IMEMS Fellowship: Exploring the manuscripts of the English Poor Clares

In 2007 Durham University Library was gifted the lion’s share of the library of the English Poor Clares. Consisting of 796 printed works and 74 manuscripts, the extensive collection contains what remains of the libraries of the four major English Poor Clare convents of the early seventeenth century: Gravelines, Dunkirk, Aire and Rouen. After returning to England during the French Revolution, the nuns settled at Haggerston Castle in Northumberland, then Scorton Hall in Yorkshire, and finally St. Clare’s Abbey in Darlington in 1857. There they remained until declining numbers forced the convent to close in 2007, with the remaining nuns relocating to another Poor Clare convent in Hereford.

Poor Clare Sisters at Darlington 1868
The collection at Durham opens up new and exciting avenues of research for scholars interested in exiled groups of nuns in the early modern period, especially as the manuscripts have been overlooked in most studies in the field. One of the most interesting manuscripts in the collection is MS 66, an assortment of mystical writings intended to aid the reader on an inner spiritual journey towards God.

Durham University Library PCD MS 66, fol. 68
The manuscript contains writings from a number of classic mystical writers, including Blosius (a Flemish Benedictine), Harpius (a Flemish Franciscan), Meister Eckhart and Henry Suso (both German Dominicans). The most surprising feature of the manuscript however is the presence of works by the Benedictine monk Augustine Baker. Connections between the Benedictines and the Poor Clares, especially in terms of their shared interest in mysticism, have been almost impossible to ascertain. The fact that some of Baker’s rare manuscript teachings have been transcribed and preserved in the volume tentatively suggests more connections than scholars have previously identified. Much more work needs to be done to identify whether any more material in the manuscript, currently unattributed to a specific author, may actually be Baker. Above we can see the first page of the extract from Baker’s work Treatise of Confession.
Durham University Library PCD MS 66
The manuscript also reminds us that the collection at Durham was used as part of a living spiritual tradition by the English Poor Clares when in their possession. Despite the manuscript dating from the first half of the seventeenth century, there are clues that point to an almost continuous readership within the walls of the community. The first page of the manuscript, for example, reveals that the book was in the possession of the choir mistress in 1836.

Equally interesting is the placement of twentieth-century graph paper into the manuscript. The paper divides the manuscript into sections, allowing the nuns to easily identify writings of different authors within the volume. As we can see below, the writings of Blosius and Harphius have been identified as significant by one of the nuns.

Durham University Library PCD MS 66
Such readership marks are not unique to MS 66, but are rather commonplace across the entire manuscript collection. They are however, like the manuscript collection as a whole, in need of much more detailed research. Now that the collection is fully catalogued, it is hoped that more scholars begin to acknowledge the great wealth of material Durham has been gifted by the English Poor Clares. Only then will the true significance of the collection be fully brought to light.

Further Reading:

More information can be found about the Poor Clares on their website:
http://www.poorclares-hereford.org.uk/

The Poor Clare collection can be viewed in the university catalogue here: http://reed.dur.ac.uk/xtf/view?docId=ark/32150_s1zs25x850k.xml

More details about the author’s work at Durham can be found here:
http://www.theosophicaltransactions.com/2017/03/imems-fellowship-mysticism-among.html