authors of Rome’s awful indictment of herself, the Consilium de emendanda
ecclesia, were terrified lest the Reformation should overthrow the Roman
Church altogether (see BCN 9 December 2005). We have to remember that the Consilium
was Rome’s own judgement on herself.
Consilium even suggested abolishing priestly celibacy. It says of monasteries
and nunneries, “Acknowledging that amongst nuns and virgins in cloisters ……open
disgrace takes place with offence to one and all ….. which grieves Christendom
….. monastic orders …. must be ….. abolished for many of them have gotten into
such bad condition and disorder that they are a grave offence ……. therefore it
is our opinion that all convent orders should be abolished”.
why were they not abolished?
Lea, the Victorian historian of the Inquisition, observes that, “the changes
recommended in the Consilium attacked too many vested interests for even
the papal power to give it effect”.
showdown came at the ensuing Council of Trent. This council dragged on from
1545 to 1563 when the luxuriously entertained delegates, “did little more than
shift absurdity from one place to another and effectually correct none”. The Consilium’s
moment of human compassion towards women was lost amongst politics. The Trent council was, ‘the farthest possible remote from religion of any, kind or degree,” in
Rome’s history. Never has, “more self interested policy ... more immoral and
dishonourable intrigue .... more flagrant injustice [towards reformers] and
more violent and indecorous internal contention,” occurred in any council. Rome has produced medals of all her infamies ‑ The St Bartholomew’s Eve massacre,
the hunting down of the Hussites, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and
dozens more. Yet no explicit medal was ever produced to commemorate Trent.
Nuns left until last
trifling question of celibate orders and those lowly creatures, the nuns, was
delayed from 1545 right until the very end of the council in 1563. The Alpine
winter was setting in. The final 25th session was to be the last. Vast
quantities of unfinished business guaranteed it to be the most hectic. The
sated and tetchy delegates were at their lowest ebb and could not bring
themselves to pay attention. The agreed date for ending the Council, the 9th
December, was so near Christmas that the delegates were locked into whirlwind
performances. By the end of November, “everything was tending with precipitate
and indecorous speed to the termination of the council”.
would have been happy to have scrapped the 25th session altogether. The French
and the Spanish were fighting and the French were demanding “a speedy close”.
At the end of November, news arrived that the pope was “dangerously” ill. In
fact he only had a bad cold but the rumour grew with the telling and had the
desired effect of heightening the sense of haste and confusion. Conditions were
thus perfect for the manipulators. All of Rome’s big earners, such as
purgatory, indulgences, invocation and veneration of relics and saints and
sacred images, were shunted into this session. Vested interests could rest
assured that any consideration of them would of necessity be cursory, and
reform, if any, would be trifling. The nuns were about the last item on the
to say, Trent rejected the idea of abolishing nuns. But if nuns were not to be
a liability, the conditions of their containment would have to be strict beyond
measure, and that regardless of the power and wealth of line from which these the
women were the rejects. Rome, terrified of Protestant derision, was determined
to leave no chink in its rigorous regime of incarceration. Nothing that could give rise to the slightest scandal would be
overlooked. Rome was determined that never again would it be said by outsiders
that, “violation” of nuns was “teeming” in convents which were “not convents
but public whorehouses”.
Trent’s rigour was to be draconian and demonstrable. For
as the Council of Trent said, if celibacy was persisted with and the
“foundations of all religious discipline are not carefully preserved, the whole
building will necessarily topple”. The dire warning of the Consilium still had
power to influence. Trent did persist and an Anathema was called down upon any
who should fail to assert virginity to be a higher state than marriage.
Trent’s nun legislation was obsessive in detail. “No nun
may go out of her convent on any pretext ... except approved by the bishop ...
no one of any kind or condition or sex or age may enter ... without permission
of the Bishop or Superior in writing under pain of excommunication”. The
Bishop was to have absolute oversight of convents. He was, required regularly
to inspect them with the thoroughness of a modern prison camp guard. All
doors, windows and rotary turntables were to be secured with double and triple
locking “and not the slightest fissure” remain for two way glances. Elaborate
key holder regulations were established with guarding arrangements. There must
be only one, or at the most two, entrances if part of the convent faced river
or sea. If the bishop found more, he “must immediately wall them up and block
them so they may no longer be used”. A record exists of the nuns of San Rocco
and Santa Margarita in Venice having the ventilating holes in their latrine
filled in, despite the heart of Mediterranean summers, lest by craning their necks
they could glimpse the street below. These women were pitilessly denied even
the embrace of their own female relatives.
regulations were as paranoid about nuns getting out as about amours getting
in. There were all sorts of ridiculous anti voyeurism measures. The nuns were
enjoined never, “to step a single pace,” beyond their enclosure. They could
hear the mass through heavy grilles and only their disembodied voices were
heard. Their lives were to be joyless, largely silent, and their time spent in
bare solitary cells. Up to four unannounced spot searches were to be made by
the Superior each year to purge the cells of prohibited, “books, clothes,
writings, dishonest paintings, dogs, birds, or other animals”. To allow for
this, all cells, had their locks and
catches removed and candles had to burn all night within them. On the
ridiculous assumption that older nuns would be trustworthy, they were
appointed to undertake spot inspections to detect sharing of cells by younger
Rome’s paranoia is well illustrated by Pius V (the
excommunicator of Elizabeth 1) who followed up Trent by the Bull Circa
pastoralis of the 29th May 1566 confirming that once inside, nuns are to be
securely imprisoned for life. The clausura decrees, Decori 1570; Deo
sacris 1572 Ubi gratiae 1575, all frantically followed one upon
another to ensure no loophole of hope existed for the prisoners. And it seems
that even that did not fully calm Rome’s fears, for shortly after St
Bartholomew’s massacre Pope Gregory XIII , “issued a clarification”
consolidating earlier decrees.
It did not work
it work? Of course not. An early intimation that these pressurised hothouses
were about to blow up reached England about 1608. A godly, erudite, protestant
English diplomat in Venice, Sir Henry Wotton, who had favour with Rome and
Greek Orthodoxy alike for his impeccable honesty and extensive learning,
suddenly found himself writing home with some amazement: “This week hath
produced here a very unexpected piece of justice, which yet I think will
discover more evil than it will amend. On Wednesday last in the night were
broken up eleven several doors by the public officer, for the apprehension of
so many persons (whereof nine were gentlemen of principal houses) accused to
have lasciviously haunted the nunnery of St Anna and thence to have transported
those votaries (nuns) to their private chambers in masking attire . . . And the
parties (men) not being found in the said night in their houses ... were
publicly summoned ... Thus far the State hath proceeded already ... to recover
some reputation ... by exemplary severity”.
Worse and worse
The latter state of the convents became more degenerate
than the former. Men broke down walls, tunnelled underneath enclosures, bribed
access, or gained legitimate access to but failed then to leave. Sometimes men
would be hidden in convents for long periods being fed and secreted in
storerooms by nun accomplices. Rome could not contain the scandal. The
penalties for, “having had carnal commerce with a nun,” or the lesser charge of
being, “found inside a convent of nuns,” became increasingly harsh. The state
categorised these crimes against the “Brides of Christ” as “sacrilege”.
legal reports exist of men unable to gain entry to convents involved in heavy
petting through the grilles and exposing themselves from adjacent vantage
points. Lesbianism no doubt exceeded this heterosexual activity. However such
was the lascivious carnality of Roman priests that it did not seem to have
occurred to them that anyone other than themselves could be a temptation to the
nuns. Professor Judith Brown’s Immodest Acts points out this anomaly.
Her study of one of the few trials for lesbianism amongst these nuns concerned
a mystic nun whose lesbianism only emerged incidentally during her trial for
time passed the Counter Reformation convents became bizarre places, in many
ways little different from home, and with a distinctly secular atmosphere.
Family groups began to dominate nunneries in parallel to their family’s power
outside. The most aristocratic nuns separated themselves, eating together and
providing more luxuries for their own cells which they would even bequeath in
their wills to other family members. All this intensified the misery of their
of these women were intellectually able, and, freed from the restraints of
rearing families, they sublimated their energies into literature and the arts.
Professor Weaver of Chicago has produced an elegant study, Convent
Theatre to early Modern Italy, showing how these bored women wrote and
performed erudite plays loaded with classical learning. Sadly the plays became
increasingly secular in theme as their souls calloused over. The nuns would
dress up in outrageous worldly costumes and the convent parlour would seat the
Monson’s Crannied Wall describes how musical nuns took both to composing
and performing works, some of genuine merit. Various convents, despite the
pope’s railing against the practice, suddenly boasted illicit orchestras with
“lutes, guitars, violins, trombones, in addition to harpsichords”. Even large
organs were smuggled in piecemeal. The following letter from an archbishop to
the Inquisition is typical of the period: “It happened in a nunnery under my
control ... two nuns without my knowledge had a very large organ built and
brought in secretly ... and installed on one side of the choir ... and began to
play it ... with dishonour”.
so many women were incarcerated, some would inevitably have exceptional talents
and the popes found themselves receiving appeals from the brightest to allow
further study. But the overall effect of clausura upon these hapless souls was
mind numbing, witnessed to by the Punch and Judy show in Guardi’s painting.
Such was the hell of counter reformation nuns.
The author would like to thank Mr
David Relf who sent him an old copy of Edith O Gomm’s Perils and Trials in
September 2004. This was the inspiration for these articles.