Seventeenth-century Italian nuns were well trained in the arts of evasion. A community of 12 women from the exclusive southern Italian convent of San Niccolò di Strozzi in Reggio Calabria fell under suspicion when their convent burned down in 1673. On "discovering" the fire, the nuns failed to raise the alarm but left the premises with remarkable speed and efficiency. The conflagration was, unsurprisingly, the talk of the town. Was it the result of arson - the organised attempt of a group of privileged but uncommitted nuns to burn down the walls that imprisoned them? Or was it an accident - the consequence of keeping an attic full of silkworms, bedded down on dry cane, and surrounded by continual fires to boost their growth? Either way, there was a case to answer.
But when the fugitive women, now accommodated in a neighbouring convent, were interrogated by the archbishop, they boldly pretended not to know what he was talking about. "Do you know, or could you guess, why you were summoned, and the reasons for this investigation?" "I wouldn't know, My Lord," each replied in turn.
A hundred years earlier, a Bolognese convent was the object of a rather different kind of scandal regarding a stolen viola and the attempt of a group of nuns to identify the thief by means of "diabolical arts". The crime may sound innocuous by comparison with the destructive antics of the Reggio nuns, but in the 16th century, dallying with the devil was as bad as it got, and the local inquisitor lost no time in calling on the convent. Again, the nuns feigned perplexity. In the words of the subprioress: "I've not the slightest idea why Your Reverence has summoned me. But I couldn't be more surprised if the grand Turk himself stood there in front of me."
Craig Monson's wonderful new book, Nuns Behaving Badly, is not so much a catalogue of female monastic misdemeanours as an experiment in historical narrative. Based on two decades of research in the Vatican Secret Archive, the five stories he tells are dramatic but never sensationalised. The actors give their accounts in their own words. They refuse to follow a script; sometimes they refuse to speak at all; more often, they contradict one another. Meanwhile, the author refrains from passing judgement.
This is not to say that Monson is an invisible presence - far from it. In fact, the book is framed by explicitly autobiographical excursions in which he exchanges greetings with a Swiss guard, frets about the limited archive opening hours, dodges a "scratchy brown Capuchin friar" (a fellow archive user who doesn't give much thought to bathing) and reflects on the position of nuns in the US Church today. Each chapter allows different interpretations and perceptions of the same event to be layered up on top of each other. For the most part, the effect is a rich and nourishing intellectual lasagne. Just occasionally, "the dizzying profusion of Italian names", for which Monson apologises more than once, can leave the reader feeling as though she's landed in a pasticcio.
But the moments of confusion are part and parcel of being thrust into the often chaotic world of the convent. Monson's female protagonists are less sexual than the centuries-old stereotype of the "naughty nun" would lead us to expect; their transgressions and excesses, manifest in their violent in-fighting, flamboyant embroidery and clandestine opera-going, were no less destabilising for that.
Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy
By Craig A. Monson
University of Chicago Press 264pp, £22.50
Published 30 November 2010