The Long View: The World in the Cloister

At the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2017, author Zadie Smith sparked off a round of internet criticism by suggesting that makeup and attention to appearance were a ‘waste of time’ for young girls and women. Smith told the crowd she had chosen to limit her young daughter’s time in front of the mirror, and called women who spent too much effort on their face ‘foolish’. Commentators alternately applauded her for teaching her child to reclaim valuable time, or criticised her oversight of how many women truly enjoy the rituals and effects of wearing makeup. Smith’s comments touched a nerve and laid bare the paradox of existing as a woman in today’s world. Many women know that core aspects of their lives – whether seemingly quotidian, like the choice to wear makeup, or far-reaching, like career selection – are heavily mediated by patriarchal social institutions and sexist assumptions about what women should look like and how they should act. As the divergent response to Smith demonstrates, however, many women also find genuine meaning, fulfilment, or joy within these apparently oppressive expectations. 

This dynamic, so recognisable to women in different contexts all around the world, would have been similarly familiar to women of ages past. Having to contend with patriarchal social structures was especially true for women who actively participated in institutions dominated and defined by men, for example the Catholic Church in Europe. For women who undertook a religious vocation and became nuns, their reality was a contradiction. On the one hand, the Catholic hierarchy, composed entirely of men, repeatedly mandated that all nuns, on account of their supposedly weaker and more sinful nature as women, were to live the entirety of their lives within the four walls of their convent. On the other hand, such a restricted life held genuine appeal for many women, who found in enclosure a path toward subversive forms of agency. This dichotomy maps well on to the choices that modern women encounter in their daily lives, but the experience of early modern nuns has more to offer towards an understanding of this dynamic. Claustration was neither simply ‘good’ for women nor ‘bad’ for them. There are greater stakes at the heart of these questions. It is not simply a matter of reflexively assigning values of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘liberated’ or ‘oppressed’ to the actions women take, but also unpicking the assumptions at the heart of those assignations. 

Cloister at Florence Charterhouse, Italy

In understanding both the early modern period and contemporary culture, discussions of women’s interactions with patriarchy assumes a women’s agency as being of foremost importance. Agency is usually defined as whether or not women are able to act in accordance with their true desires in particular situations, or the degree to which they may act freely. Agency, though, is a fraught concept, and necessary but not sufficient in understanding liberation throughout history and in our contemporary world. Women past and present have differing levels of agency according to their class, race, religion, sexuality, and ability – a conventionally beautiful woman, for example, would have a wide range of choices in determining how to present herself, as would a well-educated woman selecting her career path, or a wealthy nun deciding how to engage with her cloister. 

Conceptions of agency defined largely by the extent to which women can do what they want fail to recognise or appreciate the intersecting oppressions of women who have fewer choices available to them, and are less able to make those choices ‘freely’. Beyond that, in a world so drenched in patriarchal assumptions, values, and principles, ‘agency’ is a difficult thing to measure. Ideas of agency, like other cultural values, are often defined according to a male standard, or how women can most act like men. When we, consciously or not, evaluate women according to this principle, we not only replicate historical biases but also miss the reality of how women, as human beings, think of themselves and their place in the world. The lives of early modern nuns, enclosed behind their convent walls, can shed much light on the complexities of these dynamics.

The principle behind enclosure was, from the earliest days of the Church, unmistakably sexist. Historians often point to the model of Caesarius, sixth-century bishop of Arles, who coupled his concern for nuns’ physical safety with his understanding of inherent feminine weakness to insist that nuns in his diocese be strictly enclosed. Caesarius’s belief that women ought to be ‘outstanding warriors for chastity’ but were liable to lose control in unsupervised settings accorded with other notable theologians throughout history, from St. Jerome in the fourth century to Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth. Aquinas devoted an entire section of his great Summa Theologiae to proving that women were ‘misbegotten men’, made of ‘unsuitable material’, and confined to a position of ‘natural inequality and subordination to men’. Faced with the care of such mutable and corruptible creatures, Caesarius, like countless of his episcopal successors, thought it only fit that nuns should be enclosed forever behind the walls of their convent. 

Reiterated through the late medieval period, enclosure took on even greater importance for the Catholic officials convening at the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century. Their attempts to re-impose control over a Christianity in revolt were founded in part on their ability to re-assert control over women’s lives and bodies. From the women who had to contend with enclosure, though, a myriad of responses blossomed. Across Europe, women entered convents for wildly differing reasons, reflected in the ways they engaged with the cloister. Many of these responses reflected some nuns’ profound aversion to the cloistered life. Particularly in Italy, convents provided socially acceptable receptacles for noble women unable to find a suitable husband within their own class. Skyrocketing dowry costs forced many aristocratic families to marry only one of their daughters; the remainder, forbidden to marry below their social station, were ushered into the cloister. Many of these women had no true vocation for the monastic life and deeply resented their restricted existence. 

One such woman was the Venetian nun and political theorist Arcangela Tarabotti, whose learned mind experienced nothing but misery within the convent walls. Forced by relatives to join a convent as a child, Arcangela despised her shut-up life. Arcangela defined the merits of enclosure according to the will of the individual nun, and the extent to which her choices were respected. By this rubric, she found her cloister seriously inadequate. Sister Arcangela vented her feelings in a series of treatises railing against the tyranny of Venetian fathers and magistrates, calling out their hypocrisy in ‘degrading, deceiving, and denying liberty to its own young girls and women more than any other kingdom in the world’ at the same time they claimed the special protection of the Virgin Mary. To Arcangela, the convent was a living hell, forced on unwilling women by despotic male guardians. She praised women who offered up ‘the voluntary vow of virginity’ but made clear her view that God ‘abhors what is done by force and what is holy only in name – the condition of nuns involuntarily shut up (although altogether innocent) as if they were criminals sentenced to life imprisonment’. Her writings clearly indicate that the common understanding of agency was important to many early modern nuns, who experienced such restrictions as intolerable and inhumane.  

Not all nuns were Arcangelas, however. In many ways, the cloistered convent enabled the women within. Paradoxically, Sister Arcangela herself benefitted from an enclosed life that afforded her the opportunity to write and theorise without distraction. Scholars such as K.J.P. Lowe and Claire Walker have demonstrated how nuns could have greater freedom and influence behind their cloister walls than if they had remained lay women. In the Italian city-states, where civic and religious life were intimately entwined, the monastic profession could win for women a role on the stage of municipal life. Such was the case for the abbess of the Venetian convent of Le Vergine, who symbolically wedded the new doge as a way of legitimising his power. The Venetian nuns played a political as well as religious role, blurring the lines between their consecration as brides of Christ and their more secular function as conduits of divine favour for the Republic of Venice. As a representative of the Virgin Mary, the Vergine abbess’s ‘marriage’ to the doge symbolised the synchronicity between early modern conceptions of political and spiritual power, and placed the nuns of Venice in an active role in the life of the city. Nuns could, through the vaunted spiritual role their enclosure bestowed upon them, act as agents of political and religious authority, representing the fulfilment of the traditional understanding of agency.

It is true and important to note that women like Arcangela suffered as a result of their forced enclosure, as it is true and important to remember that other Venetian nuns enjoyed great public stature and influence in part due to their cloistering. However, a definition of agency based on these terms assumes patriarchal values as its core definition. By foregrounding early modern nuns’ access to things like ‘the public sphere’ or the wider economy, historians often seek to prove that nuns imitated or participated in ‘masculine’ behaviours or institutions. The concept of public and private has always been fraught, but even in our contemporary world, overarching cultural conceptions code the ‘public’ as male-dominated and the ‘private’ as the purview of women. Misogynistic jokes that insist women ‘get back in the kitchen’, for example associate female identity with the domestic, lay bare certain assumptions about gender roles, and dictate the proper expressions of maleness and femaleness. Femininity and privateness, perhaps due to their mutual association, are culturally denigrated and devalued, while masculinity and publicness, conversely, are elevated.

Critical examination of the lives of early modern nuns can challenge and complicate this way of thinking. It is important to demonstrate the ways in which these nuns did participate in areas deemed traditionally masculine, or behaved in ways characterised as such, to counteract an unthinking assignation of ‘maleness’ to those institutions or actions. That the Venetian doge relied on female sanction from the abbess of Le Vergine to receive divine blessing, for example, complicates assumed understandings of public authority, which in this historical example relied on legitimisation provided by women. Too often, though, this kind of analysis goes unarticulated, and instead patriarchal biases are implicitly replicated. The abbess of Le Vergine and her nuns were not important only because they were able to negotiate cloistered boundaries to bolster their political standing. In the same vein, today feminist or feminist-leaning circles often celebrate women with high-profile careers and laud them for their powerful stature; notable examples include women like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who has developed an entire image around ‘leaning in’, taking charge, and claiming agency as working women in the world. These attitudes are not inherently wrong or short-sighted. They capture facets of life important to women past and present, and this kind of agency is certainly an essential component of understanding the experiences of oppressed people. It is not, however, free from the kinds of prejudice it claims to confront. Women’s experiences and lives are not worthy, good, or liberated only if they follow a male example that is uncritically replicated. 

While the study of early modern nuns does challenge the association of public engagement and political authority with masculinity, it foregrounds a ‘private’ or ‘contemplative’ sphere as worthy, of study or of pursuit, in its own right. For many nuns, such as Leonor de Mendanha, the Portuguese abbess of the convent of Syon Abbey in Lisbon, the strictly enclosed, restricted, and withdrawn life was the only life worth living. Born to ‘rich, noble, and virtuous parents’ in Lisbon in 1576, the young Leonor repeatedly resisted her mother’s efforts to marry her off, and defied her parents by taking her vows as a Bridgettine nun at Syon, which had recently been exiled from Protestant England to Lisbon. Her confessor recorded that Leonor was ‘eager with the great cravings she had of serving God in the retirement of a Convent’ and had no desire for the ease, luxury, and opportunities afforded by her noble birth. Instead, she was ‘a scorner of the goods she possessed and wanted to suffer the pains and slights of temporal poverty which she hankered after.’ Spurning worldliness, Leonor sought the life of the Bridgettine order, which practiced strict enclosure, so she might be ‘plunged into the abysses of the Divinity.’ She and many nuns like her saw a contemplative and enclosed existence as the highest and best life, most in accordance with the will of a higher power, and most exalted according to the standards of their time. These women did not view claustration as an infringement on their agency, nor did they consider greater influence or authority as a worthy goal for a nun. If they saw claustration and withdrawal as the most perfect and praiseworthy mode of human life, the historians who study them should assume the same, and not seek to reflexively reconfigure their desires according to an unquestioned masculine ideal. 

Saint Teresa of Ávila (17th century), José de Ribera

The usefulness of using expressions of agency as barometers for women’s experiences breaks down further when considering women’s motivations for their actions more deeply. Many nuns, like Leonor, entered the convent not in accordance with their parents’ will, nor to elevate their own stature, but to surrender their will, give themselves over to the divine, and lose entirely what is usually defined as ‘agency’. The famous Saint Teresa of Ávila herself formulated an entire theology based on the absolute surrender of the self to God. For Teresa, Leonor, and thousands like them, the ideal life was a union with God and loss of the self that does not resonate with most conceptions of agency. Even the great secular theorist Simone de Beauvoir regarded women like Teresa as ones who ‘followed their own paths with an intrepidness surpassed by no man’ and, through their religious life, transcended their condition of subjugation, as she wrote in The Second Sex. Something different is at work in this dynamic, beyond the common understanding of agency and how women make their life choices. Some women may act in accordance with a desire for ultimate fulfilment that involves a sacrifice and self-surrender not incorporated into common definitions of agency. Others act on a smaller scale, based on what accords with their mood or even helps them survive the day. Ultimately, many women, in the past and in the present, do not make decisions or take action based on a narrow set of principles of what constitutes agency or empowerment. 

The lives of early modern nuns complicate and challenge a definition of agency restricted to the capacity of a person to act in their environment. Arcangela Tarabotti’s lament of the restrictions of enclosure and her fellow Venetian nuns’ authorisation of the civic life of the Republic of Venice do reaffirm that this conception is important and relevant to the lives of many women. However, other dimensions of nuns’ experiences also demonstrate its biases and inadequacies. When patriarchy and androcentrism colour so much of our cultural value system, ideas like agency often replicate a masculine partiality, and women are understood and esteemed according to how closely they match this male ideal. Many nuns did not consider this idea of agency at all, seeking an alternative model for living a good and fulfilled life in a private and withdrawn world. This kind of life furthermore rejected the principle of acting as an unrestricted individual, seeking instead obliteration of the self and denial of the will. What narrow definitions of agency miss, then and now, are the intricacies that are a part of all human behaviour and experience. Women made and make choices about enclosure, about presentation, about careers, about family, about engagement with the world at large in a variety of contexts and for a variety of reasons. Their choices ought not to be rated according to a conception of agency that fails to appreciate complexity and paradox. 

Laura Roberts

Laura Roberts is a DPhil candidate in History, focusing on women and religion in the early modern period. Her doctoral project examines the religious imagery employed by exiled English nuns to express ideas about religious and national identity and belonging during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Laura received her BA in History from Duke University in 2016, and just completed an MPhil in British and European History at the University of Oxford. When not lost in the archives, she enjoys running, writing, and travelling. 

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