The Letters of the Nuns of Admont

Whilst the letters of potential saints such as Hildegard of Bingen and Elizabeth of Schonau were collected and preserved for posterity, little remains of the correspondence of ordinary religious women; but one notable survival is the letter collection preserved in Admont, Stiftsarchiv, MS Ii/1. This manuscript comprises two bifolia (i.e. four leaves) that bear witness to the letter-writing of a groups of nuns at the double monastery of Admont in Styria. Preserving the texts of some nineteen letters, the two folios are all that survives of a larger book datable on palaeographical grounds to the last third of the twelfth century, a dating supported by references in the letters to events which took place in the third quarter of the twelfth century, such as papal schism of 1158–77 and a dispute which took place in the early 1160s between Admont and the monastery of Klosterneuburg, near Vienna. The pages are ruled with between twenty-seven and thirty-two lines of text written by five different hands in a semi-diplomatic script of the late twelfth century—a script, that is, combining elements of both book and documentary hand, distinct from the highly regular script that Admont’s nun-scribes used for books in the late twelfth century. Having been used as wrappers to protect the Nuns’ wine register for 1431, the two bifolia are much damaged by wine-stains and general wear-and-tear. Their dimensions are also modest: bifolium one measures 170×125 milimetres, bifolium two 180×130m.

The purpose for which these letters were first collected and preserved remains obscure. It is possible that they were collected to provide the nuns with models should similar letters need to be written again. This much is suggested by the replacement of the personal names with the letter ‘N’ for nomen; but the erasure of identifiers was common in letter collections of all kinds, and the layout does not permit the ease of access which one might expect in a formulary. There are, furthermore, no initials or rubrics to indicate where the individual letters begin or end, making it hard to locate items for imitation. An alternative suggestion made by Alison Beech is that the leaves were part of a register or copybook, kept in part as a record and perhaps also as a preparation for the compilation of a proper formulary.

firebeastThe home today of one of the finest Baroque libraries to survive in Europe and of one the largest collections of medieval books which is still in the hands of the community for whom it was assembled, the Benedictine monastery at Admont was founded in 1074. It began as a house for men only, but another for women was added first half of the twelfth century when the monastery was reformed, as it were, after the model recently established at the monastery of Hirsau in Württemberg. The customs of Hirsau, drawn up under the aegis of Abbot William (d. 1091) and much influenced by those of Cluny, promoted the establishment of strictly enclosed houses for women alongside those for men. Locked with three keys, the door to the monastery was opened only for the admission of new recruits, for the entry of a priest when the last rites had to be administered, or the removal of a body for burial. A window comprised the nuns’ only other point of contact with their spiritual advisors and other visitors.

The letters show, however, that the nuns, most of whom were drawn from the local aristocracy, were very much in contact with the wider world and that they were well-acquainted with the art of writing letters according to the rules of dictamen. The letters range in content from routine correspondence to several personal items which offer a rare window into the hearts of these women. As Beech explains, a recurring theme of this correspondence was the need to establish and maintain connections with patrons who could help the nuns to secure the material well-being of their community. But the nuns also wrote forcefully and vigorously to various figures, secular and religious, about a wide range of topics: one nun wrote to admonish a bishop for his failure to attend to his religious duties, another wrote to a kinsman to persuade him to return to the religious life, and one nun wrote to the Archbishop Salzburg in order to obtain permission for the daughter she had abandoned to be admitted to the community or, failing that, to visit her mother ‘at the window’.


Essential Reading: Beach, A. I., ‘Voices from a Distant Land: Fragments of a Twelfth-Century Nuns’ Letter Collection’, Speculum, 77 (2002), 34–54. Journals L6; JSTOR.

Components for Discussion

  1. Letter 17 is an example of the nuns’ correspondence with their patrons. Written to restore contact with a patron from whom the nuns had not heard in the recent past, it has the appearance of routine correspondence. It might even be a form letter: it contains no names, few details, and reflects what may have been a common situation for a community of women subject to strict enclosure. The letter may, on the other hand, merely represent a formulaic endorsement for a messenger who had been entrusted with the communication of more delicate and intimate matters.
  2. Letter 14 is the product of an entirely different situation, one which is unlikely to have been a routine event. In this letter a nun petitions an unnamed Archbishop of Salzburg that the daughter whom she had abandoned on entering the religious life might be allowed to visit her and perhaps even to join the nunnery. The letter is remarkable for the forcefulness of the petition: the nun complains of her deep sorrow, and threatens to leave the convent, ruining herself in the process, if her request is not fulfilled. The request implies, furthermore, a signifcant challenge to the idea of strict enclosure.

For texts and translations of all three items, please visit the Moodle Website.

Commentary

  • Beach, A. I., ‘Claustration and Collaboration Between the Sexes in the Twelfth-Century Scriptorium’, in B. Rosenwein and S. Farmer (eds), Monks and Nuns, Saints and Outcasts: Religious Expression and Social Meaning in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY, 1999), pp. 57–75. MBO.
  • Beach, A. I., ’Listening for the Voices of Admont’s Twelfth-Century Nuns’, in L. Olson and K. Kerby-Fulton (eds), Voices in Dialogue: Reading Women in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame, IN, 2005), pp. 187–98. MBR7.
  • Beach, A. I., Women as Scribes: Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria, Studies in Palaeography and Codicology (Cambridge, 2004).
  • Lutter, C., ‘Christ’s Educated Brides: Literacy, Spirituality, and Gender in Twelfth-Century Admont’, in A. I. Beach (ed.), Manuscripts and Monastic Culture: Religious Reform and Intellectual Life in Twelfth-Century Germany, Medieval Church Studies 13 (Turnhout, 2006), pp. 191–213. MHBF.K.
  • Lyon, Jonathan R., ‘The Letters of Princess Sophia of Hungary: A Nun at Admont’, in Charlotte Newman Goldy and Amy Livingstone (eds), Writing Medieval Women’s Lives (New York, 2012), pp. 51–68.

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