It was the middle of math class and I was bored as usual. So I surreptitiously opened a book on my lap and began to read. At the front of the class the formidable Mrs. Mulley droned on. She was an extraordinary bent old crone who looked something like a desiccated stick insect. She and her daughter, Miss Mulley, constituted the Math department of my convent high school. They always seemed to walk the corridors together, Miss Mulley, pudgier and straight backed, trailing her mother at a respectful distance. They both wore their hair in elaborately coifed buns that seemed to defy the law of gravity. On this day my transgression did not escape Mrs. Mulley’s eagle eye. I was so absorbed in my reading I didn’t sense her approach until she triumphantly snatched the book from my hands. But she was the one in for the real surprise. Obviously expecting to see a trashy novel of some sort she was completely nonplussed when she found herself holding Saints and Scholars: Twenty-five Medieval Portraits by David Knowles. With a look of defeat she handed it back to me and told me I might as well get on with it. It was obvious I wouldn’t be continuing with math once the term was over. This was the year we had to choose between Arts and Sciences before entering the sixth form. Soon I would only study the subjects I loved, history and literature.
The book that startled Mrs. Mulley all those years ago still sits on my bookshelf. It wasn’t a school book or a library book. I must have saved my pocket money and bought it myself. No doubt Sister Dolores, my revered history teacher, recommended it to me. We were studying monasticism in England and she often referred to David Knowles, the Benedictine monk and Cambridge professor who wrote the authoritative histories The Monastic Order in England and The Religious Orders in England. The portraits in Saints and Scholars are drawn from these larger works. They include well known characters like the Venerable Bede and St. Benedict, whose Rule was the template for monastic life, as well as lesser known figures like Uthred of Boldon and Ailred of Rievaulx. I was particularly taken with the story of an ascetic monk who immersed himself in an outdoor bath of freezing water where he sang the Divine Office for hours as a means of penance.
Reading some of these pages now I’m struck by the magisterial tone, the sense of sweeping judgment as though the historian is the voice of God on high, a style of historical writing long out of fashion but still mesmerizing. In the portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery’s photographs collection Dom David Knowles looks just as one imagines his medieval subjects, an ascetic spirit withdrawn from the world, a carved saint. Strangely I see now that Sister Dolores looked quite like him. She was very pale with a long thin nose and that same ascetic, saintly air. We knew her to be a scholar, not just a nun and our history teacher. She was working on a book about Cluny, the famous Benedictine Abbey in France. During my first year at university I heard that she left the convent. Two years later her book, Cluny under Saint Hugh, 1049-1109, was published under her real name, Noreen Hunt. I’ve never forgotten Sister Dolores. I already loved history before I entered her class but it was she who inspired me to go on to university. Saints and Scholars sits on my bookshelf in her memory.