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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 125-127
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A Social History of the Cloister: Daily Life in the Teaching Monasteries of the Old Regime. By Elizabeth Rapley. [McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Religion.] (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. 2001. Pp. xv, 378. $49.95.)
Professor Rapley's previous book, the Dévotes, focused on the new forms of the 'religious' life which were created by, and for, women in seventeenth-century [End Page 125] France. Based on extensive archival research, it established her as a major historian of a massive but still badly understood phenomenon, the explosion of convent life in the century following the French wars of religion. Her new book expands on her previous research, and offers an ambitious survey of the social life of French convents belonging to three of the new teaching congregations that emerged on either side of 1600 in the heady days of the Catholic Reformation. Her survey ends in the very different circumstances of the French Revolution, when convents were closed down by force and some of their inmates were summarily executed for expressing nostalgia for the good old days. In between, Professor Rapley's fourteen chapters cover a great deal of ground, ensuring that her work will surely establish itself as an essential reference for historians of women, education, and religious experience in early modern France. The congregations that she has examined are the Ursulines and the less well-known Compagnie de Marie Notre-Dame and Congrégation de Notre-Dame, whose geographical distribution throughout France differed considerably. Unfortunately, the author has not provided a map of the many convents she cites throughout the book, leaving the reader bereft of a sense of space and the possible connections and/or overlap between these conventual foundations.
That is a minor quibble, though, as the book as a whole impresses by its extensive archival foundations and the range of issues it deals with. It uses material from the three congregations to engage in a general study of French convents over two centuries, an approach which reassures the reader as to the evidential basis of her discussions of general historiographical issues, while these latter are in turn constantly tested with reference to the data she has unearthed about the life-cycles of the three congregations. This alone makes her survey far more authoritative than it would have been as a general synthesis on the subject. An extensive appendix on the "demographics of the cloister" efficiently explains and displays the data on which the study is based. Added tothis, Rapley carefully probes and unpicks one historiographical assumption after another concerning female religious experience, recruitment, observance, teaching, and so on. She displays constructive skepticism about some of those assumptions and offers different ways of looking at familiar questions, such aswhether eighteenth-century convents "slipped" from their seventeenth-century heights. She also points up the silences of the existing historiography and the sheer difficulty of dealing adequately with some of the most fundamental questions about convents with schools attached to them. The last twochapters on the schools—day-schools for externs and pensionnats for boarders—show how deep our ignorance of what actually went on in them isand, unfortunately, is likely to remain. In dealing with such poorly documented subjects, Rapley skillfully mines the material, itself written for entirely different purposes, to be found in conventual annals and necrologies, to present a plausible view of what teaching activities might have meant to these closed societies which, given the strict enclosure they usually observed, are among the least knowable of the institutions of the ancien régime. On many subjects—such as the changing economic situation of the convents, the rise of the pensionnat, [End Page 126] the use of convents as prisons for troublesome women or nuns from other convents—Rapley displays considerable ingenuity and patience in piecing together a pattern of historical development which future historians may well argue with, but will not be able to ignore. It is an added bonus that...