Annual H-WRBI conference: Historians meet at University College Dublin

By Patrick J. Hayes

The etymology of the word “source” goes back to the Anglo-French meaning of spring (surse). In this sense, an origin point is hardly immobile or static; sources don’t just lie there. We push forward from sources. They lead to movement, new positions, different perspectives.

This insight was at the heart of the 2017 conference of the History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI) network. About three dozen historians gathered at University College Dublin from June 8 to 9 to examine sources for the study of women religious from the Middle Ages to modern times. Teachers, doctoral candidates, and archivists hailed from the United States, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Israel, Great Britain, and Ireland, and showed how a rich variety of sources for the study of the lives and activities of women religious are integral for our understanding of this subject.

Several archivists discussed the method of arrangement, collection priorities, and advances in digital preservation and accessibility of the data for use by historians. Áine McHugh of the Loreto Archives in Dublin, for instance, described how collections of the Sisters of Loreto are split across 11 countries, each with a provincial archive that has been historically autonomous and decentralized. Since 2011, however, this international order has tried to form a central archive that shares resources and develops policies that reflect current archival practice and are universally applicable. An example of the collections one may find in the Dublin archive would be the papers of one of the superior generals, Sister M. Michael Corcoran, who held her office from 1888 to 1918.

Some researchers described how the sources of their subjects’ communities have been used to craft new understandings. Flora Derounian, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Bristol, gave a video presentation of her work collecting oral testimonies of Italian Dominican sisters. The process of gaining trust among her subjects and then parsing the emotional content brought out by her questions make the video recordings a source for history of the order, to be sure, but they are also a history of inspiration and trauma, gratitude and firmness of conviction. Her comparisons with scenes depicting women religious in Italian cinema brought out exciting new theories of how the real sisters considered their lives to be more emancipatory than stereotypical ideas of being trapped inside convent walls would allow.

Sarah Joan Moran of the University of Utrecht also presented interesting source material in her discussion of the Court Beguinages of the Dutch Low Countries between the 13th and 19th centuries. To track their development and decline, she has pored over their account books. These sources reveal the types of fiduciary challenges and decision-making processes by the women in the beguinages, altering assumptions about the beguines’ business acumen and, more broadly, the gender norms of the early modern period.

Sometimes sources are hidden in places where only the right question will unlock them. This has been the experience of Eliot Nidam-Orvieto of Tel Aviv University and Yad Vashem, whose research has tried to pierce the veil of French convents that hid Jews during World War II. Dealing with the absence or sparseness, and at times, falsification of the documentary record made to protect those whose lives were at risk, he has had to make some educated guesses from what has not been said. In those instances where sisters have made written entries, they often were encoded for internal use only to deflect any suspicions that Vichy officials may have harbored. The slow work of disentangling and extracting meaning from the archival records has yielded important new insights into the extent of convent rescues, as well as the creative and death-defying work of women religious.

Susan O’Brien of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge University, supplied a keynote address on researching the lives of women religious in Britain, canvassing the changing environment for historical storytelling in the last quarter century. The paper was accompanied by a book launch for O’Brien’s Leaving God for God: The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul in Britain, 1847–2017 (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2017). O’Brien uses the Daughters’ archives in London and Paris to underscore their role in helping the marginalized and promoting Marian devotions in Britain, and to describe the nature of philanthropic service from their foundation to the present.

The varieties of the collections the conference considered, their media and arrangement, as well as their utility, augurs well for future research on women religious.

Patrick J. Hayes, Ph.D., is the archivist for the Baltimore Province of the Redemptorists.