Nuns Behaving Badly

Nuns Behaving Badly

Nuns Behaving Badly
Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy
Craig A. Monson
* * * * *
University of Chicago Press
264pp £22.50
ISBN 978 0 226 53461 9

Best to declare an interest immediately: for me as a novelist, the work of musicologist Craig Monson has been revelatory. Over the last 20 years he has uncovered a rich and complex musical subculture inside Italian Renaissance convents, giving voice to the creativity – and frustrations – of generations of nuns who sang, arranged and even composed music, often bringing them into conflict with Counter- Reformation Church hierarchy. Without his research, it is fair to say, I could never have written my novel Sacred Hearts.

With Nuns Behaving Badly it would seem that Monson himself has got the itch to reach a wider audience. Certainly the cover is as cheeky as the title: comic-strip graphics over a woodcut of a nun distracted from prayer by a handsome visitor. Inside, the book delivers largely what it promises: tales of scandal and mayhem, edited and occasionally dramatised from long-winded records of Church investigations unearthed in the Vatican archives.

The prologue offers an intimate portrait of Monson and other historians as research hounds: semi-ossified scholars as dusty as the manuscripts they study (archive fever is considered a recognisable condition, with historians made ill from the literal dust of history they are breathing in), save for the occasional Eureka moment. Or as he puts it: somebody across the room suddenly shouting ‘Holy shit’.

Nuns behaving Badly are Craig Monson’s ‘Holy shit’ moments. Each in their way uses the scandalous to illuminate the general. Take the convent in 1580s’ Bologna, where the nuns are accused of getting involved in witchcraft. The idea of excitable young women reciting incantations over a bowl of water after lights out to try to locate a missing orchestra viola tells you as much about the need to alleviate the mind-numbing boredom of convent life as it does any darker desire to dabble with the devil. But enter the local inquisition, with its stark questions and starker threats, and it’s amazing how these same young women suddenly suffer collective amnesia when it comes to the actual words used in the spell. Hidden away from the world, they may be innocent, even naive, but they are clearly not stupid.

With almost half of all women from good families behind walls by the mid-16th century, the possibilities for conflict, both with authority and with each other, were legion. In mid-17th century Bologna, the Vinciguerra family was so prominent in the convent of Santa Maria Nuova that they controlled all artistic output, even down to whose needlework should decorate the sacristy. When a sister from a lesser family donates her own handiwork the result is open warfare: ‘Sister Maria Vinciguerra found my gift intolerable. With impropriety to the sacrament, she angrily removed it, tore it apart and finally burnt it.’ Never understate the historical significance of sewing. Meanwhile, in Reggio Calabria, when the unmarried women of the Strozzi family found themselves forced into a convent founded by the dying head of the family, they expressed their discontent by setting fire to the place.

But the best story is that of Sister Donna Maria Christina, a highly talented singing nun in 1720s Bologna who managed to escape the convent during carnival for a series of apparent night assignations with a priest. The truth however, is even more shocking – the two had actually been swanning off together to the opera. The priest was thrown into prison and died soon after, while Donna Maria was put in solitary confinement. As with all the stories in the book, the personal and bureaucratic repercussions of the scandals go on for years, in this case with the Donna Christina suffering fits of rebellion, penitence and deep depression. In short, it would take a daring novelist to make it up. How many other such tales, one wonders, are still languishing amid dusty records?

In his prologue Monson pays due tribute to Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginsburg for their pioneering work in microhistory. But there is another lesser figure whose influence he acknowledges: that of the first public custodian of the Vatican archive, Pietro Wensel, who in the 1880s, when asked for advice on how on earth one could go about finding things, apparently replied: Bisogna Pescare (‘You need to go fishing’). Which is what Craig Monsoon has been doing for 20 years now. Nuns Behaving Badly consists of the catches that, while they didn’t necessarily fit his more academic work, he just couldn’t bear to throw back into the ocean.

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