2007: 'Consecrated Women: Towards a History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland'

by Sophia L Deboick, University of Liverpool

The History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI) research network held their sixth annual conference on 31st August 2007, satisfying a continuing need for a forum for what continues to be an area of research neglected by mainstream historiography, but one of great intrinsic value and considerable import for our broader understanding of the religious, social and cultural history of Britain and Ireland and the history of the women of those shores. Held at the Institute of Historical Research, London, the one-day event organised by Carmen Mangion (Birkbeck College, University of London), Caroline Bowden (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Susan O’Brien (Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge) was dedicated to the memory of Sister Gregory Kirkus CJ, who died aged ninety six on 30th August. Archivist and librarian at the Bar Convent, York for over twenty-five years, she was affectionately regarded by those working in the field of the history of female religious, her own work in this area being highly valued.

The conference delegates were of an extremely varied background and included academics and students from all over Europe and the US, archivists, seminary staff and several members of religious communities.  This diversity made for highly engaging discussion sessions as well as stimulating conversations during coffee-breaks. A warm welcome was extended to newcomers to the research network and indeed the conference proved a supportive, open and productive forum for the discussion of research. During the early modern session there was a particularly constructive exchange of ideas about Catholic recusant Mary Ward, with no fewer than four papers being presented on her life and the history of her Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Indeed, several sisters of the Congregation of Jesus were present, as well as representatives of the Sisters of Loreto (thus covering both branches of the IBVM) and the sisters were able to offer privileged insights on their foundress. Together with scholars from the University of York, Queen Mary College, Royal Holloway and the Université d’Aix-Marseille, this surely unrivalled assembly of expertise on Mary Ward made for an excellent survey of current work in this apparently thriving area of research. Other themes covered, which emerged from papers looking at seemingly unconnected issues and disparate historical periods, included moves towards self-determination and self-governance by female religious, the working lives of both cloistered nuns and active sisters and the representation of women religious in artistic media.

The wide temporal scope of the papers, with contributions covering topics from the fourteenth century to the present day, allowed reflection on the wider issues facing this area of research, irrespective of historical period, and some key theoretical problems were considered. For example, the paper on Margaret of York by Anna Campbell (University of Reading) pushed us to reconsider what we mean by ‘women religious’ and to what extent ostensibly secular women have been able to share in this identity in the past. At the other end of the time scale, Louise O’Reilly (National University of Ireland, Maynooth) readdressed views of Vatican censure of Catholic sisters post Vatican II, taking the Presentation Sisters as a case study, and thus suggested a rethinking of attitudes about power relationships between women under vows and their churches. The range of approaches utilised was similarly broad and Moira Egan’s (City University of New York) art-historical analysis of ‘Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari’ was particularly notable, using the painting as evidence of the diverse varieties of religious women who worked as nurses during the Crimean War. Virginia Blanton (University of Missouri-Kansas City) and Veronica O’Mara’s (University of Hull) literary analysis of CUL Add. MS. 2604, a fifteenth-century manuscript of saints’ lives, coupled with their comments on the representation of female saints in late-medieval art made for an insightful and thorough account of this source.
At the close of the meeting there was discussion of the possibility of including contributions on women religious in the rest of Europe at next year’s conference, but the consensus amongst the delegates was that the network should maintain its current geographical focus. It is clear that in making this decision the group maintains its power to encourage a parallel literature to the more substantial European scholarship, providing a body of work which can be used comparatively by researchers working in this context. The value of the conference in this respect was demonstrated by the presence of scholars of French, Belgian and Dutch religious history and indeed, it provided fresh inspiration for my own research on representations of French Carmelite Thérèse of Lisieux. The seventh annual conference promises to be a similarly profitable and enjoyable occasion for all working in the field of the history of women religious.