Sisters behind the grille


March 9, 2007

There is more to nuns than piety and prayer, Gerald Grace discovers.

Silvia Evangelisti has written a fascinating book that will shatter the simple image of nuns held by many and replace it with a more sophisticated, nuanced and complex understanding of the women who entered the convent in Catholic Europe during the period 1450-1700.

With detailed research and use of the voices of nuns, this book is successful in deconstructing simplistic notions of who the nuns were, of why they entered the convent, of what they did there, of their relationship to wider society and to the institutional Catholic Church and of their attitudes to being cloistered "Brides of Christ".

The first chapter, "Nuns and nunneries", effectively demolishes any idealised or pious views of convents and the religious life by providing a sharply written socioeconomic analysis. Evangelisti shows that convents served the interest of both families and women in Catholic Europe and were not simply repositories for a divine call or holy vocation. Some women entered the convent because "the convent offered the perfect way to live outside marriage and the family". The inevitable destiny of marriage (often to a man not freely chosen by the woman) could be avoided by becoming a nun. Many early "feminists" found in the convent and in religious life a desirable sanctuary from the oppressions of patriarchal families.

Within the convent, women could exercise the whole range of administrative and leadership positions not available to them in the external world. The convent offered resources for female education and for creative work.

But if the convent served the interests of some women, it also served the interest of families. In what could be called the comparative economics of marriage and of the religious life, Evangelisti argues that "the convent dowry or 'spiritual dowry'I was usually lower than a marriage dowry... Unsurprisingly, forced monastic professions were not infrequent, as families did not hesitate to sacrifice their daughters for economic convenience. The result of this was that many nuns lived in religious houses against their will." Elite families used convents as one way of avoiding the constant drain of dowry payments for the marriage of their daughters. Many aristocratic convents owed their existence to this policy.

Some women resisted this enforced enclosure. Marie-Suzanne Simonin, when asked by the bishop, "do you promise God chastity, poverty and obedience?", answered boldly in the presence of her parents and the congregation: "No, Sir, no."

A strong theme of resistance runs throughout this study, forcing us to revise our conceptions of nuns as always docile and obedient. A major point of struggle was over the issue of strict enclosure - of "walls, doors and grilles".

The institutional Church, especially after the Council of Trent (1563), emphasised enclosure as an absolute requirement for female religious life.

This was to enable nuns "to serve God more freely, wholly separated from the public and worldly gaze, (with) occasions for lasciviousness having been removed". The consequences of this obsession were potentially disastrous for the involvement of nuns in the wider social life of the community and for their economic activities. While most convents finally capitulated to this iron rule, Evangelisti shows that some, especially in the Low Countries, continued with forms of active apostolate and charitable work outside the cloister even after Trent.

Although strongly insulated from the outside world, convents nevertheless reproduced many of its social hierarchies. Two "classes" existed: choir nuns and servant nuns. Choir nuns usually came from noble and wealthy families, servant nuns from rural or lower class families. This book is, in effect, the story of the privileged choir nuns who had access to the cultural resources of the convent and to its leadership positions.

It was not until the 1960s that these class divisions within convents were abolished as contradictory to the ideal of monastic community. The story of the servant nuns is yet to be told in detail.

Three chapters, "Voices from the cloister", "Theatre and music" and "The visual arts", document the extent to which convents were dynamic centres of creative activity and intellectual production, with nuns involved in the generation of literature, plays, poetry, musical events and fine art. Once again, the Church tried to constrain and regulate this creativity as in some way being deleterious to the religious vocation of women. Despite this, the work flourished, and it is clear that there is still a large "secret garden" of religious women's artistic achievements to be fully revealed and appreciated.

Chapters 6 and 7 look at "Nuns across the globe" and "Open communities of women". Nuns were vital to the making of the Catholic colonised world.

Evangelisti records the efforts of the Ursulines, the first female teaching order in the Catholic world, teaching native girls in French America in their own languages. Marie de l'Incarnation, the first Ursuline in French Canada, learnt to speak Algonquin, Montagnais and Iroquoian and to write in them, too.

Later, charismatic women such as Mary Ward (1585-1645) founded active religious congregations such as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary ("the English ladies") dedicated to the work of female education and pursuing their work outside the enclosure walls. This was a direct challenge to Rome, and Ward was declared "a heretic, a schismatic, an obstinate rebel against Holy Church".

This book has brought feisty, intelligent, creative and pioneering nuns out of the margins of history and put them centre stage. As Evangelisti shows, many of them were determined fighters against oppressively patriarchal ideologies and structures in their families, their societies and their Church. A smaller number authored tracts in defence of the female sex, challenging the widespread belief that they were morally and physically inferior to men. Teresa of gvila wrote: "Lord, you did not abhor women.

When you were on earth, instead you favoured them with great piety and found in them such love and more faith than in men. Is it not enough, Lord, that the world keeps us enclosed and incapable of doing anything useful for you in public or daring to state truths, that we weep in secret for you to hear our rightful plea?"

The Venetian nun Arcangela Tarabotti wrote Women Are No Less Rational than Men in 1651, and although a second text, Monastic Hell and Paternal Tyranny , remained unpublished, it circulated in manuscript form among her friends and acquaintances.

In reading Evangelisti's book, one cannot help reflecting on how many talented and capable religious women continue to experience the frustrations and constraints of patriarchal domination in the Catholic Church today and how many leave the religious life as a result of these frustrations. This is not to deny, of course, that there are many other religious women who accept the legitimacy of patriarchal rule and live out their genuine vocations in dedicated prayer, service, humility and obedience - fulfilling the ideal model of the nun as Rome has constructed it. However, the great achievement of Evangelisti's excellent book is to demonstrate that this is not the only version of the nuns' story.

Gerald Grace is director of the Centre for Research and Development in Catholic Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Nuns: A History of Convent Life 1450-1700

Author - Silvia Evangelisti
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 312
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0 19 280435 8

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