A Good Convent Should Have No History


Arts & Culture

Eileen Power, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Virginia Woolf

When the visiting bishop arrives to inspect the ramshackle convent in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel The Corner That Held Them, he is distressed to find unmistakable evidence of unchaste activities. Instead of being greeted by peals of holy music, “his hearing had been tormented by the yelpings of little dogs and the clatterings of egg-whisks.” He finds the nuns devouring sweets in the dormitories, keeping pets, lounging on soft cushions; they wear perfumed mantles “better befitting harlots than the brides of Christ”; and this devout sisterhood appears to be “bristling with quarrels and slanders.” He considers that a household of nuns might be forgiven for careless stewardship of their financial assets, “since women are ordained the weaker vessel and have no business sense.” But when these natural infirmities are not compensated for by piety and devotion, this, concludes the disappointed bishop, is true depravity.

“A good convent,” writes Warner with knowing irony, “should have no history. Its life is hid with Christ who is above. History is of the world, costly and deadly.” The novel—which covers three centuries in the life of Oby, a small Norfolk parish—presents the humdrum minutiae of daily happenings, too insignificant (and worldly) to be recorded on the expensive vellum of medieval chronicles but making up the lives of the generations of unsung women who pass through these cloisters: the shard of eggshell found in a pancake, ants marching through the larder, intrigue over priory elections, and long nights spent in the treasury poring over accounts. The convent was founded in commemoration of a twelfth-century adulteress by a stern husband, eager that history should forget her ancient passion (now masked effectively by an ugly stone effigy), and dedicated to the patron saint of prisoners. As the nuns, bored at prayer, count up the women who have died in the convent before them, they know that their duty is to act as a group (“a flock soberly ascending to a heavenly pasture”) and retain a decorous anonymity. In any case, they see few opportunities to leave a mark on history. With the convent in the grip of poverty and all energies expended on attempts to balance revenues with expenditures, “there was no place for aberrations of individuality.” “In songs and romances,” writes Warner, “an apostate nun may be a romantic figure. God’s Mother becomes her proxy in the convent and pins up the curtain before her frailties; but in real life she is a drab like any other drab, nursing her baby and eyeing her lover and the tankards from the tavern doorway.”

“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929). In that essay, commenting on the fact that women’s lives are “all but absent from history,” she argues that this is not only a consequence of the ways women have been deprived of the material conditions under which their talents can prosper but also reveals the sort of events and lives historians have traditionally considered worth remembering—primarily, the public activities of “great men.” Perusing the index of G. M. Trevelyan’s History of England, Woolf looks up “position of women” and is dismayed to find only a smattering of references, mostly to customs of arranged marriage, wife-beating, and the fictional heroines of Shakespeare. Flicking through chapters on wars and kings, she wonders why so little room is left for women’s activities in the events that “constitute this historian’s view of the past.” It was clear to Woolf that new histories were needed, which would examine the reality of women’s lives, their relationships and activities, and the forces that thwarted their ambitions. In the last year of her life, Woolf began work on a history of English literature that would uncover a range of “anonymous” voices from the past. As bombers zipped low over her Sussex home, Woolf immersed herself in reading about witches, nuns, poets, actresses, servants, and governesses, eager to draw these “lives of the obscure” together in an alternative portrait of English society, which would expose the way history was constructed and the voices it excluded. Looking for erudite, imaginative history writing that performed a similar excavation, she reread the very book to which Warner would turn a few years later when composing The Corner That Held Them: an imposing seven-hundred-page tome titled Medieval English Nunneries, by a young economic historian named Eileen Power.

Born in Cheshire in 1889, Power had studied at Girton, one of Cambridge University’s first women’s colleges, where she spoke at suffrage meetings alongside the leading feminists of her day. After a spell reading medieval history at the Sorbonne in Paris, Power received an offer of a fellowship at the newly established London School of Economics on a grant given specifically to support research into women’s lives, in the hope that the monographs produced by fellows would form a much-needed canon of women’s history. Power joined a radical faculty abuzz with new ideas for how history could be written.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the fight for equal suffrage had sparked a growing interest in women’s history and working-class history. Frustrated at their political disenfranchisement, women looked to the past for models and alternatives, eager to reread history through the lens of gender and power and to establish a historical framework from which to agitate for change. Power and her contemporaries—among them the historians Alice Clark, Vera Anstey, and Ivy Pinchbeck—huddled over Olive Schreiner’s 1911 book Woman and Labour, which argued that capitalism had systematically eroded women’s productive labor and thus their independence; they devoured the work of Cambridge classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, whose groundbreaking studies Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1908) and Themis (1912) proposed that the origins of ancient Greek mythology and religion lay in much older worship, centered around the worship of powerful mother goddesses. When ideology wanted to confine women to the domestic sphere, Harrison suggested, these strong, public goddesses appeared to be a threat to state order, and so their powers were subsumed into new cults dedicated to male gods like Zeus and Dionysus, who reflected not only human form but also man-made hierarchies. The prominence in subsequent art and literature of the rationalized Olympian pantheon—the family of gods headed by the almighty, adulterous patriarch Zeus—was testament to the gradual erosion of women’s importance in Greek society. What’s more, it erased the experience of generations of ancient women whose religious activities had been considered essential for community survival. Harrison’s books offered proof that women’s subordination was not based on any “natural” order but had been carefully and deliberately constructed over time. When Woolf notes in A Room of Ones Own that “until very recently, women in literature were the creation of men,” she cites “Jane Harrison’s books on Greek archaeology” as an example of how writers are starting to “write of women as women have never been written of before.” Eileen Power, too, took inspiration from those earlier works as she researched Medieval English Nunneries.

Published in 1922, the book sets out to “give a general picture of English nunnery life” in the three centuries before the Dissolution. In her introduction, Power wryly commented that plenty of books had already described the monastic ideal. Her attention was drawn not to expressions of spiritual devotion or the behavioral codes imposed by the distant ecclesiastical authorities but to the intimate workings of a human community. Drawing on sources including nuns’ account books, bishops’ registers, and popular songs, she reconstructs in intimate detail the material life of 138 English nunneries operating between 1270 and 1536. These were not only houses of prayer but also landlords, employers, merchants, philanthropists, and invariably experienced a “constant struggle with poverty.” Often insufficiently endowed, nunneries had to build incomes through gifts and tithes, by rents from houses on their land, and by selling produce from their farms, woods, and mills. In The Corner That Held Them, the inaugural abbess insists that her convent be granted the profits from a local mill to cover a supply of wine, the tolls from a nearby bridge to pay the priest’s salary, a consignment of fox skins for coverlets, and “a good relic.” But their buildings were often in ruinous condition, with “roofs letting in rain or even tumbling about the ears of the nuns”; they experienced frequent fires and floods, as well as the threat of famine and pestilence. (Beyond the danger of collapsed spires and livestock shortages, Warner adds the indignities of a plague of caterpillars, nuns leaving the convent for lovers, and a bailiff being “taken in the act of carnality with a cow.”)

The nunneries, Power explains, were populated almost exclusively by women from upper-class families, as an alternative to marriage. When family wealth needed to be reserved for sons or for other daughters’ dowries, unlucky sisters might be sent to nunneries as a more dignified alternative to work in the fields or apprenticeship to a trade. Power writes with great sympathy of the nervous young girls who arrived at convents with no sense of religious vocation, who experienced adolescence “within the iron bars of its unadaptable routine”: “Ennui, more deadly even than sensual temptation, was the devil who tormented them.” No wonder, she writes, that nuns quarreled, or attempted to “enliven their existence” with the pet animals, clandestine silk dresses, and late-night gossiping that horrified Warner’s bishop. “These nuns were very human people,” she insists:

No special saintliness of disposition was theirs and no miracle intervened to render them immune from tantrums when they crossed the convent threshold … They sought to spice their monotonous life, as they spiced their monotonous dishes.

The originality of Medieval English Nunneries lay not only in its subject but in its radical approach to what is worth remembering. Confined to their cloisters, most nuns barely noticed the Hundred Years’ War, which happened far away; what mattered to them was the local brigands who stalked their estates, or the Black Death, which hovers maliciously over Warner’s novel: “It travelled faster than a horse, it swooped like a falcon, and those whom it seized on were so suddenly corrupted that the victims, still alive and howling in anguish, stank like the dead.” At the time Power was working, study of the medieval period had long been dominated by nationalists and constitutional experts, who wrote to explain and preserve prevailing systems of power, focusing on wars, dynasties, and kings, and on records that indicated deep-rooted national character. Power looked in vain for a living history that probed “the obscure lives”—a phrase also used by Woolf—“and activities of the great mass of humanity” and took into account the everyday matters that affected them: the introduction of the turnip to England in 1645—providing enough food to stoke the Industrial Revolution—rather than the beheading of Charles I four years later; the gradual evolution of a banking and credit system rather than the building of a single glorious cathedral; the daily misery of war rather than the theoretical significance of territorial gains.

Two years later, Power’s second (much shorter) book, Medieval People, became a surprise best seller, subsequently acclaimed as one of the first great works of social history. Here, Power’s lens shifted to ordinary people whose lives were “if less spectacular, certainly not less interesting” than those of the aristocrats, criminals, or otherwise exceptional figures—predominantly men—whose voices have survived in the records. The book is addressed explicitly to the “general reader,” and Power’s intimate style is novelistic, her focus not on manor houses but on “the kitchens of history.” Through nuanced speculation and vivid detail she fleshes out her subjects—to whom she refers as “our ancestors”—into sympathetic, complex characters, sensitive to their mundane yet defining concerns: the practical pressures of rent, diet, childcare arrangements, and travel expenses; the joy of songs or games. Several of her “people” were women. Power’s imagination was not captured by the idealized ladies of chivalric romances, or by the writings of the Church or the deportment handbooks produced by the aristocracy, which could afford to “regard its women as an ornamental asset.” Instead, she scoured records of daily life for traces of independent, working women, and found a “practical equality” prevailing among the villeins and cotters who administered their own holdings, the enterprising widows who traded as femes soles (women without husbands), and the poor women who worked in fields to support their families, then went to church on Sunday, where “preachers told them in one breath that woman was the gate of hell and that Mary was Queen of heaven.”

It was the stories of these women that Power wanted to uncover—the duties and preoccupations of their everyday lives, their relations with their husbands and children and the world around them—as she began to make her own way as an independent woman in a world run by men. Power’s interest, like Woolf’s, was motivated by a strong desire to change the common conception of history as “the biographies of great men” and to shatter the assumption that “to speak of ordinary people [was] beneath the dignity of history.” The book stands as her manifesto for what history can be: illuminating, personal, entertaining, and political. It’s a rousing call for “Anon” to be returned to her rightful place in the record. “We still praise famous men,” Power wrote,

for he would be a poor historian who could spare one of the great figures who have shed glory or romance upon the page of history; but we praise them with due recognition of the fact that not only great individuals, but people as a whole, unnamed and undistinguished masses of people, now sleeping in unknown graves, have also been concerned in the story.

At a time when fascist aggression was accelerating across the globe, Power was deeply aware of the political import of work that focused on restoring marginalized voices to history—and of the necessity of listening to them. After Medieval People, her thinking took a distinctly pacifist stance, shifting from social history dwelling on personalities toward comparative, international history. Having traveled widely in China and India, she insisted that the international histories should be taught in schools “so as to widen instead of to narrow sympathies,” instilling in students an essential sense of community beyond their own class or nation. “The only way,” she wrote, “to cure the evils which have arisen out of purely national history (and to a lesser extent out of purely class solidarity) is to promote a strong sense of the solidarity of mankind as such; and how can this be better begun than by the teaching of a common history, the heritage alike of all races and all classes?” She wrote textbooks; broadcast a series of lessons on the BBC; and ran campaigns for school syllabi to focus not on kings, wars, and political skirmishes, which present other countries only as enemy or ally, but on the many cooperative activities that have connected nations, such as trade, travel, art, agriculture, and religion. As the thirties progressed and a second world war looked increasingly likely, Power’s response to militarist patriarchy took the form of direct action, through valiant efforts to reshape the narratives that uphold those systems of exclusion and give rise to misguided, ignorant, violent politics. She envisioned a future in which women and the lower classes would be given voice, where East would be afforded the same respect as West, and where military threats would be replaced by international cooperation in the service of peace.

“We think back through our mothers if we are women,” wrote Woolf in A Room of Ones Own. Power died of a sudden heart attack in 1940, aged just fifty-one; Woolf records the death with sadness in her diary, in the midst of worries about an impending invasion and jottings on disagreements with her servants. The work of historians like Power presented Woolf, Townsend Warner, and so many others with a new, subversive model of history, which revealed the flimsy constructs on which patriarchal society rests. It gave women new mothers to think back through. By writing women back into the record, and changing the very notion of what history might look like, Power offered women not only a different past but the possibility of a different future.


Francesca Wade is the editor of The White Review. Her book Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars is published by Faber in the UK and in the U.S. by Tim Duggan Books in April.