Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art & Arson in the Convents of Italy, Craig A Monson, The University of Chicago Press, Pp 241(HB), $29.75
NUNS in churches world over have had tales to tell, of oppressive atmosphere, chauvinistic superiors and worse. In India too there have been several accounts published over the years that reveal the plight of this important segment of the institution of church.
Craig A Monson’s mischievously titled book Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art & Arson in the Convents of Italy chronicles some select incidents, mostly from 17th century when the nuns made news because of their behaviour. Most of these, by today’s standards, hardly merit the word ‘sin.’ But such were the trite times then that the smallest of violations of the rules were treated with seriousness and heavy hand.
Much of Italy was in a state of poverty. There was a saying that ‘A woman should have a husband or a wall’ the wall being the convent. Says Monson, “A respectable woman’s choice – actually her father’s uncle’s or brother’s choice for her – was either marriage or the convent… Husbands wanted bigger dowries, and too many dowries drained the family coffers… Convent wanted dowries too and genteel families recognized them as a necessary evil. Otherwise any sort of girl might get it. But convents settled for a fraction of what a husband demanded.”
So while one daughter was groomed for marriage, the others were sent to the convents, most of the time sisters going to the same convent to smoothen resistance. And in convents, they had hardly anything worthwhile to do. Children were admitted at ages seven upwards, before they tasted alternative courses open to them. The ‘occupations’ open to the nuns in convents depended on the class they came from. While the ‘aristocrats’ indulged in silk embroidery (not for sale), the lower ones sewed religious habits and altar furnishings. Further down the ladder they carried out “fancy laundry (starching and pressing collars, ruffs and fancy cuffs.”
Monson, researching on the archives for music stumbled upon some of these stories, which he chose to recount as they gave a fascinating account of those times. He has included the episode of a nun who sang for an audience, a nun who stole and tore another’s chapel donation (a piece of embroidery), inmates of a convent who together conspired to burn the place down to escape and the biggest sin of all, a nun eloping from the convent. Each of these received a thorough enquiry and resultant observations and ‘punishments’ from the higher ups, the bishops and sometimes the Pope himself.
Monson speak of inter-clan rivalries and says, “…if we can believe one seventeenth-century writer, churches themselves provided convenient sanctuaries for the lawless. “Most of these criminals, enjoying the inviolable security of the churches, which they commonly called ‘sanctuaries,’ grow so insolent and so irreverent, so filthy, and behave so disrespectfully toward God, whose house receives them, that a Turk (the natural enemy of the faith) could not live there with greater impiety.”
There was also the issue of mixing of different classes of girls in the convent. The entire community in San Niccolo supported prioress in her letter to the Sacred Congregation when she wrote to stop the admission of ‘common girls.’ She said, “The convent was founded with the express prohibition not, in any circumstances, to admit girls on payment of a dowry, but only to admit the founder’s kin. We now hear that many other sorts of girls demand admittance here… moreover, there are in this city two other convents that accept the commoner sorts of girls, with dowries. We therefore humbly beseech Your Excellencies to order Monsignor the Archbishop not to make changes of any sort against our founding statutes.”
After going through the archives, Monson makes an interesting observation that the church authorities have reacted to such ‘scandals’ the same way as they do now. Closed inquiries, suppression of information, quiet transfer of persons concerned and then the burial of the whole episode as though it never happened.
“Though our heroines and most of their haunts have vanished, it seems that unruly female behavior continues to challenge the modern Catholic Church. As then, it provokes familiar responses from the church hierarchy, which in turn can inspire familiar reactions from some within the modern lay community. There is notable difference – today’s Catholic women who misbehave sufficiently to run afoul of their Catholic superiors usually follow strong if unorthodox religious vocations…” In contrast the women then were bound to their vows by custom and tradition and in a practical sense, had nowhere else to go.
Culled out from exhaustive archives, that are difficult to access, the stories of these nuns also depict the socio-economic reality of 16th – 17th century Italy. Monson has an elaborate introduction and epilogue that helps the reader understand the book better. A valuable contribution.
(The University of Chicago Press, 1427, East 60th Street, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA)