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Family Strategies and Nuns without Vocation

Are nuns cloistered and inaccessible ‘brides of Christ’, or socially engaged women, active in the outside world impossible for their secular sisters? Silvia Evangelisti examined this question in her book Nuns: A History of Convent Life 1450-1700. In the excerpt from the book below, she points out that is misleading to think that all women entered the convent in order to fulfil their spiritual aspirations, or to avoid marriage. Indeed, many women took the vows also as a result of family pressures and patrimonial strategies.


One tradition dating back to medieval times was for kings and queens, as well as lay wealthy aristocrats, to establish and support churches and religious institutions in the hope of obtaining divine protection and ultimately salvation. Queen Christina of Sweden, a fervent supporter of the Franciscans, founded a convent of Poor Clares in Copenaghen in 1497, which hosted mainly burgher classes and some poorer women. A few years later, she opened another Franciscan house in Odense. Similarly, Queen D. Leonor of Portugal founded in 1509 the Clarissan convent of Madre de Deus de Xabregas, located just outside Lisbon on the river Tajo. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Habsburgs threw themselves into the development of convents. In Madrid they built at least three female religious houses in just fifty-seven years: Princess Juana of Portugal founded Las Descalzas Reales in 1554; Alonso Orozco, the preacher of King Philip II, built La Visitación in 1589; Philip III and Margaret of Austria started La Encarnación in 1611. They followed the same policy in their transatlantic possessions. In Cuzco, Peru, they set up three religious houses between 1558 and 1673, vital institutions for implanting European society in the colonies.

These ‘gated’ communities served multiple purposes, and were particularly attractive and convenient locations for hosting the daughters of the elites. Aristocratic and emerging mercantile families established their power and social status on the basis of financial wealth and property. Nunneries offered them a safe, honourable, and economically attractive alternative to marriage, a means to soften the onerous impact of supporting female offspring. The convent dowry, or ‘spiritual dowry’—the sum of money required to place a woman in monastic retreat—was usually lower than a marriage dowry, allowing families to compensate for the dispersal of family patrimonies inevitably caused by the high costs of marriage. Furthermore, convents provided the kind of basic education that parents sought for their daughters, and—like colleges and schools— represented an invaluable opportunity for networking, helping families to reinforce ties within their social rank, and opening up paths for social mobility.

This mechanism generated a growth in female professions, and induced patterns of gentrification. According to a trend that has been observed in many European countries, a high number of patrician women dwelled in monastic houses. In Madrid, for instance, in 1674, there was a queue of up to 160 women waiting to enter one of the city’s convents. Favouritism was not infrequent as the girls from noble houses were likely to be preferred to their less prosperous or less noble peers. A member of the German guard, who petitioned to the Council of Castile the Camara de Castilla—in order to obtain a place for his daughter, received a negative reply. He was told that future vacancies would be reserved to women of a higher status. In some areas, such as Italy, this trend seems particularly clear when marriage dowries reached their peak.

Unsurprisingly, forced monastic professions were not infrequent, as families did not hesitate to sacrifice their daughters for economic convenience. The result of this was that many nuns lived in religious houses against their will:

two thousand or more noble women . . . in this city live locked up in monasteries as if they were a public store . . . they are confined within those walls not for spirit of devotion but because of their families, making their freedom, so dear even to those lacking the use of reason, a gift not only to God, but also to their city, the world, and their closest relatives.

According to the Venetian nun who wrote these lines, the extraordinarily incisive Arcangela Tarabotti (1604–52), it was politics rather than devotion that brought women to the cloister. Tarabotti bravely denounced the role assigned to women in family politics, who were treated by their ruthless fathers as goods to be bought and sold:

They do not give as brides for Christ the most beautiful and virtuous, but instead the ugly and deformed, and if there are daughters who are lame, hunchbacked, or have any other crippling torment, as if the defect of nature was a defect of theirs, they are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Tarabotti was referring here to her own situation: she was disabled and the oldest of five daughters, and therefore unappealing to the marriage market. She was the only one of the five that her father destined to the cloister. Tarabotti was one of the many voices against forced monasticism. When we listen to early modern scholars, playwrights, or authors of travel literature, we learn of the troubles of miserable women who had been sent to the cloister without vocation by cruel parents who therefore deprived them of their freedom, and condemned them to eternal unhappiness, with great offence to God. Uncommon though it was for these women to escape and be released from their vows, it was not completely impossible and some of them were married off: ‘Don Francisco de Luzón’, reads a Spanish document, ‘married one sister of señor Conde de la Puebla del Maestre, who had been a professed nun in Saint Clare for fourteen years, and had managed to escape from her convent.’

If forced monasticism became a favourite subject for many authors, and for nuns’ and monks’ claims before ecclesiastical courts, the best portrait of an unwilling nun can be found in the pages of Diderot’s novel The Nun. Probably inspired by a real court case involving a forced nun, it told the tragic story of Suzanne Simonin, a nun without vocation who experienced first her parents’ violence, then the unsolicited sexual attentions and harassment of the mother abbess. ‘No, Sir,’ she replied to the question whether she, already a novice living in the cloister, wished to profess the sacred vows. This was only the beginning of her unhappy existence.

A careful observer of his own times, Diderot was determined to attack the constraints of religion. His work vividly recreated the unbearable pressures, as well as the complicity between the family and the monastic institution, that could determine the entrance of women into religious life. Diderot’s heroine experienced injustice and violence, both psychological and physical. Unable to make her voice heard—if not through the author’s pen—her tragedy lay in the vows she took against her will, as much as in her awareness of her hopeless situation. Diderot’s scenario recalled the case of Arcangela Tarabotti. But Tarabotti, unlike Suzanne, was not a character in a novel. She was made of flesh and blood, just like the many other women who remained cloistered for life, without having much of a true inclination to be so.

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