Sending Letters and a Unicorn: How Medieval Nuns Coped with Social Distancing

by Lena Vosding

Three nuns hand a letter to a messenger. Illumination in the Matutinale of Scheyern, Germany, 13th century. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Clm 17401 (1), fol. 16r (61r) (BSB).

The current pandemic, as horrible as it is, seems to have heightened public awareness of pre-modern solutions to modern problems. Blog posts have looked, for example, at St Corona, the Black Death and precedent lock downs, or the strategies medieval anchoresses used to cope with the loneliness of their cells.

Medieval anchoresses and nuns in enclosure also provide a good example of how to maintain relationships without meeting in person. Despite digital communication tools we all have experienced that it can be quite difficult to feel a real sense of community without in-person encounters. So which strategies for coping with social distancing can nuns who only had pen and paper at hand teach us?

Symbolic communication

Conversation also was considered a risk for enclosure: A window, once probably covered with fabric, that allows visitors to speak to the nuns (speaking window). Convent of the Poor Clares in Pfullingen, Germany (Wikipedia commons).

Medieval nuns who chose enclosure to approach the divine through contemplation, developed ways to ensure that families and friends would not forget them – and to show that their prayers benefited society. One of the most effective ways was to develop letter writing to an art form, and overcome distance by imbuing the words with transcendent symbolic meaning. This involved a balancing act: Theologians frequently warned that letters could be disruptive and let the loud, mundane world into the convent. After all, letters were always associated with secrecy, individuality, physical presence, and material goods. St Jerome, for example, carried letters with him and talked to them like to his friend,[1] and St Augustine considered letters to enable greater intimacy than would be possible when the person was physically present but silent.[2]

Many sources reveal how nuns crafted letters in conformity with their rules. Important evidence can be found in the letter books from the Benedictine nuns of Lüne, the largest cache of female writing from late medieval northern Germany.

First Strategy: Virtual Encounters
The passage about gold and silver in letter book Hs 15, Convents Archive Lüne, quire 27, fol. 8r (Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel / Kloster Lüne)

The nuns drew on the imaginative potential of letters to overcome distance and to build a sense of community with their families, friends, and other convents, for example, by sending saints as envoys: “Since we are related, it would be appropriate to come to your wedding feast. […] Yet God has chosen me to my own wedding, and he planted me in this earthly garden of paradise. […] So, I wandered around the heavenly fortress of Jerusalem and asked all the dear saints to come out for you.”(Lüne Hs 15, quire 28, fol. 2v). Depending on the recipient, these can be different saints: Mother Mary shall be the merciful host; St Michael shall ensure that only the best things happen to bride, groom, and their guests; St Matthew shall help them to keep their worldly wealth without striving for it too much; St John shall bring their offspring blessing; and St Anne, St Catherine and St Ursula with her 11.000 handmaidens shall always be companions in time of need (Lüne Hs 15, quire 27, fol. 6r-8r). These imaginary envoys could also carry elaborately described symbolic gifts: e.g. pearls and gemstones of a golden necklace, described and interpreted as the virtues and blessings that shall adorn the recipient’s soul (Lüne Hs 15, quire 28, fol. 14r-quire 29, fol. 1v). The nuns argue that, because of their vow of poverty, they cannot afford those expensive gifts, but send a letter instead: “We wish to ask from you that you receive it with the same love as that with which we have written it. If we could have written it in gold and silver, we would certainly have done so. Therefore accept our goodwill as a token” (Lüne Hs 15, quire 27,fol. 8r).

Second Strategy: Sending Gifts (and Unicorns!)
A little unicorn depicted on the so-called Christmas Tapestry, one of the impressive tapestries the nuns of Lüne embroidered in the 15th century (Restaurierungswerkstatt, Klosterkammer Hannover).

A little unicorn depicted on the so-called Christmas Tapestry, one of the impressive tapestries the nuns of Lüne embroidered in the 15th century (Restaurierungswerkstatt, Klosterkammer Hannover).

In other letters, real gifts became metaphors as the nuns interpreted and explained the details. Such gifts ranged from books and devotional pictures to little jugs, dresses, or even two young unicorns. The sender advices the recipient to build a fence around the pasture and to heighten it soon, because “the unicorns jump around so merrily” (Lüne Hs 31, fol. 82r). While it remains unclear what the real gift might have been, the unicorn was a symbol of purity, virtue, and of chaste love, which could only be tamed by a virgin. Thus it became an allegory of the incarnation, in which the virgin was equated with Mary and the unicorn with Christ. The gift for the nun could have been toys, an animal shaped gingerbread, a pastry model, or an embroidery of the creatures.

Third Strategy: Showing Empathy

The empathy palpable in those exchanges is also expressed directly whenever the nuns ask about the wellbeing of a friend in another convent: “I would like you to tell me that you are feeling better. Otherwise I cannot find peace”(Lüne Hs 15, quire 9, fol. 5v). This is also manifest in their deep sympathy for a mourning mother: “I understand that you are in pain and distress, because love is always deep between mother and Child.” The recipient shall soothe her heart to prevent “falling ill with excessive melancholy and tears”, and think of Mother Mary, who had to witness the cruel death of her son. To her she may confide her suffering, for Mary “knows from experience how a grieving mother feels” and will comfort her (Lüne Hs 30, fol. 39v). The nuns also do not hide yearning for their fellow sisters in neighbouring convents: “Give my greetings to the crows and ravens. When I sit here in my cell and hear the crows sing and see the ravens hopping in the snow, I think of my beloved sisters in Lüne” (Lüne Hs 31, fol. 158r). By verbalizing their empathy, the nuns connected emotionally to their social network, and this connectedness enabled them to resist in times of crisis. The nuns survived the Black Death as a community – and the Reformation, for them an even deadlier threat, alive and kicking now in the 21st century.

Fourth Strategy: Crafting words
A nun (sister Elspeth Stagel) writing at a lectern. Illumination in the sisterbook of Töss, Germany, 15th century. Stadtbibliothek Nuremberg, Cod. cent. V, 10a, 3ra (Wikipedia commons).

A nun (sister Elspeth Stagel) writing at a lectern. Illumination in the sisterbook of Töss, Germany, 15th century. Stadtbibliothek Nuremberg, Cod. cent. V, 10a, 3ra (Wikipedia commons).

The nuns in Lüne valued their letters to such a degree that they copied and kept them in their convent’s archive. In this way, they served for continuous edification, to encourage remembering the social network, and to provide examples for teaching the novices how to write. The skill of conveying not only information but also emotion is one that can only be acquired by continuous practice; it was, and still is, an art to write letters that are clear and do not allow for misunderstanding. When communicating through written words alone, appropriate wording is of vital importance. Not surprisingly, the twelfth century saw the invention of letter writing manuals, when societal structures were becoming increasingly complex and demanded expert networking skills. These manuals offer  examples of wording for all sorts of situations, so that the message is understood as expected and a close relationship can be established, even if you do not see or hear each other.

Therefore, when we feel lonely in the enclosure of our homes, a carefully written letter can comfort us. The search for the right words can bring order to one’s thoughts. It sends the mind on a journey to another person in a different place, and also provides the recipient with an individual, physical sign of company. So, why not make the effort for a friend and go on a journey of the mind yourself?

Dr Lena Vosding is a postdoctoral researcher working at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford. In her book, she examined the Lüne letter books in terms of form and function. To learn more about the project, the letters, the nuns and their current counterparts in the convent, see the six L.I.S.A. episodes about Lüne Abbey:

Episode 1: Lüne Abbey (the history of the convent and its current inhabitants), 08/19/2020

dark portrait of 1500s woman

Founded in 1172, Lüne Abbey developed into a prosperous religious centre for the Lüneburg region. The Benedictine nuns formed a strong network with other convents in Northern Germany and joined an influential reform movement in 1481. In the 16th century, they transformed into a Protestant community after a prolonged struggle with the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. The project ‘The Nuns’ Network’ explores this phase of change and reform in the 15th and 16th centuries, examining the significance of the Abbey and the communication strategies of the nuns based on letter books. These contain almost 1800 letters providing information about pastoral care, debating devotion and theology, and giving insight into daily life in the convent. The letters also highlight the role of rhetoric and learning for women living in strict enclosure.

Episode 2: The Letter Books (the materiality and content of the manuscripts), 08/26/2020

person paging through an old book about A5 sized

Among the numerous treasures of Lüne Abbey, the three letter-books are one of the most significant holdings. Into the three hefty tomes, the nuns copied nearly 1,800 letters and accounts from their correspondence during the 15th and 16th centuries. They offer an insight into the nuns’ lives from their own perspective. Particularly revealing are the arguments surrounding the Lutheran Reformation; the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg finally succeeded in nominally turning the convent into a Protestant community – but the women documented their arguments and preserved the record of it to this day in their Abbey.

Episode 3: The Role of Women (on the high esteem in which nuns were held), 09/02/2020

tapestry showing lions with wigs

The Lüne letters give in-depth insight into the special role of women in religious orders. In medieval society, women were subordinate to men, being in the munt (under the guardianship) of their fathers and then of their husbands, only as widows gaining full control over their legal affairs. This was different in female religious houses. The prioress and other office holders took on a variety of significant roles for the community, and it was a high responsibility to lead the monastic community consisting of several hundred people. The esteem for religious women was based particularly on their status as brides of Christ (sponsae Christi), at the side of the highest king, leading to a elevated rank in the medieval hierarchy. This position was an obligation but also a source of pride for the women as many of the letters show.

Episode 4: The Editing (on the complex process of making the letters accessible), 09/09/2020

close up of black manuscript writing

Editing the letter books from Lüne Abbey is a complex process which relies on the regular exchange between the team members in Düsseldorf, Oxford and Wolfenbüttel: the letters need to be deciphered, structured, commented upon and encoded to make the networks of the nuns accessible again. The edition allows full and fascinating insights into the knowledge structure, the communication and the rhetoric of the nuns. But the letters reach beyond that: private and personal aspects of the life of the women in the convent become visible and relatable, 500 years after they were first written down.

Episode 5: A Key Finding (on the learning of the nuns), 09/16/2020

person reading notes ad looking at a manuscript in soft lamp light

An important part of the editing process is the commentary contextualising the style and content of the letters. A key finding is how scholarly learning and oral culture meet and mix in the letters, showing how the nuns operated on an equal footing with the learned male clergy. In a letter accompanying a gift of wine for the Provost, the young nuns for example show off their Latin learning – with more than a bit of self-deprecating humour. Such a letter could be read out aloud e.g. at a convent feast and thus re-enter the oral sphere of the monastic setting.

Episode 6: The General Interview (on the international collaboration), 09/23/2020

book pages yellowed, book opened half way

The last part of the series the two Principal Investigators, Eva Schlotheuber (Düsseldorf, History) und Henrike Lähnemann (Oxford, German Literature), in form of an interview talk about the genesis, challenges and perspectives of the Lüne letters project. What is the knowledge basis required to work with medieval letters and what challenges does the interdisciplinary collaboration between history and German Studies face; how is the project charting new territory? The exchange between the two investigators also focuses on new methodological approaches, the fascination of the letter books and the important question whether the letters could be considered private. And above all – what is the message of the letters for us today?

Reaching out with medieval manuscripts

By Tuija Ainonen

What do you get when you put together an excited group of medieval manuscript specialists and ask them to discuss blogging and teaching with digitized manuscripts? The answer: trumpets, drapes, marginal animal appearances, fake back-drops, cries of agony, laughter and lots of good advice.

A worldwide audience (from California to New Zealand!) gathered in three online sessions that were organized as additional evening events for the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at Leeds, 6–9 July 2020. The organisers were very pleased to see that each session had well over 100 participants. Our speakers shared their experiences on using digitized medieval manuscripts for teaching, and for reaching out to various audiences via social media, mainly through blogging and tweeting. 

Blogging manuscripts with #PolonskyGerman

Tuija Ainonen, Andrew Dunning and Henrike Lähnemann (all of University of Oxford) opened the sessions by discussing their experiences on blogging for Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project. The project is in the middle of a three-year collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the project seeks to open up the medieval German manuscript collections of two world-class libraries for research and reuse. The two libraries will digitize c. 600 medieval manuscripts of Germanic origin between 2019 and 2021.

Watch to hear some thoughts on writing project based blogs on a variety of topics.

In the first session each presenter highlighted a blog post they had written. By opening up their writing processes they provided some useful tips for what to do, and what they would do differently. Even with specialized projects the aim is to write to non-specialists, so using approachable language and sentence structures is essential. As illustrative images are taken from digitized copies, it is crucial to provide readers with the manuscript shelfmark, folio reference and a link to the digital copy. It is important to follow the libraries’ attribution and guidance for terms of use that are provided in the meta-data of the images. However, the best place of the shelfmark is perhaps not on the title of the blog post. 

Teaching the digital codex 

In our second session Mary Boyle (University of Oxford), Julia Walworth (Merton College, Oxford) and Leonor Zozoya-Montes (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria) continued the theme of manuscript outreach. Discussions considered teachable features and pedagogical approaches to teaching with digital codices. Teaching the Codex was launched at Merton College, Oxford with a colloquium in February 2016, and it has since published formidable blogs on teachable features and links to paleographical and codicological training resources.

Listen to great insights into how to approach teaching the digital codex.

Their individual and collective insights provided the listeners with lots of new ideas and thoughts. Perhaps the not-so-pretty manuscripts also deserve more time in the limelight provided by blogs. Various teachable features and manuscripts that cover multiple texts provide fertile ground for highlighting medieval manuscripts from various different viewpoints.

Blogging manuscripts for the general public

In our final session Alison Hudson (University of Central Florida) and Alison Ray (Canterbury Cathedral Archives) took us through a whirlwind of images and advice on good social media practices as they showed us examples of their twitter and blog behaviour.  

An excellent brief introduction to successful tweeting and blogging practices with medieval manuscripts

With a handy and useful group of guidelines for continuing our journey on blogging and tweeting with medieval manuscripts, one particular thought is worth repeating here. We as manuscript researchers and readers are in the best position to showcase and promote the work we do. Blogs provide us a handy way of showing ways in which medieval books are still relevant today, and how the old authors, compilers, scribes and readers of old continue to speak to current audiences.  

Blog writing challenge

In preparing for these three sessions we encouraged our readers to submit blog proposals for potential future blog posts in the participating platforms. A good initial crop of intriguing proposals were discussed during the sessions, and we anticipate to publish several of them in the coming months. While the initial deadline of proposals was to ensure inclusion in our sessions, it is still not too late! 

Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project continues to accept proposals showcasing to a general readership manuscripts digitized within the project. From 257 manuscripts (and counting!) to choose from, which one would you highlight and why? Proposals for blogs should be sent in the first instance to Andrew Dunning ( or Matthew Holford ( Blogs of 500-750 words submitted by 22 August will be eligible for the Polonsky German blogging challenge. A panel will select the most successful blogs and will award prizes at the Dark Archives Conference 8-10 September 2020.

The Blogging with Manuscripts sessions were organised in collaboration with Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project, Oxford Medieval Studies, Teaching the Codex, and Dark Archives

Opening Medieval Manuscripts

By Henrike Lähnemann

This article first appeared on KnowItWall.

Opening a book unfolds a new world. In the case of the pocket-sized prayer-book Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Lat. liturg. f. 4, it is one of magic and surprises: gold dragons, an orchestra of angelsnuns and biblical figures (see figure 1 below) populate the margins of 584 packed pages. The black ink is laced with black, red, blue, and gold letters but even more colourful is the text itself, an idiosyncratic mix of flowery medieval Latin and vernacular poetry.

To find the significance of this visual and linguistic firework, it is necessary to trace the manuscript back to its origin and decipher or rather decode its text and decoration, as well as the link between the two. The Low German dialect is that spoken in Lüneburg, one of the centres of the Hanseatic League, the most important trade area in Europe before the EU. Lüneburg’s salt production financed Medingen, the convent in which this prayer-book was written around 1500. Every nun wrote several manuscripts as part of her personal devotion, each of them a jigsaw piece of a different shape and colour, constructing a bigger picture of female piety and agency.

We are extremely lucky that we can reconstruct their physical world in greater detail than perhaps any other medieval community. This is because the convents on the Lüneburg Heath survived as religious institutions through both the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and the Napoleonic Secularisation of the 19th century. The women had a remarkable staying power — and fortunately, they never disposed of any of their possessions: the world’s oldest spectacles, for example, were found under the choir stalls of the neighbouring convent Wienhausen. The convents’ sewing and writing tools, as well as their breathtaking architecture all provide a window into the rich spiritual life of the late Middle Ages, into a time when the nuns wrote letters, played the organ, educated girls, and looked after a large and prosperous community.

These books reveal to us not only the physical world in which the nuns lived, wrote and read manuscripts, but also the spiritual realm that they aspired toward. It is a world that cannot be seen with the physical eye. Rather, it has to be grasped with the ‘visio spiritualis’ (spiritual vision) and ‘visio intellectualis’ (sense of intellectual understanding). Their monastic training enabled the nuns to look beyond: when the priest raised the bread above the altar, the nuns could truly see the Christ-child being lifted from its cradle, taste the heavenly meal, hear the angels sing and feel the divine vibrations of a whole world dancing with joy.

This macrocosm of late medieval devotion is mirrored within the microcosm of the Oxford prayer-book. The book is meant to be carried around: at a size comparable to about six smartphones (stacked two wide, three high), its sturdy leather-covered boards just about fit into a hand. It had small clasps since it was mainly made up of parchment — an unruly, springy material which reminds us of the shape of the animal it was once part of. It could be read while dressing, walking along the cloisters to the nuns’ choir for the Office of the Hours or attending mass. Red lettered instructions served as stage directions for the spectacle of convent life, as a reminder to perform their prayers and meditations with heart, hand and voice. This was particularly important during the parts of the service in which the nuns could not actively participate.

On Easter Sunday, a whole parallel choreography unfolded. While laypeople physically worshipped the cross that the officiating priests carried through church, the nuns up on their choir made a spiritual offering “on the harpstrings of their soul”. After the clergy sang Victimae paschali laudes, the congregation answered with the German hymn Christ is upstande which promised that God will be the comforter (God de wel unse trost syn, 70v). The scene is imagined in the margin of a later page, where a boy with a flower wreath holds a song bubble containing the opening line of the hymn. Then, the voice of the writing nun calls out in jubilation, commenting on the song in mixed Latin and Low German: O dulce carmen, o mellifluum verbum “God wel vnse trost syn”! Wen wy den hebben, so enbeghere wy nicht mer, wy behouen ock nicht mer; ergo consolamini in hijs verbis. (O sweet song, o mellifluous word “God will be our comfort”! If this is the case, we neither want nor need anything else; let us take comfort in these words!)

In the next rubric, the nun is encouraged to embrace Christ in the “arms of her soul” and to greet him as her bridegroom coming to rescue her. Easter became an existential moment when engaging with the true meaning of the liturgy enabled the nun to be part of salvation history. All of this happened through the power of this pocket prayer-book, which came to the Bodleian through a series of sales after antiquarians came to view these devotional manuscripts as objects. However, the tactile quality of this book appealed differently to these collectors than it did to the nuns who wrote it and engaged with it on a daily basis.

And yet, the appeal of the book endures. Sensual experience (no white gloves allowed!) is the clue to recover a lost world, the real “Sound of Music” of nuns and laypeople singing together, the nuns in their white habits, the Lüneburg crowd in their Sunday best. Their songs of praise happen in a world full of gold, images and moveable parts (201v shows a paper veil covering a gold initial; 131v has a paper clipping of a flower girl pasted over a cut in the parchment (see figure 3 above)). Its enduring appeal lives on in the successors of the medieval nuns, namely in the Protestant women of today (see YouTube video below) who continue to share their passion for their historic buildings and spiritual heritage with the community around them, just as their predecessors did. They even wrote a cookbook with regional recipes Das Feuer hüten (in English: Tending the Hearth) and continue to welcome visitors into a world full of heavenly experience.

Click here to see a video of the Abbess of Lüne presenting her concept for the convent.