boonen, [1628], Doos 12/3.

66 ‘[J]e vous present Monseigneur part a l'instance d'une grand nombre des religieuses.’ Agatha Wiseman to Jacobus Boonen, 8 July 1628, Doos 12/1.

67 Scholastica Smith to Jacobus Boonen, 12 Dec. 1628, Doos 12/1.

68 Lucy Knatchbull to Jacobus Boonen, 16 May 1623, Doos 12/1.

69 Ursula Hewicke to Jacobus Boonen, 17 May 1623, Doos 12/1.

70 For intimacy between confessor and penitent in the context of mediating spiritual autobiographies see Dolan, Frances E., ‘Reading, work, and Catholic women's biographies’, English Literary Renaissance, 33 (2003), pp. 328–57.

71 ‘D'autant quill y avoit aucune qui estit sy faloix et suspitieux contre ceulx qui avoit Monsieur Colford pour leur Interpreteur…et par ce qu'ill estoit remuee ils avoint suspition que monsieur Colford estoit la caux de cela et ainsy persuassent l'un et lautre que ce nestoit pas propre que nous ayons une homme seculier pour estre L'interpretuer des Religieuses.’ Scholastica Smith to Jacobus Boonen, 11 June 1622, Doos 4.

72 ‘…pour traduire mes papiers, ou de bouche faire quelque message de ma part quand la necessite et les ocasions se presenteront’. Frances Gawen to Jacobus Boonen [1622], Doos 12/3.

73 ‘Monsieur Colford avoit l'autre Joure desire pour parler avec moy dela part de vostre Reverence touchant le lettre que je vous avoit envoié dernierement.’ Ursula Hewicke in Brussels to Silvester Verhaegen in Brussels, 19 June 1621, Doos 12/1.

74 Internal governance of convents was hierarchical by age in profession, younger nuns were expected to defer to their spiritual elders, and the nuns were reminded of these hierarchies daily through seating arrangements in the choir.

75 Mary Watson to Jacobus Boonen, 25 Apr. 1627, Agnes Lenthall to Jacobus Boonen, 11 Feb. 1625, both Doos 12/1.

76 Mary Percy to Jacobus Boonen, Feb. 1628, Doos 12/2.

77 Ibid.

78 ‘Je ne trouve nulle subject que Madame peut avoir pour aucune telles sinistres opinions de moy que d'ocationer (come este a faict) cest boite de m'estre desrobé et moy ayant la clef, la serure a este ouvert, et elle mesme (pour le moins) a leu mes papiers secrets…Les persones que Madame at use principalement pour les instrumens en cest affaire estonent D Teresa Sr Anne Trentham La Novice, et les deux plus jeunes professee.’ Elizabeth Southcott to Jacobus Boonen, 24 Apr. 1629, Doos 12/1.

79 ‘…entre aultres il i en avoit un qui touchoit a elle mesme; ell l'a trove et pretenu, lequelle elle euse veu plus tot sie J'euse eu la desire oportunité de le conferrer avec vostre Seigneurie Illustrissime par l'interpretation d'un Confesseur telle que Je desiroye et qui cognoisoit ma Consience’. Ibid.

80 ‘…cest ocation d'escrire a vostre Seigneurie Illustrissme je ne me puis contenire sans luy declarer un grand trouble de Consience que Madame m'at ocatione touchant cest Novice, qui est que par les inquisitions, elle m'a faict confesser, ce que Je crains J'estoie oblige de tenir secret, et c'estoit ce qui je passoit entre vostre Seigneurie Illustrissme et la dict Novice quand J'estoie son entreprete’. Mary Persons to Jacobus Boonen, 12 Jan. 1629, Doos 12/1.

81 Barbara Duckett to Jacobus Boonen, 5 Mar. 1629, Doos 12/1.

82 Ibid.

83 ‘…ly Vostre Seigneurie n'entand pas ce que J'ay escrit Je luy supplie tres humblement le faire interpreter par aucun Prebster ou Pere Jesuit qui ne me cognoist pas’. Aurea James to Jacobus Boonen, [1625–9?], Doos 12/1.

84 Jaime Goodrich, ‘Translating Lady Mary Percy: authorship and authority among the Brussels Benedictines’, in Bowden and Kelly, eds., English convents in exile, pp. 109–22 (at p. 111).

85 Frances Gawen to Jacobus Boonen, 29 July 1623, Doos 12/1.

86 Thecla Bond to Jacobus Boonen, [c. 1631], Doos 12/1.

87 ‘…quelque un Je nos Religieuse qui scait la language ont abuse la excellent naturel de nostre Reverend visitateur de nouvement D Marie Phillips luy faisant croire les choses en tells apparances qu'elles plaisent particulierement concernant Docteur Talbot’. Katherine Paston to Jacobus Boonen, 5 Aug. 1628, Doos 12/1.

88 Agatha Wiseman to Monsieur le Doyen de St Catherine, 25 Jan. 1629, Doos 12/1.

89 ‘…et si elles voulent escrire a Monseigneur on a voistre Reverence qu'elles la sont per elles mesmes sans demander l'assistance d'autray, et celles qui ne puissent escrivi francois, qu'elles scrivent anglois’. Ibid.

90 For a straightforward introduction, see Simpson, Paul and Mayr, Andrew, eds., Language and power: a resource book for students (New York, NY, 2010).

91 Bowden, Caroline, ‘Building libraries in exile: the English convents and their book collections in the seventeenth century’, Recusant History, 32 (2015), pp. 343–82.

* I am grateful to Marie-Louise Coolahan, John Gallagher, Jaime Goodrich, and Mark Jenner for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article. My sincere thanks also to Virginia Reinburg, Patricia Ranum, Jenny Hillman, Guillaume Coatalen, Una McIlvenna, Paul Arblaster, Robin Macdonald, Gabor Gelleri, Linda Briggs, Daniel Trocmé-Latter, Nuria Gisbert, Leslie Tuttle, Daren Hodson, Estelle Paranque, Jamie Tucker, and Chloe Jepps for helping me to overcome my own language barriers. The research for this article was funded by the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007–2013 / ERC Grant Agreement n. 615545).

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