2011: ‘Identities, Organisation and Exile’

by Christina M. Brindley, Manchester Metropolitan University

The tenth annual conference of the History of Women Religious in Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI) network was held at Queen Mary, University of London.  The theme for this year’s conference was ‘Identities, Organisation and Exile’ and was held in conjunction with the AHRC funded Who Were the Nuns? (WWTN) Project.  The first half of the conference was dedicated to twelve invited papers relating to the WWTN project, followed by a further fourteen papers submitted to this year’s H-WRBI conference.  The first day saw presentations by Caroline Bowden and Michael Questier, who gave a broad outline of the aims and outcomes of the WWTN project, as well as a demonstration of the prosopographical database of all the nuns at the exiled English convents, 1600-1800, constructed by the project.  It was also announced that the project will publish a six-volume series of previously unpublished manuscript materials with Pickering & Chatto in 2012/13.  In addition to her introductory presentation, Caroline Bowden touched upon the subject of ‘nearly nuns’: those women which the WWTN project research has shown were in attendance at the convents, but for one reason or another never professed.  In contrast, Katharine Keats-Rohan presented a paper on almost the polar-opposite subject: what it was which constituted the ‘ideal nun’.   

A number of the paper-givers made use of the WWTN database to shed light upon their own areas of research.  James Kelly presented his findings in the tantalisingly-titled paper, ‘Essex girls abroad’.  My own paper surveyed Lancashire women at the exiled English convents, while Marie-Louise Coolahan also made use of the database in her investigation of Irish nuns and archipelagic identities.  An interdisciplinary panel on art and design was offered on day two, which consisted of papers from Amanda Haste on the role of music in modern Anglican monasticism, Kate Jordan on conventual architecture and Ayla Lepine on embroidery in Victorian convents.  Elizabeth Perry also gave a paper in the final session of the conference which investigated an illuminated manuscript showing the nuns’ exile from Syon Abbey.  Also in the final session, Jenna Lay looked at manuscripts produced by the nuns of Syon, literary culture and the construction of identity. 

A great number of the papers touched upon literary topics.  Victoria Van Hyning presented on the subject of the Louvain Chronicles and the Life of Margaret Clement.  Other papers also focussed upon the writings of individuals: Genelle Gertz looked at Barbara Constable, while Jaime Goodrich considered Lady Mary Percy.  Nicky Hallett examined life-writing in the annals of the English Carmelites, while Elizabeth Patton analysed various editions of the spiritual biography of Fr John Cornelius written by Dorothy Arundell.  Laurence Lux-Sterritt used Carmelite documents (as well as manuscripts from the Poor Clares and the Sepulchrines) in her review of the concepts of divine love and spiritual longing in the early modern English convents.  Ping-Yuan Wang diversified the literary theme with her paper investigating the circular letters produced by the Visitandine nuns in Brussels.  Conventual letters were also utilised as source material by both Emma Major, who explored the responses to convents by Protestant women in the eighteenth-century, and Richard Williams, who discussed Mannock Strickland and the finances of the English convents in exile.

Contrary to the usual pattern at H-WRBI annual conferences, the vast majority of papers this year related to the early modern period.  However, one panel focussed specifically upon papers discussing medieval subject areas.  Kimm Curran surveyed and appraised the methodologies employed in investigating medieval nuns, while Janet Jones looked at the family backgrounds of nuns from the six convents of medieval London.  Finally, Elizabeth Makowski studied the conflict between, and eventual merger of, the Franciscan nuns at Waterbeach and Denny.  Additionally, three papers addressing the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries focussed on the impact of revolution and the political engagement of nuns.  Caroline Watkinson discussed the impact of the Glorious Revolution upon the English convents in exile.  Carmen Mangion outlined the experiences of three English convents in Paris during the French Revolution; subsequently, Tonya Moutray presented her research upon literary responses to the same conflict.     

After a few technical difficulties with the microphone, which was very necessary in the echoing environs of The Octagon (designed by the Victorian architect E.R. Robson and formerly home to the library of the People’s Palace, which brought greater access to education in London’s East End), the conference continued without delay.  H-WRBI hosted a book stall throughout the event, diligently managed by Liesbeth Corens, which at the close of the conference had raised £142 towards the relocation of the H-WRBI online pages to the Institute of Historical Research website.  A further £80 was raised through donations contributed in thanks for the visit to Malplaquet House, which was organised by Victoria Van Hyning. 

The second day of the conference hosted two special events.  Firstly, Kathleen Sprows Cummings (Associate Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, University of Notre Dame) introduced the book launch and wine reception for the edited collection, Gender, Catholicism and Spirituality: Women and the Roman Catholic Church in Britain and Europe, 1200-1900 (London: Palgrave, 2010), by Laurence Lux-Sterritt and Carmen Mangion.  This was followed by a screening of A Question of Habit, an informative and entertaining documentary film deconstructing cultural images and popular perceptions of women religious, introduced by its director, Bren Ortega Murphy. 

The conference delegates were refreshed and refuelled throughout the three days by two lively conference dinners, three lunches and a steady stream of tea & coffee, pain au chocolat, mini-doughnuts, cake and wine - not necessarily in that order.  The conference panels flowed smoothly throughout and came to a close with thanks given to Caroline and Carmen for their time and effort: not only in organising this year’s conference, but for all the time they have spent managing and maintaining the H-WRBI network over the last decade.  The theme for next year’s conference will be ‘Education, Vocation & Care’ and will be held between 22-26 June 2012 at University College Dublin.