Authorship and Authority:

Barking Abbey and Its Texts

Martin E. Segal Theater

CUNY Graduate Center, September 11, 2009

“A Death in the Convent: Visionary Communities in Barking, Ely and Whitby”

Diane Watt, Aberystwyth University

Long before what Jacques Le Goff, in The Birth of Purgatory, terms the ‘spacialization’ of Purgatory in the second half of the twelfth century, women’s visions were often overwhelmingly concerned with testifying to the redemption or salvation of others. Memorialization and intercession for the dead were key responsibilities of medieval women, especially nuns. Women visionaries forged a connection between the living and the dead. To take this further, devout women might be seen to live for the dead, to adapt Patrick J. Geary’s memorable phrase. Moreover, throughout the Middle Ages, we can detect a continuity in women’s visions in the attention they pay to what Mary C. Erler has called, in a recent essay, ‘a bond extending beyond the grave’, or more specifically ‘women’s friendship after death’, in other words, to the connections established between living female visionaries and the deceased subjects of their visions. Visions of the dying, of the afterlife, and concerning the bodies and tombs of the dead, while not unique to hagiographies of saintly women, figure prominently in Bede’s narratives of the abbesses and convents of Barking, Ely and Whitby recorded in the fourth book of the Ecclesiastical History. These accounts of visions of the dead and the dying provide us with evidence of forms of spiritual dialogue that by their very existence challenge any definition of religious authority as exclusively masculine and clerical.

Last modified: May 6, 2009
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