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

Article excerpt

Nuns Behaving Badly. Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy. By Craig A. Monson. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. 241. $20.00.)

Many of us have been tempted to do it at some point. After years spent mining archives to explicate a text or further a scholarly argument, we get the urge to do what historians have always done, tell a story. For those so tempted, Craig A. Monson's prologue, in which he recounts his departure from the straight and narrow path of musicological researcher to become a teller of tales, will resonate.

While at work in the Vatican Secret Archives, sifting through early modern records of the Sacred Congregation, an agency charged with monastic oversight and deliberation about discipline, he discovered stories "too compelling to consign back to archival oblivion" (8). From the hundreds of thousands of Congregation documents "all tied up in some two thousand buste ('envelopes'--though in this case 'bales' would be more accurate)," Monson chose five of his best finds for this book (3). Selected for their innate interest, and because they left the most complete paper trails, these tales from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries describe the misadventures of nuns from convents in Bologna, Reggio Calabria, and Pavia. all of the stories are engaging, and all triggered crises that might have disrupted convent life for generations.

Wisely deciding to simplify the syntax of the formal petitions and interrogations from which these stories emerge, "avoiding the strings of gerunds so popular in the original documents, for example," and translating dialogue and testimony clearly and compellingly, Monson then embeds each episode in a richly detailed context (22). …