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Response to Review no. 518

I would like to thank Dr Jamroziak for her careful and kindly review of my book. I agree that it would have been better to indicate the time frame of the work in the title and did indeed suggest such an inclusion in my original proposal for publication. Like many other people, I find it difficult to read any of my own work that has been published recently; but thanks to encouraging responses from some external commentators, it is possible for me now to look again at Leadership in Medieval Nunneries and with some degree of objectivity. Perhaps it is worth noting here that I have found in the community of medieval scholars a remarkable degree of collegiality, both in Australia and abroad. There has been a willingness to share information, advise about resources and engage in discussion, both in person and electronically, which has been enormously helpful. Given the challenging nature of the raw material, researchers in the field of monastic history can use all the help they can get.

‘Leadership’ is a concept which is easy to understand but difficult to define precisely. The abbess or prioress was certainly required to be a leader in a modern sense (though the word itself may not have been in common use during the medieval period). On re-examining the material which describes the multi-faceted responsibilities and the varied tasks performed by nunnery heads in a repressive environment I wonder that these women managed to function as they did. And some remained as superiors for more than two decades.

Questions which could not be followed up exhaustively in the book suggested themselves as I wrote. One concerns social connections and also the degree to which social status determined the outcome of petitions to the papal court. Elizabeth Brooke, who was pardoned by the pope for her moral lapses and allowed to serve in Romsey Abbey from 1472 to about 1502 with only a short period of ‘time out’, was apparently advantaged by her patrician status. I have tried to pursue her genealogy by various means, but results so far have been inconclusive. Probably that particular trail will need to be followed up in the UK. Another possible line of enquiry might analyse the attitudes to, and manifestations of, leadership in two comparable groups of male and female monastic communities of roughly equal populations and economic levels. Of course, it is always difficult to achieve a ‘like with like’ comparison, since each house has a unique set of attributes; however I believe it would prove a worthwhile exercise.

A feature of female monastic life which has received relatively little attention so far is the theology discernible in different forms of conventual liturgy. There seem to me to have been changes as the medieval period wore on. It is, for example, worth comparing the theological teachings embedded in the Benedictine Rule with the evidence of those implied in the fifteenth century Chester ‘Processional’. Documents surviving from Barking Abbey might offer useful comparative material for such a study also. Fortunately for medievalists, some projects which would once have extremely daunting due to inaccessibility of resources are now becoming more readily approachable with the aid of the World Wide Web.