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Exhortation to Nuns

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My dear sisters Mary and Anne. With all the other devout disciples of the school of Christ in your monastery of Amesbury, be grace and the blessing of our Lord everlasting. Amen. Remembering and considering your good and religious desires, to have had some ghostly comfort and some manner of instruction of me, now at the time of your profession: and specially upon the Words of the same and the substantials whereby as you thought you …. might with God's help be the more apt and able to the performance of the same profession. How be it I am but a young disciple in that school myself; and therefore….

This is one of the very few pieces of literary evidence for Amesbury's house that has come to light. Its relative simplicity provides an interesting contrast with the artistic expression rendered in Amesbury Psalter. A graphic illustration, perhaps, of the purposes of the two documents - the exhortation being an explanation and questioning of fundamental beliefs, and the psalter a vehicle for glorification.

This manuscript appears to have been written in the early 16th century, in English, with some Latin content. It is based upon the Rule of St Benedict and upon quotations from Holy Scripture, and is written by an author who appears to have been religious and also to have been personally familiar with the members of the community at the Amesbury nunnery.

It appears to go some way towards redressing the nature of the accounts of lax living that have been levied at some religious houses, and the earlier abbey at Amesbury in particular. True, there were disputes at Amesbury, particularly in the 15th century, but those were between prior and prioress and were possibly not due to impropriety, but more to the maintenance of discipline in the dual house of the Fontevrauldine Order.

Earlier studies have brought into question the moral state of English mediaeval nunneries, suggesting that 'a large number of girls who became nuns had no vocation at all', that 'carousings, gay garments, pet animals, frivolous amusements, many guests, superfluous servants and frequent escapes to the freedom of the road' were to 'be found not only in the greater houses but even at those which are small and poor'. These are now considered unduly harsh conclusions and 'not the stuff of tabloid history'.

For Amesbury, the suppression documents and the Exhortation may help in providing a more positive assessment. At the suppression Florence Bonnewe, prioress at that time, was serious about her vocation and about the continuance of her convent when she resisted commands for the surrender of the house. Eventually she preferred to resign her office rather than surrender the nunnery, asking only for bread and no pension. Florence’s resistance suggests that there may have been nuns in the community who were serious about their vocations and who did not want to abandon them.

Wording in the Exhortation, which was possibly written when Christine Fountleroy was prioress, suggests that the statutes of Fontevrault were still in use at Amesbury in 1507. It provides explanations of the vows, and its intention is to provide good counsel in order to promote the devout practices of religious life; there is a tone of familiarity and encouragement.

The novices, Mary and Anne, were considered by the author to be seeking a spiritual dimension to their lives; such an emphasis was not out of character with the practice of religious life at that time, and it was attainable at Amesbury.


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