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From My Bookshelf: Nuns Behaving Badly

Nuns Behaving Badly book cover

This book came about when the author, an American music professor, discovered a thick, lavishly bound manuscript of secular songs from a mid-1500s convent in Bologna. The following lyrics caught the professor’s eye:

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.

Intrigued, professor Monson began his career as a topo d’archivio, an “archive mouse” scurrying about the archives of the Sacred Congregation in Rome, which oversees monastic discipline, looking for clues about what was really going on behind those convent walls.

Aristocratic families of the Renaissance usually groomed one daughter for marriage, providing her with a lavish dowry, while the other daughters were sent to a convent. It’s estimated that in 17th-century Milan seventy-five percent of upper class women were enclosed a convent.

Tarocco Milanese  di Mitelli Love cardSisters and cousins often went to the same convent where the older generation of aunts may have presided for decades. They furnished their private rooms with hangings, paintings, expensive furniture, and musical instruments. Family dynasties controlled the inner workings of the convent, while interpersonal feuds mirrored political tensions in the outside world.

The church hierarchy saw two dangerous areas of interface between the convent and the outside world. One was the parlatorio, a room where nuns and visitors conversed on either side of a large grated window equipped with a ruota, a revolving shelf that allowed supplies and gifts to be passed back and forth under the grate. The other danger zone was the convent church, where the public came to hear the nuns sing. By the mid-1600s, highly skilled choirs of nuns attracted troublesomely large crowds eager to hear pure soprano voices. In response, the nuns shifted their focus from singing for the glory of God to singing for public acclaim.

Music allowed upper class nuns to carve out intellectual and creative niches for themselves. Nuns from the lower classes, called converse, served as laborers and servants, freeing upper class nuns for their creative pursuits. When nuns from aristocratic families misbehaved, these converse often served as scapegoats. By the mid-1500s, in response to the Council of Trent, the church was attempting to repress music in convents. Nuns were forbidden to sing for the public, they could not sing or play instruments in the presence of a man, they could not employ polyphony, and were restricted in the types of musical instruments they could play. But as we see time and again in this book, these petty bureaucratic regulations didn’t have the power to keep down a feisty, politically connected nun with musical talent.

My favorite chapter is set in 1584 at the convent of San Lorenzo in Bologna, the residence of the highest ranking noble women of the city. A viola went missing, and the nuns’ attempts to divine the identity of the thief illustrate popular fortune telling methods. When the Inquisition came calling, several nuns were happy to tattle on their sisters and reveal many popular divination methods:

  • Scrying with a bowl of holy water laced with rat’s blood
  • Balancing a sieve on the blades of shears and reciting a list of possibilities while waiting for the sieve to shift.
  • Picking beans out of a pile one by one while reciting “he loves me, he loves me not”, or some other either/or choice.
  • Praying to your shadow on the wall and charging it with going out to execute your will (the shadow was evidently a surrogate for a demon).
  • Draw a circle on the floor with a knife then stick the knife in the center of the circle. Stand outside the circle and make a request for information (a garbled version of summoning a demon into a magic circle).
  • Baptize a lodestone by hiding it near the altar for a period, then wear it on a string around your neck to attract a lover. The nuns did a brisk trade in baptized lodestones with women on the outside, as well as wearing them themselves to attract men into the parlatorio.

tarocco Bolognese di Mitelli Devil cardIn 1648, Diego Strozzi, one of the richest and most powerful men in Reggio Calabria, died without a male heir but with many spinster aunts and sisters to be provided for. In his will, he decreed that his palace would be converted to a convent and all the unmarried women of his family would become nuns. The women were completely powerless to do anything about their fate. A generation later, when the convent was populated with the nieces of the original nuns, the frustrated and enraged sisters burnt the convent down. Several nuns readily described the plot to Church investigators. The sisters had gathered their belongings before torching the convent, and assumed they would be allowed to go back to their families. This didn’t work out as planned. They were housed in another convent for three years while their own convent was rebuilt. Meanwhile, their powerful and influential families closed ranks around the women and went on a campaign to defame the much disliked Archbishop. An act of rebellion by cloistered nuns eventually spilled over into every aspect of the city’s power politics.

For 60 years in the mid-to late 1600s, the women of the extremely wealthy and powerful Malvezzi family of Bologna dominated life in the convent of Santa Maria Nuova. When one of them became sacristan, she tore down the church and rebuilt it to her own specifications, paying for the project herself. Being at the pinnacle of the religious community’s hierarchy didn’t prevent the good sister from having a hissy fit one day, yanking an exquisitely embroidered silk hanging off the altar railing, tearing it up with her bare hands and later burning it. She said the sister who embroidered it had copied her own design. Actually, her nose was out of joint because a sister from a lower ranking family ostentatiously donated such a lavish embroidery to the church. The resulting tempest dragged on for years, with Rome pressuring the local bishop to discipline the nun, and the bishop dragging his feet because he didn’t want to antagonize the Malvezzi family.

The description of the convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli as it existed in Pavia in the late 1600s is a depressing story of a convent in its decline. The buildings were in ruins, theTarocco Bolognese di Mitelli Queen of Coins sisters chronically cold and hungry, and there weren’t enough of them to sustain normal community life. The convent’s reputation was further dragged down when two nuns in love with each other ran away together. Things took an even worse turn several years later when a wealthy nun was appointed abbess with the hope that an infusion of her money would revive the convent’s fortunes. The abbess was a widow, which would not bar her from holy orders, but should have prevented her from being appointed abbess. This detail was overlooked thanks to her money. But later it came to light that the church had also chosen to ignore that the abbess, after her husband’s death, had been the mistress of a Bolognese aristocrat, and had entered religious life through a convent for reformed prostitutes and courtesans.

To bring in tarot, surely packs of Mitelli’s Tarocco Bolognese were surreptitiously shoved through the ruota to help relieve the tedium of those long convent evenings.

This book is packed with delicious tidbits of gossip, secular and religious power politics, descriptions of daily life in the pressure cooker of a cloistered convent, and much about music and its place in the religious and cultural life of the late Renaissance. The young Boccaccio would have loved this book.

Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy. Craig A. Monson. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Tarocco Bolognese di G.M. Mitelli. Il Meneghello, Milano, 1992. Love, Devil, Queen of Coins.

Read about Bologna’s unique tarot decks on the TarotWheel website.

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