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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Inferno Monacale - The ‘Hell of Nuns’ Part 2

Sacrificing Women For Reasons Of State
Dr Clive Gillis

The 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.

The 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”.

So why were they not abolished?

H.C. 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”.

The 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

The 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”.

Many 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 agenda.

Rome terrified

Needless 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.

Prison camps

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.

The 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 women.

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

Did 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”.

Numerous 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 mystic practices.

Bizarre places

As 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 social inferiors.

Some 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 audience.

Professor 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”.

When 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.

Footnote. 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.

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