The very thought of nuns stirs up images of dark-panelled Victorian rooms, smells of polish and cooking cabbage, the swish of long black robes and the peculiar, creepy softness of holy voices. Silvia Evangelisti, who specialises unpromisingly in “gender history” at the University of East Anglia in England, presents a radically different and intriguing picture.
Her nuns, observed mostly in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, are independent, jolly, productive and determined. They never needed men anyway, and rejoiced in the only life that could give them a proper social standing outside marriage. (“A husband or a wall” were the alternatives.) They wrote, painted, put on theatrical shows, sang like angels and ran their own communities as competently as any male—so competently that if any bishop tried to saddle them with rules they did not like, they had a good go at defying him.
Nor were convents dreary places. They were often sited next to palaces and catered for the elite. Noble girls were sent there because it was cheaper and easier than finding a husband for them: the dowry due was sometimes as little as one-tenth of the average marriage-portion in a wealthy house. The girls trooped in in crowds. In Florence, between 1500 and 1800, almost half of the female elite lived in convents; in Milan, three-quarters of the daughters of the aristocracy could be found with rosaries and wimples, piously enclosed.
But they lived in style. Convents, after all, were family affairs, with sisters, aunts and cousins all around. Nuns’ rooms were meant to be spartan, with a hard bed and one devotional painting; but records show they also had tapestries, embroidered pillows, books and spinets and guitars, with en suite latrines and, in some cases, family coats-of-arms over the door. Nuns had their own servants, too, just as they had at home. They received visitors in the parlour; a painting of 1740 shows such a merry scene in one, with fruit-sellers and puppet-shows and children and dogs, that it is hard to tell which group, nuns or visitors, is on which side of the grille.
Because of their aristocratic connections, Ms Evangelisti argues, nuns had real power. They could lobby politicians and network with royals, despite enclosure. A thick glass ceiling made nuns subject not only to bishops and popes but to the supposedly superior firepower of male intellects. Even so, some dared to argue back: Arcangela Tarabotti, for example, scribbling in bed at night books called “Paternal Tyranny” and “Women are No Less Rational than Men”; or Juana Inés de la Cruz, who wrote 65 sonnets and 62 romances and, in 1691, an “Answer” to the Bishop of Puebla that dared to enter the theological lists with him.
Yet even women like Sister Juana, who kept a library in her cell and whose heavy-browed stare still challenges the world to explain itself, were subject to male spiritual advisers. Under their direction nuns kept diaries of ecstasies and prayer, or sometimes painted their visions directly onto canvas. More often than not, in the name of spiritual humility, they were then ordered to destroy what they had done.
That fact accounts in part for the absence from this book of the inner lives of nuns; but it does not wholly explain it. Ms Evangelisti seems uninterested in that side of things. She likes the social, political and cultural whirl; but it was the sealed quiet of the cell that made the real world of these women, and the reader is hardly ever there.
Nor does this book deal much with resistance. A life of enclosed virginity is not natural, and many were forced into it, with their hair cropped short and the door slammed behind them. Some no doubt adjusted and thrived; others did not. Deprived of loving human company, they were supposed to talk instead to medallions of Christ on their breasts. Robbed of the chance to be mothers, they would dress and dandle “Jesus dolls”. In the wilds of Canada an Ursuline nun lamented that native Indian girls, brought into the convent to learn French and wear long dresses, would scale the fence “like squirrels” and run off into the woods. One wonders how many of Ms Evangelisti’s feisty, empowered, intelligent nuns secretly longed to do the same.
Nuns: A History of Convent Life
By Silvia Evangelisti
Oxford University Press; 301 pages; £17.99. To be published in America by Oxford University Press in May
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