Craig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly is an unassuming collection of events at five Italian convents spanning the late 16th to the early 18th centuries w...moreCraig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly is an unassuming collection of events at five Italian convents spanning the late 16th to the early 18th centuries whose inmates asserted themselves against the severe boundaries that delimited their lives. Despite its title and this picture which graces the back of my edition’s dust jacket –
there’s little that’s salacious. Anyone hoping to read about orgies or demonic rites a la The Monk will be disappointed. In fact, in regards to sex and convents, Monson writes:
“Those who would spin nun-priest fantasies in the world, whether today or in eighteenth-century Bologna, would be surprised and probably disappointed to learn that contacts between male and female celibates in post-Tridentine Italy usually centered on less salacious intimacies than those that might take place in bed. Often characterized by words such as amicizia (friendship, amity), intrinsichezza (intimacy, close inwardness), domestichezza (familiarity, acquaintance, conversation), these relationships commonly involved activities that seem positively “domestic” by most notions of shocking behavior. Cooking treats, mending clothes, sewing, washing, passing letters, exchanging gifts – these were the “crimes” the church often considered scandalous. Or, of course, there were the expected incidents of carnival silliness. All in all, when the post-Tridentine cloister wall became virtually impregnable, interpersonal preoccupations seem generally to have shifted from the more explicitly lascivious to what was more realistically practical. While some of these relationships might borrow elements of secular courtship or marriage, evidence suggests that in most cases the relationships were scarcely physical, much less overtly sexual.” (pp. 169-70)
Monson is a professor of music at my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, and I found it interesting how he came to write this book. He ran across a manuscript of songs sung by nuns and was surprised to discover verses like this:
“You who’ve got that little trinket, So delightful and so pleasing, Might I take my hand and sink it ‘Neath petticoat and cassock, squeezing.” (p. 2)
From there, he descended into the Vatican archives and uncovered a trove of stories about convents and their often tumultuous relationships with the Roman Church hierarchy. Most of the stories are incomplete, fragments of transcripts that break off mid-investigation, leaving the reader without a resolution. Monson managed, however, to piece together the five cases presented here. Neither Monson nor his protagonists have any agendas. Monson is not arguing that these cases represent a proto-feminism in early Modern Italy. And the nuns have no motives beyond trying to exercise some control in their own lives.
Chapter one is an overview of convent life in Catholic Italy, and I enumerate below some of the interesting things I learned:
1. Respectable women were either married or in a convent, which was the “sink” for a family’s otherwise useless daughters. (Dowries went from the bride’s family to the groom’s, so a surfeit of girls could impoverish even the wealthiest of families.)
2. Because of #1, a city’s population could comprise a large number of nuns (14% of the citizenry of Bologna c. 1630).
3. Not surprisingly, most nuns did not have a real vocation.
4. Despite vows which forbade contact with the outside world, these women kept in touch with relatives and friends and the gossip of the city via the parlatorio, a grated window to the world, and the convent chapel.
5. In the 1500s, convent singing expanded beyond the plainchant to the polyphonous chants their male brethren were singing, much to the dismay of many (male) churchmen.
6. Convent choirs and individual singers, for a variety of reasons Monson touches upon, became popular tourist attractions in many Italian cities, even getting mentions in the “Lonely Planet” guides of the period.
7. A convent was nearly the only place a reputable woman could sing.
8. Convents were divided into two classes of nun: the professe – the upper class/aristocratic daughters of the well-to-do who labored at the more genteel arts of weaving and such, and the converse – the daughters of commoners who kept the cloister running.
9. Despite the lack of real vocations and their severely restricted lives, many professe had – potentially – more fulfilling lives than their secular counterparts. (A relative measure, of course, since they were still powerless outside of the convent’s walls and wards of their male superiors.)
As a quick and dirty primer on conventual life, I found this part of the book very useful. The remaining chapters are self-contained case studies about individual convents, beginning with the scandals that plagued San Lorenzo in Bologna in 1584. For lovers of Gothic romances like The Monk, it’s this first case and that of San Niccolò di Strozzi that come closest to the sordid escapades one finds in that genre. At San Lorenzo, the inquisitor discovered evidence that the sisters had conjured a devil to help find a missing viola (unsuccessfully). But they were restored to a respectable state after a mild penance. (Monson points out that it is ironic that an inquisitorial investigation operated under stricter guidelines and almost modern models of investigation than its secular counterparts.) At San Niccolò, an ill-considered conventual establishment and a clash between the nuns and an obnoxious archbishop culminated in arson.
At the end, this glimpse into the lives of these women fascinated me and I would recommend it. It also left me melancholic, seeing so many lives stunted by the social and religious demands of their culture. E.g., in the eyes of Cardinal Paleotti, the corruption at San Lorenzo began when the nuns were allowed to sing to adoring public audiences. In answer, he forbade any songs other than plainchant and then only in the privacy of the cloister. Or that in 1703, Pope Clement XI banned carnival and opera for five years, hoping to avert the wrath of God for Italy’s licentiousness (expressed in a recent series of earthquakes). In 1708, Santa Cristina della Fondazza’s young singing star and opera fanatic, Christina Cavazza, defied her vows to attend performances at the reopened Teatro Malvezzi and endured ten years of house arrest and imposed silence for it.
In his epilog, Monson mentions modern-day examples of Catholic nuns (and congregations in general) defying the male hierarchy: In St. Louis, Archbishop Raymond Burke excommunicated three sisters for getting ordained, excommunicated the board of the city’s Saint Stanislaus Kostka parish for refusing to relinquish control of the church and its endowment, and he forbade Saint Cronan’s parish from hosting in its sanctuary a Jewish rabbi (female) whose synagogue had played host to the ordination mentioned in the first item. (The parish got around the prohibition by sponsoring the rabbi in a tent pitched in the church’s front yard; and Saint Cronan’s church experienced a surge in attendance as the faithful expressed their support against inordinate episcopal pressure.)
It should come as no surprise that Archbishop Burke has since gone on to become head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the modern Inquisition).["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I came across this slim volume (91 pages, text) in a used bookstore quite by chance. It's a collection of essays about life at sea during the "golden...moreI came across this slim volume (91 pages, text) in a used bookstore quite by chance. It's a collection of essays about life at sea during the "golden age" of the British navy (say, 1750-1850): "The Ships", "The Guns", "The Ship's Company", "Life at Sea" and "Songs". It's by no means a comprehensive history but for fans of Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin who don't want to or haven't the time to read weightier tomes, it's a delightful companion to the series.
I'm always amazed by the conditions these men endured for low pay and little reward.(less)
Ernst Junger's memoir of his time on the Western Front (1914-1918) is a powerful glimpse at what it's like to be a soldier, made all the more powerful...moreErnst Junger's memoir of his time on the Western Front (1914-1918) is a powerful glimpse at what it's like to be a soldier, made all the more powerful because it's unadorned with philosophical introspection or politics. The reader joins Junger as he joins his unit in Champagne and leaves him during his final convalescence in a Hanover hospital. In between, we vicariously experience the daily life of a German officer and his men - and "vicarious" is about as close as any rational person would want to get to war.
Junger is not a pacifist. He did not enter the war an eager, young idealist only to have reality turn him into a burnt-out cynic or ardent pacifist as often seems to happen in other, perhaps better-known memoirs. He entered the war an ardent nationalist and patriot, and came out no less so. He is not, however, blind to the horrors and rampant stupidity and the capricious fortune that makes one man a hero and another a coward (or dead). A couple of examples: In the final months of the war, Junger's company (about 80 men) is ordered to advance againt the British lines. They enter the maze of trenches, quickly losing their way and stumble upon an equally confused group of British (New Zealand) soldiers (about 200). The surprise is so complete, the "fog of war" so dense, that, without a melee, Junger's men capture them all. In another engagement, Junger is ordered to take 14 men across the no-man's zone in a reconnaissance mission and to capture some soldiers for interrogation. Almost from the beginning, the patrol goes awry and 10 of the 14 never return. Needless to say, the mission objectives remained unfulfilled. But that appears to be par for the course - little exercises designed to keep the men occupied but with little or no tactical value.
A few of the more affecting passages and observations follow:
The chapter titled "Guillemont" is a nice snapshot of the war. Endless days in the trenches, the filth and physical misery, interrupted by pointless forays against enemy positions. Here and all through the book, Junger's emotional distance strikes the reader (or at least this reader). Colleagues and soldiers drift in and out of the narrative, often with little or no introduction and (perhaps) the briefest of leave takings.
In that same chapter, Junger defines what makes the "good soldier": "Nothing was left in this voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It's men like that that you need for fighting" (p. 92).
There are flashes of sardonic wit, as when the author describes the travails he encounters trying to protect his bicycles from shellfire: "To this unpleasant bit of target-practice I lost four bicycles.... They were comprehensively remodelled and cast to the four winds" (p. 139).
In that same chapter ("In the Village of Fresnoy") we get another glimpse into Junger's idolization of war and the soldier: "There was in these men a quality that both emphasized the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood" (p. 140).
The hypocrisy and lying in war (regarding the write-up of an action): "Then we discussed the most important aspect of the affair: the report. We wrote it in such a way that we were both satisfied" (p. 155).
Evidence that even a "warrior" need to psych himself up to kill: "...I chewed my pipe and tried to talk myself into feeling brave.... Several times I murmured a phrase of Ariosto's: `A great heart feels no dreadof approaching death, whenever it may come, so long as it be honourable'" (p. 171).
And finally, a troubling sentiment that's excused all sorts of atrocities: "The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse..." (p. 241).(less)