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


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 ...

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

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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 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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Editorial Reviews

The Economist
Nuns Behaving Badly wears its learning with a smile, but it throws a sharp light into dark Roman Catholic corners.”
“Forget the catchy title: Craig A Monson has produced a scholarly gem, commemorating some of the feisty women lurking behind convent walls in 16th and 17th-century Italy.”
The Huffington Post - Laurence Vittes
“Don’t miss ‘Spinsters, Silkworms, and a Flight in Flagrante,’ or any of the other lurid tales. Beautifully produced, exquisitely designed, mint copies of this are likely to become collectors’ items. Copies signed by the author, even better.”
Elissa B. Weaver
“A very original take on remarkable material. Monson’s thorough and impeccable research into convents of Bologna yielded many cases of imaginative insubordination, and he tells the stories with evident surprise and amusement, imposing a light touch on subjects that were in their historical period and setting quite serious. Cleverly written.”
Anne Jacobson Schutte
“Drawn from proceedings before the papal Congregation of Bishops and Regulars held in the Vatican Archive, the five true stories Craig Monson tells reveal much about the constrictions of convent life in Italy from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. As the subtitle makes clear, these are not titillating tales of sexual peccadilloes but accounts of nuns attempting in various ways to challenge the oppressive regimen imposed by their masculine superiors. Written in vivid informal prose by a seasoned researcher who knows his subject intimately, this masterpiece will amuse and inform a wide range of readers both within and beyond academic circles.”
Jane A. Bernstein
“Fantastic stories of arson, magic, and nights at the opera—Monson presents a veritable Canterbury Tales detailing convent life in early modern Italy as seen through the adventures of unruly nuns. But unlike Chaucer’s classic work, all of these stories are true. Meticulously researched and carefully crafted, this book is a brilliant tour de force in its erudition. At the same time, it is a riveting page-turner that will interest scholars and general readers alike and also serve as an important resource for courses in gender studies, history, and music.”—Jane A. Bernstein, Tufts University
Edward Muir
“For centuries, more than three-quarters of upper-class women in Italy were immured in convents, willingly or not. From the Vatican Secret Archive, Craig Monson has worked like a detective to uncover the secrets of this closed world, revealing the yearnings and frustrations of women who were ‘dead to the world.’ This beautifully written, gripping book tells the stories of nuns who sought escape. Some just sang forbidden polyphony, one slipped out in disguise to catch the latest opera, and an entire convent burned down their cloister so they could all go home.”
Sarah Dunant
“Monson’s book is a treasure hunt through the archives, uncovering hoards of gold: stories and characters from convent history, sad, bad, mad, and scandalous enough to make a novelist’s mouth water.”
Parergon - Robert Curry
“[A] rollicking good read.”
Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians - Erik W. Goldstrom
“In a brilliantly packaged piece of ‘nun-sploitation,’ author Craig A. Monson has woven together five separate tales of convent mystery into a fascinating examination of the female religious community in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy. . . . Arsonists, escape artists, lovers, and dabblers in the occult—Monson unveils them all in this brilliant work.”
Sixteenth Century Journal - Larissa Tracy
“Impeccably researched and extremely accessible, Monson’s book opens up a whole new world of convent and church politics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy.”
“All of the stories are engaging, and all triggered crises that might have disrupted convent life for generations. . . . If readers discover that they have purchased something quite richer in texture and historical content than the mildly humorous exposé of naughty nuns that they might have been expecting, so much the better.”
Journal of Medieval Religous Cultures - Jenny Spinner
“Monson . . . goes to great lengths to reimagine the past in the liveliest of terms, in scenes and dialogue pulled from the dusty envelopes of material that he poured over in the Vatican Archive. Few of the nuns who exist in that archive had a voice. Monson, at long last, makes a valiant stride toward giving them one.”
History of Religions - Dyan Elliott
“Monson is a graceful writer who frequently goes beyond historic contextualization to create a distinct atmosphere. . . . This is book is as learned as it is delightful. It should command a wide audience, from specialists in early modern Italy, religion, and gender studies, to the general reader.”
[A] rollicking good read.

— Robert Curry

Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians
In a brilliantly packaged piece of ‘nun-sploitation,’ author Craig A. Monson has woven together five separate tales of convent mystery into a fascinating examination of the female religious community in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy. . . . Arsonists, escape artists, lovers, and dabblers in the occult—Monson unveils them all in this brilliant work.

— Erik W. Goldstrom

Sixteenth-Century Journal
Impeccably researched and extremely accessible, Monson’s book opens up a whole new world of convent and church politics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy.

— Larissa Tracy, Longwood University

The Huffington Post
Don’t miss ‘Spinsters, Silkworms, and a Flight in Flagrante,’ or any of the other lurid tales. Beautifully produced, exquisitely designed, mint copies of this are likely to become collectors’ items. Copies signed by the author, even better.”

— Laurence Vittes


"Nuns Behaving Badly wears its learning with a smile, but it throws a sharp light into dark Roman Catholic corners."—Economist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226534725
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,413,313
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Craig A. Monson is professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Disembodied Voices: Music and Culture in an Early Modern Italian Convent.

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Read an Excerpt

Nuns Behaving Badly

By Craig A. Monson


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-53461-9

Chapter One



I became a topo d'archivio (an archive mouse—or rat) by accident.

In 1986 I returned to Florence after a twenty-year absence. In the hodgepodge collections of the Museo Bardini, off the well-beaten tourist track, I happened upon a Renaissance music manuscript. Lavishly bound, elegantly hand copied, as thick as the phone book of some midwestern city, it looked significant but forgotten. I recognized an academic article waiting to be written, so I returned the following summer for a closer look.

Dusting off a few tools from the musicological toolbox (a bit rusty by then, their cutting edges dull), I studied watermarks on the paper, the musical notation, the pieces it contained, the style of the tooled and gilded leather binding, a coat of arms on the front, and an inscription on the back:


These clues led not to Florence but to Bologna, and to Sister Elena Malvezzi at the convent of Sant' Agnese. Suor Elena had taken her vows there in the 1520s and had died, as prioress or subprioress, in 1563.

This was a surprise, because the manuscript chiefly contained French chansons and Italian madrigals. Now, in 1986 I didn't know much about nuns, but I certainly didn't expect them to be singing secular songs of this sort. I especially didn't think they'd sing one that began:

    Vu ch'ave quella cosetta
    Che dilletta e piase tanto
    Ah lasse che una man ve metta
    Sotto la sottana e[']l vostro manto.

    [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.]

Despite my brief acquaintance at this point, sixteenth-century convent music and musicians looked a lot more interesting than their twentieth-century musical equivalents—Soeur Sourire (the singing nun of the 1960s) or Maria from The Sound of Music. Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg's character) from Sister Act would have seemed quite another matter, but that film wouldn't be released for another five years. Why did Renaissance nuns perform such elaborate music whereas their counterparts in modern times lead such seemingly bland lives? In the 1980s most musicologists associated nuns with chant, if they thought about nuns at all. What were these sisters doing singing this music? I turned my back on Elizabethan England, and on "note-centered" research, and became the topo d'archivio this subject required.

My discoveries confirmed what the Malvezzi manuscript had suggested. Convent singing was a contested issue. It provoked delight and fascination (from some—but not all—nun musicians and from their audiences), but also anxiety and conflict (from the church hierarchy). Initial research in Florence and Bologna revealed that convent music required even more careful control by the Catholic bureaucracy than other aspects of its performers' cloistered lives.

So a chief place to continue searching for nuns' music would have to be the Vatican, the center of that bureaucracy, and especially the records of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars. This Sacred Congregation, consisting of various cardinals, had been created in 1572 to oversee every facet of monastic discipline throughout the Catholic world. Because nuns' music of the sixteenth century to the eighteenth remained a "problem," the Congregation's archive should contain complaints, requests, judgments, and decrees about music.

Most such complaints and queries came from a local bishop or from his second-in-command, the diocesan vicar-general, acting in his name. In large dioceses, a specially deputized vicar of nuns (another step down in the priestly pecking order) might contact the Congregation. Sometimes it was the nuns themselves who lodged initial objections or tendered requests, though they frequently went right to the top, naively assuming that the pope himself would take an interest in their concerns. Their petitions also landed in the pile at the Bishops and Regulars. Whoever initiated the conversation, from that point on the nuns were commonly left out of subsequent dialogues, which involved prelates from their dioceses and other prelates in Rome. Much of the time the women religious who were the subject of investigation had little direct voice in discussions and deliberations about them.

Of course, one would expect any such deliberations about convent music to be buried amid hundreds of thousands of other documents treating diverse monastic matters, all tied up in some two thousand buste ("envelopes"—though in this case "bales" would be more accurate). Organized year by year and by months within each year, and anywhere from six to sixteen inches thick, these buste sit on block after block of shelving in the Vatican Secret Archive.

I made my way to Rome in 1989, and, after a friendly nod from a Swiss Guard at the gate, I passed through the wall into Vatican City. Diffidently proffering credentials and an elaborately signed and sealed American university letter of introduction, I negotiated the bureaucratic hurdles and landed, later that morning, in the Secret Archive's reading room. Some reading rooms—the Duke Humphrey Room of Oxford's Bodleian Library, the old British Library's central reading room, or Bologna's Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio, for example—add inspiring elements of aesthetic pleasure to the other joys of scholarship. The Vatican Archive reading room, by contrast, seemed all business to me, sternly utilitarian and largely unmemorable.

I don't remember admiring it much during waits for my three daily manuscript requests to be filled at appointed times. I recall little about the room at all, in fact, except for a bank of tall windows to the east, plus the inevitable color photograph of a familiar preeminent prelate, keeping watch from high on the wall. Several years later I ran across an old photograph of the reading room, showing a couple of neoclassical statues in shallow niches and a few other decorative touches. They had been there all along, but they seem never to have tempered my memory's impression of the room's severity. I whiled away the wait by discreetly watching others at work.

A perpetually jovial, scratchy brown Capuchin friar, resembling an extra in some crowd behind Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy, was there every day for months. He often sat in splendid isolation (at least on warm summer days), a smile on his face and a glint in his eye, too caught up in chronicling the history of his order to give much thought to bathing.

There was the young archival careerist who, rumor said, had married well into some secular branch of the Vatican bureaucracy. He came and went as he pleased, apparently on no fixed research schedule. Often he cruised around the room restlessly. Some readers allegedly never left their manuscripts open if they temporarily left their desks, imagining he might snap up an important unattended discovery of theirs as he glided past.

One young female researcher assumed a faintly defensive posture whenever a manuscript delivery clerk went by. She would apologize that she did nothing to encourage their attentions. It was just that summertime was open season on attractive young foreign women—particularly for delivery clerks in the throes of midlife crisis.

Often in residence, usually down front and happily in view, sat a tall, distinguished, aging gentleman in a dated double-breasted suit, his preternaturally black hair slicked straight back, 1930s style. Apart from his impressive bulk, he resembled the Sesame Street character who had taught many Americans in the room to count. Nicknamed "the count" by American admirers, he actually was a count who held court on the mornings when he showed up. How he had managed to write an unremitting stream of books and articles was a mystery. He never sat for more than half an hour and hardly untied a bundle of documents before someone, anywhere from twenty-five to eighty-five, walked up and shook hands. Then off they went to the Vatican bar.

The Vatican bar, the archive's chief concession to creature comforts, occupies a tiny cleft in the back wall of a bright, pleasant courtyard between the Vatican Archive and the Vatican Library. The bar serves up deeply discounted fare to Vatican employees. But it does not discriminate against scholars, who take carefully timed breaks within its lively, smoky haze.

The count always seemed delighted to share coffee, decades of archival experience, and batches of off prints. Any American who made the requisite self-introduction was promptly told of the count's otto-cento ancestor who had served in Washington during President Lincoln's administration. The count even offered an occasional invitation, if not to his house on the Adriatic or a second in the north, at least to his pied-à-terre, not far from the Pantheon. I remember it as a caricature of a scholar's study. Dusty, dry, close, as if nobody lived there. Dimly lit by shafts of light through gaps in the heavy curtains, everything in a subtly varied palette of cappuccino, caffe latte, espresso, every surface piled with papers and stacks of the inevitable off prints. The desk, under a precarious pyramid of books, had its top drawers wide open, twin towers of volumes rising two feet or more from inside. A scholar of a decidedly old school, untroubled by deconstruction, cultural studies, and Foucault, the count had crafted a balance of affable generosity and his own brand of scholarly productivity.

Back at the archive reading room, the general anxiety level spiked around any new arrival. Tentatively wandering around the reference room, pocket dictionary in hand, submitting request forms, rebuff ed if they exceeded the daily quota, reprimanded if the collocation number failed to fit the paradigm, most novices sat tensely awaiting the first items. Eyes shifted from the keeper's desk to other readers, attempting to divine the modus operandi in the absence of much official guidance.

It had always been this way. When the archive began officially to admit outsiders in the 1880s, one confused novice researcher's request for a word or two of advice drew exactly that. The comparatively benign second custodian Pietro Wenzel responded with a smile, "Bisogna pescare"—"You have to go fishing."

The "hands off" administrative attitude grew more severe by 1927: "Whoever for his own convenience needlessly avoids carrying out normal research work in the indices and habitually troubles archivists, scriptors, and ushers will render himself unwelcome." In the late 1960s Maria Luisa Ambrosini summed up the archive's daunting reputation in a book whose reprint from the 1990s included her discouraging remark on its back cover: "The difficulties of research are so great that sometimes a student, having enthusiastically gone through the complicated procedures of getting permission to work in the Archives, disappears after a few days' work and never shows up again. But for persons with greater frustration tolerance, work there is rather pleasant."

Little wonder, then, that a new arrival might feel anxious. In addition, some American scholars had only a couple of weeks or so before their prebooked cheap return flights. And to top it off , the archive closes for the day at lunchtime. Hence they were first in line at opening and last to leave before lunch, with no time for coffee in the Vatican bar.

Nobody in the Vatican employ was likely to tell novices in basic training that while the archive officially closes at lunchtime, it reopens unofficially in the afternoon and remains open another three hours. Researchers from out of town need only request a permesso pomeridiano (afternoon pass). Then they can return after lunch and continue to work in the largely empty and much less frenetic reading room until early evening. But back in the 1980s you had somehow to learn about the existence of this permesso. Nobody who worked there was likely to tell you—though they would issue one if you asked.

I was lucky. From day one, I benefitted from the experienced guidance of a former student, by then a veteran of several Vatican tours of duty. She had revealed the secret of the permesso pomeridiano even before my first day, as well as other essential Roman and Vatican survival tips. How to navigate the number 64 bus, which plies the route from Central Station through town to the Vatican. Tourists trapped on bus 64 draw pickpockets who find the crush of standees easy pickings. Her most prized secret: how to visit the Sistine Chapel, even during high season, and still have the place virtually to yourself.

The archive's American veterans generally made sure other new arrivals experienced similar kindness. No need for them to squander their afternoons visiting churches, museums, and Roman ruins, lingering outdoors over a late lunch, or sipping coffee in Piazza Navona. After all, they could be slogging through a few more buste in the archive, thanks to a permesso pomeridiano of their own.

I found a seat among the music veterans, picking their way through fourteenth-and fifteenth-century papal supplications registers. They searched for the great (Du Fay, Josquin, Busnoys) and the not so great but nonetheless significant. I began sifting for nun musicians in the buste of the Bishops and Regulars. Most researchers sat in intense concentration, negotiating page after page of impenetrable text, going as fast as they dared. Silence was the rule, except for the memorable time when "Holy shit!" scorched the ears of scandalized Vatican clerks. The room waited for the color portrait to tumble from the wall. The late fifteenth century's most important composer had just emerged from hiding in my veteran friend's latest volume of papal supplications.

Such Little Jack Horner moments (pulling out a music historical plum) hardly ever happened. More commonly, all endured prolonged fallow periods, a reality of archival research. One musicologist on an especially specific hunt once spent the whole summer slowly turning pages and finding nothing at all. But as I flipped documents, waiting for the odd detail of musical information to surface, I uncovered a wealth of alternative detail about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century convent life.

With pleasant regularity, something appeared that was diverting or eye-opening. Often just an amusing anecdote to relate during breaks in the Vatican bar. Nuns from Fabriano in 1650, for example, complaining about sweating youths ("most of them half naked") so bold as to play soccer right outside the convent gate. "With nothing but dirty and indecent words and execrable blasphemies, they off end their chaste ears" (though apparently the gaggle of late-blooming soccer fans who overheard the youths while discreetly peering around the convent gate to watch willingly risked such aural damage). After a day or two, whenever I chuckled, my veteran deskmate began to ask, "All right. What did you find now?"

These nuns' adventures and misadventures didn't fit my 1980s musicological agenda, but they were too compelling to consign back to archival oblivion. Who knew how long it might be before someone else requested that busta? Many buste appeared never to have been opened since the secretary of the Sacred Congregation sent them off to the archive. Before the end of that first Vatican tour, my deskmate suggested that someday I should write a book retelling some of those forgotten tales.

This book offers five of the most interesting of these histories. Each relates a singular response to the cloistered life. All touch off major crises. They disrupt the convent status quo, provoking aftershocks that might continue for generations. They reveal the incapacities of hierarchically imposed systems of external oversight and control. Given these realities, they sometimes even destroy their communities.


Excerpted from Nuns Behaving Badly by Craig A. Monson Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Dramatis Personae

1 Prologue
2 Dangerous Enchantments: What the Inquisitor Found, San Lorenzo (Bologna, 1584) 
3 Spinsters, Silkworms, and a Flight in Flagrante, San Niccolò di Strozzi (Reggio Calabria, 1673)
4 Perilous Patronage: Generosity and Jealousy, Santa Maria Nuova (Bologna, 1646–80) 
5 Slipping through the Cracks: A Convent’s Porous Walls, Santa Maria degli Angeli (Pavia, 1651–75)
6 Nights at the Opera: The Travels and Travails of Christina Cavazza, Santa Cristina della Fondazza (Bologna, 1708–35)
7 Epilogue

Further Reading

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