By Silvia Evangelisti
Glimpses into the private world of the convent, from The Sound of Music to the reality show The Retreat, have fascinated secular viewers. The historian Silvia Evangelisti's book provides a meticulously researched background to our contemporary interest, revealing what the convent offered women in early modern Catholic Europe.
Women with a spiritual calling, she argues, were seeking a complex form of liberty, sanctuary or even career within the cloisters. Evangelisti traces the rise of female monastic communities from the late 15th to the early 18th century, a movement that profoundly changed the way women operated within the church. On taking the veil, they gained spiritual fulfilment and an acceptable social identity outside marriage. They joined a family while escaping the burdens of enforced marriage and the terrors of childbirth.
Among them was Caterina Benincasa, a future saint who threw herself into a boiling spa to disfigure her skin and so drive away suitors. Women described their choices as "a husband or a wall". Once over the wall, women from wealthy families were able to negotiate a powerful place in the secular world. Within the convent parlour, the nuns could see relatives, learn music, perform plays, even dance. …