By Jessica Hodgkinson
Surviving evidence clearly shows that abbesses were actively involved in early medieval book culture – the production, use and exchange of books, facilitated and sustained by literate networks. In a widely cited letter dated to c.735, for example, Boniface (d.754), a Christian missionary and Church reformer from Wessex, who became archbishop of Mainz in 745, asked Abbess Eadburg of Wimborne to produce for him a copy of the Pauline Epistles written in gold (cum auro conscribas). Whilst Abbess Eadburg’s book has not survived the ravages of time, manuscripts commissioned, owned, and used by other early medieval abbesses have been preserved. These manuscripts, alongside a variety of other types of evidence, provide tantalizing insights into the nature, extent, and significance of the participation of abbesses in early medieval textual culture and literary networks.
An early medieval abbess was a woman, usually a royal or noble woman, who ruled over a Christian religious community, a group of women, or, sometimes, a mixed group of men and women, living chaste lives dedicated to God. During the early medieval period, many religious communities were established in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and on the Continent as the ruling elites adopted and spread Christianity through their populations.
Monastic rules and decrees of Church synods, alongside other extant texts, maintained that an abbess should set a good example for the members of her community to emulate and emphasized that she was responsible for the wellbeing, success, and longevity of the community she led. Active participation in book culture and literate networks of exchange provided abbesses with opportunities to fulfill their duties and obligations, exercise agency, and pursue strategies and aims to the benefit of themselves and their communities.
Many extant hagiographical narratives written about early medieval abbesses emphasized their learning and engagement with book culture. These texts aimed to establish their subjects as saints, by providing accounts of their lives, deaths, and posthumous miracles. Often they highlighted an abbess’ dedication to reading and study of the Scriptures, and the breadth and depth of their theological knowledge as evidence of their sanctity (Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg (1998), pp.96-101). These narratives also presented abbesses as teachers, directly involved in the education of others, most often members of their own community. In some cases, such as in the Vitae (Lives) of Abbesses Gertrude of Nivelles (d. c.658) and Bertilla of Chelles (d. c.705), abbesses were described as actively exchanging books with other communities. Vitae of saintly abbesses were often commissioned by their successors to establish or reinvigorate a saints’ cult which would attract both pilgrims and lay patrons to the community.
Early medieval abbesses also used literate networks to cultivate and sustain links to other monastic communities, both male and female, and maintain connections with their community’s lay patrons. They participated in virtual communities of prayer memorialized in confraternity books, which contained lists of those who would be remembered during a community’s prayers. As well as submitting lists of names to be included in books maintained by other communities, some abbesses, including the ninth-century abbess of Remiremont, Theotild, arranged for the creation and maintenance of a confraternity book for their own houses.
Other books commissioned, owned, and used by abbesses also shed light on their participation in early medieval book culture networks. For example, a fifth-century Italian copy of Jerome’s commentary on the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, now housed in the Universitätsbibliothek Würzburg in Germany (shelfmark: M.p.th.q.2), was once owned by an abbess called Cuthswitha, who lived in what is now modern-day Worcestershire.
An Old English ex-libris, the oldest of its kind to survive, was added to the first page of the manuscript to record that this was “a book of Cuthswitha the abbess” (Cuthsuuithae. boec. thaerae abbatissan). In his detailed study of the manuscript, Patrick Sims-Williams (1976, pp.5-13) convincingly argued that the Cuthswitha who owned this book should be identified with the abbess of the same, and otherwise unattested, name who received land from rulers of the kingdom of the Hwicce in the late-seventh and early-eighth century. She used these gifts of land to establish and support her monastic community at Penintanham, now Inkberrow in Worcestershire. In the absence of other information about Abbess Cuthswitha and her community, the book she owned c.700 survives as evidence of her participation in book culture.
Cuthswitha’s book had been made in Italy in the fifth century. Its exotic origins indicate that Abbess Cuthswitha was a beneficiary of a long-distance network by which this book travelled from Italy to Worcestershire, further details about which have been lost to time. Quite soon after the Jerome manuscript arrived in England, however, some pages were replaced, presumably because the originals had been damaged. These replacement pages were written by a single hand carefully imitating the book’s Italian uncial script. However, the scribe used certain letterforms, as identified by E. A. Lowe (1959, no.1430b, p.54), which indicated that they copied these pages in an English scriptorium in the seventh century. It is possible that this scribe was a member of Abbess Cuthswitha’s community and, thus, may have been a woman. That women were trained to write and to copy books is clear from the surviving evidence, including several extant manuscripts which contain a scribal signature or a colophon, an inscription which provides information about where, when, and why a book was made, which name a female scribe. Indeed, it is conceivable, perhaps even likely, that Abbess Cuthswitha added her ex-libris to this book herself.
The script and content of some of the pen trials subsequently added to Cuthswitha’s book suggest that, later in the eighth century, it returned to the Continent, this time travelling to Würzburg (or somewhere nearby). The book’s ultimate destination and apparent date of arrival strongly suggest that it was sent or taken to the Continent by someone connected to the circle of Boniface, perhaps a woman. Boniface and his students and followers, both male and female, from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as well as Francia, worked to reform and organize the Church in the modern-day German regions of Thuringia, Bavaria and Hesse, establishing and staffing new bishoprics and monasteries. As discussed above, letters preserved within the correspondence of Boniface and Lul show that women, like Abbess Eadburg, sent and supplied them with books. These letters also record that some women, including Abbess Eadburg’s pupil, Leoba, travelled to join Boniface and his circle on the Continent, to engage in literate culture, education, and the dissemination of Christian learning. Leoba herself became abbess of the female community at Tauberbischofsheim, founded by Boniface close to Würzburg. In her Vita, written some years after her death, Rudolf of Fulda presented her as an effective monastic leader and teacher, renowned for her knowledge of the Scriptures, the works of the Church fathers, and ecclesiastical law.
There is perhaps reason to connect Cuthswitha’s community at Inkberrow to the networks of book, idea, and information exchange linked to Boniface and his followers and supporters. Sims-Williams (1976, pp.16-21), drawing on surviving records of grants of land preserved within the Worcester archive, suggested that Abbess Cuthswitha was succeeded at Inkberrow by an Abbess Cyneburg. In the first half of the eighth century, a woman with the same name received a letter from Lul, Denehard, and Burghard, who were all English followers of Boniface. It is possible, therefore, that Abbess Cyneburg inherited the Italian copy of Jerome’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes from her predecessor, Cuthswitha, which she then sent to the Continent as a gift to those she knew who had travelled there. Indeed, Boniface made Burchard the first bishop of Würzburg in the early 740s, which could explain how Cuthswitha’s book reached its final home.
Manuscript evidence demonstrates that early medieval abbesses not only owned and used books but commissioned them too. One such book, now widely known as the Gundohinus Gospels, after the name of its male scribe, was produced in Francia on the orders of a woman called Fausta (now Autun, Bibliothèque Municipale, S 2 (3)). In his scribal colophon (on fol.186r), Gundohinus recorded that he had copied this Gospel book in the third year of the reign of King Pepin of the Franks (754/7) at Vosevio, the location of which remains unidentified. Gundohinus explained that Abbess Fausta, as the mother of the monastic family (matris familiae)had ‘requested the production of this great work in honor of Saint John and Saint Mary, mother of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (hoc opus optimum in honore sancti Iohannis et sanctae Mariae matris Domini nostri Iesu Christi patrare rogavit).
Abbess Fausta appears to have commissioned this book specifically for use by the female members of her religious community. Gundohinus directly addressed this intended female audience in his colophon, telling them to gaudete in domine semper sorores qui legitis (rejoice always in the Lord, you sisters who read this). Here, Gundohinus was quoting Philippians 4.4 (Gaudete in domino semper et iterum dico gaudete), perhaps inspired by its biblical context in which Paul addresses Euodia and Syntyche, the women who had helped him to spread the teachings of the Gospels throughout Philippi.
The book’s contents also show that Abbess Fausta had the educational needs of her community in mind when she requested its production. In addition to the text of the Gospels, Fausta’s book contains exposiciones, short notes added into the gospel text to explain the meaning behind certain passages. These exposiciones were clearly labelled and written in a different grade and type of script from the main gospel text. They provide relatively basic information, mostly about the text’s allegorical meanings, and sometimes pay particular attention to number symbolism. It is, however, highly unusual to find exposiciones like these in an early medieval gospel book. Their inclusion strongly suggests that this book was intended to function as a type of teaching tool, designed to enhance its readers’ knowledge and understanding of the Gospels. It is interesting to note that the only other extant gospel book known to contain short explanatory notes (now Montpellier, Bibliothèque de la Ville, MS 3) was, according to Rosamond McKitterick (1989, p.11), copied in the second half of the eighth century in a female writing center in the Paris basin, probably Jouarre.
The decoration of the Gundohinus Gospels is also unusual and may perhaps reflect something of the wider networks of book and idea exchange of which Fausta and her community were part. Lawrence Nees (1987), in his highly detailed study of the manuscript’s illumination, highlighted how styles and motifs from both western and eastern art were combined in its full-page miniatures and canon tables. Nees (2019, p.298) more recently suggested that this should perhaps be understood in the context of ‘continuing artistic contacts between East and West during the eighth century.’ Thus, as this book’s patron, Abbess Fausta was a participant in and a beneficiary of transcontinental literate networks of book culture.
Early medieval abbesses, as both individuals and as the leaders of monastic communities, therefore, actively engaged with book culture and participated in literate networks of exchange. In collaboration with men and with other women, as patrons, owners, and users of books, these abbesses exercised agency through literacy to fulfill their obligations and pursue their own aims. Whilst we often know very little about the lives and identities of the abbesses whose books have survived to the present day, these manuscripts stand as a testament both to their literacy and learning, and to their active participation in the production, exchange, and dissemination of knowledge.
Jessica Hodgkinson is a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester funded by the Midlands4Cities doctoral training partnership. Her research seeks to explore the active participation of women in early medieval book culture through the analysis of surviving manuscripts commissioned, copied, owned and/or used by them.
Featured Image: Beginning of the scribal colophon in the Gundohinus Gospels which names Fausta as the book’s patron (Autun, Bibliothèque Municipale, S 2 (3), fol.182r, column 2, lines 1-8). Image taken from the Bibliothèque virtuelle des manuscrits médiévaux (BVMM) website and reproduced here under CC BY-NC 3.0 license.