Exactly one year ago today I travelled to Bruges to conduct a two week archival research extravaganza at the English Convent of Nazareth, and the Diocesan archive in Bruges. I wanted to consult every document relating to the English convent between 1629 to c. 1830 for evidence of nuns’ literary activities in the period. I had the generous support of the Society for Renaissance Studies and the University of Sheffield, without whose assistance this trip would not have been possible. This is a little reflection about how that work shaped my doctoral thesis.
While in Bruges, I lived like a nun, minus the wearing a wimple, going to church and singing parts. I stayed in a beautiful garret guest room in the convent and ate pretty much all of my meals in the convent guest refectory, so as to make the most of my time. I broke bread with Father Paul, the convent’s priest, a multi-linguist who chastized me for not knowing any Dutch, despite my Dutch surname. My excuse, that my ancestors emigrated to America some three or four hundred years ago, did not cut it with Father Paul. This made me smile and think, ‘fair enough’.
But, happily, my research did not require much in the way of Dutch, as most of the convent documents written by the English nuns between 1600 and 1800 are in English or French. With the indefatigable help of Sister Mary Aline (pictured) I made my way, mostly methodically, through the convent manuscripts and the early printed books.
There were approximately 800 of the latter, so I had my work cut out of me. Thankfully, I also had a catalogue of sorts, and a camera.
As I’ve mentioned previously, a camera is indespensible these days. The ability to take photos can dramatically speed up your archival work, take care that you carefully record shelf marks, and make notes about the items you are imaging as you go, otherwise those images can become useless.
Anyhow, with camera in hand, and careful annotation as I went, I was able to examine each printed book for evidence of readership. Just as you, gentle reader, once had to take books out and have your name and the dates of issue stamped into a little card in the volume, making a lovely little record of who read what and when, a nun in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries had to write her name in any book she borrowed. Often, her name would get crossed out upon the book’s return. This makes for a pretty handy record of centuries of readership.
At Nazareth I was very generously given access to the convent library and archives, and for the first time I really felt as though I had the measure of how a convent archive develops over time. There were chronicles, profession vows, printed books, manuscripts of prayers and devotions, account books and some spectacular twentieth century illuminated manuscripts in the medieval style, from which the monkey logo on this blog comes. This experience of intensive archival research made me realize that despite taking vows to leave the world behind, at any hour of the waking day, someone in a convent (then as now) is reading or writing, connecting in some way with the world beyond her convent walls.
There’s a vast array of convent literature, but only in the last century or so have convent documents from the exile period been published. My doctoral work and the research I hope to conduct in future is really about widening the exposure of these documents and contextualizing them with contemporary works by lay Catholics and Protestants in Britain and Europe.
Today, as the rain pounds on my attic windows and night draws in, I’m feeling nostalgia for many things–the little issue cards in public library books; the past that I am forever attempting to reconstruct from manuscripts and books; and for Bruges itself—the beer, the city streets, the canal, and most of all, my kind hosts at the English convent.