‘Gifts from the abbey’ – A presentation by Lena Vosding


Foto: Lüneburger Klosterarchive, © Kloster Lüne

At the symposium ‘What is a letter? An interdisciplinary approach’ (2–4 July 2014, Oxford), Lena Vosding M.A. (Düsseldorf, Germany) gave a paper entitled ‘Gifts from the abbey: the letters of the Benedictine nuns in Lüne (1460 – 1550)’. Below is a summary of the paper which Ms Vosding has kindly provided.

If your research is also concerned with medieval letter books similar to the one presented here, Ms Vosding would love to hear from you; her contact details can be found at end of this post.

Gifts from the abbey: the letters of the Benedictine nuns in Lüne (1460 – 1550)
[summary by L. Vosding]

In my paper I presented the hitherto unedited and little known letterbook of the Benedictine convent in Lüne (near Lüneburg, Germany) into which the medieval nuns copied a significant amount of their written communication in the period between approximately 1460 and 1550 (Lüne convent archive, MS 15, MS 30 and MS 31). In three volumes there are about 1.800 copies of letters or letter fragments, some written in Latin, some in Low German. They cover a broad range of topics and addressees: there are letters to and from other convents, to and from the provost, the Lüne town council, the bishop, the duke, or families and relatives of the nuns. The letters deal with economic or legal matters, donations, liturgical practice, conflicts, friendship, spiritual edification, and theological interpretation of key social events such as childbirth, death, marriage, or investiture. There seems to be a connection between the chosen language and the respective addressees: correspondence with the Duke, the town-council or other laymen is written in the vernacular, while correspondence with the provost, the bishop, other clerics and the neighbouring monasteries is held in Latin. The communication with other convents is predominantly written in a mixture of Latin and the vernacular.

By examining two selected letters I tried to provide an insight into the characteristics and significance of this extensive collection. The first is typical of many letters which concern the community’s economic and judicial interests: on 15th September 1525, Sister Gertrud Brome urged her lay relative to cease his attempts to prevent their confessor from receiving a fief granted by a sister or resident of the convent (see an image of the manuscript (© Kloster Lüne); transcription/translations). The second, longer letter, which congratulates the daughter of one of the convent’s benefactors (and possibly one of the nun’s relatives) upon her wedding, is a typical model letter: there are no dates or names given and it seems to be compiled from at least three different sources (see an image of the manuscript (© Kloster Lüne); transcription/translations).

A close reading of both texts suggests the meaning which the letters had for the nuns: on the one hand, for them, their letters were a medium that enabled them to be present in places they could not personally reach due to their strict enclosure. It kept the essential networks – whether they be theological, social, or judicial – of their convent alive. On the other hand, they understood their letters as the materialization of what their particular task was as late medieval nuns: the spiritual care, the intercession for clerics and laymen. For the nuns these texts served, finally, as proof of their adherence to the official rules for the convent’s communication with the outside world which were laid down by the bishop in 1462 (Doc. no. 578, in: Brosius, Dieter (ed.): Urkundenbuch des Klosters Lüne, Hannover 2011, pp. 499–500).


Foto: Lüneburger Klosterarchive, © Kloster Lüne

All these aspects might have been reasons for the nuns to collect letters they had sent and received from the 1460s onward. Furthermore the copies in the letterbook probably had an additional function: It seems quite plausible that the letterbook was created in response to an external threat: it was evidently composed over a single period of time – not until the 1530s -, and this was when the convent was being confronted by the Reformation. As a collection, bound as a book, the letters therefore served to support the nuns’ self-reflection, their sense of purpose in the world and – as model for future communication – their composure and self-control at a time when the existence of their convent was called into question.

But these ideas only address one aspect of the letterbook’s function. It became obvious in the course of the discussion following my paper that there are still many more aspects to be investigated: for instance the collection also contains peculiar texts such as a short letter about a wild sow in a nun’s cell (see an image of the manuscript and a transcription/translation, © Kloster Lüne). This comprehensive analytical task will form the subject of my doctoral thesis, which will deliver the first analysis of the manuscript so that we can hopefully soon better understand the nuns of Lüne and their letterbook.

An edition of the Lüne Letters is planned by Prof. Dr. Eva Schlotheuber (Düsseldorf).

Contact details:
Lena Vosding M.A.
Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften I
Gebäude 23.31, Ebene 06, Raum 80
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Universitätsstr. 1
40225 Düsseldorf
0049 (0) 211–81–12931

1 thought on “‘Gifts from the abbey’ – A presentation by Lena Vosding

  1. Pingback: Nuns’ Network meeting in Freiburg – Medingen Manuscripts

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