Books owned by the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre

By Aya Van Renterghem

Frontispiece of A Brief Relation of the Order and Institute of the English Religious Women at Liège (Liège, 1652)

When considering the many shapes and forms in which early modern female book ownership appears, thoughts and discussions usually turn to the various types of books owned by different women or focus on the difference in ownership between social classes of women, for instance. It is, however, possible to broaden this view and also think about gradations of ownership and about the level of agency female book owners had. I mean by this that we could think about questions such as how much control early modern women had over their choice of books or over the type of books they owned. The Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre collection, currently being catalogued at Palace Green Library, Durham University, presents an interesting case study in this regard and is worth exploring here.

The Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre are a Catholic female religious order founded in 1480 by John à Broeck in Kinrooi (present-day Belgium). His sister Mentha and two of her companions would be the first Canonesses to be professed. The order expanded from there and other convents were opened across the Low Countries: four convents, for instance, were founded in the town of Liège. This is where, in 1642 two English girls, Susan Hawley and Frances Cary, originating from the convent in Tongeren, founded an English branch of the order. It is this English branch that donated their rare books and archive to Durham University in 2018 and is the topic of this blog post. The Canonesses’ reason for choosing this location was of course primarily because Catholicism was freely practised in this area (contrary to England), but it is also worth mentioning that in the History of the Community, it is noted that “[i]t was eventually determined that the English foundation should be at Liège, there being there a College of the Society of Jesus, from the Fathers of which the nuns hoped to receive aid and spiritual direction” (History vii). This will be significant for our discussion of the sisters’ book ownership.

The book collection, which contains mostly religious and educational materials as the Canonesses dedicated much of their efforts to teaching girls and young women, is extensive. It comprises over 650 books dated between 1600 and 1900. The collection was clearly also of importance to the Canonesses, as they went to great efforts to preserve it. In 1794, they escaped Liège, which was then in the hands of the French troops, to find safety in England. Liège had been under French control for some time at this point, but the British involvement in the wars against France in 1793 made life no longer safe for the English convent. Before they began this journey, they had 800 wooden boxes specially made in which they could comfortably carry their books and possessions. All but one of these boxes survived the journey.

This book collection therefore gives an overview of female religious book ownership over a period of 300 years and show us the value of books for these women, even (or especially) within the walls of the convent. However, to gain insight into the collection, the questions are not as straightforward as “Why did the sisters choose these specific books?” or “Who do these books belong to?”

Looking at the inscriptions in the Canonesses’ books, it appears that many of them were previously owned. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the majority of these previous owners were male institutions or men of the cloth who were predominantly Jesuit. A large number of the books contain ownership marks showing that they belonged to the English Jesuit College in Liège, indicated by the letters C.A. or the Latin phrase Collegium Anglicum Societatis Jesu Leodii. This college appears to have been the main provider of reading materials for the sisters, especially for the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books. Furthermore, as CHS 056 shows, a number of the books were also printed at the College.

Though the texts contained in these books can be found elsewhere, some copies were uniquely translated and printed in Liège. Whether this was done with the purpose of giving them to the Canonesses is unclear. Likely also through the Liège College, the Canonesses gained access to books from the wider Jesuit community. CHS 018 for instance, was previously owned by P. Hijacynthus Vander Meer, who was at the Flemish Jesuit college in Tongeren.

Clearly, and not surprisingly given the reason why the Canonesses chose Liège as the location for their convent, the sisters looked at the Jesuit College for guidance and likely this included the provision of reading materials. In her article on the book collections of religious convents in exile, Caroline Bowden mentions a letter written shortly after the convent’s foundation in 1623 by Father Augustine Baker, spiritual advisor at the English Benedictine convent at Cambrai, to his Protestant book-collector friend Robert Cotton requesting books for the nuns (Bowden 343–44). In this letter, he expresses his concern about the availability of spiritual reading materials in English, but further documentation shows that he was equally interested in controlling the selection of texts. For instance, he legislated for the external Visitor to keep a close watch on the contents of the library:

Let the Vicarius have a special care that no books written or printed (even papers of instruction or devotion) that savour not of a religious Monasticall spirit, or that tend not unto it, be kept in the Monasterie: and therefore let the catalogue be examined at everie Visit, and at such time as the Ordinarie shall judge fit.

(Bowden 344)

It is unclear how far this situation was replicated across the English convents on the Continent, but it does further stress the question of how much agency the Canonesses had in purchasing books for themselves. If they did select and buy their own books, did these books have to be approved by their (Jesuit) chaplain? Was the pre-selection by male clerics simply a consequence of practicalities (i.e. it was easier for them to find and purchase books), or was there an element of censorship to this practice?

The questions do not end there: even within the walls of the convent, further inscriptions suggest that book ownership was not a clear-cut matter. Concerning this, Bowden notes that book ownership in convents worked from the principle that all books belonged to the convent and that individual sisters were allowed to keep certain texts in their cells for different lengths of time (353). The Canonesses’ collection largely confirms this, but I think further nuance can be added. CHS 010, for instance, which plainly states “Gertrude Aston my booke 1658” suggests that a number of sisters also had their own books. It is possible that they brought these with them when they joined (which is likely the case for CHS 010) or perhaps they were given them as presents by relatives or friends.

CHS 063 further demonstrates, by using a slightly different phrasing, “Mary Baptist her book with leave,” that this was not necessarily without input from the superiors. CHS 063 is also interesting because the topmost inscription on the flyleaf shows that the book was previously owned by Thomas Hyacinth Brown in 1776 (who was a Catholic Reverend based in Leicestershire). Based on similar inscriptions in other books from the collection, this could mean that the book belonged to the convent and that Mary Baptist had received special leave to keep it in her cell to read. Alternatively, she may have bought it second-hand or was given it by Reverend Brown and received permission to keep it.

Although this seems like a very particular distinction to make, the note “lent to M. Felicitas” in CHS 048 suggest that this was relevant to the community. Mary Baptist’s note is also written in ink, while the lending note was written in pencil. It is also possible that this distinction is time-related: in this case Mary Baptist was allowed to keep the book for a long time (potentially for life), while M. Felicitas was only allowed to borrow it for a short period of time. Looking at the collection as a whole, however, these individual ownership marks are, though not rare by any measure, also not the norm.

Most frequently, books, such as CHS 024 for example, indicate that the books belonged to the Reverend Mother’s room. Further inscriptions show that some books were part of the library or school collection.

Further investigation and cataloguing of this collection will undoubtedly lift the veil even further on early modern female book ownership in the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre’s collection, as well as female religious orders more broadly. Despite the relatively closed-off nature of convents, this information is relevant on a wider scale as the materials read by the sisters and kept in their libraries would also (indirectly) inform the generations of girls and women who were taught by them.

Source: books in Palace Green Library, Durham University. Photos by Dr. Danielle Westerhof, Rare Books Librarian at Palace Green Library, reproduced with permission.

Further reading

Caroline Bowden, “Building Libraries in Exile: The English convents and Their Book Collections in the Seventeenth Century,” British Catholic History 32.3 (2015), pp. 343–382.

Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre, History of the New Hall Community of Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre (Bruges: St-Trudo Abdij, 1997).

Note: This post was edited on 5/28/20 to correct a historical inaccuracy.


3 thoughts on “Books owned by the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre

  1. Timothy Fenwick

    A very interesting article. Spoilt by calling the French forces that invaded during the Révolution Liègeoise, “imperial” and the 1793-4 wars “Napoleonic”.


    1. Aya Van Renterghem

      Thank you very much for your comment and for pointing that out! We’ve updated the post to amend these points.


  2. Pingback: Books owned by the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre | Archivalia

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