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The Power of Chastity

In the High Middle Ages nuns were the major mystics. But McNamara argues that Hildegard of Bingen, Elisabeth of Schönau, Gertrude of Helfta, Birgitta of Sweden must be seen as part of a wide movement in which virtually all those in the convent lived in hope of transformation. “The cloister was designed as a haven where silence bred devotion, meditation produced intense fantasy, and even the simplest souls might sometimes feel touched by a divine finger.” Here again McNamara is vivid with her detail, describing how nuns’ reenactments of the Nativity involved much kissing and fondling of the figure of the baby Jesus. In this emotive atmosphere visions like that of Anna von Klingenow at Töss, who saw the child Jesus descend from the altar to sit on the spread skirt of her habit, were easily induced.

Clerical hostility became more formidable. “As women grew ever more determined to transform their bodies into vehicles of supernatural knowledge, it seems that men became ever more focused on those bodies as vehicles of carnal knowledge.” There was a heightened witch hunt of worldly or even sexually abandoned nuns. From the twelfth century onward, by a disastrous twist of interpretation, the fact of no sexual involvement could itself be taken as an indication of heresy and the offender burned at the stake. The sexually greedy nun became (as she still is) the delight of the pornographer. Throughout Europe marauding soldiers treated nuns as natural objects of lust. But the confused state of the evidence dooms McNamara’s attempt to make a serious assessment of sex scandals in the convents. Notes of official clerical visitors suggest irregularities—for instance the Cluniac inspector of nuns in Auvergne reported, “Chastity is not always their strength.” But McNamara has the impression that most convents at this period were free of sexual misconduct, emphasizing that when women speak in their own voices they speak convincingly in defense of chastity.

Since the fifth century religious women had been shunned and kept at arm’s length. But by the mid-fifteenth century we find a situation in which male reformers make decisive moves to take cura mulierum—the “care of women”—into their own hands. Martin Luther, Johan Busch of the Augustinian reform movement, and Johan Meyer of the Dominicans called in question not only the practice of celibacy itself but the form of spirituality most closely associated with women: the redemptive efficacy of prayer and sacrifice. Especially in the England of the Reformation, nuns’ estates and incomes were taken over shamelessly to aggrandize men’s. In 1497, the Bishop of Ely closed the priory of Saint Radegund on grounds that the nuns’ dissolute conduct had reduced the foundation to poverty. In fact, as McNamara points out sharply, far from being poor it had sufficient income to found Jesus College, Cambridge, a prosperous male college of the university which has opened its doors to women students only since 1979.

The ironic effect of Protestant harassment was to make the Church in Rome more lenient to women. Nuns were now permitted to begin new orders and expand their work in teaching and caring for the sick outside the convent walls. Daniel Bornstein and Roberto Rusconi’s excellent collection of essays by young Italian scholars, Women and Religion in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, published this summer, has already set the scene. The contributors concentrate on such earlier charismatic figures as St. Clare of Assisi and St. Francesca of Rome, visionary women whose work was rooted in the real needs of their communities. The central argument here is that their religious life gave these women a degree of independence and equality they could not have achieved in any other way.6

McNamara’s prize example of such a case is Angela Merici, who founded the Ursulines in Italy in the sixteenth century, clearly inspired by the heroic purism of the women of the early Church. At a young age she had a vision of a heavenly ladder with singing maidens ascending and descending, which sounds like a precursor of Burne-Jones’s Victorian virgin painting The Golden Stairs. Angela was a late developer. The Company of Saint Ursula was not formalized until she was almost sixty. It was a teaching and healing order dedicated to the protection of young girls in a continuous drama of rescue and rehabilitation that attracted many followers. The Ursulines were not cloistered and, in those early years, eschewed the habit. McNamara deploys her statistics very deftly, suddenly illuminating an unfamiliar social situation. By the time Angela died in 1540, one in every four families in Brescia housed an Ursuline.

In her wonderfully thorough exploration of nuns as entrepreneurs, McNamara points out that it was a nun, Mary Ward, who conceived the radical ideal of education for women early in the seventeenth century and defended it ferociously. Mary Ward was an English Catholic sent as a girl to be educated on the Continent, a common practice at that time of Catholic persecution in England. In 1616, when she had already founded a teaching community at St. Omer in Belgium, she petitioned Pope Paul V for permission to set up a new order to educate both rich and poor girls in the community, emulating the methods of the Jesuits. She insisted there was no inherent difference between men and women that precluded women from doing great things.

Mary Ward’s work extended far beyond the convent and became a controversial denial of claustration. Under her direction, the group called the English Ladies opened free public schools on the Continent, from Cologne to Naples, from Liège to Prague. Mary Ward even returned to England, flouting the law to establish schools of the Institute of the Virgin Mary to teach girls Latin, science, philosophy, languages and “disputation,” in itself a revolutionary curriculum. The Jesuits were wary of their association with Mary Ward and her “galloping girls,” and trumped up the inevitable charges of immoral behavior, accusing Ward of overintimacy with her Jesuit confessor and suggesting she was living in a Jesuit community in man’s disguise. Former Catholic supporters turned against her. Mary Ward was imprisoned in Germany, condemned as a heretic. Though Pope Paul V eventually revoked the decree of personal excommunication against her, the Ladies’ schools were closed and her work destroyed. It was left to a future pope, Clement II, to reconstitute Mary Ward’s Institute in 1703 with what amounted to a shrug of resignation: “Let the ladies govern themselves.”

McNamara describes splendidly such coventual tearaways. But she is also patient, and revealing, on the inner lives of convents, castigating the monastic historians who “traditionally refused to see anything but their cloister walls and enveloping veils.” In the enclosed life of St. Teresa of Avila, reformer of the Carmelite order of the sixteenth century, she finds an edge of hysteria, a creative intensity, that in fact fueled and fired Teresa’s re-forms. Convents could be emotionally risky places with their frequent self-flagellations and disciplines which, according to one Clarisse nun, were very prolonged and vigorous “so that the whole choir was bathed in blood and the higher dormitory also.”

Teresa’s zeal in the reforming of her order was comparably uncompromising. McNamara points to the “daring technique” she employed in reviving in Spain the original unmitigated rule of the Carmelites. Her reforming ardor dated from the vision of St. Clara vouchsafed to Teresa when she was in her forties. (It would be interesting to trace the relation of visionary experience and menopause.) Teresa came to interpret poverty as the means of liberating women of all classes, forbidding all property and therefore cutting free from dependence on donors, patrons and even, at least to some extent, on dowries. The Order of Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites was at its most radical in recruiting women from mixed racial backgrounds. At San José Teresa created what McNamara calls “a model egalitarian community,” overriding the principle of “pure blood” so divisively in force in Spanish society at the time.

There was always the anxiety that glorious revelation could be a dia-bolic delusion. Possession and mysticism were a danger because they exposed nuns to intrusion from idle spectators as well as exorcists. In seventeenth-century France there was an embarrassing string of “possessed nun” cases: at Aix in 1611, Loudun in 1631, Louviers in 1642. Worried abbesses and male confessors would be soothing, aware of the perils of what amounted, however innocently, to sabotage from within. Teresa of Avila told her nuns not to compete with one another in outlandish practices. Père Coton congratulated Marie de Valence, a devotee of Mary Magdalene, because the light she radiated during ecstasies was a soft one, and she never thrashed about indecently. But the public-image problems of the convents played into the hands of male spiritual directors. A mid-seventeenth-century edition of the Benedictine rule adapted for women started with the words: “Your sex is weak, fragile and inconstant, if the reins are left loose.”

What McNamara tells us about the secret life of convents serves to underline how little we still know. Scant attention has been paid to nuns’ immense creative output. The impressive tradition of mystical prose, poetry, and drama in Baroque convents still awaits a full investigation. Octavio Paz is one of the few modern critics to have explored in depth the secular work, including erotic poetry and sexual satires, of the Mexican nun Juana de la Cruz.7 Life in a convent could be more fluent, culturally richer, than available alternatives. As McNamara comments, Virginia Woolf’s portrait of the probable fate of Shakespeare’s fictional sister is a dark one. Had Shakespeare’s sister happened to have been a nun in a Catholic country, she might have had a better life.

Chastity’s empowerment is a complicated subject, and McNamara’s survey shows signs of failing stamina once she reaches “modern times.” It is partly a question of structure. Her first 562 pages take the Carmelite nuns up through the horrors of the French Revolution, when some of them cut off their own wimples to prevent the executioner from touching the cloth as he guillotined them. This leaves her only another ninety pages to cover the next two centuries. She hardly gives herself the time even to pursue the tentative rebirth of syneisactism between cloistered Carmelites and missionary projects in Europe, America, Asia and Africa.

But, more fundamentally, there’s a lacuna in these chapters. Formidable abbesses are out of fashion. In pursuing a thesis that depends on identifying women of visible achievement, one of McNamara’s problems is the religious understatement of a century that has seen the appearance of the nun in blue jeans. An obvious omission from the modern period is Dame Laurentia McLachlan, English Benedictine Abbess of Stanbrook Abbey near Worcester, and friend of Sydney Cockerell and Bernard Shaw, with whom she conversed with great asperity through the double grille. Dame Laurentia was a scholar, one of the finest liturgical experts in the country and a leading authority on plainsong. Her visual sensitivity was also remarkable. Her knowledge of design and typography transformed the Stanbrook Abbey Press into a private press of international renown. A selection of her correspondence with Cockerell was published in The Best of Friends.8 It contains the most persuasive arguments for enclosure and chastity in the twentieth century that I have ever read. The Abbess claimed that the nun’s life, far from being that of the “caged bird” (as Cockerell suggested), was in many respects freer than the life outside. Her nearness to God, she explained, gave her intense insights, deepening “the sense of human solidarity.” The chaste and cloistered life “makes me interested in every kind of person and work in a way I am sure I should never have been had I remained in the outside world.”

A few years later Dame Laurentia was embarrassed when the Catholic press, including the official Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, put about the rumor that it was at her instigation that Bernard Shaw had cut a portion of the epilogue of his play St. Joan. She wrote, “I am not sure whether the Pope will think I deserve the Inquisition or another gold medal!” Dame Laurentia died in 1953. Shaw, who loved her, described her as “the enclosed nun with the unenclosed mind.”

  1. 6

    See also the forthcoming Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint, the inquisitorial testimony of Cecilia Ferrazzi, a seventeenth-century Venetian visionary who opened houses of refuge for “girls in danger,” published this month by the University of Chicago Press. It has been transcribed and translated by Anne Jacobson Schutte.

  2. 7

    See his Sor Juana or the Traps of Faith (Harvard University Press, 1988).

  3. 8

    London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956.

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