Forced Monachization: Not Only a Woman’s Problem


by Anne Jacobson Schutte

A desperate nun, thrust against her will into a convent by cruel parents, cannot obtain release. Such is the prevailing image of involuntary female monachization in early modern Europe. The engraving reproduced above comes from Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse ‒ begun in 1760, published serially in Correspondance Littéraire between 1780 and 1782, and issued posthumously as a book in 1796. It depicts a critical moment in the life of the protagonist, Suzanne Simonin. Within the cloister in the presence of nuns and a prelate, just as the grate separating them from lay observers outside (including her parents) is about to be lowered, she protests to all within earshot that her father and mother are constraining her to take the veil. Suzanne’s dilemma was not the product of Diderot’s imagination. He drew on the experience of Marguerite Delamarre (born 1717), thrust into Longchamp (a prestigious house of Poor Clares in the western outskirts of Paris), allegedly for financial reasons but in fact because she was the product of her mother’s adulterous liaison. On reaching her early forties, Delamarre took legal action to obtain annulment of her vows. In 1758, the Parlement of Paris rejected her appeal and sent her back to the convent.

An even more widely known and influential transmutation of a factual case of forced monachization into fiction is the story of Gertrude, “la Signora”: a major subplot in Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (definitive edition published in 1840-42). This justly famous novel set in stone the majority view, articulated over the previous three centuries in fiction and expository prose, that forced monachization was a women‘s problem. In a seventeenth-century historical work, Manzoni had come across an account of a Milanese woman, Marianna de Leyva, in religion Suor Virginia Maria (1575-1650). When the child’s mother died not long after her birth, her father promptly remarried and had more children. In order to channel all his wealth, as well as Marianna’s maternal inheritance, toward her half-brother, he compelled her to become a nun. Disoriented and embittered by her involuntary placement in Santa Margherita, a Benedictine convent in Monza, she took a lover, with whom she had two children, and connived in the murder of a lay sister who she feared would reveal the affair. In 1607 Archbishop Federigo Borromeo discovered her crimes and sentenced her to be immured in a cell at Santa Valeria, a Milanese house of convertite (former prostitutes). Fourteen years later, judging her repentance complete, he terminated her imprisonment, but she remained in Santa Valeria until her death.

In transforming Virginia Maria into Gertrude, Manzoni omitted many of the scabrous later developments in the case. So as to accommodate another plot element, the plague of 1630-31, he pushed forward by more than two decades the nun of Monza’s unmasking and punishment. Still, the early experiences of the fictional Gertrude, which the novelist imaginatively and persuasively delineated, probably resemble those of the real Virginia Maria.

What’s wrong with this picture of female adolescents compelled by their elders to become nuns? At first sight, nothing. In recent years, historical research, including studies of a few cases and close examination of polemical writings by a reluctant religious in seventeenth-century Venice, Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-52), has confirmed that indeed, many young women were forced into convents. But historians from the mid-nineteenth century until now, their vision obscured by the blinders of what I call “the Manzoni paradigm”, have conveyed an incomplete, distorted picture of the phenomenon. As I demonstrate in By Force and Fear: Taking and Breaking Monastic Vows in Early Modern Europe, young men, too, were forced into monastic life.

Economic considerations prompted the warehousing of female and male offspring, willy-nilly, in religious houses. From the sixteenth century on, patrimonial strategies across Catholic Europe dictated the transmission of wealth to a single heir, often (but not everywhere and always) the eldest offspring, almost invariably a son. Maximizing his share required removal from the inheritance stream of as many competitors in his generation as possible, not invariably those younger than he. The surest way of accomplishing this objective was to make them enter religious life. Before taking their vows, future religious of both sexes were required to sign a legal declaration renouncing all claims on the patrimony, a sacrifice not demanded of candidates for ordination to the priesthood. Viewed in this light, the argument historians inevitably make about the motive for putting women in convents ‒ that monastic dowries cost much less than marital ones ‒ recedes into its proper niche as just one element of patrimonial calculations.

Disposing inexpensively and permanently of illegitimate offspring constituted another motive for forcing them into monastic life. This factor came into play, as we have seen, in the case of Diderot’s Suzanne and her real-life prototype. A particularly vivid example comes from Venice in the mid-1680s. Vincenzo Querini, a patrician who had fathered a son with his concubine, expressed clearly his motive for compelling young Girolamo to enter the Servite Order. “Look [a witness later recalled his having said], I want him to be a friar because I don’t know what to do with this boy when he grows up; I don’t know what to do with him, and before I die, I want him tied down”. Since the never-married Vincenzo had no legitimate offspring for whom to provide, his concern about finding a secure, permanent life status for Girolamo may have been genuine.

By using force inspiring fear that offspring, conditioned to respect and obey their superiors, proved unable to resist, elders compelled adolescents with no vocation into monasteries, friaries, and convents. They employed a single battery of fear-inducing tactics on males and females. From an early age, those selected to leave the secular world were treated more harshly and dressed less well than their siblings destined for marriage; males were made to do socially inappropriate work. As the time to enter a religious house approached, they were banished from the family dinner table and/or put on a diet of bread and water and/or and isolated in locked rooms. If they persisted in resisting their parents’ directives, threats of death by beating, stabbing, shooting, or poison ‒ and perhaps most potent, of being excluded forever from familial affection and support ‒ completed the job of reducing these young people to submission. The sole sex-specific tactic was a “Morton’s fork” presented to many male adolescents: “Become a religious, or else I’ll sell you to the war or ship you off to the Indies”. To almost all young men faced with this choice, the prospect of hell on earth in the monastery or friary appeared less intolerable than life as a common soldier or sailor ‒ very likely, as they were well aware, to end soon with death from disease or injury.

How to escape from involuntary monachization? For neither women nor men was fleeing from religious houses a realistic alternative. If they left convents of their own accord, well-born and gently raised women had no honorable way of supporting themselves and no prospect of assistance from their families, already infuriated by their defiance. Although the socioeconomic range from which male religious came was broader, very few of them had previously acquired marketable vocational skills. Flight, furthermore, would render them “apostates”, automatically excommunicated and therefore entirely beyond the pale of ecclesiastical and civil society. Granted, the Council of Trent had provided a legal remedy: within five years of profession, unwilling religious could approach their monastic superiors and ordinaries (heads of the dioceses in which they lived) requesting annulment of their vows. But for the great majority, this procedure ‒ if indeed they knew about it, which many did not ‒ did not constitute a solution to their problem. As long as their forcers remained on the scene, they dared not offend them by taking legal action.

By the early seventeenth century, another procedure had become available, not through legislation but through legal practice: more than five years after profession, one could petition the pope for release from monastic vows. If he judged the petition worthy of consideration, he assigned it to one or another judicial body for examination and resolution. Contrary to current scholarly assumptions, petitions for annulment of monastic commitments were no longer assigned to the Penitenzieria Apostolica, which had handled them before Trent, and few ended up before the Holy Congregation of Bishops and Regulars or the Rota. By far the majority of them went to the Holy Congregation of the Council, a committee of cardinals founded in 1564 to adjudicate all matters related to disciplinary decrees of the Council of Trent. These included provisions concerning monachization in four chapters of the decree on male and female religious, passed in the final session of the Council in December 1563. Working between four series of Congregation of the Council documents in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano and a published set of volumes containing the Congregation’s most significant rulings, I found evidence of 978 petitions for release from monastic vows submitted between 1669 and 1793. Most petitioners claimed that the imposition of force and fear had rendered their professions involuntary and thus presumptively invalid.

An aside may be in order here. If any readers have previously ingested the characterization of the Archivio Segreto Vaticano purveyed disingenuously by Dan Brown, let me advise them to spit it out. The Archive admits anyone from graduate student status on up who on initial entry presents a letter of reference and a plausible reason for needing to do research there.

On slightly more than half of the petitions, the Congregation of the Council completed its deliberations and reached a decision. In about 40% of these “complete” cases, the decision favored the petitioner. (Women’s success rate, 70.8%, was almost double that of men.) The Congregation then requested that the pope issue a decree restoring him or her to lay status and instructed the petitioner’s ordinary to issue a companion decree nullifying the profession. In the not infrequent event that the bishop or archbishop stonewalled, the petitioner had to approach the Congregation again, requesting that it compel the ordinary to comply.

Of the 978 petitioners, 807 (82.5%) were male religious ‒ despite the probability that in the monastic population almost everywhere, they were outnumbered by nuns. Jumping to the conclusion that men constituted the vast majority of forced religious would be a mistake. In many respects ‒ the opportunity to learn about the possibility of appealing to the pope, the ability to contact lawyers and others who might help, the possibility of mustering the considerable amount of money needed to initiate an appeal and sustain the legal effort over several or many years ‒ men seeking to leave life in religion were much better situated than women.

Age at departure from a religious order also had a differential impact on men and women. As mentioned earlier, most unwilling religious refrained from seeking annulment of their profession until those who had forced them to make it had disappeared from the earthly scene. After professing, almost all monks, friars and clerks were ordained to the priesthood regularly in this period. In middle age, a man leaving monastic life could realistically envision a second career as a diocesan priest. In contrast, the future prospects for a middle-aged woman departing from the convent were dim. Beyond childbearing age, she could not expect to marry. That siblings or other relatives would overcome their resentment and take her in was by no means certain. If they did, she may already have known or would soon discover that the duties and social status of a maiden aunt closely resembled those of a domestic servant.

Except for the opening description of Diderot’s and Manzoni’s novels, everything reported here I had to find out for myself ‒ in the complete absence of reliable leads from other scholars. When I told one of the world’s leading experts on the legal and administrative history of the early modern papacy what I had found about the Congregation of the Council’s central role in providing a remedy for forced monachization, he responded curtly: “You are mistaken”. How to account for the almost total lack of attention to legal procedures for exiting from monastic life and to the massive presence of male petitioners? Two types of explanation occur to me. One has to do with styles of research and the nature of the sources. Historians have evinced greater interest in microhistorical treatment of individual cases than in broad, systematic inquiries into the problem of involuntary monachization. Since the records of the Congregation of the Council, most but not all of which came to the Archivio Segreto Vaticano in 1958, are fiendishly difficult to use, very few scholars thus far have explored them for evidence on this or any other issue. In contrast to the situation with the records of the Penitenziera Apostolica, being studied by a well-financed équipe under firm German direction, those of the Congregation of the Council have yet to inspire team efforts.

The second line of explanation concerns the radically asymmetrical state of research on early modern female and male religious. In the past several decades, studies of female religious, conducted by women and men of several nationalities and disciplinary orientations, have flourished. In their generally superb, eye-opening publications, the obsolete “woman as victim” and “the Church as oppressor of women” approaches are nowhere to be found. Instead, they emphasize nuns’ creativity. Not only did religious women write in various genres (e.g., convent chronicle, drama, verse, account of visions), perform and compose music, produce exquisite needlework and fiber art, and prepare highly prized sweets. In these activities and others, they also worked around and sometimes openly defied the restrictions placed on them by male superiors. These scholars acknowledge that for women with genuine vocations, the cloister was an earthly paradise. For those involuntarily confined there, on the other hand, it was a life status to “get used to”, endure in silence, or resist in covert or overt ways.

To my knowledge, no comparable studies of male monasticism exist. Why those concerned with early modern men and masculinity have not taken up the challenge of examining male religious remains a mystery to me. Only three or four writers have acknowledged, usually in passing, that the population of forced religious included numerous men. When scholars, students, and general readers conceive of early modern religious, therefore, they think primarily if not exclusively of nuns. This strikes me as most unfortunate. In my view, the day when compensatory studies were required to counteract the exclusion of women from the historiographical record lies in the past ‒ or if it has not yet been relegated definitively to the status of artifact, that should happen soon. To me, it has long seemed obvious that humans in all times and climes live in a multi-gender world. That fact, of course, does not obligate all writers always and exclusively to practice the history of gender, but the approach of those who choose to do so should at least be recognized.

The power of images used on book covers may send messages at odds with authors’ intentions. In my Aspiring Saints: Pretense of Holiness, the Inquisition, and Gender in the Republic of Venice, 1618-1750, issued a decade ago, I showed that the Roman Inquisition in Italy tried both women and men for that tendentiously framed “crime”. For the dust jacket, I supplied an engraving of a lay woman in ecstasy; without consulting me, the publisher reproduced it on a pink and purple background. This “girly” image may well have influenced in the book’s reception. Several reviewers, ignoring its title and content, wrongly called Aspiring Saints a study in “women’s history”.

Will reviewers and other readers of By Force and Fear be able to overcome ingrained stereotypes based on fiction and take notice of my demonstration that forced monachization affected men as well as women? Not if they fixate on the dust jacket. As before, I supplied illustrations but had no voice in how they were deployed. A friar (image reversed from the original, reproduced on p. 38) appears to be inviting a nun to dance; the expressions on both their faces invite viewers to surmise that this is only the beginning of a beautiful friendship. This subliminally prurient cover promises attention to sexual relations, an issue that features not at all in my argument. Maybe the dust jacket will attract purchasers, as the publisher no doubt intends. Such misrepresentation will lead to disappointment on the part of casual readers. I hope that it does not permanently mislead members of my main intended audience: serious scholars and students.

About the Author:

Anne Jacobson Schutte is professor emerita of history at the University of Virginia. She lives in Venice.