Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Abbess teaching nuns
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This historiated letter "A" begins the entry for "Abbatissa" (Abbess) in the medieval encyclopedia Omne Bonum. The letter is written in red and framed in gold. It has decorated edges; with lines and circles on the left and thin white crosslets forming "X"’s on the right side of the letter. On the inside of the letter is an illustration relevant to the entry. On the left, the abbess, dressed in her black and white habit, holds a crozier in the left hand signifying her office. She extends her right hand, instructing a nun who responds with outstretched hands while other nuns watch.

    The Omne Bonum (All Good Things) is a medieval illustrated encyclopedia that exists only in a single copy. The author in the preface states his purpose: "… all good materials heretofore scattered widely both in canon law and in various other books or authoritative volumes…in the compilation of this [work] can be found as it were without difficulty or tedium all those things that lead to the well-being of every man." The manuscript contains more than 1350 entries under the twenty-three letters of the Latin alphabet, with each letter being one book. The volume runs 1094 pages over two volumes, now divided into four parts. The text has 750 historiated initials and over 800 illustrations total. It seems that the original intent was to have an illustration for each entry, but this idea was quickly abandoned. Images accompany only half of the entries, mostly those beginning with letters A through E. The work is unfinished; while the first half of the alphabet has many entries, letters N through Z have only one entry per letter. Some entries draw on only one source for information; others draw on multiple sources.

    The encyclopedia was written in southeast England between 1360 and 1375. Two artists worked during that period to complete many of the illustrations. Around 1380, certain illustrations—including twenty-three historiated initials—were added by two other artists to the text, in the blank spaces specifically left for them. Directions in Latin were left for one of those artists, though they were not always closely followed.

    The work was written by a "Jacobus," who explained in the preface he had reasons to exclude his surname. Lucy Freeman Sandler has established that Omne Bonum’s compiler and scribe is James le Palmer, a clerk and senior officer for the Exchequer during the reign of Edward III. A Gospel Commentary written in the same hand includes a colophon in which the scribe and book owner identifies himself as James le Palmer. He died between March and May 1375. This corresponds to internal evidence of the Omne Bonum, which implies an end date around that time.

    The abbess (in charge of an abbey of nuns) or the prioress (in charge of a priory of nuns) served as "mother" and "teacher" in a community of religious sisters, balancing correction and mercy in her pastoral care. She was to treat all those under her care as Christ would and to help to redeem the lost. Nominated and elected by the nuns of the monastery, the abbess was to guide the community towards an agreed-upon goal. The nuns had to obey the abbess in all things, even if her judgment was faulty; in return, she saw that the sick received care, provided hospitality for travelers, administered the abbey, and generally cared for the sisters’ spiritual needs.

    The abbess (or the prioress), while an authority figure herself, was under the jurisdiction of male ecclesiastical figures including abbots and bishops. They visited the abbey once a year to check for problems. Abbesses maintained order with varying degrees of success: some were unable to control their communities; others had charges of tyranny and abuse levelled against them.

    Usually, those entering the abbey had voluntarily chosen their vows, including the vow of poverty—material deprivation (giving up property rights and possessions). Daily tasks (administrative, financial, and community services) were done in silence. Thus, for a time, the religious orders viewed penance as something done by just the laity; their choice of the monastic life was already penance. They simply confessed their sins privately to the abbess or communally to the group meeting in chapter and performed the needed satisfaction.

    Ecclesiastical and conciliar legislation and monastic reform later clericalized penance, requiring confession to a (male) priest. This change made the process of confession and absolution more difficult for cloistered nuns. While early religious women often did control the practice of penance in their religious communities, some of those roles may have disappeared in the wake of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth century reforms. Others argue for continuity—that religious women (including nuns) could continue to hear the confessions of their fellow sisters. The ultimate purpose of confession was humility. If an individual had evil thoughts or did evil deeds and confessed them rather than hid them, this developed the individual’s humility, and humility was needed for full forgiveness of sins.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Abbesses Encyclopedia, Literary Genre James le Palmer, Author Literature- Prose Monasticism Nuns Pastoral Care- Nuns Teaching Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 14
  • Date: ca. 1360-1375
  • Related Work: Adulterium (Adultery), Omne Bonum, Royal 6 E VI, fol. 61r.
    Lac (Milk), Omne Bonum, Royal 6 E VI, fol. 404.
  • Current Location: London, British library, Royal 6 E VI fol. 27r
  • Original Location: London
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Ink; Paints; Gold leaf
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  • Related Resources:

    Bugyis, Katie Ann-Marie. The Care of Nuns: The Ministries of Benedictine Women in England during the Central Middle Ages. Oxford University Press, 2019. See especially pp. 200-212 and 222-224.

    Lehfeldt, Elizabeth A. "Authority and Agency: Women as Heads of Religious Houses." Medieval Women Religious, c.800-c.1500: New Perspectives. Edited by Kimm Curran and Janet Burton. Boydell & Brewer, 2023. Pages 105-120.

    Sandler, Lucy Freeman. "Notes for the Illuminator: The Case of the 'Omne bonum.'" Studies in Manuscript Illumination, 1200 – 1400. Pindar Press, 2008. Pages 315-349.

    Sandler, Lucy Freeman. Omne Bonum: A Fourteenth-Century Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge, 2 vols. Harvey Miller, 1996.

    Sandler, Lucy Freeman. "The Role of Illustrations in James le Palmer's 'Omne bonum.'" Studies in Manuscript Illumination, 1200 – 1400. Pindar Press, 2008. Pages 457-483.

    Spear, Valerie. Leadership in Medieval English Nunneries. Boydell Press, 2005.

    Van Engen, John. "Abbess: 'Mother and Teacher.'" Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Edited by Barbara Newman. University of California Press, 1998. Pages 30-51.