Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy

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Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy. By Craig A. Monson. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2010. Pp. xvi, 241. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-226-53461-9.)

From Boccaccio and Chaucer to Nunsense, the antics of misbehaving women religious have been a popular topic in literature and the arts. Although there is nothing in Craig Monson' s new book quite as outlandish or hilariously funny as an abbess wearing her lover's trousers on her head instead of a coif, the tales he tells have the attraction of a firm basis in the historical record. Monson, a musicologist at Washington University in St. Louis, is well known for his work on music in the nunneries of early-modern Bologna (Disembodied Voices [Berkeley, 1995]). In the course of his research in Italian archives, particularly the Vatican, Monson came across the fascinating records of a number of investigations of wayward nuns, most of them dealing not at all, or only tangentially, with music. In this new volume, he retells five of them from the late-sixteenth through the earlyeighteenth century - three set at Bolognese convents, one in Pavia, and one in Reggio Calabria.

The nuns in these cases cast spells, set fire to their convent, fled with friends, argued about artistic patronage, or stole away at night to attend the opera. Although the events themselves are engrossing, Monson uses them to reveal much about the lives of these women, their relationships with each other, and their interactions with the ecclesiastical authorities whose rules and regulations they were obligated to follow: Many of these women, of course, had not become nuns by true vocation, but because their families forced them to enter the convent to avoid paying massive dowries for multiple daughters. …