Female Authorship and Authority in Late Medieval and Early Modern Vernacular Sermons from the Low Countries (FWO; 01/10/2010-30/09/2013)

The project aims to investigate female authorship and authority within the complete genre of Dutch ‘father confessor sermons’ of the 15th and 16th centuries. This typically clerical (and therefore male) genre has almost exclusively been handed down by sister scribes. Recent research has shown that these women made substantial creative contributions to the written sermons. Therefore they are exceptionally important for a better understanding of female authorship and female religious authority, often linked to it.
The main research questions are: what is the contribution of the sisters to the textualization of sermons? To what extent were they able to leave their own mark on these texts and derive religious authority from their writings? Is there any divergence between convents and is there continuity or change in the course of time as a result of religious and other evolutions?
The analytic tools employed include textual analysis with special attention for the gender aspects characterizing the interaction between male preachers and female sermon writers. This analysis will be sustained by codicological, palaeographical and socio-literary approaches. Thus, this study will improve understanding of the way women came to the fore and gained authority in the male dominated medieval monastic world.

Project outline

In spite of the postmodern deconstruction of the notion of the author (Foucault 1977; Barthes 1984), a concept of authorship that amounts to an individual (usually male) author with an explicit name and/or identity has only too frequently, and often unconsciously, been used. This traditional concept is even adopted by the study of historical literature, although the very findings of this discipline complicate its traditional understanding: scholars are continuously confronted with anonymous texts, origins that lie in oral contexts, and a gradual genesis of written texts that involves several participants as well as mouvance of texts throughout the written tradition (a/o Zumthor 1972; Minnis 1984; Miller 1987; Bein 1999).
My doctoral dissertation on the father confessor sermons (i.e. sermons held by father confessors in convents and written down by their female inhabitants) from the Brussels convent of Jericho likewise indicated that their author is often quite difficult to identify (Stoop 2009). Sermons and sermon collections were the result of a collective, layered authorship, which involved a dynamic merge of several ‘author roles’: women wrote down the spoken sermons of their father confessor (auctor intellectualis) from a first-person perspective and put themselves, so to speak, in his position (redactrice). A second, anonymous sister made editorial adaptations (titles, cross-references) and sometimes even adjustments to the content (bewerkster). Finally, this sister (or a third) copied the sermons in the manuscript (kopiiste). Thus the sermons as well as the collections were the result of an intense collaboration, which is not coincidental in a context that favoured community life and collective identity over the individual, and women had a large share in the production of the preserved material. With this conclusion my thesis provided an important contribution to the question whether medieval vernacular convent sermons were written by preachers themselves or by their (female) listeners (Völker 1963; Ruh 1984; Schiewer 1993).
In the merging of the various author roles gender plays an important part. Although women had no access to official religious authority and preaching was reserved for men, the apparently clerical genre of the written father confessor sermon has almost exclusively been handed down by female scribes. Although the contribution of the redactrices to the genesis of the sermons diverged, in Jericho most of the women could leave a personal mark on the written sermons. Their creative contribution was mainly fed by memoria, which served as ‘a construction machine for invention’ during the writing process (Carruthers 1998): the sisters integrated these (spoken) texts in their memories in such a way that the sermons they (re)produced can be said to be (partially) their own work.
Starting from this new take on the contribution of the sisters of Jericho to the genesis of the sermons and collections, the project aims to investigate female authorship and female authority in the complete corpus of Dutch father confessor sermons of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Women in that time had much less freedom of action and possibilities to express themselves than in the preceding period. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries several mulieres religiosae led spiritual lives outside convent walls and they regularly acted as spiritual leaders and advisors, even of the clergy. From the thirteenth century onwards, men tried to gain control over (religious) women’s reading and writing. One of these restrictive measures was the ‘writing prohibition of 1455’, which had been issued by the chapter of Windesheim, probably as a result of the excessive freedom Alijt Bake, prioress of the Agnes convent in Ghent, had allowed herself in writing down her own ideas on inner devotion (Scheepsma 2009). This interdict meant that women were no longer allowed to write about their religious experiences.
The project intends to examine what possibilities women had within these restrictions to leave their own mark on written texts. What was their part in committing sermons to paper? Did they have any opportunity to assimilate their own view on spirituality (as did thirteenth-century women by means of vernacular mysticism) and what strategies did they use to do so? Additionally, since these sisters often noted down sermons not just to support and design their own lives, but also the spiritual welfare of their fellow sisters, the project aims to study whether and to what extent women derived religious authority from their writing. In Jericho for instance, sermon writing sisters according to their immediate vicinity, seem to have had considerable religious authority. It is significant that these sisters were elected prioresses afterwards.
Dutch father confessor sermons have been preserved from several women’s convents and from two periods: in the second half of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries (until 1520) these sermons were written in the context of the Modern Devotion (e.g. Diepenveen, Meester-Geertshuis, Buyskenshuis, Jericho). Ten different collections have been passed down to us. In the second half of the sixteenth century – thus during and shortly after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) – there was a remarkable revival of the genre. In several convents from diverse denominations (including Jericho) women wrote down sermons of their priests. At this moment we know of sixteen handwritten collections, all preserved from the Southern Netherlands (Stooker & Verbeij 1997). All manuscripts are well accessible for research in libraries in Holland, Belgium and Austria.
The complete genre of the father confessor sermons can be examined in three years, owing to a few recent preliminary studies. The profound research for my dissertation on six fifteenth-century collections from Jericho and recent explorations of this period’s four other collections (Mertens 1996a & 1996b) offer a firm basis for the intrinsic study of women’s contribution to the textualization of sermons. The sixteenth-century collections have never been explored before. As it seems probable that the Counterreformation may have had a profound influence on the position of nuns and on the notion of authority, they are fascinating documents. Thus the fact that the corpus covers two time spans opens up great possibilities to explore whether there is continuity in the way women wrote down sermons or a renewal in approach and content. Additionally, as this late material originates from different cloisters and religious orders, it offers opportunities to examine whether and to what extent the situation differs from convent to convent and from order to order.
The corpus will be approached from several perspectives. The first angle is text-immanent: the corpus will be examined for the strategies of textualization that the women used in order to preserve the legacy of their preachers and for the opportunities they had to contribute their own part. Evidently, our attention will be set to the gender aspects that go with the interaction between the male auctores intellectuales as deliverers of the spoken sermons and the writing sisters (a/o Gill 1994; Kienzle & Walker 1998; De Hemptinne & Góngora 2004; Poor 2004; Mulder-Bakker & McAvoy 2009; Fraeters & De Gier [2010-]).
A codicological and palaeographical approach will sustain the textual analysis. Recently this approach has brought forth new visions on the production of texts and manuscripts in the Middle Ages (a/o Kwakkel 2002) and the study of material aspects of manuscripts that was applied in my PhD-research has also provided an important new point of view on the involvement of various parties and the stratification of the sermons and collections. Additionally, this approach can contribute to the questions concerning autographs, which generate much attention lately (a/o Houthuys 2009).
Furthermore, there will be a socio-literary approach to the corpus: accurate examination of the genesis of sermons will increase our knowledge on how medieval monasticism functioned and what part women played in it. Needless to say, my research results will be confronted with existing recent literature on female authorship and authority and, finally, they will be connected to (recent) publications on prescriptive, historical and archival sources of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Research impact
In the recently published volumes of the new Dutch Literary history and in international contemporary research women’s literature is very present. But in spite of the increased attention for female authorship in Middle Dutch literature, the field is for the greater part unexplored. The proposed research will add greatly to a better understanding of the contribution of women to written religious texts from this period. In so doing it will certainly increase the visibility of women in the literary history and additionally, it will contribute to a better understanding of the way women came to the fore and gained authority in the male dominated medieval monastic world.
Furthermore, the project contributes to the international discussion on authorship and intellectual property, both concerning historical texts as with regard to present forms of textuality. Sermon collections show that notions such as author, copyist, writer, compiler are more complex than they are usually perceived to be. In these texts and text collections that originate from religious communities, these roles are often strongly interwoven. The collective, layered authorship in sermon collections evokes the question how the (medieval) author must be defined. The proposed project will certainly contribute a better understanding of this concept.
Finally, the project contributes to research on the Middle Dutch sermon, which is one of the important genres in religious literature. Sermons were outstanding means for propagating religious, moral and cultural norms. Therefore studying them is not only valuable for history of the church and of literature, but also for cultural history in general. Since 1999 the genre has received a lot of attention internationally, and on international conferences, it was generally acknowledged that Middle Dutch sermon literature is qualitatively and quantitatively extremely rich in European perspective. This applies in particular to the father confessor sermons. Research on these sermons can be exemplary for research on vernacular sermons in the other European literatures. It may be expected that the project will greatly contribute to a better international acknowledgement of the relevance of the Flemish and Dutch literary heritage and its roots in medieval culture.