- Breaching the Wall: Beyond the Convent in Catholic Reformation Europe
“A woman should have a husband or a wall,” proclaimed a premodern Italian proverb, succinctly expressing the preferred Renaissance means of preserving female (and thus familial) honor. In an era when respectable women could choose only between marriage and the cloister, rising dowry prices encouraged elite Italian families to conserve resources by marrying one daughter and dispatching the rest to a convent. The result was a dramatic upsurge in female monasticism between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries, when thousands of women throughout Italy took the veil regardless of religious vocation. As do the best works of microhistory, the works reviewed here examine dramatic events and exceptional circumstances in order to recuperate the everyday lives of ordinary—and some extraordinary—women who would otherwise be lost to history. In so doing, they illuminate the dynamic strategies with which Europe’s female religious negotiated and interacted with those in authority.
Craig Monson’s lively study presents the exploits of five wayward Italian nuns whose transgressions drew the attention of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, the commission established in 1572 to investigate breaches of monastic discipline. Monson, a musicologist, stumbled across these long-forgotten histories in the registers of the Vatican [End Page 191] Secret Archive while researching an earlier work on convent music.1 Although peripheral to that project, the nuns’ “adventures and misadventures . . . were too compelling to consign back to archival oblivion” and he resolved to one day return to their tales (8). Among the five cases, which were investigated between 1584 and 1735, is a story of a Dominican nun so enthralled with opera that she repeatedly snuck out of her convent to hear new performances; a tale of a community of disgruntled Calabrian sisters who burnt down their convent; and an account of a group of nuns who turned to divination to determine who among their number stole a valuable musical instrument.
Monson’s study is not only a detailed reconstruction of convent life in early modern Italy but also a description of his life as a topo d’archivo (archive mouse) foraging for tidbits in the buste of the Vatican Secret Archive. As his entertaining introduction explains, he hopes to communicate the experience of archival research—the camaraderie that it can foster, the frustration of losing a document trail, the thrill of “pulling out a plum” (7). His desire to convey the excitement of discovery may have led him to embroider upon his sources—describing, for example, the Bolognese convent of San Lorenzo through the eyes of the inquisitor who was about to knock at its gates—but it allows him to emulate Boccaccio and Chaucer and craft tales that instruct as well as they amuse.
Entertainment value aside, the records of the Sacred Congregation that Monson brings to life reveal much about the everyday lives of nuns in Tridentine Italy. They elucidate daily routines and regulations, labor and administrative practices, convent architecture, the political uses of patronage, and the inter-generational familial ties that bound monastic communities together. Although the cases he includes are chronologically and geographically diverse, together they illuminate three key aspects of convent life. First, they serve as a forceful reminder of just how central the cloister was to the lived experience of early modern Italians. While statistics for the entire peninsula are not available, the figures from major cities are telling. In Milan...