I shall begin with images of women in our own write/right

  Wife and husband, Pompeii

    Volmar, Hildegard of Bingen, Richardis

    St Umiltà of Faenza, Florence

     St Birgitta of Sweden

Suor Juana de la Cruz    St Teresa de Avila

gordigiani2 Elizabeth Barrett Browning     

elizpenrome     elizrome

            Mother Agnes Mason, C.H.F.

This is a talk taking us from cradle to grave. I live in a graveyard and I make cradles.

Alex has told you my story. That I was a university professor who, in 1992, went back to my Anglican convent school in Sussex to be a nun and librarian of 20,000 books, assembled by learned women in the nineteenth century, when women in England could not have degrees. It had been founded by Mother Agnes Mason of the Community of the Holy Family, with another school at Naini Tal in India and she also helped her brother with St Bede's College, Umtata, South Africa, where Black priests were excellently trained. Greek was required and Hebrew encouraged for the nuns' Profession. My first memory at six years old during WWII was of its utter beauty, William Morris wallpaper, Della Robbia sculpture, carved medieval and Renaissance wood, for Mother Agnes wrote into our Rule that a sin against beauty was a sin against the Holy Ghost, and she insisted on the school for children, of all classes, being very beautiful. She had translated St Teresa of Avila's Foundations, publishing it with Cambridge University Press, and it had been enthusiastically reviewed by major Oxford Movement bishops and clergy. But then my twentieth-century bishop sold our convent, bulldozing it, putting our books down at sea level, sending us away without a penny. I was allowed to leave with my personal books, one basket of their books, my computer, and the convent's book-binding press and tools. I had to give back my nuns' clothing sewn by myself. The nuns had already given my secular clothing to the cook. So I sewed two habits and veils for my hermit garb. Then fled from England to Italy, using the last of my life-earnings paying for the van and driver to bring the boxes upon boxes of books. For four years these were in one unheated room with me above Fiesole. It was during that time that I began web-weaving.

I came to Florence, deciding that since my life was become meaningless I may as well be in a place of beauty, where in fact my Mother Foundress had dreamed up our community, sitting in an olive tree above Fiesole. And also because, summer after summer,
and indeed one whole glorious Sabbatical year, I had been doing research in Florentine libraries amongst manuscripts on Dante's teacher, Brunetto Latino, and then on St Birgitta of Sweden.

When I began web-weaving, back in its pioneering days, in 1997,
a Syracuse University librarian in Florence taught me html, a Dante scholar in Germany shared some of his AOL space with me and and a Nota Bene expert in Leeds taught me how to compose webpages with Netscape and how to ftp files. But then I outgrew the AOL space. Next, I had free webspace on Geocities. And my Geocity town was, believe it or not, Wellesley. Following that, for more space, I went to Fortune City, which I hated. Russian friends in Pskov also did, for they are an icon painting school, and to their disgust were hi-jacked by Korean pornography. So, greatly daring, I bought space, without advertising, on a server which operates out of Scotland. Googling through these archeological layers of ten years of web-weaving will yield many web references and links, including those to the long ago orphaned, abandoned Wellesley Geocities website.

The Umilta Website is named after the illiterate Florentine saint, who was Dante's contemporary, and whose nuns wrote down her magnificent sermons.

After four years the Protestant Swiss found me and gave this now-Catholic hermit the Gatehouse of Florence's 'English' Cemetery to use for a library if I would be custodian of their Cemetery. A miracle. So I next created a website about Florence and its famous Cemetery, and which I named Florin, the medieval coin that was then Europe's 'Euro'.
Europe's First Euro
The Florin of Florence

Lily of Florence    John the Baptist, Patron of Florence
Remember that in English and American law it is required to have the body, the Writ of Habeas Corpus. I actually have/habeo the bodies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Fanny and Theodosia Trollope, Walter Savage Landor, Arthur Hugh Clough, Jean Pierre Vieusseux, Hiram Powers and many other famous writers and sculptors, about whom I now write, who all lie within this oval in the midst of Florentine traffic. It is Arnold Boecklin's 'Island of the Dead', for he buried his infant daughter, Maria Anna, here (
§142. Böcklin/+/ Maria Anna/ Arnoldo/ Svizzera/ Firenze/ 20 Marzo/ 1877/ Mesi 7/ 1387). Serge Rachmaninoff composed his symphony on this painting.


1880 New York/                                                              1880 Basel/                                        

1883 Berlin/                                                                1886 Leipzig

I also have sculptures by Félicie de Fauveau, Hiram Powers, Joel Hart, Holman Hunt, Frederic Lord Leighton, Lorenzo Bartolini, Odoardo Fantacchiotti and many others. I have the body of Henry Adams' sister, Louise Adams Kuhn, about whom he wrote in the Chaos chapter of his 'Education of Henry Adams. I collect the books they wrote and books written about them for our library. I also weave websites concerning them.

Now some hints as to how to weave webs http://www.umilta.net/weaveweb-html and build cradles and bookcases! Netscape no longer exists, done in by Microsoft. So instead download its successor, Mozilla's browser, SeaMonkey, go to 'edit', then to 'new', then to 'composer'. It's simple and free and so is colour. I use the memory technology of medieval manuscripts, in particular their alternating reds and blues. If you have ever seen a baby born you will know that its umbilical cord is the most vivid red and alternating blue, pulsing with life, until cut.
This is a talk taking us from cradle to grave. I live in a graveyard and I make cradles! Now let us go to http://www.umilta.net/cradle.html which I wrote some years ago.



Dedicated to my three beloved sons.

 used to accept Heloise's desperate plea to Abelard that scholars and babies, books and cradles, pens and distaves, do not mix. I now believe they can. In our library, that I built, I make cradles, too. I also remember the line in one of my mother's books, on Austrian women, that the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world. We women internalize men's contempt for us. Negating ourselves, striving to be powerful men. [What changed my mind was Hedera. Hedera is Rom from Romania, who has had two babies born here in Florence. Soon after the second was born I took her and her baby and her husband in and they slept in my cell for a week, following the baptism of little Leonardo in that cell. While I slept in our library. Cradles are not meant to be in nuns' or anchoresses' cells! I had already made a cradle for Hedera, modeled on those I saw in the Rom camps, but a cradle is not possible when one can only live in the streets, the Orthodox gypsies not being allowed in the Moslem gypsy camps. Next, the Romanian gypsies were rounded up by the Italian police and forced to return to Romania. So then I made cradles to sell them to benefit Hedera and her three children, and indeed all the twelve children living with her mother and father in a camp in Buzau. Later, I succeeded in buying a house for them there. The children are now going to school, unlike their mother, learning to read and write.]


Our library, my second library, and smaller than my first, is named after a magnificent Florentine, Fioretta Mazzei, whom I knew and who initiated at Florence's Ospedale degli Innocenti what became the United Nations Rights of the Child. This library is a place where gypsies can learn to write their names to have their babies back from hospital,


where scholars from Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study can come and study, and everyone in between, above all women writing theses on Brunetto Latino, Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Lilian Whiting, in Italian, in English. I made its bookshelves six years ago. But now keep building them higher and higher. Alex noted from another essay I wrote, called 'Leopards in the Temple', that
that I believe in putting the last first from my experience as a war-deafened child at six, then going from the back row in school, when they thought I was mentally retarded, to the front, when they realized I could not hear, when I was nearly twelve and we were studying about Iraq's civilization, that gave us literacy and artifacts made with gold and lapis lazuli. Learning of Hammurabi's and later Moses' law codes, of cuneiform becoming Hebrew script.

Sumerian Harp, 2500 B.C.

Ur Standard, 2700 B.C., Peace

Ur Standard, War

The Library, for membership, requires only the gift of a book. And books pour in from all over the world. Faster than I can catalogue or shelve them. Here we have read all of Dante's Commedia twice and the Vita Nuova once each Thursday evening for two years by candlelight followed by a shared supper in this same library with ordinary Florentines and foreigners participating, the women for whom Dante said he wrote.

Our library begins with the alphabet and the Bible in the original languages, goes on through theology and the monastic orders, particularly the women contemplatives in them. Benedict's Rule stated that men and women were to work, study, pray, using their bodies, their minds, their souls. A healthy recipe for all three! Which we follow. It next includes books on pilgrimage, with documentation of my own pilgrimages to Canterbury, Compostela, Rome, Jerusalem, Sinai, because I had written my dissertation at Berkeley on pilgrimage in Dante, Langland and Chaucer, then studied the woman pilgrims, Egeria, Paula, who journeyed about the Holy Places, Bible in hand, Birgitta of Sweden, who made all those pilgrimages, Margery Kempe copying her, I copying them. Then it has shelves upon shelves of literature, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Icelandic, Irish, Welsh, English, including the books by and about the great writers buried in our cemetery in Florence, Walter Savage Landor, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Arthur Hugh Clough, Fanny and Theodosia Trollope. It has shelves on travel, on art history, on arts and crafts, and for children, ending where it began with the alphabet. One part of the library has my publications, books on Dante, on Brunetto Latino, his teacher, on Birgitta of Sweden, on Julian of Norwich, on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. We also print and bind books, using the Victorian wooden press and book-binding equipment from my convent, making our own marbled paper. I taught our Rom mother how to marble paper. I studied paper marbling and book binding under Enrico Giannini, the fifth generation in his family doing this craft in Florence. He and I would love to teach you.

We, as a library, organize a series of international conferences called 'The City and the Book', the city being Florence, the first on the alphabet and the Bible, in particular the Codex Amiatinus, the most authoritative Jerome Vulgate Bible text, written out by Ceoflrith and Bede in Northumbria and brought to Italy, now in the Laurentian Library, http://www.florin.ms/aleph.html the second on the illuminated manuscripts in Tuscany, http://www.florin.ms/beth.html the third on the 'English' Cemetery, http://www.florin.ms/gimel.html. Doing this I realized there was need for an international project editing the Great European Books written for Peace. Alfonso el Sabio in Spain taught Brunetto Latino on embassy there from Florence how to create magnificent illuminated manuscripts, which Brunetto in turn taught to Dante Alighieri, his student. Hildegard von Bingen already had created her splendid manuscripts, one of these coming to Lucca, the town next to Florence. Birgitta of Sweden did the same, creating an enormous book in many copies to be presented to Popes and Emperors, Bishops and Kings. She was copied by Julian of Norwich and by Margery Kempe. Then Christine de Pizan would copy Birgitta and Dante, but in France. This tradition continued through time and one can particularly see it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with Madame de Staël and her Corinne ou Italie, which influences Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, Anna Jameson, Diary of an Ennuyée, and many other books, and also the Americans, Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia Peabody, and Margaret Fuller, all so admired by Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. In a sense I am at an advantage in proposing this study, having edited Brunetto Latino, Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Common to all of us is the knowledge of how to create a book, how to edit a text, how to calligraph or typeset it, how to illustrate it, how to hand-sew its gatherings, how to bind it in bookcovers and how to market it as a gift to persons and to libraries having access to power. Quakers call this 'Speaking Truth to Power'.

While some of these women were childless, Birgitta had eight children, Margery likewise many, Christine de Pizan, three, Margaret Fuller, one, Angelo, and tuberculor Elizabeth who married at forty, amazingly, one, 'Pen' Browning, who was a delight to her and to all who knew him. Cradles can be in libraries! Elizabeth writes about her son Pen in her poems, Casa Guidi Windows and Aurora Leigh. Both the creating of children and of books are empowering. There was a party for Pen in Rome at which Hans Christian Anderson read his 'Ugly Duckling' and Robert Browning led them through all the rooms, while chanting 'The Pied Piper of Hamelyn'. Elizabeth, dying, wrote her last poem about this event, conjoining graves to cradles. Last year, I told this story about stories to a group of brain-injured patients in wheelchairs, who remembered them! Alcmeon, Aristotle's physician said 'Man dies when he cannot join the end to the beginning'.



Birgitta of Sweden, who had had eight children, journeyed to the Holy Land in her seventieth year with two of them, having a vision there of the Virgin giving birth to her Child in a cave that I also have seen, journeying there prior to entering my convent.


Christine de Pizan's The Treasure of the City of Ladies is a treatise written a generation after Chaucer by an Italian woman at the court of the King of France whose son was page to England's Earl of Salisbury. During the 100 Years' War betwen the two countries. Chaucer's son and granddaughter likewise had connections with that household, Alice Chaucer becoming Countess of Salisbury.
In this text Christine gives us sensible advice on how women (and men) in France, in England, can co-exist, despite jealousy, at court, in a convent, and even (though this was impossible from the founding of the universities in the Gothic era to our own centuries as these institutions rigorously excluded us), in a college. At the beginning of its text the three allegorical ladies of Reason, Right and Justice appear to Christine, telling her to eschew idleness and to write to teach women:

She says:
May all the feminine college and their devout community be apprised of these sermons and lessons of wisdom, First of all to the queens, princesses and great ladies, and then on down the social scale we will chant our doctrines to the other ladies and maidens and all classes of women, so that the syllabus of our school may be valuable to all.

Let us turn now to my major work, the edition of all the manuscripts of Julian of Norwich, Christine's contemporary. Influenced by earlier women in the Church, she wrote contemplative theology as an anchoress in Norwich, in a book she called A Showing of Love. At first she was protected by a brilliant Norwich Benedictine monk and scholar, Adam Easton, who became a Cardinal and who encouraged her to write a book like that of his friend Birgitta of Sweden. When he died, England went through a phase very much like in America following 9/11, when civil rights were taken away, women specifically forbidden to teach or write or translate the Bible into the vernacular, on pain of death by burning at the stake. Julian had been translating directly from the Hebrew Bible into English, two centuries before the King James Bible did. She now had to revise her text, remove almost all the Biblical passages in it, yet keep its integrity. Her last words are forbidden ones, they are a prayer for her 'even Christians. Amen.' I was sitting in the British Library reading that censored manuscript in 1994 when, to my great embarassment, I found myself in an ecstasy so intense that I had to return the manuscript, pack up my papers and go home to my convent in Sussex and pray. Scholars are not meant to respond to texts in that way. Her manuscripts were first destroyed for being Lollard, the early form of Protestantism which believed the Bible should be in our language, not just Latin, then for being Catholic. They were only preserved by nuns who had to live abroad in exile following England's Protestant monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. I studied these manuscripts written by nun scribes that had been preserved by the English Brigittine nuns in Flanders, Rouen and Lisbon, and by the English Benedictine nuns in Cambrai and Paris. I found they were so carefully preserved by them because they knew she was a woman writing contemplative theology, because she gave them meaning. They did so at enormous risk. They could be imprisoned, tortured, starved, hung, drawn and quartered, burnt at the stake, and eventually faced the guillotine. The Carmelite sisters imprisoned together with the English Benedictines were so guillotined at the French Revolution while singing 'Salve Regina', the English nuns' lives were only saved from the same fate because of Robespierre's death. These Benedictines returned to England with their books and manuscripts, wearing the clothes of the dead Carmelites, having none of their own left.

These are figures in power. But everyone has a story to tell if we would listen, even the most downtrodden.





Rose Lloyds often came to visit my convent. One day she told me she had been writing the story of her life. I read it and was entranced and begged her to write the rest of it. A friend illustrated it. I changed nothing. It was perfect. She ends it by describing going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The same pilgrimage I had made. That Margery Kempe had made. That Birgitta of Sweden had made. That Holy Paula had made. That Egeria had made. Each writing or having books written about our pilgrimages. We sent the manuscript to Virago Press. Now Rose had grown up in an orphanage, having been abandoned by her gypsy parents, had won a book prize at the orphanage school, Lorna Doone, presented to her by the Astronomer Royal, then become a servant, and as a Girl Guide, met the Duchess of York, who became the Queen Mother. Her writing is delightful, pointing out the hypocrisy and snobbishness of the rich for whom she works. Virago turned it down, saying someone from Rose's class couldn't write as she had, that I must have ghosted the book. Rose became ill with cancer, disappointed. I begged my Novice Guardian to let me send Rose's book to the Queen Mother. Permission was denied. Rose died. But now her children have re-published it. Her story is read by transported orphans in Australia, in Canada, as well as in England. Her story gave me courage, it gives others courage. And somewhere in Heaven Rose and the Duchess of York surely must be having tea!

Our English class structure is terrible. I was glad I escaped to America at 16 where people didn't know I spoke with a silver spoon in my mouth. Years later, I would come to Florence to research manuscripts by Dante's teacher every summer. The first and only Sabbatical I had was a whole blissful year in Florence. I had asked the Browning Institute if I could look after Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Casa Guidi for them. While there Margaret Forster telephoned me and I mentioned how I didn't think what was needed was yet another biography of Elizabeth, but instead an edition, and that I wanted to write the biography of Lily Wilson her maid. Margaret Forster took the hint and wrote the best-selling Lady's Maid. I was disappointed. Because she gave Lily a damp housemaid's soul. As in T.S. Eliot's Waste Land. Now Elizabeth Barrett Browning's real Lily Wilson, like my Rose, read everything. She named one son Orestes, another Pylades, from Aeschylus' Greek drama; then, because Elizabeth forced her to bring up one child in Italy, another in England, and fired her, Wilson went mad. In my unwritten biography of her I would have had Lily going mad like King Lear, like Walter Savage Landor, in poetry. John Keats, England's greatest poet, was Cockney.

In my school the boarders despised the daygirls, thinking the daygirls to be of a lower class, while, they, the boarders, had more important parents, in India, in South Africa, all over the Empire. The nuns were desperate about the snobbishness, being Socialists, and would beg us to pray in chapel that it would end. It was when I went back to my convent I found the cause.

In this very beautiful but terrible fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli we see the young child Augustine being taken from his unsuspecting mother by the school master. Next we see him flogged, his bottom naked, by the same schoolmaster, held on the back of a prefect. Beside him we see again the boy Augustine, smirking, fragmented, despising not himself but the projection upon others less powerful than he. This is how class structuring is engineered in England. Amongst women as well as men. As girls we already had internalized boys' contempt for us. I discovered our sexual abuse was done by the matron of the little girls in the Junior School. These girls, growing up into the Senior School, then despised all those not initiated into trauma. This is why, when I now travel in America, I go by bus, instead of plane. It's a different world, more natural, more loving. It's a world filled with healing story-telling, with intelligence, with beauty. On the planes people don't talk to each other. One feels their contempt. Their fear. This is how a slave caste is created, serfdom, the servant class. It is wrong. It enslaves masters. It enslaves all of us.


The message of this discourse is both that we need models and that we have models, as women, as men, to be writers of our own books, undoing wrong learning. To being free, to be in our own write/right. The Writ of Habeas Corpus. In my Swiss-owned 'English' Cemetery in Florence we have so many fine writers and sculptors. And slaves, serfs and servants. So I went to St Petersburg, to the 2005 UNESCO conference on computers and culture, for help and they suggested our weblog and petition. Our Cemetery has Elizabeth Barrett Browning who wrote her greatest poems in this room in Florence, stuffing the pages between the cushions when guests or her child came to disturb her:


Her tomb by Lord Leighton has a broken slave shackle on a harp because she hated slavery, though she came from a Jamaican slave-owning family. 'Death is a slave's freedom' is a Greek epitaph, Homer saying when a man becomes slave he has but half his soul. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh has two heroines: one based on Margaret Fuller, Aurora; the other an abandoned gypsy child, Marian, who is herself. Emily Dickinson then used both Aurora Leigh in her poetry and treasured a photograph of her tomb. 'The Soul Selects her own Society, Then Shuts to Door'. Near Elizabeth Barrett Browning lies Fanny Trollope who wrote the first anti-slavery novel, Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw or Lynch Law. Also we have Richard Hildreth, who wrote the second anti-slavery novel, The Slave. Harriet Beecher Stowe copied both of them in her Uncle Tom's Cabin. By Richard Hildreth's is the tomb of Theodore Parker, who preached so eloquently against slavery that Frederick Douglass came straight from the station to his tomb. Douglass, forced by law as a slave to remain illiterate, taught himself to read and write.
You recall that Frederick Douglass wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Slave Written by Himself. The title strongly echoes the earlier one by St Teresa de Avila, The Autobiography of Teresa de Avila Written by Herself. To be in our own right, we have to write. And Mary Somerville buried her husband William here. Now Mary, with no university education, only a few months of school where she was placed in an iron contraption for her spine, discovered two planets and taught mathematics to Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, who then, with Charles Babbage, invented the computer. At least that is what IBM told us back in the 1950s in Silicon Valley, where I was in college. Mary's books are exquisitely written - and were used as science textbooks by the University of Cambridge in the Victorian period.


This strange, baggy monster of a website I created, in this new medium, of electronic coding, of light, instead of ink and paper, was my Logotherapy, returning to being in my right, instead of wronged by deans and bishops. The word, 'Logotherapy', was coined by the same psychiatrist as who coined the word 'Existentialism'. Viktor Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz and the book he was writng, 'Man's Search for Meaning' destroyed. Inside Auschwitz on hidden scraps of paper, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning writing her nine-book epic poem and stuffing the individual pages between the cushions of her invalid chair to hide them from company, Viktor Frankl rewrote the lost book. On being freed he took it to Berlin and published it. Viktor Frankl took issue with both Adler and Freud, asserting that man's, and woman's, greatest need is not power, is not sex, but is meaning. Without meaning to our lives we are not fully alive. Julian of Norwich writes about her earlier wanting of will, her depression blocking her from life, from writing, which she overcomes. Through writing, through reading, we can return to life, our souls be reborn to a lost innocence, a lost energy. Now my cemetery, my library, have become a place of meaning. In freeing myself into meaning I can share that freedom with all. The stories of those buried there, African slave, Russian serf, English servant, equally buried beside their Russian and English mistresses, children, for many children died young in the Victorian period, equal with adults, women equal with men, all having stories to tell, meanings to give, lives to share. For instance, two cousins came, seeking the grave of their ancestress, which they then had restored. How did she die? I asked. In childbirth. What happened to the child? Oh, he is our ancestor, too, they said. Her father and her husband were both clergyman. Imagine the baby's father in clerical garb travelling back to England with his new-born motherless orphan. This is Sarah MacCalmont, looking as if she has stepped straight out of the pages of Jane Austen, whom she likely read. And she still lives. In the memory of her two descendants and now in all of ours. Books and tombs preserve memory, preserve meaning.


Likewise our books in our library include those on indigenous and nomadic peoples, currently subject to discriminating poverty, to trauma, hidden enslavement, that they may be freed into energy from their current despair: American Indian, Black, Aborigine, Gypsy. I should like to paint on its ceiling beams the words Montaigne painted on his study ceiling, words taken from the Roman playwright Terence, who was a freed slave from Africa and who wrote the purest Latin, which Cicero would copy, 'Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto'. Changing it slightly, 'Mulier sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto'. 'We are human; nothing that is human is alien from us'. This young writing couple in Pompei likely saw that play, heard those lines.

Archeology of Websites

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