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  • Nuns: A History of Convent Life, 1450-1700
  • P. Renée Baernstein
Silvia Evangelisti . Nuns: A History of Convent Life, 1450-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. x + 302 pp. index. illus. bibl. $34.95. ISBN: 978-0-19-280435-8.

This book, evidently directed to a general or student audience, aims to provide a readable synthesis of current research on female monastic life in Catholic Western Europe and its colonies during the long sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Based on secondary sources, it offers a thorough overview of the current state of research for Italy, Spain, and the Catholic American colonies; it is spottier for Germany, the Netherlands, France, and England. The work's main conclusions are that nuns' experiences varied a great deal, and were always tied to local circumstances, networks, and institutions; that the Tridentine era's move toward uniform enclosure was less effective than previously thought, as there was a "continuous tension between enclosure and the push toward a more open model of religious life" (6); that the arts flourished in at least some convents; and that nuns participated, albeit in limited ways, in the enterprises of colonialism and the social apostolate characteristic of the early modern Church. Numerous vignettes and substantial quotations from nuns' own words enrich the text. Twenty black-and-white plates reproducing nuns' portraits and residences are of respectable quality. Readers in need of a brisk, broad-brush introduction to recent research on early [End Page 1301] modern nuns, particularly their artistic, musical, and literary efforts, will find the book stimulating and its bibliography an excellent guide to further reading.

Evangelisti's enterprise is a timely attempt to synthesize the wide-ranging scholarship on female religious that has burgeoned over the past thirty years. The author's numerous articles on nuns' property and their family networks in early modern Bologna and Florence make her well-qualified for the task, though they are relatively little used here. Unfortunately the book's breadth poses considerable challenges. One of the most important results of the extensive research on individual convents is that seemingly universal debates over enclosure and monastic observance often masked local power struggles; they can be properly understood only when connected to local environments. The author makes this point repeatedly. For example, she ably summarizes Andrea Pearson's close study of a Belgian convent, in which the early sixteenth-century abbess's commission of a painting cycle is set in the contexts of factional struggles within the convent and ongoing efforts to smooth over an earlier rift with superiors concerning enclosure. But perhaps because of her extensive chronological and geographical sweep, Evangelisti cannot always provide such detail. Her vast reach occasionally wrenches cases out of context, as the narrative jumps from Italy to Spain to Peru, and across three centuries, on a single page.

The book's reserved rhetorical stance may disappoint some readers. Without any new research findings, a synthetic narrative needs a compelling argument to justify itself. Nuns' most recent English-language predecessor, Joann Kay McNamara's Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia (1996) offered a forceful, if perhaps overdrawn, vision of nuns as independent, protofeminist agents. In contrast, the current volume seems hesitant and bland, in part because the author consistently backs away from generalizations and controversy. The lively historiographical debates of the field are unmentioned after the introduction, and downplayed even there. Specialists, meanwhile, will look forward to a monograph from Evangelisti based on her own fascinating research on the material aspects of nuns' spiritual life in sixteenth-century Italy.

P. Renée Baernstein
Miami University of Ohio


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pp. 1301-1302
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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