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Witchcraft. Arson. Going AWOL. Some nuns in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy strayed far from the paradigms of monastic life. Cloistered in convents, subjected to stifling hierarchy, repressed, and occasionally persecuted by their male superiors, these women circumvented authority in sometimes extraordinary ways. But tales of their transgressions have long been Witchcraft. Arson. Going AWOL. Some nuns in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy strayed far from the paradigms of monastic life. Cloistered in convents, subjected to stifling hierarchy, repressed, and occasionally persecuted by their male superiors, these women circumvented authority in sometimes extraordinary ways. But tales of their transgressions have long been buried in the Vatican Secret Archive. That is, until now. In Nuns Behaving Badly, Craig A. Monson resurrects forgotten tales and restores to life the long-silent voices of these cloistered heroines. Here we meet nuns who dared speak out about physical assault and sexual impropriety (some real, some imagined). Others were only guilty of misjudgment or defacing valuable artwork that offended their sensibilities. But what unites the women and their stories is the challenges they faced: these were women trying to find their way within the Catholicism of their day and through the strict limits it imposed on them. Monson introduces us to women who were occasionally desperate to flee cloistered life, as when an entire community conspired to torch their convent and be set free. But more often, he shows us nuns just trying to live their lives. When they were crossed—by powerful priests who claimed to know what was best for them—bad behavior could escalate from mere troublemaking to open confrontation. In resurrecting these long-forgotten tales and trials, Monson also draws attention to the predicament of modern religious women, whose “misbehavior”—seeking ordination as priests or refusing to give up their endowments to pay for priestly wrongdoing in their own archdioceses—continues even today. The nuns of early modern Italy, Monson shows, set the standard for religious transgression in their own age—and beyond.


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Witchcraft. Arson. Going AWOL. Some nuns in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy strayed far from the paradigms of monastic life. Cloistered in convents, subjected to stifling hierarchy, repressed, and occasionally persecuted by their male superiors, these women circumvented authority in sometimes extraordinary ways. But tales of their transgressions have long been Witchcraft. Arson. Going AWOL. Some nuns in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy strayed far from the paradigms of monastic life. Cloistered in convents, subjected to stifling hierarchy, repressed, and occasionally persecuted by their male superiors, these women circumvented authority in sometimes extraordinary ways. But tales of their transgressions have long been buried in the Vatican Secret Archive. That is, until now. In Nuns Behaving Badly, Craig A. Monson resurrects forgotten tales and restores to life the long-silent voices of these cloistered heroines. Here we meet nuns who dared speak out about physical assault and sexual impropriety (some real, some imagined). Others were only guilty of misjudgment or defacing valuable artwork that offended their sensibilities. But what unites the women and their stories is the challenges they faced: these were women trying to find their way within the Catholicism of their day and through the strict limits it imposed on them. Monson introduces us to women who were occasionally desperate to flee cloistered life, as when an entire community conspired to torch their convent and be set free. But more often, he shows us nuns just trying to live their lives. When they were crossed—by powerful priests who claimed to know what was best for them—bad behavior could escalate from mere troublemaking to open confrontation. In resurrecting these long-forgotten tales and trials, Monson also draws attention to the predicament of modern religious women, whose “misbehavior”—seeking ordination as priests or refusing to give up their endowments to pay for priestly wrongdoing in their own archdioceses—continues even today. The nuns of early modern Italy, Monson shows, set the standard for religious transgression in their own age—and beyond.

30 review for Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy

  1. 4 out of 5

    Terence

    Craig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly is an unassuming collection of events at five Italian convents spanning the late 16th to the early 18th centuries whose inmates asserted themselves against the severe boundaries that delimited their lives. Despite its title and this picture which graces the back of my edition’s dust jacket – there’s little that’s salacious. Anyone hoping to read about orgies or demonic rites a la The Monk will be disappointed. In fact, in regards to sex and convents, Monson wri Craig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly is an unassuming collection of events at five Italian convents spanning the late 16th to the early 18th centuries whose inmates asserted themselves against the severe boundaries that delimited their lives. Despite its title and this picture which graces the back of my edition’s dust jacket – there’s little that’s salacious. Anyone hoping to read about orgies or demonic rites a la The Monk will be disappointed. In fact, in regards to sex and convents, Monson writes: “Those who would spin nun-priest fantasies in the world, whether today or in eighteenth-century Bologna, would be surprised and probably disappointed to learn that contacts between male and female celibates in post-Tridentine Italy usually centered on less salacious intimacies than those that might take place in bed. Often characterized by words such as amicizia (friendship, amity), intrinsichezza (intimacy, close inwardness), domestichezza (familiarity, acquaintance, conversation), these relationships commonly involved activities that seem positively “domestic” by most notions of shocking behavior. Cooking treats, mending clothes, sewing, washing, passing letters, exchanging gifts – these were the “crimes” the church often considered scandalous. Or, of course, there were the expected incidents of carnival silliness. All in all, when the post-Tridentine cloister wall became virtually impregnable, interpersonal preoccupations seem generally to have shifted from the more explicitly lascivious to what was more realistically practical. While some of these relationships might borrow elements of secular courtship or marriage, evidence suggests that in most cases the relationships were scarcely physical, much less overtly sexual.” (pp. 169-70) Monson is a professor of music at my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, and I found it interesting how he came to write this book. He ran across a manuscript of songs sung by nuns and was surprised to discover verses like this: “You who’ve got that little trinket, So delightful and so pleasing, Might I take my hand and sink it ‘Neath petticoat and cassock, squeezing.” (p. 2) From there, he descended into the Vatican archives and uncovered a trove of stories about convents and their often tumultuous relationships with the Roman Church hierarchy. Most of the stories are incomplete, fragments of transcripts that break off mid-investigation, leaving the reader without a resolution. Monson managed, however, to piece together the five cases presented here. Neither Monson nor his protagonists have any agendas. Monson is not arguing that these cases represent a proto-feminism in early Modern Italy. And the nuns have no motives beyond trying to exercise some control in their own lives. Aut virum aut murum oportet mulierem habere (view spoiler)[A woman should have a husband or a wall (hide spoiler)] Chapter one is an overview of convent life in Catholic Italy, and I enumerate below some of the interesting things I learned: 1. Respectable women were either married or in a convent, which was the “sink” for a family’s otherwise useless daughters. (Dowries went from the bride’s family to the groom’s, so a surfeit of girls could impoverish even the wealthiest of families.) 2. Because of #1, a city’s population could comprise a large number of nuns (14% of the citizenry of Bologna c. 1630). 3. Not surprisingly, most nuns did not have a real vocation. 4. Despite vows which forbade contact with the outside world, these women kept in touch with relatives and friends and the gossip of the city via the parlatorio, a grated window to the world, and the convent chapel. 5. In the 1500s, convent singing expanded beyond the plainchant to the polyphonous chants their male brethren were singing, much to the dismay of many (male) churchmen. 6. Convent choirs and individual singers, for a variety of reasons Monson touches upon, became popular tourist attractions in many Italian cities, even getting mentions in the “Lonely Planet” guides of the period. 7. A convent was nearly the only place a reputable woman could sing. 8. Convents were divided into two classes of nun: the professe – the upper class/aristocratic daughters of the well-to-do who labored at the more genteel arts of weaving and such, and the converse – the daughters of commoners who kept the cloister running. 9. Despite the lack of real vocations and their severely restricted lives, many professe had – potentially – more fulfilling lives than their secular counterparts. (A relative measure, of course, since they were still powerless outside of the convent’s walls and wards of their male superiors.) As a quick and dirty primer on conventual life, I found this part of the book very useful. The remaining chapters are self-contained case studies about individual convents, beginning with the scandals that plagued San Lorenzo in Bologna in 1584. For lovers of Gothic romances like The Monk, it’s this first case and that of San Niccolò di Strozzi that come closest to the sordid escapades one finds in that genre. At San Lorenzo, the inquisitor discovered evidence that the sisters had conjured a devil to help find a missing viola (unsuccessfully). But they were restored to a respectable state after a mild penance. (Monson points out that it is ironic that an inquisitorial investigation operated under stricter guidelines and almost modern models of investigation than its secular counterparts.) At San Niccolò, an ill-considered conventual establishment and a clash between the nuns and an obnoxious archbishop culminated in arson. At the end, this glimpse into the lives of these women fascinated me and I would recommend it. It also left me melancholic, seeing so many lives stunted by the social and religious demands of their culture. E.g., in the eyes of Cardinal Paleotti, the corruption at San Lorenzo began when the nuns were allowed to sing to adoring public audiences. In answer, he forbade any songs other than plainchant and then only in the privacy of the cloister. Or that in 1703, Pope Clement XI banned carnival and opera for five years, hoping to avert the wrath of God for Italy’s licentiousness (expressed in a recent series of earthquakes). In 1708, Santa Cristina della Fondazza’s young singing star and opera fanatic, Christina Cavazza, defied her vows to attend performances at the reopened Teatro Malvezzi and endured ten years of house arrest and imposed silence for it. In his epilog, Monson mentions modern-day examples of Catholic nuns (and congregations in general) defying the male hierarchy: In St. Louis, Archbishop Raymond Burke excommunicated three sisters for getting ordained, excommunicated the board of the city’s Saint Stanislaus Kostka parish for refusing to relinquish control of the church and its endowment, and he forbade Saint Cronan’s parish from hosting in its sanctuary a Jewish rabbi (female) whose synagogue had played host to the ordination mentioned in the first item. (The parish got around the prohibition by sponsoring the rabbi in a tent pitched in the church’s front yard; and Saint Cronan’s church experienced a surge in attendance as the faithful expressed their support against inordinate episcopal pressure.) It should come as no surprise that Archbishop Burke has since gone on to become head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the modern Inquisition).

  2. 4 out of 5

    Dana

    A feminist microhistory masquerading as something sexy. Which somehow makes it more intriguing? What does it say about our times that the dust jacket of a book about 16th and 17th century nuns in Italy has to show a nun being spanked if it has a hope in hell of selling? Spoiler: no nuns are spanked in this book. It's much better than that. A feminist microhistory masquerading as something sexy. Which somehow makes it more intriguing? What does it say about our times that the dust jacket of a book about 16th and 17th century nuns in Italy has to show a nun being spanked if it has a hope in hell of selling? Spoiler: no nuns are spanked in this book. It's much better than that.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mindy aka serenity

    Craig Monson seeks to relay the stories of five “badly behaved” nuns in Seventeenth Century Italy, whose tales he found while doing research in the Vatican Archives. He aims first for the book to bring to light these women who have been lost to obscurity for such a long time. The second aim is to highlight that the hierarchical systems maintained by the Catholic Church with external control of convents were and are incapable of managing what goes on inside the sacred walls where no man may tread Craig Monson seeks to relay the stories of five “badly behaved” nuns in Seventeenth Century Italy, whose tales he found while doing research in the Vatican Archives. He aims first for the book to bring to light these women who have been lost to obscurity for such a long time. The second aim is to highlight that the hierarchical systems maintained by the Catholic Church with external control of convents were and are incapable of managing what goes on inside the sacred walls where no man may tread. In Seventeenth Century Italy, families really only had two choices when it came to what to do with their female family members. They could either marry them off and pay large dowries, or they could pack them off to the convent. This still required a dowry, but only a fraction of the amount needed for marriage. Because of this, Monson points out, many noble families only arranged marriages for one daughter, sending the rest to a convent populated with women from similar affluent families. In fact, one story highlights a rich man who willed his house to be transformed into a convent in order to house his large number of female relatives. The newly minted nuns could still keep most of their belongings by giving them to the abbess who returns them “on loan” to the woman. Austerity was not typical for these Italian convents, but they still had their share of chafing restrictions. One of these restrictions is the somewhat hypocritical views of what a nun should occupy her time with. Many chose music- in fact when a woman becomes a full nun she is considered a “choir nun” first. But for some reason women singing was considered dangerous, promoting vanity for the singer and distracting her from her true audience -God- and not the townspeople who flocked in the street outside to hear the beautiful melodies. One story seeks to punish a nun who became “too obsessed with music”, and not for the glory of God alone. Their punishment for beautiful polyphonic music was met with opposition from their Bishop, first restricting the frequency of the singing to just special feast days, then to monophonic music only to be heard during services. This act completely silences a once renowned choir, so of course there would be pushback. Why should embroidery and poetry be considered holy and fit occupations and music as flirting with the Devil? What I found by reading this book is there is no straight answer because the opinion and the treatment of the music tended to vary by town, Bishop, or the makeup of the Sacred Congregation in Rome. This must have been maddening for the nuns. Another thing this book points out is how bored these nuns likely were. They could invent a scandal just to alleviate some of the crushing monotony of monastic life. There were only a few things a nun could do within the walls of their convent and I am sure they got old pretty quickly. One story depicts a group of nuns who create a scenario of a missing viola, involving folk magic to find out who stole it in addition to a great deal of finger pointing. Another nun sneaks out of her convent at night to attend the opera, as that sort of entertainment would never have come to her. So while some internal disagreements and inappropriate acts were just that, they could be used as fodder for an official inquest which was much more dramatic and entertaining and could go on for months. The book Monson has produced is very entertaining. Reaching into history for stories about people who didn’t always follow the rules of the Church to the letter connects to how the Church is operating today. While the transgressions are different, such as the excommunication of three nuns who got ordained as priests or forcing out a group of nuns protesting the closing of their convent, the same external Church hierarchy is still present. Rome can issue edicts all it wants, but enforcing them locally is even more difficult today without an intimidating enforcer or inquisitor. Therefore, nuns will continue to behave “badly” in the point of view of the Church, in my opinion primarily because of the inequality of male and female religious that was as present in the Seventeenth Century as it is today.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Hoogterp

    This book is far better than the title and cheesy cover image let on. It truly is a micro-history. The author is a music historian going through the Vatican archives when he comes across interesting tidbits about nuns and eventually writes this book on some of the more complete histories/stories he could find. While it does involve nuns who break their vows in one way or another, the book isn't sensationalist or salacious. This title focuses on the history, time period, facts, people, of the tim This book is far better than the title and cheesy cover image let on. It truly is a micro-history. The author is a music historian going through the Vatican archives when he comes across interesting tidbits about nuns and eventually writes this book on some of the more complete histories/stories he could find. While it does involve nuns who break their vows in one way or another, the book isn't sensationalist or salacious. This title focuses on the history, time period, facts, people, of the time in these convents, the laws governing the convents, and the people who break these laws or vows whether in order to find a lost violin, attend the opera, or to get out of the convent. How these law-breakers are handled, the response of the Church, and the interesting details that Monson discovers about life during the early centuries of monastic life are fascinating.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Joe Matson

    More fun than is usually allowed in a such a well-researched book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    What I enjoyed about this book was the new (and colorful) perspective it gave me into the lives of 16th and 17th century cloistered nuns. I was impressed by the author's ability to bring these characters and situations to life from the centuries-old documents he studied while researching 16th century convent music at the Vatican archives. A refreshing alternative to the usual "lives of the saints" narratives. What I enjoyed about this book was the new (and colorful) perspective it gave me into the lives of 16th and 17th century cloistered nuns. I was impressed by the author's ability to bring these characters and situations to life from the centuries-old documents he studied while researching 16th century convent music at the Vatican archives. A refreshing alternative to the usual "lives of the saints" narratives.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bucket

    I am willing to admit that the marketing copy ("Witchcraft. Arson. Going AWOL…") and the sensationalist title are what initially drew me to this book. And while what it contains is far less sensational, it was still a fascinating look at something I previously knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about. Right from the start, I learned that huge numbers of women, rich or poor, in 17th century Italy ended up in convents, because their parents would groom one daughter for marriage and send the rest t I am willing to admit that the marketing copy ("Witchcraft. Arson. Going AWOL…") and the sensationalist title are what initially drew me to this book. And while what it contains is far less sensational, it was still a fascinating look at something I previously knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about. Right from the start, I learned that huge numbers of women, rich or poor, in 17th century Italy ended up in convents, because their parents would groom one daughter for marriage and send the rest to the convent where dowry requirements were much less taxing. It took me more than a few paragraphs to really engage with each chapter (each one features the goings-on at a different Italian convent), but once I did the pages flew by. I learned that magic was often a woman's only means of feeling a sense of ownership over her life and that convents were not "warehouses for women" but also semi-sweatshops, where women did work like raising silk worms for no pay. I learned that women with musical talents became nuns because this was virtually the only outlet for them that wasn't shameful - and even music was taken from them off and on depending on who was running the Catholic church. I learned that the church hugely feared lesbianism among nuns, and that problems between rich nuns often occurred as they tried to outdo each other in creating and giving rich gifts (tapestries, silver, even whole new buildings) to their cloister. Monson is an interesting writer - I can tell he's a quirky guy who expects everyone to be just as excited about the nuggets he finds buried deep in his research as he is. While doing an impressive job of explaining such nuggets, he does little to make them relevant or illuminating, expecting the reader to do at least that much of the work. He doesn't care if the reader cares, he just wants to share. I pictured him as a goofy, nerdy professor type with a small but very excited group of student hangers-on. Which made the photo of him at the back of the book (with goatee, cowboy hat and sunglasses) more than a little jarring. Overall an enjoyable read, and quick. Themes: nuns, Italy, 1600s, Catholic church, women, music, class, control, religion, history, archives

  8. 4 out of 5

    AphroPhantasmal

    I will always have a soft spot for nuns. I don’t necessarily know why. Perhaps the contemplative life appeals to me and I enjoy reading stories of women who have taken this plunge. When it comes to “Nun’s Behaving Badly” however, it’s not the contemplative life put on display; it’s more a glorious gossip-filled expose into the lives of a select few nuns within the convents of Italy during the 16th-17th centuries. The book starts out very strong, telling the most salacious tale at the very beginni I will always have a soft spot for nuns. I don’t necessarily know why. Perhaps the contemplative life appeals to me and I enjoy reading stories of women who have taken this plunge. When it comes to “Nun’s Behaving Badly” however, it’s not the contemplative life put on display; it’s more a glorious gossip-filled expose into the lives of a select few nuns within the convents of Italy during the 16th-17th centuries. The book starts out very strong, telling the most salacious tale at the very beginning. Since noble women could often be consigned to the convent with little desire for religious life, some methods of getting out of a forced religious vocation can range from passive aggressive letter writing to full blown arson. But where the book seems to start out at its crescendo, the rest of the stories seem to fall a little flat compared to the first one. Folk magic, witchcraft, and carnival are woven into the work along with the suspicion of lesbianism that fueled the ire, and fantasies, of the predominantly male church leadership. Overall, “Nuns Behaving Badly” is a micro-foray into the realities of the cloistered lives some women led whether through their own consent or not. It’s an engaging read, relying on the same power found in our celebrity rags. It was hard for me to put down even as its level of “page turnyiness” started to fade.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Max

    I give it a four for what appears to be accurate research. However, I could not get interested in continuing reading. What was interesting was that for the documents studied by the author, many nuns were extra female family members that needed to be disposed of. Rather a nunnery than death at birth, but still. I had thought that I was going to be reading about a part of the population that fought for the good of the people against bad religious policies. Not so. Since many nuns were the extra dis I give it a four for what appears to be accurate research. However, I could not get interested in continuing reading. What was interesting was that for the documents studied by the author, many nuns were extra female family members that needed to be disposed of. Rather a nunnery than death at birth, but still. I had thought that I was going to be reading about a part of the population that fought for the good of the people against bad religious policies. Not so. Since many nuns were the extra discarded baggage of rich families, much of the reported misdeeds dealt with cultural hobbies such as music and the enjoyment of the populace of that music. Of course male figures of the church could not abide this. It was considered sinful. That is my take away. Maybe I did not read enough. But also, I put this book away because I developed a disgust for the church and saw in the past the reasons why western humanity suffers and causes so much suffering today.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Taylor

    Anyone expecting a scandalous page turner will be sorely disappointed. The author found these tales in the Vatican library while doing musicological research. The scandals are mild by any standard, especially today's, but in the boredom of the Vatican library probably seemed horrid. Examples are calling upon the devil to find a missing violin, burning down a convent to escape, slipping outside of the convent to participate in an opera, or two lesbian nuns who escape the convent together. Anyone Anyone expecting a scandalous page turner will be sorely disappointed. The author found these tales in the Vatican library while doing musicological research. The scandals are mild by any standard, especially today's, but in the boredom of the Vatican library probably seemed horrid. Examples are calling upon the devil to find a missing violin, burning down a convent to escape, slipping outside of the convent to participate in an opera, or two lesbian nuns who escape the convent together. Anyone who completes the book should receive several thousand years off of Purgatory.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Gina

    I'm just not getting anywhere with this. I think there's a bit of a disconnect between the type of book this is and the way it was marketed. It's very, very academically written with a few odd bits where it starts to feel like a novel. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's not exactly the light reading I was expecting. I may come back to it at some point, because I actually did learn quite a bit. I'm just not getting anywhere with this. I think there's a bit of a disconnect between the type of book this is and the way it was marketed. It's very, very academically written with a few odd bits where it starts to feel like a novel. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's not exactly the light reading I was expecting. I may come back to it at some point, because I actually did learn quite a bit.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Steve Wiggins

    A little more technical than the cover would seem to imply, this is a fascinating study for an academic readership. It would help to know a bit about Italian history before picking it up, but it has stories of women who didn't always live by the rules. More thoughts at: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World. A little more technical than the cover would seem to imply, this is a fascinating study for an academic readership. It would help to know a bit about Italian history before picking it up, but it has stories of women who didn't always live by the rules. More thoughts at: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    This book entertained the hell out of me. Craig Monson is a trained scholar of music, but he purposefully structured Nuns Behaving Badly so that it would appeal to a broader-than-scholastic audience, I think sensing that the stories he had to tell were still relevant insofar as: (a) women inside the Catholic Church are still actively marginalized with regard to the functions they can fulfill within their religion; (b) women everywhere still struggle with male authority that wants us to behave in This book entertained the hell out of me. Craig Monson is a trained scholar of music, but he purposefully structured Nuns Behaving Badly so that it would appeal to a broader-than-scholastic audience, I think sensing that the stories he had to tell were still relevant insofar as: (a) women inside the Catholic Church are still actively marginalized with regard to the functions they can fulfill within their religion; (b) women everywhere still struggle with male authority that wants us to behave in policed, submissive ways—Monson’s misbehaving nuns are not submissive figures; and (c) even folks living inside of religious institutions during a religious time period were not totalized by their religion. Boy, were they not. In 1986, Monson tells us, he was at the Florentine collection of the Museo Bardini examining a Renaissance music manuscript that had caught his eye. He found an inscription on the back… .S .Lena. Malve CI A. …which led him to Sister Elena Malvezzi, a 16th-century subprioress at Bologna’s convent of Sant’Agnese. To Monson’s surprise, this manuscript—once owned by a nun—contained not religious music, but primarily French chansons and Italian madrigals, i.e., secular, sometimes even racy music. This discovery piqued Monson’s curiosity, leading him down a rabbit hole of archival research into the lives of 16th- and 17th-century Italian nuns. Nuns Behaving Badly is the first yield of that research. In it, Monson presents episodes from five different convents in 16th- and 17th-century Italy. To have left their mark in the archives at all, and as the title of the book implies, these episodes uniformly deal with events at convents which were so contentious or scandalous that they were brought to the attention of male church authority (then as now, the only kind of overarching Catholic church authority) for some sort of arbitration, censure, or action. A defining characteristic of early modern Italian convents well revealed by this book, is that wealthy families regularly used them as receptacles for all of their unmarried or unmarriageable women, regardless of the women’s religious inclinations or lack thereof of. Monson references an obnoxious, but culturally-consistent late medieval aphorism: AUT VIRUM AUT MURUM OPORTET MULIEREM HABERE, or “A woman should have a husband or a wall.” Women’s lives throughout…well, history, have been circumscribed by male opinion and authority. But even still, Renaissance Italy could probably win some sort of shitty prize among time periods for being the most physically restrictive, especially as regards upper class and aspirationally upper class women who lived in cities. City-dwelling rich Italian families of this period occupied essentially walled compounds. The women living inside of them (with the exception of female servants) were meant to venture outside the purview of their family’s compound only when chaperoned, and ideally only to attend church, visit another respectable woman lying in (i.e., pregnant), or some similarly chaste and pious errand. A wealthy Renaissance woman spent her life under the thumb protection of her closest living male relative, a father, uncle, brother, or husband, who had the legal right to make all of her economic decisions for her, including when and whom she would marry. In a place and time where women from rich families brought dowries to a marriage, where entire merchant ventures could be financed on such dowries, and marriage was a socio-political as well as economic decision, it became a practice to choose one daughter—presumably the prettiest and most docile—and lay all your bets on her. If you had five daughters, you’d want to pool all of your resources to amass one big, fat dowry as opposed to five meager dowries. This would make your one (lucky?) daughter a more desirable piece of property for some other rich dude 20 years older than her. But then what on earth do you do with your other four dowry-less daughters? The answer across much of Italy was to drop them in a convent. This created what seems to be a fairly unique state of affairs in the female religious houses on the Italian peninsula during the early modern period. First, some convents became the petty fiefdoms of one family’s unmarried female relatives: sisters, maiden aunts, cousins. Second, life within many convents evidenced an ad hoc mixture of pious and secular practice. Third, the residents of these cloisters could develop cultural interests and creative gifts in a way they likely would not have been able to outside of a convent, i.e., as unmarried women under more direct male scrutiny. Even within (because of?) this highly restrictive and policed environment, Monson’s research illuminates some of the heterodox and non-prescriptive behavior nonetheless available to these women. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of reading the episodes Monson describes, so I won’t. Each one reveals the idiosyncratic state of Italian convent culture in the early modern period, as well as reminds us of the creativity and resiliency even (perhaps especially) of people living within confined systems of authority. This is a good read whatever your previous knowledge of the period or subject matter. For a longer review of this book, please visit my blog, Backdrawing.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    Got about a third of the way through. Good book, very interesting, but so dense that unless I had time to spend 45 uninterrupted minutes on a chapter (which had no breaks or ways in which I could put it down between chapters and come back to it without having to start from the beginning of the chapter) to actually finish the chapter, I would lose my place.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kay

    Not all nuns are willing to take the veil--according to this book, many of them (at least in sixteenth-century Italy) were placed there by families who had too many daughters to marry off. So the nuns would resort to arson, presumed witchcraft and other devices to get out of their vows. This is a rollicking read at times.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    Charmingly re-written rag from the Vatican Library. Later: Monson's making light of the nuns' pathetic attempts to enjoy themselves by dabbling in illicit magic is sickening. I'm feeling really claustrophobic. Charmingly re-written rag from the Vatican Library. Later: Monson's making light of the nuns' pathetic attempts to enjoy themselves by dabbling in illicit magic is sickening. I'm feeling really claustrophobic.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Smflavin

    Very well written, but sort of like reading a text book. It is interesting so far. Still reading the book and it is very interesting. I will finish it, I am determined!

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Harris

    I'm not sure I'm going to finish this book. I got it for my Mom this year for Mother's Day. It sounds fun but I'm not loving it so far. I'm not sure I'm going to finish this book. I got it for my Mom this year for Mother's Day. It sounds fun but I'm not loving it so far.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Don

    They don't behave bad enough to make this book very interesting. They don't behave bad enough to make this book very interesting.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ian Carpenter

    Don't let the salacious title fool you - this was a surprisingly well-written, erudite read. Overly concerned with music for my interests but very good for those that click with it. Don't let the salacious title fool you - this was a surprisingly well-written, erudite read. Overly concerned with music for my interests but very good for those that click with it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Anson Cassel Mills

    First, about the dust jacket. The front cover features a faux-National Enquirer typeface, and the reverse, a monk flagellating a bare-bottomed nun (bottom tinted yellow). The author’s photo shows him in a pullover, shades, and a cowboy hat. Let’s hope this sort of thing does not become a common expedient for marketing “cross-over” academic books. For one thing, the young woman at the library checkout desk gave me a sidelong glance. There is little about sex here (though teenage boys in search of First, about the dust jacket. The front cover features a faux-National Enquirer typeface, and the reverse, a monk flagellating a bare-bottomed nun (bottom tinted yellow). The author’s photo shows him in a pullover, shades, and a cowboy hat. Let’s hope this sort of thing does not become a common expedient for marketing “cross-over” academic books. For one thing, the young woman at the library checkout desk gave me a sidelong glance. There is little about sex here (though teenage boys in search of titillation are free to use their imaginations). Instead, the author, a musicologist, has written up five stories he gleaned from the 17th and 18th century “Proceedings before the Papal Congregation of Bishops and Regulars” at the Vatican Library. The tales include stories about nuns who use folk magic in an attempt to find a stolen viola, a violent row over some chapel embroidery, a nun who masquerades as a priest to attend the opera, and cloister members from the same aristocratic family escaping their family-donated convent by burning it down. Monson writes well (if too chattily for my taste) offering reflections on his research in the Vatican Library as well as attempts at contemporary relevance. The authorial voice is often necessary to fill gaps because the primary sources are investigative documents written by the nuns’ male superiors, men who were uninterested in tidying up loose ends of the incidents they related. There is much of interest here: sidelights on monastic music and the raising of silkworms, for instance. What one will not find is much about religion. Apparently all the women featured here were relegated to the cloister by families trying to save dowry money. None seems to have had a religious vocation. It is easy to conclude from the reading of this book that 18th-century Italy would have been a much happier and more sensible place if nuns and their male superiors had simply married one another and spent their lives raising large families who could sing and play musical instruments.

  22. 5 out of 5

    William Mallory

    Less salacious than the title might suggest, Nuns Behaving Badly is a well-researched deep dive into the Vatican archives, presenting tales of nuns misbehaving in 17th century Italy. The various stories present a picture of women with few options in life and how the convents of the time were used as a place to house them. The biggest troublemakers seem to be women from wealthy families who, for whatever reason, did not marry, and were certainly not expected to work for a living. So the families Less salacious than the title might suggest, Nuns Behaving Badly is a well-researched deep dive into the Vatican archives, presenting tales of nuns misbehaving in 17th century Italy. The various stories present a picture of women with few options in life and how the convents of the time were used as a place to house them. The biggest troublemakers seem to be women from wealthy families who, for whatever reason, did not marry, and were certainly not expected to work for a living. So the families pay the church to take care of them and they become nuns. It is perhaps because of their lack of piety that creates a garden where these situations grow. In one instance, several nuns from the same family set fire to the upper floors of their convent simply because they didn't like the place and wanted to go home. In another, a nun from a wealthy family decorates the church with fine paintings and elaborate needlework and when another woman wanted to add to the decorations with her own needlework, the nun rips it from the wall and tears it up. You get the idea. Mostly these stories depict women looking for an outlet for creativity in a situation where the church strictly regulates every aspect of the lives. There are also many spoiled wealthy women who are not used to being told they cannot do something and can only take out their aggression on the convent, the Catholic church or the other nuns. When these personalities clash it creates a pressure cooker of heated emotions and the women lash out. How these stories are related however is a bit dry. There is a lot about the relationships of the nuns and their families to the cities, much back and forth from the church authorities (whose documentation of these events is the basis of the book) which isn't really necessary in my opinion. I think these tales could be tightened up and told in a more conversational tone and the result would be a more readable book. So overall, interesting, but it drags a bit.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    The title of Craig Monson's work on naughty nuns doesn't leave much to the imagination. It is, as stated, a compilation of incidents involving Italy's nuns in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - taken straight from the Vatican archives, no less. Some were rather mundane, certainly by today's standards: a nun who loved to sing, for example, and had to be barred from doing so by formal decree, only to fall afoul of the decree. Others - such as the Calabrian nuns who set fire to their convent The title of Craig Monson's work on naughty nuns doesn't leave much to the imagination. It is, as stated, a compilation of incidents involving Italy's nuns in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - taken straight from the Vatican archives, no less. Some were rather mundane, certainly by today's standards: a nun who loved to sing, for example, and had to be barred from doing so by formal decree, only to fall afoul of the decree. Others - such as the Calabrian nuns who set fire to their convent in order to escaped the cloistered life - are admittedly more shocking. As Monson discovered in the course of his research, a typical nun's life was rather dull. Surprised? I wasn't either. I was surprised to learn, though that the life of a nun often began at the age of six or seven, and sometimes as young as two. Also, that there were aristocratic convents, convents for converted prostitutes (the appropriately named Convertites), and for everyone in between. What's more, the convent was the usual choice for younger daughters, as the Church's dowry requirements were significantly less than a husband's. All of which is to say that as much as I enjoyed reading about the episodes themselves (sneaking relatives into convents! sneaking out to the opera! an escalating dispute over convent cushions!), I enjoyed even more learning learning about this aspect of life during and after the Renaissance. I've commented before of being impressed by the power of the Church and its total and utter domination of life; I come away from Nuns Behaving Badly amazed again at the acts committed in the name of God. Amen.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Veronika Elde

    Italian names made this a hard, confusing read.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lenore

    Craig Monson is a terrific writer and researcher. The stories are a hoot to read.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I went into this book looking forward to sordid scandals and a variety of strange events that took place in convents. What I got instead was convoluted historical facts.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Christi

    The histories told here are intriguing yet sad as most of the nuns' transgressions had to do with their attempting to escape their cloistered lives, either temporarily (to attend the opera, for instance) or permanently (to return to their families). Many unmarried 17th century women (or rather, girls) were sent to convents involuntarily as a way of protecting family honor, so it's unsurprising that a good number of nuns were dissatisfied with convent life. Monson contextualizes the seemingly cru The histories told here are intriguing yet sad as most of the nuns' transgressions had to do with their attempting to escape their cloistered lives, either temporarily (to attend the opera, for instance) or permanently (to return to their families). Many unmarried 17th century women (or rather, girls) were sent to convents involuntarily as a way of protecting family honor, so it's unsurprising that a good number of nuns were dissatisfied with convent life. Monson contextualizes the seemingly cruel practice of taking women from their families and forcing them live out their entire lives in cloistered religious solitude by pointing out that, given a woman's other options at the time, life in the convent wasn't really so bad, especially as novice nuns likely had siblings, aunts, and cousins in the order to keep them company. Yet the nuns' willingness to risk the rather severe punishments handed down by the Church when they were caught "behaving badly" suggests that many were miserable enough to wish for something better and desperate enough to pursue it. While the nuns' circumstances are lamentable, it is satisfying to read about their remarkable acts of resistance against the powerful Church and the patriarchal society that upheld it. This is a fascinating, if sometimes clunky read: it's clear that this book was written by an academic trying to reach a lay audience. The content is appealing, but I think some judicious editing of Monson's prose could have made this a much more accessible book.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ruthmarie

    Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and indeed more exciting, as this book proves. Although a scholarly treatise, this study by Craig Monson is engaging, though tinged with a bit too much of préciosité in its style. The five "case studies" (from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries) explore the misbehaviors of young (and not so young) women, most of whom entered the convent unwillingly, in adherence to contemporary mores. There is an interesting interview with Monson from 2011 Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and indeed more exciting, as this book proves. Although a scholarly treatise, this study by Craig Monson is engaging, though tinged with a bit too much of préciosité in its style. The five "case studies" (from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries) explore the misbehaviors of young (and not so young) women, most of whom entered the convent unwillingly, in adherence to contemporary mores. There is an interesting interview with Monson from 2011 from The New Yorker with him speaking more directly than he does in his book. The work is a bit naughty, but it is nice to have it . . . to give us a greater understanding of the cloistered lives that so many women lived not through their own wishes, but because of their families' circumstances.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Nicole G.

    A very interesting look at five different groups of nuns requiring intercession, hidden in the Vatican's secret archive. It's easy to get bogged down in all the lengthy Italian names, however. There is a cast of characters in the front of the book to help. I really enjoyed the introduction, where the author described how he came to write this book - while searching for other things, he came upon a bawdy song that was sung by nuns. I also learned that many of the nuns during this time were not ne A very interesting look at five different groups of nuns requiring intercession, hidden in the Vatican's secret archive. It's easy to get bogged down in all the lengthy Italian names, however. There is a cast of characters in the front of the book to help. I really enjoyed the introduction, where the author described how he came to write this book - while searching for other things, he came upon a bawdy song that was sung by nuns. I also learned that many of the nuns during this time were not necessarily there due to a calling. Rather, as there was usually only one dowry available, any younger daughters were usually 'encouraged' to join the convent.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Megalion

    http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/f... Free for month of October. Note: isn't as salacious as covert art indicates according to reviews. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/f... Free for month of October. Note: isn't as salacious as covert art indicates according to reviews.

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