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Why I Can't Be a Nun: Introduction

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Why I Can't Be a Nun: Introduction

The impression remains that nuns from the fourteenth century on were in a spiritual backwater which merely provided a respectable manner of living for the aristocratic or wealthy whose families had not been able to provide them with husbands, or who sought a suitable refuge in widowhood. Apparently they did little teaching, even of girls; they were not involved in the active works of charity as were the beguines and the hospitals and their members were not as zealous in the performance of the divine office, nor as interested in learning and culture as the commanding female religious figures of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.
                        -Margaret Wade Labarge (pp. 114-15)
Why I Can't Be a Nun poses a dilemma: how should a young woman, devoted to piety, live a good life if the institutions originally designed to enhance her spiritual welfare have become residences of sin rather than devotion? The poem reflects poignantly the decline of the conventual life from the point of view of one strongly committed to fifteenth-century spiritual values. The poem is found in a single manuscript, British Library Cotton Vespasian D.ix, 177a-182b, 190a-190b, where it is tucked in amongst treatises concerned with issues of reform - verses of the Lollards against clerical abuses; verses against the Lollards; verses against heretics in Bohemia; verses in praise of the Virgin Mary; and so on. Although the poem attacks sharply enough the failures of ecclesiastical institutions, it does so more in the tone of elegy than caustic satire. The implication is that if nuns were to reform, the persona might find life in a convent congenial to her spiritual life. But since that is unlikely she attempts to work out a personal rule that, though it might be criticized by skeptical men as a dream fantasy, would satisfy her religious longings. The proposition seems akin to the religious posture of PPC in that the concern through most of the poem is personal and essentially domestic, where the meaningful community is the family.

Rossell Hope Robbins and F. J. Furnivall date the composition of Why I Can't Be a Nun in the early fifteenth century. The poem, composed in eight-line stanzas rhyming ababbcbc, is missing both its beginning verses and its conclusion. The manuscript is quite worn, suggesting that it was much used. The poem is perhaps the best example of a chanson de nonne in Middle English and reflects admirably the conservative ethical concerns of fifteenth-century parents raising and educating their daughters. The voice projected in the poem is that of an obedient, intelligent girl named Katerine who, in her pious idealism, wishes to enter a convent. Her father, learning of corruption in the convents from the commissioners who have recently surveyed all convents in England, discourages her from pursuing that vocation on grounds that by entering a convent she "may not fulfylle in dede / The purpose that ye have begun" (38-39), that is, to live a good life. One is struck by the father's tender concern for his daughter, despite his laughter of relief when he learns of the corruption in the convents, and the daughter's obedient regard for her father. She is genuinely disappointed at this apparent thwarting of her desire for piety, however, and retires one May morning into her garden where she has a marvelously instructive dream: Lady Experience appears to her and takes her into a typical convent, with its external splendor and internal corruption - Pride, Hypocrisy, Sloth, Vainglory, Envy, Love Unordinate, Lust, Wantonness, and, worst of all, Dame Dysobedyent - all of whom are personified before her. The convent is so corrupt that Charity and Patience are forced to dwell apart in an outer chamber. Lady Experience explains that she has come to show these things to Katerine to help her understand why her father would not consent to her desire.

Katerine then awakens and, speaking now with the voice of experience, advises other young women on how to live virtuously, with specific exhortations to nuns on how to dress so that they will not attract lecherous men. What matters is their inner spiritual lives, not their outward, vain gestures. The poem concludes with reflections upon women saints who lived their lives on earth "relygyiusly," and who now enjoy endless bliss in heaven. The shift in voice after Katerine's awakening is nicely handled by the poet as she matures from her earnest desires into the role of sage counsellor.

Nothing is known about the author of the poem. It could be by a woman, I would think. Certainly the tone of the latter part of the poem is akin to that of instructional verse like that of "How the Good Wif Taught Her Daughter," though the role of the concerned father in the poem might suggest male authorship. Certainly, the poem creates a domestic world remarkable for its thoughtful concerns by both the parent and the daughter; it is a world acquainted with the rhetoric of pleasant instruction through fiction, poetry, ethical manuals (Lady Experience quotes from Aristotle's "Moralite"), and saints' lives. The poet - or, rather, Katerine - emphasizes strongly the importance of obedience to God and parents and the beautiful, protective effects that ensue from such love. In fact, it is the nuns' disobedience to the Prioress that offends Katerine most of all so that she leaves the convent in disgust.

Although Katerine has a keen sense of hierarchy, she also has good understanding of her personal relationship with God, which helps to sustain that hierarchy. Initially, when her father seems to thwart her desires, she turns immediately to prayer. That defensive gesture is a sign of her good breeding as well as her piety. Private meditation is important to her both as a means of understanding her social situation as well as maintaining a clean relationship with God. Her sense of self-worth is crucial to the progress of the poem through all three of its phases - the initial response to her father, the dream vision, and the wise counsel to nuns and other women at the end.

Why I Can't Be a Nun lacks the acerb ferocity of PPC or the vindictiveness of PlT or JU. It makes allowance for some good nuns out there, but, alas, there are too few. Its gentler tone is fitting for the instruction of young women. There are things that Katerine's modesty simply prohibits her from saying. Nonetheless, she makes a strong statement against corruption within the institutions of the church and the need for individual attention to personal belief, particularly for women, who may take strength from each other even though the ecclesiastical institutions set up for them may not be congenial to their best concerns. It is striking that the teacher who addresses her in her dream is Lady Experience. In a monastic satire we might expect an allegorical character named Experience to be on the side of Satan. But the woman's world is practically oriented. Chaucer's Wife of Bath founds her exegesis on "Experience," and for Pertelote, in the Nun's Priest's Tale, learning begins in the practical instructions of Cato. The implication here is that women learn from other women. They learn from example and, as Katerine's discourse on dress suggests, are mindful that they will in turn be seen as examples.

This edition is based on a photostatic copy of the Cotton Vespasian manuscript, checked against Furnivall's 1862 edition. Furnivall followed the manuscript by not setting the lines in stanzas; and he linked many word units with hyphens (In-to for MS In to, be-gan for MS be gan). The present edition organizes the lines into stanzas rhyming ababbcbc and silently normalizes spellings (for example, Into and began). Significant departures from the MS and Furnivall are observed in the notes.

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British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D.ix. fols. 177a-182b, 190a-190b.


F. J. Furnivall. Early English Poems and Lives of Saints. Berlin: Asher, 1862. Pp. 138-48. [Transactions of the Philological Society of London, 1858.]

Pertinent Studies

Byrne, Sister M. Tradition of the Nun in Medieval England. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1932.

Elkins, Sharon K. Holy Women of Twelfth-Century England. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. [Excellent study of the most creative and expansive phase of women's religious life in England.]

Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. [See esp. Ch. 5: "Women who Prayed: Nuns and Beguines," pp. 98-120.]

Power, Eileen. Medieval English Nunneries. Cambridge: University Press, 1922. [The definitive study of the subject. See especially Ch. 5: "The Nun in Medieval Literature," pp. 499-562. Comments on Why I Can't Be a Nun appear on pp. 545-49.]

Robbins, Rossell Hope. "XIII. Poems Dealing with Contemporary Conditions" In A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500, vol. 5. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1975. Pp. 1452, 1679.

Utley, Francis L. The Crooked Rib: An Analytical Index to the Argument about Women in English and Scots Literature to the End of the Year 1568. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1944.