Sunday, 22 March 2009

Nuns: A History of Convent Life 1450-1700 by Silvia Evangelisti

This is an excellent book, well-written and thorougly researched, on a fascinating topic. Evangelisti's central thesis is that nuns, although separated from society by the convent walls, were nevertheless integrated and connected to that society through social, policitical and economic as well as spiritual bonds. In the introduction she asserts the place of the convent as a familiar part of both urban and rural landscapes; the remainder of the book goes on to demonstrate how nuns themselves formed and contributed to the societies around them.

The main historical event of the book is the Council of Trent, which required the stricter enclosure of nuns as part of its responses the reformation. Walls were built higher, grilles installed in windows, and the nuns' choirs in their churches often screened from public sight. Convents had two doors separating them from the world, with the keys to the outer door held only by a priest. These reforms also required that convents were answerable to the Bishop, in an attempt to maintain male dominance over women and thwart women's self-governance. This met with mixed results. Some women embraced the enclosure as a spiritual opportunity; others met the Bishop's emissary, come to discuss enclosure, by attempting to drop a large lump of marble onto his head from a high point in the convent. It's hard to imagine the Bishop's authority having much sway in the governance of that particular convent.

Evangelisiti shows how nuns participated in the life of society through participation in the arts, including writing, painting, music and acting, and through the convent's position as a centre for spiritual and social support. On a saint's feast-day, a procession would carried around the convent by local people and then continued inside the convent by the nuns; people would come to the convent church, and wait outside the building, to hear the nuns singing from behind the enclosure. Many nuns wrote memoirs, often at the behest of their confessors, and their published works gave them a relationship with readers across the world. Convents were important as educators of girls, providers of save retreats for widows, and, more contentiously, as homes for unmarriageable daughters. The convent dowry was often considerably less than the marriage dowry, and consequently many women without vocations entered the convent because it was expedient for their families. Convents usually perpetuated external social divisions, recruiting choir nuns from the upper classes, servant nuns from the lower classes; social mobility within the convent seems to have been limited, with few nuns from the lower classes learning how to read and write, and only choir nuns being able to vote in chapter and be elected to senior offices.

The final chapter is devoted to orders established to working beyond the enclosure as nurses, teachers or providers of social care. Some such orders, such as the Ursulines, were obliged to submit to enclosure and limit their community activities. However, as war and increased urbanisation meant that societies had a greater need for the support provided by such orders, such orders were better tolerated and increased their membership and activities significantly. This gives force to Evangelisti's assertion that religious communities are necessary to, and integrated with, their wider society: we get the nuns that we need and want. The argument is persuasive.

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