The Joys of Enclosure – A Medieval Perspective

Presentation for the FRIAS Reflections series

14 May 2020 Prof. Henrike Lähnemann 

This is an adapted blog post from the presentation for the FRIAS REFLECTIONS series

Many thanks for giving me the opportunity to zoom myself into FRIAS for an afternoon! My title is inspired by the letters of the Lüne nuns which I’m currently editing and where they eloquently speak in praise of their enclosure as the perfect rose-garden. When I saw the poster – thanks to Verena Spohn for choosing it! – it occurred to me that the religious enclosure is only one of the confined medieval spaces with positive connotations. So I will talk about three forms of enclosed space: starting with the castle, going on to the cell, ending with the study.

To start with the image of the poster: this is the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, finished in 1314 to shelter the members of parliament. The German word for castle, Burg, literally means a shelter, derived from the verb „bergen“: to come to a castle means to take refuge. I spoke three years ago at FRIAS about Reformation hymns, among them Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” which he turned into the hymn „Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott“. The hymn makes it very clear that this „burg“ is not a physical space but rather a secure place in God‘s kingdom which cannot be taken away by any means.

The superiority of a spiritual space over a physical stronghold can be exemplified by Annora, an English noblewoman born in 1179. She spent several years in a besieged castle after her family had fallen off with King John. When she was able to leave the castle and had become a widow, she voluntarily chose lockdown – not behind the thick walls of a castle but in a tiny cell next to the church at Iffley, probably a wooden structure at the spot marked now by the gravestone South of the chancel. This allowed her to set herself the parameters of her existence – close to God (she had a window into the church), free from oppressive secular power and the one to be sought out for advice from the local community as well as from the next king, Henry III, who regularly sent her gifts.

The nuns in the North German convents had a similar view of enclosure as a force for the good: the convent became synonymous for them with the “hortus conclusus”, the walled garden from the Song of Songs, a rose-garden in which they were able to communicate directly and without interference with Jesus as their bridegroom and lover. As text-book illustrations picturing the nuns teaching, singing, reading, walking in the cloisters show, the convent environment opened up a spiritual horizon, turning their cells into studies.

As final illustration for positive enclosure I have therefore chosen the 15th century meme for learning, in German iconographic tradition called “Hieronymus im Gehäus”. Dürer’s early woodcut, done in 1492 for an edition of Jerome’s letters, shows a Renaissance scholar’s dream of what the cell which Jerome set up in Bethlehem to translate the Bible from its original languages should have looked like: comfy bed, handwash basin, big window, large desk, lots of books (not to mention the pet lion) surrounded by books. One crucial thing for the enclosure in three cases I mentioned was, that the individual hermitage is linked to a network: for Annora the community at Iffley coming to the church to attend the service and to receive her advice, for the Northern German nuns the sisters in the Lüneburg convents, for Jerome the group of translators with whom he kept in contact via letters, among them women who helped with the Hebrew.

I would like to think of our own scholarly community in times of lockdown as a joyful enclosure in that sense. Thanks to FRIAS to being a spiritual castle with space to combine our many individual cells to a communal study!

Link list:

  1. Edition (together with Eva Schlotheuber) Netzwerke der Nonnen. Edition und Erschließung der Briefsammlung aus Kloster Lüne, Open access edition of the letters (introduction, facsimile, diplomatic transcription, critical edition and commentary) can be found in the Digital Library of the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel. See this link for a short video feature on the project by the NDR filmed at Kloster Lüne and a podcast by NDR 1 (4 March 2020)
  2. Lecture on “Ein feste Burg” by Henrike Lähnemann: Singing and Printing. On the Success Formula of the German Reformation (Humanities Colloquium at FRIAS July 2017). Listen to the Podcast
  3. Blog post on Annora, the anchoress of Iffley, by Deborah Burrows
  4. Edition of Jerome’s letters (1492) with title woodcut by Dürer as digital facsimile. Follow the hashtag #notalion to see more examples of the curious creature in the foreground (part of a #LockdownBestiary – watch out for a future blog post!)
  5. Blog post by Godelinde Perk about medieval advice on self-isolation

For more medieval matters from Oxford, have a look at the website of the Oxford Medieval Studies TORCH Programme

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