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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: October 2017

8 - Female Monastic Cantors and Sacristans in Central Medieval England: Four Sketches

from PART II - The Eleventh Century


Until Margot Fassler's study of the multifaceted office of the medieval monastic cantor, this office had received little scholarly attention. Through her investigation of extant monastic rules and customaries from the ninth through the eleventh centuries, Fassler was able to uncover the development of this office over the course of the central Middle Ages. Though the Benedictine Rule made no explicit provision for the cantor as a monastic officer, later customaries written in the tenth and eleventh centuries as elaborations on the Rule, particularly those issued from the abbey of Cluny, increasingly articulated and expanded upon this office so that it encompassed a variety of liturgical and scriptorial responsibilities.

Fassler's study focused exclusively on the office of the cantor in communities of male Benedictine religious. Not until Anne Yardley's recent study did the office of cantrix in communities of women religious receive sustained consideration. Yardley devoted a chapter to detailing not only the liturgical responsibilities of the cantrix, but also those of the abbess, sacristan (editva or secretaria) and weekly cantrix, as they were described in monastic rules, customaries, ordinals and visitation records from Benedictine, Bridgettine, Dominican and Franciscan houses. Given the nature of the extant sources, she limited the scope of her study to the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, though a few sources from the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries were referenced when instructive. In her discussion of the cantrix, she divided this officer's responsibilities under four headings: general oversight of liturgical practices, regulation of music, vocal instruction of community members and soloistic roles. And her account of the sacristan's responsibilities attended primarily to the maintenance of the community's liturgical space, eucharistic vessels, vestments, books, candles and reliquaries, as well as to her keeping of time during the daily cursus.

Yardley's work has done much to reveal the liturgical histories of late medieval English women religious, but those of women religious from earlier centuries must still be recovered. Though the sources for this earlier period are often more scarce, fragmentary and male-mediated, they nonetheless contain tesserae that can be pieced together to form a mosaic of the liturgical lives of women religious and the monastic officers who directed them. Mortuary rolls, saints’ lives, miracle collections and calendars bear traces of the cantors and sacristans who commissioned or undertook their initial production.