This paper discusses the milieux for learning: the Monastery, the University, the Library, the Family.

Introduction: Before the University, learning in Christendom took place in monasteries, which demanded celibacy, a separate but equal gendering. Women such as Hrotswitha and Hildegard could be and were learned in monastic settings. Women, later, though excluded from universities, could and did teach themselves if they had access to books, to libraries, among them Christine de Pizan, Mary Somerville, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Alongside of monasteries was the more natural father-son continuum of the botteghe, of the notarial chambers, such as we see with the family of Brunetto Latino, which cultivated Cicero and Aristotle, Latin and Greek, in the thirteenth century, before the Medici family was heard of. Florence then did not yet have a university. Brunetto, when in exile following the Battle of Montaperti, carried on his store front/ notarial chambers teaching activities in Arras, returning to Florence to do the same following the Battle of Benevento, teaching his own sons and others, including Dante.

I. The University: To understand our predicament today – and our likely failure if we competitively modernize and annihilate an understanding of our past -- we need to know this history. Aristotle entered the west by way of the Arabs, where the Koran and Aristotle could be studied in mosques by masters and disciples. For in times of war adversaries become uniform, at the Crusades the West adopting Arabic learning and Gothic architecture. Aristotle, from pagan Athens, is more Pauline than Christian, considering women to be less than slaves.


The story of Abelard and Heloise furthered this attitude and shut out the presence of women from university lecture halls from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries. She famously told him that cradles had to be kept out of libraries, distaffs not be mixed with ink-wells, [Ut autem hoc philosophici studii nunc omittam impedimentum, ipsum consule honeste conversationis statum. Que enim conventio scolarium ad pedissequas, scriptoriorum ad cunabula, librorum sive tabularum ad colos, stilorum sive calamorum ad fusos? Quis denique sacris vel philosophicis meditationibus intentus, pueriles vagitus, nutricum que hos mittigant nenias, tumultuosam familie tam in viris quam in feminis turbam sustinere poterit? Que etiam inhonestas illas parvulorum sordes assiduas tolerare valebit? Id, inquies, divites possunt, quorum palatia vel domus ample diversoria habent, quorum opulentia non sentit expensas nec cotidianis sollicitudinibus cruciatur. Sed non est, inquam, hec conditio philosophorum que divitum, nec qui opibus student vel secularibus implicantur curis divinis seu philosophicis vacabunt officiis], subalternizing herself and their child, so aptly named ‘Astrolabe’, the Arabic computing machine. Women are present with men in Christian churches, and equal, though apart from men, in Christian monasteries. With the establishing of universities as the official centres for the study of theology, the ‘Queen of Sciences’, a gender apartheid now took place that distorted Christianity away from being the religion of ‘women and slaves’. (We recall that in the Canon of the Mass the first woman named is the slave Felicity, murdered before her mistress, Perpetua, at Carthage.) The adoption, likewise, of the Syrian imposter Pseudo-Dionysius as Apostolic Father, who had invented the word ‘hierarchy’ and who is quoted by Thomas Aquinas more than a thousand times as authority, despite Abelard seeing him as fraudulent, also bent the universities from the true of the Gospel. Exacerbating these problems has been their Napoleonic secularization.

     My own experience confirms this history. As a girl I had dreamed of reading history at Oxford. But the money was only for my brother’s schooling and I was sent to America at 16. There, history began with the Mayflower, so I switched to English Literature which at least commenced with Chaucer. In graduate school with three small children to raise I was told scholarships only went to young unmarried men as they would be a credit to the university. However, I  experienced at Berkeley the great English historian Sir Richard Southern coming as visiting professor and admitting 50 students to his Seminar on the Twelfth Century, not our usual 12, and then having all of us collaborate in our research topics, on women, on Jews, on outsiders, on Heloise and Abelard, working with each other. The members of our seminar continued collaborating after he left, a brilliant Berkeley generation.

     Teaching at Princeton, I had a Hopi student chosen when he was a toddler to inherit all the Hopi sacred lore. Neither Hopi nor Navaho are competitive, to them this being an evil. He drew a large C- on his blue book for the Chaucer mid-term examination. I said I would sadly accept his self-evaluation until the final examination and suggested for an A+ he not only answer our standard questions on the Canterbury Tales but also give the Hopi analogues. He did – and his grade certainly was A+. When applying to graduate school he asked me to write letters of recommendation. To my horror these were government forms for American Indian students asking me to rate how competitive he was. He was also turned down by most universities on the basis that he lacked a second language. The rare Hopi language, because it was only oral, not written, did not count. His dream was to give his people their written language. Now, he tells me, the government is even taking away the little water their sacred city has, a city they believe to be the world’s centre, whose ceremonies are crucial for maintaining the world’s peace and its survival.

     I taught first at the University of California at Berkeley, then at Franciscan Quincy University, then at Princeton University, then at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I became Director of Medieval Studies. But always my pay as a woman was too low to educate my three sons. I loved teaching, loved research, loved languages, and brought many grants to my universities. I met with jealousy from women, negation by men, and hostility from both in secular universities where religion is scorned. The competitive managerial style steadily became worse. I published and perished. While colleagues who were male made fabulous salaries for arabesquing Marx, indulging ephemerally in Theory, etc.

II. The Monastery: To edit Julian of Norwich, I renounced the University, entered my convent, then became a hermit, sensing the need to balance body, mind and soul, in work, study, prayer, in the love of God and neighbour, returning to the older paradigm, rather than specializing only in the intellect while assaulting pyramids. I am now shut out of academic privileges if I ever had them. I cannot access Questia or MUSE or JSTOR, even to read my own books pirated there or reviews of them. I cannot access refereeing structures. Which I consider a sham since the day I had a colleague at Boulder announce he would see to it that junior women, my graduate students, would not get their papers refereed favourably because of their gender. So I published them – open access – on the Web:

     I chose the earlier model of the monastery which continues through time. As I now compile a vast bibliography around Julian of Norwich and which includes the Friends of God and your Jan van Ruusbroec I find that this was the model that strips away the agenda of egoism and competitiveness, that it is what Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich call the ‘cell of self-knowledge and of God’, Virginia Woolf, the ‘room of one’s own’, that shuts out the over-stimulation by the ephemera of consumerism and money, for a dialogue on love transcending time and death. Interestingly I find that the deepest readings of Julian come from those with OSB, OP, O.Carm, and O.Cart, following their names, those who live in community and in silence, in collaboration and peace. These are the productive scholars rather than those of the academy forever struggling up self-aggrandizing ladders of the tenuring pyramid.

     Many of the Contemplatives title their treatises with the word ‘Perfection’. Writing on how to become perfect, how to fulfil one’s gifts and talents to the utmost. But both models, the university for centuries, and the monastery still, are supposedly celibate models, divorced from families. My Anglican bishops next bulldozed and sold my convent when they had to convert the red ink the Church of England accumulated back into black from their property speculation. So I came to Florence seeking to further perfect how to learn, how to teach, without money. I suppose one could call this present model I have chosen that of the ‘beguine’, the solitary woman who binds books, the model Belgium gave us.

III. The Library: Our models are co-operative, not competitive. Women have become fine writers through having been in great libraries, Christine de Pizan having the run of the library of the King of France when she was a mere child,


likewise Elizabeth Barrett Browning having the rich library her father assembled in Malvern with his wealth from slaves, she abhorring slavery, both women writing for Europe and for freedom. I owe my own academic foundation to my writer father’s library in which I read obsessively as a child. He was Gandhi’s friend and biographer.

     Now with just a library, a computer and a bicycle, I live and study on my small pension, for exercise weeding the cemetery I tend, and daily saying the Offices, finding in this way great productivity and joy, using the mind with the body and the soul. ‘Use it or lose it’. In diaspora from the Academy, from the convent, I can and do edit manuscripts, self-archiving my research on the Internet to the benefit of colleagues and the public, networking this material globally; I can and do organize international conferences in Florence on ‘The City and the Book’, publishing their Proceedings on the web; I can and do have the library I have formed open to all, to Roma, learning to write their names, to scholars from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. In eight years of running the historic Swiss-owned so-called ‘English’ Cemetery in Florence I have succeeded in researching, writing and publishing eight scholarly books.     

      I recommend these maverick open-access alternatives to universities, where outsiders can become insiders, where money is not of importance but where love and knowledge are, where learning can be placed on the Web for all, for our physical, mental and spiritual health and well-being. Our library flourishes, without money, from its rule that to be a reader one gives it a book a year, thus doubling its holdings in eight years.

We also restore, hand-bind and publish books, having learned how to do so from a great Florentine book-binder whose own modern children no longer want his craft passed down through five generations. Our hand-bound limited editions of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Julian of Norwich, for which the Roma families marble the paper, earn the funds for restoring the tombs.

     Our library works seamlessly with our website on Florence:, our website on the Contemplatives, and our newest website, on the Roma,, our one expense, apart from paper and ink, being web space,

DANTE ALIGHIERI: File Audio in italiano:
Lettura di Carlo Poli, Inferno I, Inferno II, Inferno III, Inferno IV, Inferno V, [VI-VII], Inferno VIII, Inferno IX, Inferno X, [XI], Inferno XII, Inferno XIII, [XIV], Inferno XV, Inferno XVI,[XVII-XXXII], Inferno XXXIII, Inferno XXXIV
Purgatorio I, Purgatorio II, Purgatorio III, Purgatorio IV, Purgatorio V, Purgatorio VI, Purgatorio VII, Purgatorio VIII, Purgatorio IX], Purgatorio XPurgatorio XI, Purgatorio XII, [XIII-XIX], Purgatorio XX, Purgatorio XXI, [XXII-XXVII], Purgatorio XXIX, Purgatorio XXX, Purgatorio XXXI, Purgatorio  XXXII, Purgatorio XXXIII
Paradiso I, Paradiso II, Paradiso III, Paradiso IV, Paradiso V, Paradiso VI, Paradiso VII, Paradiso VIII, Paradiso IX, [X-XI], Paradiso XII, [XIII-XXXII], Paradiso XXXIII
Padre Nostro, Vergine Madre
Carlo Poli was born in the Mugello, where Giotto was born.
He is dedicating the rest of his life to reciting and recording Dante.


Here we publish oral readings in mp3 recordings of Dante’s Commedia, that reach even the Italian diaspora in Australia, and of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry,


as well as electronic texts of Brunetto Latino’s writings, and of Birgitta of Sweden’s and Julian of Norwich’s theology, in five languages, both Brunetto and Birgitta writing for all Europe.

     A major theme of our library and of our websites is of indigenous and nomadic peoples and their languages, excluded from dominant cultures but worthy of being studied and nurtured: Roma (whose Indo-European Romany language is not even counted amongst the European Union’s languages, though they are our largest minority and whose illiteracy, because of their poverty, is very high), Rumantsch, Australian Aborigine, African American, American Indian, etc.

On one side:







           On the other:    

      1 . 6 ......
      2 .. 7 .......
      3 ... 8 ........
      4 .... 9 .........
      5 ..... 10 ..........



IV. The Family: I give alphabet and number cards to Roma families, adults and children both needing these. Our library departs from the plea by Heloise and Abelard to separate cradles from books.






Together we and the Roma build their cradles and house their families with us, the ‘cradle in the library’, while they restore our tombs, and then return to Romania to build or repair their houses with their earnings.


Gabriela in her cradle


The house-building in Romania, even Gabriela’s grandmother helping.


Drawings by/
Disegni di Daniel Dumitrescu, Words by/Parole di Vandana Culea e Daniel Dumitrescu

Familia, Familie, Famiglia, Family


Gajo                                        Lomni                       Cāzai         Phral
Bārbat                                    Femeie                      Copil         Frate
Uomo                                      Donna                       Bambino    Fratello
Man                                        Woman                      Boy            Brother

Baba                                        Dai                             Ciai          Phen
Tată                                         Mamă                        Fată          Soră
Padre                                      Madre                        Bambina   Sorella
Father                                     Mother                       Girl          Sister


Daniel and Vandana, parents of Gabriela, our fourth Roma family, are writing books in our library for their people and for us.  These hand-bound books are in four languages, in Romany, Romanian, Italian and English, for instance, on Roma culture,

 Costruzioni, Constructions


Cangheri                                                       Cher
Chiesa                                                           Casa
Church                                                          House

On house construction,

Per edificare una casa/ For building a house:







Block made from earth and cement







and on family health care, in our project on family preservation and language preservation in the face of their slavery by the monasteries from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century and their genocide within living memory for which no reparations have been paid.

Our project ‘From Graves to Cradles’ is for their home-schooling each other, while they restore tombs and build cradles in Florence and buy, build or restore their homes in Romania, until they can climb out of their illiteracy and poverty and enter schools and universities. We now dream of it as also including their making their traditional caravans as libraries, travelling from camp to camp, in Italy and in Romania, to function as intergenerational schools, on the order of Ethiopia's similar project for children with donkey cart libraries. Our sense is that Florence is the world’s university, that can be open to all, not as a corporate Medici fiefdom, but as a global Republic of Letters in which contadini (peasants) and artigiani (craftspeople), children, women and men, above all, families, participate and share. These are concepts of openness, of enabling, that we need for our new Europe, beyond its Bologna Process, beyond its Lisbon Strategy.

Conclusion: For the model of the new university, open accessing the ivory tower academy to the monastery, the library and, above all, the family, I suggest we hold in mind Jan van Ruusbroec and his community writing their many and lovely contemplative books under the trees of Groenendaal. Because of whom the President of Beijing’s Global Village, the ecologist Sheri Liao Xiaoyi, visited both me and Groenendaal, our making these contacts through the Web and her seventeen-year-old daughter filming our conversation about Florence’s history on the steps of the Ospedale degli Innocenti. We are women and men working together as is done in the Roma families. We are Europe. We are the Global Village.



Our fourth Roma family, Daniel, Gabriela, the baby for whom our tenth cradle was built, and Vandana, in our library, which is also theirs. For it is ‘Everybody’s Library.’

Julia Bolton Holloway, Professor Emerita, Mediatheca Fioretta Mazzei, ‘English’ Cemetery, Piazzale Donatello, 38, 50132 FIRENZE, ITALY, Telephone: 39 055 582608, e-mail:

Paper read with Power Point slides at the ‘Beyond Bologna: Rethinking the University’ International Conference, Antwerp, 12 December, 2008.

Gabriela's Passport Photograph
European Citizen

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