Sunday, May 25, 2008

Get thee to a nunnery - "Nuns: a history of convent life" is May's book of the month

BOOK REVIEW, with images courtesy of the author



I think it's distressing to see that women's choices in the 16th and 17th centuries were "a husband or a wall" as Silvia Evangelisti points out in her book Nuns: a history of convent life. Women were even ruled by men when it came to the operations of their convents.

Some girls willingly accepted convent life, such as the illegitimate daughter of a low-ranked Spanish nobleman and a Mexican mother, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz (1648-1695) (that's her, right, Fig. 6). Her convent was not "a particularly strict institution as far as religious discipline was concerned, and Juana managed to maintain many contacts outside the cloister," Evangelista writes. "In the convent she was also able to satisfy her intellectual hunger." But others were sent to the convent gate by their families, never to come out again.


One Venetian nun, Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-1652), advocated for women to act according to their own will. "The father must not and cannot marry off the daughter who wants to be a virgin," Tarabotti writes, "nor should she be obliged to respect his determination, and he cannot oblige her with violence to profess the vows against her own free will." This proposal was very uncommon, since women didn't have many rights in the first place.

The further I got into this book, the more the author told me about extraordinary religious women over the centuries. One such nun was Fiammetta Frescobaldi (1518-1586) who died in the convent of San Jacopo de Repoli in Florence. Being bedridden for 38 years, "her genius was probably also fuelled by her desire to let her mind move with a freedom that was denied her body." Fiammetta wrote histories of the world and translated 118 saints' lives from Latin into the vernacular, in addition to writing about her own experiences.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, cloistered nuns wrote poetry and plays which they staged inside the convent. Audiences, including relatives and patrons living outside the convent walls, watched through the grilles in the parlour or in the convent's courtyard (note grilles, above, Fig. 15). The plays were used as a teaching method, and "were more accessible to women lacking in [the] necessary literary skills to read them," Evangelista explains. "The nuns and borders who performed were able to act out the lives of the holy women and other characters they played, absorbing their moral values." In addition to religious themes, plays took on other topics including man's subjugation of women, marriage, and the reality of enclosure, often using allegory and comedy.

In European convents, instruction in music was offered to novices and boarders by the nuns. It stands to reason that music would end up in the convent since it has always been in religious ceremonies. Not surprisingly, though, people were worried that nuns might be corrupted by their singing.


In her chapter on the Visual Arts, Evangelisti introduces the reader to many noblewomen who supported the building of convents. Some nuns were able to provide an income for themselves through artwork and restoration of murals and paintings, bypassing the need for outside (male) artists (left, portrait by nun, Fig. 11). But were the sisters creating their work exclusively for the convent audience? I didn't feel this question was altogether answered. I was glad to see twenty plates included in the book, but only four of these were works completed by women who lived in the convents. It would have been nice to see more of their work.

There's a chapter on expansion that introduces the reader to women who gave up their cloistered homes, and traveled to far lands to set up new convents (right, waiting to sail to the Phillipines, Fig. 7). The author points out that these nuns were involved in "the first institutions to be transplanted to the colonies." In her last chapter, Evangelisti gives examples of women who opted to take "simple vows only, rather than the solemn vows taken by nuns." Although these open communities for women were available in the Middle Ages, they weren't common by any means.

This book gives a fascinating look at women's history from a religious perspective. Evangelisti did an excellent job in researching and documenting her topic. Luckily for us, there were cloistered women who had an interest in the historical events taking place in the outside world. As the author points out, "New kings and emperors, the election of popes, and natural calamities such as plagues, earthquakes, floods, and wars filtered through the grilles of the parlour and found their place in the nuns' historical texts."

1 comment:

Distressing Delilah said...

Thanks for visiting my blog! Your post about this book is wonderful also!

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