Performing in the Convent: Objects and Performative Practices


London, BL MS Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v.
London, BL MS Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v.

At the most recent Leeds IMC, the Medieval Convent Drama project co-sponsored and chaired a round-table session on material objects and their roles in performative practices within medieval convent life.  Our steer to contributors was deliberately wide-ranging – and the various objects discussed sparked a lively conversation spanning practices of fabrication and design, connections and uses of liturgical citation, shared imaginative and performative activities with custom-made objects at their core, and the silent, unacknowledged presence of ‘everyday’ or ever-present objects during and within performances of many kinds.   As part of the session, Aurélie Blanc presented the following exploration of candlelight in the Barking Abbey Visitatio Sepulchri – the ideas for which arose out of our 2018 performance of this piece – and her comments reflect the kinds of questions and approach which our panel brought together:


London, BL MS Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v (detail).
London, BL MS Yates Thompson 11, f. 6v (detail).

Candelabra at Barking Abbey

The Barking Abbey Visitatio ceremony was recorded in a 1404 Ordinal and Customary produced by the wealthy English Benedictine abbey of Barking.  It was performed in the presence of the laity during the Matins of Easter Day and it depicted the visit of the three Marys to the tomb of Christ.  Visitatio ceremonies have attracted the attention of drama scholars because, while they were part of the liturgy, they also featured some ‘dramatic’ characteristics: they told a narrative story with the help of sung dialogues and movements, indicated that the nuns, priests, and clerics (in the case of Barking Abbey) who performed them, were meant to behave like the scriptural figures they were portraying, and made references to costumes.  At Barking, for instance, the nuns portraying the Marys changed from their black habits into white ones at the beginning of the ceremony.  They then positioned themselves with the ‘candelabra’ in their appointed place.

 ‘dicant. Confiteor ad abbatissam, et ab ea absolute. In loco statuto cum candelabris consistant.’  (they say Confiteor to the abbess. Once they have been absolved by her, they position themselves with the candelabra in the place appointed earlier).

It remains unclear whether the candelabra accompanied the Marys during the entire ceremony or not, but a second mention was made of them at the end of the Visitatio:

 ‘cum candelabris per chorum transeuntes orandi gracia sepulcrum adeant: et ibi breuem oracionem faciant. Tunc redeant in stacionem suam usque abbatissa eas iubeat exire ad quiescandum’ (crossing with the candelabra through the choir, they go towards the sepulchre in order to pray. And there, they make a short prayer. Then, they return to their place until the abbess orders them to go out to rest).

Before examining why these objects might have been used in such a way by the Abbey of Barking, I would like to describe what the Visitatio’s candelabra could have looked like.  Candelabra were widely used lighting sources in medieval churches, but few have survived, although some can be seen in pictorial sources.

They were made of wood, of iron, bronze, or copper.  The most impressive ones, which might have been found at the wealthy Abbey of Barking, were enamelled or made of gold, silver, and even crystal.  They would have carried one or more beeswax candles  and their size varied depending on their use.  The candelabrum holding the pascal candle, for instance, would have been bigger than those set on altars.  Those used in Barking’s Visitatio, were handheld and, according to the Ordinal, were carried by six iuuencule who seem to have been girls, not yet consecrated, receiving their education in the nunnery.

Iuuencule and candelabra did not immediately intrigue me when I was studying, and in April 2018, staging the Visitatio Sepulchri.  They were barely mentioned in the OrdinaI and their presence did not make much sense theatrically.  While they would have had the advantage of lighting the Marys and of attracting the audience’s attention to them, they had no function in the narrative, and, if they had followed the Marys during the entire ceremony, would have been a blocking nightmare.  They would have obscured the Marys from view and restricted their movements and interactions.

Yet, the Visitatio was not quite a play, but a liturgical ceremony and the abbey’s purpose in performing it was fundamentally different from ours: according to the Ordinal, the house hoped the ceremony would increase the laity’s declining devotion and, as all liturgy, it was meant to worship and glorify God.  To understand the Visitatio’s performative use of the candelabrum, I should therefore have taken into account that, in medieval liturgy, sources of light were not employed for practical reasons only.  They were invested with layers of symbolism, whose knowledge at Barking is attested by liturgical practices, as well as by the house’s library.  The use of the candelabrum in the Barking Visitatio Sepulchri would have recalled the house’s standard liturgical practice and would have imbued the ceremony with meaning.  Yet, it also stood out as unusual in two ways: it was carried around nuns portraying the three Marys instead of around the body of Christ, the cross, the Gospel book (Barking), or saints’ relics or statues, and it was held by girls rather than by clerics.

This unusual use of the candelabra could have served, I believe, at least two purposes.  First: it would have affected the story told by the Visitatio, by giving a preponderant place to the Marys, whose association with the nuns of Barking might have impressed the lay congregation.  Second: holding the candelabrum might have helped the iuuencule understand their future role as nuns.

To begin with the Marys: Being accompanied by candelabra during a liturgical ceremony was a sign of honour, and therefore brought the Marys prestige.  Yet, this use of light, in a way, also honoured the nuns portraying them.  The candelabra continued, after all, to follow them once they had changed back into their own clothes.  Light further connected the Marys to the divine.  Scriptures, lives of saints, commentaries, and liturgical ceremonies have commonly associated light with God, with Christ, and, in the context of Easter, with the victory of light over darkness through His Resurrection.  The candelabra thus emphasised the Marys’ closeness to Christ, as well as their essential role in this joyful story: they were the first Christ chose to appear to, and in this version, they transmitted the good news of the resurrection to the congregation and to the disciples who instantly believed them.  Their role as messengers may have recalled another scriptural image found in the Gospel of Matthew, as well as in Mark and Luke: Christ’s description of his disciples as a lit candle on a candelabrum:

Matthew 5: 14-16 in the King James version:

14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.

15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick (candelabrum in latin); and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

Liturgical commentators explained that the disciples’ light existed because they had been lit by Christ’s true light and because they now believed.  They were meant to guide others towards this true light.  In this context, the candelabra enhanced the Marys’ role as messengers, as guiding lights.  It also connected them to nuns, since the disciples’ mission had become, by extension, that of the Church, and of those leading a religious life in particular.  The Visitatio’s use of the candelabrum could thus have affected its spectators’ understanding of the role of the Marys as well as their respect for the nunnery.  It could additionally have provided nuns, and the iuuencule in particular, with an example to follow.

The unusual choice of six girls as candelabrum-bearers, who visibly stood near the Marys and possibly accompanied them during the ceremony, might have reinforced the previously mentioned connection between the nuns and the Marys, but it could also have created, more specifically, a connection between the iuuencule and the Marys.  Apart from physical proximity, other similarities existed between them: the Marys were dressed in white, as were the future nuns during the ceremony of the consecration of the Virgins and both groups of women had much to learn (at least, at the beginning of the ceremony in the case of the Marys).  By following the Marys, the girls might have perceived these women and their journey as models to follow in their future either as novices or as professed nuns.  Yet, the iuuencule did more than accompany the Marys, they held the candelabra.  This act had the benefit of materialising two scriptural mentions of light, essential to their understanding of the role of nuns.  The first was the one related to the candelabrum and the disciples.  In the Visitatio, the iuuencule actually held up this guiding light.  However, while transmission of light was deemed important, liturgical writers such as Jean Beleth or Durandus advised that one should remember to tend to one’s own light.  They used the parable of the wise virgins, who had remained vigilant to their lamps while waiting for the bridegroom to illustrate this idea.[1]  Such a parable was regularly presented as a model for consecrated women and was undoubtably known at Barking where it was partly sung during the consecration of the Virgins ceremony.  In the Visitatio, the iuuencule repeated the actions of the wise virgins.  Holding the candelabra demanded great focus and such focus was also to be dedicated to maintaining their inner light, their faith, their purity.

Having these girls carry the candelabrum might have been a way of teaching them about their future responsibilities as nuns by involving them in a ceremony which bore striking resemblances to the consecration of the Virgins, by materialising light metaphors essential to their understanding of this role, and by connecting these to prestigious scriptural female role models.


Ordinale and Customary of the Benedictine Nuns of Barking Abbey, ed. Tolhurst J.B.L. (London: Harrison, 1927-8).

Catherine Vincent “Rites et pratiques de la pénitence publique à la fin du Moyen Âge : essai sur la place de la lumière dans la résolution de certains conflits » Actes des congrès de la Société des historiens médiévistes de l’enseignement supérieur public (vol. 31, 2000), pp. 351-367.

Catherine Vincent Fiat Lux : lumière et luminaires dans la vie religieuse en Occident du XIIIe siècle au début du XVIe siècle (Paris : Les Editions du Cerf, 2004).

Geneviève Bührer-Thierry « Lumière et pouvoir dans le haut Moyen Âge occidental : célébration du pouvoir et métaphores lumineuses” Mélanges de l’école française de Rome (vol. 116-2, 2004) pp. 527-37.

Eric Palazzo « La Lumière et la Liturgie au Moyen Age » Pris-Ma : Recherches sur la Littérature d’Imagination au Moyen Age (Tome XVII / 1, no 33, 2001), pp. 91-104.

Catherine Gauthier L’encens et le luminaire dans le haut Moyen Âge occidental Liturgie et pratiques dévotionnelles (thèse de doctorat : UNIVERSITÉ LIBRE DE BRUXELLES, Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres, 2007-8).

[1] Matthew 25: 1-13