The Power of Gifts in Early Modern Convents

By Claire Walker, The University of Adelaide

In my daughter’s bedroom there is a picture of Marlin, Nemo and Dory painted by a family friend for my son’s second or third birthday, and a carnival mask I purchased during a conference in Venice a few years ago as a gift for my daughter. Both items stir memories of the past, other places, old friends and moments of gifting. They also inspire emotions, eliding space and time between the gift exchange and the present, recalling the joy of receiving the gifts and the bonds they generated between artist/giver, recipient and family more broadly.

A view of the Béguinage, through trees; a nun walks to left in centre; a spire is visible behind. Illustration to 'Western Flanders' by Laurence Binyon and William Strang, published by the Unicorn Press in 1899. 1898 Etching and drypoint © The Trustees of the British Museum
A view of the Béguinage, through trees; a nun walks to left in centre; a spire is visible behind. Illustration to ‘Western Flanders’ by Laurence Binyon and William Strang, published by the Unicorn Press in 1899. 1898 Etching and drypoint © The Trustees of the British Museum

Reading the recently published chronicles of the exiled English Augustinian convent of Nazareth in Bruges,[i] I was struck by gifting rituals during important anniversaries in the cloister. Nazareth was founded in Bruges in 1629 as a filiation from St Monica’s in Louvain, which had been established in 1609 by the English nuns in the town’s Flemish Augustinian house. In 1729, Nazareth celebrated its centenary jubilee with special liturgies, meals, fireworks, plays and gift exchanges. The convent chronicler evidently deemed gift-giving significant because she devoted many pages to describing these objects, their donors and recipients, and even the rituals surrounding the moment of bestowal and receipt. Why was this so important? What emotional work did gifts perform in early modern monastic culture at Nazareth?

The prioress, Lady Lucy (in religion, Mother Teresa Joseph) Herbert, who also happened to be the chronicler, was central to the gifting process. During preparations for the jubilee, Herbert gave each nun ‘a little book of Meditations’, a pound of coffee and an item of clothing. In return, she asked them to provide something not for her but for the ‘conveniency or adornment of the house’. Various sisters presented devotional pictures and ornaments, made liturgical cloths and supplied furnishings for convent spaces in need of renovation. On 14 September, the anniversary of the foundation, Herbert arranged a dramatic performance in the garden. Ten sisters, dressed as angels to represent Nazareth’s founding nuns, presented biographies of them and sang hymns before giving each member of the convent a crown and a marzipan heart. These items were in fact further gifts from Herbert – ‘the heart as an emblem of her affection to each of us, and the crown as a symbole of those we hope for in heaven’.[ii]

People outside the convent also celebrated. Tradesmen who maintained the convent buildings and grounds, and worked on the prioress’s many construction projects, decorated the steeple with boughs and a silk flag, and saluted the occasion by (somewhat controversially and disruptively) firing canons at regular intervals. Neighbouring residents adorned the street with flags and boughs, and then illuminated it with lights and bonfires at nightfall. The nuns thanked their workmen with ‘a good dinner, and wine and beer enough’. They had been advised by the bishop not to provide alcohol for the neighbourhood for fear of rowdiness. However, grateful for the townspeople’s commemoration of the convent’s beginning, the prioress provided them with two barrels of beer the following day and the nuns’ neighbours continued to celebrate the jubilee in a second night of singing, dancing and illumination.

Other than signifying the good time had by all during the jubilee, what did the gifts and celebratory rituals mean, and what do they reveal about the exiled cloister? Marcel Mauss suggested that in gift economies, objects create bonds between people – they generate cycles of exchange, inculcate a sense of indebtedness and thereby sustain communities.[iii] While the eighteenth-century economy was more complex than that described by Mauss, as Natalie Zemon Davis has shown for sixteenth-century France, patronage remained a significant element in political, religious and social structures, and preferment and gift exchange oiled relationships between people in trade and business arrangements, government, church, family and neighbourhood.[iv] But, to what extent might we also consider gifts as key shapers of affective identities? Louise Purbrick’s research on attitudes to gifting in the late twentieth century finds that the practice of giving presents is emphatically emotional. She argues that ‘the things given have bodily effects and affects, they produce feelings; sustain relationships between people’.[v] The gifts to my son and daughter certainly support Purbrick’s assertion, but despite what we know of the centrality of the gift in early modern culture, did the objects given by the prioress, nuns and their neighbours have the same emotional valence?

To work this out, we first need to look at the objects given. The prioress’s gifts are perhaps the most intriguing – devotional literature, coffee, clothing, crowns and marzipan hearts. They might be divided into two categories: the practical and the symbolic. The latter items, given during the dramatic performance in the garden, were far more than simple tokens of Herbert’s affection and a reminder of the sisters’ anticipated salvation. Bequeathed by current nuns, dressed as angels, characterising the community’s founding ‘ancestors’, the crowns and marzipan hearts connected past, present and future nuns. Eliding space and time, they represented the spiritual and temporal labour necessary for each and every sister from 1629 to 1729 and beyond to be reunited in heaven; achieved following a lifetime of prayer, devotion and commitment to God and their religious cloister. The practical objects performed a similar function, serving both spiritual and bodily needs – prayer, sustenance and covering/warmth.

Yet it is possible to discern a deeper meaning in the ‘practical’ gifts. Herbert presided over an expansionist period at Nazareth. Recruitment numbers for new nuns dropped in many convents in the eighteenth century and the prioress embarked on a process of reform and building to style her convent as a fashionable establishment for well-connected young women to receive an education and for mature women and widows to lodge temporarily or on a more permanent basis. The gifts of clothing and coffee therefore might be considered as markers of her vision for the cloister’s future under her governance. Her request that the nuns bestow any gifts intended for her upon the convent buildings also reflects her intentions. Improving convent space, particularly devotional areas, would enhance its attraction for secular pupils and boarders. Moreover, Herbert’s relationship with her nuns was not always harmonious. Her vision for the cloister’s future did not sit comfortably with some sisters. It is conceivable that through both the practical and symbolic gifts she hoped to reassure them of her affection for each individual and for the convent as a whole. Devotional texts, marzipan hearts and coffee bound members of the monastic family to her, to one another, and to their corporate past and future.

The place of the workmen and revelling neighbours within this affective community highlights the porous boundaries of the monastic enclosure and the religious community within it. The townspeople celebrated the jubilee because the exiled religious women were respected residents and neighbours. Clearly the cloister presented commercial opportunities for the locals in terms of supplying labour, materials and daily commerce. But the sisters’ status as Catholics who had escaped ‘persecution’ at the hands of England’s Protestants bestowed a particular spiritual kudos on the house, which was seen as a repository of holiness in the city. The nuns’ suffering for the faith and their struggle to survive in a foreign land attracted their Flemish neighbours’ admiration and material assistance. While they did not bestow physical gifts upon the convent, the bunting, lights, artillery salutes and revelling were tokens of their affection for the sisters, and a sign that they identified with Nazareth, rejoicing in its past and anticipating its continuing presence in the city.

Gifts, material or in kind, were vital for the early modern monastic economy. Patrons might exchange goods and services in return for spiritual services, and the survival of the exiled English convents depended heavily upon this form of exchange. Yet, as I have explained here, gifts also performed significant emotional work in religious cloisters like Nazareth. They not only reminded recipients and givers alike of affective ties, social bonds and spiritual obligations, but also cemented corporate identity within the convent and advertised it beyond the cloister’s walls.

Claire Walker is a Senior Lecturer in History at The University of Adelaide and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the history of Emotions. Claire is a scholar of early modern religion, gender, politics and emotion. She has written extensively about exiled English convents in France, the Southern Netherlands and Portugal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Her recent publications include ‘The Experience of Exile in Early Modern English Convents’ (in Parergon 34.2), ‘Governing Bodies, Family and Society: The Rhetoric of the Passions in the Sermons of Samuel Wesley’ (in English Studies 98.7) and ‘Political Ritual and Religious Devotion in Early Modern English Convents’ (in Emotion, Ritual and Power in Europe, 1200‒1920: Family, State and Church, edited by M. L. Bailey and K. Barclay).

[i]The Chronicles of Nazareth (The English Convent), Bruges 1629–1793, edited by Caroline Bowden (Woodbridge: Boydell/Catholic Record Society, 2017).

[ii]Chronicles of Nazareth, pp. 214–18.

[iii]Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies ([1925] London: Routledge, 1990).

[iv]Natalie Zemon Davis, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[v]Louise Purbrick ‘“I Love Giving Presents”: The Emotion of Material Culture’, in Love Objects: Emotion, Design and Material Culture, edited by Anna Moran and Sorcha O’Brien (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

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