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The New YorkerAncient and isolated, the twenty Orthodox monasteries on the Greek peninsula of Mount Athos do not make the headlines often, but the current standoff between the conservative monks of Esphigmenou (motto: "Orthodoxy or Death") and other orders shines a light on this enclave, famous for its total exclusion of females (including livestock) and its extreme notion of solitude: some hermits still live for decades in caves with only the skulls of their predecessors for company. Graham Speake's history Mount Athos suggests that the monks have always been a querulous bunch. As early as 972 A.D., the number of monks allowed to attend annual meetings was limited to "avoid the disorders and disputes which have occurred very frequently at these gatherings."
Few people nowadays are attracted to the cloistered life, but in some periods of history joining sacred orders was almost the norm. In Renaissance Europe, the high cost of marriage in aristocratic families sometimes sent the majority of a family's daughters to convents. In A Convent Tale, P. Renée Baernstein focusses on the life of the sixteenth-century Milanese noblewoman Agata Sfondrati. Such was the dearth of marriage opportunities that Agata's sister Anna was the only woman in three generations of the Sfondrati to get married. Unsurprisingly, many women felt trapped by this life. Mary Laven's Virgins of Venice looks at the many ways in which this frustration was vented -- amateur dramatics, hospitality to outside women, and love affairs. A nun who, in 1614, knocked a hole in a wall to admit her lover pointed out that she had been at the convent since she was six or seven and that, when she took her vows, "I spoke with my mouth, and not with my heart."(Leo Carey)