Monastic Matrix is one of the longest-lived electronic archives in existence. It began in the late 1970s as the Project on Women and Religious Life, a collaborative effort by two scholars, Mary McLaughlin and Suzanne Wemple Kinder, to collect information about medieval religious women from the manuscripts of European archives. Their aim, like that of many feminist scholars of the time, was to recover evidence of the lost identities and experiences of women who lived in the distant past. However, rather than investigating the few famous women of the medieval period, they tried instead to find evidence about other women and then to draw conclusions about broad patterns in women’s history. Because the best documented women of medieval Europe were nuns, Wemple and McLaughlin collected documents produced by and about convents. They received a grant from the National Endowment of Humanities which allowed them to recruit other medievalists to help encode approximately 3000 pages of archival data for entry into a computer. The material was loaded in a now obsolete computer language and stored on encoded tapes.
In 1993, Mary McLaughlin helped Katherine Gill and Lisa Bitel to rescue the data and begin to translate the collection into a web-based archive. Experts in emerging internet technologies and medievalists from many academic disciplines and institutions advised the new editors and helped to reconceive the collaborative project as a broadly accessible teaching and research website. The new Monastic Matrix contained archival data about religious women as the core of its collection (the Monasticon), but now also included a visual library of artwork, archaeology, site plans, and maps (Figurae), a collection of profiles of individual religious women (Vitae), the most complete bibliography of works related to religious women published anywhere (Bibliographia), a glossary (Vocabularium) of terms for novice researchers, and an on-line library of primary sources (Cartularium) and modern scholarly analyses (Commentaria).
Since 1993, the project has been housed at Mount Holyoke College, Yale University, the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, the University of Southern California, and now The Ohio State University, where the project is supported by the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching and the Department of History. The editorial team, staff, and advisory board still includes scholars from around the academic world working together to enhance and expand Monastic Matrix. The project continues to depend on the voluntary participation of like-minded scholars, students, and others interested in women’s past and the history of religion.
This project is dedicated to the women who began it and to the women whose history it preserves, and to the collaborative spirit that drove them.