Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Nuns in choir stalls
  • Creator: Master of St. Jerome (attributed)
  • Description:

    This image is one of two illuminations in the Psalter of Henry VI which depict nuns sitting in their choir stalls. Ten nuns are portrayed, each with a white coif and wimple and a black veil. Their robes and mantles vary in color, but consistently each nun wears gray. Each nun also wears a cord with knots at her waist, most visible in the three sisters on the viewer’s far left, two in the front row and one in the back. Also visible are sandals on the feet of the three nuns in the front row and the nun in the back row on the viewer’s left. These three distinctive items of wear—the gray habit, the cord with knots, and the sandals—identify the women as mendicant Poor Clares.

    The nuns are in the choir, and both the choir stalls and the nuns are angled slightly to the viewer’s right. Each nun carries a book, either with a blue or a red cover. Presumably they are reciting the divine office, which required the sisters’ presence in the choir several times a day for several hours total.

    The choir stalls, usually made of wood and (by this time) usually connected to each other, were designed so each nun had her own place to sit and stand during the recitation of that day’s religious services. These stalls are in a tan color, representing a light-colored wood. They have high backs, with an overhang in the back row. Each seat is separated from the one next to it—particularly the front row, in which slats of wood separating the stalls are quite high. These stalls also have acanthus leaves carved into the wood as decorations. The artist drew elaborate and beautiful stalls, which were common at the time the Psalter was made—but somewhat out of sync with Poor Clares, who rejected unnecessary ornamentation.

    This image comes at the end of the Latin text for Psalm 37, which appears above the image. The psalm recounts divine displeasure with sin and the sufferings of the psalmist (David) who pleads for salvation. The first letter of each verse and any remaining blank space after the end of a verse are decorated with the same bright red and blue which appear on the nuns’ books. A simple border surrounds text and image; the border is open at the top, above the text, and closed at the bottom with two decorative knots in each corner. Surrounding the image and text is an elaborate network of vines with leaves.

    This miniature is found in the Psalter of Henry VI, who became king of England and (disputed) king of France before his first birthday. Most scholars believe the psalter was not originally designed for him, as he was born in 1421 and the psalter clearly predates him. Many date the psalter to the early 1400s, citing internal evidence like an image of the English royal coat of arms which dates to 1406 and no later. Scholars theorize that the psalter was originally designed for the Dauphin, Louis of Guyenne, who died in 1415 just weeks after the French loss at Agincourt. When his younger sister Catherine was married to the English king Henry V, she may have taken her brother’s psalter with her and passed it to her son when he ascended the throne(s) in 1422.

    The psalter later belonged to Sir Robert Cotton, the Elizabeth antiquary, and was one of the first manuscripts in the new British Museum in 1753. How he came to possess the psalter is unknown. Cotton believed that the psalter was made for Richard II, who died the year after his reign ended in 1399. Scholars question whether the repeated images of a boy king would make sense for the older ruler.

    The manuscript itself is not uniform stylistically and can be considered in several parts, though the sections of the psalms still follow the liturgical divisions of other psalters. Similarly, the images are not uniform. Backhouse identifies the images in the earliest cycle as devotional in subject while the second cycle is representational. The first cycle of images depicts with regularity a boy king, sometimes with biblical figures (e.g. meeting the Christ child)—hence the name of the Psalter. Although there is strong disagreement over who is (are) the illuminator(s), possibilities include the Master of Berry’s Clères Femmes and the Master of the Coronation of the Virgin who both worked in Paris in the early 1400s.

    The second set of illustrations, which includes this image of Poor Clares in choir, was likely added later. Unlike the first set, these images and the surrounding text are often mismatched, and sometimes the pages have odd spacing or are entirely blank. This second set of images do make a coherent group, as they all depict various religious communities participating in devotional activity which is fitting for a psalter. Scenes include a bishop in the choir, hermits in their cells and two images of nuns in choir (the Poor Clares here and the Dominicans on fol. 177v). In addition, these images also have prominent architectural elements, as seen in the Poor Clares’ choir stalls. For these, a possible artist is the Master of Saint Jerome as identified by Meiss. The artist's frontispiece of this saint in a Bible moralisée is often associated both with the Limbourg brothers’ work and an artist connected to the Bedford workshop, whose images contain similar architectural settings. The Master of Saint Jerome worked in Paris in the 1420s. Reynolds follows Pächt and Alexander in attributing the artwork not to the Master of Saint Jerome but to the Master of the Royal Alexander who was active in Paris 1425 to 1430.

    The Poor Clares were a mendicant order founded in 1212 by Clare of Assisi, who followed the teaching of Francis of Assisi. The Poor Clares are Franciscan and were part of the wave of mendicant orders started in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Though they took the customary monastic vows, Clare particularly desired her nuns to embody the idea of absolute poverty which included a renunciation of property. This was not in accord with the goals of Pope Gregory IX, who insisted on financial endowments, strict enclosure and monastic silence. Most of the houses affiliated with Clare's San Damiano monastery eventually accepted a new constitution from Pope Urban IV in 1263. They maintained earlier practices avoiding elaborate meals and eating no meat, even on holidays. They sought simplicity in all things, including their footwear. They used the same name as the Franciscans—the humble title of the "Friars Minor," and thus were known as the minoresses in England.

    The main task of the enclosed religious communities was religious worship. They spent most of the day singing the divine office as dictated by the rule of their orders. Some held Mass daily, even twice daily. The yearly cycle of holidays also structured liturgy. While Mass had to be celebrated by a male priest, nuns could participate fully in the divine office. Choir stalls were built to aid the religious in their task, and they varied widely in style from the older, simpler seats to the carved and elaborate choir stalls in later monastic churches. Some seats folded down for the individual to sit during portions of the liturgy, but then folded up while the individual stood. Many stalls had ledges built in as a support while standing during services. These ledges, called misericords (literally mercy seats) were often decorated with carved scenes from folklore, daily life, or the animal world.

    While every monastic community recited the divine office, a few did not participate in singing. The Poor Clares and the Gilbertines (an English order first started for women) in particular were noted for not singing, although there is much debate over what constitutes "singing." Is it avoidance of all music or just of ornate or secular melodies? Do these sisters only read aloud or do they read and chant, using simple psalm-tones and possibly avoiding antiphons? Scholars agree that the Poor Clares did not participate in the more elaborate, diverse musical traditions of the other religious communities during this time period. This position aligned with their views on simplicity and austerity. That said, the injunction against singing did not apply in all Franciscan female houses. The monastery at Aldgate was known for its singing and the nuns sang elaborate pieces.

    One aid in religious devotions was the psalter. Since they contained the one hundred and fifty psalms of the Old Testament, psalters were smaller and portable, and were divided into seven groups, one for each day (thus allowing the entire book to be read or sung within a week). Medieval psalters, besides the psalms, also contained canticles, the Athanasian creed, litanies and sometimes other offices. The Henry VI Psalter also contains lunar tables.

    Both monastics and the laity used psalters. For the former, psalters served a double purpose: they provided Scriptures for personal devotions as well as for communal liturgical celebrations. Psalters also served as a means of learning Latin. Those entering the monastery memorized the psalms as part of learning the divine office, and this improved their learning of Latin. Wealthier laity could also afford their own psalters. Although the book of hours became more popular than psalters in the thirteenth century, psalters were produced continually throughout the medieval period and were never fully replaced as devotional and liturgical companions.

  • Source: Web Gallery of Art
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Choir in Architecture Choir Stalls Churches Clare of Assisi, Saint Liturgy Monasticism Nuns Poor Clares Order Psalters Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1405- 1430
  • Related Work: Digitized manuscript, British Museum, Cotton MS Domitian A XVII
    Young prince with Saint Louis presented to the Virgin and Child, British Museum, Cotton MS Domitian A XVII, fol. 50
    Dominican nuns in choir stall, British Museum, Cotton MS Domitian A XVII, fol 177v.
    Singing nuns, 1483, German, Leipzig, Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, Ms 1548, fol. 39v. Feminae image record
  • Current Location: London, British Museum, Cotton MS Domitian A XVII, fol. 74v
  • Original Location: Paris
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Ink; Paint; Gold leaf
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 44.5/32.7/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Backhouse, Janet. "The Psalter of Henry VI (London, BL, MS Cotton Dom. A. XVII)." The Illuminated Psalter: Studies in the Content, Purpose and Placement of its Images Edited by F. O. Büttner. Brepols, 2004. Pages. 329-36.

    Boynton, Susan. "Monastic Liturgy, 1100-1500: Continuity and Performance." The Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West. Edited by Alison I. Beach and Isabelle Cochelin. Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pages 958-974.

    Bugyis, Katie Ann-Marie. "Female Monastic Cantors and Sacristans in Central Medieval England: Four Sketches." Medieval Cantors and Their Craft: Music, Liturgy and the Shaping of History, 800-1500. Edited by Katie Ann-Marie Bugyis, A. B. Kraebel and Margot Fassler. Boydell & Brewer, 2017. Pages 151-170.

    Josselyn-Cranson, Heather. "Moderate Psallendo: Musical Participation in Worship among Gilbertine Nuns." Plainsong and Medieval Music 16, 2 (2007): 173-186.

    Natvig, Mary. "Rich Clares, Poor Clares: Celebrating the Divine Office." Women and Music 4 ( 2000): 59 – 70.

    Piron, Willy, and Anja Seliger, eds. Choir Stalls and Their Workshops: Proceedings of the Misericordia International Colloquium 2016. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.

    Reynolds, Catherine. "English Patrons and French Artists in Fifteenth-Century Normandy." England and Normandy in the Middle Ages. Edited by David Bates and Anne Curry. Hambledon Press, 1994. Pages 299-313.

    Seliger, Anja. "General Remarks on Choir Stalls in a Chancel with Ambulatory." Choir Stalls in Architecture and Architecture in Choir Stalls. Edited by Fernando Villaseñor Sebastián, María Dolores Teijeira Pablos, Welleda Muller, and Frédéric Billiet. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. Pages 65-71.

    Yardley, Anne Bagnall. Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval English Nunneries. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.