CFP: New Directions in the Study of Women Religious: Four Sessions and a Roundtable (Leeds 2015)

Call For Papers
New directions in the study of women religious: four sessions and a roundtable
International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 6-9 July 2015
Deadline: 15 September 2014


These sessions are designed to bring together scholars working on nuns from any geographical region and religious tradition from 300 – 1500, in order to examine the methodologies and concepts that are being used currently by scholars to interpret evidence produced by and on nuns. They are intended to reflect new research in nuns’ studies; therefore, the themes outlined below are flexible, and are there to spark inspiration rather than to be treated as prescriptive. The organisers are central- to late- medievalists and are aware that issues relating to late-antique and early-medieval nuns might be very different to the ones that we have laid out below. If that is the case, do not be deterred; get in touch with your ideas and we will try to adapt accordingly. In addition to the four sessions, we are organising a roundtable on the central issues involved in the study of women religious. What are the main obstacles (intellectual and otherwise) to fruitful research on women religious? Where do we go next? If you would like to be included as a panellist, please get in touch with a brief description (one or two lines) of what you would like to talk about. Please send paper proposals (of approx. 250 words, with proposed titles) and roundtable topics to either Kirsty Day (University of Leeds), or Dr Kimm Curran (University of Glasgow; HWRBI)  elcho95@gmail.comas soon as possible, but by 15th  September at the very, very latest.

Sponsored by: The History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI)

SESSION 1: Old nuns, new narratives [SESSION FULL]

SESSION 2: ‘Nuntastic studies’? Issues of terminology; medieval and modern
How far were nuns aware of what they were called, and how far did their designations shape how they thought about and enacted their vocation? What did it mean to be a Franciscan or a Cistercian nun, or a nun who followed the precepts laid out by Pachomius or Benedict? Discussions of what religio and ordo meant in their medieval contexts have taken place predominantly in the context of studies of male religious, using evidence on and by male religious only. Why has —  abundant — evidence produced by and on nuns been excluded from these discussions? Has a preoccupation with the religious orders overshadowed consideration of terminology before the establishment of the religious orders? Where, if at all, does terminology come into studies of female religious who existed before the turn of the twelfth century? Moreover, despite efforts made by those working on both male and female religious for inclusivity, ‘monastic studies’  is still not a field with which female religious are comfortably associated. Jacques Dalarun published an essay in 2011 which discussed the concept of ‘le monachisme féminin’. Terms such as this or ‘women’s monasticism’ employ a gendered qualifier that isn’t applied to their male counterparts — ‘men’s monasticism’ simply doesn’t exist  as a concept (should it exist?). This uneven application serves to naturalise monasticism as a male domain, making the presence of women’s evidence in this field seem unnatural. Is there a reason, then, why we keep using these terms (or terms such as, for instance, women’s Franciscanism)? What might work as an alternative? How far does modern terminological usage (gendered and/or otherwise) affect our understanding, categorisation, and analysis of evidence relating to female religious?

SESSION 3. Individual agency, change, and reform
In scholarly narratives involving female religious, agency for various types of change —  reform included —  is often attributed to a power external to the female religious under examination. How far did individual nuns,or individual communities, influence the changes to the rules and precepts that governed their vocations? The agency of women religious can also be traced in the rules or forms of life that women wrote for their own communities. Do rules that were written by women for women’s communities differ from those written by male guardians of women’s communities? The fact that rules or forms of life were often ultimately approved or issued by male ecclesiastics tends to obscure women’s agency in the creation of such texts. Scholarship on nuns has often been blind to where women may have written entire rules or forms of life that were then merely approved by a male ecclesiastical power, or where male religious wrote rules in response to the insistence of women religious. What methodologies can be employed to trace nuns’ agency in texts where they may appear to have had none? As the theme of this year’s IMC demonstrates, much intellectual discourse in the field of medieval religion has been formed around the issue of reform. However, evidence relating to nuns features either very little or not at all in many of the most recent surveys of monastic reform. Why has this been the case, and how can we reconcile this? What can the evidence left by women religious bring to discussions of reform in the Middle Ages? The extent to which reform is an appropriate metanarrative in medieval religiosity has been brought into question by a number of scholars. How far can we trace reform in evidence produced by and on nuns?

SESSION 4. Combining methodologies, illuminating nuns
Scholarly narratives of women religious have been created in a range of disciplinary fields, and using numberof different source types. As such, these narratives have often challenged —  albeit not always consciously — many of the problems inherent in the histories of medieval religion that are based purely on normative sources. For instance, scholarly narratives punctuated by ‘inspiration,’ ‘institutionalisation’,and ‘decline’ have found an alternative in recent studies of the history of nuns’ literacies. How might we employ a combination of approaches to ostensibly divergent source types to illuminate our understanding of medieval nuns: their place in the world of medieval religiosity and their understanding of this world; their lived experiences; their agency in shaping their vocations? Methodologies that we might use to read monastic architecture have been applied by some scholars to monastic rules, and vice versa, as a useful way of understanding the dynamics of enclosure. However, as Roberta Gilchrist has argued, histories of monastic archaeology have not escaped the androcentric biases present in text-based histories of religious communities. Is there a way of combining methodologies that have been generated in different fields as a fruitful way of understanding medieval nuns, without absorbing the problematic elements associated with these fields into new narratives of women religious?

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