Jonathan Wright on a spirited look at convent life
Nun Behaving Badly
BY CRAIG MONSON UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, £22.50
From the jazzy cover art to the author photo on the back flap (he’s wearing shades and a cowboy hat), this book tries very hard to be cool,or whatever adjective the kids use nowadays. This is distressing but potentially misleading.
Craig Monson sometimes joins in with the vibe by writing some selfconsciously hip and stylised sentences but he has also done some extraordinarily important and painstaking research. The study of early-modern nuns will never be quite the same again.
Monson’s journey began in a Florentine archive, where he found evidence of 16thcentury Bolognese nuns singing secular and vaguely risqué songs. Such antics did not go down well with the ecclesiastical authorities but they made Monson wonder if life inside the convent was always quite as staid and regimented as said authorities might have liked.
Apparently, it was not. Monson focuses on five Italian tales from the 16th to 18th centuries and there is no shortage of shenanigans: people stealing violas, dressing up as abbots in order to sneak out to the opera and allegedly burning the convent down in order to escape confinement. These stories (and all the others Monson relates) are hugely entertaining and they have been languishing in the archives for far too long. The other great achievement of this book is that it forces us to re-examine the ways in which we conceptualise the early-modern convent. Monson does a superb job of exposing the tensions and anxieties. The place was meant to be private, but the outside world inevitably crept in. Nuns were expected to devote themselves to the life of the spirit but, of course, they had their moods, feelings and dreams that sometimes didn’t mesh with the well-defined system of control and isolation.
It all makes for a riveting read. I was not terribly keen on Monson’s habit of manipulating dialogue in order to make everything more novel istic and his attempts to relate his findings to the modern era are decidedly clunky. For all that, he has put in the hard hours at the Vatican archives and has unearthed some precious hidden treasures. His excesses can easily be forgiven in light of the detective work he has undertaken and the ingenious work of historical reconstruction he has accomplished.
There has been a resurgence of interest in the history of nuns over the past couple of decades and this is a very welcome development. Convents played key roles in many early-modern towns and cities and they are one of the best sources of new insights into the era’s religious, social and sexual attitudes.
Monson’s book is one of the best of a very fine bunch and deserves the widest possible readership. You could always remove the dust jacket, after all.