The market and the temple/18 - Monastic lockup was about "shutting in" women and "shutting out" male interference.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 07/03/2021
The social and economic life of female monasteries between the Middle Ages and modern times was richly blessed in «ora et labora», collective sins and «cheerful» disobedience.
«In 1602 there was a trial in Rome after the discovery of an open hole in the apothecary room from which one could look out in the street. A young converted woman, Sister Damiana, emerged as the only responsible, who admitted to having made the opening with a large roasting spit. When asked about the reasons, she replied that it had been "nothing else but seeing the rubble, which was crumbling, from the outside, I wanted to see where it came out"» (Alessia Lirosi, The female monasteries in Rome in the age of the Counter-Reformation/I monasteri femminili a Roma nell’età della Controriforma, Viella 2012).
The social and economic life of female monasteries between the Middle Ages and modern times is immensely rich in history. Within those collective clauses, Human activities and procedures that have almost been entirely forgotten, even by the female and feminist movements, today took place within the walls of those, more than often forced, collective enclosures. My first wish for this 8th of March goes out to them, and to their present-day sisters.
Female monasteries have always been institutions with limited freedom and supervised by males. Usually celibate men, who based on an image of what constituted being a woman, proceeded to create rules to govern the lives of real women of flesh and blood: «Since the vow of chastity is such, the nuns are all the more held accountable to it because of the fragility of their sex». And in order to protect this fragile sex which, according to those theologians, exposed them more easily (than males!) to carnal sin, «the Mother Superior must ensure that the bars of the speakers' grates are narrow enough that no hand can fit between them» (Giovanni Pietro Barco, Religious mirror for nuns/Specchio religioso per le monache, 1583). This is why the cloister was not only a "lockdown" for women but also, as my Carmelite friend Antonella reminds me, a "locking out" of males and their interference in the monastery, despite never having fully succeeded in this endeavor.
Female monasteries also experienced their own ora et labora. Together with and alongside the work of female scribes (the amanuensis, still not sufficiently written about or emphasized), veritable schools of embroidery (according to the Italian school and technique) were born within the monasteries. Another "classic" sector were bakery and sweets (and in part, liqueurs): «The city of Bologna does a notable trade in quince jelly or jam. The nuns compete to overtake each other in this production of sweets» (Jean-Baptiste Labat, Diary/Diario, 1706). Throughout Sicily, nuns specialized in sweets and delicacies. The rarest cookbooks were considered a sort of secret monopoly of female monasteries –"martorana fruit", traditional marzipan sweets, comes from the female monastery of Martorana. Wax processing was also famous Sicily (Noto) in the female monasteries, and reached a remarkable level of quality. They also produced vinegar, perfumes, cultivated flowers, created silk roses, soaps, but also cilices, flagella, chains, as well as bracelets and necklaces for girls (Antonino Terzo di Palazzolo and Lina Lupica, I Lavori delle claustrali/The works of cloistered women, 1991).
The artistic work was equally important, although not very well known. In addition to playing various instruments and being highly esteemed and sought-after as singing teachers, the nuns wrote poems and plays that were staged during religious celebrations (Elissa B. Weaver, Convent Theater in Early Modern Italy, 2002). After the Council of Trent, the abbesses opposed great resistance against the bishops who tried to apply various restrictions on theater, music and singing activities in the monasteries: «There should be no theatre or performances» (in Angela Fiore, The musical tradition of the monastery of the Poor Clares of Santa Chiara in Naples/La tradizione musicale del monastero delle clarisse di Santa Chiara in Napoli, 2015). Prohibitions that were largely disregarded. The figure of Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588) is particularly interesting, remembered by Vasari who pointed out that the saints of Sister Plautilla were very "feminine": «Instead of Christ, Nelli painted Christa» (Vincenzo Fortunato Marchese, Memorie dei più insigni pittori/Memories of some the most distinguished painters, 1854).
In fact, reading the documents, and in particular the books recounting the chronicles written by the nuns themselves, what emerges immediately - because evident and obvious - is that the social structures and hierarchies that had generated them were also reflected within the monasteries: the differences between rich and poor, patricians and plebeians, and between males and females. The nuns were divided between choristers (or veiled) and conversed (or serving), sometimes called "ladies" and "servants" (the Poor Clares of Naples). The choristers, who prayed in the choir and had taken their vows, were the nuns with full rights. They could vote to elect the abbess, who had to be chosen from among the choristers themselves, and could be "officials", that is, hold top positions in the government of the monasteries – such as apothecary, choir teacher, novice teacher, concierge, vicar, chamberlain, sacristan, treasurer, cellarer - and only they could be part of the council of the Abbess (the so called "discreet" nuns). The conversed nuns were often illiterate, socially inferior and treated as such, they slept in collective dormitories and had to take care of housework, take care of other sick nuns and take on all the humbler jobs in the monastery. Thereby, helping to unveil the most earthly occupations. Moreover, if any conversed nun was able to read, she still had to refrain from doing so and keep her distance from the "high-ranking" chorister nuns.
After the Council of Trent, the conversed nuns were moved to separate buildings, although they continued to be the personal maids of individual chorister nuns. In 1665, at San Silvestro in Capite (Rome), the choristers complained that the conversed in the infirmary refused to carry out the humblest jobs and did not move over and free up their spot at the grates. The social disdain for any care related job, which still marks our civilization today, does not only depend on its being a largely female and therefore domestic matter; it also arises from the social hierarchy among women themselves. Noble women were noble also because they did not have to carry out any nursing or care activity, thanks to other poor women (back in the day, in monasteries and patrician palaces, today, in our homes). Yet, within these paradoxes, which seem incomprehensible to us today if we do not make a considerable effort of understanding the historical context in question, something new was being born.
One area, equally unlikely and paradoxical, is that of criminal law. The conception of punishment, understood as re-education and rehabilitation, is largely attributed to the enlightenment and utilitarian movement of the eighteenth century (Beccaria and Bentham). The role of the monasteries, however, is rarely mentioned. Sentences developed into long-term protracted imprisonment inside a monastery prison, something that practically did not exist in the ancient world, in part to punish monks and nuns. For example, in the monastery of the Augustinians of Santa Marta in Rome, any nun who committed a truly serious offense «should be locked up and held in seclusion, with discretion and charity, always making sure that she would repent and return to penance». The prison had as its objective the recovery of the guilty, something that comes close to the modern vision of a prison sentence. The language of prisons was born as a development of the monastic one - "cells" and "locutories".
Furthermore, the economic life of female monasteries is an almost completely unexplored mine. Above all, a great surprise (at least for me): at the nuns' resistance to the "communion of goods", which the Council of Trent tried to reintroduce. While reading the documents, it becomes abundantly clear that, despite the visits, letters and documents from the bishops, the female monasteries were largely disobedient on the subject of the private property of individual nuns. Why? An episode, also reported in Alessia Lirosi's fundamental work on Roman monasteries, is of particular importance. In 1601, the cardinal protector asked for the abolition of personal private property: «After the cardinal had finished his speech, the nuns replied in unison that in the past they had had the same desire; but the monastery did not have enough capacity to be able to maintain the commune, so the nuns were each required to take back their own things». They had therefore tried, said the abbess, but the joint management had not worked. The cardinal however insisted, so the nuns «without replying anything else and with unspeakable glee, each brought their cloths of linen and wool to the stale of the crucifix, and everything else that they held dear". Nevertheless, adds Lirosi, «after such a sudden turn of pressure, something slowly started to loosen up. In fact, a few years later, in 1607, the instructions given by the cardinal were reaffirmed, still banning embroidery and silks on the tablecloths of each altar or on the bed curtains». The abbesses and their nuns hence resisted the order of communion of goods. Was that disobedience an expression of those rich noblewomen's attachment to their things? Sometimes it will probably have been just that, perhaps most of the time. I think, however, that some abbesses disobeyed due to something far more important. And in those few different nuns, even if it was only one, all women in the world can be found.
When life leads you into any kind of seclusion, and one day you get to take the big roasting spit to make a hole in the wall to see life flowing beyond the walls holding you in, suddenly you discover the true value of things. They light up just like and even more than the altar and the statues in the chapel. They talk to you, they tell you truly exist, that you are here. And you understand or sense that forcing you to take out your things out of your trunk, "the embroideries and silks on the tablecloths of the altar", to give up the few things that enable you to say "mine" is an act of violence («Let no one say mine of anything, but of everything say: ours, only for evil say: mine», Monastic Constitution/Costituzione monastica quoted in Lirosi). An excess of violence, to which the nuns and their abbesses resisted (what a beautiful case of solidarity between women, at least here), for that all-female vital instinct. There is an entirely feminine and different aspect of "things" that we have yet to understand.
The true and just meaning of private property perhaps did not arise only in the treatises of Locke or Duns Scotus; a few lines were also written within the walls of those cloisters, when a number of women refused to say "ours" because they sensed that "us" was simply going to kill them. To remind us that not all "ours" are good, but only those that arise from free encounters among many "mine" which have been freely given. Both back in the day as well as today. The good communion of goods is the end of a journey, it is the culmination of a process of communion of life that one day flourishes in the communion of goods, never imposed or requested ex officio, like a payment due today for a blank check signed yesterday. The "mine" that rises in "ours" can only be the fruit of my own choice that becomes yours as well. Both inside and outside the monasteries. However, too many "ours" are in fact mere ideological covers for abuse of power and violence. Just as there is a private property that arises from individual sin – as recalled by Duns Scotus - there is also a common property that arises from collective sin. Sister Damiana's hole in the wall, the repeated "no" to the destruction of their theatrical works, the abbesses' "cheerfully" disobeying the cardinals, must be counted among the acts of freedom that generated the modern spirit, the spirit of men and of women. But secular modernity ignores it.