Another Favorite from 2012

Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy by Craig A Monson

  • 206 pages (241 with notes and index)
  • Dense, academic writing style makes this rather serious book a good choice for quiet bedtime reading; sometimes stretches between stopping points are a little long

Reading Greenblatt’s The Swerve, in which he blames the narrow-mindedness of Christian society for the loss of classical philosophy, put me in mind of this book. Craig Monson writes about women who chafed at the constraints put on them by Christian expectation.

I admit that I picked up this book because the title gave me a chuckle. I went to a private grade school run by Italian nuns who would never have done anything the least bit improper (they were dedicated and kind, remarkable women). What made me buy the book, however, was the chance to learn something about this large segment of Europe’s female population during the 16th and 17th centuries. Most of history has little to say about these women—after all, they were hardly encouraged to participate in politics, the sciences or the arts. In romantic or period literature, a convent is often a bit like a roach motel for female characters: they check in, but they don’t check out, and no one hears from them ever again.

In spite of the sometimes hard going with the author’s writing style, he has liberated some truly surprising and entertaining stories from the Vatican archives. The tales involve accusations of practicing dark magic, sneaking out or romance. My favorite story, undoubtedly, is the story of the nuns who conspired to burn down their convent so they could all go home. Those nuns were largely from the same family, the family that had sponsored the convent and effectively cloistered the unmarried cousins as a source of cheap labor in their silk trade. Spoiler alert: silk and silkworms are really flammable, as it turns out.

What I liked best about this book, though, was that peek into the lives of some specific women from that time period. There is a tendency to think of women from that era as just a faceless crowd in gray wool, bustling through the open markets of Europe with bawling, dirty children clinging to their stained skirts. Like the nuns in this book, they must have conspired, sneaked or otherwise tried to live out some dreams of their own. Unlike the nuns, no one much logged commentary about their behavior with the Vatican archives for posterity. We have the sisters to thank for the correspondence of shocked male clergy and other entertaining details in this book.

Photo credit: estherase / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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