The True Story of a Convent Scandal
By Hubert Wolf, translated by Ruth Martin
Oxford University Press 496pp £20
Archive fever among scholars is a poetic if dangerous phenomenon: time spent hunched over disintegrating manuscripts breathing in the occasionally toxic 'dust of the dead', Eureka moments of discovery mixed with hours of boredom and the risk of headaches and sore throats. My first reaction to church historian Herbert Wolf's book was to wonder if his work in the Vatican archives might have caused a fever of the brain, such is the lurid story he tells.
In 1857 the widowed German princess Katarina Von Hohenzollern enters the enclosed Franciscan convent of Sant' Ambrogio in Rome. Within a year she is seriously ill, convinced she is poisoned and desperate to leave. Her status and connections free her and the subsequent investigation by the Roman Inquisition reveals a rogue convent ripe with heresy, sex, fraud, intimidation and murder.
Based on masses of evidence, Wolf constructs his book as a thriller writer might, moving backwards from the princess's trauma, through clouds of denials, obfuscation and half confessions, until the whole rotten edifice is explored.
At the centre is Sant' Ambrogio's lovely novice mistress, Maria Luisa, a woman of such guile and charisma that she has everyone in her thrall. Fashioning herself as a living saint with direct communication to God (letters from the virgin are delivered into a box to which only the male confessor holds the key), she sexually seduces novices and appropriates convent funds to buy the gold ring which 'appears' on her finger as proof of her divine marriage to God. When faced with dissent, she shames, expels or poisons those who might expose her.
This astonishing story is told against the backdrop of mid-19th century Vatican politics and the tussle between reformers and reactionaries within the papal court. Sant' Ambrogio was founded by a nun once recognised as holy until she fell foul of papal change. How effectively such shifts in orthodoxy penetrated the walls and the minds of enclosed nuns is a fertile field and relevant to this tale.
The investigation throws light into some dark places. Not surprisingly there were nuns who both knew and chose not to know in order to survive, and the way they squirm on the hook is psychologically as well as morally fascinating. But darkest of all is the story of Maria Luisa, whose subversive imagination is breathtaking. Her seduction method was to offer favoured novices one-to-one instruction during nights in her cell. This involved the two women examining, touching and lying on top of each other until there was a gushing of 'heavenly liquor', an experience that she dressed up as a special convent rite of sexual purification, which must – of course – remain secret. After a marathon tussle of denial, she finally tries to slip the noose by insisting that she was only doing what had once been done to her under the rule of the dead – and now heretical – founder. Is it possible that she too was abused or is this another smokescreen of lies?
Like all good thrillers, it would be invidious to give away the whole story and there will be historians who find the book too sensational for its own good. But it is worth remembering that, while court records have long offered scholars rich material, they only expose the crimes that get found out. Who knows how 'rogue' Sant' Ambrogio really was? The strict segregation and isolation of convent life often imposed on women with little or no vocation could have been a breeding ground for all manner of subversive thought or behaviour.
As Pope Francis surveys the Augean stables he has set out to reform, it is already clear that he will not address the status of women in the Church's spiritual hierarchy. Meanwhile, 'the dust of the dead' will continue to throw up stories of bizarre, even criminal, worlds within the convent system.
Sarah Dunant's latest book is Blood & Beauty: A Novel of the Borgias (Virago Press, 2013).