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Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic,…
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Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents… (2010)

by Craig A. Monson

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Scholarly but well-written account of a few instances of cloistered nuns trying to break out of their closely restricted freedom. As a non-Catholic (and non-religious) person, this book was quite enlightening about how convents were places where noble families could park their unneeded daughters for much less cost than the dowry required to marry them off. This helped to preserve family wealth, but took a terrible toll on many of these women, who would never have chosen this fate for themselves. As a result, they end up practicing magic, setting fire, sneaking off to the opera....and so on. I'm glad I read this. ( )
  datrappert | Oct 9, 2016 |
Natalie F Smith was responsible for the book and Cover design for this University of Chicago Press publication and the above image appears both on the spine and on the back cover of the book. I can only think that Chicago University Press were desperate to sell some books because the image bears hardly any relation to the contents of the book. The author Craig A Monson points out that there is scant evidence in church/Vatican archives of any untoward sexual behaviour in the convents and it is significant that the title of his book is subtitled; Tales of Music, Magic Art and Arson.

In his prologue Monson describes himself as a topo d'archivio (an archive mouse and rat) and it was while doing research as a musicologist in the Vatican Archives he came across papers and letters pertaining to one Sister Elena Malvezzi at the convent of Sant' Agnese Bologna and from these documents a paper trail led him to put together a story concerning the difficulties presented to the church hierarchy by singing convent nuns. Convents were secure places where many unwanted females were placed by their families for their own protection; there were other reasons of course and while they were generally not coerced many young females found it difficult not to enter convent life if their families wished them to do so. Chanting and perhaps singing the liturgy was a significant part of their daily lives and nuns with a talent for music were able to give semi public performances. This could lead to far more contact with the outside world than was comfortable for church authorities and so there were instances where nuns found themselves in dispute with one of the most authoritarian societies on the planet.

Monson has found five little stories to feature in his book, the first involves a group who practised some black magic arts, dabbling in divining and love magic and it all sounds particularly low key and harmless from todays perspective, but I can understand that in 16th century Italy it may have been more significant. The second story is about a suspicious fire in a small convent in a Southern Italian Town that could have been raised by disgruntled nuns. The third tale concerns a nun of exceptional strong character who used her families patronage to create her own little kingdom within the convent. The fourth tale also depicts a power struggle within convent walls with hints of lesbian relationships and the fifth is the curious tale of an opera loving nun who slips out of the convent in disguise in order to attend some concerts.

There is nothing in these local tales that is going to shake the foundations of catholicism in Renaissance Italy, however Monson provides plenty of insights into Church and convent life and the tales are not without interest, especially as the author appears to be on the side of the nuns as they battle against overwhelming odds. Clearly Monson must speculate a little on the events, because the information to hand has to be developed and interpreted to provide some interest, but his archival sources are noted at the back of the book.

This is not an academic book, but one aimed at the interested reader, but perhaps Natalie F Smith aimed at an even wider readership with her hints of nunsploitation.
I found the book interesting and informative in a sort of micro-history way and Monson's prologue describing the Vatican archives was amusing. 3.5 stars. ( )
4 vote baswood | Feb 23, 2016 |
Anyone reading just the title of this book could be forgiven for assuming it might be about sexual adventures in the convent. This couldn't be further from the case. In fact, it's a delightful book about nun misadventures that says more about the church and its attitudes towards women than it does about the bad behavior of nuns. One particularly enjoyable episode involves a nun who decided to attend the opera. This isn't exactly something we would consider badly behaved in modern times, but it created a scandal that rocked the entire town, and reverberated throughout the region. A couple of the stories actually do report behavior that could be considered questionable even in today's society, such as the arsonist nuns, but for the most part, the quivering outrage and indignation over the misbehavior of these nuns, and the constant worries about the future of the church seem almost farcical. The author readily acknowledges that his main source is the Vatican archives, which also can be perceived as somewhat biased, but in many cases, there are letters and petitions from others that have been involved, including townspeople and the nuns themselves, so the voice here is not monolithically that of the church. Overall, it's a great read for someone who wants to learn more about the role of women in the church during the middle of the last millennium, the view of people at that time about women, and the strong minded, independent women who were locked away in a cloister when they really would rather have been part of society. The language is not particularly scholarly, so the book is accessible to a wide range of lay readers. ( )
1 vote Devil_llama | Nov 29, 2012 |
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I became a topo d'archivio (an archive mouse ---or rat) by accident.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226534618, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:28 -0400)

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. - Publisher.… (more)

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