Luca Salvucci Santa Cristina – three nuns sitting with musical instruments and looking sternly at the viewer.
Saint Cristina convent, Bologna. Photo: Luca Salvucci, cour Craig A. Monson.

Nuns Behaving Badly

Craig A. Monson studies forgotten nuns, like the one who changed her name to Lesbia or the convent that set their own cloister down.

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

After decades of research as a musicologist, Craig A. Monson has heard quite a few stories. In 1986, he randomly came across a 17th-century score in a museum that piqued his interest. Although the score came from a convent of aristocratic nuns in Bologna, Italy, it was filled with explicit and obscene songs.

Monson didn’t really know much about monastic nuns in Renaissance Italy – or nuns in general – but the manuscript sure didn’t match up with his expectations. His curiosity prompted a wider search rummaging through documents of the Inquisition and the high echelons of the Church. In the archives, he found stories of nuns living full and rebellious lives – having love affairs, running for office, becoming singing divas – often without even leaving the convent walls, to which they were confined for life.


Monson’s research turned up so many anecdotes he published two books about misbehaving nuns, “Nuns Behaving Badly” and “Divas in the Convent”. We spoke to him about what life was like for women back then and the astute ways 17th-century nuns got around the many restrictions of their world.

VICE: In your books, you challenge many assumptions, including the idea women become nuns for religious reasons. Why isn’t that the case?
Obviously, their world was not our world. Personal freedom, “following your dreams” – such notions would have mystified my convent heroines. Seventeenth-century women’s life alternatives were the convent, marriage or prostitution. Convent dowries were much more modest than a potential husband would require – hence, the convent’s attractiveness to cash-strapped fathers “burdened with several female offspring”, as one father put it at the time.

If a girl was raised by a cloistered aunt, becoming a nun could seem both “natural” and attractive. She might enjoy some prestige. She might have at least as many – probably more – opportunities for self-determination than her sisters who found husbands in the world. After all, American wives and mothers only got the vote in 1920, and French women, as late as 1944. By that time, nuns had “had the vote” in their own local elections for a millennium or more to choose which women might join them and elect sisters to convent offices.


What’s your favourite story from the research?
I’ll just pick the nun arsonists of Reggio Calabria. This is the only tale in which nuns actually fled convent life, which tells us something interesting: A nun’s life rarely seemed so insufferable as to attempt an escape.

All the nuns came from one family. Their male relatives transformed them from unmarried women into nuns effectively overnight by turning a family palazzo into a convent and locking them inside. But by then, they already knew something of the outside world. One can understand their desperation and admire the sheer audacity of their decision to burn the place down. But they had no chance of rejoining their families in the world, as they hoped.

San Zaccaria convent, Venice – people sitting on either side of large windows with grates. In the front, noble women and men in expensive clothes. Behind the grates, the nuns.

The visiting room of the San Zaccaria convent, Francesco Guardi. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

How did other nuns work around the confines of their convent?
Nuns did not often manage to go in and out of the cloister physically: To do so involved automatic excommunication. But they became experts at discovering ways to bridge the convent wall without actually crossing that border. 

One resourceful nun from Santa Cristina in Bologna, for example, hosted a lavish dinner party using a very long table extending through the convent gateway. Nuns sat at the end inside the monastic enclosure, while their relatives sat outside. 

Music was a particularly effective means of making the convent wall permeable. Nuns’ voices could attract audiences and speak to the world. Although they sang for themselves alone, their voices still carried over the convent wall so that men and women on the street might overhear them.


Why was music such a problem for the Church?
In theory, nuns were supposed to be “dead to the world”. But nuns’ music lured the public to their churches, thereby encouraging contact with outsiders. Talented nun singers might stand out as convent divas within a society that stressed equality and community. 

Female singing, by its very nature, was considered problematic. Music-making and love-making, as sensuous experiences, seemed dangerously interconnected. They were anatomically related, employing some of the same body parts: the mouth, the tongue, the throat. Female singing “tickled the ear,” making men lose control.

Obviously, another common reason for being in trouble was sex. How was this dealt with by the Church?
My impression is that convent sex occurred more in the minds of outsiders than it did within convent walls. Of course, such hanky-panky might still happen – and I have uncovered several examples – but “convent romance” with outsiders tended to be non-physical. It involved cooking treats for gentlemen callers, doing their laundry, passing letters, exchanging little gifts. Nevertheless, the church considered these “crimes” scandalous. 

One satirical song on the joys of convent life, Monicella mi farei (“I’d like to become a little nun”) includes a stanza that runs Sopratutto vorria avere / ’na divota vaga e bella / Che mi dessi ogni piacere / Ed anch’io ne dessi ad ella! (“What would please me beyond measure / Is one pious, fair, and winsome / Who would give me ev’ry pleasure / As I’d give to her, and then some!”)


The Church hierarchy chiefly fretted about the political aspect of “particular friendships”. Convent overseers regularly asked if any nuns shared the same cell or the same bed, as that was perceived as a sure sign of factionalism. But such concerns also hid a certain squeamishness about other implicit dangers of shared beds. In 1633, for example, Cardinal Archbishop Colonna of Bologna discovered that a nun at the convent of San Guglielmo had taken the name Suor Lesbia Ildebranda. She was later forced to change her name to Suor Maria Teresa.

The Church instituted stiff penalties for violation of unacceptable sleeping arrangements. In 1591, Bolognese authorities threatened the nuns of Santa Margarita with six months’ imprisonment, deprivation of the veil, and all access to the visiting rooms where they could talk to outsiders through a grated window. Interestingly enough, authorities tended to be mute about what might have gone on in those shared beds, in the absence of egregious evidence.

Cristóbal de Villalpando, Santa Rosa atacada por el demonio – dark painting of a small nun hugged and grabbed by a red-skinned muscular and very tall devil.

St. Rose Tempted by the Devil, Cristóbal de Villalpando. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Some of these nuns took quite dramatic actions. Why did they go to such great lengths?
Well, when clerical enforcers went too far, things could truly get out of hand. Perhaps the most spectacular of such eruptions occurred at Bologna’s convent of Santa Cristina in 1628. After years of conflict with the archbishop, he sent his police to wall up the gateway, imprisoning the nuns inside.


The sisters greeted these invaders with a dense shower of roof tiles and stones, hurled from convent windows. Neighbourhood children began gathering up stones and tossing them over the wall. All the while, the neighbours reviled the police, crying “Viva Santa Cristina!” The police wisely retreated.

My stories emphasise some of the most sensational examples of convent misbehaviour. Much more common are the ways nuns learned to fight back quietly, to exert power and influence indirectly, to work within and around the structures imposed upon them. They often cultivated powerful, influential patrons in the world, who could intercede on their behalf. They sent them convent treats, invited them to plays and to hear the singing on feast days, and, of course, encouraged their noble daughters to enter their convent.

What is your overall impression of the life women led in these monasteries?
Convent society was hardly monolithic. Different convents attracted different social classes and varied enormously in wealth. Most of my convents catered to the nobility and required large dowries to exclude more ordinary women. Some convents were renowned for their piety, others were more like sacred sorority houses. Noble families were often closely affiliated with particular convents for generations and manoeuvred to maintain social and political control within their strongly hierarchical structures.

Within these diverse communities, women constructed lives for themselves as best they could. Convent culture presented the especially competent not only with constant exposure to some of the best religious literature and music, but also with positions as prioress, bursar, choir mistress. For others, there might be only boredom.

The convent also permitted them a little space, because the wall that kept them in also kept their fathers, uncles, and brothers out. If you take a number of educated women, hide them behind a cloister wall, give them the vote and some opportunities to accept responsibilities, it would not be surprising if they develop a certain independent-mindedness, and get ideas of their own.