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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

18 - Women Priests at Barking Abbey in the Late Middle Ages


In around 1404, Sibyl de Felton, the abbess of Barking Abbey in Essex from 1394 to 1419, granted, “with divine permission,” an ordinal “for the use of the abbesses in the said house into perpetuity.” This book, now Oxford, University College, MS 169, includes many of the features proper to medieval ordinals: it details the Masses and hours of the Divine Office that were to be celebrated throughout the entire year, negotiating the coincidence of multiple feasts on a given day; providing incipits to chants, prayers, and readings; assigning roles to specific monastic officers, other community members, and attendant clergy; and supplying performative cues for the intonation of chants and for the staging of processions, liturgical dramas, and other rituals. This book – with its clear articulation of the procedures for the yearly distribution of books at Chapter on the first Monday of Lent, the profession of new members, and the election, consecration, and installation of a new abbess – was also to double as a customary for the abbey. Details culled from the ordinal's rubrics reveal that the purpose behind the book's production was, in part, to organize and preserve Barking's liturgical practices, many of which were first initiated in the more distant reaches of the abbey's past, some even date to the period soon after the Norman Conquest. And the list of abbesses found near the book's end suggests that the ordinal remained in use until at least the death of Abbess Elizabeth Lexham in 1479, if not until the abbey's formal surrender to King Henry VIII's commissioner on 14 November 1539. Barking's ordinal is the only comprehensive liturgical plan to survive from a women's monastic house located in medieval England and, thus, offers a unique record of how at least one late medieval community of Benedictine nuns not only participated in but also scripted, orchestrated, and starred in its various liturgical performances.

Among the ordinal's most remarkable directives for performance are the physical and spiritual transfigurations envisioned for the Barking nuns, which often were to exceed the limits of liturgical precedent, gender, and ecclesiastical status.