The discovery of the fascinating and richly documented story of Sister Benedetta Carlini, Abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God, by Judith C. Brown was an event of major historical importance. Not only is the story revealed in Immodest Acts that of the rise and fall of a powerful woman in a church community and a record of the life of a religious visionary, it is also the earliest documentation of lesbianism in modern Western history. Born of well-to-do parents, Benedetta Carlini entered the convent at the age of nine. At twenty-three, she began to have visions of both a religious and erotic nature. Benedetta was elected abbess due largely to these visions, but later aroused suspicions by claiming to have had supernatural contacts with Christ. During the course of an investigation, church authorities not only found that she had faked her visions and stigmata, but uncovered evidence of a lesbian affair with another nun, Bartolomeo. The story of the relationship between the two nuns and of Benedetta's fall from an abbess to an outcast is revealed in surprisingly candid archival documents and retold here with a fine sense of drama.
Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy 3.3 out of 5based on
kant1066 on LibraryThing
11 months ago
In the year 1600, at the tender age of nine, Benedetta Carlini was sent to a nunnery in the small city of Pescia in north-central Italy. What today might be considered cruel and highly unusual was then a way for Benedetta¿s somewhat well-to-do parents to provide their daughter with protection. After several years at the nunnery which Brown describes as fairly unremarkable, Benedetta began to have a series of increasingly disturbing visions, including being sexually harassed by demons. Sister Benedetta was eventually assigned a companion named Bartolomea Crivelli (also a sister in the convent) whose presence, as the subtitle hints at, would later become problematic for her. Bartolomea¿s job was to assist Benedetta through her ¿periods of ecstasy,¿ and was present when she supposedly received the stigmata and exchanged mystical hearts with Christ.Naturally, this caught the attention of a Counter-Reformation Catholic Church whose main goal was maintaining a sense of propriety. Two separate people (men, naturally) were set out to Pescia to investigate what was happening. Stefano Cecchi was the first to investigate Benedetta over a number of visits throughout late 1619. Cecchi¿s main purpose was to ensure that she was remaining within theologically accepted boundaries, which she was extremely conscious of doing, knowing that moving outside of them would have put her reputation, and more importantly her life, in danger. Cecchi, satisfied that Benedetta was not a heretic, left quietly to resume his position as the provost of Pescia. At least for a while, things appeared to return to normal inside the convent. At some time between August 1622 and March 1623, the papal nuncio sent several representatives, led by Alfonso Giglioli, to examine Benedetta¿s claims again. In 1620, she had become an abbess at the incredibly young age of thirty, but had been deeply troubled by the recent death of her father. The nuncio¿s representatives proceeded much in the same way as in the earlier set of visits. Their final ruling on Benedetta¿s case isn¿t even given until the beginning of the epilogue:¿The story of Benedetta Carlini is shrouded in mystery for the next forty years. No records exist of the nuncio¿s pronouncements, and it is only the chance survival of one fragment of one nun¿s diary that allows us to know the outcome. On August 7, 1661, that nun, whose name has not come down to us, wrote in her diary: `Benedetta Carlini died at age 71 of fever and colic pains after eighteen days of illness. She died in penitence, having spent thirty-five years in prison¿¿ (p. 132). At this point, you might be wondering, ¿And the lesbianism? What about the lesbianism?¿ Its relevance and Brown¿s discussion of it are extraordinarily fleeting. Bartolomea gave testimony that Benedetta sexually molested her and engaged in frottage with her while possessed by the spirit of a male demon known as Splenditello. While Benedetta and Bartolomea¿s sexual behavior merits perhaps a few sentences in the book, in the Introduction and peppered throughout the text, Brown discusses how Benedetta used Splenditello¿s ¿maleness¿ as a foil to explain away her rape of Bartolomea (and according to Bartolomea¿s testimony, that¿s exactly what it was). The book remains ambiguous as to whether Benedetta deliberately used her male demon as an excuse, or whether she actually thought he possessed her, but the nuncio¿s representatives seem unconvinced as they accuse her of ¿pretending¿ to be a mystic, and being a ¿woman of ill repute.¿One wonders what Brown¿s motivation was in giving the book such a gratuitous title. The content of the book, a scholarly interpretation of a set of documents couched deep in the State Archive of Florence entitled ¿Papers relating to a trial against Sister Benedetta Carlini of Vellano, abbess of the Theatine nuns of Pescia, who pretended to be a mystic, but who was discovered to be a woman of ill repute,¿ isn¿t really commensurate with the
LCBrooks on LibraryThing
11 months ago
By titling the biography of Sister Benedetta Carlini, Immodiest Acts: The Life of Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, Judith C. Brown sensationalizes the true nature of her work. This book deals little with the nun's sexuality but delves deeply into her visionary claims and the investigations thereof. The real story here is that of an indulged young girl whose parents committed her to a monastic life at an early age. I found the edited documents of the Appendix far more enlightening than Brown's interpretive work.
More than 1 year ago
By titling the biography of Sister Benedetta Carlini, Immodiest Acts: The Life of Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, Judith C. Brown sensationalizes the true nature of her work. This book deals little with the nun's sexuality but delves deeply into her visionary claims and the investigations thereof. The real story here is that of an indulged young girl whose parents committed her to a monastic life at an early age.
I found the edited documents of the Appendix far more enlightening than Brown's interpretive work.