These delicate paintings show nuns and monks praying in their stalls. They are part of a series of miniatures in an ornate medieval Psalter – a collection of psalms or Christian songs.
What is the Psalter of Henry VI?
This luxurious manuscript was first made around 1405–10, perhaps for Louis the dauphin of France. Around 1430–31, it was adapted, probably for the young King Henry VI of England, who had claims to the French throne and was being crowned king there. In the Psalter, English coats of arms were painted over the French ones, and a new set of paintings was added, including the four shown here (f. 74v, f. 122v, f. 150v and f. 177v).
Who were the Poor Clares?
The nuns in the first painting are probably Poor Clares – the holy ‘sisterhood’ which Isabella hopes to join at the start of Measure for Measure (1.4.5). This rigorously severe order of nuns was founded in 1212–14, when Clare was inspired by the preaching of St Francis of Assisi to give up her worldly wealth. She set up a convent community, which survives today as one of the most austere orders in the Roman Catholic Church.
Friars, nuns and Measure for Measure
Friars and nuns play a crucial role in the plot of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, provoking a mixture of praise and moral reproach.
By seeking to join the Poor Clares, Isabella seems to be the epitome of chastity, clearly distinct from the sexual corruption of others in Vienna. But she still occupies an ambiguous position. She wants a religious vocation with ‘more strict restraint’ (1.2.4), but has not yet taken the holy vows that prevent her from speaking to men (1.4.10–11). This means that she can still meet with Lucio, Claudio, Angelo and the Duke, who force her to make harsh choices between sex and abstinence.
Sexual freedom, marriage or religious restraint?
While many admire her strong convictions, some audiences judge Isabella harshly for her pious refusal to save Claudio’s life in exchange for sex with Angelo. She is willing to let her ‘brother die’ to preserve her own ‘chastity’ (2.4.184–85), but she helps arrange the bed-trick, letting Mariana take her place in the disturbing sexual encounter.
The Duke’s manipulative use of the clothing of a friar is also open to question. This might reflect suspicion of Catholic friars and nuns in Shakespeare’s Protestant England, where monasteries had been destroyed under Henry VIII. There was a common feeling that marriage was more natural than chastity and separation as a means of regulating lust.
Yet attitudes to marriage and religious purity are very hard to pin down in this play. At the end, when the Duke abandons his disguise as a friar and proposes to Isabella (5.1.492), we never know what she chooses. Should she join the ethically complex world of Viennese men and women, or return to the convent?