Authorship and Authority:

Barking Abbey and Its Texts

Martin E. Segal Theater

CUNY Graduate Center, September 11, 2009


“Literary Production and Nunneries in East Anglia: the Legendary of CUL Add. MS 2604 as Context”

Virginia Blanton, University of Missouri, Kansas City

Of late, scholars interested in East Anglia have focused their attention on devotional practices, and these contributions have enriched our understanding of book production, manuscript circulation, and issues of literacy. Especially useful is our increased understanding of women, both religious and lay, as readers of hagiographical texts. The current collaborative project, which is undertaken by Dr. Veronica O'Mara (University of Hull) and Dr. Virginia Blanton (University of Missouri-Kansas City, aims to provide a critical edition of Cambridge University Library Additional MS. 2604 and promises to enhance current discussions of devotional reading by making readily available a manuscript containing twenty-two (mainly female) saints' lives in Middle English, a manuscript that hitherto has not received serious scholarly attention. Dating from the later fifteenth century, CUL Add. MS 2604, which has definitely been copied from another manuscript or manuscripts and is missing many pages (sometimes whole quires), is made up of various layers, all with the same purpose: to impress upon the readership the value of maintaining virginity at the risk of persecution or death and, more importantly, the rewards of such virginity in this life or the next. There is a biblical layer, a universal layer beginning with the Roman virgin martyrs, and a national or local layer featuring eleven English women saints primarily associated with East Anglia. In the first six lives the principal is a confessor or virgin who triumphs for Christianity; in the rest of the lives the main character is a nun, often an abbess, who likewise emerges victorious, as testified by the numerous miracles performed during her life or after her death. The selection of saints included suggests that the manuscript was intended for devotional use in a Benedictine or Austin house for women.

Following a brief examination of the contents and physical composition of the manuscript, one of the main aspects of the paper will be a discussion of the Latin sources, which present a complicated tangle of manuscript and print in the late medieval period, and the Middle English translations themselves. Allied to these complications is the issue of the East Anglian convent for which the lives were intended. Almost certainly, it was not Barking Abbey. By focusing on issues of content, decoration, and post-medieval provenance, however, we hope to unravel the complicated history of MS Additional 2604 and provide some context for the reading of legendaries in East Anglia as a counterpoint to the production and reception of texts by nuns at Barking Abbey.

Last modified: May 6, 2009
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